A recent successful effort by a public company to exclude an environmental proposal from its proxy statement may signal a new approach for boards of directors to consider when managing shareholder proposals. Because retailers and consumer products companies routinely receive shareholder proposals on environmental and sustainability issues, similar arguments for exclusion may be persuasive to the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the future.
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On March 20, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted amendments to simplify and modernize disclosure requirements. These amendments implement recommendations from the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and are intended to make disclosures easier to read and navigate and to reduce repetitive and immaterial information.
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Activist investors continue to make liberal use of the SEC’s Rule 14a-8 to submit proposals for inclusion in company proxy statements. One of the most important shareholder trends to emerge from 2018 is the increasing involvement and support of large institutional investors in certain campaigns. Crisis management was one area in particular that institutional investors prioritized and sought disclosure on in 2018.
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The SEC recently proposed or adopted several rules of interest to retailers, particularly those that are publicly traded. They concern (1) final rules modernizing the definition of “smaller reporting company,” (2) final rules implementing the use of Inline eXtensible Business Reporting Language and (3) proposed rules amending the SEC’s whistleblower program.
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In recent years, publicly traded retailers in have experienced a significant uptick in interest from investors focused on Environmental, Social and Governance issues. On April 23, 2018, the Department of Labor released Field Assistance Bulletin 2018-01, which applies to certain retirement plan fiduciaries who make investment and proxy voting decisions that derive from ESG concerns, and may impact investor behavior at public retailers.
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At the end of February, the SEC staff issued a No-Action Letter permitting a company to exclude a shareholder proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(5), often referred to as the economic relevance exception. This could have implications for other retailers seeking to exclude shareholder proposals under the rule in the future.
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