Monday, August 24, 2009

Greater Involvement of Public Shareholders in Appointing Directors and Commissioners of Publicly Listed Companies: Why and How?

Related to my post on 18 August 2009 where I discussed how US lawyers and law professors make comments on a proposed regulation, after seeing another recommendations from several professors from Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School on the proposed amendment to an SEC Rule which would allow shareholders of publicly listed companies to have greater influence in deciding the composition of the board of directors and commissioners ("SEC Regulation"), I'm getting pretty interested with the actual content of this SEC Regulation.

You can read the 250 pages of the SEC Regulation (which include the proposed amendments and a thorough review of such regulation from the SEC team complete with list of detailed questions asking for public comments) here, and if you are also interested to read the US lawyers' comments on that SEC Regulation for some additional insights, you may read the 40 pages comments here. Be warned however, considering the total pages of those documents and the fact that they deal with complicated US securities regulation, it would be wise if you don't waste your time to read them unless you have a legal background, consider long and complicated reading materials as entertaining, and have absolutely nothing important to do :). Of course, you can simply read a quick summary of the main issues of such regulation below.

Summary of the SEC Regulation

Okay, since this SEC Regulation also deals with certain issues which might only be applicable to US Laws, the summary below will only cover the main issues which might be relevant for Indonesian corporate law, i.e.:

  • the main purpose of the SEC Regulation is to increase public shareholders participation in determining management candidates for the relevant publicly listed company and to increase information transparency of the candidates themselves;
  • to satisfy the above purpose, the SEC Regulation requires publicly listed companies to provide information on the candidates in the proxy materials for the shareholders with respect to a general meeting of shareholders; and
  • the SEC Regulation also tries to determine the qualification of shareholders who can propose candidates of management members, which include having a minimum percentage of shareholding and a minimum period for holding the shares in case their proposed candidates are successfully being elected as the management of the company.
With respect to the above proposed provisions, the Professors from HBS and HLS recommend the SEC to adopt such regulation with the following recommendations:
  • the minimum amount of shareholding percentage for proposing candidates of directors and commissioners shouldn't be too small (the SEC Regulation proposes 1% but this amount will also depend on the total capitalization of the relevant publicly listed company), as it may cause too many competing candidates for leading the company;
  • the main point of this SEC Regulation is to have more information on the candidates and if possible, new people on the board of management, not for the sake of making trivial contests, therefore, the threshold for proposing candidates should be increased, say around 5-10% provided that this threshold can be further reviewed in the future in accordance with the relevant situation and condition; and
  • there should be a minimum period for holding the shares of the relevant publicly listed company after the appointment of the relevant shareholders' proposed candidates is successful, say at least 1 year, just to make sure that the appointed directors/commissioners and the shareholders are serious with the long term development of the company.
Why am I Interested with this Particular SEC Regulation?

It's quite simple though, until today, Indonesia does not have a specific law which deals on how public shareholders of a publicly listed company can propose candidates for the directors and commissioners of such company and when the information on such candidates should be available to the public.

Under the current Indonesian Company Law, any shareholder(s) having at least 10% of the total shareholding of a company (unless the articles of association of the company provide a lower threshold) would be able to propose a general meeting of shareholders (including proposal of the agenda of such meeting). So in theory, if you satisfy the 10% threshold, you should be able to propose your own candidates. However, I haven't heard the actual application of this concept in publicly listed companies.

In addition, it is almost becoming a general practice that the information on the management candidates will only be provided on the date of the general meeting of shareholders. As a result of which, shareholders often do not have the privilege to review the candidates competency beforehand and may not have complete information in determining the best candidates for the management position.

Having said the above, I would like to analyze whether at this current stage Indonesia should be required to have a similar regulation with the above one. Of course, I don't expect that we will have a detailed and sophisticated regulation like in the US, we're talking about the principles only. The drafting of such regulation should only be discussed after we can clearly agree that the regulation itself is needed.

The Necessity of Having Better Transparency and Fairness to All Shareholders

Balancing the relationship between the management and shareholders of a company will always involve some problems, particularly because there are no perfect guidelines on how the management should maintain the relationship with the shareholders. Some legal theorists argue that the management is, to certain extent, acting as the agent of the shareholders, and therefore must act for the benefit of such shareholders. But then again, some of them also argue that the management should act to the best interest of the company, whereas, the interest of the company may differ from the interest of the shareholders.

While we can talk anything in theory, in practice we would need to understand that since the management is appointed by the shareholders (and of course they can always be replaced by the shareholders), there would always be an incentive for the management not to acting in the best interest of the company, particularly when such action might cause them to lose their position or possible remuneration. As a result of which, when a company is being massively controlled by certain controlling shareholders, the possibility of management breaching their fiduciary duty to the company would be most likely increased.

However, the case can also be turned the other way around, that is, if the shareholders of the company are too diversified and no one has majority control over the company (such as in certain publicly listed companies), the management of those companies would be in a stronger position to determine their own actions and rewards and will have less incentives for having better accountability toward the shareholders.

In both cases, the victim would mostly be the public shareholders, i.e. those who cannot be considered as the controlling shareholders. Indeed, Indonesian laws have provided some form of protections for these kind of shareholders, such as the right to request the company (or any third parties appointed by the company) to purchase their shares with a fair price in case they suffer losses due to decisions made by the general meeting of shareholders or the management of such company. For publicly listed companies, the case would be easier. If the company's shares are liquid, the shareholders who don't agree with the company's decision could simply sell their shares in the market.

While this protection mechanism can be considered as a good policy, it has one significant problem, i.e. it encourages public shareholders to leave the company instead to stay for a longer period. What happen if those shareholders actually believe that in the long term the company has a very good prospect, but because of the current condition, they are "forced" to sell their shares? And how about institutional investors who may have quite a huge amount of shares though they are not yet considered as controlling shareholders? They may face some difficulties in selling their shares in the market.

Further, the most important question is why we penalize the company to purchase the shares of the public shareholders who don't agree with the decisions made by the organ of the company? Wouldn't that be counter productive for the growth of the company itself?

I always believe that giving more choices to the public would benefit us all. Therefore, it would also be better if we can have a regulation which can increase public shareholders' participation in determining candidates of the management of the publicly listed companies, including better transparency with respect to information on the management candidates and fairness to any shareholders to propose their own candidates (provided that they satisfy the minimum threshold for shareholding). In this case, adopting a similar regulation with the SEC Regulation would be recommended by me. Further comments from the HBS and HLS professors should also be considered as those comments are very relevant in ensuring that the regulation is workable enough in

One question remain though, what would be the use of giving the opportunity to public shareholders to propose their own management candidates if in the end they will not have sufficient votes to approve the appointment of their candidates since the controlling shareholders do not agree with the candidates? This is particularly relevant in Indonesia where it is very rare to find a publicly listed company which does not have any controlling shareholders.

To solve this issue, it may be possible that the threshold of appointing candidates proposed by public shareholders shall be reduced to allow voting by minority shareholders or that the controlling shareholders shall have no votes with respect to the appointment of such candidates. (as if in a conflict of interest transaction). Further discussion on this issue would be definitely useful.

To end this article, it is important to note that while having better transparency and fairness for public shareholders in determining the management candidates might help a company to increase its performance, it wouldn't be quite effective unless there are other incentives which may directly affect the behavior of the management. In this case, I refer to the remuneration system of the management. To see my proposal on this issue, I recommend you to read my post on 17 August 2009, where I discussed the use of independent committee in determining the remuneration of the management.


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