Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Is director independence so important?

The New York Stock Exchange Commission on Corporate Governance has reported.

In autumn 2009, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) formed an independent commission to examine core governance principles in the light of changes that had occurred in governance over the past decade, and to make recommendations which could be widely supported by listed companies, directors and investors. Chaired by Larry W. Sonsini, Chairman of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosat, a US law firm specializing in business and securities law, the commission members represented investors, listed companies, broker-dealers, and governance experts. On 23 September, 2010 the NYSE Euronext (NYX) published the Commission’s final report which identified 10 core principles of corporate governance covering the scope of the board’s authority, management’s responsibility for governance and the relationship between shareholders’ trading activities, voting decisions and governance.

The Commission argued that a board’s fundamental objective is to build long-term sustainable growth in shareholder value, so corporate policies that encourage excessive risk-taking for the sake of short-term increases in stock price are inconsistent with sound corporate governance. Corporate management has a critical role in corporate governance, the Commission concluded, as management has the primary responsibility for creating an environment in which a culture of performance with integrity can flourish.
Consistent with business opinion in many other parts of the world, the Commission felt that while legislation and agency rule-making are important to establish the basic tenets of corporate governance, over-reliance on legislation may not be in the best interests of shareholders, companies or society. The Commission, therefore, called for market-based governance solutions whenever possible.

The 10 core principles outlined by the Commission on Governance were:
1. The Board’s fundamental objective should be to build long-term sustainable growth in shareholder value for the corporation
2. Successful corporate governance depends upon successful management of the company, as management has the primary responsibility for creating a culture of performance with integrity and ethical behaviour
3. Good corporate governance should be integrated with the company’s business strategy and not viewed as simply a compliance obligation
4. Shareholders have a responsibility and long-term economic interest to vote their shares in a reasoned and responsible manner, and should engage in a dialogue with companies thoughtful manner
5. While legislation and agency rule-making are important to establish the basic tenets of corporate governance, corporate governance issues are generally best solved through collaboration and market-based reforms
6. A critical component of good governance is transparency, as well governed companies should ensure that they have appropriate disclosure policies and practices and investors should also be held to appropriate levels of transparency, including disclosure of derivative or other security ownership on a timely basis
7. The Commission supports the NYSE’s listing requirements generally providing for a majority of independent directors, but also believes that companies can have additional non-independent directors so that there is an appropriate range and mix of expertise, diversity and knowledge on the board
8. The Commission recognizes the influence that proxy advisory firms have on the markets, and believes that it is important that such firms be held to appropriate standards of transparency and accountability
9. The SEC should work with exchanges to ease the burden of proxy voting while encouraging greater participation by individual investors in the proxy voting process
10. The SEC and/or the NYSE should periodically assess the impact of major governance reforms to determine if these reforms are achieving their goals, and in light of the many reforms adopted over the last decade the SEC should consider the expanded use of “pilot” programs, including the use of “sunset provisions” to help identify any implementation problems before a program is fully rolled out

Principle #7 has raised some eyebrows in the United States. “While independence is an important attribute for board members”, the Commission said, “boards should seek an appropriate balance between independent and non-independent directors to ensure an appropriate mix of expertise, diversity and knowledge. The NYSE’s Listing Standards do not limit a board to just one non-independent director.”

The US-based Corporate Governance Alliance Digest, December 1, 2010, asked “Is this a good idea? Including more non-independent members on an issuer’s board may be a very hard sell to investors, given the fact that in all markets investors rank board independence as the most important governance topic. Is adding non-independent members an irritant worth creating?”

On the unitary board of a listed company, directors are responsible for both the performance of the enterprise and its conformance. In other words, the board is expected to be involved in strategy formulation and policy making, whilst also supervising management performance and ensuring appropriate accountability and compliance with regulations. It has been suggested that this means the unitary board is effectively trying to mark its own examination papers. Of course, the two-tier board structure avoids this problem by having the executive board responsible for performance and the supervisory board for conformance, with no common membership allowed between the two boards.

Typically, corporate governance codes and stock exchange listing rules call for independent outside (non-executive) directors to play a vital role in the unitary board. Independence is precisely defined to ensure that these directors have no interest in the company that could adversely affect genuine independent and objective judgement. The number or percentage of independent board members on listed company board is usually specified. Audit, remuneration and nomination committees of the board must be mainly or wholly comprised of these independent, outside directors.

The definition of independence in most corporate governance codes is exhaustive. To be considered independent a director must have no relationship with any firm in the up-stream or down-stream added-value chains, must not have previously been an employee of the company, nor be a nominee for a shareholder or any other supplier of finance to the company. Indeed, the definition of independence is so strict that an independent director who has served on the board for a long period is often assumed to have become close to the company and is no longer considered independent.

Herein lays a dilemma. The more independent directors are, the less they are likely to know about the company, its business and its industry. Conversely, the more directors know about the company’s business, organization, strategies, markets, competitors, and technologies, the less independent they become. Yet such people are exactly what top management needs to contribute to its strategy, policy making and enterprise risk assessment.

This argument looks set to run a long way.

Bob Tricker 6 December 2010