The SEC Division of Corporation Finance has announced guidance for companies on the application of the ordinary business exception to the shareholder proposal rule (14a-8(i)(7)):
At issue in many Rule 14a-8(i)(7) no-action requests is whether a proposal that addresses ordinary business matters nonetheless focuses on a policy issue that is sufficiently significant. These determinations often raise difficult judgment calls that the Division believes are in the first instance matters that the board of directors is generally in a better position to determine. A board of directors, acting as steward with fiduciary duties to a company’s shareholders, generally has significant duties of loyalty and care in overseeing management and the strategic direction of the company. A board acting in this capacity and with the knowledge of the company’s business and the implications for a particular proposal on that company’s business is well situated to analyze, determine and explain whether a particular issue is sufficiently significant because the matter transcends ordinary business and would be appropriate for a shareholder vote.
Accordingly, going forward, we would expect a company’s no-action request to include a discussion that reflects the board’s analysis of the particular policy issue raised and its significance. That explanation would be most helpful if it detailed the specific processes employed by the board to ensure that its conclusions are well-informed and well-reasoned. We believe that a well-developed discussion of the board’s analysis of these matters will greatly assist the staff with its review of no-action requests under Rule 14a-8(i)(7).
On the one hand, any suggestion by the SEC staff that it recognizes the primacy of the board of directors is good news. On the other hand, anything that puts more regulatory burdens on board--and thus distracts them from their main jobs--is bad news.
In any case, the new guidance simply does not get to the real problem. As I explain in my article, Revitalizing SEC Rule 14a-8's Ordinary Business Exemption: Preventing Shareholder Micromanagement by Proposal (March 29, 2016), available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2750153:
Who decides what products a company should sell, what prices it should charge, and so on? Is it the board of directors, the top management team, or the shareholders? In large corporations, of course, the answer is the top management team operating under the supervision of the board. As for the shareholders, they traditionally have had no role in these sort of operational decisions. In recent years, however, shareholders have increasingly used SEC Exchange Act Rule 14a-8 (the so-called shareholder proposal rule), to not just manage but even micromanage corporate decisions.
The rule permits a qualifying shareholder of a public corporation registered with the SEC to force the company to include a resolution and supporting statement in the company’s proxy materials for its annual meeting. In theory, Rule 14a-8 contains limits on shareholder micro-management. The rule permits management to exclude proposals on a number of both technical and substantive bases, of which the exclusion in Rule 14a-8(i)(7) of proposals relating to ordinary business operations is the most pertinent for present purposes. Rule 14a-8(i)(7) is intended to permit exclusion of a proposal that “seeks to ‘micro-manage’ the company by probing too deeply into matters of a complex nature upon which shareholders, as a group, would not be in a position to make an informed judgment.”
Unfortunately, court decisions have largely eviscerated the ordinary business operations exclusion. Corporate decisions involving “matters which have significant policy, economic or other implications inherent in them” may not be excluded as ordinary business matters, for example, which creates a gap through which countless proposals have made it onto corporate proxy statements.
This article proposes an alternative standard that is grounded in relevant state corporate law principles, while also being easier to administer than the existing judicial tests. Under it, courts first look to the state law definition of ordinary business matters. The court then determines whether the matter is one of substance rather than procedure. Only proposals passing muster under both standards should be deemed proper.
I recognize that such a change may be beyond the power of Corporation Finance to accomplish via staff interpretation, and may require some more formal action, but surely the staff could get the ball rolling towards a better fix for the problem.