When Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton handed a policy win to corporate executives this month, he pointed to a surprising source of support: a mailbag full of encouragement from ordinary Americans.
To hear Clayton tell it, these folks are really focused on the intricacies of the corporate shareholder-voting process. “Some of the letters that struck me the most,” he said at a commission meeting in Washington, “came from long-term Main Street investors, including an Army veteran and a Marine veteran, a police officer, a retired teacher, a public servant, a single mom, a couple of retirees who saved for retirement.” Each bolstered Clayton’s case for limiting the power of dissenting shareholders.
But a close look at the seven letters Clayton highlighted, and about two dozen others submitted to the SEC by supposedly regular people, shows they are the product of a misleading — and laughably clumsy — public relations campaign by corporate interests.
That retired teacher? Pauline Yee said she never wrote a letter, although the signature was hers. Those military vets? It turns out they’re the brother and cousin of the chairman of 60 Plus Association, a Virginia-based advocacy group paid by corporate supporters of the SEC initiative. That single mom? Data embedded in the electronically submitted letter says someone at 60 Plus wrote it. That retired couple? Their son-in-law runs 60 Plus.
“I never wrote a letter,” said one of the retirees, Vytautas Alksninis, reached by phone at his home in Connecticut. “What’s this all about?”
Then there’s the public servant Clayton mentioned. Marie Reed’s letter has sharp words for proxy advisers, firms that counsel fund companies on how to vote at shareholder meetings. But when reached by phone in California, the retired state worker said she wasn’t familiar with the term. She said the letter originated with a public-affairs firm that contacted her out of the blue.
“They wrote it, and I allowed them to use my name after I read it,” she said. “I didn’t go digging into all of this.”
The SEC declined to comment on any irregularities with the letters. In a Tuesday interview, Clayton sidestepped a question about how the agency ensures comment letters are genuine. He did emphasize that the regulator’s potential revamp of shareholder voting rules are proposals, adding that there will be ample time for people on both sides to weigh in before any changes are finalized.
“We welcome input in all ways,” Clayton said in the interview with Bloomberg Television’s David Westin. “On this issue, where there are a lot of different views and a lot of different interests, we encourage people to come in and talk to us, send us their comments.”
Even a casual reading of the letters shows something amiss. Four of the seven bear the same unusual error — an out-of-context phrase inserted into the SEC’s mailing address. The same mistake turns up in at least 20 other letters submitted by supposedly ordinary Americans in support of the change. It’s an inadvertent digital fingerprint revealing the scope of the campaign.
At issue is the proxy process, the rules for how corporations conduct shareholder votes, such as when directors stand for re-election at annual meetings. Most of the time, management wins in a landslide. But shareholders occasionally revolt over excessive pay or mismanagement, or a small investor forces a vote on an issue that management doesn’t endorse.
In recent years, more small shareholders have been proposing resolutions about social or environmental issues such as climate change. And investment managers that control large numbers of votes, such as BlackRock Inc., have begun prioritizing these topics as well, arguing that they’re relevant to the long-term sustainability of business models. That’s an unwelcome change for some corporate boards, especially in the fossil-fuel industry.
Last year, the National Association of Manufacturers helped form the Main Street Investors Coalition to oppose what it calls the “politicization” of the investment process and to argue that fund managers and boards should focus on maximizing profits. One of its priorities is changing shareholder voting rules.
Although the coalition has other members, NAM provided most of its initial funding, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement who spoke on condition of anonymity. The manufacturers’ association represents corporate giants such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp.
NAM said in a statement that it didn’t fund 60 Plus or direct any advocacy efforts on the SEC issue. Chevron wouldn’t comment on the coalition but acknowledged in a statement that it sometimes works with trade associations to “help inform their understanding of issues.” Exxon Mobil said it had no immediate comment.
Last year, Clayton signaled he was considering changes to the rules and issued a call for public comments. Letters poured in. Most were from investment firms, corporations, trade groups and other interested parties that openly identified themselves. Many fund managers wrote to say some of the changes under consideration would be counterproductive.