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Analysis of OECD Principles of Corporate Governance

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Published: Tue, 13 Feb 2018

Foreword

The OECD Principles of Corporate Governance were endorsed by OECD Ministers in 1999 and have since become an international benchmark for policy makers, investors, corporations and other stakeholders worldwide. They have advanced the corporate governance agenda and provided specific guidance for legislative and regulatory initiatives in both OECD and non OECD countries. The Financial Stability Forum has designated the Principles as one of the 12 key standards for sound financial systems. The Principles also provide the basis for an extensive programme of cooperation between OECD and non-OECD countries and underpin the corporate governance component of World Bank/IMF Reports on the Observance of Standards and Codes (ROSC). The Principles have now been thoroughly reviewed to take account of recent developments and experiences in OECD member and non-member countries. Policy makers are now more aware of the contribution good corporate governance makes to financial market stability, investment and economic growth. Companies better understand how good corporate governance contributes to their competitiveness. Investors – especially collective investment institutions and pension funds acting in a fiduciary capacity – realise they have a role to play in ensuring good corporate governance practices, thereby underpinning the value of their investments. In today’s economies, interest in corporate governance goes beyond that of shareholders in the performance of individual companies. As companies play a pivotal role in our economies and we rely increasingly on private sector institutions to manage personal savings and secure retirement incomes, good corporate governance is important to broad and growing segments of the population.

The review of the Principles was undertaken by the OECD Steering Group on Corporate Governance under a mandate from OECD Ministers in 2002. The review was supported by a comprehensive survey of how member countries addressed the different corporate governance challenges they faced. It also drew on experiences in economies outside the OECD area where the OECD, in co-operation with the World Bank and other sponsors, organises Regional Corporate Governance Roundtables to support regional reform efforts. The review process benefited from contributions from many parties. Key international institutions participated and extensive consultations were held with the private sector, labour, civil society and representatives from non-OECD countries. The process also benefited greatly from the insights of internationally recognised experts who participated in two high level informal gatherings I convened. Finally, many constructive suggestions were received when a draft of the Principles was made available for public comment on the internet. The Principles are a living instrument offering non-binding standards and good practices as well as guidance on implementation, which can be adapted to the specific circumstances of individual countries and regions. The OECD offers a forum for ongoing dialogue and exchange of experiences among member and non-member countries. To stay abreast of constantly changing circumstances, the OECD will closely follow developments in corporate governance, identifying trends and seeking remedies to new challenges. These Revised Principles will further reinforce OECD’s contribution and commitment to collective efforts to strengthen the fabric of corporate governance around the world in the years ahead. This work will not eradicate criminal activity, but such activity will be made more difficult as rules and regulations are adopted in accordance with the Principles. Importantly, our efforts will also help develop a culture of values for professional and ethical behaviour on which well functioning markets depend. Trust and integrity play an essential role in economic life and for the sake of business and future prosperity we have to make sure that they are properly rewarded.

OECD Principles of Corporate Governance

The OECD Principles of Corporate Governance were originally developed in response to a call by the OECD Council Meeting at Ministerial level on 27-28 April 1998, to develop, in conjunction with national governments, other relevant international organisations and the private sector, a set of corporate governance standards and guidelines. Since the Principles were agreed in 1999, they have formed the basis for corporate governance initiatives in both OECD and non-OECD countries alike.

Moreover, they have been adopted as one of the Twelve Key Standards for Sound Financial Systems by the Financial Stability Forum. Accordingly, they form the basis of the corporate governance component of the World Bank/IMF Reports on the Observance of Standards and Codes (ROSC). The OECD Council Meeting at Ministerial Level in 2002 agreed to survey developments in OECD countries and to assess the Principles in light of developments in corporate governance. This task was entrusted to the OECD Steering Group on Corporate Governance, which comprises representatives from OECD countries. In addition, the World Bank, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were observers to the Group. For the assessment, the Steering Group also invited the Financial Stability Forum, the Basel Committee, and the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) as ad hoc observers.

In its review of the Principles, the Steering Group has undertaken comprehensive consultations and has prepared with the assistance of members the Survey of Developments in OECD Countries. The consultations have included experts from a large number of countries which have participated in the Regional Corporate Governance Roundtables that the OECD organises in Russia, Asia, South East Europe, Latin America and Eurasia with the support of the Global Corporate Governance Forum and others, and in co-operation with the World Bank and other non-OECD countries as well. Moreover, the Steering Group has consulted a wide range of interested parties such as the business sector, investors, professional groups at national and international levels, trade unions, civil society organisations and international standard setting bodies. A draft version of the Principles was put on the OECD website for public comment and resulted in a large number of responses. These have been made public on the OECD web site.

