TCS Daily

Does the SEC Know When Enough Is Enough?

By Stephen Bainbridge - January 8, 2004 12:00 AM

The Securities and Exchange Commission is now considering proposed regulations designed to allow shareholders to nominate directors and, moreover, to require the incumbent directors to place the shareholder's nominee on the company's own proxy statement and ballot, albeit under relatively limited circumstances. At first blush, the regulation strike many people as perfectly reasonable. After all, directors are elected by shareholders, so why shouldn't the shareholders be allowed to nominate directors?

This argument, however, fails to put the SEC proposal in context. The SEC's proposed regulations are just the latest in a continuing string of new corporate governance rules. Taken together, these new rules have significantly increased the regulatory burden on Corporate America. So let's step back and look at the SEC proposal in its proper context: the recent corporate scandals and the government's response.

Good for Government

History teaches that market bubbles are fertile ground for fraud. Cheats abounded during the Dutch tulip bulb mania of the 1630s. The South Sea Company, which was at the center of the English stock market bubble in the early 1700s, itself was a pyramid scheme. No one should have been surprised that fraudsters and cheats were to be found when we started turning over the rocks in the rubble left behind when the stock market bubble burst in 2000.

We all know the litany, of course: accounting scandals at Enron and WorldCom, to cite but two; insider trading at ImClone; alleged looting at Adelphia and Tyco; and so on. New York's attorney general, Elliott Spitzer has brought to light high profile problems calling into question the integrity of both stock market analysts and mutual fund managers.

Corporate scandals are always good news for big government types. After every bubble bursts, going all the way back to the South Sea Bubble, a slew of new laws have been enacted. Why? There is nothing a politician or regulator wants more than to persuade angry investors that he or she is "doing something" and being "aggressive" in rooting out corporate fraud. Look, for example, at how vigorously the SEC is trying to keep up with attorney general Spitzer.

Hence, it was entirely predictable that the shenanigans at Enron, WorldCom et al., coming after several years of steady decline in the stock market, would lead to regulation. Yet, how quickly we forget. Remember what Ronald Reagan said: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

Costs Beginning to Mount

Like a cook who throws spaghetti at the wall to see if it's done, legislators and regulators have been throwing a lot of new rules at corporations to see what sticks: Sarbanes-Oxley, numerous SEC regulations, California's onerous corporate disclosure act, Spitzer's settlement with the analyst community, and countless law suits and indictments. Unlike the cook, who stops when the spaghetti is done, the lawmakers just keep throwing stuff at corporations without stopping to ask whether enough is enough.

The costs of all this regulatory activity are beginning to mount. Some companies, for example, will incur 20,000 staff hours to comply with just one SEC new rule -- a rule the SEC estimated would require only 383 staff hours per firm. According to a study by Foley Lardner, "Senior management of public middle market companies expect costs directly associated with being public to increase by almost 100% as a result of corporate governance compliance and increased disclosure as a result of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX), new SEC regulations and changes to [stock] exchange listing requirements."

If adopted, the SEC's shareholder access proposal would significantly add to that regulatory burden. A review of contests in the late 1980s found that insurgents spent an average of $1.8 million and incumbents an average of $4.4 million. Those costs are almost certainly much higher today, but let's use them as a baseline. Assume that a company faces a shareholder nominee every three years. Assume further that a shareholder nomination contest costs one-third what a full proxy contest costs. On those assumptions, each public corporation would face annualized costs of about $500,000. Using the 10,000 actively traded U.S. companies in the Compustat database as a proxy for the number of companies potentially subject to the rule, we can estimate an aggregate annual cost of $5 billion. Of course, I may be overestimating the number of contests and the cost of each contest. Remember two things, however: (1) I'm using 1980s era cost estimates and (2) the SEC grossly underestimated the cost of complying with Sarbanes-Oxley.

A more conservative estimate might use data about shareholder proposals under current SEC regulations. According to the SEC's own figures, the cost per company of including a shareholder proposal in the proxy statement is $87,000. ISS tracked 1,042 shareholder proposals at public corporations during the 2003 proxy season, which gives us total corporate expenditures on shareholder proposals of $90,654,000.

Either way, there can be no doubt that giving shareholders access to the proxy statement to nominate directors is going to be expensive. Plus there are all the indirect costs. Companies are already having a hard time attracting independent directors. The shareholder access proposal likely will make that search even harder. Why would somebody be willing to serve on the board if he or she might be the one singled out to be ousted?

Disrupting Successful Boards

The election of a shareholder representative also will disrupt the delicate internal dynamics that make boards successful. Its effect will be analogous to that of cumulative voting, which allows minority shareholders representation on the board. Experience with cumulative voting suggests that it often leads to pre-meeting caucuses by the majority and a reduction in information flows to the board as a whole. In turn, this results in adversarial relations between the majority and minority board members, which interferes with effective board governance.

Is it clear that the benefits of shareholder access will exceed these costs? Why, for example, should you and I have to subsidize some activist or gadfly who wants some free publicity?

If the SEC could figure out a way to limit the proposal to situations in which the board is clearly dysfunctional, these concerns might less important. The problem is that the SEC rules apply to all public corporations, whether their internal governance is good, bad, or just indifferent. As currently drafted, a shareholder would be allowed to put its nominee on the corporation's proxy if one of two triggering events occurred:

· A shareholder puts forward a proposal to authorize shareholder nominations, which is then approved by the holders of a majority of the outstanding shares; or

ยท Shareholders representing at least 35% of the votes withhold authority on their proxy cards for their shares to be voted in favor of any director nominated by the incumbent board of directors.

Nothing in either trigger limits the rule to the Enrons of the world. If enough shareholders are disgruntled, for whatever reason, they can force a vote. This makes no sense. The point of all these reforms, supposedly, is to restore investor confidence by ensuring good corporate governance. But if firms are well-managed why put them to the expense and bother of a shareholder nomination contest?

Just as a good cook eventually stops throwing spaghetti at the wall, it is time for the regulators to stop, take a deep breath, and stop throwing new reforms at Corporate America. Let's wait and see how the first couple of rounds of reform play out before imposing yet more burdens on corporations in our still precarious economic environment.

Stephen M. Bainbridge is a professor of corporate law at the UCLA School of Law and the editor of, a corporate law and governance weblog.


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