Financing Corporate Elections

There is a battle in progress between activist hedge funds and public companies over so-called “golden leash” payments. This is where an activist shareholder running a proxy contest promises to pay her slate of director-candidates a supplemental compensation, over and above the ordinary director fees paid by the company to all directors. The purpose of the golden leash, according to the hedge funds that invented it, is to help activists recruit highly qualified people to challenge incumbent board members and, once on the board, to push for business decisions that will benefit all shareholders. Because the golden leash serves to enhance corporate democracy by helping activists mount effective proxy contests to challenge the incumbent board, the advisory services ISS and Glass Lewis have voiced support for the practice, as have some other commentators. Many others, however, have expressed concern that the golden leash, by placing a director ‘on the payroll’ of a third party, creates an obvious incentive for her to favor the interests of her sponsor, even at the expense of the corporation or the shareholders as a whole. Thus Columbia Professor John Coffee has analogized the golden leash to a bribe, and UCLA Professor Stephen Bainbridge has called it illegal nonsense. On the suggestion of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz, dozens of public companies adopted bylaws that prohibited golden leash payments on their boards. Although most of those bylaws were later retracted in the face of ISS opposition, the battle still rages.

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