On the basis of the discussions in the Steering Group, the Survey and the comments received during the wide ranging consultations, it was concluded that the 1999 Principles should be revised to take into account new developments and concerns. It was agreed that the revision should be pursued with a view to maintaining a non-binding principles-based approach, which recognises the need to adapt implementation to varying legal economic and cultural circumstances. The revised Principles contained in this document thus build upon a wide range of experience not only in the OECD area but also in non-OECD countries.

Preamble

The Principles are intended to assist OECD and non-OECD governments in their efforts to evaluate and improve the legal, institutional and regulatory framework for corporate governance in their countries, and to provide guidance and suggestions for stock exchanges, investors, corporations, and other parties that have a role in the process of developing good corporate governance. The Principles focus on publicly traded companies, both financial and non-financial. However, to the extent they are deemed applicable, they might also be a useful tool to improve corporate governance in non-traded companies, for example, privately held and stateowned enterprises. The Principles represent a common basis that OECD member countries consider essential for the development of good governance practices. They are intended to be concise, understandable and accessible to the international community. They are not intended to substitute for government, semi-government or private sector initiatives to develop more detailed “best practice” in corporate governance.

Increasingly, the OECD and its member governments have recognized the synergy between macroeconomic and structural policies in achieving fundamental policy goals. Corporate governance is one key element in improving economic efficiency and growth as well as enhancing investor confidence. Corporate governance involves a set of relationships between a company’s management, its board, its shareholders and other stakeholders. Corporate governance also provides the structure through which the objectives of the company are set, and the means of attaining those objectives and monitoring performance are determined. Good corporate governance should provide proper incentives for the board and management to pursue objectives that are in the interests of the company and its shareholders and should facilitate effective monitoring. The presence of an effective corporate governance system, within an individual company and across an economy as a whole, helps to provide a degree of confidence that is necessary for the proper functioning of a market economy. As a result, the cost of capital is lower and firms are encouraged to use resources more efficiently, thereby underpinning growth. Corporate governance is only part of the larger economic context in which firms operate that includes, for example, macroeconomic policies and the degree of competition in product and factor markets. The corporate governance framework also depends on the legal, regulatory, and institutional environment. In addition, factors such as business ethics and corporate awareness of the environmental and societal interests of the communities in which a company operates can also have an impact on its reputation and its long-term success.

While a multiplicity of factors affect the governance and decisionmaking processes of firms, and are important to their long-term success, the Principles focus on governance problems that result from the separation of ownership and control. However, this is not simply an issue of the relationship between shareholders and management, although that is indeed the central element. In some jurisdictions, governance issues also arise from the power of certain controlling shareholders over minority shareholders. In other countries, employees have important legal rights irrespective of their ownership rights. The Principles therefore have to be complementary to a broader approach to the operation of checks and balances. Some of the other issues relevant to a company’s decision-making processes, such as environmental, anti-corruption or ethical concerns, are taken into account but are treated more explicitly in a number of other OECD instruments (including the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Transactions) and the instruments of other international organisations.

Corporate governance is affected by the relationships among participants in the governance system. Controlling shareholders, which may be individuals, family holdings, bloc alliances, or other corporations acting through a holding company or cross shareholdings, can significantly influence corporate behaviour. As owners of equity, institutional investors are increasingly demanding a voice in corporate governance in some markets. Individual shareholders usually do not seek to exercise governance rights but may be highly concerned about obtaining fair treatment from controlling shareholders and management. Creditors play an important role in a number of governance systems and can serve as external monitors over corporate performance. Employees and other stakeholders play an important role in contributing to the long-term success and performance of the corporation, while governments establish the overall institutional and legal framework for corporate governance. The role of each of these participants and their interactions vary widely among OECD countries and among non- OECD countries as well. These relationships are subject, in part, to law and regulation and, in part, to voluntary adaptation and, most importantly, to market forces.

The degree to which corporations observe basic principles of good corporate governance is an increasingly important factor for investment decisions. Of particular relevance is the relation between corporate governance practices and the increasingly international character of investment. International flows of capital enable companies to access financing from a much larger pool of investors. If countries are to reap the full benefits of the global capital market, and if they are to attract long-term “patient” capital, corporate governance arrangements must be credible, well understood across borders and adhere to internationally accepted principles. Even if corporations do not rely primarily on foreign sources of capital, adherence to good corporate governance practices will help improve the confidence of domestic investors, reduce the cost of capital, underpin the good functioning of financial markets, and ultimately induce more stable sources of financing.

