Sec Proposes Anticipated Rules on Pay-Versus-Performance Disclosure

On April 29, 2015, the SEC, in a 3-2 vote of the SEC Commissioners, approved proposed rules (the “pay-versus-performance disclosure”) that would require an issuer to disclose the relationship between the issuer’s executive compensation and the issuer’s financial performance. The proposed rules would implement a disclosure obligation required under Section 953(a) of the Dodd-Frank Act. Chair White noted, in the SEC press release announcing the proposed rules, that the pay-versus-performance disclosure “would better inform shareholders and give them a new metric for assessing a company’s executive compensation relative to its financial performance.”

In particular, the proposed rules would amend Item 402 of Reg. S-K by adding a new Item 402(v) which would require issuers to disclose, in each proxy or information statement requiring executive compensation disclosure under Item 402 of Reg. S-K, the following:

  • the executive compensation “actually paid” to the issuer’s principal executive officer (“PEO”);
  • the executive compensation “actually paid” to the issuer’s named executive officers (“NEOs” ), expressed as an average for all such NEOs;
  • the issuer’s total shareholder return (“TSR” ); and
  • the TSR of a peer group of issuers.

Like all disclosures required under Item 402 of Reg. S-K, the pay-versus-performance disclosure would be subject to the say-on-pay advisory vote.

Compensation Actually Paid

Under the proposed rules, the executive compensation “actually paid” by an issuer means the total compensation for a particular executive disclosed in the summary compensation table adjusted by certain amounts related to pensions and equity awards. The adjusted disclosure represents an attempt by the SEC to reflect the compensation awarded to, or earned by, such executive officer in a particular year of service. In order to calculate the compensation “actually paid” to a particular executive officer, the total compensation disclosed for such executive officer in the summary compensation table would be adjusted to:

  • deduct the aggregate change in the actuarial present value of all defined benefit and actuarial pension plans reported in the Summary Compensation Table;
  • add back the actuarially determined service cost for services rendered by the executive officer during the applicable year;
  • exclude the grant date value of any stock and option awards granted during the applicable year that are subject to vesting; and
  • add back the value at vesting of stock and option awards that vested during the applicable year, computed in accordance with the fair value guidance in FASB ASC Topic 718.

An issuer would need to include footnotes to the pay-versus-performance summary table (see below for the form table) which describes the amounts excluded from and added to the total compensation reported in the summary compensation and the issuer’s vesting date valuation assumptions used (if materially different from the grant date assumptions disclosed in the issuer’s financial statements).

In addition to the required disclosure, an issuer would be permitted to make disclosures to capture the issuer’s specific situation and industry, provided that any supplemental disclosure is not misleading and not presented more prominently than the required pay-versus-performance disclosure. Examples of supplemental disclosure provided in the proposed rules include the disclosure of “realized pay” or “realizable pay” or additional years of data beyond the time periods required.

Peer Group

The peer group utilized for the TSR comparison would be the same peer group used by the issuer in its stock performance graph or in describing the issuer’s benchmarking compensation practices in its CD&A.

Format

The pay-versus-performance disclosure must be provided in tabular form as set forth below.

Year(a) Summary Compensation Table Total For PEO(b) Compensation Actually Paid to PEO(c) Average Summary Compensation Table Total for non PEO Named Executive Officers(d) Average Compensation Actually Paid to non PEO Named Executive Officers(d) Total Shareholder Return(f)

Peer Group Total Shareholder Return

(g)

Following the pay-versus-performance disclosure table, the issuer would be required to describe the relationship between the issuer’s executive compensation actually paid and the issuer’s TSR and the relationship between the issuer’s TSR and the peer group’s TSR.

Issuers will generally need to make the pay-versus-performance disclosure for its five (or three years, in the first applicable filing following the effectiveness of the proposed rule) most recently completed fiscal years.  However, smaller reporting companies will only need to make the disclosure for three years (or two years, in the first applicable filing following the effectiveness of the proposed rule).  In addition, a smaller reporting company would not be required to (i) disclose amounts relating to pensions (consistent with current executive compensation disclosure obligations); nor (ii) present the TSR of a peer group in its pay-versus-performance disclosure.

XBRL

Companies would be required to tag the pay-versus-performance disclosure using XBRL.  Smaller reporting companies would not be required to comply with the tagging requirement until the third filing in which the pay-versus-performance disclosure is provided.

