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The SEC's July 1 actions in context; Singing Fish is a hit

(The following post originally appeared on ONSecurities, a top Minnesota legal blog founded by Martin Rosenbaum to address securities, governance and compensation issues facing public companies.)

July 7, 2009

The SEC takes action on July 1, but that's not the whole story.

On July 1, 2009, the SEC voted to take several actions:

    The Commission proposed rules that would clarify the statutory requirement that TARP recipients hold annual stockholder votes on compensation ("Say-on-Pay").
    The Commission proposed revisions to the compensation disclosure rules that, among other things, would (1) disclose the relationship to risk of a company's overall compensation policies (not just policies covering top executives) and (2) disclose potential conflicts of interest of compensation consultants.
    In probably the most important move, the Commission approved the New York Stock Exchange's proposal to eliminate discretionary voting in elections of directors. Therefore, brokers must receive instructions from the beneficial owner before voting. The conventional wisdom is that brokers acting without instructions generally vote in favor of management's slate, and that this change will reduce the percentage of shares voting for the director candidates in routine elections. The Wachtell Lipton law firm presented an interesting analysis of this issue in March, taking the position that the current broker votes in favor of management are a pretty good proxy for the votes of retail stockholders, who generally support management's candidates.
However, to understand the impact of the July 1 actions, it is necessary to understand other current developments, some of which would have an even greater impact on a broader segment of companies:
    The Commission's Say-on-Pay proposals covered only TARP recipient companies. However, the Shareholder Bill of Rights Act introduced in the Senate by Senator Schumer, if adopted, would mandate Say-on-Pay for all public companies, as would two other bills currently being considered by Congress.
    The Commission did not require that public companies adopt a specific structure to assess risk and ensure that compensation practices are consistent with the company's risk profile. However, the ARRA and the Treasury's interim final rules currently require the compensation committees of TARP recipients to perform specific risk management functions. Also, the Schumer bill would require that the board of directors of all public companies form a risk committee of independent directors to report to the board about the company's risk profile and the appropriateness of its compensation practices.
    The elimination of discretionary voting by brokers takes on added importance because it could alter the balance of power between management and activist stockholders, especially for companies that have adopted majority vote standards in director elections. This shift would compound the potential increase in power by institutional investors that would result from the Commission's controversial proxy access proposal, reported here, which would allow large stockholders to nominate director candidates who would be included in management's proxy statements.

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