On Monday, in a keynote address before the Society for Corporate Governance 2021 National Conference, SEC Commissioner Allison Herren Lee discussed the challenges boards face in oversight of ESG matters, including “climate change, racial injustice, economic inequality, and numerous other issues that are fundamental to the success and sustainability of companies, financial markets, and our economy.” Shareholders, employees, customers and other stakeholders are now all looking to corporations to adopt policies that “support growth and address the environmental and social impacts these companies have.” Why is that? Because actions or inactions by our largest corporations can have a tremendous impact. According to Lee, a 2018 study showed that, of the top 100 revenue generators across the globe, only 29 were countries—the rest were corporations, that is, corporations “often operate on a level or higher economic footing than some of the largest governments in the world.”
Last week, in a bipartisan move, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Deb Fischer reintroduced the “Promoting Transparent Standards for Corporate Insiders Act.” According to the press release, the legislation is designed to address concerns that some insiders “may be abusing loopholes in this system, which hurts everyday investors and reduces confidence in the integrity of our capital markets.” The bill would require the SEC to conduct a study to determine whether Rule 10b5-1 should be amended, report back to Congress within 180 days and amend Rule 10b5-1 within a year consistent with the study’s findings.
In a recent speech, SEC Chair Gary Gensler conveyed a sense of full steam ahead with regard to mandatory disclosure requirements about climate and human capital. (See this PubCo post.) The day before, Commissioner Elad Roisman also addressed potential ESG disclosure requirements, but from quite a different perspective—concern. While he understands that there is a demand for consistent standardized ESG disclosure, especially about climate, is it premature to attempt to standardize, he wonders? To what extent does the SEC have a legislative mandate to construct ESG disclosure rules? And how is the SEC—a bunch of lawyers and accountants and economists—ever going to craft and oversee ESG regulation effectively? When you get down to it, his question is this: Is the SEC the right agency for rulemaking about ESG (particularly climate) disclosure?
In remarks yesterday at London City Week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler elaborated a bit on the bare bones of some of the almost 50 items on the Reg-Flex Agenda that was made public earlier this month. (See this PubCo post.) In Gensler’s view, disclosure protects investors by helping them invest in “companies that fit their investing needs,” helps companies by facilitating capital formation and benefits markets by helping to keep them fair, orderly and efficient—all core responsibilities within the remit of the SEC.
In Meland v. Padilla, a shareholder of a publicly traded company filed suit in federal district court seeking a declaratory judgment that SB 826, California’s board gender diversity statute, was unconstitutional under the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment. In April 2020, a federal judge dismissed that legal challenge on the basis of lack of standing. On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed that decision, allowing the case, now called Meland v. Weber, to go forward. The Court held that, because the plaintiff “plausibly alleged that SB 826 requires or encourages him to discriminate on the basis of sex, he has adequately alleged that he has standing to challenge SB 826’s constitutionality.”
The January 6 attack on the Capitol and the subsequent efforts to rewrite voting and vote-counting laws led many companies and CEOs to speak out, sign public statements and pause or discontinue some or all of their political donations. However, as companies and executives increasingly take positions and express views on important social issues such as voting and democracy, climate change and racial injustice, there are many who want to hold them to it. As an MIT Sloan lecturer suggested in this article in the NYT, a signed statement from a CEO expressing commitment to an issue “gives people who want to hold corporations accountable an I.O.U.” One way the public has tried to call companies to account is to examine any dissonance or contradiction between those public statements and the company’s political contributions—to the extent those contributions are publicly available. A piece published recently in the NYT’s DealBook, On Voting Rights, It Can Cost Companies to Take Both Sides, explores how that concept has played out dramatically this year, particularly as investors have sought accountability by submitting more shareholder proposals than ever seeking political spending and lobbying disclosure—and actually winning. As the executive director of the Black Economic Alliance contended in the article, “[b]eyond C.E.O. statements[,] businesses demonstrate their values by how they allocate their resources.” And investors are increasingly compelling companies to disclose their allocation of resources on political spending.
SPACs have certainly presented a well-lighted pathway for hundreds of companies to reach the public markets this past year or so. In testimony before a House subcommittee in May, SEC Chair Gary Gensler observed that we are “witnessing an unprecedented surge” in SPACs: so far in 2021, the SEC has received 700 S-1 SPAC filings, and 300 of these “blank-check IPOs” have been completed so far this year, compared to just 13 in all of 2016. Most recently, SPACs have been the target of extensive criticism, both from the SEC and outside commentators. However, in this DealBook column in the NYT, In Defense of SPACs, the Deal Professor suggests that the animus underlying much of this criticism is misguided; these “complex takeover vehicles serve an important purpose that’s worth protecting,” he contends. What is that purpose? As has long been lamented, the lane for smaller, earlier-stage companies to go public has substantially narrowed over a number of years. SPACs, he contends, have not just offered an alternative pathway to public company status—they have “single-handedly revived” the IPO market for these smaller, younger—and yes, sometimes riskier—companies to go public.
The SEC has announced that EDGAR will be closed on Friday, June 18, 2021, in observance of Juneteenth National Independence Day. That means that, on June 18, 2021, EDGAR will not be operational, filings will not be accepted on EDGAR and EDGAR Filer Support will be closed. Reuters is also reporting that the SEC will close its offices on Friday in observance of Juneteenth.
On June 4, the SEC announced that it had “removed” William D. Duhnke III from the PCAOB and designated Duane M. DesParte to serve as Acting Chair. Duhnke had been serving as Chair since January 2018. 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.” (See this PubCo post.) In response to a question about Duhnke’s removal at the WSJ’s CFO Network Summit earlier this month, Gensler said only that the PCAOB plays an integral role in the audit process and that he didn’t think that it was living up to its potential as a standard-setter or in its enforcement role. (See this PubCo post.) According to Bloomberg, Representative Patrick McHenry, the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, has said he’s opening an investigation into the firing of Duhnke. The WSJ is now reporting exclusively that the SEC is conducting an investigation into whether Duhnke “violated any rules in his handling of internal complaints” at the PCAOB.
Once again, a “control failure” is a lever used by SEC Enforcement to bring charges against a company, this time for failure to timely disclose a cybersecurity vulnerability. Yesterday, the SEC announced settled charges against a real estate settlement services company, First American Financial Corporation, for violation of the requirement to maintain adequate disclosure controls and procedures “related to a cybersecurity vulnerability that exposed sensitive customer information.” This action follows charges regarding control violations against GE (see this PubCo post), HP, Inc. (see this PubCo post) and Andeavor (see this PubCo post) where, instead of attempting to make a case about funny accounting or, in Andeavor, a defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted to make its point by, among other things, charging failure to maintain and comply with internal accounting controls or disclosure controls and procedures. Companies may want to take note that charges related to violations of the rules regarding internal controls and disclosure controls seem to be increasingly part of the SEC’s Enforcement playbook, making it worthwhile for companies to make sure that their controls are in good working order. Perhaps we should pirate the Matt Levine mantra, “everything is securities fraud” (see this PubCo post): how ’bout “everything is also a control failure”?