Wednesday, May 20, 2009

SEC May Shift Board Control

05/20/09 - 08:42 AM EDT


On Wednesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission will hold meetings on whether and how shareholders should be allowed to nominate directors to boards of companies in which they hold stakes. If a rule is agreed upon and put in practice in the next 90 days it could dramatically change the relationship between shareholders and management teams for years to come.

The normal course of business since the SEC was created decades ago was that management holds all the cards in selecting its board and insulating itself from criticisms from shareholders. Management picks the directors it wants, it can stagger its re-elections to make it next to impossible to overturn the board in any one year, and shareholders face huge costs and long odds in putting up their own candidates.

Even after the Enron and WorldCom scandals earlier this decade, the SEC saw fit to change nothing with respect to making corporate boards more accountable to shareholders. That's about to change.

With the latest downturn, and the large antipathy directed towards the SEC from the media and shareholders thanks to its overlooking Bernie Madoff and doing nothing to prevent large institutions like Citigroup(C Quote), Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns from imploding, the SEC can no longer look the other way. Chairwoman Mary Schapiro was brought in with a mandate and, so far, she's giving every indication that she's cleaning house and going the extra mile to give shareholders a voice for their concerns. All this has implications for the number of shareholder activist battles we'll see starting in 2010 and beyond. But more importantly it should truly improve the risk-adjusted returns for all public companies.

A few weeks ago, the SEC took an important first step in helping shareholders have more of an impact in annual votes. It announced it intended to get rid of "broker votes" being counted in favor of a management team's incumbent slate.

To explain how this works, take the recent case of Bank of America's (BAC Quote) annual meeting last month. Most press coverage focused on how a shareholder resolution was passed with a majority (50%) vote that stripped CEO Ken Lewis of also holding the chairman title. However, the truth is that broker votes played a key role in preventing other significant changes from occurring at the same meeting.

Here's how it works: Broker votes are those placed by brokers who hold the stock in the name of their clients. If these brokers don't receive specific instructions on how to vote their shares during proxy season (which happens the vast majority of the time for the vast majority of proxy votes), the brokers can vote them in the manner they see fit. About 99% of the time this means voting the shares in favor of management, artificially raising the perception of how much support there is for management among shareholders.

For Bank of America's vote, the Wall Street Journal calculated that broker votes would account for about 22% of the overall vote. This means that if BofA's vote had been held in 2010 instead of 2009, when broker votes will not be counted towards the election results, the shareholder proposal to separate the chairman and CEO titles would have been 64% instead of 50%. Moreover, based on last month's shareholder results, it's likely two other shareholder propositions would have passed: (1) allowing shareholders to call special meetings to possibly replace members of the board and (2) an advisory vote of executive compensation, or so-called say-on-pay. Two directors, Lewis and Temple Sloan, also would have received enough votes to vote them off the board entirely.

With the debate about allowing shareholders more "proxy access," the SEC is suggesting shareholders receive a more direct say on who will be elected to a board, at a significantly lower cost. Until now, it's been entirely the choice of management who gets elected to serve on the corporate board. Shareholders simply get to vote up or down on these nominees. The SEC wants to allow shareholders to put forward their own nominees for directors to be voted on. If there are eight spots open on the board, and eight put forward by management and four put forward by shareholders, the SEC is saying, "Let the best eight candidates with the highest number of votes serve." Sounds very democratic, doesn't it?

It's quite conceivable that in a few years at least the largest shareholders will see all potential directors parade through their offices in the weeks leading up to an election, pressing the flesh and making their case to be elected, much like politicians do in general elections.

The SEC's proposed rule, which will be debated Wednesday, will require shareholders to hold 1% of the company's shares outstanding in order to nominate directors to serve on companies with a market capitalization greater than $700 million. For companies under $700 million in market cap, shareholders will need to hold 3% in stock; for companies under $75 million in market cap, shareholders will need to own 5% of the shares outstanding.

By asking for "skin in the game" from shareholders who want to suggest candidates, the SEC hopes to ensure the candidates are of the highest quality and the suggestions are from the most serious shareholders.

Take the current battle being waged by Pershing Square's Bill Ackman, who is seeking to elect four directors to Target's(TGT Quote) board. He's estimated the current proxy battle, which will be resolved next week, is costing his firm $10 million to 15 million. He will pay this out of his own pocket, even while the incumbent board pays for all of its costs out of shareholders' pockets. It shouldn't be so costly or on such uneven terms to put forward some candidates for consideration.

When I hear management -- like that of Target -- complain that a shareholder challenge is too distracting and costly that it keeps it from running the business, I think to myself that if management had done a good enough job of running its business to begin with in the first place, shareholders wouldn't have been forced to take up a crusade against it.

These new shareholder-friendly rules from the SEC will serve all shareholders better than the old skewed rules. There will be a burst of challenges in 2010 and 2011 in response to these new rules and many boards will see their composition change significantly in response to the challenges. My prediction is that this initial "cleansing period" will prompt other boards to preemptively change themselves before being forced to by their shareholders. Counter-intuitively, I expect these new rules, in the long run, to lead to fewer shareholder showdowns, not more. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and the ability to cost-effectively run a credible proxy contest against a sleepy board will rouse many of these boards to heal themselves of what afflicts them.

At the time of publication, Jackson had no positions in any stocks mentioned.

Eric Jackson is founder and president of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd.

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