Is stakeholder capitalism still capitalism?

Emphatically yes, says the highly influential CEO of BlackRock, Larry Fink, in his latest annual letter to CEOs. BlackRock, according to the NYT, now manages $10 trillion in assets, so the company would be persuasive even if its CEO never put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), but for a number of years, Fink has staked out positions in his annual letters on a variety of social and environmental issues that made companies (and media) pay attention. At the Northwestern Law Securities Regulation Institute in 2021, former SEC Chair Mary Schapiro said that, at companies where she was on the board, Fink’s 2020 statement (which announced a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach”) had had “an enormous impact last year.” However, he has also had his denigrators, and this year’s letter allocates a lot of terrain to deflecting criticism that his positions are more aligned with “woke” politics than with making money for shareholders. Not so, he contends, stakeholder capitalism is capitalism: BlackRock’s conviction “is that companies perform better when they are deliberate about their role in society and act in the interests of their employees, customers, communities, and their shareholders.” Ultimately, he asserts, cultivating these beneficial relationships will drive long-term value. How will this year’s letter land?

FASB issues proposed update on supply chain financing programs

For over two years, the SEC staff and advisory committees, credit rating agencies, investors, the Big Four accounting firms and other interested parties have been making noise about a popular financing technique called “supply chain financing.”  It can be a perfectly useful financing tool in the right hands—companies with healthy balance sheets.  But it can also disguise shaky credit situations and allow companies to go deeper into debt, often unbeknownst to investors and analysts, with sometimes disastrous ends. Currently, there are no explicit GAAP disclosure requirements to provide transparency about a company’s use of supply chain financing. That may be why Bloomberg has referred to supply chain financing as “hidden debt.” Late last month, the FASB announced that it had issued a proposed Accounting Standards Update intended to help investors and others “better consider the effect of supplier finance programs on a buyer’s working capital, liquidity, and cash flows.” The proposed ASU would require the buyer in a supply chain financing program to “disclose sufficient information about the program to allow an investor to understand the program’s nature, activity during the period, changes from period to period, and potential magnitude.” The comment period will be open until March 21, 2022.

SEC charges company for alleged misstatements regarding director independence and disclosure control failures

As we head into a new proxy season, this SEC order involving settled charges against Leaf Group Ltd. might be a good case to keep in mind.  In this case, the SEC charged that Leaf did not adequately identify and analyze—and did not maintain effective disclosure controls and procedures to identify and analyze— whether some of its directors were “independent” and whether there were “interlocking relationships between its directors and executive officers,” which led to “material misstatements and omissions in certain of its public filings,” including its proxy statement. As part of the settlement, Leaf was ordered to pay a civil penalty of $325,000. The company’s alleged failings as outlined in the order might serve to augment your seasonal checklist for examining issues of director independence.

The Conference Board surveys views on corporate political activity for 2022

If you think 2021 was a tough year for corporate political activity, 2022 may be even more challenging.
That’s according to a recent survey from The Conference Board of government relations executives and managers of political action committees. In the survey, 87% of respondents said they expect 2022 to be at least as challenging as 2021, and 42% anticipate that it may actually be worse. In the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, many companies and CEOs spoke out, signed public statements and determined to pause or discontinue some or all political donations. The heated political climate also heightened sensitivity to any dissonance or conflict between those public statements or other publicly announced core company values and the company’s political contributions, further complicating the political environment for companies and executives. In the survey, respondents cited a number of factors that contributed to the difficult environment for corporate political activity in 2021: in particular, 77% cited the frequent emergence of new social and political issues on which companies faced pressure to take a stance. According to the Executive Director of The Conference Board ESG Center, “With the 2022 mid-term election year bringing sustained scrutiny, companies that engage in political activity need to make the affirmative case for why they do so….They should focus on engaging and educating both internal and external stakeholders on how their activities serve both corporate and societal purposes.”

Fiduciary duty claims against SPAC sponsor survive dismissal in Delaware under entire fairness standard

Is everything securities fraud, as Bloomberg’s Matt Levine frequently maintains? (See this PubCo post.) Or perhaps, in the SPAC environment, will all claims of fraudulent misrepresentation and omission now become claims of breach of fiduciary duty under Delaware law—and reviewed under the entire fairness standard? Is that a possible takeaway from the Delaware Chancery Court’s refusal last week to dismiss the complaint in In Re Multiplan Corp. Stockholders Litigation? In that case, the plaintiffs, purchasers of securities in a SPAC IPO, claimed that the defendant SPAC sponsor and SPAC board members disloyally impaired the plaintiffs’ rights to redeem their SPAC shares prior to consummation of the de-SPAC transaction by breaching their fiduciary duty to disclose to the plaintiffs material information about the de-SPAC target company. According to the Court, the “Delaware courts have not previously had an opportunity to consider the application of our law in the SPAC context. In this decision, well-worn fiduciary principles are applied to the plaintiffs’ claims despite the novel issues presented. Doing so leads to several conclusions.” In particular, one of those conclusions was that, due to inherent conflicts between the SPAC’s fiduciaries and the public stockholders, the entire fairness standard of review applied, establishing a very high bar for dismissal of the complaint. 

