January 7, 2019
The Shareholder Rights Group (SRG), a coalition of investors who exercise their right to file shareholder proposals, has written to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in opposition to proposed rule changes that would effectively undermine the ability of shareholders to continuously promote increased corporate responsibility and improved corporate governance.
Currently, shareholders that own at least $2,000 in stock for one year have the right to engage an investee company on an issue of concern through procedures set forth in the SEC’s Rule 14a-8. In late 2019, the SEC proposed dramatic changes to the Rule, undermining shareholders’ rights to hold companies accountable for risk mitigation and crisis management. In addition to making it harder to file proposals by requiring larger or longer-term holdings, the rulemaking proposal would make it more difficult for shareholders to submit a proposal to a second or third vote by imposing steep voting thresholds – 25% support by the third year, and disallowing a proposal if it suffered a loss of momentum after that. The SRG letter notes that “In practice sometimes 10% or 20% of investors represent the leading edge of an issue - the prescient minority, and therefore it is not wise for the management to discount the topic they are surfacing.”
The SRG’s letter highlights three case studies in which shareholders preemptively sought disclosure or oversight of certain issues that have proven to be significant concerns for those companies. Specifically, the SRG’s letter explains how the proposed rule changes, if they had been in effect at the time of shareholder engagement, would have interfered with investors’ ability to directly respond to recent corporate responsibility crises and controversial operations at Boeing, Wells Fargo, and Chevron.
Boeing: Prior to the two crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max airliners in 2018 and 2019, shareholders had encouraged better disclosure of Boeing’s notoriously aggressive lobbying policies, expenditures, and internal controls. Under the SEC’s proposed rulemaking on resubmissions, shareholder proposals on lobbying would have been barred beginning in 2017 – shortly before the 737 Max crashes. Yet, after the 737 Max crashes, shareholders supported lobbying disclosure with 32.6% of the vote in 2019. Had the proposed resubmission thresholds already been in place, shareholders would have been denied an opportunity to address this matter with the company in the wake of these catastrophic events.
Wells Fargo: Wells Fargo has suffered and continues to suffer a prolonged crisis of public, government, and consumer trust, having paid over $17.2 billion in penalties since 2000. The establishment of 3.5 million fictitious or unauthorized accounts, and improper practices in which 800,000 people were forced to take redundant auto insurance from 2012 to 2017, have punctuated an era of predatory practices. Had the SEC’s proposed resubmission thresholds been in place, shareholder proposals concerned about the ethical and business risks of predatory lending would have been excludable from 2013 to 2016. Additionally, under the SEC’s proposed threshold changes, shareholder proposals seeking an independent board chair would not have been permitted from 2013 to 2016 – a change that the company quickly enacted after its 2016 account fraud scandal. The failings of leadership, toxic corporate culture, and misdirected incentives have cost at least $24 billion in market value, despite early prescient shareholder engagement.
Chevron: In the U.S., advancement on corporate climate change mitigation initiatives has been driven to a large degree by shareholder proposals and shareholder engagement. One informative example is the progression of hydraulic fracturing and methane proposals at Chevron. Shareholder engagement from 2011-2015 had led to significant advancement of Chevron’s environmental practices and reporting; during this timeframe, shareholder support ebbed and flowed reaching highs of 40% (prompting corporate action) and dipping to 26% before rebounding to over 30%. In 2018, approximately 45% of Chevron’s shareholders voted in favor of a shareholder proposal related to fugitive methane reduction, which again inspired a corporate response on the issue. However, had the SEC’s newly-proposed “momentum requirement” been in place, this natural variation of shareholder support would have meant that investors would not have been offered the opportunity to vote on that 2018 proposal that they resoundingly supported.
The SRG’s letter explains that “[i]n our assessment, the SEC’s proposed proxy rule changes would disrupt functional working relationships between shareholder proponents, institutional investors, and proxy advisors and companies. The proposed rule changes would make the path of investor engagement steeper and more convoluted, adding unnecessary costs and red tape, and making it more difficult for investors to foster sustainability, risk management, and governance improvements at their companies. It would block the most established and effective path for improving environmental, social, and governance (ESG) disclosure and performance of the market.”
The Shareholder Rights Group urges all concerned investors to write to the SEC in opposition to the proposed rules by the February 3 comment deadline. Additional info on the proposed rule changes, including links to the proposed rules are included at InvestorRightsForum.com
The SEC is accepting comments on the proposed rules until February 3, 2020. Write to: Vanessa A. Countryman, Secretary, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, 100 F Street NE, Washington, DC 20549-1090; Email to: email@example.com. Email or hard copy subject line should include reference to the File No. S7-23-19 (shareholder proposals) and File No. S7-22-19 (proxy advisors).