Investor Pressure Points for the 2018 Proxy Season

February 9th, 2018

proxy-2-9-18.pngInvestors need to stay focused on long-term performance and strategy in 2018. So says Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with $6.3 trillion in assets under management, in a recent and well-circulated letter. “Companies must be able to describe their strategy for long-term growth,” says Fink. “A central reason for the risk of activism—and wasteful proxy fights—is that companies have not been explicit enough about their long-term strategies.”

Focusing on long-term success isn’t controversial, but Fink’s letter underlines the fact that proxy advisors and investment management firms are more frequently looking at broader issues—gender diversity and equality, and other cultural and environment risks—that can serve as indicators of long-term performance.

Board composition will continue to be a growing issue. BlackRock, along with State Street Global Advisors, the asset management subsidiary of State Street Corp., both actively vote against directors where boards lack a female member. “[Institutional investors] are tired of excuses,” says Rusty O’Kelley, global leader of the board consulting and effectiveness practice at Russell Reynolds Associates. “Regional banks [in particular] need to take a very close look at board quality and composition.” Fink, in his letter, said that diverse boards are more attuned to identifying opportunities for growth, and less likely to overlook threats to the business as they’re less prone to groupthink.

The use of board matrices, which help boards examine director expertise, and disclosure within the proxy statement about the use of these matrices, are increasingly common, according to O’Kelley. The varied skill sets found on the board should link to the bank’s overall strategy, and that should be communicated to shareholders. Expertise in cybersecurity is increasingly desired, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the board should seek to add a dedicated cybersecurity expert. “Institutional investors view cybersecurity as a risk the entire board should be paying attention to,” says O’Kelley. “They want all directors to be knowledgeable.”

Some investors are pursuing gender equality outside of the boardroom. On February 5, 2018, Bank of New York Mellon Corp. disclosed the pay gap between men and women—the fourth bank to do so in less than a month, following Citigroup, Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. “Investors are demanding gender pay equity on Wall Street, and we have no intention of easing up,” said Natasha Lamb, managing partner at the investment firm Arjuna Capital, in a release commenting on BNY Mellon’s gender pay disclosure. These banks, along with JPMorgan Chase & Co., Mastercard and American Express, rejected Arjuna’s proposals last year to disclose the pay gap between male and female employees, along with policies and goals to address any gap in compensation.

A domino effect can occur with these types of issues. “[Activist investors will] move on to the next bank,” says Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.

Shareholders are aware that cultural risks can damage an organization. This includes bad behavior by employees—Wells Fargo’s account opening scandal, for example—as well as an organization’s approach to sexual harassment and assault, an issue that has received considerable attention recently due to the “Me Too” movement. “Shareholders are very focused on whether or not boards and management teams are doing a sufficient job in trying to understand what the tone is throughout the organization, understand what the corporate culture is,” says Paul DeNicola, managing director at PwC’s Governance Insights Center. Metrics such as employee turnover or the level of internal complaints can be used to analyze the organization’s culture, and companies should have a crisis management plan and employee training program in place. Boards are more frequently engaging with employees also, adds DeNicola.

Investors are keenly aware of environmental risks following a year that witnessed a record-setting loss estimate of $306 billion due to natural disasters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Institutional investors expect boards to consider the business risk related to environmental change, says O’Kelley, particularly if the bank is at greater risk due to, for example, a high level of real estate loans in coastal areas.

Finally, investors will be looking at how organizations use the expected windfall from tax reform. “What will you do with the increased after-tax cash flow, and how will you use it to create long-term value?” said Fink in his letter. It’s an opportunity for companies to communicate with shareholders regarding how additional earnings will be distributed to shareholders and employees, and investments made to improve the business.

In an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Fink explained that BlackRock votes with the companies it invests in 91 percent of the time due to the engagement that occurs before the proxy statement is released. Fink’s preference is that engagement occurs throughout the year—not just during proxy season—to produce better long-term results for the company’s investors.

Engaging with shareholders—and listening to their concerns—can help companies succeed in a serious proxy battle. “If you have good relations with your investors, you’re apt to, in a contest, fair a bit better,” says Elson.

emccormick

Emily McCormick is the vice president of research for Bank Director, an information resource for directors and officers of financial companies.You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ehmccormick or get connected on LinkedIn.