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4.1 Recent Governance Reforms: An Executive Summary

In the aftermath of the governance scandals around the turn of the century, the government, regulatory authorities, stock exchanges, investors, ordinary citizens, and the press all began to scrutinize the behavior of corporate boards much more carefully than they had at anytime before. The result was an avalanche of structural and procedural reforms aimed at making boards more responsive, more proactive, and more accountable, and at restoring public confidence in U.S. business institutions.For a more detailed summary of these and related governance reforms, see, for example, Morgan Lewis, Counselors at Law, “Corporate Governance: An Overview of Recently Adopted Reforms” (2004); or Petra, “Corporate Governance Reforms: Fact or Fiction, Corporate Governance” (2006), pp. 107–115.

The congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which imposes significant new disclosure and corporate governance requirements for public companies and also provides for substantially increased liability under the federal securities laws for public companies and their executives and directors. Subsequently, the NYSE, NASDAQ, and AMEX adopted more comprehensive reporting requirements for listed companies, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a host of new regulations aimed at strengthening transparency and accountability through more timely and accurate disclosure of information about corporate performance.

The most important changes concern director independence and the composition and responsibilities of the audit, nominating, and compensation committees. Additional reforms address shareholder approval of equity compensation plans, codes of ethics and conduct, the certification of financial statements by executives, payments to directors and officers of the corporation, the creation of an independent accounting oversight board, and the disclosure of internal controls. They are described in some detail in Chapter 12 "Appendix A: Sarbanes-Oxley and Other Recent Reforms" of this book.

It is important to understand the rationale behind some of the most far-reaching reforms. The rationale for increasing director independence was that shareholders, by virtue of their inability to directly monitor management behavior, rely on the board of directors to perform critical monitoring activities and that the board’s monitoring potential is reduced or perhaps eliminated when management itself effectively controls the actions of the board. Additionally, outside directors may lack independence through various affiliations with the company and may be inclined to support management’s decisions in hopes of retaining their relationship with the firm. Requiring a board to have a majority of independent directors, therefore, increases the quality of board oversight and lessens the possibility of damaging conflicts of interest.

Audit committee reforms are among the most important changes mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley. The reasons behind these reforms are self-evident. Audit committees are in the best position within the company to identify and act in instances where top management may seek to misrepresent reported financial results. An audit committee composed entirely of outside independent directors can provide independent recommendations to the company’s board of directors. The responsibilities of the audit committee include review of the internal audit department, review of the annual audit plan, review of the annual reports and the results of the audit, selection and appointment of external auditors, and review of the internal accounting controls and safeguard of corporate assets.

Compensation committee reforms respond to the unprecedented growth in compensation for top executives and a dramatic increase in the ratio between the compensation of executives and their employees over the last 2 decades. A reasonable and fair compensation system for executives and employees is fundamental to the creation of long-term corporate value. The responsibility of the compensation committee is to evaluate and recommend the compensation of the firm’s top executive officers, including the CEO. To fulfill this responsibility objectively, it is necessary that the compensation committee be composed entirely of outside independent directors.

Nominating new board members is one of the board’s most important functions. It is the responsibility of the nominating committee to nominate individuals to serve on the company’s board of directors. Placing this responsibility in the hands of an independent nominating committee increases the likelihood that chosen individuals will be more willing to act as advocates for the shareholders and other stakeholders and be less beholden to management.