April 19, 2021

SEC Reopens Comment Period for Universal Proxy!

On Friday afternoon, the SEC announced that it voted to reopen the comment period for the 2016 “universal proxy” proposal – which would amend Schedule 14A and related rules to require the use of a single proxy card in all non-exempt solicitations for contested director elections.

Last summer, it looked like this rule was nearing the finish line – and Acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee noted just last month that it was still on the near-term agenda. But – and this might be the greatest understatement to ever appear in this blog – a lot has happened since these amendments were proposed in October 2016. The 15-page reopening release says that the Commission wants more input in light of corporate governance developments that could affect how universal proxy cards work, such as:

– There have been several contests where one or both parties have used a universal proxy card

– Increased adoption of proxy access bylaws

– Use of virtual shareholder meetings

– New forms of advance notice bylaws that require dissident nominees to consent to being named in the company’s proxy statement and on its proxy card

The release identifies 25 topics on which the Commission would appreciate input – about half relate to fund-specific issues. The formal comment period will be open for 30 days after the release is published in the Federal Register, which often takes about a month. Here are all the comments submitted to-date. For even more background, see this Cooley blog.

The SPAC Bubble Is Leaking

The SEC’s recent scrutiny of SPACs (which we’ve blogged about repeatedly) appears to be sidelining some deals. According to this WSJ article, there were only 12 SPAC offerings in the past 3 weeks. That compares to about 25 per week from January – March!

Last week, the CII Research & Education Fund also released this 17-page memo to investors. While it doesn’t expressly advocate against the SPAC model of going public, it does identify several reasons why the SPAC/de-SPAC process is particularly risky.

The memo notes that at particular risk are SPAC investors who elect not to redeem their shares in the de-SPAC transaction, especially if the combined company adopts weak shareholder rights provisions – like a dual-class share structure. It suggests that these investors may be better off by either selling or redeeming before the de-SPAC, or by negotiating a favorable subscription through a PIPE.

Although the memo is aimed at investors, it’ll also be helpful to companies and advisors who are considering SPAC deals. Not only does it foreshadow investor demands that could be coming in the future, it also examines & pokes holes in some perceived SPAC benefits. Here are a couple that caught my eye:

Speed to Market: From the standpoint of the private company entering the public markets through a de-SPAC, the process is sometimes touted for beingfaster than a traditional IPO. But is that speed meaningful, and does that speed benefit investors? The typical timeline for a de-SPAC is 10 weeks, while a traditional IPO usually takes 19 weeks, but preparation for IPOs tends to extend this difference. Investors should be aware that a speedier time frame may attract a pool of operating companies that is disproportionately focused on capitalizing on a hot market, a hot sector or “short-term fads.”

Underwriting Costs: Underwriting fees for SPAC IPOs are based on a percentage of the proceeds raised, as with traditional IPOs. However, it is important to keep in mind that due to a SPAC’s redemption phase, cash raised can be different from cash received. The nominal fee percentage is often lower for SPACs than the usual 7% fee for traditional IPOs. It is unusual for SPAC underwriting fees to be adjusted for redemptions at the time of the de-SPAC. Without adjustment, that “attractive” 5% underwriting fee with a redemption rate of 50% is the equivalent of the merged company paying 10%.

Voting Statements: Can Anything Be “Non-Partisan”?

As I blogged a few months ago, businesses are now the most trusted institution in society. Unfortunately, that also means that 86% of people now expect CEOs to speak out on social challenges. Last week, hundreds of executives, companies, law firms and non-profits did just that – by signing their names to this 2-page ad in the WaPo and NYT.

The statement at the top of the ad is only 8 lines long and speaks of the importance of democracy. The two lines that drew the most attention (and were reportedly the most difficult to agree upon) were:

We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.

Voting is the lifeblood of our democracy and we call upon all Americans to join us in taking a nonpartisan stand for this most basic and fundamental right of all Americans.

Of course, the statement and the reporting on it was immediately criticized as partisan. People were looking to see whether or not their employers and local companies had signed, etc. I’ve been waiting for a statement from the Center for Political Accountability – haven’t seen one yet – about whether and how they’ll use companies’ endorsement/lack of endorsement in political spending proposals. (As this ICCR release notes, 81 institutional investors did send a statement on the risks of political spending to members of the Business Roundtable back in February.)

What’s clear is that this type of thing is very difficult for companies and their leaders to navigate. You’re bound to anger some people regardless of what you say. You’re bound to anger some people if you remain silent (contrary to some opinions that that’s typically the safer choice). And then, whatever choice you make is viewed through a lens of suspicion. Are you grandstanding? Who are you trying to appeal to? Have you said or done anything contradictory in the past?

This Perkins Coie memo outlines a framework for deciding when to speak out. It also lists a few factors that could trigger lobbying or ethics rules that you need to watch out for:

– Is the topic in which the company is engaging related to an election or ballot measure? If yes, the laws in many jurisdictions limit election-related activity but do not bar it entirely. For example, federal law provides corporations a number of opportunities to engage in voter registration, get out the vote, and other civic engagement activities as long as they do so on a nonpartisan basis. (Federal Election Commission regulations have specific requirements for what counts as nonpartisan in this context.)

– If the company is speaking out on legislation, is the bill still pending, or has the bill been passed and signed into law? Speaking out about a bill that has already been enacted will rarely be regulated (though companies will also have to weigh whether such after-the-fact statements are effective in addressing their strategic goals).

– If the legislation is still pending, does the communication or other activity include a call to action? A call to action is a statement urging employees, customers, or members of the public to contact their government official to support or oppose legislation or some other government action. Some jurisdictions do not regulate statements that don’t include a call to action.

– If the legislation is still pending, is the company paying to promote the communication in any way, such as by taking out a print or digital ad campaign or paying to boost social media posts? Some jurisdictions treat paid and unpaid content differently for ethics and compliance purposes.

At a bigger-picture level, this Korn Ferry memo makes the case that defining core values is now more important than ever. It sounds a little “woo-woo,” but clear values can give you something to lean on and return to when a novel issue arises. The devil’s in the details, though, because you have to make sure these values are consistently applied, and consistently articulated internally & externally. And while CEOs may have their own personal values that drive decisions, remember that CEO tenure averages about 7 years. Company values should be tied more to stakeholders than who is currently at the helm.

It’s also important to note that, at least for now, shareholders don’t appear to be making buy/sell decisions based on the statement or the ensuing commentary. This Economist article points out that after the ad was published, stocks performed almost identically for companies that did and didn’t sign.

Liz Dunshee