December 4, 2003

Shareholder Access Comment Letter Overload

How many comment letters do you think have been submitted to the SEC on its shareholder access proposal? You gotta take a guess…

Can you believe its easily over 5000 with several weeks left in the comment period. However, 2,898 individuals/entities submitted comments using “Letter Type I” and 1,916 individuals/entities used “Letter Type C.” The Council of Institutional Investors has been very effective in getting out the vote. The SEC has been smart to combine these “cookie cutter” form letters into one submission on its website.

From the corporate perspective, one good letter is from the governance committee chair at Cendent.

Interesting Proposal from Joe Grundfest

Former SEC Commissioner and Stanford Professor Joe Grundfest offers an interesting alternative to the SEC’s shareholder access proposal. He suggests an “advice and consent” set of procedures, that are modeled after Article II Section 2 of the United States Constitution.

These procedures would effectively force a nominating committee to take action against a director – or the director would be otherwise penalized – if there was a triggering event (and the triggering event would not facilitate the ability of shareholders to place nominees on the ballot in the following year).

So if a regulatory threshold of withheld votes were cast for a particular director, negative consequences would follow (what Joe calls “cure” provisions) – either the nominating committee getting that director to resign/not stand for re-election or if the director was re-elected, the director might not be deemed independent for purposes of listing standards, might be prohibited from voting on any matter required by SEC or SRO rules; or could trigger a rule that prevents a company from insuring or indemnifying the director for violations of federal securities laws.

Joe argues that this advice and consent mechanism has several clear advantages over the SEC’s proposed shareholder access initiative. It greatly reduces the danger that shareholders will resort to the proxy mechanism as a device for promoting special interest agendas. It also greatly diminishes the dangers of factionalization that can arise from the election of dissident directors to a board. The proposal also eliminates the need for the SEC to adopt complex and potentially arbitrary rules defining “trigger conditions” and “qualified shareholders,” and there is far less risk that the mechanism would be subject to a successful legal challenge.