State Street Global Advisors’ Proxy Voting and Engagement Guidelines in European markets address areas, such as 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 to 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 European markets, we consider market-specific nuances in the manner that we believe will most likely protect and promote the long-term financial 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 some 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 European companies, we also consider guidance issued by the European Commission and country-specific governance codes. We proactively monitor companies’ adherence to applicable guidance and requirements. Consistent with the diverse “comply-or-explain” expectations established by guidance and codes, we encourage companies to proactively disclose their level of compliance with applicable provisions and requirements. In cases 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.
State Street Global Advisors’ Proxy Voting and Engagement Philosophy
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 Europe, Middle East, and Africa (“EMEA”) 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 European markets.
State Street Global Advisors is a signatory to the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment (“UNPRI”). We are committed to sustainable investing; thus we are working to further integrate ESG principles into investment and corporate governance practices where applicable and consistent with our fiduciary duty.
Directors and Boards
Webelieve that a well constituted board of directors, with a 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 good corporate governance and help management establish sound corporate governance policies and practices. A sufficiently independent board will most effectively monitor management and perform oversight functions necessary to protect shareholder interests. Further we expect boards of STOXX Europe 600 listed companies to have at least one female board member.
Our broad criteria for director independence in European companies include factors such as:
- Participation in related–party transactions and other business relations with the company
- Employment history with the company
- Relations with controlling shareholders
- Family ties with any of the company’s advisers, directors, or senior employees
- Employee and government representatives; and
- Overall average board tenure and individual director tenure at issuers with classified and de-classified boards, respectively
While overall board independence requirements and board structures differ from market to market, we consider voting against directors we deem non–independent if overall board independence is below one-third or if overall independence level is below 50% after excluding employee-representatives and/or directors elected in accordance with local laws who are not elected by shareholders. We also assess the division of responsibilities between chairman and CEO on a case-by- case basis, giving consideration to factors, such as overall level of independence on the board and general corporate governance standards in the company. We may support a proposal to discharge the board if a company fails to meet adequate governance standards or board level independence.
When considering the election or re-election of a non- executive director, we also consider the number of outside board directorships a non-executive holds, attendance at board meetings, and cross-directorships. In addition, we may vote against the election of a director whose biographical disclosures are insufficient to assess his or her role on the board and/or independence.
Although we generally are in favor of the annual election of directors, we recognize that director terms vary considerably in different European markets. We may vote against article/bylaw changes that seek to extend director terms. In addition, we may vote against directors if their terms extend beyond four years in certain markets.
We believe companies should have relevant board level 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 assessingeffectiveness and resource levels. Similarly executive pay is an important aspect of corporate governance, and it should be determined by the board of directors. We expect companies to have remuneration committees to provide independent oversight of executive pay. We may vote against nominees who are executive members of audit or remuneration committees.
In its 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.
In certain European markets it is not uncommon for the election of directors to be presented in a single slate. In these cases, where executives serve on the audit or the remuneration committees, we may vote against the entire slate.
We may also consider factors such as board performance and directors who appear to be remiss in the performance of their oversight responsibilities (e.g. fraud, criminal wrongdoing, and breach of fiduciary responsibilities).
Indemnification and Limitations on Liability Generally, we support proposals to limit directors’ liability and/or expand indemnification and liability protection up to the limit provided by law if a director has not acted in bad faith, with gross negligence, or with 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 as members independent non-executive directors.
Appointment of External Auditors
We believe 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 re-appoint them at the annual meeting. When appointing external auditors and approving audit fees, we consider the level of detail in company disclosures; we will generally not support such 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. We may consider auditor tenure when evaluating the audit process in certain circumstances.
Limit Legal Liability of External Auditors
We generally oppose limiting the legal liability of audit firms as we believe this could create a negative impact on the quality of the audit function.
