EX-99.US.CORP.GOV 6 d833629dex99uscorpgov.htm CORPORATE GOVERNANCE AND PROXY VOTING GUIDELINES FOR U.S. SECURITIES Corporate Governance and Proxy Voting Guidelines for U.S. Securities

BlackRock

Investment

Stewardship

Corporate governance and proxy voting

guidelines for U.S. securities

January 2020

 

 

LOGO


Contents

Introduction

     3  

Voting guidelines

     3  

Boards and directors

     3  

Auditors and audit-related issues

     8  

Capital structure proposals

     9  

Mergers, asset sales, and other special transactions

     10  

Executive Compensation

     10  

Environmental and social issues

     13  

General corporate governance matters

     14  

Shareholder Protections

     16  

If you would like additional information, please contact:

ContactStewardship@blackrock.com

 

BLACKROCK


These guidelines should be read in conjunction with the BlackRock Investment Stewardship Global Corporate Governance Guidelines & Engagement Principles.

Introduction

BlackRock, Inc. and its subsidiaries (collectively, “BlackRock”) seek to make proxy voting decisions in the manner most likely to protect and enhance the economic value of the securities held in client accounts. The following issue-specific proxy voting guidelines (the “Guidelines”) are intended to summarize BlackRock Investment Stewardship’s general philosophy and approach to corporate governance issues that most commonly arise in proxy voting for U.S. securities. These Guidelines are not intended to limit the analysis of individual issues at specific companies and are not intended to provide a guide to how BlackRock will vote in every instance. Rather, they share our view about corporate governance issues generally, and provide insight into how we typically approach issues that commonly arise on corporate ballots, as well as our expectations of boards of directors. They are applied with discretion, taking into consideration the range of issues and facts specific to the company and the individual ballot item.

Voting guidelines

These guidelines are divided into eight key themes which group together the issues that frequently appear on the agenda of annual and extraordinary meetings of shareholders:

 

 

Boards and directors

 

 

Auditors and audit-related issues

 

 

Capital structure

 

 

Mergers, asset sales, and other special transactions

 

 

Executive compensation

 

 

Environmental and social issues

 

 

General corporate governance matters

 

 

Shareholder protections

Boards and directors

Director elections

In general, BlackRock supports the election of directors as recommended by the board in uncontested elections. However, we believe that when a company is not effectively addressing a material issue, its directors should be held accountable. We may withhold votes from directors or members of particular board committees in certain situations, as indicated below.

Independence

We expect a majority of the directors on the board to be independent. In addition, all members of key committees, including audit, compensation, and nominating / governance committees, should be independent. Our view of independence may vary slightly from listing standards.

In particular, common impediments to independence in the U.S. may include:

 

 

Employment as a senior executive by the company or a subsidiary within the past five years

 

 

An equity ownership in the company in excess of 20%

 

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Having any other interest, business, or relationship which could, or could reasonably be perceived to, materially interfere with the director’s ability to act in the best interests of the company

We may vote against directors serving on key committees that we do not consider to be independent.

When evaluating controlled companies, as defined by the U.S. stock exchanges, we will only vote against insiders or affiliates who sit on the audit committee, but not other key committees.

Oversight

We expect the board to exercise appropriate oversight over management and business activities of the company. We will consider voting against committee members and / or individual directors in the following circumstances:

 

 

Where the board has failed to exercise oversight with regard to accounting practices or audit oversight, we will consider voting against the current audit committee, and any other members of the board who may be responsible. For example, this may apply to members of the audit committee during a period when the board failed to facilitate quality, independent auditing if substantial accounting irregularities suggest insufficient oversight by that committee

 

 

Members of the compensation committee during a period in which executive compensation appears excessive relative to performance and peers, and where we believe the compensation committee has not already substantially addressed this issue

 

 

The chair of the nominating / governance committee, or where no chair exists, the nominating / governance committee member with the longest tenure, where the board is not comprised of a majority of independent directors. However, this would not apply in the case of a controlled company

 

 

Where it appears the director has acted (at the company or at other companies) in a manner that compromises his / her reliability to represent the best long-term economic interests of shareholders

 

 

Where a director has a pattern of poor attendance at combined board and applicable key committee meetings. Excluding exigent circumstances, BlackRock generally considers attendance at less than 75% of the combined board and applicable key committee meetings by a board member to be poor attendance

 

 

Where a director serves on an excess number of boards, which may limit his / her capacity to focus on each board’s requirements. The following illustrates the maximum number of boards on which a director may serve, before he / she is considered to be over-committed:

 

    

 

    Public Company CEO    

 

  

 

    # Outside Public Boards*    

 

  

 

    Total # of Public Boards    

 

       

Director A

      1    2
       

Director B

        3    4

*In addition to the company under review

Responsiveness to shareholders

We expect a board to be engaged and responsive to its shareholders. Where we believe a board has not substantially addressed shareholder concerns, we may vote against the appropriate committees and / or individual directors. The following illustrates common circumstances:

