ISS Guidelines for 2015 Proxy Season – More Holistic Review of Board Leadership Structure

On November 6, 2014, ISS released its 2015 proxy voting guidelines which update its benchmark policy recommendations. The updated policies will be effective for shareholder meetings held on or after February 1, 2015. Benchmark policy changes include ISS’ adoption of a more holistic approach to shareholder proposals calling for independent board chairs. ISS has focused on board leadership because shareholder proposals related to this issue have become quite frequent. ISS also cited a recent study finding that “retention of a former CEO in the role of chair may prevent new CEOs from making performance gains by dampening their ability to make strategic changes at the company” as one of the reasons for the policy update.

ISS has updated its “Generally For” policy with respect to such proposals to add new governance, board leadership, and performance factors to the analytical framework and to look at all of the factors in a holistic manner. Factors, which are not explicitly considered under the current policy, include the “absence/presence of an executive chair, recent board and executive leadership transitions at the company, director/CEO tenure, and a longer (five-year) total shareholder return (TSR) performance period.”

Under the new policy, ISS would recommend to generally vote “FOR” shareholder proposals requiring that the chairman’s position be filled by an independent director, taking into consideration the following:

  • The scope of the proposal (i.e., whether the proposal is precatory or binding and whether the proposal is seeking an immediate change in the chairman role or the policy can be implemented at the next CEO transition);
  • The company’s current board leadership structure (ISS may support the proposal under the following scenarios: the presence of an executive or non-independent chair in addition to the CEO; a recent recombination of the role of CEO and chair; and/or departure from a structure with an independent chair);
  • The company’s governance structure and practices (ISS will consider the overall independence of the board, the independence of key committees, the establishment of governance guidelines, board tenure and its relationship to CEO tenure; the review of the company’s governance practices may include, but is not limited to, poor compensation practices, material failures of governance and risk oversight, related-party transactions or other issues putting director independence at risk, corporate or management scandals, and actions by management or the board with potential or realized negative impact on shareholders);
  • Company performance (ISS’ performance assessment will generally consider one-, three, and five-year TSR compared to the company’s peers and the market as a whole); and
  • Any other relevant factors that may be applicable.

ISS’ FAQs on Equity Plan Data Verification – Roadmap for Proxy Statement Disclosures

If you have a proposal to adopt or amend the company’s equity plan in the proxy statement that you file with the SEC after September 8, 2014, then you can use a new data verification portal recently launched by Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) to verify key data points underlying ISS’ evaluation of the plan. ISS explains on its website the mechanics of registering for the Equity Plan Data Verification and requesting modifications after reviewing data points posted by ISS.

One of the most interesting pieces of information provided by ISS in connection with the new portal is Appendix A to the FAQs on Equity Plan Data Verification because it lists the questions that ISS includes in its evaluation of equity plans. The questions are divided into several categories: (i) equity plan provisions, (ii) outstanding stock and convertibles, (iii) equity grant activity, and (iv) shares reserved and outstanding under equity compensation programs.

Listed below are certain questions from each category. Some of these questions can be used as a roadmap for proxy statement disclosures related to equity plan proposals in order to facilitate ISS’ review and evaluation of the plan.

Equity Plan Provisions:

  • Is stock option repricing permitted without shareholder approval?
  • Are cash buyouts of underwater stock options permitted without shareholder approval?
  • Does the plan provide for share recycling, whereby the plan’s share reserve is reduced by the net number of shares delivered through equity awards, not the gross number underlying the original awards?
  • Does the plan contain an evergreen provision, pursuant to which the plan’s share reserve is automatically increased annually?
  • What stock acquisition percentage triggers a change-in-control under the plan?
  • Does the plan provide for tax gross-ups on equity awards?

Outstanding Stock and Convertibles:

  • How many common shares are outstanding (includes all classes of common stock) as of the record date?
  • How many common shares are issuable upon (i) exercise of outstanding warrants, (ii) conversion of outstanding convertible debt, and (iii) conversion of outstanding convertible equity?
  • How many weighted average common shares were outstanding in the past 3 fiscal years, as used in the computation of basic EPS?

Equity Grant Activity:

  • What is the total number of time-vesting options/SARs and full value awards granted in the past 3 fiscal years?
  • What is the number of performance-based options/SARs that vested in the past 3 fiscal years?
  • What is the total number of performance-based full value awards earned in the past 3 fiscal years?

Shares Reserved and Outstanding under Equity Compensation Programs:

  • How many shares are reserved under the proposed new plan or pursuant to the plan amendment?
  • How many shares remain available for grant under all equity compensation plans?
  • How many shares are subject to outstanding awards?

Board Diversity and Political Contributions Disclosure Continue to Get ISS Support

On December 19, 2013, ISS published its U.S. Proxy Voting Summary Guidelines that are effective for meetings of stockholders held on or after February 1, 2014.  This blog post highlights ISS’ position on two social issues: board diversity and political contributions.  

