Today, proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (“ISS”) provided additional information on its plans to implement a new “scorecard” approach to evaluating equity compensation plan proposals at U.S. shareholder meetings and requested comments on its proposed policy change. This is one of two significant proposals ISS announced today that would impact U.S. companies for the 2015 proxy season, with the other proposed policy change relating to voting recommendations on independent chair proposals (which we discuss here). Companies considering seeking shareholder approval of equity plans at shareholder meetings in 2015 should consider these proposed changes now to the extent they want ISS to recommend votes “For” the equity plan.
Current ISS Approach to Equity Plan Proposals
ISS’s current approach uses a series of “pass/fail” tests. Specifically, ISS will recommend votes “Against” an equity plan if the total cost of the company’s equity plans including the proposed new plan is “unreasonable,” if the company’s three-year burn-rate exceeds the applicable burn rate cap determined by ISS, if the company has a pay-for-performance “misalignment” or if the plan includes certain disfavored features (e.g., if the plan permits repricing or includes a liberal change of control definition).
Companies seeking shareholder approval of a new equity plan or an amendment to an existing plan can often independently determine compliance with each of these factors except for cost. ISS evaluates the cost of a company’s plans using its proprietary shareholder value transfer (SVT) measure. ISS describes SVT as assessing “the amount of shareholders’ equity flowing out of the company to employees and directors.” ISS considers the SVT for a company’s plans to be reasonable if it falls below the company-specific allowable cap as determined by ISS using benchmark SVT levels for each industry. Thus, companies often engage the consulting side of ISS to determine the SVT of their plans and the number of additional shares that ISS would support for the new or amended equity plan.
New ISS Approach to Equity Plan Proposals
ISS previously announced its intention to implement a new “scorecard” approach to evaluating equity plan proposals at U.S. shareholder meetings. Today ISS provided more insights with the publication of its proposed new Equity Plans policy, which details ISS’s new Equity Plan Scorecard (“EPSC”). Under the proposed EPSC, ISS will determine its voting recommendations on equity plan proposals by determining an EPSC score for a company based on three broad categories of factors: (1) the total potential cost of the company’s equity plans relative to its peers; (2) the proposed plan’s features; and (3) the company’s equity grant practices. ISS has indicated that these scorecard factors and their relative weightings would be keyed to company size and status, with different weightings applicable to companies in the following categories: S&P 500, Russell 3000 (excluding the S&P500), Non-Russell 3000, and Recent IPOs or Bankruptcy Emergent companies.
With respect to the three categories that factor into a company’s EPSC score:
- Cost will continue to be evaluated on the basis of SVT in relation to peers. However, SVT will now be calculated for both (a) new shares requested, plus shares remaining for future grants, plus outstanding unvested and/or unexercised grants, and (b) only on new shares requested plus shares remaining for future grants.
- Plan features that will be evaluated under the EPSC include automatic single-triggered award vesting upon a change-in-control, discretionary vesting authority, liberal share recycling on various award types (which will no longer be a component of SVT), and minimum vesting periods for grants made under the plan, in each case as specified in the plan document itself rather than in practice through award agreements.
- With respect to company grant practices, ISS’s proposed EPSC will consider a company’s three-year burn rate relative to its peers (which will eliminate company “burn rate commitments” going forward), vesting requirements in the most recent CEO equity grants, the estimated duration of the plan (calculated based on the sum of shares remaining available and the new shares requested under the plan, divided by the average annual shares granted under the plan in the prior three years), the proportion of the CEO’s most recent equity awards subject to performance vesting (as opposed to strictly time-based vesting), whether the company maintains a clawback policy, and whether the company has established post-exercise/vesting holding requirements.
Although ISS has stated that certain highly egregious plan features (such as the ability to reprice options without shareholder approval) will continue to result in an automatic negative voting recommendation regardless of other factors, overall the EPSC will result in voting recommendations based on a combination of the above factors. This means that ISS may recommend votes “For” an equity plan proposal where costs are nominally higher than a company’s allowable cap when sufficient other positive plan features and company grant practices are present. Likewise, ISS may recommend votes “Against” an equity plan proposal even where costs are lower than a company’s allowable cap if sufficient other negative plan features and company grant practices are present.
ISS has invited comments on its proposed policy, and has specifically asked for feedback on: (1) whether any factors outlined above should be more heavily weighted when evaluating equity plan proposals; and (2) whether stakeholders see any unintended consequences from shifting to a scorecard approach. Comments may be submitted on or before October 29, 2014 via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, the ISS release discussing the proposed revisions is available here.
We expect that corporate commenters will focus on the nature and extent of flexibility in the EPSC approach around plan features and past grant practices. For example, we understand that under the proposed scorecard, a plan will gain credit if it contains minimum vesting provision (for example, a minimum three year pro-rata vesting requirement), although companies may want flexibility to grant some awards free of any such restrictions. Thus, companies may wish to provide input to ISS on situations in which such grant practices may be warranted and should not result in negative weighting under the scorecard.
With respect to the proposed EPSC’s factors that take into account past grant practices, companies often propose new equity plans so that they can implement new grant practices in the future that were not feasible under their existing plans (for example, a company may wish to be able to implement a performance stock unit program, or increase the percentage of shares granted under such awards and correspondingly decrease its use of stock options). In those cases, overemphasis on past grant practices may be inappropriate. Thus, in order that ISS may consider such situations as it develops its EPSC methodology, companies may wish to provide comments to ISS regarding situations in which they have sought shareholder approval of a new plan so that they could implement new grant practices, as well as other situations in which past grant practices may not be indicative of future equity programs.
Companies that are developing new equity plans that they intend to submit for shareholder approval at their 2015 annual meetings may need to scramble to reflect ISS’s EPSC factors in their proposed plan if they want ISS to recommend votes “For” the plan. For example, even if a company’s SVT would not have exceeded ISS’s limits under its current voting policy, a “liberal share counting provision” under which shares retained to pay taxes again become available for grant under the plan may now contribute to a negative ISS voting recommendation on the plan. Likewise, the proposed EPSC methodology will contribute to more plans containing restrictions on how quickly equity awards are permitted to vest. It is worth noting, however, as ISS observes in its request for comments, that even though ISS historically has recommended votes “Against” approximately 30% of equity plan proposals each year under existing its policy, no more than 10 plan proposals have actually failed in any recent year. Nevertheless, ISS’s policies are based in part on feedback from its institutional shareholder clients, and thus companies will want to carefully consider the extent to which factors considered under the EPSC reflect emerging trends and shareholder-favored practices.
ISS’s final 2015 proxy voting policies are expected to be released in November and typically apply to shareholder meetings held on or after February 1. We expect that ISS will soon offer a new consulting product to help companies and their advisors analyze equity plans under the proposed new EPSC.