 

 

The independent chair or lead independent director, members of the nominating / governance committee, and / or the longest tenured director(s), where we observe a lack of board responsiveness to shareholders, evidence of board entrenchment, and / or failure to promote adequate board succession planning

 

 

The chair of the nominating / governance committee, or where no chair exists, the nominating / governance committee member with the longest tenure, where board member(s) at the most recent election of directors have

 

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received withhold votes from more than 30% of shares voted and the board has not taken appropriate action to respond to shareholder concerns. This may not apply in cases where BlackRock did not support the initial withhold vote

 

 

The independent chair or lead independent director and / or members of the nominating / governance committee, where a board fails to implement shareholder proposals that receive a majority of votes cast at a prior shareholder meeting, and the proposals, in our view, have a direct and substantial impact on shareholders’ fundamental rights or long-term economic interests

Shareholder rights

We expect a board to act with integrity and to uphold governance best practices. Where we believe a board has not acted in the best interests of its shareholders, we may vote against the appropriate committees and / or individual directors. The following illustrates common circumstances:

 

 

The independent chair or lead independent director and members of the governance committee, where a board implements or renews a poison pill without shareholder approval

 

 

The independent chair or lead independent director and members of the governance committee, where a board amends the charter / articles / bylaws such that the effect may be to entrench directors or to significantly reduce shareholder rights

 

 

Members of the compensation committee where the company has repriced options without shareholder approval

 

 

If a board maintains a classified structure, it is possible that the director(s) with whom we have a particular concern may not be subject to election in the year that the concern arises. In such situations, if we have a concern regarding a committee or committee chair that is not up for re-election, we will generally register our concern by withholding votes from all available members of the relevant committee

Board composition and effectiveness

We encourage boards to periodically renew their membership to ensure relevant skills and experience within the boardroom. To this end, regular performance reviews and skills assessments should be conducted by the nominating / governance committee.

Furthermore, we expect boards to be comprised of a diverse selection of individuals who bring their personal and professional experiences to bear in order to create a constructive debate of competing views and opinions in the boardroom. We recognize that diversity has multiple dimensions. In identifying potential candidates, boards should take into consideration the full breadth of diversity including personal factors, such as gender, ethnicity, and age; as well as professional characteristics, such as a director’s industry, area of expertise, and geographic location. In addition to other elements of diversity, we encourage companies to have at least two women directors on their board. Our publicly available commentary explains our approach to engaging on board diversity.

We encourage boards to disclose their views on:

 

 

The mix of competencies, experience, and other qualities required to effectively oversee and guide management in light of the stated long-term strategy of the company

 

 

The process by which candidates are identified and selected, including whether professional firms or other sources outside of incumbent directors’ networks have been engaged to identify and / or assess candidates

 

 

The process by which boards evaluate themselves and any significant outcomes of the evaluation process, without divulging inappropriate and / or sensitive details

 

 

The consideration given to board diversity, including, but not limited to, gender, ethnicity, race, age, experience, geographic location, skills, and perspective in the nomination process

 

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While we support regular board refreshment, we are not opposed in principle to long-tenured directors, nor do we believe that long board tenure is necessarily an impediment to director independence. A variety of director tenures within the boardroom can be beneficial to ensure board quality and continuity of experience.

Our primary concern is that board members are able to contribute effectively as corporate strategy evolves and business conditions change, and that all directors, regardless of tenure, demonstrate appropriate responsiveness to shareholders. We acknowledge that no single person can be expected to bring all relevant skill sets to a board; at the same time, we generally do not believe it is necessary or appropriate to have any particular director on the board solely by virtue of a singular background or specific area of expertise.

Where boards find that age limits or term limits are the most efficient and objective mechanism for ensuring periodic board refreshment, we generally defer to the board’s determination in setting such limits.

To the extent that we believe that a company has not adequately accounted for diversity in its board composition within a reasonable timeframe, we may vote against the nominating / governance committee for an apparent lack of commitment to board effectiveness.

Board size

We typically defer to the board in setting the appropriate size and believe directors are generally in the best position to assess the optimal board size to ensure effectiveness. However, we may oppose boards that appear too small to allow for effective shareholder representation or too large to function efficiently.

CEO and management succession planning

There should be a robust CEO and senior management succession plan in place at the board level that is reviewed and updated on a regular basis. We expect succession planning to cover both long-term planning consistent with the strategic direction of the company and identified leadership needs over time, as well as short-term planning in the event of an unanticipated executive departure. We encourage the company to explain its executive succession planning process, including where accountability lies within the boardroom for this task, without prematurely divulging sensitive information commonly associated with this exercise.

