State Street Global Advisors’ Australia and New Zealand Proxy Voting and Engagement Guidelines address areas including board structure, audit related issues, capital structure, remuneration, environmental, social, and other governance related issues. Principally we believe the primary responsibility of the board of directors is to preserve and enhance shareholder value and protect shareholder interests. In order to carry out their primary responsibilities, directors have to undertake activities that range from setting strategy and overseeing executive management to monitoring the risks that arise from a company’s business, including risks related to sustainability issues. Further, good corporate governance necessitates the existence of effective internal controls and risk management systems, which should be governed by the board.
When voting and engaging with companies in global markets, we consider market specific nuances in the manner that we believe will best protect and promote the long-term economic value of client investments. We expect companies to observe the relevant laws and regulations of their respective markets as well as country specific best practice guidelines, and corporate governance codes. We may hold companies in such markets to our global standards when we feel that a country’s regulatory requirements do not address some of the key philosophical principles that we believe are fundamental to our global voting guidelines.
In our analysis and research into corporate governance issues in Australia and New Zealand, we expect all companies at a minimum to comply with the ASX Corporate Governance Principles and proactively monitor companies’ adherence to the principles. Consistent with the ‘comply or explain’ expectations established by the Principles, we encourage companies to proactively disclose their level
of compliance with the Principles. In instances of non- compliance when companies cannot explain the nuances of their governance structure effectively, either publicly or through engagement, we may vote against the independent board leader. On some governance matters, such as composition of audit committees, we hold Australian companies to our global standards requiring all directors on the committee to be independent of management.
State Street Global Advisors’ Proxy Voting and Engagement Philosophy
In our view, corporate governance and sustainability issues are an integral part of the investment process. The Asset Stewardship Team consists of investment professionals with expertise in corporate governance and company law, remuneration, accounting, and environmental and social issues. We have established robust corporate governance principles and practices that are backed with extensive analytical expertise in order to understand the complexities of the corporate governance landscape. We engage with companies to provide insight on the principles and practices that drive our voting decisions. We also conduct proactive engagement to address significant shareholder concerns and environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) issues in a manner consistent with maximizing shareholder value.
The team works alongside members of State Street Global Advisors’ Active Fundamental and Asia-Pacific (“APAC”) investment teams, collaborating on issuer engagement and providing input on company specific fundamentals. We are also a member of various investor associations that seek to address broader corporate governance related policy issues in the region.
State Street Global Advisors is a signatory to the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment (“UNPRI”). We are committed to sustainable investing and are working to further integrate ESG principles into investment and corporate governance practices where applicable and consistent with our fiduciary duty.
Directors and Boards
State Street Global Advisors believes that a well constituted board of directors with a good balance of skills, expertise, and independence provides the foundations for a well governed company. We view board quality as a measure of director independence, director succession planning, board diversity, evaluations and refreshment, and company governance practices. We vote for the election/re-election of directors on a case-by-case basis after considering various factors including board quality, general market practice, and availability of information on director skills and expertise. In principle, we believe independent directors are crucial to corporate governance and help management establish sound ESG policies and practices. A sufficiently independent board will most effectively monitor management and perform oversight functions necessary to protect shareholder interests.We expect boards of ASX 300 and New Zealand listed companies to be comprised of at least a majority of independent directors. At all other Australian listed companies, we expect boards to be comprised of at least one-third independent directors. Further, we expect boards of ASX 300 listed companies to have at least one female board member.
Our broad criteria for director independence in Australia and New Zealand include factors such as:
- Participation in related-party transactions and other business relations with the company
- Employment history with company
- Relations with controlling shareholders
- Family ties with any of the company’s advisers, directors, or senior employees
When considering the election or re-election of a director, we also consider the number of outside board director-ships that a non-executive and an executive may undertake and attendance at board meetings. In addition, we monitor other factors that may influence the independence of a non-executive director, such as performance-related pay, cross-directorships, significant shareholdings, and tenure. We support the annual election of directors and encourages Australian and New Zealand companies to adopt this practice.