Shareholder Rights and Capital-Related Issues
In some European markets, differential voting rights continue to exist. State Street Global Advisors supports the “one share one vote” policy and favors a share structure where all shares have equal voting rights. We believe pre-emption rights should be introduced for shareholders in order to provide adequate protection from excessive dilution from the issuance of new shares or convertible securities to third parties or a small number of select shareholders.
Unequal Voting Rights
We generally oppose proposals authorizing the creation of new classes of common stock with superior voting rights. We will generally oppose the creation of new classes of preferred stock with unspecified voting, conversion, dividend distribution, and other rights. In addition, we will not support capitalization changes that add classes of stock with undefined voting rights or classes that may dilute the voting interests of existing shareholders. We support proposals to abolish voting caps and capitalization changes that eliminate other classes of stock and/or unequal voting rights.
Increase in Authorized Capital
The ability to raise capital is critical for companies to carry out strategy, to grow, and to achieve returns above their cost of capital. The approval of capital raising activities is fundamental to shareholders’ ability to monitor returns and to ensure capital is deployed efficiently. We support 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 whilst disapplying 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 that seek authority to issue capital with pre-emption rights if the aggregate amount allowed seems excessive and is not justified by the board. Generally, we oppose capital issuance proposals greater than 100% of the issued share capital when the proceeds are not intended for a specific purpose.
Share Repurchase Programs
We typically support proposals to repurchase shares; however, there are exceptions in some cases. We do not support repurchases in casesif the issuer does not clearly state the business purpose for the program, a definitive number of shares to be repurchased, the range of premium/ discount to market price at which the company can repurchase shares, 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 or the payout is excessive given the company’s financial position. Particular attention will be paid to cases in which the payment may damage the company’s long-term financial health.
Some companies in European markets have a controlled ownership structure and have complex cross-shareholdings between subsidiaries and parent companies (“related companies”). Such structures may result in the prevalence of related-party transactions between the company and its various stakeholders, such as directors and management, subsidiaries, and shareholders. In markets where shareholders are required to approve such transactions, we expect companies to provide details of the transaction, such as the nature, the value, and the purpose of such a transaction. We also encourage independent directors to ratify such transactions. Further we encourage companies to describe the level of independent board oversight and the approval process, including details of any independent valuations provided by financial advisors on related-party transactions.
Mergers and Acquisitions
Mergers or restructurings often involve proposals relating to reincorporation, restructurings, mergers, liquidation, and other major changes to the corporation. Proposals will be supported if they are in the best interests of the shareholders, which is demonstrated by enhancing share value or improving the effectiveness of the company’s operations. 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 the following:
- 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.
European markets have diverse regulations concerning the use of share issuances as takeover defenses, with legal restrictions lacking in some markets. We support the one-share, one-vote policy. For example, dual-class capital structures entrench certain shareholders and management, insulating them from possible takeovers. We oppos unlimited share issuance authorizations because they can be used as antitakeover devices. They have the potential for substantial voting and earnings dilution. We also monitor the duration of time for authorities to issue shares, as well as whether there are restrictions and caps on multiple issuance authorities during the specified time periods.
We oppose antitakeover defenses such as authorities for the board, when subject to a hostile takeover to issue warrants convertible into shares to existing shareholders.
Despite the differences among the various types of plans and awards , there is a simple underlying philosophy that guides our 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 factors such as adequate disclosure of 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. We may oppose remuneration reports where pay seems misaligned with shareholders’ interests. 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 Incentives Plans
We may not support proposals regarding equity-based incentive plans where insufficient information is provided on matters, including 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 or plans that allow for retesting of performance metrics.
Non–Executive Director Pay
In European markets, proposals seeking shareholder approval for non-executive directors’ fees are generally not controversial. We typically 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 comparable companies. We will evaluate any non-cash or performance-related pay to non-executive directors on a company-by-company basis.
We believe 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 discretion regarding the ways in which they provide oversight in this area. However, we expect companies to disclose how the board provides oversight on its risk management system and risk identification. Boards should also review existing and emerging risks, as they can change with a changing 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.