The SEC provided guidance to assist investment advisers in fulfilling their proxy voting responsibilities. The guidance discusses, among other matters, the ability of investment advisers to establish a variety of different voting arrangements with their clients and matters they should consider when they use the services of a proxy advisory firm. In addition, the Commission issued an interpretation that proxy voting advice provided by proxy advisory firms generally constitutes a “solicitation” under the federal proxy rules and provided related guidance about the application of the proxy antifraud rule to proxy voting advice. Both of these actions explain the Commission’s view of various non-exclusive methods entities can use to comply with existing laws or regulations or how such laws and regulations apply.
Proxy Voting Responsibilities of Investment Advisers
Investment advisers owe each of their clients a duty of care and loyalty with respect to services undertaken on the clients’ behalf, including proxy voting. Rule 206(4)-6 under the Advisers Act requires an investment adviser who exercises voting authority with respect to client securities to adopt and implement written policies and procedures that are reasonably designed to ensure that the investment adviser votes proxies in the best interest of its clients.
The guidance clarifies how an investment adviser’s fiduciary duty and Rule 206(4)-6 under the Advisers Act relate to an adviser’s proxy voting on behalf of clients, particularly if the investment adviser retains a proxy advisory firm. The guidance follows a question and answer format and provides examples to help facilitate compliance.
In particular, the guidance discusses, among other things:
- How an investment adviser and its client, in establishing their relationship, may agree upon the scope of the investment adviser’s authority and responsibilities to vote proxies on behalf of that client;
- What steps an investment adviser, who has assumed voting authority on behalf of clients, could take to demonstrate it is making voting determinations in a client’s best interest and in accordance with the investment adviser’s proxy voting policies and procedures;
- Considerations that an investment adviser should take into account if it retains a proxy advisory firm to assist it in discharging its proxy voting duties;
- Steps for an investment adviser to consider if it becomes aware of potential factual errors, potential incompleteness, or potential methodological weaknesses in the proxy advisory firm’s analysis that may materially affect one or more of the investment adviser’s voting determinations;
- How an investment adviser could evaluate the services of a proxy advisory firm that it retains, including evaluating any material changes in services or operations by the proxy advisory firm; and
- Whether an investment adviser who has assumed voting authority on behalf of a client is required to exercise every opportunity to vote a proxy for that client.
Applicability of the Federal Proxy Rules to Proxy Voting Advice
The federal proxy rules apply to any solicitation for a proxy with respect to any security registered under Exchange Act Section 12. Under Exchange Act Rule 14a-1(l), a solicitation includes, among other things, a “communication to security holders under circumstances reasonably calculated to result in the procurement, withholding or revocation of a proxy,” and includes communications by a person seeking to influence the voting of proxies by shareholders, regardless of whether the person itself is seeking authorization to act as a proxy.
Under the Commission interpretation, proxy voting advice provided by proxy advisory firms generally constitutes a solicitation subject to the federal proxy rules. The Commission’s interpretation does not affect the ability of proxy advisory firms to continue to rely on the exemptions from the federal proxy rules’ filing requirements. These exemptions, found in Rule 14a-2(b), among other things, provide relief from the obligation to file a proxy statement, as long as the advisory firm complies with the exemption’s conditions.
Solicitations that are exempt from the federal proxy rules’ filing requirements remain subject to Exchange Act Rule 14a-9, which prohibits any solicitation from containing any statement which, at the time and in the light of the circumstances under which it is made, is false or misleading with respect to any material fact. The Commission guidance explains what a person providing proxy voting advice should consider when considering the information it may need to disclose in order to avoid a potential violation of Rule 14a-9 where the failure to disclose such information would render the advice materially false or misleading.
For example, the provider of the proxy voting advice should consider whether, depending on the particular statement, it may need to disclose the following types of information in order to avoid a potential violation of Rule 14a-9:
- an explanation of the methodology used to formulate its voting advice on a particular matter (including any material deviations from the provider’s publicly-announced guidelines, policies, or standard methodologies for analyzing such matters) where the omission of such information would render the voting advice materially false or misleading;
- to the extent that the proxy voting advice is based on information other than the registrant’s public disclosures, such as third-party information sources, disclosure about these information sources and the extent to which the information from these sources differs from the public disclosures provided by the registrant if such differences are material and the failure to disclose the differences would render the voting advice false or misleading; and
- disclosure about material conflicts of interest that arise in connection with providing the proxy voting advice in reasonably sufficient detail so that the client can assess the relevance of those conflicts.