BlackRock Inc (BLK.N) voted for eight proposals pushing U.S. and Canadian companies to adopt policies boosting their boards’ diversity during the most recent quarter, the world’s largest asset manager said on Thursday.
BlackRock said it supported the shareholder motions to press companies to develop or disclose policies geared to promote gender diversity. It did not name the companies it pushed but said the “majority” had boards of directors lacking women.”
We’ve been particularly focused on increasing the number of women on U.S. boards because progress in the U.S. has been slower than in many other markets,” BlackRock said in a report it distributed.
“Board diversity, particularly in terms of gender, is important from a sustainable investment perspective, given that diverse groups have been demonstrated to make better decisions,” it added. “This appears to be because they are better able to consider, where appropriate, alternatives to current strategies – a proposition that can ultimately lead to sustained value creation.”
Big investors are losing patience with unresponsive corporate directors, and they’re showing it with their votes.Shareholders have withheld 20 per cent or more of their votes for 102 directors at S&P 500 companies so far this year, the most in seven years, according to ISS Corporate Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in corporate governance. While largely symbolic, the votes at companies such as Wells Fargo & Co. and Exxon Mobil Corp. are recognized as signals of displeasure and put pressure on boards to engage.
“Institutional investors are becoming more actively involved in communicating displeasure through their votes,” said Peter Kimball, head of advisory and client services at the consulting firm, a unit of Institutional Shareholder Services. “Voting against directors at large-cap S&P 500 companies is a way for an institution to send a signal to other, smaller companies about the actions that they don’t like. That feedback trickles down.”
While the Trump administration moves to reduce regulatory pressure on companies, big institutional investors are moving in the opposite direction. State Street Global Advisors and BlackRock Inc., for example, are increasingly taking an activist approach, calling for changes in diversity and corporate responsibility.
“Part of this is really the shift in investors to focus more on board quality,” said Rakhi Kumar, who leads environmental, social and governance investment strategy at State Street. “Board responsiveness is a key reason why shareholders will hold directors responsible. If engagement isn’t working and boards aren’t being responsive to our feedback, then we take action.”
State Street voted against 731 directors in 2016 and expects a similar number this year, after rejecting 538 in 2015, Ms. Kumar said. No longer are investors just “checking a box” to support directors, she said. State Street is encouraging companies to refresh their boards to get new and more diverse members. (emphasis added)
Norway’s $960 billion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s biggest, is taking a stance against equity indexes including companies that aren’t subject to shareholder control. The move opens a new front in the fund’s efforts to use its considerable—and growing—clout to force companies to improve their ESG act.
Occidental Petroleum Corp.’s shareholders approved a proposal Friday to require the oil and gas exploration company to report on the business impacts of climate change, marking the first time such a proposal has passed over the board’s objections.
The resolution, initiated by a group of investors including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, received more than 50 percent of the votes at Occidental’s shareholder meeting in Houston on Friday, according to spokesmen for the company and Calpers. Occidental didn’t provide the tally, but said the exact figures will be submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission in coming days.
“The board acknowledges the shareholders support for this proposal,” Eugene L. Batchelder, chairman of the board for Occidental, said in an e-mailed statement Friday after the vote. “We look forward to continuing our shareholder engagement on the topic and providing additional disclosure about the company’s assessment and management of climate-related risks and opportunities.”
The resolution came close to majority support last year. A crucial factor in exceeding the 50 percent mark was Blackrock, a major shareholder, who switched from voting against the proposal last year to voting for it. One reason might be the concerns that the new administration’s opposition to environmental regulation may mean that investors can no longer rely on the government to take care of the problem.
“The passing of this resolution is a sign of progress. It is a first in the United States. The vote at Occidental demonstrates an understanding among shareowners that climate change reporting is an essential element to corporate governance. I believe that we will see many more companies move in this direction. This vote shows that investors are serious about understanding climate risk.” – Anne Simpson, CalPERS Investment Director, Sustainability
Top executive pay at The Southern Company (“Southern”) has become increasingly decoupled from performance due to the Compensation and Management Succession Committee’s (the “Compensation Committee’s”) decision to shield top executives from the financial impact of poorly executed key projects. Directors Steven R. Specker and Dale E. Klein serve on both the Compensation Committee and the Nuclear/Operations Committee, which has oversight responsibility for the projects that have been plagued by problems.
