Archive for the ‘Combined code’ Tag

UK Corporate Governance Code

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) has issued an updated corporate governance code for UK companies. Formerly known as the Combined Code, the newly issued UK Corporate Governance Code is a response to the financial crisis which caused shock waves around the world.

The FRC traces the roots of the UK Corporate Governance Code to the Cadbury Committee Report (1992) http://www.ecgi.org/codes/documents/cadbury.pdf and its successor reports. They recognise that ‘The Code has been enduring, but it is not immutable. Its fitness for purpose in a permanently changing economic and social business environment requires its evaluation at appropriate intervals’.

The UK Corporate Governance Code (hereafter ‘the Code’) continues to have at its heart the ‘comply or explain’ approach which was introduced in the Cadbury Committee Report. Sir Adrian Cadbury in his seminal book ‘Corporate Governance and Chairmanship, A Personal View’(2002) stated ‘The most obvious consequences of the publication of the 1992 Code of Best Practice was that it put corporate governance on the board agenda. Boards were asked to state in their reports and accounts how far they complied with the Code and to identify and give reasons for areas of non-compliance’. The flexible approach provided by the ‘comply or explain’ approach is a great strength and has been adopted in many countries.

Code structure

The Code has five sections being Section A: Leadership; Section B: Effectiveness; Section C: Accountability; Section D: Remuneration, and Section E: Relations with Shareholders. There is also currently a Schedule in the Code (Schedule C) ‘Engagement Principles for Institutional Shareholders’. This schedule contains three principles: dialogue with companies; evaluation of governance disclosures; and shareholder voting. However it will cease to apply when the Stewardship Code for institutional investors which is being developed by the FRC comes into effect.

Main changes to the Code

The FRC identifies six main changes http://www.frc.org.uk/press/pub2282.html as follows:

(i)     ‘To improve risk management, the company‘s business model should be explained and the board should be responsible for determining the nature and extent of the significant risks it is willing to take.

(ii)    Performance-related pay should be aligned to the long-term interests of the company and its risk policy and systems.

(iii)   To increase accountability, all directors of FTSE 350 companies should be put forward for re-election every year.

(iv)   To promote proper debate in the boardroom, there are new principles on the leadership of the chairman, the responsibility of the non-executive directors to provide constructive challenge, and the time commitment expected of all directors.

(v)    To encourage boards to be well balanced and avoid “group think” there are new principles on the composition and selection of the board, including the need to appoint members on merit, against objective criteria, and with due regard for the benefits of diversity, including gender diversity.

(vi)   To help enhance the board’s performance and awareness of its strengths and weaknesses, the chairman should hold regular development reviews with each director and FTSE 350 companies should have externally facilitated board effectiveness reviews at least every three years.’

Contentious changes?

The changes that seem most likely to be contentious and attract most debate relate to the annual re-election of directors and the move to encourage boards to consider diversity, including gender, in board appointments.

 

Annual re-election of directors

According to Rachel Sanderson and Kate Burgess, in their article ‘Directors must be re-elected annually’ (FT, page 17, 28th May 2010), the annual re-election of directors in FTSE 350 companies is the most controversial aspect of the Code. They state ‘Critics, including the Institute of Directors, have said it will encourage short-termism and be disruptive. Those in favour have said it will make boards more accountable to shareholders’.

The widespread concern about the underperformance of some UK board directors prior to, and during, the recent financial crisis no doubt led to increased support for the idea of the annual re-election of directors.

Diversity

Another potentially contentious change is the fact that boards are now encouraged to consider the benefits of diversity, including gender, to try to ensure a well-balanced board and avoid ‘group think’. Similar provisions may be seen in the German Corporate Governance Code (2009) ‘The Supervisory Board appoints and dismisses the members of the Management Board. When appointing the Management Board, the Supervisory Board shall also respect diversity’ (5.1.2) and the Dutch Code of Corporate Governance (2008) ‘The supervisory board shall aim for a diverse composition in terms of such factors as gender and age (111.3).

