U.S. Labor Department finalizes limits on pension-fund voting on corporate proxies

Signage is seen at the United States Department of Labor headquarters in Washington, D.C.
FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of Labor headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., August 29, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

December 11, 2020

By Jessica DiNapoli

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Labor on Friday finalized a rule requiring pension funds to vote on shareholder proposals only when there is an economic reason, a change that would curb investors from casting their ballots on many corporate proxies.

The new rule is the latest from the Trump administration targeting investments focusing on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors.

Last month, the Department of Labor finalized a rule clarifying that pensions must put retirees’ financial interests first when allocating investments, rather than other concerns such as climate change or racial justice.

The rule “makes clear” that pension fund managers do not have to vote every corporate proxy, said Jeanne Klinefelter Wilson, acting assistant secretary at the Department of Labor, on a call Friday afternoon.

“This rule sets appropriate guidelines …to ensure that fiduciaries keep their eyes focused on the financial interest,” of pension fund beneficiaries, Klinefelter Wilson said.

The Department of Labor’s move to rein in voting comes as shareholder initiatives on topics like climate change have gained more backing.

Legislators are already gearing up to try to overturn the rules in January. U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, on Friday announced proposed legislation that would reverse it and give additional control to workers in how the shares in their retirement plans are voted.

Her office in prepared materials said, “It is clear that the Department of Labor wrote this rule to prevent workers from using their voices to influence public companies.”

Senior Department of Labor officials said that the rule was substantially changed from the proposal in August to a more “principles-based approach” aimed at reducing the cost burden for fund managers.

Tom Quaadman, an executive at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, applauded the rule, saying it will “ensure proxy voting follows a transparent and unconflicted process.”

(Reporting by Jessica DiNapoli in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)