Accordingly, we urge shareholders to vote AGAINST Item 3, to approve executive compensation (Say on Pay), and to hold Messrs. Specker and Klein accountable for the committees’ oversight failures by voting AGAINST their re-election at Southern’s annual meeting on May 24, 2017. Botched Execution of Energy Diversification Strategy In the 2010 Southern Annual Report, Thomas Fanning, then the newly-appointed CEO, described how the company would “satisfy the increasing demand for electricity while providing the best reliability and economic value with minimal environmental impact.”
Mr. Fanning identified as top priorities the construction of two major projects: the expansion of Vogtle, a nuclear facility; and the Kemper IGCC1 plant, whose technology aimed to generate electricity from coal with less pollution.2
Originally, the Kemper plant had a 2014 completion date. However, the plant – more than $4 billion over its original $2.4 billion budget – still is not in service.3 Southern has taken pretax charges against earnings related to Kemper in 15 of the last 16 quarters (1Q13 to 4Q16) totaling $2.76 billion.4 Southern recently submitted an updated economic viability analysis showing that the Kemper plant is not currently cost-effective to run using coal.5
Wells Fargo analyst Neil Kalton identified ongoing “execution risk,” including additional problems with Kemper, as a factor in his skepticism about Southern’s strategy.6
Reporting last year by The New York Times using audio recordings of employees, internal company documents and interviews with engineers and others involved with the Kemper plant found evidence consistent not only with mismanagement of the project but also with deliberate concealment of cost overruns and delays from the public. Ed Holland, who took over as CEO of Mississippi Power (the subsidiary responsible for Kemper) in 2013, told regulators that his predecessor “had directed or allowed employees to withhold from regulators documents about cost overruns.”7
1 IGCC is the abbreviation Southern uses for “Integrated Coal Gasification Combined Cycle Facility.” Southern Company Proxy Statement filed on Apr. 7, 2017 (“2017 Proxy Statement”), at 43, n.*.2 Southern Company 2010 Annual Report, at 4.3 The company recently disclosed that it would miss a deadline to place the Kemper plant in service by mid-March 2017, estimating that each month of further delay would “result in additional base costs of approximately $25 million to $35 million per month.” Management disclosed that the “ultimate outcome of this matter cannot be determined at this time.” (8-K filed on Mar. 16, 2017)4 Southern Company 2016 10-K filed on Feb. 22, 2017, at I-30.5 Transcript of Southern Company Earnings Call on Feb. 22, 2017.6
Russell Grantham, “Risky Projects a Cloud Over Southern Company,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 10, 2017.7 Ian Urbina, “Piles of Dirty Secrets Behind a Model ‘Clean Coal’ Project,” The New York Times, July 5, 2016.
Southern disclosed to investors last year that the Securities and Exchange Commission is formally investigating the company and Mississippi Power “concerning the estimated costs and expected in-service date” of the Kemper plant.8 Shareholder litigation has been filed, claiming that Southern failed to disclose in a timely manner delays and cost overruns to investors.9 In 2009, Southern received approval to build the Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 nuclear units, designed and constructed by Toshiba-Westinghouse.10 Based on a novel and untested design,11 the reactors were scheduled to be in service by 2017. Last year, Mr. Fanning told analysts that “we are doing beautifully in the new nuclear that we are building at Vogtle.”12 However, the project is $3 billion over budget and at least three years behind schedule, and the future of the Vogtle units is now uncertain.13 On March 29, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy protection due to mounting costs at Vogtle and other nuclear projects. At a minimum, the bankruptcy will lead to additional delay and costs for the Vogtle project. Georgia regulators are contemplating whether the project should continue at all, given the bankruptcy. Stan Wise, chairman of the Georgia Public
Service Commission, told The New York Times “[i]t’s a very serious issue for us and for the companies involved. If, in fact, the company comes back to the commission asking for recertification, and at what cost, clearly the commission evaluates that versus natural gas or renewables.”14
The Nuclear/Operations Committee of Southern’s Board is responsible for overseeing both the Kemper and Vogtle projects. According to its charter, the Nuclear/Operations Committee is charged with, among other things, oversight of “construction and licensing of new facilities, including review of cost estimates.”15 It also provides input to the Compensation Committee about key operational goals and metrics for the annual cash incentive program.16
Messrs. Specker and Klein have served on the Nuclear/Operations Committee since 2010, and Mr. Specker has served as its chair since 2014. The problems plaguing Kemper and Vogtle, Southern’s two largest construction projects, suggest that the Nuclear/Operations Committee has fallen short in its oversight responsibilities. As discussed more fully below, we believe that inaccurate evaluations have been made on operational metrics related to those projects used for senior executive compensation and that financial metrics have been inappropriately adjusted by the Compensation Committee, on which Messrs. Specker and Klein serve. We urge shareholders to hold Messrs. Specker and Klein accountable by voting AGAINST their re-election.
Pay and Performance Misalignment
Incentive compensation at Southern, which comprises a substantial portion of total compensation, consists of an annual cash incentive award (or bonus) and a long-term equity incentive award. Each year, the Compensation Committee selects the metrics to be used to determine the annual bonus for the coming year and the long-term equity incentive payout for the three-year cycle then getting under way.17
8 Southern Company 10-Q filed on May 5, 2016.
10 Through its subsidiary Georgia Power, Southern owns 45.7% of the new units.
11 Diane Cardwell, “The Murky Future of Nuclear Power in the United States,” The New York Times, Feb. 18, 2017.
12 Q3 2016 Southern Co Earnings Call and Analyst Day, Thomson StreetEvents, Oct. 31, 2016.
13 Russell Grantham, “Plant Vogtle: More Delays Likely, Says One Partner,” The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Mar. 27, 2017.
14 Diane Cardwell & Jonathan Soble, “Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy, in Blow to Nuclear Power,” The New York Times, Mar. 29, 2017.
16 2017 Proxy Statement, at 36.
17 2017 Proxy Statement, at 40.
A driver for higher executive compensation levels in both the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years was the Compensation Committee’s decision to use an earnings per share (EPS) figure “adjusted” to exclude the negative earnings impact of the Kemper project and certain other items. In 2013, Southern recorded pre-tax charges of $1.14 billion20 related to Kemper and no adjustment was made for compensation metric purposes. As a result, incentive compensation payouts were “reduced significantly” for 2013. In 2014, when problems at Kemper led to a pre-tax charge of $868 million, the Compensation Committee adjusted EPS to eliminate the impact of Kemper for general incentive pay purposes; however, it exercised negative discretion to reduce, by 10-30%, the bonuses payable to several senior executives who it said should be held “accountable for high-level strategic decisions concerning the Kemper” plant.21
In 2015 and 2016, the Compensation Committee simply used adjusted EPS for all employees, including top executives, insulating them from Kemper’s negative impact on earnings. These adjustments meant the difference between executives not even achieving the threshold EPS level for payout and comfortably exceeding the target level:
|○||EPS w/o adjustment $2.61|
|○||Threshold for payout $2.68|
|○||EPS with adjustment for Kemper $2.8222|
|○||EPS w/o adjustment $2.61|
|○||Threshold for payout $2.68|
|○||EPS with adjustment for Kemper and certain acquisition/integration costs $2.8923|
18 2017 Proxy Statement, at 41.
19 TSR data appears in the 2017 Proxy Statement, at 40, while total compensation figures for Mr. Fanning are found in the Summary Compensation Tables of Southern’s last three proxy statements.
20 Southern Company Proxy Statement filed on Apr. 11, 2014, at 36.
21 Southern Company Proxy Statement filed on Apr. 10, 2015, at 34-35.
22 Southern Company Proxy Statement filed on Apr. 8, 2016 at 53-54 (“2016 Proxy Statement”).
23 2017 Proxy Statement, at 52.
Several big fund firms supported challenges on executive pay or climate disclosures less frequently where they had business ties to energy companies and utilities, according to a new study released on Tuesday.
The scrutiny of firms including Vanguard Group and Invesco Ltd is the latest research to raise questions about how well they manage potential conflicts of interest when casting proxy votes at the same time they are trying to win work like running corporate retirement plans….For its study 50/50 reviewed how fund firms voted on 27 proxy questions last year at oil and gas companies and utilities, tracking how often they voted against management recommendations.