Classified board of directors / staggered terms

We believe that directors should be re-elected annually and that classification of the board generally limits shareholders’ rights to regularly evaluate a board’s performance and select directors. While we will typically support proposals requesting board de-classification, we may make exceptions, should the board articulate an appropriate strategic rationale for a classified board structure, such as when a company needs consistency and stability during a time of transition, e.g. newly public companies or companies undergoing a strategic restructuring. A classified board structure may also be justified at non-operating companies, e.g. closed-end funds or business development companies (BDC)1, in certain circumstances. We would, however, expect boards with a classified structure to periodically review the rationale for such structure and consider when annual elections might be appropriate.

Without a voting mechanism to immediately address concerns of a specific director, we may choose to vote against or withhold votes from the available slate of directors by default (see “Shareholder rights” for additional detail).

Contested director elections

The details of contested elections, or proxy contests, are assessed on a case-by-case basis. We evaluate a number of factors, which may include: the qualifications of the dissident and management candidates; the validity of the concerns identified by the dissident; the viability of both the dissident’s and management’s plans; the likelihood that the dissident’s

 

 

1A business development company (BDC) is a special investment vehicle under the Investment Company Act of 1940 that is designed to facilitate capital formation for small and middle-market companies.

 

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solutions will produce the desired change; and whether the dissident represents the best option for enhancing long-term shareholder value.

Cumulative voting

We believe that a majority vote standard is in the best long-term interest of shareholders. It ensures director accountability via the requirement to be elected by more than half of the votes cast. As such, we will generally oppose proposals requesting the adoption of cumulative voting, which may disproportionately aggregate votes on certain issues or director candidates.

Director compensation and equity programs

We believe that compensation for directors should be structured to attract and retain the best possible directors, while also aligning their interests with those of shareholders. We believe director compensation packages that are based on the company’s long-term value creation and include some form of long-term equity compensation are more likely to meet this goal. In addition, we expect directors to build meaningful share ownership over time.

Majority vote requirements

BlackRock believes that directors should generally be elected by a majority of the shares voted and will normally support proposals seeking to introduce bylaws requiring a majority vote standard for director elections. Majority voting standards assist in ensuring that directors who are not broadly supported by shareholders are not elected to serve as their representatives. Some companies with a plurality voting standard have adopted a resignation policy for directors who do not receive support from at least a majority of votes cast. Where we believe that the company already has a sufficiently robust majority voting process in place, we may not support a shareholder proposal seeking an alternative mechanism.

Risk oversight

Companies should have an established process for identifying, monitoring, and managing key risks. Independent directors should have ready access to relevant management information and outside advice, as appropriate, to ensure they can properly oversee risk management. We encourage companies to provide transparency around risk measurement, mitigation, and reporting to the board. We are particularly interested in understanding how risk oversight processes evolve in response to changes in corporate strategy and / or shifts in the business and related risk environment. Comprehensive disclosure provides investors with a sense of the company’s long-term operational risk management practices and, more broadly, the quality of the board’s oversight. In the absence of robust disclosures, we may reasonably conclude that companies are not adequately managing risk.

Separation of chairman and CEO

We believe that independent leadership is important in the boardroom. In the U.S. there are two commonly accepted structures for independent board leadership: 1) an independent chairman; or 2) a lead independent director when the roles of chairman and CEO are combined.

In the absence of a significant governance concern, we defer to boards to designate the most appropriate leadership structure to ensure adequate balance and independence.

In the event that the board chooses a combined chair / CEO model, we generally support the designation of a lead independent director if they have the power to: 1) provide formal input into board meeting agendas; 2) call meetings of the independent directors; and 3) preside at meetings of independent directors. Furthermore, while we anticipate that most directors will be elected annually, we believe an element of continuity is important for this role for an extended period of time to provide appropriate leadership balance to the chair / CEO.

 

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The following table illustrates examples of responsibilities under each board leadership model:

 

     Combined Chair / CEO Model    Separate Chair Model
     Chair / CEO    Lead Director    Chair
       
Board Meetings            Authority to call full meetings of the board of directors   

Attends full meetings of the board of directors

 

Authority to call meetings of independent directors

 

Briefs CEO on issues arising from executive sessions

   Authority to call full meetings of the board of directors
       
Agenda    Primary responsibility for shaping board agendas, consulting with the lead director    Collaborates with chair / CEO to set board agenda and board information    Primary responsibility for shaping board agendas, in conjunction with CEO
       
Board Communications    Communicates with all directors on key issues and concerns outside of full board meetings    Facilitates discussion among independent directors on key issues and concerns outside of full board meetings, including contributing to the oversight of CEO and management succession planning    Facilitates discussion among independent directors on key issues and concerns outside of full board meetings, including contributing to the oversight of CEO and management succession planning

Auditors and audit-related issues

BlackRock recognizes the critical importance of financial statements to provide a complete and accurate portrayal of a company’s financial condition. Consistent with our approach to voting on boards of directors, we seek to hold the audit committee of the board responsible for overseeing the management of the audit function at a company, and may withhold votes from the audit committee members where the board has failed to facilitate quality, independent auditing. We look to the audit committee report for insight into the scope of the audit committee responsibilities, including an overview of audit committee processes, issues on the audit committee agenda, and key decisions taken by the audit committee. We take particular note of cases involving significant financial restatements or material weakness disclosures, and we expect timely disclosure and remediation of accounting irregularities.