There is no single model of good corporate governance. However, work carried out in both OECD and non-OECD countries and within the Organisation has identified some common elements that underlie good corporate governance. The Principles build on these common elements and are formulated to embrace the different models that exist. For example, they do not advocate any particular board structure and the term “board” as used in this document is meant to embrace the different national models of board structures found in OECD and non-OECD countries. In the typical two tier system, found in some countries, “board” as used in the Principles refers to the “supervisory board” while “key executives” refers to the “management board”. In systems where the unitary board is overseen by an internal auditor’s body, the principles applicable to the board are also, mutatis mutandis, applicable. The terms “corporation” and “company” are used interchangeably in the text.

The Principles are non-binding and do not aim at detailed prescriptions for national legislation. Rather, they seek to identify objectives and suggest various means for achieving them. Their purpose is to serve as a reference point. They can be used by policy makers as they examine and develop the legal and regulatory frameworks for corporate governance that reflect their own economic, social, legal and cultural circumstances, and by market participants as they develop their own practices.

The Principles are evolutionary in nature and should be reviewed in light of significant changes in circumstances. To remain competitive in a changing world, corporations must innovate and adapt their corporate governance practices so that they can meet new demands and grasp new opportunities. Similarly, governments have an important responsibility for shaping an effective regulatory framework that provides for sufficient flexibility to allow markets to function effectively and to respond to expectations of shareholders and other stakeholders. It is up to governments and market participants to decide how to apply these Principles in developing their own frameworks for corporate governance, taking into account the costs and benefits of regulation.

The following document is divided into two parts. The Principles presented in the first part of the document cover the following areas: I) Ensuring the basis for an effective corporate governance framework; II) The rights of shareholders and key ownership functions; III) The equitable treatment of shareholders; IV) The role of stakeholders; V) Disclosure and transparency; and VI) The responsibilities of the board. Each of the sections is headed by a single Principle that appears in bold italics and is followed by a number of supporting sub-principles. In the second part of the document, the Principles are supplemented by annotations that contain commentary on the Principles and are intended to help readers understand their rationale. The annotations may also contain descriptions of dominant trends and offer alternative implementation methods and examples that may be useful in making the Principles operational.

  1. Shareholders should be furnished with sufficient and timely information concerning the date, location and agenda of general meetings, as well as full and timely information regarding the issues to be decided at the meeting.
  2. Shareholders should have the opportunity to ask questions to the board, including questions relating to the annual external audit, to place items on the agenda of general meetings, and to propose resolutions, subject to reasonable limitations.
  3. Effective shareholder participation in key corporate governance decisions, such as the nomination and election of board members, should be facilitated. Shareholders should be able to make their views known on the remuneration policy for board members and key executives. The equity component of compensation schemes for board members and employees should be subject to shareholder approval.

Ensuring the Basis for an Effective Corporate Governance Framework

The corporate governance framework should promote transparent and efficient markets, be consistent with the rule of law and clearly articulate the division of responsibilities among different supervisory, regulatory and enforcement authorities.

To ensure an effective corporate governance framework, it is necessary that an appropriate and effective legal, regulatory and institutional foundation is established upon which all market participants can rely in establishing their private contractual relations. This corporate governance framework typically comprises elements of legislation, regulation, selfregulatory arrangements, voluntary commitments and business practices that are the result of a country’s specific circumstances, history and tradition. The desirable mix between legislation, regulation, self-regulation, voluntary standards, etc. in this area will therefore vary from country to country. As new experiences accrue and business circumstances change, the content and structure of this framework might need to be adjusted. Countries seeking to implement the Principles should monitor their corporate governance framework, including regulatory and listing requirements and business practices, with the objective of maintaining and strengthening its contribution to market integrity and economic performance. As part of this, it is important to take into account the interactions and complementarity between different elements of the corporate governance framework and its overall ability to promote ethical, responsible and transparent corporate governance practices. Such analysis should be viewed as an important tool in the process of developing an effective corporate governance framework. To this end, effective and continuous consultation with the public is an essential element that is widely regarded as good practice. Moreover, in developing a corporate governance framework in each jurisdiction, national legislators and regulators should duly consider the need for, and the results from, effective international dialogue and cooperation. If these conditions are met, the governance system is more likely to avoid over-regulation, support the exercise of entrepreneurship and limit the risks of damaging conflicts of interest in both the private sector and in public institutions.

