SEC Considers More Oversight as Proxy Advisers’ Influence Grows

SEC Considers More Oversight as Proxy Advisers’ Influence Grows

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is weighing whether proxy advisers have grown so influential in corporate elections that regulators should impose rules to make their business more transparent. The roles of Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. and Glass Lewis & Co. LLC in shareholder voting will be debated by institutional investors, brokers, business groups and unions tomorrow at a meeting hosted by the SEC. ISS and Glass Lewis dominate the market for providing recommendations for votes on topics such as executive pay, nominees for boards of directors, and corporate mergers.ISS and Glass Lewis have already agreed with the European Union’s securities regulator to follow a voluntary code of conduct to manage conflicts of interest and disclose how they make recommendations. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable have pressed the SEC to require more disclosures by proxy advisers, including conflicts of interest and their method for grading company policies such as executive pay.

“They are not at all brokers and they are not quite investment advisers, so the question is how would you regulate them?” said David B.H. Martin, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP who led the SEC’s Corporation Finance division from 1999 to 2002. “The commission has gone about this carefully because it’s not very clear what they would regulate.”

Demand for proxy research has grown as institutional investors’ portion of voting shares has risen to more than 50 percent in recent years, according to Conference Board research. Institutional investors, including pension and mutual funds, are the traditional clients of proxy advisers, while ISS also provides consulting services to companies seeking to improve their corporate governance ratings.

‘Outsized Role’

Firms such as ISS and Glass Lewis owe their “outsized role” to SEC policy guidance issued in 2004, Commissioner Daniel M. Gallagher said this week. The SEC told investment advisers they could fulfill a duty to vote in shareholders’ best interests by relying on independent third party research.

“The resulting pair of staff no-action letters effectively blessed the practice of investment advisers rotely voting the recommendations provided by proxy advisers,” Gallagher said Dec. 3 at a conference organized by the European Corporate Governance Institute and Columbia Law School.

ISS and Glass Lewis say their influence on voting outcomes is more nuanced than such critics say. While ISS recommended against 13 percent of all say-on-pay proposals in the first half of 2013, only 2 percent of such votes failed to get majority support, ISS data shows.

Stronger Relationship

Academic studies have found a stronger relationship. ISS advice shifts 6 percent to 10 percent of shareholder votes after controlling for other factors that influence voting outcomes, according to a 2010 paper by Jill E. Fisch of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Stephen Choi and Marcel Kahan of New York University School of Law. Other studies have found ISS can influence shareholder votes by as much as 30 percent.

Institutional investors that tend to follow ISS “blindly” are smaller mutual funds that can’t afford to do their own homework for every shareholder resolution on which they must vote, Fisch said at the Dec. 3 conference.

Companies such as BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, commit their own resources to analyzing proxy votes and use the outside research “to flag the companies we know we need to take a look at more closely,” BlackRock managing director Michelle Edkins said at the same panel.

Significant Power

Proxy advisers now wield significant power over public companies’ governance decisions without being subject to significant SEC oversight, said Michael J. Ryan, a vice president for corporate governance at the Business Roundtable. In October, Nasdaq OMX Group Inc. (NDAQ) told the SEC it should require “public scrutiny of the models and methodologies” used by proxy advisers and mandate disclosure of conflicts of interest.

The SEC in a 2010 report raised questions about conflicts of interest in ISS’s business model and whether the firm sufficiently discloses them to clients. ISS earned 21 percent of its revenue in 2011 from a unit that provides consulting services to companies that may be the subject of ISS recommendations, according to research by Warwick Business School finance professor Tao Li.

ISS says on its website that it “appropriately” discloses any conflicts “as they arise.” The company declined this week to discuss its business model or regulatory changes in advance of the SEC’s meeting.

‘Unbiased’ Advice

“ISS welcomes the opportunity to participate in the upcoming roundtable discussion given our longstanding and unwavering commitment to providing unbiased governance advice, data and research to the global institutional investor community,” ISS said in a statement.

Glass Lewis, which plans to apply the European code of conduct globally, believes any new U.S. regulation should be “tailored” to proxy advisers, chief executive officer Katherine Rabin said in an interview. Glass Lewis works only for institutional investors and doesn’t provide consulting services to companies that are the subject of its recommendations, Rabin said.

The SEC should withdraw its guidance allowing mutual funds to rely on proxy advisory research when voting, Gallagher said this week. Regulators also should consider exempting smaller institutional investors from having to vote on every item on a company’s proxy, he said.

Rescinding the SEC’s no-action letters could create new problems, Fisch said, by forcing smaller funds to spend more on their own research and lowering returns to investors, she said.

“Limiting the ability of institutional investors to rely on the proxy advisers, that creates a void,” Fisch said. “What is a small institutional investor supposed to do?”

The SEC roundtable will include representatives of BlackRock, the California Teachers Retirement System, the Council of Institutional Investors, Glass Lewis, GT Advanced Technologies Inc. (GTAT), the Investment Adviser Association, ISS and Viking Global Investors. Former SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt also is scheduled to be a panelist.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dave Michaels in Washington at

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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