Companies to which Disclosure Requirement Applies

The proposed pay-versus-performance disclosure rules would apply to all reporting companies, except registered investment companies, foreign private issuers and emerging growth companies.

Conclusion

It is unclear whether the pay-versus-performance disclosure will be adopted (and in effect) in time for the 2016 proxy season.  The SEC is seeking comments on the proposed rules for 60 days following their publication in the Federal Register.

Withdrawal of Whole Foods No-Action Letter Leaves a Hole in Proxy Access Proposal Defense

On January 16, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced  that, for the 2015 proxy season, the Division of Corporation Finance will not express any views as to whether a company may exclude a shareholder proposal from its annual meeting proxy statement based on Exchange Act Rule 14a-8(i)(9).   The announcement was issued in connection with a statement issued by Chair White that, in light of questions about the proper scope and application of the Rule, she directed the SEC staff to review the rule and report to the Commission.  As a result the Whole Foods no-action letter, discussed below, was withdrawn and issuers will not have an easy path in addressing “proxy access” proposals from their shareholders for the 2015 proxy season (and perhaps in subsequent proxy seasons).

Rule 14a-8(i)(9) permits a company to exclude a shareholder proposal that “directly conflicts with one of the company’s own proposals to be submitted to shareholders at the same meeting.”  The Staff has historically granted no-action relief under Rule 14a-8(i)(9) where a shareholder proposal and a company/management proposal present alternative and conflicting decisions for shareholders and where the inclusion of both proposals could lead to inconsistent and ambiguous results.

The SEC’s action comes on the heels of a letter, published  on January 4, 2015, by the Council of Institutional Investors asking the SEC staff to review the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) in light of the SEC staff’s issuance of the Whole Foods no-action letter.  In that letter, the SEC Staff took a no-action position to the exclusion of a shareholder proxy access proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(9).  The shareholder proposal would have amended Whole Foods’ governance documents to allow shareholders holding 3% of the company’s stock for a period of three years to include in the annual meeting proxy statement nominees for up to 20% of Whole Foods’ directors. Whole Foods’ competing proposal would have provided shareholders holding 9% of the company’s stock for a period of five years the right to include such nominees.  Conveniently for Whole Foods, its proposal would have significantly limited the universe of its shareholders who would be entitled, in 2015 and in the future, to proxy access under its amendment. Following the issuance of the Whole Foods no-action letter, a number of companies sought no-action relief from the Staff in connection with similar shareholder proxy access proposals; however, the Whole Foods no-action letter was subsequently withdrawn in connection with the Staff’s announcement of its review of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) and the staff noted in its responses to the other Rule 14a-8(i)(9) requests that it could not express a view in light of the recent announcement.

Despite the lack of no-action relief from the SEC staff for the 2015 proxy season, companies may still utilize a number of mechanisms to exclude shareholder proposals:

  • A company may continue to rely on Rule 14a-8(i)(9) – including complying with the timing and notice requirements of Rule 14a-8 – to exclude the shareholder’s proposal, but without the comfort of a SEC no-action letter.
  • A company may seek judicial relief to exclude the shareholder’s proposal – a challenging path that will involve potentially significant expense and could also result in negative publicity.
  • In addition, a company could, in theory, choose to include its own proposal and the shareholder’s proposal in its annual meeting proxy. This, however, is a novel approach involving significant considerations (including practical and disclosure considerations).
  • Lastly, a company could adopt its own proxy access mechanism (assuming that the company’s board has the authority to amend the relevant portions of the company’s governance documents) and seek to exclude a shareholder’s proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(10) on the grounds that the Company “has already substantially implemented the proposal.”  This exception is not subject to the SEC’s current suspension of no-action relief for Rule 14a-8(i)(9) matters; however this  alternative may strike some as waiving the white flag.

Consistent with Rule 14a-8, a company seeking to exclude a shareholder proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(9) or (10) must still submit a no-action request to the SEC staff (technically, the company is required to submit to the SEC its reasons for excluding the proposal), with a copy of the request provided simultaneously to the proposing shareholder, at least 80 days before the company files its definitive proxy statement and form of proxy. A company seeking such relief should also be mindful that proposing shareholders may challenge the company’s exclusion of their proposals in federal court. Courts often give deference to SEC staff positions, including no-action letters, and, in the absence of such no-action letters for the 2015 proxy season, an institutional shareholder whose proposal is excluded from a company’s annual meeting proxy under Rule 14a-8(i)(9) may be more likely to initiate litigation to challenge the exclusion.

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.