While we are generally supportive of having the roles of chairman and CEO separated in the Australian and New Zealand markets, we assess the division of responsibilities between chairman and CEO on a case-by-case basis, giving consideration to factors such as company-specific circumstances, overall level of independence on the board and general corporate governance standards in the company. Similarly, we will monitor for circumstances in which a combined chairman/CEO is appointed or where a former CEO becomes chairman.
We may also consider board performance and directors who appear to be remiss in the performance of their oversight responsibilities when analyzing their suitability for reappointment (e.g. fraud, criminal wrongdoing and breach of fiduciary responsibilities).
We believe companies should have committees for audit, remuneration, and nomination oversight. The audit committee is responsible for monitoring the integrity of the financial statements of the company, appointing external auditors, monitoring their qualifications and independence, and their effectiveness and resource levels. ASX Corporate Governance Principles requires listed companies to have an audit committee of at least three members all of whom are non-executive directors and a majority of whom are independent directors. It also requires that the committee be chaired by an independent director who is not the chair of the board. We hold Australian and New Zealand companies to our global standards for developed financial markets by requiring that all members of the audit committee be independent directors.
In our analysis of boards, we consider whether board members have adequate skills to provide effective oversight of corporate strategy, operations, and risks, including environmental and social issues. Boards should also have a regular evaluation process in place to assess the effectiveness of the board and the skills of board members to address issues, such as emerging risks, changes to corporate strategy, and diversification of operations and geographic footprint. The nomination committee is responsible for evaluating and reviewing the balance of skills, knowledge, and experience of the board. It also ensuresthat adequate succession plans are in place for directors and the CEO. We may vote against the re-election of members of the nomination committee if the board has failed to address concerns over board structure or succession.
Executive pay is another important aspect of corporate governance. We believe that executive pay should be determined by the board of directors. We expect companies to have in place remuneration committees to provide independent oversight over executive pay. ASX Corporate Governance Principles requires listed companies to have a remuneration committee of at least three members all of whom are non-executive directors and a majority of whom are independent directors. Since Australia has a non-binding vote on pay with a two-strike rule requiring a board spill vote in the event of a second strike, we believe that the vote provides investors a mechanism to address concerns they may have on the quality of oversight provided by the board on remuneration issues. Accordingly our voting guidelines accommodate local market practice.
Indemnification and limitations on liability Generally, State Street Global Advisors supports proposals to limit directors’ liability and/or expand indemnification and liability protection up to the limit provided by law, if he or she has not acted in bad faith, gross negligence, or reckless disregard of the duties involved in the conduct of his or her office.
Companies should have robust internal audit and internal control systems designed for effective management of any potential and emerging risks to company operations and strategy. The responsibility of setting out an internal audit function lies with the audit committee, which should have independent non-executive directors designated as members.
Appointment of External Auditors
State Street Global Advisors believes that a company’s auditor is an essential feature of an effective and transparent system of external supervision. Shareholders should be given the opportunity to vote on their appointment or to re-appoint at the annual meeting. When appointing external auditors and approving audit fees, we will take into consideration the level of detail in company disclosures. We will generally not support resolutions if adequate breakdown is not provided and if non-audit fees are more than 50% of audit fees. In addition, we may vote against members of the audit committee if we have concerns with audit-related issues or if the level of non-audit fees to audit fees is significant. In certain circumstances, we may consider auditor tenure when evaluating the audit process.
Shareholder Rights and Capital-Related Issues
The ability to raise capital is critical for companies to carry out strategy, to grow, and toachieve returns above their cost of capital. The approval of capital raising activities is fundamental to shareholders’ ability to monitor the returns and to ensure capital is deployed efficiently. State Street Global Advisors supports capital increases that have sound business reasons and are not excessive relative to a company’s existing capital base.
Pre-emption rights are a fundamental right for shareholders to protect their investment in a company. Where companies seek to issue new shares without pre- emption rights, we may vote against if such authorities are greater than 20% of the issued share capital. We may also vote against resolutions seeking authority to issue capital with pre-emption rights if the aggregate amount allowed seems excessive and is not justified by the board. Generally, we are against capital issuance proposals greater than 100% of the issued share capital when the proceeds are not intended for specific purpose.