Board Diversity

Consistent with its guidelines last year, ISS continues to recommend voting for stockholder requests for reports on a company’s efforts to diversify the board unless:

  • the gender and racial minority representation of the company’s board is reasonably inclusive in relation to companies of similar size and business; and
  • the board already reports on its nominating procedures and gender and racial minority initiatives on the board and within the company.

ISS will make recommendations on a case-by-case basis on proposals asking a company to increase the gender and racial minority representation on its board.  In providing its recommendation, ISS will take into account the following factors:

  • the degree of existing gender and racial minority diversity on the company’s board and among its executive officers;
  • the level of gender and racial minority representation that exists at the company’s industry peers;
  • the company’s established process for addressing gender and racial minority board representation;
  • whether the proposal includes an overly prescriptive request to amend nominating committee charter language;
  • the independence of the company’s nominating committee;
  • whether the company uses an outside search firm to identify potential director nominees; and
  • whether the company has had recent controversies, fines, or litigation regarding equal employment practices.

Political Contributions

In connection with proposals related to political contributions, ISS continues to generally recommend voting for proposals requesting greater disclosure of a company’s political contributions and trade association spending policies and activities, considering:

  • the company’s current disclosure of policies and oversight mechanisms related to its direct political contributions and payments to trade associations or other groups that may be used for political purposes, including information on the types of organizations supported and the business rationale for supporting these organizations; and
  • recent significant controversies, fines, or litigation related to the company’s political contributions or political activities.

However, recognizing that businesses are affected by legislation at the federal, state and local level, ISS recommends voting against proposals barring a company from making political contributions. ISS is being practical and concedes that barring political contributions can put the company at a competitive disadvantage.

ISS Releases 2013 Updates to Proxy Voting Guidelines

On November 16, 2012, the ISS released its final 2013 Updates to its U.S. Corporate Governance Policy. ISS also will release a FAQ document in December 2012 for further guidance. The Updates will be effective for meetings on or after February 1, 2013.

Highlights of the 2013 Updates include:

• Stock Pledges/Hedges: In response to comments, ISS will be taking a case-by-case approach in determining whether pledging of company shares rises to a level of serious concern for shareholders. Also in response to comments, ISS is including significant pledging of company stock as a failure of risk oversight and thus considered a governance failure for which directors should be held accountable (rather than communicating concern through a say-on-pay recommendation as originally proposed). However, hedging of company stock, through covered call, collar or other derivative transactions, will be considered a problematic practice warranting a negative voting recommendation on the election of directors.

• Failure to Act on Shareholder Proposals: ISS will keep its current policy in effect for 2013, with some modifications: ISS will recommend a negative vote for individual directors, committee members or the entire board, if the board failed to act on a shareholder proposal that received the support of either (i) a majority of the outstanding shares or (ii) a majority of the votes cast in the last year and one of the two previous years. Beginning in 2014, ISS will recommend a vote negative vote if the board failed to act on a shareholder proposal that received the support of a majority of shares cast in the previous year. Under the Update, the ISS now has the flexibility to recommend a negative vote on members of the board as deemed appropriate, not necessarily the full board. The ISS also has included more guidance on the case-by-case examination of the sufficiency of a company’s action in response to a majority-supported shareholder proposal.

• Peer Groups: The new methodology incorporates information from companies’ self-selected pay benchmarking peer groups in order to identify and prioritize Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS) industry groups beyond the subject company’s own GICS classification. The methodology draws peers from the subject company’s GICS group as well as from GICS groups represented in the company’s peer group, while maintaining the approximate proportions of these industries in the final peer group where possible. The methodology additionally focuses initially at an 8-digit GICS resolution to identify peers that are more closely related in terms of industry. Finally, when selecting peers, the methodology prioritizes peers that maintain the company near the median of the peer group, are in the subject company’s peer group, and that have chosen the subject company as a peer. The peer group methodology maintains its focus on identifying companies that are reasonably similar to the subject company in terms of industry profile, size, and market capitalization. Other changes to the peer group methodology include using slightly relaxed size requirements, especially at very small and very large companies, and using revenue instead of assets for certain financial companies.

• Realizable Pay: Realizable pay is being added to the research report for large capitalization companies. Realizable pay will consist of the sum of relevant cash and equity-based grants and awards made during a specified performance period being measured, based on equity award values for actual earned awards, or target values for ongoing awards, calculated using the stock price at the end of the performance measurement period. Stock options or stock appreciation rights will be revalued using the remaining term and updated assumptions, as of the performance period, using the Black-Scholes Option Pricing model. The realizable pay consideration may mitigate or exacerbate the CEO’s pay for performance concerns.

• Voting on “Say on Golden Parachute” Proposals: The Update will (i) include existing change-in-control arrangements maintained with named executive officers rather than focusing only on new or extended arrangements and (ii) place further scrutiny on multiple legacy problematic features (e.g. single trigger equity, tax gross –ups, etc.) in change in control agreements.