U.S. public companies are operating in an environment full of both risk and opportunity as they prepare for their annual shareholder meetings.
Cyberthreats, disaster planning, and political and economic unrest are among many factors that make the current climate hazardous for many companies.
Although high values in the stock market indicate an environment that has improved significantly—if slowly—since the lowest depths of the global financial crisis, recent dips in the market indicate that volatility still exists.
Shareholders are likely to be focused on both the risks and the opportunities in upcoming shareholder meetings, according to Wendy Hambleton, CPA, a partner in the corporate governance practice who also heads up the SEC practice at BDO.
“There is still that overriding sense of still coming out of that economic downturn, whatever you want to call the period from 2007 to 2009,” Hambleton said. “I think people are cautious, so they want companies to be cautious and prudent with their funds. I don’t think people are pushing as much for huge growth as they are for measured growth and maybe a little more secure growth.”
Against this backdrop of risks and a desire for secure growth, BDO has compiled a list of issues in a news release that corporate management and boards of directors should be prepared to discuss with shareholders in connection with annual meetings this spring:
- M&A opportunities and takeover defenses. Is management seeking M&A opportunities? Are potential targets properly vetted to prevent buyer’s remorse? And are boards poised to fend off unwanted takeovers and maximize shareholder value if a transaction is accepted?
“We are seeing more M&A activity,” Hambleton said. “A lot of companies have some cash on hand, but I think everyone wants to be cautious to make sure plenty of due diligence is done, that it’s the right transaction, that it makes sense, no one is rushing into deals”
- Spinoff advocacy. Management and the board need to be prepared to respond to well-funded, activist shareholders who have the potential to try to break up companies, according to BDO. This can be a costly exercise, Hambleton said.
“If you’ve got activist shareholders making suggestions and urging the company to take certain actions, that takes a lot of time and in some cases dollars that the company might have wanted to use in an alternative way,” she said.
- Global economic concerns. Investors are concerned about how the crisis in Ukraine and slowing growth in China, Brazil, Japan, and other markets will affect the global economic recovery, according to the news release. Shareholders may ask about how prepared the company is to deal with a serious economic collapse in a certain country or region.
The crisis in Ukraine demonstrates that problems can occur in unexpected places, Hambleton said. And emerging markets pose different political and economic concerns than more mature markets such as the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, according to Hambleton.
“That’s not a reason not to go into those markets,” she said. “It’s just a reason to go in from a measured perspective. And from a shareholder perspective, that’s what people want to see is a measured perspective, that people are thinking about the risks, thinking about the concerns, and then taking a measured response to that.”
- Cybersecurity. Headlines about numerous high-profile breaches are certain to have shareholders’ attention, and companies should be prepared to explain their approach and their defenses.
“Companies need to be able to explain to shareholders—without getting into the minutiae of the details and what they do—how they monitor, what kind of controls they have in place,” Hambleton said. “Have they looked at refreshing their risk management approaches in this area? How often do they do certain types of monitoring activities?”
- Executive compensation. Performance-focused compensation models at public companies have gained favor in the wake of new avenues for shareholder feedback, according to the news release.
Since regulations do not require disclosure of the relationship between pay and company performance, it appears that an emerging consensus is that disclosures should report how the company’s total shareholder returns relate to the CEO’s realizable pay, BDO said. Shareholders will ask more questions when the executives are compensated handsomely while the company struggles, Hambleton said.
- Succession planning. An improving economy may create more opportunities for executives to change jobs. This could cause shareholders to ask whether the board has a succession plan and has identified candidates for CEO and other key positions. Surveys have shown that board members are interested in this issue, Hambleton said.
“If it’s something board members would want to spend time on, you’d think it’s something shareholders care about, too,” she said.
- Accessing public equity markets. In 2013, total U.S. initial public offerings and proceeds raised reached their highest levels since 2000, according to BDO. This may lead shareholders to wonder whether management is considering new securities offerings.
“Certainly, a good IPO market is an opportunity for companies that may be looking at spinning off either their noncore businesses or businesses that maybe would perform better in a separate company rather than as part of the overall conglomeration,” Hambleton said.
- Disaster planning. Events such as Hurricane Sandy in the United States and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines have caused tragic losses of human life and disrupted supply chains and operations. Shareholders may want to know if businesses have backup plans that will minimize the effects of such events.
For example, Hurricane Sandy showed that backup servers located far apart on the same coast may be vulnerable to the same storm.
“No one probably envisioned a storm that would start where it did and go all the way and cause so many blackouts that we need to have [servers] on opposite coasts or in the middle of the country or something like that,” Hambleton said.
- New COSO framework. Shareholders may want to know if a company has updated its system of internal control to reflect the guidance in the updated 2013 framework of the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO).
“I wouldn’t expect there to be significant changes to companies’ assessments,” Hambleton said. “But the new framework does have more particular guidance built into it, so I think some of the controls and the mapping will need to change. There will be some work to do. Hopefully, some enhancement of controls will come out of it.”
- Conflict minerals. New SEC rules require public companies to report to the SEC whether their products contain certain minerals produced in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In some cases, those mines are run by warlords who oppress residents of the region. Although some companies may be behind in gathering information needed to report on these minerals by the May 31 deadline for the 2013 calendar year, Hambleton said shareholders will have a wider perspective.
“They’re going to want to know if [the company is] going to have to report that they use conflict minerals,” she said. “And that gets into the whole question of sustainability and corporate social responsibility with companies.”
- Auditor tenure. Mandatory audit firm rotation no longer is part of the PCAOB’s agenda after legislative pushback on the issue, but BDO said management and audit committees should be prepared for shareholders to ask about the length of their auditor’s tenure and their process for hiring their auditors.
“If you’re an audit committee member, you will have heard the discussion, and you need to be prepared to answer the question, what consideration did they give,” Hambleton said. “Not that they should be making a change, but what consideration did they give to it?”
—Ken Tysiac (email@example.com) is a JofA senior editor.