Share Repurchase Programs
We generally support proposals to repurchase shares, unless the issuer does not clearly state the business purpose for the program, a definitive number of shares to be repurchased, and the timeframe for the repurchase. We may vote against share repurchase requests that allow share repurchases during a takeover period.
We generally support dividend payouts that constitute 30% or more of net income. We may vote against the dividend payouts if the dividend payout ratio has been consistently below 30% without adequate explanation. We may also vote against if the payout is excessive given the company’s financial position. Particular attention will be warranted when the payment may damage the company’s long-term financial health.
Mergers and Acquisitions
Mergers or reorganization of the company structure often involve proposals relating to reincorporation, restructurings, liquidations, and other major changes to the corporation. Proposals that are in the best interests of shareholders, demonstrated by enhancing share value or improving the effectiveness of the company’s operations, will be supported. In general, provisions that are not viewed as financially sound or are thought to be destructive to shareholders’ rights are not supported. We will generally support transactions that maximize shareholder value. Some of the considerations include:
- Offer premium
- Strategic rationale
- Board oversight of the process for the recommended transaction, including, director and/or management conflicts of interest
- Offers made at a premium and where there are no other higher bidders
- Offers in which the secondary market price is substantially lower than the net asset value
We may vote against a transaction considering the following:
- Offers with potentially damaging consequences for minority shareholders because of illiquid stock
- Offers where we believe there is a reasonable prospect for an enhanced bid or other bidders
- The current market price of the security exceeds the bid price at the time of voting
We oppose anti-takeover defenses, such as authorities for the board to issue warrants convertible into shares to existing shareholders during a hostile takeover.
There is a simple underlying philosophy that guides State Street Global Advisors’ analysis of executive pay; there should be a direct relationship between remuneration and company performance over the long term. Shareholders should have the opportunity to assess whether pay structures and levels are aligned with business performance. When assessing remuneration reports, we consider various factors, such as adequate disclosure of different remuneration elements, absolute and relative pay levels, peer selection and benchmarking, the mix of long-term and short-term incentives, alignment of pay structures with shareholder interests as well as with corporate strategy and performance. State Street Global Advisors may oppose remuneration reports in which there seems to be a misalignment between pay and shareholders’ interests and where incentive policies and schemes have a re-test option or feature. We may also vote against the re-election of members of the remuneration committee if we have serious concerns about remuneration practices and if the company has not been responsive to shareholder pressure to review its approach.
Equity Incentive Plans
We may not support proposals on equity-based incentive plans where insufficient information is provided on matters, such as grant limits, performance metrics, performance, and vesting periods and overall dilution. Generally, we do not support options under such plans being issued at a discount to market price nor plans that allow for re-testing of performance metrics.
Non-Executive Director Pay
Authorities that seek shareholder approval for non-executive directors’ fees generally are not controversial. We generally support resolutions regarding directors’ fees unless disclosure is poor and we are unable to determine whether the fees are excessive relative to fees paid by other comparable companies. We will evaluate any non-cash or performance-related pay to non-executive directors on a company-by-company basis.
State Street Global Advisors believes that risk management is a key function of the board, which is responsible for setting the overall risk appetite of a company and for providing oversight on the risk management process established by senior executives at a company. We allow boards to have discretion over the ways in which they provide oversight in this area. However, we expect companies to disclose ways in which the board provides oversight on its risk management system and to identify key risks facing the company. Boards should also review existing and emerging risks that evolve in tandem with the political and economic landscape or as companies diversify or expand their operations into new areas.
Environmental and Social Issues
As a fiduciary, State Street Global Advisors takes a comprehensive approach to engaging with our portfolio companies about material environmental and social (sustainability) issues. We use our voice and our vote through engagement, proxy voting, and thought leadership in order to communicate with issuers and educate market participants about our perspective on important sustainability topics. Our Asset Stewardship program prioritization process allows us to proactively identify companies for engagement and voting in order to mitigate sustainability risks in our portfolio. Through engagement, we address a broad range of topics that align with our thematic priorities and build long-term relationships with issuers. When voting, we fundamentally consider whether the adoption of a shareholder proposal addressing a material sustainability issue would promote long-term shareholder value in the context of the company’s existing practices and disclosures as well as existing market practice.