The integrity of financial statements depends on the auditor effectively fulfilling its role. To that end, we favor an independent auditor. In addition, to the extent that an auditor fails to reasonably identify and address issues that eventually lead to a significant financial restatement, or the audit firm has violated standards of practice that protect the interests of shareholders, we may also vote against ratification.

From time to time, shareholder proposals may be presented to promote auditor independence or the rotation of audit firms. We may support these proposals when they are consistent with our views as described above.

 

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Capital structure proposals

Equal voting rights

BlackRock believes that shareholders should be entitled to voting rights in proportion to their economic interests. We believe that companies that look to add or already have dual or multiple class share structures should review these structures on a regular basis or as company circumstances change. Companies should receive shareholder approval of their capital structure on a periodic basis via a management proposal on the company’s proxy. The proposal should give unaffiliated shareholders the opportunity to affirm the current structure or establish mechanisms to end or phase out controlling structures at the appropriate time, while minimizing costs to shareholders.

Blank check preferred stock

We frequently oppose proposals requesting authorization of a class of preferred stock with unspecified voting, conversion, dividend distribution, and other rights (“blank check” preferred stock) because they may serve as a transfer of authority from shareholders to the board and as a possible entrenchment device. We generally view the board’s discretion to establish voting rights on a when-issued basis as a potential anti-takeover device, as it affords the board the ability to place a block of stock with an investor sympathetic to management, thereby foiling a takeover bid without a shareholder vote.

Nonetheless, we may support the proposal where the company:

 

 

Appears to have a legitimate financing motive for requesting blank check authority

 

 

Has committed publicly that blank check preferred shares will not be used for anti-takeover purposes

 

 

Has a history of using blank check preferred stock for financings

 

 

Has blank check preferred stock previously outstanding such that an increase would not necessarily provide further anti-takeover protection but may provide greater financing flexibility

Increase in authorized common shares

BlackRock considers industry-specific norms in our analysis of these proposals, as well as a company’s history with respect to the use of its common shares. Generally, we are predisposed to support a company if the board believes additional common shares are necessary to carry out the firm’s business. The most substantial concern we might have with an increase is the possibility of use of common shares to fund a poison pill plan that is not in the economic interests of shareholders.

Increase or issuance of preferred stock

We generally support proposals to increase or issue preferred stock in cases where the company specifies the voting, dividend, conversion, and other rights of such stock where the terms of the preferred stock appear reasonable.

Stock splits

We generally support stock splits that are not likely to negatively affect the ability to trade shares or the economic value of a share. We generally support reverse stock splits that are designed to avoid delisting or to facilitate trading in the stock, where the reverse split will not have a negative impact on share value (e.g. one class is reduced while others remain at pre-split levels). In the event of a proposal for a reverse split that would not also proportionately reduce the company’s authorized stock, we apply the same analysis we would use for a proposal to increase authorized stock.

 

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Mergers, asset sales, and other special transactions

BlackRock’s primary concern is the best long-term economic interests of shareholders. While merger, asset sales, and other special transaction proposals vary widely in scope and substance, we closely examine certain salient features in our analyses, such as:

 

 

The degree to which the proposed transaction represents a premium to the company’s trading price. We consider the share price over multiple time periods prior to the date of the merger announcement. In most cases, business combinations should provide a premium. We may consider comparable transaction analyses provided by the parties’ financial advisors and our own valuation assessments. For companies facing insolvency or bankruptcy, a premium may not apply

 

 

There should be clear strategic, operational, and / or financial rationale for the combination

 

 

Unanimous board approval and arm’s-length negotiations are preferred. We will consider whether the transaction involves a dissenting board or does not appear to be the result of an arm’s-length bidding process. We may also consider whether executive and / or board members’ financial interests in a given transaction appear likely to affect their ability to place shareholders’ interests before their own

 

 

We prefer transaction proposals that include the fairness opinion of a reputable financial advisor assessing the value of the transaction to shareholders in comparison to recent similar transactions

Poison pill plans

Where a poison pill is put to a shareholder vote by management, our policy is to examine these plans individually. Although we oppose most plans, we may support plans that include a reasonable “qualifying offer clause.” Such clauses typically require shareholder ratification of the pill and stipulate a sunset provision whereby the pill expires unless it is renewed. These clauses also tend to specify that an all cash bid for all shares that includes a fairness opinion and evidence of financing does not trigger the pill, but forces either a special meeting at which the offer is put to a shareholder vote, or the board to seek the written consent of shareholders where shareholders could rescind the pill at their discretion. We may also support a pill where it is the only effective method for protecting tax or other economic benefits that may be associated with limiting the ownership changes of individual shareholders.

