United States: The Challenge For Boards

Last Updated: October 18 2013
Article by James C. Woolery

Most Read Contributor in United States, October 2018

Public company boards have experienced real turbulence for the better part of five years. Some of this turbulence is the product of internal dynamics — the need to improve liquidity, strengthen balance sheets and cut costs. Some is the product of external factors — volatile capital markets and government action and inaction. So, who can blame directors for being cautious? The answer: shareholders and activists.

In response to this turbulence, boards have chosen to seek steady shareholder returns, return shareholder capital and modestly adjust portfolios over executing large-scale transactions, combinations or investments. As a result of this restraint, the overwhelming strength of U.S. corporations is unmistakable: cash balances are at an all-time high and there is an abundance of cheap financing. Yet corporate investment in the economy remains muted.

Directors remain cautious while shareholders are increasingly moving in favor of more aggressive action. The evolving dynamic between boards and the shareholders they serve presents new challenges that require a different set of tools in the boardroom. New efforts to bridge what may be a growing divide between boards and shareholders should be undertaken directly by U.S. boards and management teams with a view toward increasing shareholder value, advancing investment stability, and maintaining sound governance.

Situation Overview

Competing Economic Forces. The Fed's easing programs have deepened economic uncertainty, as the potential impact of weaning the economy off what has been historic government intervention becomes a reality. Despite the unprecedented level of government stimulus since the crisis, macroeconomic growth figures remain low and inconsistent, with GDP expected to grow only 1.6 percent this year compared with 2012 growth of 2.8 percent and 2011 growth of 1.8 percent.

Europe continues to struggle mightily, creating strong headwinds against those invested in, or reliant on, these markets for corporate growth. In the United States, the government regulatory environment, which has tracked an activist path since taxpayer investment in the economy spiked beginning in 2008, is muscular, while its overall scope and law writing process remains unknown. Those watching for increased velocity in the economy continue to wait, as consistent growth is not apparent in the economic numbers that inform decisions in the boardroom.

Shareholders. Shareholders, meanwhile, are pricing in more dynamic corporate activity, with shares of the S&P changing hands at the highest level since the crisis and trading at 14.2 times earnings, above the 5-year (12.9) and 10-year (14.0) averages. Equity funds continue to grow in size and strength. Another signal: shareholders are rewarding companies that have put forward (1) large, core, synergistic acquisitions, (2) tax-driven acquisitions that substantially reduce tax burdens and cost of capital and (3) fundamental separation transactions that unlock value.

While shareholders have rewarded companies that have taken advantage of strategic opportunities, overall M&A activity remains soft. Global M&A activity in the first half of 2013 was at its lowest level since 2004, and many report a deceleration in the M&A market. Both the number of deals and the number of mega-deals have declined, while annualized deal volumes in the first half were behind the pace of the past three years.

Activism

And there is activism — perhaps the clearest signal of the perception gap between boards and shareholders. Activist campaigns, money invested in activist funds and the average size of public company targets are all up. Target size is no longer a deterrent for activists, as the average market cap for target companies has increased from $3.9 billion in 2011 to $8.2 billion in 2012. Gone are the days when shareholder activism was an unfortunate disease that befell smaller, failing companies in need of a swift turnaround. Prudent management, and even profitability, are no longer deterrents to activism.

Today, the targets of economic and policy activists include some of the largest and most respected corporations in North America, Europe and, of late, Asia. The flow of capital into this new "asset class" is rising: activist funds are estimated to have over $100 billion in assets under management — three times the amount invested in 2008 — with large billionaire family offices and other concentrated pools of private capital behind the scenes as limited partners. Institutional investors, once loath to mix with aggressive and outspoken activists, now routinely take private meetings and share ideas with them.

In this environment, traditional corporate communication between directors and shareholders — annual voting, proxy contests, proxy advisory firms and corporate investor relations programs — is inadequate to timely bridge the gap between them, particularly given the opportunity for rapid turnover of the shareholder base as the result of activism. The onus is now on boards to continually monitor their shareholder bases and vigorously advocate their corporate programs and policies.

Historically, direct dialogue between directors and shareholders has been limited to cases in the extreme, i.e., proxy contests, where the atmosphere is confrontational. Boards and management teams often do not develop a meaningful response plan until activists are at the door. Boards that do not engage with their investors on an ongoing basis run the risk of allowing activists to claim the mantle of the catalyst. Activists market change and growth, often showing early stock price returns as short-term investors bid up shares in hopes of profiting from a potential corporate event.

Our View

The market is sending several signals that should be considered by directors.

(1) In a low growth and low yield environment, a vocal group of investors will embrace catalyzing events to drive public company share prices. These investors will typically clamor for short-term liquidity options. A longer-term growth plan is likely to generate indifference from shareholders, particularly in contests where a large number of "event driven" hedge funds invest behind a catalyzing strategy. Profit taking on the institutional investor side can often create a new shareholder base dynamic that is unique to proxy contests.

(2) Relations among boards and shareholders of all types should be rethought with an eye toward identifying differences in perspectives in a timely manner. Personal relationships and dialogue between directors and shareholders should be prioritized. Director involvement can and should be developed without interfering with management's role in advocating the company's position — often, shareholders are principally concerned with having their views heard by those in the boardroom. Boards that don't engage with their investors on a continuing basis risk making themselves vulnerable to activists eager to exploit the lack of communication.

(3) The existing corporate mechanics around proxy contests are antiquated and in need of reform. Proxy contests often occur in an atmosphere that is confrontational, and the ad hoc nature of the voting and solicitation process is unlikely to produce good results. Further, in proxy contests, there is a real risk that corporate governance rules will be manipulated to drive a short-term agenda, which carries additional risks for shareholders.

Boards need to have their voices heard in the governance debate and rulemaking process. For example, the SEC is contemplating regulating proxy advisory firms such as ISS and Glass Lewis, which effectively control a large portion of votes in proxy contests. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and other governance groups are challenging the proxy advisors on issues of transparency and conflict of interest. Directors can and should weigh in on this debate. 

(4) Corporate strategy and policy should be clearly communicated and understood in the marketplace. Directors who fail to present a dynamic, engaged board addressing the fundamental issues facing the corporation will create opportunities for those whose investing style is aggressive and short-term. Substance alone is insufficient to address a heavily marketed and focused adversary. Today, presentation, advocacy and direct engagement are required regularly — not merely in response to a contest. Clearly, the overriding objective is to avoid a contest at all.

In this and future issues of Quorum, we will highlight areas where regulatory and enforcement trends present opportunities for action, whether they be collective work at reform, important issues on file with the SEC, DOJ, or Delaware courts, or scenarios where action and direction at the board level can add substantial value. 

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Opinion section of The Wall Street Journal on October 10, 2013.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions