Lee agrees on easing cost of ESG compliance

How often does this happen? SEC Commissioners Allison Lee (D) and Elad Roisman (R) on the same page? Ok, well, maybe they’re just on the same fragment of a sentence, but still….  Bloomberg is reporting that, at the WSJ’s CFO Network Summit, Lee expressed her view that companies’ compliance with any new SEC disclosure requirements on ESG should not be subject to “gotcha” enforcement, instead indicating that companies will be cut plenty of slack in experimenting with any new ESG rules that the SEC may adopt.   She also offered several suggestions that, interestingly, were quite consistent with suggestions made last week by Roisman to mitigate the cost of compliance.

Gensler also wants to “freshen up” equity market rules

Not only does he want to “freshen up” Rule 10b5-1 (see this PubCo post), SEC Chair Gary Gensler has the same prescription for the rules governing the equity markets. In remarks yesterday at the Global Exchange and FinTech Conference, Gensler observed that “technology has changed how market makers interact, how trading platforms compete, how investors access those markets, and the economic incentives amongst these various market participants.” For example, a few years ago, retail investors weren’t even trading on commission-free brokerage apps. But the rules governing markets were “mostly adopted 16 years ago” and “do not fully reflect today’s technology.” Gensler believes that “it’s appropriate to look at ways to freshen up the SEC’s rules to ensure that our equity markets reflect our mission: to maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, while ensuring we protect investors and facilitate capital formation.” Gensler focused his remarks on segmentation and concentration in the equity markets, as well as two fairly recent developments: the rise of payment for order flow (and the related issue of best execution) and gamification. This is clearly an area in Gensler’s sweet spot—having conducted research and taught classes on the intersection of finance and technology—and his remarks were of interest even for those of us who do not typically focus on market structure issues.

New survey: diversity on Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 boards

Audit firm Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity have just released the Missing Pieces Report: The Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards, a study examining the representation of women and racial/ethnic minorities (including Black, Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic persons) on public company boards among the Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies. The analysis of the Fortune 100 began in 2004 and the Fortune 500 in 2010, based on public filings reviewed through the end of June 2020.  The Report finds that the rate of change has been quite slow, espcially for some demographic groups. It remains to be seen whether the social unrest roiling the U.S. body politic—which has brought systemic racial inequity and injustice, exacerbated by the pandemic, into sharp focus—together with actions to mandate or encourage board diversity, such as California’s AB 979 or, if approved, the Nasdaq board diversity proposal, will accelerate the rate of change evidenced in the Report.

Gensler plans to “freshen up” Rule 10b5-1

Yesterday, in remarks before the WSJ’s CFO Network Summit, SEC Chair Gary Gensler scooped the Summit with news of plans to address issues he and others have identified in Rule 10b5-1 plans. Problems with 10b5-1 plans have long been recognized—including by former SEC Chair Jay Clayton—so it will be interesting to see if any proposal that emerges will find support among the Commissioners on both sides of the SEC’s aisle. In an interview, Gensler also responded to questions about climate disclosure rules, removal of the PCAOB Chair, Enforcement, SPACs and other matters.

SEC removes Duhnke as PCAOB Chair

On Friday, the SEC announced that it had “removed” William D. Duhnke III from the PCAOB and designated Duane M. DesParte to serve as Acting Chair, effective Friday. Duhnke has been serving as Chair since January 2018. The SEC also announced that it intends to seek candidates to fill all five board positions on the PCAOB.  In the press release,  SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that the “PCAOB has an opportunity to live up to Congress’s vision in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act….I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners, Acting Chair DesParte, and the staff of the PCAOB to set it on a path to better protect investors by ensuring that public company audits are informative, accurate, and independent.” What’s it all about?

Commissioner Roisman suggests ways to reduce the costs of ESG disclosure

In remarks yesterday before the ESG Board Forum, Putting the Electric Cart before the Horse: Addressing Inevitable Costs of a New ESG Disclosure Regime, SEC Commissioner Elad Roisman weighed in with his views on mandatory prescriptive ESG requirements and the likely associated costs.  As he has indicated before, he’s not really keen on the idea, particularly the environmental and social components of potential requirements.  As a general matter, while investors want to see comparable standardized environmental data, in his view, standardization of that type of information is really hard to do; some of it “is inherently imprecise, relies on underlying assumptions that continually evolve, and can be reasonably calculated in different ways.  And ultimately, unless this information can meaningfully inform an investment decision, it is at best not useful and at worst misleading.” But, if a new regulatory regime requiring ESG disclosure is adopted—and it certainly looks that way— he has some ideas for ways to make it less costly for companies to comply.

