Manufacturers won a victory yesterday as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) published new guidance regarding proxy advisory firms, outlining how institutional investors should monitor their use and setting the stage for more effective oversight of the proxy firm business.
Investment advisers and fund managers who oversee Americans’ retirement savings are empowered to have a voice in the policies of the companies in which the fund invests. These fund managers often turn for assistance to proxy firms to recommend votes on company policies. As a result, proxy advisory firms have enormous influence over the corporate governance policies of U.S. public companies, impacting the direction of businesses they have no stake in and the life savings of Main Street investors. Unfortunately, a lack of oversight means proxy advisory firms can operate with undisclosed conflicts of interest and inadequate transparency, implement one-size-fits-all decision-making, and make errors that impose significant costs and damaging policies on manufacturers and workers.
The SEC’s guidance clarifies how investment advisers can utilize these firms, representing a significant step toward vital investor protections. In particular, the guidance outlines the due diligence that fund managers have to undertake when relying on a proxy firm’s services and identifies factors, such as errors, conflicts of interest, and methodological weaknesses, that fund managers should be on the lookout for.
“This decision is a big win for manufacturers across the country,” said Charles Crain, Director of Tax and Domestic Economic Policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. “With this guidance, the SEC is providing a roadmap for asset managers to protect Main Street investors’ best interests and laying the groundwork for improved oversight of the proxy advisory industry—and a smarter, more informed environment for millions of manufacturers and middle-class Americans.”
The SEC’s guidance echoes specific requests made by the NAM in their March 5 comment letter, in which the organization called for more clarity around “how investment advisers can utilize independent third parties in order to ensure that proxy voting decisions are made in the best interests of the middle-class Americans whose retirement accounts are at stake.”
The NAM has also requested additional rules that would implement direct SEC oversight of proxy advisory firms. The SEC yesterday issued interpretive guidance that its proxy rules do apply to firms providing proxy advice, and manufacturers are optimistic that further reforms will be considered and addressed by the SEC in the coming months.
“This SEC announcement represents critical direction for investment advisers and demonstrates the SEC’s understanding of the fiduciary duty these money managers owe to Americans nationwide,” said Crain. “We’re thankful that yesterday’s guidance provides critical guardrails manufacturers have called for, and we look forward to continuing this conversation to ensure that proxy voting decisions are made in the best interests of Americans saving for a secure retirement.”