The UK has not gone as far as Norway which has, since 2008, enforced a quota of 40% female directors on boards of all publicly listed companies. Similarly Spain introduced an equality law in 2007 requiring companies with 250+ employees to develop gender equality plans which clearly has implications for female appointments to the board.

Whilst it is fair to say that the number of females with experience at board level in large UK companies is relatively limited, non-executive directors can be drawn from a much wider pool including the public sector and voluntary organisations. Their experience can bring new insights to the board, maybe challenging long-accepted views and hence adding value.

Institutional shareholders

As mentioned above, the Code currently contains Schedule C ‘Engagement Principles for Institutional Shareholders’ but this will be withdrawn when the Stewardship Code becomes operational. The Stewardship Code is being developed separately by the FRC and will set out standards of good governance for institutional investors, the FRC hopes to publish it by the end of June 2010.

Andrew Hill in the FT Lombard column (FT, page 18, 28th May 2010) ‘New code sets the high-water mark for governance’ discussed the new Code. He points out that ‘Now it is up to shareholders, encouraged by their own forthcoming stewardship code, to rise to the challenge……the FRC has set a new high watermark for post-crisis governance standards. The test will be whether investors use it responsibly and maintain sensible pressure on boards, as recession turns to recovery and chief executives’ and directors’ risk aversion dissipates’.

Concluding comments

The FRC has produced a robust UK Corporate Governance Code, building on the earlier Codes and retaining the flexibility of the ‘comply or explain’ approach. Future success will be measured by companies following the substance, or spirit of the Code, and not just its form and by institutional shareholders and boards engaging more fully.

The new edition of the Code will apply to financial years beginning on or after 29 June 2010. The Code, and a report explaining the main changes, can be found at: http://www.frc.org.uk/corporate/ukcgcode.cfm

Chris Mallin 28th May 2010

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Risk Management

One of the main areas in corporate governance that has caught the headlines recently is risk management.  There is a widely held perception that in recent years many boards have not managed the risks associated with their businesses well – whether that was because they did not identify the risks fully or whether because having identified the risks, they did not take appropriate action to manage them.

 Review of UK’s Combined Code

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC)’s Review of the UK’s Combined Code published in December 2009 http://www.frc.org.uk/corporate/reviewCombined.cfm states that ‘One of the strongest themes to emerge from the review was the need for boards to take responsibility for assessing the major risks facing the company, agreeing the company’s risk profile and tolerance of risk, and overseeing the risk management systems. There was a view that not all boards had carried out this role adequately and in discussion with the

chairmen of listed companies many agreed that the financial crisis had led their boards to devote more time to consideration of the major risks facing the company.’  The FRC therefore proposes to make the board’s responsibility for risk more explicit in the Code through a new principle and provision.  Moreover it also intends to carry out a limited review of the Turnbull Guidance on internal control during 2010.  

Many companies, and especially those in the financial sector, have already established risk committees whilst other companies especially smaller companies, may combine the consideration of risk with the role and responsibilities of the audit committee.

Alternative investment market

The UK’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM) expanded rapidly during the 12 years following its inception in 1995.  Then from 2007 onwards it went into decline.  David Blackwell, in his article ‘Signs of recovery seen after years of famine’ (FT, page 23, 16th December 2009) states that ‘Hundreds of companies have left the market, the number of flotations has collapsed and fines for Regal Petroleum and others – albeit for regulatory infringements dating back years – have once again sullied the market’s reputation’.  Nonetheless he points out that 2009 saw an improvement with the AIM index rising by 62 per cent over the year compared to a rise of 22 per cent in the FTSE 100. 

The lighter regulatory touch on AIM has both attractions and drawbacks.  On the one hand, companies find it easier to gain a London listing (albeit on AIM rather than the main market); on the other hand, this may bring concomitant risks for investors as they will be investing in companies which may well be riskier than their main market counterparts.

Family firms

Family firms are the dominant form of business in many countries around the world and range from very small businesses to multinational corporations.  Richard Milne in his article ‘Blood ties serve business well during the crisis’ (FT, Page 19, 28th December 2009) points out that the attributes of a typical family business will have stood it in good stead during the recent financial crisis: ‘Long-term thinking, conservative, risk-averse: the very characteristics of the typical family business seem to be the ones needed in the economic crisis of the past two years’.  Given that they tend to be more conservative, family firms will take less risks, for example, by not over extending themselves with their gearing (leverage).