SEC to reconsider rules and guidance regarding proxy advisory firms

Whether and how to regulate proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis, has long been a contentious issue, with some arguing that their vote recommendations were plagued by conflicts of interest and often erroneous, while others saw no reason for regulation given that the clients of these firms were satisfied with their services. In September 2019, the SEC published in the Federal Register a new interpretation and guidance directed at proxy advisory firms confirming that their vote recommendations were considered to be “solicitations” under the proxy rules and subject to the anti-fraud provisions, and providing some “suggestions” about disclosures that would help avoid liability. (See this PubCo post.)  In July 2020, the SEC adopted new amendments to the proxy rules regarding proxy advisory firms, codifying the SEC’s interpretation that made proxy voting advice subject to the proxy solicitation rules.  In addition, the SEC adopted two new conditions to the exemptions from those rules for proxy advisory firms, which required disclosure of conflicts of interest and adoption of principles-based policies to make proxy voting advice available to the subject companies and to notify clients of company responses. Compliance with the new conditions was not required prior to December 1, 2021. (See this PubCo post). Yesterday, SEC Chair Gary Gensler directed the staff to consider whether to recommend further regulatory action regarding proxy voting advice.  In his statement, Gensler highlighted his direction that the staff consider “whether to recommend that the Commission revisit its 2020 codification of the definition of solicitation as encompassing proxy voting advice, the 2019 Interpretation and Guidance regarding that definition, and the conditions on exemptions from the information and filing requirements in the 2020 Rule Amendments, among other matters.” As a result, Corp Fin issued a Statement indicating that “it will not recommend enforcement action to the Commission based on the 2019 Interpretation and Guidance or the 2020 Rule Amendments during the period in which the Commission is considering further regulatory action in this area.” What approach will the SEC now take to proxy advisory firm regulation?

The House hears about SPACs

Congress now seems to be all over this SPAC phenomenon.  Last week a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing on “Going Public: SPACs, Direct Listings, Public Offerings, and the Need for Investor Protections.” What is the headline from the hearing?  All the witnesses agreed that, to prevent regulatory arbitrage, all IPO vehicles, whether traditional IPOs or SPACs, should operate on a level playing field and be subject to the same type of regulation of disclosure and liability.  Many House members also took the opportunity to promote their own proposed or pending legislation about the capital markets, and several House members offered their recommendations for a happy marriage. At a separate hearing, SEC Chair Gary Gensler gave testimony before a different subcommittee, which in part addressed SPACs.  Is some kind of Congressional action in the offing?

SEC Commissioner Lee dispels myths about materiality

Earlier this week, SEC Commissioner Allison Lee delivered keynote remarks at the 2021 ESG Disclosure Priorities Event hosted by the AICPA, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, SASB and the Center for Audit Quality.  Her topic: “Myths and Misconceptions about ‘Materiality.’” In the context of the discussion about potential mandatory ESG disclosures, Lee observed, there has been a lot of attention to the concept of materiality, which is fundamental to our securities laws. The public company disclosure system “is generally oriented around providing information that is important to reasonable investors,” and “the viewpoint of the reasonable investor is the lens through which we all are meant to operate.” Since investors are the ones who make the investment choices, “investors are also the ones who decide what information they need to make those choices.”  But, in the course of the ongoing discourse about ESG, Lee has found that a number of myths have proliferated about the role and meaning of materiality; her purpose in these remarks is to dissect and dispel those myths, which she believes have hampered the “important debate on how best to craft a rule proposal on climate and ESG risks and opportunities.”

Why event-driven securities litigation has become a thing—and a lucrative one too

If Matt Levine has a mantra in his “Money Stuff” column on Bloomberg, it’s this: everything is securities fraud. “You know the basic idea,” he often says in his most acerbic voice,

“A company does something bad, or something bad happens to it. Its stock price goes down, because of the bad thing. Shareholders sue: Doing the bad thing and not immediately telling shareholders about it, the shareholders say, is securities fraud. Even if the company does immediately tell shareholders about the bad thing, which is not particularly common, the shareholders might sue, claiming that the company failed to disclose the conditions and vulnerabilities that allowed the bad thing to happen. And so contributing to global warming is securities fraud, and sexual harassment by executives is securities fraud, and customer data breaches are securities fraud, and mistreating killer whales is securities fraud, and whatever else you’ve got. Securities fraud is a universal regulatory regime; anything bad that is done by or happens to a public company is also securities fraud, and it is often easier to punish the bad thing as securities fraud than it is to regulate it directly.” (Money Stuff, 6/26/19)

(See this PubCo post.) But should everything really be securities fraud? An interesting new paper examines the phenomenon.