We generally vote in favor of shareholder proposals to rescind poison pills.

Reimbursement of expenses for successful shareholder campaigns

We generally do not support shareholder proposals seeking the reimbursement of proxy contest expenses, even in situations where we support the shareholder campaign. We believe that introducing the possibility of such reimbursement may incentivize disruptive and unnecessary shareholder campaigns.

Executive Compensation

We note that there are both management and shareholder proposals related to executive compensation. We generally vote on these proposals as described below, except that we typically oppose shareholder proposals on issues where the company already has a reasonable policy in place that we believe is sufficient to address the issue. We may also oppose a shareholder proposal regarding executive compensation if the company’s history suggests that the issue raised is not likely to present a problem for that company.

Advisory resolutions on executive compensation (“Say on Pay”)

In cases where there is a Say on Pay vote, BlackRock will respond to the proposal as informed by our evaluation of compensation practices at that particular company and in a manner that appropriately addresses the specific question

 

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posed to shareholders. In a commentary on our website, entitled “BlackRock Investment Stewardship’s approach to executive compensation,” we explain our beliefs and expectations related to executive compensation practices, our Say on Pay analysis framework, and our typical approach to engagement and voting on Say on Pay.

Advisory votes on the frequency of Say on Pay resolutions

BlackRock will generally support triennial pay frequency votes, but we defer to the board to determine the appropriate timeframe upon which pay should be reviewed. In evaluating pay, we believe that the compensation committee is responsible for constructing a plan that appropriately incentivizes executives for long-term value creation, utilizing relevant metrics and structure to ensure overall pay and performance alignment. In a similar vein, we defer to the board to establish the most appropriate timeframe for review of pay structure, absent a change in strategy that would suggest otherwise.

However, we may support an annual pay frequency vote in some situations, for example, where we conclude that a company has failed to align pay with performance. In these circumstances, we will also consider voting against the compensation committee members.

Claw back proposals

We generally favor recoupment from any senior executive whose compensation was based on faulty financial reporting or deceptive business practices. In addition to fraudulent acts, we also favor recoupment from any senior executive whose behavior caused direct financial harm to shareholders, reputational risk to the company, or resulted in a criminal investigation, even if such actions did not ultimately result in a material restatement of past results. This includes, but is not limited to, settlement agreements arising from such behavior and paid for directly by the company. We typically support shareholder proposals on these matters unless the company already has a robust claw back policy that sufficiently addresses our concerns.

Employee stock purchase plans

We believe these plans can provide performance incentives and help align employees’ interests with those of shareholders. The most common form of employee stock purchase plan (“ESPP”) qualifies for favorable tax treatment under Section 423 of the Internal Revenue Code. We will typically support qualified ESPP proposals.

Equity compensation plans

BlackRock supports equity plans that align the economic interests of directors, managers, and other employees with those of shareholders. We believe that boards should establish policies prohibiting the use of equity awards in a manner that could disrupt the intended alignment with shareholder interests (e.g. the use of stock as collateral for a loan; the use of stock in a margin account; the use of stock [or an unvested award] in hedging or derivative transactions). We may support shareholder proposals requesting the establishment of such policies.

Our evaluation of equity compensation plans is based on a company’s executive pay and performance relative to peers and whether the plan plays a significant role in a pay-for-performance disconnect. We generally oppose plans that contain “evergreen” provisions, which allow for the unlimited increase of shares reserved without requiring further shareholder approval after a reasonable time period. We also generally oppose plans that allow for repricing without shareholder approval. We may also oppose plans that provide for the acceleration of vesting of equity awards even in situations where an actual change of control may not occur. We encourage companies to structure their change of control provisions to require the termination of the covered employee before acceleration or special payments are triggered.

Golden parachutes

We generally view golden parachutes as encouragement to management to consider transactions that might be beneficial to shareholders. However, a large potential pay-out under a golden parachute arrangement also presents the risk of motivating a management team to support a sub-optimal sale price for a company.

 

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When determining whether to support or oppose an advisory vote on a golden parachute plan, we normally support the plan unless it appears to result in payments that are excessive or detrimental to shareholders. In evaluating golden parachute plans, BlackRock may consider several factors, including:

 

 

Whether we believe that the triggering event is in the best interest of shareholders

 

 

Whether management attempted to maximize shareholder value in the triggering event

 

 

The percentage of total premium or transaction value that will be transferred to the management team, rather than shareholders, as a result of the golden parachute payment

 

 

Whether excessively large excise tax gross-up payments are part of the pay-out

 

 

Whether the pay package that serves as the basis for calculating the golden parachute payment was reasonable in light of performance and peers

 

 

Whether the golden parachute payment will have the effect of rewarding a management team that has failed to effectively manage the company

It may be difficult to anticipate the results of a plan until after it has been triggered; as a result, BlackRock may vote against a golden parachute proposal even if the golden parachute plan under review was approved by shareholders when it was implemented.