Banks and financial institutions

Many banks and financial institutions were widely criticised because of the perceived overly generous bonuses paid to some executive directors and senior management at a time when the world is suffering the consequences of a global financial crisis precipitated by bankers who did not seem to fully appreciate the risks involved with some of the products they were trading in.  And yet already we see banks again paying out enormous bonuses.  Megan Murphy in her article ‘Tycoon attacks return of bankers’ bonuses’ (FT, Page 3, 28th December 2009) quotes Guy Hands, the private equity tycoon, who is highly critical of these big bonuses and speaks of bankers ‘taking home “wheelbarrows of money” on the back of taxpayers’ support’.  Moreover he is quoted as saying ‘It cannot be right to continue with a system that allows risk to be taken in the knowledge that, if things go right, bankers will take on average 60-80 per cent of the profits generated through compensation and, if they go wrong, shareholders and ultimately the government will pick up the costs’.

Asset managers

Managing risk is, of course, relevant to all parties in the business and financial world as the article by Sophia Grene ‘Managing risk is the main task ahead’ (FTfm, Pg 1, 4thJanuary 2010) illustrates.  In her article, Sophia points out that ‘many financial models failed in the past two years as markets demonstrated they did not behave according to conventional assumptions’ and that ‘the main challenge for asset managers in the coming decade is understanding, managing and communicating risk’.

Concluding comments

Managing risk and managing it well is an important consideration for boards of directors, whether in main market firms, second tier markets, or family firms.  Firms, and especially those in the banking and financial sector, need to pay particular attention to executive director remuneration packages which should not encourage adverse decision-making in terms of the impact on risk, that is, remuneration packages should be designed so that they do not lead to unacceptable risk-taking which may be to the detriment of the long-term sustainability of the company and potentially, as we have already seen, the wider economy.

Please refer to the newly published third edition of my book ‘Corporate Governance’ for updates to various national and international corporate governance codes and guidelines; board committees including risk and ethics committees; the Alternative Investment Market (AIM); family firms; remuneration packages, and the global financial crisis.  

In addition, new material on many other areas including: private equity and sovereign wealth funds; governance in NGOs, public sector/non-profit organisations, and charities; and board diversity.  Many examples, mini case studies and clippings from the Financial Times are included to illustrate the application of corporate governance in the real world.

 Chris Mallin 7th January 2010

Institutional Investors and Corporate Governance Reform

Corporate governance codes and guidelines have long recognised the important role that institutional investors have to play in corporate governance.  As well as being influential in their home countries, institutional investors have increasingly become a more significant force in other countries through their cross-border holdings. Recent corporate governance reforms motivated by the global financial crisis have placed even more emphasis on the role of institutional investors.

Role of Institutional Investors

Back in 1992, the Cadbury Report recognised the role played by institutional investors  stating that ‘we look to the institutions in particular ‘ to use their influence as owners to ensure that the companies in which they have invested comply with the Code’.  Various codes since then have emphasised the importance of the role.  The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) publishes the UK’s Combined Code on Corporate Governance (commonly known as the Combined Code).  The Combined Code (2008), in Section E, identifies three main principles.  Firstly it states that ‘institutional shareholders should enter into a dialogue with companies based on the mutual understanding of objectives’; secondly ‘when evaluating companies’ governance arrangements, particularly those relating to board structure and composition, institutional shareholders should give due weight to all relevant factors drawn to their attention’; thirdly, ‘institutional shareholders have a responsibility to make considered use of their votes http://www.frc.org.uk/corporate/combinedcode.cfm The first and third principles relate to two of the tools of governance being dialogue and voting.  All three principles essentially require institutional investors to behave in a responsible and conscientious way, taking all relevant factors into account and making considered decisions.