Paper debunks seven myths of ESG

As we anticipate new proposals from the SEC on human capital and climate disclosure, this recent paper from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford, Seven Myths of ESG, seems to be especially timely. The trend to take ESG into account in decision-making by companies and investors, not to mention the focus on ESG issues by regulators and even associations like the Business Roundtable, is “pervasive,” say the authors. Still, ESG is subject to “considerable uncertainty.” In the paper, the authors set about debunking some of the most common and persistent myths about what ESG is, how it should be implemented and its impact on corporate outcomes, “many of which,” they contend, “are not supported by empirical evidence.” Their objective is to provide a better understanding of ESG so that companies, institutions and regulators can “take a more thoughtful approach to incorporating stakeholder objectives into the corporate planning process.” The authors’ seven myths are summarized below.

SEC imposes $125 million civil penalty on Nikola for alleged material misstatements

Happy New Year!

In July of last year, as discussed in this PubCo post, the SEC and DOJ charged Trevor Milton, the founder, former CEO and executive chair of Nikola Corporation, with securities fraud for disseminating, primarily through social media, false and misleading information about Nikola’s technological achievements. In addition to civil SEC charges, Milton faced two counts of criminal securities fraud and one count of wire fraud, with maximum 20- and 25-year prison terms if convicted. He pleaded not guilty. But, interestingly, there was no word about the company. Was the company completely off the hook for the CEO’s alleged misrepresentations? Now we know that the answer is—far from it. In December, the SEC announced that Nikola had “agreed to pay $125 million to settle charges that it defrauded investors by misleading them about its products, technical advancements, and commercial prospects.” According to Gurbir Grewal, the SEC’s Director of Enforcement, “Nikola Corporation is responsible both for Milton’s allegedly misleading statements and for other alleged deceptions, all of which falsely portrayed the true state of the company’s business and technology.” And in this case, Milton’s alleged misstatements were attributed to the company even though many of the statements were communicated through Milton’s personal account, not the company’s corporate account. Although, according to the SEC, there were plenty of material misrepresentations in Nikola’s registration statements and other standard communications (i.e., not only alleged misstatements through Milton), the case reinforces the point that fraudulent or misleading statements don’t have to be in a prospectus or 10-K to be actionable—social media will do just fine. The case also highlights the need for companies to take social media into consideration in the context of disclosure controls and procedures, potentially including communications, to the extent that they relate to the company, that are made through personal accounts.

SEC proposes new rules on stock buybacks [updated]

[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect the contents of the proposing release.]

At an open meeting last week, the SEC voted three to two to propose new rules regarding company stock repurchases. (At the same time, the SEC also voted unanimously to propose new rules regarding Rule 10b5-1 plans. See this PubCo post.) The amount that companies have spent on stock repurchases has generally increased substantially over the years—in 2020, companies spent almost $700 billion to repurchase their own shares, which, the SEC asserts, “has been accompanied by public interest in corporate payouts in the form of share repurchases.” These repurchases can impact the market, and, the SEC suggests, questions have been raised as to the adequacy of buyback disclosure. The proposal is intended to modernize and improve that disclosure, taking into consideration the academic literature and the SEC’s own analysis, according to the remarks of Corp Fin Director Renee Jones at the open meeting. The proposal would enhance transparency around stock repurchases, including by requiring daily reports of stock repurchases on a new Form SR and expanding the disclosure required regarding repurchases in periodic reports, including a requirement for use of Inline XBRL. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[s]hare buybacks have become a significant component of how public issuers return capital to shareholders….I think we can lessen the information asymmetries between issuers and investors through enhanced timeliness and granularity of disclosures that today’s proposal would provide.” Dissenting Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman seemed to view the proposal as a rulemaking without much of a reason. There is a 45-day comment period after publication in the Federal Register, a time period that Roisman (perhaps taking a cue from Peirce) found to be of insufficient duration.

Happy holidays and happy new year!!

SEC Commissioner Roisman to resign

Today, SEC Commissioner Elad Roisman informed President Biden that he intended to resign as commissioner by the end of January. A Republican appointee, he has served as a commissioner since 2018, and his term was not set to expire until 2023. In a statement, SEC Chair Gary Gensler acknowledged that they “didn’t always agree on policy matters,” but that he had “come to rely on his judgment and expertise,” and has “enjoyed a positive working relationship with him.”

Corp Fin urges redaction of personally identifiable information from Rule 14a-8 submissions

At the end of last week, the Corp Fin staff made an announcement advising companies and shareholder proponents, effective immediately, to redact all personally identifiable and other sensitive information from Rule 14a-8 submissions and related materials prior to submitting them to Corp Fin. The staff may require parties to resubmit any materials the staff receives “that contain personally identifiable or sensitive information, in which case the staff will not consider the substance of those materials until they are resubmitted.”