The corporate governance framework should be developed with a view to its impact on overall economic performance, market integrity and the incentives it creates for market participants and the promotion of transparent and efficient markets.

The corporate form of organisation of economic activity is a powerful force for growth. The regulatory and legal environment within which corporations operate is therefore of key importance to overall economic outcomes. Policy makers have a responsibility to put in place a framework that is flexible enough to meet the needs of corporations operating in widely different circumstances, facilitating their development of new opportunities to create value and to determine the most efficient deployment of resources. To achieve this goal, policy makers should remain focussed on ultimate economic outcomes and when considering policy options, they will need to undertake an analysis of the impact on key variables that affect the functioning of markets, such as incentive structures, the efficiency of self-regulatory systems and dealing with systemic conflicts of interest. Transparent and efficient markets serve to discipline market participants and to promote accountability.

The legal and regulatory requirements that affect corporate governance practices in a jurisdiction should be consistent with the rule of law, transparent and enforceable.

If new laws and regulations are needed, such as to deal with clear cases of market imperfections, they should be designed in a way that makes them possible to implement and enforce in an efficient and even handed manner covering all parties. Consultation by government and other regulatory authorities with corporations, their representative organisations and other stakeholders, is an effective way of doing this. Mechanisms should also be established for parties to protect their rights. In order to avoid over-regulation, unenforceable laws, and unintended consequences that may impede or distort business dynamics, policy measures should be designed with a view to their overall costs and benefits. Such assessments should take into account the need for effective enforcement, including the ability of authorities to deter dishonest behaviour and to impose effective sanctions for violations. Corporate governance objectives are also formulated in voluntary codes and standards that do not have the status of law or regulation. While such codes play an important role in improving corporate governance arrangements, they might leave shareholders and other stakeholders with uncertainty concerning their status and implementation. When codes and principles are used as a national standard or as an explicit substitute for legal or regulatory provisions, market credibility requires that their status in terms of coverage, implementation, compliance and sanctions is clearly specified.

The division of responsibilities among different authorities in a jurisdiction should be clearly articulated and ensure that the public interest is served.

Corporate governance requirements and practices are typically influenced by an array of legal domains, such as company law, securities regulation, accounting and auditing standards, insolvency law, contract law, labour law and tax law. Under these circumstances, there is a risk that the variety of legal influences may cause unintentional overlaps and even conflicts, which may frustrate the ability to pursue key corporate governance objectives. It is important that policy-makers are aware of this risk and take measures to limit it. Effective enforcement also requires that the allocation of responsibilities for supervision, implementation and enforcement among different authorities is clearly defined so that the competencies of complementary bodies and agencies are respected and used most effectively. Overlapping and perhaps contradictory regulations between national jurisdictions is also an issue that should be monitored so that no regulatory vacuum is allowed to develop (i.e. issues slipping through in which no authority has explicit responsibility) and to minimise the cost of compliance with multiple systems by corporations. When regulatory responsibilities or oversight are delegated to non-public bodies, it is desirable to explicitly assess why, and under what circumstances, such delegation is desirable. It is also essential that the governance structure of any such delegated institution be transparent and encompass the public interest.

Supervisory, regulatory and enforcement authorities should have the authority, integrity and resources to fulfil their duties in a professional and objective manner. Moreover, their rulings should be timely, transparent and fully explained.

Regulatory responsibilities should be vested with bodies that can pursue their functions without conflicts of interest and that are subject to judicial review. As the number of public companies, corporate events and the volume of disclosures increase, the resources of supervisory, regulatory and enforcement authorities may come under strain. As a result, in order to follow developments, they will have a significant demand for fully qualified staff to provide effective oversight and investigative capacity which will need to be appropriately funded. The ability to attract staff on competitive terms will enhance the quality and independence of supervision and enforcement.

The Rights of Shareholders and Key Ownership Functions

The corporate governance framework should protect and facilitate the exercise of shareholders’ rights.

