SEC Securities & Exchange Commission

US regulator draws internal criticism for pressure over proxy firm influence

The Securities and Exchange Commission has drawn criticism from within its own ranks after pushing investment managers to question and probe the influence proxy voting firms on have on their decisions.

The guidance, voted through on a 3-2 pass on August 21, examines the relationship between investment managers and proxy advisory firms and how one takes influence from the other. It suggests investment managers take a much deeper look into how these advisers are run and why they might be making such recommendations.

A recently appointed commissioner has called out the US financial regulator’s decision to publish guidance on managers’ fiduciary responsibility to their clients, with a specific focus on their acceptance of recommendations made by proxy firms.

The action follows several conflicts between the SEC and large US proxy voting firms.

A survey of the 2018 voting season, which was carried out by Nasdaq and the US Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Market Competitiveness, outlined numerous issues with proxy advice firms. These included “rampant conflicts of interest”, a “one-size-fits-all approach to voting recommendations” and a “lack of willingness to constructively engage with issuers, particularly small and midsize issuers that are disproportionately impacted by proxy advisory firms”.

The report also cited a “lack of transparency throughout the research and development of voting recommendations” along with “frequent and significant errors in analysis and an unwillingness to address errors”.

However, rather than direct the proxy firms themselves to make changes, the SEC outlined how investment managers should take their directions.

It highlighted that a manager did not have to accept the authority to vote on its client’s behalf, but if it was to do so, it was responsible to carry out due diligence checks on the proxy voting firm that was making recommendations.

These checks would include assessing several of the elements raised by the aforementioned report by Nasdaq.

However, Commissioner Allison Herren Lee, who voted against publishing the guidance, aired her grievances with the move immediately after vote was announced.

“There can be no doubt that investment advisers have and retain important fiduciary duties with respect to proxy voting,” Herren Lee said. “Today’s proxy voting release, however, creates significant risks to the free and full exercise of shareholder voting rights.”

The commissioner was appointed to the SEC in July after a multi-decade-long career in securities law.

“First, it introduces increased costs and time pressure into an already byzantine and highly compressed process,” she said. “Second, it calls for more issuer involvement in the process despite widespread agreement among institutional investors and investment advisers that greater involvement would undermine the reliability and independence of voting recommendations.”

Herren Lee added that although the SEC guidance was not legally binding, the examples it outlined would be seen as something managers “should” do and “a regulated entity ignores such direction at its peril”.

“Today’s release will have the practical effect of enshrining these examples in the policies and procedures of many, if not most, investment advisers and thereby increase costs for both investment advisers and proxy advisory firms,” she concluded.

She added that “significantly” the guidance had been issues without justifying the choices made to the “affected parties and the public, and without weighing the costs and benefits of the chosen course”.

Herren Lee outlined numerous unintended consequences of this quasi-legislation and warned of these knock-on effects to the investment sector.

“We don’t have investment advisers clamouring for advice or certainty on how to meet their fiduciary duties, and we don’t have those who use them—institutional investors—complaining that investment advisers are breaching those duties,” she said.

“So, what exactly are we fixing by calling for increased issuer input and injecting costs into the process? These are the questions we should be asking and answering before we act.”

Last Updated: 30 August 2019
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