At Vanguard, for instance, 50/50 found the $4 trillion Pennsylvania index fund manager broke from management 22 percent of the time. But at four companies where Vanguard serviced retirement plans, its funds did not support any challenges….Another fund firm, Invesco, broke with management 12 percent of the time, and at none of seven companies where it had business ties.
Kerber’s article includes more information and responses from the managers included, denying that the votes are influenced by conflicts. The full report is on the 50/50 website.
[T]he 50/50 Climate Project found that the managers who tended to vote in favor of management received more in fees and stewarded more assets than all other managers combined, and that their voting practices were even more management friendly at companies with which they had business relationships.
Index-fund giant State Street Global Advisors on Tuesday will begin pushing big companies to put more women on their boards, initially demanding change at those firms without any female directors.The money manager, which is a unit of State Street Corp., says it will vote against board members charged with nominating new directors if they don’t soon make strides at adding women. Firms won’t have an exact quota to be in compliance with State Street’s mandate, but must prove they attempted to improve a lack of diversity. A firm that doesn’t add women, for example, would have to prove to State Street it attempted to cast a wider net and set diversity goals.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, “CEO pay grew an astounding 943% over the past 37 years, greatly outpacing the growth in the cost of living, the productivity of the economy, and the stock market, disproving the claim that the growth in CEO pay reflects the ‘performance’ of the company, the value of its stock, or the ability of the CEO to do anything but disproportionately raise the amount of his pay.”
For the past two years we have highlighted the 100 most overpaid CEOs of S&P 500 companies, and the votes of large shareholders, including mutual funds and pension funds on their pay packages.
What has changed since the first report? Not much. Executive pay has continued to increase. Although mutual funds and pension funds are doing better at exercising their fiduciary responsibility by more frequently voting their proxies against some of the most outrageous CEO pay packages. Of the mutual funds with the largest changes in voting habits from last year, all of them opposed more of the pay packages than they had the prior year.
As we noted in our prior reports, the system in place to govern corporations has failed in the area of executive compensation. Like all the best governance systems, corporate governance relies on a balance of power. That system envisions directors representing shareholders and guarding the company’s assets from waste. It also envisions shareholders
This governance system comes from a time when it was assumed that unhappy investors would simply sell their stakes if sufficiently dissatisfied with the governance of a company. It reflects a time when there were fewer intermediaries between beneficial holders and corporate executives. However, today more and more investors own shares through mutual funds, often investing in S&P 500 index funds. Individual investors are not in a position to sell their stakes in a specific company. The funds themselves are subject to a number of conflicts of interest and to what economists refer to with the oxymoronic-sounding term “rational apathy,” to reflect the expense of oversight in comparison to a pro rata share of any benefits.
The pay packages analyzed in this report belong to the CEOs of companies that the majority of retirement funds are invested in.
Today, those casting the votes on the behalf of shareholders frequently do not represent the shareholders’ interests.
CEO compensation as it is currently structured does not work; rather than incentivize sustainable company growth, compensation plans increase disproportionately by every measure. Too often CEOs are rewarded for mergers and acquisitions instead of improving company performance. As noted in the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report, “Those [compensation] systems encouraged the big bet – where the payoff on the upside could be huge and the downside [for the individual executive] limited. This was the case up and down the line – from the corporate boardroom to the mortgage broker on the street.”2 We note that the downside, which could include such features as environmental costs, may be limited for the individual, and instead borne by the larger society.
Paying one individual EXCESSIVE amounts of money can lead people to make the false assumption that such compensation is justified and earned. It undermines essential premises of capitalism: the robust ‘invisible hand’ of the market as well as the confidence of those who entrust capital to third parties. Confusing disclosure coupled with inappropriate comparisons are then used to justify similar packages elsewhere. These systems perpetuate and exaggerate the destabilizing effects of income inequality, and may contribute to the stagnating pay of frontline employees.
