October 1, 2014

Coca-Cola’s New “Equity Stewardship Guidelines”

Back in May, I blogged about a flap over Coca-Cola’s equity compensation plan. Showing how shareholder engagement works, the company announced this morning that its Compensation Committee has adopted “Equity Stewardship Guidelines” for the company’s equity plan.

Perhaps just as interesting is that the Compensation Committee Chair pushed out a blog on the company’s “Unbottled” blog about the announcement.

This looks to be a pretty innovative approach to explaining how shares under the equity plan will be used responsibly, while addressing the criticism about the plan. In addition to including a burn rate commitment that is expected to make the plan last its full term of 10 years, the Guidelines provide that Coca-Cola will include information on actual dilution, burn rate and overhang in their proxy statement each year. Plus they will continue to minimize dilution through share repurchases and encourage an open dialogue with shareholders about compensation. I look forward to seeing what they do in their next proxy statement…

All of the video archives from our two days of executive pay conferences are now posted…

Bad Actors: SEC Grants Waivers to Citigroup

In this WSJ article, Andrew Ackerman writes about these Citigroup “bad actor” waivers (here’s the 2nd one):

U.S. securities regulators quietly granted Citigroup waivers from restrictions that would have crimped a range of the bank’s activities, including selling investments in hedge funds to individuals, following a recent securities-fraud settlement. The Securities and Exchange Commission, which in August completed a $285 million settlement with Citigroup over allegations related to complex debt instruments, granted the waivers late Friday.

The relief allows Citigroup to resume selling investments in hedge funds and private-equity funds to wealthy clients. The bank also retains its special status as a “well-known seasoned issuer,” or WKSI, which allows large companies to quickly issue stocks or bonds without the speed bump of an SEC review of their offerings. Kara Stein, a Democratic commissioner, dissented on granting Citigroup the expedited filing status, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Citigroup became subject to new restrictions in August, after a federal judge approved the SEC’s 2011 settlement with Citigroup over the sale of certain collateralized debt obligations to clients in late 2006 and early 2007. Under the SEC’s bad actor rule, parties with a “a relevant criminal conviction, regulatory or court order, or other disqualifying event” are restricted from participating in a private offering. The rule, adopted last year, is part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul.

Citigroup told clients in August it was working with the SEC to resolve the restrictions over the bank’s sale of hedge funds. The five-member SEC unanimously granted Citigroup its request for a waiver to resume selling so-called private fund investments, accepting the bank’s arguments that its $285 million settlement didn’t involve intentional misconduct or a large number of employees. The SEC grants waivers to let firms conduct normal business, as long as the waiver is seen as being in the public’s interest. The SEC also allowed Citigroup to retain its “WSKI” status, removing a restriction that applied to the bank given the SEC’s finding that Citigroup violated antifraud provisions of U.S. securities laws. Firms found to have violated those laws typically have their special status revoked for three years but are granted the option of appealing the decision.

The agency was divided that waiver, however, with Ms. Stein dissenting. She has repeatedly argued the agency has been too lenient on the largest financial institutions and voted against providing a well-known seasoned issuer waiver for the Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC earlier this year after the firm reached a $612 million settlement with U.S. and U.K. regulators over allegations that traders at the bank tried to rig interbank lending rates. “Our website is replete with waiver after waiver for the largest financial institutions,” Ms. Stein said at the time, warning the commission’s decision to overturn RBS’s disqualification “may have enshrined a new policy—that some firms are just too big to bar.”

As with the hedge-fund waiver, the SEC granted the expedited filing waiver because the bank’s misconduct was limited in scope and confined to a small group of employees, a person familiar with the matter said. The SEC and Citigroup reached a $285 million settlement in 2011, but U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff rejected it, saying the terms were “pocket change to any entity as large as Citigroup.” On Aug. 5, following a reversal of that ruling by an appellate court, Judge Rakoff approved the settlement.

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– Broc Romanek