At an open meeting yesterday, the SEC voted (three to two) to publish guidance aimed at addressing some of the long-simmering controversy surrounding the reliance by investment advisers on proxy advisory firms. Do investment advisers rely excessively on proxy advisory firms for voting recommendations? How can they rely on proxy advisory firms and still fulfill their own fiduciary obligations? Are issuers allowed a fair chance to raise concerns about proxy advisory firm recommendations, particularly errors and incomplete or outdated information that forms the basis of a recommendation? Are conflicts of interest sufficiently transparent or addressed? What about the argument expressed by some that proxy advisory firms are essentially faux regulators with too much power and little accountability? (Ok, sorry, that last one didn’t come up.)
Guidance directed at investment advisors, while redolent of earlier non-binding staff guidance, now has the benefit of legal force in light of its adoption by the SEC. The new guidance revisits the extent to which an investment adviser can “outsource” to proxy advisory firms and still fulfill its fiduciary duty to its clients by, as Chair Jay Clayton summed it up, conducting “reasonable due diligence, reasonably identifying and addressing conflicts, and full and fair disclosure.” And the interpretation and guidance directed at proxy advisory firms confirms that their vote recommendations are “solicitations” under the proxy rules and subject to the anti-fraud provisions, and provides some “suggestions” about disclosures that would help avoid liability. The guidance and interpretation will be effective upon publication in the Federal Register.
Business Roundtable says so long to shareholder primacy—commits to deliver value to all stakeholders
In a press release issued today, the Business Roundtable announced the adoption of a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, signed by 181 well-known, high-powered CEOs. What’s newsworthy here is that the Statement “moves away from shareholder primacy” as a guiding principle and outlines in its place a “modern standard for corporate responsibility” that makes a commitment to all stakeholders. Yup, that Business Roundtable. According to the press release, the Business Roundtable has had a long-standing practice of issuing Principles of Corporate Governance. Since 1997, those Principles have advocated the theory of “shareholder primacy—that corporations exist principally to serve shareholders” — and relegated the interests of any other stakeholders to positions that were strictly “derivative of the duty to stockholders.” The new Statement supersedes previous statements and “more accurately reflects [the Business Roundtable’s] commitment to a free market economy that serves all Americans. This statement represents only one element of Business Roundtable’s work to ensure more inclusive prosperity, and we are continuing to challenge ourselves to do more.” Fasten your seatbelts, disciples of Milton Friedman; it’s going to be a bumpy night.
According to this recent study from consulting firm McKinsey, investors want to see a different kind of sustainability reporting. The authors observe that, in light of mounting evidence “that the financial performance of companies corresponds to how well they contend with environmental, social, governance (ESG), and other non-financial matters, more investors are seeking to determine whether executives are running their businesses with such issues in mind.” Although there has been an increase in sustainability reporting, McKinsey’s survey revealed that investors believe that “they cannot readily use companies’ sustainability disclosures to inform investment decisions and advice accurately.” Why not? Because, unlike regular SEC-mandated financial disclosures, ESG disclosures don’t conform to a common set of standards—in fact, they may well conform to any of a dozen major reporting frameworks and many more standards, selected at the discretion of the company. That leaves investors to try to sort things out before they can make any side-by-side comparisons—if that’s even possible. According to McKinsey, investors would really like to see some type of legal mandate around sustainability reporting. The rub is that, ironically, it’s the SEC that isn’t on board with that idea—at least, not yet.
At yesterday’s meeting of the SEC’s Small Business Capital Formation Committee, the Committee discussed three topics: the SEC’s Harmonization Concept Release, the proposal to amend financial disclosure requirements relating to acquisitions and dispositions of businesses, and the proposal to amend the accelerated and large accelerated filer definitions. SEC Chair Jay Clayton emphasized that his goal was to find the right balance between making sure that investors receive the information they need and eliminating unnecessary costs and burdens. Several of the presentations to the Committee can be found here.
At the end of last week, the SEC voted, without an open meeting, to propose amendments to modernize the descriptions of business, legal proceedings and risk factors in Reg S-K. The proposal is another component of the SEC’s “Disclosure Effectiveness Initiative.” In crafting the proposal, the SEC took into account comments received on the 2016 Concept Release on disclosure simplification and modernization (see this PubCo post), as well as Corp Fin staff experience in review of disclosures. The changes to the rules were proposed “in light of the many changes that have occurred in our capital markets and the domestic and global economy in the more than 30 years since their adoption, including changes in the mix of businesses that participate in our public markets, changes in the way businesses operate, which may affect the relevance of current disclosure requirements, changes in technology (in particular the availability of information), and changes such as inflation that have occurred simply with the passage of time.” There is a 60-day comment period.
It was only a matter of time. As reported here on Bloomberg, a conservative activist group has filed a lawsuit, Crest v. Alex Padilla, in California state court on behalf of three California taxpayers seeking to prevent implementation and enforcement of SB 826, California’s Board gender diversity legislation. This appears to be the first litigation filed to challenge the new law. Framed as a “taxpayer suit,” the litigation seeks to enjoin Alex Padilla, the California Secretary of State, from expending taxpayer funds and taxpayer-financed resources to enforce or implement the law, alleging that the law’s mandate is an unconstitutional gender-based quota and violates the California constitution.