As the report is now in its third year, we have the ability to look back and see what happened to the companies identified in our report two years ago. We’ve been saying the most overpaid CEOs under-deliver for shareholders. In examining this data from the following two years of our report, we have found dramatic results— not only does the group of 100 most overpaid CEO companies of the S&P 500 underperform the S&P 500 by 2.9 percentage points, but the firms with the 10 most overpaid CEOs underperformed the S&P 500 index by an amazing 10.5 percentage points and actually had a negative return, reducing the actual value of the companies’ shares by 5.7 percent. In summary, the firms with the most overpaid CEO’s devastated shareholder value since our first report published in February 2015.
Identifying the 100 most overpaid CEOs in the S&P 500 was our purpose in writing this report. In undertaking this project we focused not just on absolute dollars, but also on the practices we believe to have contributed to bloated compensation packages.
Shareholders now supposedly have the right, since the enactment of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, to cast an advisory vote on compensation packages. However, in today’s world, most shareholders have their shares held and voted by a financial intermediary. This means that this critical responsibility is in the hands of a fiduciary at a mutual fund, an ETF, a pension fund, a financial manager, or people whose full time job is to analyze the activities of the companies they invest in and monitor the performance of their boards, their CEOs, and their compensation.
A key element of the report has been to analyze how mutual funds and pension funds voted on these pay packages. This year we vastly expanded the list of funds we looked at. In response to excessive and problematic CEO pay packages, it should be noted that every fund manager has the power to vote against these compensation plans and withhold votes for the members of the board’s compensation committee who created and approved them. In some cases, institutional investors should request meetings with members of the compensation committees to express their concerns. Institutional investors should be prepared to explain their votes on executive pay to their customers, and individuals should hold their mutual funds accountable for such decisions by expressing their displeasure directly to those that are also well compensated to protect and represent them.
Shareholder activism and public pressure around executive compensation may be having an effect on how mutual funds vote on pay packages at companies they invest in.Mutual fund giants such as BlackRock Inc. and Vanguard Group have been called out by shareholder advocates in the past for “rubber-stamping” pay plans, but research from As You Sow shows they are voting against compensation deemed excessive a bit more often.The shareholder advocacy group came up with a list of 100 chief executive officers in the S&P 500 whose pay it considered too high based on financial performance and other factors. It then looked at voting records across 25 mutual fund families and found that average support for “overpaid” CEOs has declined somewhat, from 82 percent to 76 percent, over the past year.
The voting of fund managers is infected by conflicts of interest, said Erik Gordon, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. That is because these giant mutual fund operators don’t just own shares in many big American companies; they also do business with them.
“Funds often avoid challenging management on executive pay and corporate governance because they want to be included in corporate defined-contribution benefit plans,” he said in an email. “If a fund irritates a C.E.O. and the C.E.O.’s pals on the board, the fund risks losing business at several companies.”
BlackRock and Vanguard dispute this notion, saying they put their customers’ interests first in their voting. “We weigh all factors that could affect the long-term value of our clients’ assets,” Ed Sweeney, a spokesman for BlackRock, said in a statement, “including the hundreds of public pension plans, nonprofits, foundations, endowments, educational institutions and individual investors we serve.”
…On matters involving executive pay, in the most recent 12 months, [Black Rock and Vanguard] overwhelmingly supported compensation practices at the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. BlackRock supported executive pay at 98.3 percent of those companies in the most recent year, and Vanguard voted in favor of pay practices in 98.1 percent of its votes. (Vanguard disputed this, saying it voted yes a mere 96 percent of the time.)
By the way, both companies supported the pay practices at Wells Fargo, whose executives are under fire for overseeing a pervasive program that prompted many employees to set up sham accounts to generate fees and make quotas.
As head of BlackRock’s investment stewardship unit, Michelle Edkins oversees its voting. On executive compensation, she stressed that the firm voted against pay practices or compensation committee members at 10 of the 50 companies with the highest-paid chief executives this year. She also said that BlackRock discussed compensation matters with half of those companies.
Beyond pay, BlackRock and Vanguard both supported management by voting against most proposals requiring that a company’s board be led by an independent chairman. Shareholders in favor of this idea contend that such a move would reduce management’s grip on the board and bring more accountability to corporations.
BlackRock voted nay on 95 percent of such proposals, Proxy Insight found, while Vanguard rejected 100 percent of them.