April 29, 2019

Proxy Voting: Vanguard Transitioning Some Power

It’s no secret that a small group of giant institutional investors exercise significant voting control over almost all large companies. One suggestion that’s been floated to “re-democratize” the proxy process – including in this research paper and in this WSJ op-ed from Vanguard’s founder John Bogle – is for funds to give up some voting power.

Last week, Vanguard announced that it’s doing just that. Starting later this year, the external firms who make investment decisions for 27 Vanguard funds – representing about 9% of its total assets – will also be making voting decisions for those funds. The practical takeaway is that you’ll now need to look more closely at which Vanguard funds own your shares – and you may need to familiarize yourself with the voting policies of these 25 firms. This WSJ article discusses the background & impact of the change:

Wellington Management Co., a Boston firm that serves as Vanguard’s biggest external manager, will gain the most voting power from the shift. Wellington oversees roughly $230 billion of the roughly $470 billion affected by the move. Twenty-four other outside firms control votes on the remaining amount.

“We are passing the baton to give active managers direct control over voting the shares of companies in which they invest,” said Glenn Booraem, who heads investment stewardship at Vanguard. “It’s to integrate their voting and engagement processes with their investment decisions.”

Wellington, in a rare public rebuke this year, said it opposed Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s deal to buy Celgene Corp. Wellington, however, wasn’t able to cast votes for all shares it managed. Vanguard retained control over a chunk of votes. Wellington had voting control over roughly 28 million shares of its some 126 million shares earlier this year. Shareholders ultimately approved the Bristol-Myers deal. Vanguard voted most of its shares in favor of the deal, said a person familiar with the matter.

The first Vanguard fund where an outside active manager has the power to vote shares will be launched in late May to early June. The fund will target companies with strong environmental, social and governance practices, and Wellington will manage it.

CEO Succession: Trends

Recently, Spencer Stuart released its annual report on CEO transitions in the S&P 500. Here’s the key takeaways:

– In 2018, the number of CEO transitions fell slightly, to 55 from 59 in 2017

– 69% of CEOs retired or stepped down; 22% of CEOs resigned under pressure, 5% left for health reasons, 2% left as a result of a company acquisition/merger and another 2% for other reasons

– 73% of new CEOs were promoted from inside the company, compared to 69% in 2017 and 90% in 2016

– Of the 12% of CEOs to resign under pressure, only 42% of candidates who took the role were internal promotions

– 1 of the 55 new CEOs is a woman and 20% had prior public company CEO experience

– 15% of new CEOs were also named board chair, compared to 7% in 2017 – and 35% of outgoing CEOs stayed on to serve as board chair, compared to 51% in 2017

CEO Succession: Why Boards (Not CEOs) Should Own the Process

Our checklist on CEO succession planning says:

CEO succession is a collaborative process involving the board, CEO, senior management and outside advisors. Although the CEO should be a productive partner in the process, the board – not the CEO – should drive the process, and clearly define and manage all participants’ roles& expectations.

This WSJ article gives a bunch of reasons why that’s the case. Here’s an excerpt (also see this Korn Ferry memo about the benefits of continuous “CEO progression” planning):

CEOs might not have the right perspective to evaluate successors. At the end of a long career, many CEOs are concerned about their legacy. This can bias them toward favoring candidates who will guide the company in the same direction—and in the same manner—that they themselves led it. Research bears this out: When powerful CEOs play a role in the succession process, they steer the choice toward someone with similar characteristics to themselves. However, the future is rarely like the past, and if the company’s success going forward requires a change in strategy or a different mix of skills, duplicating the old CEO—even a very successful one—can be a costly mistake.

CEOs can also distort the process through their behavior. Because they generally control top talent development in their companies, they control the flow of information that the board receives about how internal candidates are progressing, as well as shaping the board’s assessment of that information. In addition, they control access—the opportunity for directors to meet face-to-face with the people they will be evaluating. Subtle actions can serve to block a disfavored candidate or promote a favored one, biasing the board’s understanding of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, skewing the evaluation process, and ultimately leading to the incorrect choice.

Liz Dunshee