We may support shareholder proposals requesting that implementation of such arrangements require shareholder approval. We generally support proposals requiring shareholder approval of plans that exceed 2.99 times an executive’s current salary and bonus, including equity compensation.

Option exchanges

We believe that there may be legitimate instances where underwater options create an overhang on a company’s capital structure and a repricing or option exchange may be warranted. We will evaluate these instances on a case-by-case basis. BlackRock may support a request to reprice or exchange underwater options under the following circumstances:

 

 

The company has experienced significant stock price decline as a result of macroeconomic trends, not individual company performance

 

 

Directors and executive officers are excluded; the exchange is value neutral or value creative to shareholders; tax, accounting, and other technical considerations have been fully contemplated

 

 

There is clear evidence that absent repricing, the company will suffer serious employee incentive or retention and recruiting problems

BlackRock may also support a request to exchange underwater options in other circumstances, if we determine that the exchange is in the best interest of shareholders.

Pay-for-Performance plans

In order for executive compensation exceeding $1 million USD to qualify for federal tax deductions, related to Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (“OBRA”) requires companies to link compensation for the company’s top five executives to disclosed performance goals and submit the plans for shareholder approval. The law further requires that a compensation committee comprised solely of outside directors administer these plans. Because the primary objective of these proposals is to preserve the deductibility of such compensation, we generally favor approval in order to preserve net income.

 

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Supplemental executive retirement plans

BlackRock may support shareholder proposals requesting to put extraordinary benefits contained in Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans (“SERP”) agreements to a shareholder vote unless the company’s executive pension plans do not contain excessive benefits beyond what is offered under employee-wide plans.

Environmental and social issues

Our fiduciary duty to clients is to protect and enhance their economic interest in the companies in which we invest on their behalf. It is within this context that we undertake our corporate governance activities. We believe that well-managed companies will deal effectively with the material environmental and social (“E&S”) factors relevant to their businesses. Robust disclosure is essential for investors to effectively gauge companies’ business practices and planning related to E&S risks and opportunities.

BlackRock expects companies to issue reports aligned with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and the standards put forward by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB). We view the SASB and TCFD frameworks as complementary in achieving the goal of disclosing more financially material information, particularly as it relates to industry-specific metrics and target setting. TCFD’s recommendations provide an overarching framework for disclosure on the business implications of climate change, and potentially other E&S factors. We find SASB’s industry-specific guidance (as identified in its materiality map) beneficial in helping companies identify and discuss their governance, risk assessments, and performance against these key performance indicators (KPIs). Any global standards adopted, peer group benchmarking undertaken, and verification process in place should also be disclosed and discussed in this context.

BlackRock has been engaging with companies for several years on disclosure of material E&S factors. Given the increased understanding of sustainability risks and opportunities, and the need for better information to assess them, we specifically ask companies to:

 

  1)

Publish disclosures in line with industry specific SASB guidelines by year-end, if they have not already done so, or disclose a similar set of data in a way that is relevant to their particular business; and

 

  2)

Disclose climate-related risks in line with the TCFD’s recommendations, if they have not already done so. This should include the company’s plan for operating under a scenario where the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees is fully realized, as expressed by the TCFD guidelines.

See our commentary on our approach to engagement on TCFD and SASB aligned reporting for greater detail of our expectations.

We will use these disclosures and our engagements to ascertain whether companies are properly managing and overseeing these risks within their business and adequately planning for the future. In the absence of robust disclosures, investors, including BlackRock, will increasingly conclude that companies are not adequately managing risk.

We believe that when a company is not effectively addressing a material issue, its directors should be held accountable. We will generally engage directly with the board or management of a company when we identify issues. We may vote against the election of directors where we have concerns that a company might not be dealing with E&S factors appropriately. Sometimes we may reflect such concerns by supporting a shareholder proposal on the issue, where there seems to be either a significant potential threat or realized harm to shareholders’ interests caused by poor management of material E&S factors. In deciding our course of action, we will assess the nature of our engagement with the company on the issue over time, including whether:

 

 

The company has already taken sufficient steps to address the concern

 

 

The company is in the process of actively implementing a response

 

 

There is a clear and material economic disadvantage to the company in the near-term if the issue is not addressed in the manner requested by the shareholder proposal

 

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We do not see it as our role to make social, ethical, or political judgments on behalf of clients, but rather, to protect their long-term economic interests as shareholders. We expect investee companies to comply, at a minimum, with the laws and regulations of the jurisdictions in which they operate. They should explain how they manage situations where such laws or regulations are contradictory or ambiguous.

Climate risk

Within the framework laid out above, as well as our guidance on “How BlackRock Investment Stewardship engages on climate risk,” we believe that climate presents significant investment risks and opportunities that may impact the long-term financial sustainability of companies. We believe that the reporting frameworks developed by TCFD and SASB provide useful guidance to companies on identifying, managing, and reporting on climate-related risks and opportunities.

