In a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times, Nicholas Confessore reports on the pending rulemaking petition at the Securities and Exchange Commission on corporate political spending, which was submitted in August 2011 by a group of professors led by Harvard's Lucian Bebchuk and Columbia's Robert Jackson. There's nothing really new in the report that hasn't been known to those following these issues for months; it could be the case that the SEC acts on this rather soon, now that former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Mary Jo White has been confirmed as the Commission's Chairman.
A couple of points in Confessore's piece call for clarification/correction:
- Professor Jackson states, "Shareholders have been demanding this information for some time." Well, some shareholders have, to be sure, but Jackson's statement, without qualification, has a Bizarro-world-type character. Dating back to 2006, not a single shareholder proposal related to political spending has received majority shareholder support among the 250 largest companies in the Manhattan Institute's Proxy Monitor database, excepting a 2006 proposal at Amgen that management backed. As I noted in my winter report, in 2012, such proposals won "on average the support of 18.3 percent of shareholders, down from 24.3 percent in 2011." And "the seven largest such investors--Vanguard, BlackRock, State Street, Fidelity, Capital World Investors, Capital Research Global Investors, and T. Rowe Price--supported only 3.6 percent of all proposals calling for increased disclosure of corporate political spending."
- The article states that "advocates" for the proposal analogize corporate political spending to executive compensation. While that's true, their analogy is strained. Executive compensation and related-party transactions are both directly pertinent to the classic agency-cost case for management monitoring, whereas Bebchuk and Jackson's political-spending-as-management-misappropriation hypothesis simply lacks the theoretical rigor and empirical foundation underlying management-pay and self-dealing disclosures.
In sum, the SEC rulemaking petition simply amounts to a certain group of political activists attempting to get an election-regulation regime they can't achieve through normal legislative, legal, or regulatory channels by going to an already-overtaxed agency statutorily charged with "promot[ing] efficiency, competition, and capital formation." Were the SEC to act in this area, they'd be not only outside their statutory mandate but acting against the revealed preferences of most shareholders themselves.