The contentious proxy battle between Hess Corp. and Elliott Associates concluded a little over a week ago with a negotiated settlement. The proxy contest was notable, among other things, for the large number of corporate law professors who weighed in on either side of the contest. Hess settled with Elliott on the eve of the stockholder meeting with an agreement to elect all the management nominees and to add three of Elliott's nominees. But what would have happened if the parties hadn't settled?
Who Would Have Won?
We would expect to find the answer in the Form 8-K filed by Hess to disclose the preliminary voting results. The reported results are set forth in the following table:
The typical reader would likely conclude from this disclosure that management nominees had received overwhelming support. After all, the vote "for" those nominees far exceeded the "withheld" vote for by a wide margin. The highest vote-getter from the management nominees received 135,282,170 votes "for" and only 2,369,213 "withheld," or about 98% voted in favor. The lowest vote-getter received about 97% voted in favor. The table looks like a pretty resounding vindication of management.
In fact, the actual results were quite the opposite. The problem is that the tabulation of the votes for each director is missing about 145 million shares. One can see this by comparing the total vote on each director above with the total vote on the proposal to declassify the Board, as set forth below:
For this proposal, approximately 282 millon votes were cast, compared to the 138 million or so cast on each management nominee. What happened to the other approximately 145 million votes missing from the director tallies?
The answer is that the "missing" shares were those owned by shareholders who returned the Elliott proxy card rather than the management proxy card. The votes for Elliott's nominees didn't show up because Elliott withdrew its nominees pursuant to the settlement. If Elliott hadn't withdrawn its nominees, they would have appeared in the first table above, and they likely would have received more votes than any of the management nominees. Thus, contrary to what one would conclude from the Elliott disclosure, the management nominees actually garnered relatively little support from disinterested stockholders.
How Close Was the Vote?
How much support did the management nominees receive from non-management shareholders? On first glance, even adding back in the missing vote information, one might think the vote was fairly close. After all, we're talking about 135 million or so votes for the management nominees and perhaps 145 million for the Elliott nominees. But that would ignore the fact that Hess officers and directors owned about 10% of the outstanding common stock, and it seems safe to assume they voted for their own nominees. Thus, the incumbents really only received fewer than 100 million of the non-managment votes compared to over 145 million for Elliott's nominees. That's a drubbing, not a close vote.
Withheld Authority or Withheld Facts?
Is the Hess disclosure accurate? Yes and no. The withhold vote totals themselves are arguably technically correct. Even though 145 million other shares voted for nominees other than the managment nominees, the votes were not registered as "withheld" votes from management nominees because Elliott's proxy card did not provide a space to withhold votes from management's nominees. As is typical in a proxy contest, management's nominees are not listed on the dissident's card, just as the dissident's nominees are not listed on management's card. Thus, owners of those 145 million shares did not check a box to withhold authority to vote for management's nominees; they just voted for other nominees.
On the other hand, it should be obvious that shareholders who voted for Elliott's nominees were withholding authority to vote for the management nominees who were running against them. Proxies are not really votes; they are simply agency appointments to cast votes. Checking "withhold authority" is just a restriction on an agency power otherwise given to vote the shares. It authorizes the proxy holder to appear at the meeting and vote, just not for the nominees from whom authority was withheld. This is exactly the same situation as a person who returned the Elliott card, who has given authority to vote "for" Elliott nominees, but has withheld authority to vote "for" the managment nominees.
The failure to include these votes as "withhold" from management nominees therefore completely disenfranchises those who voted for the Elliott nominees. They were deprived of the opportunity to vote "for" the Elliott candidates (because the nominees were withdrawn), and deprived of the opportunity to "withhold" from management candidates (because they weren't listed on the proxy card). Therefore, to report the "withheld" vote for Hess's nominees as a few million shares without further disclosure is misleading, because another 145 million shares were considered present at the meeting and "withheld" from those nominees. Let's hope that Hess will at least include a footnote explaining the real withhold vote in the final report of results.
The issue identified here is a problem with the mechanics of proxy contests that settle late in the process. On a going-forward basis, the SEC should clarify that the "withheld" votes for nominees include votes on a proxy card that doesn't include those candidates' names. In the mean time, Hess should report the votes the Elliott candidates would have received if they hadn't been withdrawn, or at least what the withhold vote would have been by adding the totals from the Elliott proxy cards. To fail to do so not only disenfranchises every shareholder who returned an Elliott proxy card, but omits a fact necessary to make the voting results reported not misleading.
Stay tuned for more when the final results are filed.