Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Talking to Investors Before They Vote Their Proxy

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed for a podcast by Broc Romanek who writes the blog The Corporate Counsel ( Broc’s blog is one of the best around for digging into the technical requirements surrounding dealing with the SEC. Sometimes the stuff is way too technical for me (and I used to practice securities law), but other times the information is really useful. Just to take and example, with Washington buried under two successive snowstorms that have shut down federal government offices, you might wonder how that affects your SEC filings that may be due or that you might wish to file. Broc knows and you can find out on his blog.

Broc’s interview was on one of my favorite topics, trying to place a value on investor relations. For those of you who want a quick overview (the whole podcast is only 8 ½ minutes long) on what the research says about the value of IR, you can find it here:

If you want fuller treatments about the research, see my blog post of July 7, 2008. Broc was even kind enough to put in a plug for my upcoming seminar, “Fundamentals of Investor Relations”, February 24th at The Houstonian Hotel, Club and Spa in Houston.

For more information go to

During the interview, something that Broc said struck me as interesting and I thought it was worthy of commentary. Specifically, Broc mentioned that with all of the changes to proxy rules, disclosures and the way issues are voted, there needs to be more communication between IR and the legal team. I think that Broc is right. Too often, specific, mandated disclosures such as proxy compensation discussions get compartmentalized. Lawyers read the rules, write disclosures to conform to the rules and present them in draft form to IR and management. Anybody that’s not a lawyer hates to read this stuff – it’s technical, dry and reads like a lawyer wrote it. So there are usually minimal revisions and the dense, dusty verbiage gets plunked down into the proxy statement. It’s the great irony of this type of disclosure – the more you have of it, the less likely it is to get read.

Now if you think about this process, there is a crucial link missing. Nobody talks to the investors who actually vote the shares. This is somewhat akin to politicians running for office without doing any polling. So when corporate proxy votes come in and there are large withholds on certain issues, companies have only themselves to blame. Actually, that’s not quite true, because portfolio managers in general hate spending time on corporate governance issues. It distracts from what they see as their main mission – making money on stocks.

Here’s a couple of suggestions to bridge this gap: First, well in advance of proxy season, investor relations officers, together with their securities law counsel, should schedule a number of calls to key investors to discuss current disclosure issues in areas such as compensation and governance. The calls should be designed as a dialogue to discover how investors view the topics and not as advocacy. Remember, you can’t solicit votes without a proxy statement. What investors want to hear can then be incorporated into your disclosures. Similarly, when you’re out on non-deal road shows, ask to spend five minutes at the end of a visit discussing the firm’s views on disclosure issues, whether they be compensation, governance or social responsibility. In the larger firms this will mean that they will have to bring in someone at the end of the meeting, as there is usually a separate person that deals with proxy voting, but it is well worth the effort as it gives upper management an opportunity to hear investors’ concerns and thinking.

This is not a cure-all, as sometimes investors want to hear things that management doesn’t want to disclose or they want governance structures that management is unwilling to implement, but at least you’ll know prior to the vote being cast.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The SEC and Climate Change – What Are These Guys Thinking?

First, a brief reminder that my seminar “Fundamentals of Investor Relations” will be held February 24th in Houston. The seminar blends real world experience with some of the tools we teach in business school such as valuation, decision tree analysis and efficient markets as they interact with the finance, capital markets, legal and communications issues of investor relations. If you’re interested, go to my website, and click on the seminars tab.

The Securities and Exchange Commission faces a daunting array of issues that need attention - we’re just recovering from the most severe financial crisis our country has faced since the Great Depression which severely tested the structure of our capital markets, credit rating agencies face a crisis of confidence based upon their performance in rating complex mortgage backed bonds and the inherent conflict of interest they face in being paid by the issuers of the bonds they rate, the proper regulation of derivative instruments needs to be addressed, and their enforcement division wasn’t able to identify the billions of dollars being stolen by Bernie Madoff in spite of receiving complaints against him on at least two occasions. So what pressing issue does the SEC choose to tackle first? CLIMATE CHANGE! In the words of Commissioner Kathleen Casey (a Republican who voted against adoption of the release) “our consideration of this release today sends a curious signal to the investment community about what we view as the most pressing issues facing the Commission”.

The interpretive release, which the SEC commissioners adopted in a 3 – 2 party line vote (guess which party voted in favor of the climate change release) and which as of this writing still hasn’t seen the light of day (how’s that for timely disclosure of a material event?) purports not to change disclosure requirements. The last time I checked the definition of materiality as set out by the Supreme Court in Basic v. Levinson, it was “Information is material if there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable investor would consider it important in making an investment decision”. In over thirty years of working in the field of investor relations I have never had an investor who owns, or is interested in owning shares, ask a climate change question. Could I have been dealing with unreasonable investors all these years? I have had questions from advocacy groups, but they are not investors, which is a crucial difference as far as disclosure requirements go.

Previous SEC interpretive releases have focused on areas such as analysis of long and short-term liquidity and capital resources, segment analysis, the effects of federal financial assistance on the operations of financial institutions, and the disclosure of preliminary merger negotiations. It seems to me that these are proper areas for the Commission to be concerned with; they are concrete, defined in scope and fairly immediate. Now we have a release, which according to the speeches of the SEC commissioners, requires companies to consider the reputational damage and its effect on their financial condition caused by their greenhouse gas emissions and requires them to disclose if their operations may be at material risk from the physical effects of climate change. So here are a couple of questions: How do you measure reputational risk in a meaningful and defined way? How do you know if your operations are at risk from climate change as opposed to normal weather shifts? Last time I checked hurricanes didn’t come with tags that say, “climate change related”. This is just bad regulation, requiring companies to engage in speculation about future events. In most other instances the SEC discourages speculation and requires you to make disclaimers about how the events may not come to pass, but this is an issue that is on the political agenda for the party with the majority of Commissioners on the SEC and so speculation is okay.

And just to remind you, the SEC also put out an interpretive release requiring companies to discuss Y2K issues, and we all know how material they turned out to be.