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.”
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.
The White House has issued an Executive Order expressing its policy “to advance consistent, clear, intelligible, comparable, and accurate disclosure of climate-related financial risk… including both physical and transition risks.” The EO states that the “intensifying impacts of climate change present physical risk to assets, publicly traded securities, private investments, and companies—such as increased extreme weather risk leading to supply chain disruptions. In addition, the global shift away from carbon-intensive energy sources and industrial processes presents transition risk to many companies, communities, and workers. At the same time, this global shift presents generational opportunities to enhance U.S. competitiveness and economic growth, while also creating well-paying job opportunities for workers.”
On Tuesday, the Insider Trading Prohibition Act passed the house by a pretty big bipartisan majority—350 to 75. Currently, there is no explicit statutory prohibition on insider trading and prosecutors have relied on general fraud statutes to pursue charges. The bill would add to the Exchange Act a new Section 16A that would define insider trading and make it illegal. In an interview with Reuters, the bill’s sponsor, Jim Himes, said that “the legislation does not expand insider trading law but simpliﬁes and codiﬁes the law as articulated by courts through decades of opinions.” A version of the bill passed the House in 2019 by an even stronger vote, but never made it through the Republican-led Senate. No,w with Democrats in charge, will the bill be passed and signed into law?
Leadership survey: How prepared are leaders to face key business issues? Do executives think boards give good advice?
While it’s certainly not yet in the rear-view mirror, as we start to see COVID-19 begin to fade as an all-consuming crisis for business—thank you science and scientists!—what are the next issues that corporate leaders must face and how ready are they to face them? Consultant Russell Reynolds Associates has just released its 2021 Global Leadership Monitor, designed to track top business issues and monitor leadership preparedness. Some of the more interesting findings: In terms of “stakeholder capitalism,” while customers are top of the heap, employees come in second as key stakeholders—ahead of stockholders. Most fascinating perhaps is this revelation: 40% of CEOs and other C-Suite executives “don’t believe the executive team receives good advice and input from the board.”
In 2016 and early 2017, the SEC made a big push—through a series of staff oral admonitions and written guidance, as well as an enforcement action—to require issuers to be more transparent and more consistent in the use of non-GAAP financial measures and to avoid altogether non-GAAP measures that were misleading. In May 2016, the Corp Fin chief accountant, as reported in CFO.com, cautioned companies in neon lights that, with regard to non-GAAP financial measures, “[f]or lack of a better way to say it, we are going to crack down.” (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) By early 2017, the SEC staff were apparently sufficiently satisfied (see this PubCo post) with the responses to their campaign that the pendulum swung back, and the relentless finger-wagging by the staff about non-GAAP financial measures appeared to have tailed off. (See this PubCo post.) And, according to this analysis from Audit Analytics, in 2018, SEC staff comments regarding non-GAAP financial measures actually began to decline. But, MarketWatch has reported, with the onset of COVID-19, there seems to have been something of a resurgence in the use of non-GAAP measures. Will we see another crackdown?
As reported by Bloomberg, Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates told a webinar audience that mandatory ESG disclosures were “overdue,” and that the SEC was moving quickly on related rulemaking. In the webinar, sponsored by NYU’s Institute of Accounting Research and the Institute for Corporate Governance & Finance, Coates said that he expects the SEC to soon be in a position to review and consider staff proposals for mandatory prescriptive rules on ESG addressing both general and industry-specific requirements. These actions are expected to be the SEC’s most significant action on climate since the 2010 guidance. (See this PubCo post.)
The outside pressure has been on. As reported by Bloomberg, “[e]nvironmental advocates in cities including New York, Miami, San Francisco, London and Zurich targeted BlackRock for a wave of protests in mid-April, holding up images of giant eyeballs to signal that ‘all eyes’ were on BlackRock’s voting decisions.” Of course, protests outside of the company’s offices by climate activists are nothing new. But why this pressure on BlackRock? BlackRock and its CEO, Laurence Fink, have played an outsized role in promoting corporate sustainability and social responsibility, announcing, in 2020, a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” (See this PubCo post.) Yet, BlackRock has historically conducted extensive engagement with companies and, in the end, voted with management much more often than activists preferred; for example, in the first quarter of 2020, the company supported less than 10% of environmental and social shareholder proposals and opposed three environmental proposals. As a result, as reflected in press reports like this one in the NYT, activists have reacted to the appearance of stark inconsistencies between the company’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record. Even a group of Democratic Senators highlighted that inconsistency in this October 2020 letter, characterizing the company’s voting record on climate issues as “troubling and inconsistent.” But that impression may be about to change. In an interview with Reuters, BlackRock’s global head of investment stewardship since 2020 revealed that the company is “‘accelerating the pace of our stewardship activities; resulting in more engagement and more voting, reflecting heightened expectations, which … are just a function of the urgency of some of the issues.’” Indeed, in the first quarter of 2021, BlackRock supported 12 of 16 environmental and social shareholder proposals.
With the passage of SB 826 in 2018, California became the first state to mandate board gender diversity (see this PubCo post). In 2020, the California Partners Project, which was founded by California’s current First Lady, released a progress report on women’s representation on boards of California public companies, tracking the changes in gender diversity on California boards since enactment of the law. That same year, AB 979 was signed into law in California. That bill was designed to do for “underrepresented communities” on boards of directors what SB 826 did for board gender diversity. (See this PubCo post.) The CPP has just released a new report that not only updates its 2020 progress report on board gender diversity, but also provides data on women of color on California’s public company boards. The takeaway is that, while there has been tremendous progress in increasing the number of women on boards, nevertheless, much work remains “to tap all of our talent and achieve racial and cultural equity. Most women on California’s corporate boards are white, while women of color—especially Latinas—remain severely underrepresented.” In addition to new data, the report offers some strategies for overcoming these deficits in diversity.
In February, then-Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee directed the staff of Corp Fin, in connection with the disclosure review process, to “enhance its focus on climate-related disclosure in public company filings,” starting with the extent to which public companies address the topics identified in the interpretive guidance the staff issued regarding climate change in 2010. (See this PubCo post.) In March, the SEC announced the creation of a new Climate and ESG Task Force in the Division of Enforcement. (See this PubCo post.) How else does this new ESG focus play out? On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported, Lindsay McCord, Corp Fin Chief Accountant, in remarks to the Baruch College spring financial reporting conference, said that the SEC staff are also “scrutinizing how public companies account for climate-related risks and impacts to their business based on existing accounting rules.” So, in addition to refreshing their understandings of the 2010 guidance, companies will also need to take a hard look at the how environmental issues could affect their financials.