L’une des questions prédominantes — et souvent controversées — dans l’évaluation des principes de saine gouvernance concerne l’indépendance des administrateurs.
L’Institut sur la gouvernance (IGOPP) propose une approche nouvelle et originale sur la question de l’indépendance des membres des conseils d’administration.
Dans un document « L’indépendance des conseils : un enjeu de légitimité », l’IGOPP propose que toute organisation dotée d’un conseil d’administration cherche à constituer un conseil qui soit à la fois légitime et crédible.
L’enjeu n’est pas tellement l’indépendance des conseils mais bien leur légitimité et leur crédibilité. La qualité d’indépendance ne prend son sens que si elle contribue à rehausser la légitimité d’un conseil.
C’est par sa légitimité qu’un conseil acquiert le droit et l’autorité de s’imposer à la direction d’une organisation. Les conseils d’organisations publiques ou privées, sans actionnaire ou sans actionnaire actif détenant plus de 10 % du capital-actions ordinaire, devraient être composés d’une majorité nette d’administrateurs indépendants. De plus, tous leurs comités statutaires devraient être composés exclusivement de membres indépendants.
L’article ci-dessous, écrit à la suite d’une table ronde réunissant plusieurs spécialistes de la gouvernance européenne, aborde trois sujets incontournables, en tentant de tirer des enseignements pour le futur :
(1) l’indépendance des administrateurs et la pertinence du concept
(2) les divers aspects de la rémunération et les obligations fiduciaires
(3) l’identification des actionnaires et les questions de procuration des votes
Dans ce billet, nous vous proposons les questionnements reliés à l’indépendance des administrateurs.
L’indépendance est-elle une bonne idée ?
Quels sont les problèmes liés à l’indépendance ?
Quels sont les résultats de recherche qui montrent que l’indépendance améliore la qualité de la gouvernance ?
Comment composer avec l’influence des gestionnaires et des conflits d’intérêts ?
L’article publié par Christian Strenger* est paru sur le site de Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Govervance.
Alors, selon vous, pourquoi l’indépendance des administrateurs est-elle un gage de bonne gouvernance ?
Bonne lecture ! Vos commentaires sont les bienvenus.
Board Independence: the Quality Question and dealing with Insider Issues
A reliable formula for board effectiveness has been elusive, but the importance of effective boards warrants ongoing reflection and research by both academics and practitioners.
In spite of the diversity of governance models around the world, the concept of independence plays a prominent role in most, if not all, codes of governance globally as an intrinsic component of good board structure. For example, independence features, to varying degrees of emphasis, in the governance frameworks of the US, UK, Germany and Japan. It is also reflected in global frameworks, such as the ICGN Global Governance Principles or the OECD Corporate Governance Principles.
But what does independence mean in a corporate governance context, and does it deliver what we want it to? This session seeks to challenge how we think about independence and addresses several fundamental questions relating to boards and corporate governance:
- Is board independence essential to quality in corporate governance—or is independence simply a placebo that doesn’t do anything but makes us feel better?
- What do we expect board independence to achieve in practical terms?
- Are independent directors really in a position to monitor and control corporate insiders?
These are questions that have relevance for company managers and directors, but also for investors, regulators and stakeholders.
Role of boards
A company’s board of directors is at the core of its corporate governance. Boards play a range of advisory and control functions. This includes strategic direction and risk/control oversight, along with the monitoring and reward of executive management.
At a more overarching level, agency theory suggests that one of the key roles of the board is to serve as an agent protecting the interests of shareholders vis-à-vis company management or controlling owners. This reflects a duty of care to support the company’s long-term success and sustainable value creation and to ensure the alignment of interests between management, controlling owners, minority investors—taking into account stakeholder interests as well.
Why is independence a good idea?
Shareholders and other stakeholders expect boards to have the ability and authority to think and act independently from company executives or controlling owners. The board may be unable to serve effectively in its agency role if its directors’ judgements are not free of conflicts or any other external influence other than promoting the long-term success of the firm.
What are the problems related to independence?
It is important to recognise that independence has to be looked at in the context of how it affects board processes, decisions and overall governance. Yet spite of the inherent virtues of independence, its realisation in practice is not an easy fix; nor does it intrinsically enhance board effectiveness. A director must be able to contribute something other than independence alone, whether that is in the form of sector knowledge, commercial experience, international experience, technical skills or other areas that support the board’s oversight of company management.
Moreover, independence is ultimately a state of mind, not a product of definitions. There are many different sets of criteria that seek to define independence for individual directors. While these sorts of criteria can be useful, they can also be crude, misleading or incomplete.
The Lehman Brothers board in 2008, the year of its demise, was an example of a nominally independent board. But was this board able to operate independently of a strong Chair/CEO? Was there enough financial sector expertise amongst this group of independent directors to provide a rigorous challenge? (See Annex 1 in the complete publication).
Does independence ensure quality? What is the evidence?
Independence may be real, but it can be hard, if not impossible, to measure in a meaningful way. It is much easier to measure structural features of boards than it is to measure the quality of board processes. But sometimes what is easily measurable is not worth measuring. So while it is possible (and very common) to calculate simple ratios, such as independent directors/total directors a common gauge of board independence, they may not tell us much. Indeed, the evidence of empirical studies using simplistic/conventional measures of independence has been inconclusive (See Annex 2).
