February 25, 2011

Australia Adopts “Stronger” Say-on-Pay

As noted on, Australia’s government recently adopted legislation strengthening its say-on-pay requirements. One change was the adoption of a “two strikes” test, meaning that shareholders would have the opportunity to remove directors if the company’s remuneration report had received a ‘no’ vote of 25% or more at two consecutive annual general meetings. Another change is the prohibition of directors, executives and their “closely related parties” from voting on executive pay.

Also notable is that Novartis – a large Swiss company – garnered a 40% “against” vote on its first say-on-pay vote on Tuesday, as mentioned in this article.

The Debate Over Whether to Ignore Say-When-on-Pay Results So Far

So I would bear these developments in mind as companies weigh how much engagement they should be doing with shareholders. I was a little surprised at the reactions that Mark Borges and I have received to our advice that – given the voting results so far – companies may reconsider recommending a triennial vote for say-when-on-pay (egs. Marty Rosenbaum and Amy Muecke; compare Dominic Jones who asks whether boards are using triennial recommendation as a diversion).

I know many boards have pondered long and hard and decided that triennial is in the best interests of shareholders – but if shareholders are clearly saying it’s not in their best interests, that surely must count for something? I say “pick your battles” in an effort to start off with a less confrontational engagement in this new “say-on-pay” world. With a statistically relevant number of results in, it’s becoming pretty clear that shareholders want an annual SOP even if the company has stable management and sound pay practices. For shareholders, those factors appear relevant as to how they vote on say-on-pay – but not relevant for say-when-on-pay.

Like I said in my original blog on this topic, the fact that so many companies are ignoring the clear will of shareholders over this minor topic (“minor” in comparison to SOP itself) will likely further galvanize shareholders to more closely scrutinize pay practices. As I hear from shareholders, they feel like companies are deciding what is in the “best interests of shareholders” without taking into account what shareholders have clearly said is in their best interests. Looking at this situation from their perspective, I can see why they might get upset.

Here are more in the way of say-on-pay charts – a graphical set from Vanessa Schoenthaler and broken out by filer type from Greg Schick.

Glass Lewis Updates Its Proxy Voting Policies

Here is something from Paul Schulman of MacKenzie Partners that was just on’s “The Advisors’ Blog“: Glass Lewis recently concluded a client-only presentation regarding updates to their policies for 2011 and what they see as trends for the upcoming year. As you probably know, Glass Lewis will not speak to you about your proxy, taking the approach that “if you have something you want us to consider, put it in a public filing.” They recently purchased the smaller advisory firm Proxy Governance and depending on the makeup of your shareholder base, you should be aware of their policies and likely vote recommendation if you’re facing a potentially close vote.

Courtesy of Glass Lewis, here is a summary of their presentation (the full presentation is not publicly available). Some of the points you might pay attention to:

1. What will drive their decision to vote Against Say on Pay votes?
-Misalignment of pay with performance (P4P grade of D or F)
-Insufficient disclosure
-Poorly formulated peer group(s)
-Guaranteed bonuses & high fixed pay
-Poorly-designed incentive plans with excessive payouts and unchallenging goals
-Too much reliance on time-vesting equity awards
-Egregious contractual commitments (tax gross-ups, golden parachutes, death benefits)
-Internal pay inequity
-Excessive discretion afforded the board in granting awards and adjusting metrics

2. When will they go beyond say on pay and vote against comp committee members?
-Behavioral issues: For example, option repricing without shareholder approval, or the granting of excessive and unjustified golden handshakes or golden parachutes
-Sustained Poor Pay-for-Performance: Judged by a history of “D”s and “F”s in the GL model

3. What were the major U.S. Policy updates?
Most were relatively minor and won’t apply to a broad spectrum of companies. Some of the more noteworthy were:
-Classified Boards: If we maintain concerns with affiliates or insiders who are not up for election, we will consider recommending voting against such directors at their next election if the concerning issue is not resolved.
-Excessive Audit Committee Memberships: We may exempt certain audit committee members from our standard threshold (i.e. serving on more than 3 public company audit committees) if, upon further analysis of relevant factors, we can reasonably determine that the audit committee member is likely not hindered by multiple audit committee commitments.
-Board Interlocks: We will also evaluate multiple board interlocks among non-insiders (i.e. multiple directors serving on the same boards at other companies) for evidence of a pattern of poor oversight.
-Stock Option Repricings: We recommend to vote against all members of the compensation committee when the company completed a “self tender offer” without shareholder approval within the past two years.

More on our “Proxy Season Blog”

With the proxy season in full swing, we are posting new items regularly on our “Proxy Season Blog” for members. Members can sign up to get that blog pushed out to them via email whenever there is a new entry by simply inputting their email address on the left side of that blog. Here are some of the latest entries:

– Director Qualifications: SEC Comments and Example Disclosures
– CalPERS Responds (Slowly) To Records Request for Rule 14a-8 Letters
– An Early Look at 2011 Governance Shareholder Proposals
– The “Fifth Analyst Call” Request
– Latest on Environmental Disclosure in SEC Filings

– Broc Romanek