Impact of COVID-19 on Shareholder Activism

Author: Jessica Zhang

Sharp declines in stock prices due to COVID-19 are making companies more vulnerable to shareholder activism and hostile attacks. Boards of directors and management should proactively prepare to respond to potential increases in shareholder activism.

COVID-19 has significantly impacted and continues to cause uncertainty and unprecedented volatility in the global financial markets. Depressed valuations of companies can create opportunities for increases in shareholder activism and opportunistic M&A activities, similar to the surge in activism following the 2008 global financial crisis.

Although it is still too early to assess the overall impact of COVID-19 on shareholder activism, it would be prudent for companies to anticipate and proactively prepare for potential increases in shareholder activism.

Shareholder Activism in Canada

While shareholder activism is traditionally less prevalent in Canada than in the United States, Canada can be an attractive jurisdiction for shareholder activism due to its shareholder-friendly regulatory framework that includes:

  • rights of shareholder to requisition meetings with a 5% ownership interest;
  • ability of shareholders to communicate with up to 15 shareholders without the requirement to file and mail proxy solicitation materials or publicly disclose their solicitation intentions;
  • ability of shareholders to accumulate 10% of a company’s shares before disclosing their interest;
  • ability of shareholders to include proposals on the election of directors in management proxy circulars;
  • entitlement to shareholder lists and ability to be reimbursed for costs associated with proxy contests; and
  • fewer structural defences in Canada than in the United States.

Preparing for Shareholder Activism

While the primary focus of many companies in the current environment is on their employee health and safety, business continuity and financial stability, boards of directors and management should not lose sight of the potential increases in shareholder activism and be prepared to defend against any hostile attacks.

  1. Shareholder Communication and Engagement. Shareholder communication and engagement is crucial to maintaining shareholder confidence. It is important for companies to be able to respond to shareholders in a meaningful manner, address concerns and misinformation and ensure open and transparent communication with their shareholders. A corporation’s board and management should prepare key messages with respect to the impacts of COVID-19 on the company, what steps the company is taking to mitigate the impacts and risks, and address its liquidity needs, the overall health of its business, and the company’s ability to rebound from the crisis. Companies should utilize public disclosure as an opportunity to engage with shareholders and communicate results, strategy, objectives and opportunities in a clear manner to enhance shareholder confidence. It is also important to ensure that the messages delivered provide a transparent assessment of the current and anticipated future impacts of COVID-19 on the company and not to create unrealistic and unreasonable expectations for shareholders.
  2. Activist Response Team. Companies should consider establishing an internal team dedicated to dealing with activist shareholders and developing immediate and comprehensive responses to potential shareholder activism. This team should be composed of the most knowledgeable internal resources, including the chief financial officer, general counsel, and additional senior personnel from the finance, investor relations, and corporate communications departments. It should also leverage external resources, including external counsel, proxy solicitation firms, and public relations firms to assist in defending the corporate strategy and objectives, and to co-ordinate coherent and timely responses to shareholders.
  3. Monitor and Assess. Management should regularly monitor and review the company’s shareholder base, objectives and investment strategies of the shareholders as well as changes in trading patterns in the company’s stock (e.g. stock surveillance), in order to stay alert to early signs of an opportunistic acquiror. Additionally, management should conduct a comprehensive assessment of the company’s vulnerabilities to shareholder activism and identify any activists that could be potentially interested in targeting the company.
  4. Shareholder Rights Plan. A shareholder rights plan, also known as a poison pill, is a defensive measure used by public companies to defend against hostile takeover attempts by third parties. Shareholder rights plans in Canada have not historically been effective in stopping hostile bids but have been effective in providing boards with more time to consider strategic alternatives. In preparation for shareholder activism or takeover threats, companies that do not already have a shareholder rights plan may consider preparing one and keeping it “on the shelf” (fully drafted and ready for adoption). TSX requires the adoption of a shareholder rights plan to be ratified by shareholders within six months of adoption. Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”) will generally support a shareholder-approved rights plan that conforms to its “new generation” rights plan best practice guidelines. Similarly, Glass Lewis will generally support shareholder rights plans adopted in response to COVID-19 and the related economic crisis if the plans have a duration limited to one year or less and the company discloses a sound rationale for adoption of the plan as a result of COVID-19.
  5. Advance Notice Requirements. An advance notice provision affords protection against a “surprise attack” at or shortly before a shareholders’ meeting as it requires shareholders to provide advance notice to the company if they wish to propose nominees to the board of directors. In preparation for shareholder activism or takeover threats, companies may consider adopting an advance notice board policy or provisions in the articles or bylaws that require advance notice of any intention to propose nominees for directors. ISS and Glass Lewis will generally support advance notice provisions that meet their guidelines.
  6. Corporate Governance. Corporate governance weaknesses is one of the attributes that tend to attract activist shareholders. Companies should ensure corporate governance standards are frequently evaluated and strictly followed to prevent activists from exploiting weaknesses or inconsistencies. Management should stay up-to-date on the evolving legal and regulatory developments as well as voting recommendations by proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis, and consider how to best comply with best practices guidelines.
  7. Employee Investment. Employees are generally among the company’s most loyal investors. The decline in stock prices can be an opportunity for companies to revise existing or implement new incentive programs to encourage employee investment in the company by enhancing stock purchase plan provisions and amending long-term incentive compensation plans.

Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.