Corporate Governance Reform

The UK Treasury commissioned the Walker Review of Corporate Governance of UK Banking Industry which reported in November 2009. The Walker Review recommends ‘strengthening the role of non-executives and giving them new responsibilities to monitor risk and remuneration; it also recommends a stewardship duty on institutional shareholders to play a more active role as owners of businesses.’ http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/walker_review_information.htm  Kate Burgess and Brooke Masters in their article ‘Institutions urged to adopt tougher stance’  (FT, Pg 21, 26th November 2009) states ‘Institutional investors are being urged to be tougher on company boards by Sir David Walker, as the City grandee adds his weight to pressure for them to take their responsibilities more seriously.’

The FRC’s statement welcoming the Walker Report can be found at: http://www.frc.org.uk/press/pub2174.html. The FRC has agreed to implement those recommendations that it considers should apply to all listed companies. In addition the FRC has agreed to consult on adoption of a Stewardship Code for institutional investors as recommended by Sir David.   

A recent review of the Combined Code http://www.frc.org.uk/corporate/reviewCombined.cfm has however recommended that Section E of the Code (addressed to institutional shareholders) be removed, ‘subject to sufficient progress being made on the Stewardship Code for institutional investors and its associated governance arrangements.’  The Stewardship Code for institutional investors as was proposed by Sir David Walker, and is an area on which the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) will be consulting separately http://www.frc.org.uk/corporate/walker.cfm

The final report on the review of the Combined Code (2008) makes various recommendations which include, inter alia, annual re-election of the chairman or the whole board; new principles for the roles of the chairman and non-executive directors.  Kate Burgess in her article ‘Sir Christopher misses out on succession planning’ (Pg 21, FT, 2nd December 2009) highlights that more emphasis should have been put on succession planning in companies as this tends to be a weakness in many firms.  Moreover it would be beneficial to investors in their stewardship role to have more knowledge of the process in place for succession planning.

Stewardship Code

The Institutional Shareholders’ Committee (ISC) membership comprises the Association of British Insurers, the Association of Investment Trust Companies, the National Association of Pension Funds, and the Investment Management Association.  The ISC has previously published guidance on the responsibilities of institutional investors in 2002, 2005 and 2007.  In November 2009, the ISC published its Code on the Responsibilities of Institutional Investors which is included as an Annex in the Walker Review and which is widely viewed as the basis for the Stewardship Code which will be monitored for the adherence of institutional investors on a ‘comply or explain’ basis.  The ISC states that ‘the Code aims to enhance the quality of the dialogue of institutional investors with companies to help improve long-term returns to shareholders, reduce the risk of catastrophic outcomes due to bad strategic decisions, and help with the efficient exercise of governance responsibilities.’ http://www.institutionalshareholderscommittee.org.uk/ The Code discusses the stewardship responsibilities of institutional investors which include effective monitoring of investee companies and voting of all shares held. 

Effective Stewardship

Of course in order to carry out their responsibilities as shareholders, institutional investors need to be able to exercise their rights effectively – if they cannot, then they may be tempted to exit, i.e. to sell their shares.  An article in the Financial Times, ‘Shareholder rights’ (FT, page 12, 30th November 2009) points out that ‘if selling the shares is a blunt instrument, then removing board members is the sharpest.  More than nine in 10 international investors say the ability to nominate, appoint and remove directors is the most valuable shareholder right.  It is wrong that efforts to boost this power in the US have been delayed by the business lobby.’  Clearly it is in the interests of effective stewardship for institutional investors to be able to exercise their rights.  This will enable them to take action on prominent topical issues such as having a ‘say on pay’ in relation to directors’ remuneration, and removing underperforming directors from the board. 

However another dimension to consider is that of free riders.  Ruth Sullivan in her article ‘Walker plan points finger at freeriders’ (FTfm Pg 3, 30th November 2009) points out that some institutional investors will not engage more with their investee companies and be active owners, rather they will save their time and money and free ride on the efforts of other institutional investors. 

Concluding comments

The recent reforms mooted by the Walker Review and the Review of the Combined Code have made recommendations which will help to strengthen corporate governance in the UK.  The role of institutional investors is seen an important one and institutional investors are being encouraged to engage more fully in their role as owners and adhere to the ISC Code of Responsibility for Investors. 

Chris Mallin 2nd December 2009