Promoting Long-Term Value Creation – The Launch of the Investor Stewardship Group (ISG) and ISG’s Framework for U.S. Stewardship and Governance
A long-running, two-year effort by the senior corporate governance heads of major U.S. investors to develop the first stewardship code for the U.S. market culminated today in the launch of the Investor Stewardship Group (ISG) and ISG’s associated Framework for U.S. Stewardship and Governance. Investor co-founders and signatories include U.S. Asset Managers (BlackRock; MFS; State Street Global Advisors; TIAA Investments; T. Rowe Price; Vanguard; ValueAct Capital; Wellington Management); U.S. Asset Owners (CalSTRS; Florida State Board of Administration (SBA); Washington State Investment Board); and non-U.S. Asset Owners/Managers (GIC Private Limited (Singapore’s Sovereign Wealth Fund); Legal and General Investment Management; MN Netherlands; PGGM; Royal Bank of Canada (Asset Management)).
Focused explicitly on combating short-termism, providing a “framework for promoting long-term value creation for U.S. companies and the broader U.S. economy” and promoting “responsible” engagement, the principles are designed to be independent of proxy advisory firm guidelines and may help disintermediate the proxy advisory firms, traditional activist hedge funds and short-term pressures from dictating corporate governance and corporate strategy.
Importantly, the ISG Framework would operate to hold investors, and not just public companies, to a higher standard, rejecting the scorched-earth activist pressure tactics to which public companies have often been subject, and instead requiring investors to “address and attempt to resolve differences with companies in a constructive and pragmatic manner.” In addition, the ISG Framework emphasizes that asset managers and owners are responsible to their ultimate long-term beneficiaries, especially the millions of individual investors whose retirement and long-term savings are held by these funds, and that proxy voting and engagement guidelines of investors should be designed to protect the interests of these long-term clients and beneficiaries. While the ISG Framework is not intended to be prescriptive or comprehensive in nature, with companies and investors being free to apply it in a manner they deem appropriate, it is intended to provide guidance and clarity as to the expectations that an increasingly large number of investors will have not only of public companies, but also of each other.
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The new Dutch Corporate Governance Code, issued December 8, 2016, provides an interesting analog to The New Paradigm, A Roadmap for an Implicit Corporate Governance Partnership Between Corporations and Investors to Achieve Sustainable Long-Term Investment and Growth, issued September 2, 2016, by the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum. The new Dutch Code is applicable to the typical two-tier Dutch company with a management board and a supervisory board. The similarities between the Dutch Code and the New Paradigm demonstrate that the principles of The New Paradigm, which are to a large extent based on the U.S. and U.K. corporate governance structure with single-tier boards, are relevant and readily adaptable to the European two-tier board structure.
Both the New Paradigm and the Dutch Code fundamentally envision a company as a long-term alliance between its shareholders and other stakeholders. They are both based on the notions that a company should and will be effectively managed for long-term growth and increased value, pursue thoughtful ESG and CSR policies, be transparent, be appropriately responsive to shareholder interests and engage with shareholders and other stakeholders.
Like The New Paradigm, the Dutch Code is fundamentally designed to promote long-term growth and value creation. The management board is tasked with achieving this goal and the supervisory board is tasked with monitoring the management board’s efforts to achieve it.
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The evolution of corporate governance over the last three decades has produced meaningful changes in the expectations of shareholders and the business policies adopted to meet those expectations. Decision-making power has shifted away from industrialists, entrepreneurs and builders of businesses, toward greater empowerment of institutional investors, hedge funds and other financial managers. As part of this shift, there has been an overriding emphasis on measures of shareholder value, with the success or failure of businesses judged based on earnings per share, total shareholder return and similar financial metrics. Only secondary importance is given to factors such as customer satisfaction, technological innovations and whether the business has cultivated a skilled and loyal workforce. In this environment, actions that boost short-term shareholder value—such as dividends, stock buybacks and reductions in employee headcount, capital expenditures and R&D—are rewarded. On the other hand, actions that are essential for strengthening the business in the long-term, but that may have a more attenuated impact on short-term shareholder value, are de-prioritized or even penalized.
This pervasive short-termism is eroding the overall economy and putting our nation at a major competitive disadvantage to countries, like China, that are not infected with short-termism. It is critical that corporations continuously adapt to developments in information technology, digitalization, artificial intelligence and other disruptive innovations that are creating new markets and transforming the business landscape. Dealing with these disruptions requires significant investments in research and development, capital assets and employee training, in addition to the normal investments required to maintain the business. All of these investments weigh on short-term earnings and are capable of being second-guessed by hedge fund activists and other investors who have a primarily financial rather than business perspective. Yet such investments are essential to the long-term viability of the business, and bending to pressure for short-term performance at the expense of such investments will doom the business to decline. We have already suffered this effect in a number of industries.
In this environment, a critical task for boards of directors in 2017 and beyond is to assist management in developing and implementing strategies to balance short-term and long-term objectives. It is clear that short-termism and its impact on economic growth is not only a broad-based economic issue, but also a governance issue that is becoming a key priority for boards and, increasingly, for large institutional investors. Much as risk management morphed after the financial crisis from being not just an operational issue but also a governance issue, so too are short-termism and related socioeconomic and sustainability issues becoming increasingly core challenges for boards of directors.
