Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White sent a strongly worded message to warring shareholder activists and companies Thursday: cool it.
“It is time to step away from gamesmanship and inflammatory rhetoric that can harm companies and shareholders alike,” she said in a prepared speech to Tulane University Law School.
In their zeal to attack and defend, White said the adversaries need to be careful not to make false claims or accuse others wrongly of wrongdoing.
In her remarks, the SEC chair pointed out that healthy, profitable companies (not just poor performers) are becoming targets of hedge funds and other activists.
Last year, activists reaped at least one board seat in a record 73 percent of proxy fights, up from the previous record of 63 percent in 2013.
White said she is concerned about “fee shifting,” the trend of an increasing number of companies mandating that class action shareholder plaintiffs pay all of the businesses legal costs when they lose all or any part of their claims in court.
Usually in civil actions, each side pays for its own legal costs.
White warned companies that if fee shifting hinders the ability of shareholders to exercise their rights, the commission may make moves to rein in the practice.