Like laws and regulations applicable to financial institutions, corporate governance best practices are not static concepts. Instead, they are constantly evolving based on changes in the law, the regulatory framework and investor relations, among other matters. When was the last time the governing documents of your financial institution were reviewed and updated? The governing documents of many financial institutions were prepared decades ago, and have not evolved to reflect or comply with current laws, regulations, and corporate governance best practices. In fact, in the course of advising financial institutions, we have come across numerous governing documents that were prepared prior to the Great Depression. Although such documents may still be legally effective, operating under them may subject your financial institution and its board of directors to certain legal, regulatory and business risks associated with antiquated governance practices. As such, reviewing and, if necessary, updating your financial institution's corporate governance documents is not just a matter of good corporate governance but also an exercise in risk mitigation.
Certain common—yet often alarming—issues may arise from the use of outdated governing documents. These include:
- Indemnification provisions may be inconsistent with and unenforceable under applicable law. Likewise, most governing documents also contain provisions providing for the advancement of expenses to directors and officers in connection with legal actions relating to their service to the financial institution. In addition to legal compliance concerns, these provisions should be carefully drafted to ensure that the financial institution is not required to advance expenses to such officer or director with respect to a lawsuit between such person and the financial institution.
- Voting procedures may be inconsistent with applicable law and/or best practices. These practices may also be inconsistently defined and conflict with relevant governing documents of a single financial institution.
- Procedures to prevent or discourage shareholder activism or a hostile takeover of your financial institution could be inadequate.
- Rights of first refusal or equity purchase rights contained in different, but operative, agreements among shareholders and the financial institution could be inconsistent.
- Provisions limiting the liability of directors and officers of your financial institution may be inconsistent with and unenforceable under applicable law, or such provisions inadvertently may be more restrictive than permitted under applicable law.
- Non-competition and non-solicitation provisions contained in various agreements applicable to the same director or executive officer could compete with one another.
- Shareholder agreements for financial institutions could be structured in a fashion such that the Federal Reserve deems the agreements themselves to qualify as a bank holding company under the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956. For instance, based on guidance previously issued by the Federal Reserve, this unexpected outcome could occur if your financial institution's shareholder agreement contains a buy-sell provision and is perpetual in term. These are common terms of shareholder agreements designed to protect a financial institution's Subchapter S election, so bank holding companies that are Subchapter S corporations are being required by the Federal Reserve to amend their shareholder agreements to limit the terms to 25 years. Without such an amendment, the Federal Reserve takes the position that a Subchapter S shareholder agreement, in and of itself, can be deemed a bank holding company.
The board of directors and management team can protect the financial institution from these risks by following a few simple steps to update its governing documents.
- Locate your governing documents. These could include the financial institution's articles or certificate of incorporation, bylaws, committee charters, shareholder agreements, buy-sell agreements, corporate governance guidelines or policies, intercompany agreements, and tax sharing agreements.
- Review and analyze the financial institution's governing documents to identify any risks or areas for improvement, or areas that could be updated to reflect current laws and to incorporate current best practices.
- Revise the financial institution's governing documents to mitigate identified risks, address legal deficiencies and reflect current best practices.
- Develop a procedure for monitoring changes in applicable laws and best practices that affect the institution, and implement an ongoing process for addressing any such changes in a timely manner.
- Finally, designate a committee of the board of directors (e.g. the governance committee) or a member of the management team to manage the monitoring procedure established for this purpose.
Although simple, following these steps will help to prevent or mitigate many of the legal, regulatory and business risks that may arise as a result of operating under outdated governing documents and, more importantly, strengthen your financial institution's corporate governance practices in a manner that better positions the board of directors and management to effectively oversee your financial institution and protect against unwanted shareholder activism.