Many board attributes, including independence, which are regarded as “best practice” lack clear empirical grounding, at least in an econometric context. So, in many features of our corporate governance codes we are dealing in effect with opinions more than facts.
How to deal with insider influence and vested interests?
Insider influences can vary depending on the nature of the company. For widely-held companies, the vested interests of executive management often take the form of high pay for limited performance. In controlled companies vested interests may be the controlling owners themselves in terms of entrenchment and self-dealing.
Are independent directors really equipped to challenge these insiders? Or is that possibly asking for a bit too much? The empirical evidence cited above suggests that independent directors may not have a meaningful impact on board governance. But the evidence does suggest in the area of audit committees that independence is important. This makes logical sense, but it also suggests that for an independent director to provide meaningful oversight, independence must be combined with other important attributes, including sectoral knowledge and financial expertise. Independence as a determinant of board effectiveness therefore may be a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition.
We need to recognise that independence may be overrated, or at least not always live up to its billing. At least as it is conventionally defined, independence has not proven to be a panacea or silver bullet to ensure good corporate governance. At the same time, however, the concept of board independence is important and worth preserving, if nothing else as an aspirational ideal.
Independent directors seem to be an intuitive solution for the agency problem stemming from the separation of ownership and control, but also for limiting the power of controlling shareholders in a corporation.
The starting point of the discussion was: Why do we need independence in the first place? As investors and other stakeholders want to see their interests served and protected by the board, the absence of potential conflicts of interest between non-executive directors and managers or undue influence from a major shareholder are the answers. Disclosure of meaningful ties of the non-executive directors to the management or controlling shareholders is important. The discussion also emphasized that reasonable diversity can be a contributing factor for board independence, and that truly independent board members can play a key role in avoiding too much convergence in decision making, as well as in focusing on the well-being of the company itself, and not any separate vested interests. While the discussion highlighted many benefits of board independence, it also pointed to potential costs: board independence may come with costs relating to problems in information flows, access to information and processing. Thus, it is important to complement board independence with proper board procedures and processes.
A key point of the discussion was the definition of independence itself. Besides the obligatory disclosure of relevant ties of a non-executive board member to management or controlling shareholders, regulators tried to formalize criteria to define independent board members. Academic literature also strives to evaluate how predefined criteria affect company decisions. However, results of these efforts are mixed and can hardly achieve “true” independence. The description of certain characteristics could introduce independence on paper, but may not reflect correctly the individual case of a board member. A predefined strict categorization would in practice suffer from a “ticking the box” approach. Independence from a controlling shareholder is equally hard to define as thresholds for shareholdings may not reflect the individual circumstances. The discussion also highlighted that strict definitions of independence might also require companies to replace experienced board members with new independent board members. That could lead to a temporary loss of experience and industry expertise.
Ways for the Future:
The realistic description of board independence needs a detailed assessment of the individual and a disclosure of ties of a non-executive board member to the management or controlling shareholders. Furthermore, disclosure of the selection process of the nomination committee should bring important insights for investors and the stakeholders.
The discussion further emphasized that formal characteristics alone could be misleading to determine the independence of a board member, focusing on “independence in mind” as an important aspect. As this factor is difficult to gauge or measure, investors may have to communicate with the chair in individual cases.
A sensible and company specific skillset of personnel management, industry knowledge and experience must be represented in the board as a priority, as formal independence alone is not a sufficient prerequisite for the selection process. The discussion emphasized that extensive information is key to allow proper evaluation of true independence. This should be complemented by sufficient access to the chair for communication with investors. The latest German code revision emphasizes that chairs make themselves available to investors for such supervisory board related issues.
Ways for the Future:
Full disclosure of important ties between individual board members with management and controlling shareholders should be obligatory. To properly evaluate the board member proposals, the disclosure of the skillsets of board members and the selection process would bring further important insights for investors. An idea proposed to support the process was the development of a “board skills matrix” for individual boards.
The discussion highlighted the key role of the nomination committee in the identificatio n and evaluation of independent directors. It was therefore suggested that the chair of the nomination committee should make himself available to investors. This point was controversially discussed due to possible loss of a “One Voice” communication strategy, so that communication should be confined to the chair of the supervisory board.
Another important point of the discussion was the regular evaluation of non-executive board members, as this may bring improvements for independent guidance and decision making of the full board. It could also identify areas of strength and weaknesses for an improved performance of both boards. A key prerequisite for a successful evaluation is the independence of the conducting leader.
The discussants raised the issue of the differences emerging from national governance environments, such as different shareholder structures and cultural differences. While the Anglo American approach to independence appears to work in the UK, this differs from continental European countries such as Germany and France.
Ways for the Future:
A solution to cross-country differences is the development of “local optima” that reflect the special circumstances in each country, rather from pursuing a “one fits all” approach.
The participants concluded that board independence remains a central issue in the corporate governance debate. The discussion identified definition issues as critical. It was also highlighted that full disclosure of the individual independence is important. Formal independence alone does not ensure board or director effectiveness. It must be accompanied with skills, knowledge and experience to obtain satisfactory board work results. Disclosure on the individual board members’ selection process and independence characteristics should be made available to investors and the other stakeholders.
*Christian Strenger is Academic Director at the Center for Corporate Governance at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management. This post is based on a publication by Mr. Strenger and Jörg Rochell, President and Managing Director at ESMT Berlin, for a symposium held in Berlin on November 9, 2017, sponsored by ESMT Berlin and the Center for Corporate Governance at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management.