What Is a Golden Leash?

A "golden leash" is a way to keep a board member's interests aligned with that of the company through special incentives offered by a primary shareholder. The design of a golden leash is to provide the board member with the necessary incentives to act in the interests of the major shareholder. Most often, this is an activist hedge fund, or other institution, which is seeking to introduce a significant change in the target company's strategic direction.​​​​​​​ The golden leash provides the board member with a monetary gain if they act out the interests of the shareholder.

Key Takeaways

  • A golden leash is an incentive package offered to a board member to influence their decisions to align with a company's shareholders.
  • The incentive is often directly granted by a major or activist shareholder, such as a hedge fund or other institutional investor.
  • Corporate governance watchdogs disparage this practice, arguing that it is biased and does not serve the best interests of all shareholders.

Understanding a Golden Leash

​​​​​​​Shareholder activism is a way that shareholders can influence a corporation's behavior by exercising their rights as partial owners. Proponents of sound corporate governance often criticize golden leash agreements in these situations. These critics feel that special incentives offered to directors may compromise their independence and lead them to favor their backer's agenda, rather than serve in the best interests of all shareholders.

However, others claim that a major shareholder will usually want a company to succeed, especially activist investors who believe that they can improve a company, particularly ailing ones, and turn them into profitable businesses. A strategy like this would then benefit all shareholders. In this case, a golden leash is seen as a way to control a board member to ensure they enact the trusted vision of the larger shareholder.

Regulatory Oversight

On July 1, 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approved a Nasdaq rule that relates to golden leash situations. This rule requires U.S. companies listed on Nasdaq to publicly disclose any arrangements in which a third party provides compensation to a company's board of directors during their service in that role.

The rule helps prevent situations that could create conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts. Also, it helps avoid questions or doubts about a company leader's interests and priorities. In approving this rule, the SEC noted that the new policy essentially reinforces regulations already existing that relate to domestic issuers in the U.S., so the Nasdaq rule is most relevant in the case of foreign private issuers or other limited situations.

Criticisms of a Golden Leash

Those individuals that believe a golden leash is beneficial, argue that it helps bring talented individuals to the company through the promise of monetary compensation. A talented director on the board of a company is going to lead it in the right direction, particularly if their monetary incentives are aligned with the company. Despite this fact, there remain many critics of golden leashes.

One of the main concerns is that focusing on short-term price increases, increasing the current value of the firm, can harm the firm in the long term and its stability. This, of course, is a valid point, however, can be remedied by structuring a golden leash to a long-term time horizon.

Critics also argue that much of the monetary compensation is paid by a third party rather than the firm on which the board member sits. This, critics argue, strips away the independence of board directors, as well as their authority, if they are beholden to an external party. This too can be remedied by structuring compensation to come from within the firm.

Real-World Example

The term golden leash became a part of popular financial parlance following the bitter proxy fight between Canadian fertilizer giant Agrium and its largest shareholder, the activist hedge fund, Jana Partners.

In the summer of 2012, Jana proposed that Agrium spin off its retail business to boost shareholder returns. However, Agrium steadfastly rejected Jana's proposal. The thought was that splitting up its retail and wholesale businesses would jeopardize its finances and erode shareholder value.

Jana responded by proposing a new slate of directors to serve on Agrium's board. Controversy followed this announcement. Jana revealed that its four nominee directors would receive a percentage of the profits earned by Jana Partners shareholdings of Agrium, within a three-year period commencing September 2012.

Agrium deemed this as a golden leash arrangement, unheard of in Canada at that time, and said it created an apparent conflict of interest that refuted the independence of Jana's nominee directors.