At the same time, however, the ability of boards by themselves to combat short-termism and a myopic focus on “maximizing” shareholder value is subject to limitations. While boards have a critical role to play in this effort, there is a growing recognition that a larger, systemic recalibration is also needed to turn the tide against short-termism and reinvigorate the willingness and ability of corporations to make long-term capital investments that benefit shareholders as well as other constituencies. It is beyond dispute that the surge in activism over the last several years has greatly exacerbated the challenges boards face in resisting short-termist pressures. The past decade has seen a remarkable increase in the amount of funds managed by activist hedge funds and a concomitant uptick in the prevalence and sophistication of their attacks on corporations. Today, even companies with credible strategies, innovative businesses and engaged boards face an uphill battle in defending against an activist attack and are under constant pressure to deliver short-term results. A recent McKinsey Quarterly survey of over a thousand C-level executives and board members indicates most believe short-term pressures are continuing to grow, with 87% feeling pressured to demonstrate financial results within two years or less, and 29% feeling pressured over a period of less than six months.
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On September 28, 2016, the Canadian federal government introduced Bill C-25: An Act to amend the Canada Business Corporations Act et al. The proposed amendments are the culmination of the first substantive review of the Canada Business Corporations Act (the CBCA) in 15 years and are the result of a consultation process initiated in 2013. The stated objectives of the proposed amendments are to, among other things:
- reform the process for electing directors of certain corporations;
- modernize communications between corporations and their shareholders; and
- require disclosure of information respecting diversity among directors and senior management.
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Executive Summary: U.S. public pension funds – longstanding proponents of corporate governance and shareholder proposal-style activism in the U.S. – are now allocating increasing amounts of capital throughout the world, and increasingly considering whether and how to globally apply their strategies and tactics for increasing shareholder power, changing governance norms, influencing boards and management teams and driving the adoption of their preferred best practices. Companies in all markets must accordingly study and prepare for changing governance expectations that may be suggested to them, as the long arm of U.S. governance activism is extended globally.
As U.S. public pension funds – longstanding proponents of corporate governance and shareholder proposal-style activism in the U.S. – and other U.S. investors allocate capital throughout the world, they are increasingly considering whether and how to apply their strategies and tactics for increasing shareholder power, changing governance norms, influencing boards and management teams and driving the adoption of their preferred best practices across the full global footprint of their investments. This phenomenon is illustrated by the ambitious plans of CalPERs, America’s biggest public pension fund, to extend their U.S. “focus list” of targeted companies globally and drive changes worldwide in investor rights, board membership and diversity, executive compensation and corporate reporting of business strategy, capital deployment and environmental, social, and governance practices. CalPERs’ Investment Committee and Global Governance Policy Ad Hoc Subcommittee formally consider these matters later this week.
CalPERs experimented in 2015 with this new brand of global governance activism by selecting a particular non-U.S. market – Japan – to target. Notably, one of the reasons cited by CalPERs for choosing Japan is the marked increase in foreign ownership of Japanese shares relative to the mid-1990s. In fact, this phenomenon of companies having to confront a rapidly changing investor base increasingly populated by U.S. investors is by no means confined to Japan. The measures applied by CalPERs to their selected Japanese companies would be familiar to U.S. companies: (1) correspond with the company; (2) seek in-person meetings with executive management; (3) seek in-person meetings with board members; (4) advocate that specific governance changes be adopted; (5) vote their shares, potentially against incumbent board members or otherwise in opposition to board and management recommendations; and (6) escalate their efforts if desired changes are not enacted. While not, so far, deploying more aggressive tactics such as “naming and shaming,” leaks to the press, use of the media or other pressure and publicity tactics, CalPERs has been actively engaging with influential organizations in Japan throughout the process. Examples of topics raised by CalPERs in these very early rounds of engagement in Japan include: increasing board independence, quality and diversity; defining narrower independence standards for directors; director biographies, skill-sets and expertise and disclosure thereof; changing director search and recruitment processes; and seeking comprehensive disclosure of cross-shareholdings.
Other U.S. investors that are well-known governance activists will increasingly adopt the same approach of engaging with non-U.S. companies directly, including at the senior executive and board level. This is occurring in parallel with the globalization of hedge fund economic activism and the proxy advisory firms seeking revenue opportunities in non-U.S. markets, as illustrated by ISS recently expanding its coverage, staffing, voting recommendations and governance assessments beyond the Americas, further into Australia, Europe and Japan and newly into China, India and South Korea.
On the governance front, these dynamics will require companies in all markets to, at a minimum: (1) carefully evaluate the demands of U.S. corporate governance activists and deal effectively with their requests for meetings; (2) consider changes that will actually improve governance and create sustainable value; (3) resist changes that they believe will not be constructive; and (4) study the approaches that have been developed by U.S. companies, investment bankers and law firms to deal effectively with activists. As the long arm of U.S. governance activism is extended globally, we encourage investors and proxy advisory firms to avoid imposing one-size-fits-all approaches across jurisdictions; consider local norms, customs and country- and company-specific circumstances (and accept those where appropriate); and in all cases engage constructively and pragmatically.