The SEC, Corporate Governance, and Shareholder Access to the Board Room
56 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2008 Last revised: 18 Aug 2009
Date Written: February 18, 2008
In the shareholder governance area, one of the most contentious issues concerns the right of shareholders to nominate directors and include the nominees in management's proxy statement.
This article examines the conflict in the context of the growing importance of independent directors. State law and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have increasingly relied upon independent directors to protect shareholders and ensure the integrity of the financial disclosure process. Yet because of weak definitions and problems of enforcement, these directors are often not truly independent. One method of addressing these concerns is to allow shareholders to nominate and elect their own candidates. They have the power to nominate under state law but the authority has largely been emasculated by the need to solicit proxies, an expensive and time consuming process.
The SEC has from time to time sought, always unsuccessfully, to amend the rules to allow shareholders some access to the company's proxy statement for their nominees, with the first effort taking place in 1942. The article contains a comprehensive analysis of these efforts, including the most recent iteration in 2007 when the Commission reaffirmed its traditional position that shareholders should not have access to the company's proxy statement for nominees.
The article takes the position that in an era of activist shareholders, pressure on the SEC to reform its rules will continue to grow. Moreover, continued denial of access will make things worse, leading to efforts by activist shareholders that are more intrusive and more likely to result in contests for the board of directors. The denial of access also leaves in place a serious gap in the disclosure regime for proxy contests. Finally, as the SEC becomes increasingly involved in the corporate governance process, a role it has not historically had to consider, the denial of access raises questions about the agency's willingness to protect the interests of shareholders.
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