We expect companies to help their investors understand how the company may be impacted by climate risk, in the context of its ability to realize a long-term strategy and generate value over time. We expect companies to convey their governance around this issue through their corporate disclosures aligned with TCFD and SASB. For companies in sectors that are significantly exposed to climate-related risk, we expect the whole board to have demonstrable fluency in how climate risk affects the business and how management approaches assessing, adapting to, and mitigating that risk.

Where a company receives a shareholder proposal related to climate risk, in addition to the factors laid out above, our assessment will take into account the robustness of the company’s existing disclosures as well as our understanding of its management of the issues as revealed through our engagements with the company and board members over time. In certain instances, we may disagree with the details of a climate-related shareholder proposal but agree that the company in question has not made sufficient progress on climate-related disclosures. In these instances, we may not support the proposal, but may vote against the election of relevant directors.

Corporate political activities

Companies may engage in certain political activities, within legal and regulatory limits, in order to influence public policy consistent with the companies’ values and strategies, and thus serve shareholders’ best long-term economic interests. These activities can create risks, including: the potential for allegations of corruption; the potential for reputational issues associated with a candidate, party, or issue; and risks that arise from the complex legal, regulatory, and compliance considerations associated with corporate political activity. We believe that companies which choose to engage in political activities should develop and maintain robust processes to guide these activities and to mitigate risks, including a level of board oversight.

When presented with shareholder proposals requesting increased disclosure on corporate political activities, we may consider the political activities of that company and its peers, the existing level of disclosure, and our view regarding the associated risks. We generally believe that it is the duty of boards and management to determine the appropriate level of disclosure of all types of corporate activity, and we are generally not supportive of proposals that are overly prescriptive in nature. We may decide to support a shareholder proposal requesting additional reporting of corporate political activities where there seems to be either a significant potential threat or actual harm to shareholders’ interests, and where we believe the company has not already provided shareholders with sufficient information to assess the company’s management of the risk.

Finally, we believe that it is not the role of shareholders to suggest or approve corporate political activities; therefore we generally do not support proposals requesting a shareholder vote on political activities or expenditures.

General corporate governance matters

Adjourn meeting to solicit additional votes

We generally support such proposals unless the agenda contains items that we judge to be detrimental to shareholders’ best long-term economic interests.

 

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Bundled proposals

We believe that shareholders should have the opportunity to review substantial governance changes individually without having to accept bundled proposals. Where several measures are grouped into one proposal, BlackRock may reject certain positive changes when linked with proposals that generally contradict or impede the rights and economic interests of shareholders.

Exclusive forum provisions

BlackRock generally supports proposals to seek exclusive forum for certain shareholder litigation. In cases where a board unilaterally adopts exclusive forum provisions that we consider unfavorable to the interests of shareholders, we will vote against the independent chair or lead independent director and members of the governance committee.

Multi-jurisdictional companies

Where a company is listed on multiple exchanges or incorporated in a country different from its primary listing, we will seek to apply the most relevant market guideline(s) to our analysis of the company’s governance structure and specific proposals on the shareholder meeting agenda. In doing so, we typically consider the governance standards of the company’s primary listing, the market standards by which the company governs itself, and the market context of each specific proposal on the agenda. If the relevant standards are silent on the issue under consideration, we will use our professional judgment as to what voting outcome would best protect the long-term economic interests of investors. We expect that companies will disclose the rationale for their selection of primary listing, country of incorporation, and choice of governance structures, in particular where there is conflict between relevant market governance practices.

Other business

We oppose giving companies our proxy to vote on matters where we are not given the opportunity to review and understand those measures and carry out an appropriate level of shareholder oversight.

Reincorporation

Proposals to reincorporate from one state or country to another are most frequently motivated by considerations of anti-takeover protections, legal advantages, and / or cost savings. We will evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, the economic and strategic rationale behind the company’s proposal to reincorporate. In all instances, we will evaluate the changes to shareholder protection under the new charter / articles / bylaws to assess whether the move increases or decreases shareholder protections. Where we find that shareholder protections are diminished, we may support reincorporation if we determine that the overall benefits outweigh the diminished rights.

IPO governance

We expect boards to consider and disclose how the corporate governance structures adopted upon initial public offering (“IPO”) are in shareholders’ best long-term interests. We also expect boards to conduct a regular review of corporate governance and control structures, such that boards might evolve foundational corporate governance structures as company circumstances change, without undue costs and disruption to shareholders. In our letter on unequal voting structures, we articulate our view that “one vote for one share” is the preferred structure for publicly-traded companies. We also recognize the potential benefits of dual class shares to newly public companies as they establish themselves; however, we believe that these structures should have a specific and limited duration. We will generally engage new companies on topics such as classified boards and supermajority vote provisions to amend bylaws, as we believe that such arrangements may not be in the best interest of shareholders in the long-term.

