As a commentator, one of the best things you can find to write about is when you come across someone being totally disingenuous; it’s almost as good as when companies do something really stupid (for which see “How Not to Run a Conference Call” December, 2007 and “What Was He Thinking, Whole Foods Version”, August 2007).
Which brings me to this week’s subject, the possibility of the Securities and Exchange Commission imposing regulations upon proxy advisory firms. Proxy advisory firms have grown in size and influence over the last twenty years. Their positions on corporate governance, compensation and proposed mergers and acquisitions have become important to both investors and corporations, creating in effect, de facto standards. Yet the manner in which the proxy advisory firms reach their recommendations and ratings, the formulas they use when looking at compensation and equity plans, and the process by which they make recommendations regarding merger and acquisition activity are considerably less than transparent. Further, the amount of research available to support their positions on corporate governance is less than overwhelming and far from conclusive. Finally, some firms, such as ISS, have actively worked both sides of the street, advising institutions how to vote and selling their consulting services to corporations to tell them how to structure things in order to get approval and high ratings from ISS.
So when the Securities and Exchange Commission asked for comments on the proxy process earlier this year it is not surprising that a number of comments came back suggesting that proxy advisory firms be subject to some regulation from the SEC, namely that proxy advisory firms should be subject to proxy rules and regulated as investment advisers, including mandated disclosure of specific conflicts of interest, transparency on how they develop their ratings and recommendations, and that they adopt procedures ensuring the accuracy of their reports and voting recommendations.
It seems as though the proxy advisory firms, which like more regulation for corporations, are not so happy when the shoe is on the other foot. Here’s Nell Minow, Chair of The Corporate Library and former general counsel and CEO of ISS in a comment letter to the SEC: “I would like to object in the strongest possible terms to the possible regulation of proxy advisory services.” Later in her comment letter, she goes on to explain how market forces will keep the proxy advisory services honest.
In other words, if we just let competition work without government getting in the way, everything should be fine. Of course this is exactly what they say doesn’t work for corporations when they want more regulation on say on pay, proxy access, compensation disclosure and a whole host of other corporate governance issues.
It does seem to make sense that these firms, which have a great deal of influence in how investment firms vote should at least be required to disclose the methodology by which they come to their ratings and recommendations, disclose any potential conflicts of interest (or better yet, be prohibited from conflicts of interest) and show they have stringent procedures in place to prevent inaccurate reports and recommendations.
After all, if increased disclosure and regulation is good for the goose (corporations), then it is certainly also good for the gander (proxy advisory firms).