Universal Proxies

77 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2016 Last revised: 29 Oct 2022

See all articles by Scott Hirst

Scott Hirst

Boston University - School of Law; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

Date Written: September 25, 2017


Contested director elections are a central feature of the corporate landscape, and underlie shareholder activism. Shareholders vote by unilateral proxies, which prevent them from “mixing and matching” among nominees from either side. The solution is universal proxies. The Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed a universal proxy rule, which has been the subject of heated debate and conflicting claims. This paper provides the first empirical analysis of universal proxies, allowing evaluation of these claims.

The paper’s analysis shows that unilateral proxies can lead to distorted proxy contest outcomes, which disenfranchise shareholders. By removing these distortions, universal proxies would improve corporate suffrage. Empirical analysis shows that distorted proxy contests are a significant problem: 11% of proxy contests at large U.S. corporations between 2001 and 2016 can be expected to have had distorted outcomes. Contrary to the claims of most commentators, removing distortions can most often be expected to favor management nominees, by a significant margin (two-thirds of distorted contests, versus one-third for dissident nominees). A universal proxy rule is therefore unlikely to lead to more proxy contests, or to greater success by special interest groups.

Given that the arguments made against a universal proxy rule are not valid, the SEC should implement proxy regulation. A rule permitting corporations to opt-out of universal proxies would be superior to the SEC’s proposed mandatory rule. If the SEC chooses not to implement a universal proxy regulation, investors could implement universal proxies through private ordering to adopt “nominee consent policies.”

Keywords: Proxy Contests, Director Elections, Shareholder Activism, Proxy Voting, Universal Proxies

JEL Classification: K22, G34, G38

Suggested Citation

Hirst, Scott, Universal Proxies (September 25, 2017). Yale Journal on Regulation, Vol. 35, No. 2, (Forthcoming), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2805136 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2805136

Scott Hirst (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) ( email )

c/o the Royal Academies of Belgium
Rue Ducale 1 Hertogsstraat
1000 Brussels

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