We will typically apply a one-year grace period for the application of certain director-related guidelines (including, but not limited to, director independence and over-boarding considerations), during which we expect boards to take steps to bring corporate governance standards in line with our expectations.

 

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Further, if a company qualifies as an emerging growth company (an “EGC”) under the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act of 2012 (the “JOBS Act”), we will give consideration to the NYSE and NASDAQ governance exemptions granted under the JOBS Act for the duration such a company is categorized as an EGC. We expect an EGC to have a totally independent audit committee by the first anniversary of its IPO, with our standard approach to voting on auditors and audit-related issues applicable in full for an EGC on the first anniversary of its IPO.

Shareholder Protections

Amendment to charter / articles / bylaws

We believe that shareholders should have the right to vote on key corporate governance matters, including on changes to governance mechanisms and amendments to the charter / articles / bylaws. We may vote against certain directors where changes to governing documents are not put to a shareholder vote within a reasonable period of time, in particular if those changes have the potential to impact shareholder rights (see “Director elections” herein). In cases where a board’s unilateral adoption of changes to the charter / articles / bylaws promotes cost and operational efficiency benefits for the company and its shareholders, we may support such action if it does not have a negative effect on shareholder rights or the company’s corporate governance structure.

When voting on a management or shareholder proposal to make changes to the charter / articles / bylaws, we will consider in part the company’s and / or proponent’s publicly stated rationale for the changes, the company’s governance profile and history, relevant jurisdictional laws, and situational or contextual circumstances which may have motivated the proposed changes, among other factors. We will typically support changes to the charter / articles / bylaws where the benefits to shareholders, including the costs of failing to make those changes, demonstrably outweigh the costs or risks of making such changes.

Proxy access

We believe that long-term shareholders should have the opportunity, when necessary and under reasonable conditions, to nominate directors on the company’s proxy card.

In our view, securing the right of shareholders to nominate directors without engaging in a control contest can enhance shareholders’ ability to meaningfully participate in the director election process, stimulate board attention to shareholder interests, and provide shareholders an effective means of directing that attention where it is lacking. Proxy access mechanisms should provide shareholders with a reasonable opportunity to use this right without stipulating overly restrictive or onerous parameters for use, and also provide assurances that the mechanism will not be subject to abuse by short-term investors, investors without a substantial investment in the company, or investors seeking to take control of the board.

In general, we support market-standardized proxy access proposals, which allow a shareholder (or group of up to 20 shareholders) holding three percent of a company’s outstanding shares for at least three years the right to nominate the greater of up to two directors or 20% of the board. Where a standardized proxy access provision exists, we will generally oppose shareholder proposals requesting outlier thresholds.

Right to act by written consent

In exceptional circumstances and with sufficiently broad support, shareholders should have the opportunity to raise issues of substantial importance without having to wait for management to schedule a meeting. We therefore believe that shareholders should have the right to solicit votes by written consent provided that: 1) there are reasonable requirements to initiate the consent solicitation process (in order to avoid the waste of corporate resources in addressing narrowly supported interests); and 2) shareholders receive a minimum of 50% of outstanding shares to effectuate the action by written consent. We may oppose shareholder proposals requesting the right to act by written consent in cases where the proposal is structured for the benefit of a dominant shareholder to the exclusion of others, or if the proposal is written to discourage the board from incorporating appropriate mechanisms to avoid the waste of corporate resources when establishing a right to act by written consent. Additionally, we may oppose shareholder proposals requesting the right to act by written consent if the company already provides a shareholder right to call a special meeting that we believe offers

 

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shareholders a reasonable opportunity to raise issues of substantial importance without having to wait for management to schedule a meeting.

Right to call a special meeting

In exceptional circumstances and with sufficiently broad support, shareholders should have the opportunity to raise issues of substantial importance without having to wait for management to schedule a meeting. We therefore believe that shareholders should have the right to call a special meeting in cases where a reasonably high proportion of shareholders (typically a minimum of 15% but no higher than 25%) are required to agree to such a meeting before it is called, in order to avoid the waste of corporate resources in addressing narrowly supported interests. However, we may oppose this right in cases where the proposal is structured for the benefit of a dominant shareholder to the exclusion of others. We generally believe that a right to act via written consent is not a sufficient alternative to the right to call a special meeting.

Simple majority voting

We generally favor a simple majority voting requirement to pass proposals. Therefore, we will support the reduction or the elimination of supermajority voting requirements to the extent that we determine shareholders’ ability to protect their economic interests is improved. Nonetheless, in situations where there is a substantial or dominant shareholder, supermajority voting may be protective of public shareholder interests and we may support supermajority requirements in those situations.

 

This document is provided for information or educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.

The information and opinions contained in this document are as of January 2020 unless it is stated otherwise and may change as subsequent conditions vary. The information and opinions contained in this material are derived from proprietary and non-proprietary sources deemed by BlackRock to be reliable, are not necessarily all inclusive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy.

 

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