Equity investors have certain property rights. For example, an equity share in a publicly traded company can be bought, sold, or transferred. An equity share also entitles the investor to participate in the profits of the corporation, with liability limited to the amount of the investment. In addition, ownership of an equity share provides a right to information about the corporation and a right to influence the corporation, primarily by participation in general shareholder meetings and by voting. As a practical matter, however, the corporation cannot be managed by shareholder referendum. The shareholding body is made up of individuals and institutions whose interests, goals, investment horizons and capabilities vary. Moreover, the corporation’s management must be able to take business decisions rapidly. In light of these realities and the complexity of managing the corporation’s affairs in fast moving and ever changing markets, shareholders are not expected to assume responsibility for managing corporate activities. The responsibility for corporate strategy and operations is typically placed in the hands of the board and a management team that is selected, motivated and, when necessary, replaced by the board. Shareholders’ rights to influence the corporation centre on certain fundamental issues, such as the election of board members, or other means of influencing the composition of the board, amendments to the company’s organic documents, approval of extraordinary transactions, and other basic issues as specified in company law and internal company statutes. This Section can be seen as a statement of the most basic rights of shareholders, which are recognised by law in virtually all OECD countries. Additional rights such as the approval or election of auditors, direct nomination of board members, the ability to pledge shares, the approval of distributions of profits, etc., can be found in various jurisdictions.

Basic shareholder rights should include the right to: 1) secure methods of ownership registration; 2) convey or transfer shares; 3) obtain relevant and material information on the corporation on a timely and regular basis; 4) participate and vote in general shareholder meetings; 5) elect and remove members of the board; and 6) share in the profits of the corporation.

Shareholders should have the right to participate in, and to be sufficiently informed on, decisions concerning fundamental corporate changes such as: 1) amendments to the statutes, or articles of incorporation or similar governing documents of the company; 2) the authorisation of additional shares; and 3) extraordinary transactions, including the transfer of all or substantially all assets, that in effect result in the sale of the company.

The ability of companies to form partnerships and related companies and to transfer operational assets, cash flow rights and other rights and obligations to them is important for business flexibility and for delegating accountability in complex organisations. It also allows a company to divest itself of operational assets and to become only a holding company. However, without appropriate checks and balances such possibilities may also be abused.

Shareholders should have the opportunity to participate effectively and vote in general shareholder meetings and should be informed of the rules, including voting procedures, that govern general shareholder meetings:

  1. Shareholders should be furnished with sufficient and timely information concerning the date, location and agenda of general meetings, as well as full and timely information regarding the issues to be decided at the meeting.
  2. Shareholders should have the opportunity to ask questions to the board, including questions relating to the annual external audit, to place items on the agenda of general meetings, and to propose esolutions, subject to reasonable limitations.

In order to encourage shareholder participation in general meetings, some companies have improved the ability of shareholders to place items on the agenda by simplifying the process of filing amendments and resolutions.Improvements have also been made in order to make it easier for shareholders to submit questions in advance of the general meeting and to obtain replies from management and board members. Shareholders should also be able to ask questions relating to the external audit report. Companies are justified in assuring that abuses of such opportunities do not occur. It is reasonable, for example, to require that in order for shareholder resolutions to be placed on the agenda, they need to be supported by shareholders holding a specified market value or percentage of shares or voting rights. This threshold should be determined taking into account the degree of ownership concentration, in order to ensure that minority shareholders are not effectively prevented from putting any items on the agenda. Shareholder resolutions that are approved and fall within the competence of the shareholders’ meeting should be addressed by the board.

Effective shareholder participation in key corporate governance decisions, such as the nomination and election of board members, should be facilitated. Shareholders should be able to make their views known on the remuneration policy for board members and key executives. The equity component of compensation schemes for board members and employees should be subject to shareholder approval.

To elect the members of the board is a basic shareholder right. For the election process to be effective, shareholders should be able to participate in the nomination of board members and vote on individual nominees or on different lists of them. To this end, shareholders have access in a number of countries to the company’s proxy materials which are sent to shareholders, although sometimes subject to conditions to prevent abuse. With respect to nomination of candidates, boards in many companies have established nomination committees to ensure proper compliance with established nomination procedures and to facilitate and coordinate the search for a balanced and qualified board. It is increasingly regarded as good practice in many countries for independent board members to have a key role on this committee. To further improve the selection process, the Principles also call for full disclosure of the experience and background of candidates for the board and the nomination process, which will allow an informed assessment of the abilities and suitability of each candidate. The Principles call for the disclosure of remuneration policy by the board. In particular, it is important for shareholders to know the specific link between remuneration and company performance when they assess the capability of the board and the qualities they should seek in nominees for the board. Although board and executive contracts are not an appropriate subject for approval by the general meeting of shareholders, there should be a means by which they can express their views. Several countries have introd


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