It’s been almost 12 years since Dodd-Frank mandated, in Section 953(a), so-called pay-versus-performance disclosure, but amazingly, no rules have yet been adopted to implement that mandate. Even more amazing, the SEC is still working on it. As expected, on Thursday last week, the SEC announced that it had reopened the comment period on rules, originally proposed in 2015, that would require disclosure of information reflecting the relationship between executive compensation actually paid by a company and the company’s financial performance. The reopening of the proposal is due in part “to certain developments since 2015 when the proposing release was issued,” particularly, “developments in executive compensation practices.” Here is the SEC’s original proposing release, fact sheet and the proposal reopening the comment period. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler in his statement on the reopening of the proposal, “this proposed rule would strengthen the transparency and quality of executive compensation disclosure….The Commission has long recognized the value of information on executive compensation to investors.” The questions posed by the SEC in the notice (discussed below) give us some insight into where the SEC may be headed with the proposal. In particular, as noted by Gensler, the 2015 proposal “relied upon total shareholder return as the sole measure of financial performance. Some commenters expressed concerns that total shareholder return would provide an incomplete picture of performance. In this reopening release, we are considering whether additional performance metrics would better reflect Congress’s intention in the Dodd-Frank Act and would provide shareholders with information they need to evaluate a company’s executive compensation policies.” The public comment period will be open for 30 days following publication of the release in the Federal Register.
Shareholder voting is viewed as fundamental to keeping boards and managements accountable, and, every year, billions of shares are voted at thousands of shareholder meetings of public companies. However, it is widely recognized that the current system of share ownership and intermediaries is a byzantine one that accreted over time and certainly would not be the system anyone would create if starting from scratch. There is also broad agreement that the current system of “proxy plumbing” is inefficient, opaque and, all too often, inaccurate. As the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee has observed, under the current system, shareholders “cannot determine if their votes were cast as they intended; issuers cannot rapidly determine the outcome of close votes; and the legitimacy of corporate elections, which depend on accurate, reliable, and transparent vote counts, has been called into doubt.” Nevertheless, while the IAC and others have made recommendations for action to the SEC, nothing has yet been done or proposed, and the topic of proxy plumbing has been relegated to the SEC’s long-term agenda. (See this PubCo post.) Now, however, some aspects of the problem may be addressed through private ordering. Broadridge Financial Solutions, which provides services related to the proxy voting process, including vote tabulation, has announced that “it will provide end-to-end proxy vote confirmation this year to all shareholders in the annual meetings of the 2,000+ U.S. public companies whose votes it tabulates.”
In November 2021, Audit Analytics posted its 20-year review of restatements, showing that the number of “Big R” reissuance restatements in 2020, the last year of the review, was at a record low. According to the report, there were “81% fewer restatements in 2020 than the high in 2006 and 26% fewer than 2019.” Notably, however, while in 2005 reissuance restatements represented the majority of restatements, in 2020, reissuance restatements represented only 24.3% of restatements; revision restatements represented 75.7% of all restatements. At yesterday’s Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Annual Securities Regulation Institute, Lindsay McCord, Corp Fin Chief Accountant, raised a question: were companies being properly “objective” in assessing whether a restatement should be a “Big R” or “little r” restatement?
In remarks yesterday before the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Annual Securities Regulation Institute, SEC Chair Gary Gensler addressed cybersecurity under the securities laws. Gensler suggests that the economic cost of cyberattacks could possibly be in the trillions of dollars, taking many forms, including denials-of-service, malware and ransomware. It’s also a national security issue. He reminds us that “cybersecurity is a team sport,” and that the private sector is often on the front lines. Given the frequency of cybersecurity incidents, the SEC is “working to improve the overall cybersecurity posture and resiliency of the financial sector.” To Gensler, the SEC’s cybersecurity policy has three components: “cyber hygiene and preparedness; cyber incident reporting to the government; and in certain circumstances, disclosure to the public.” In his remarks, Gensler considered cybersecurity in a variety of contexts, including SEC registrants in the financial sector, such as broker-dealers, investment companies, registered investment advisers and other market intermediaries; service providers and the SEC itself, but his discussion of cybersecurity in the context of public companies is of most interest here.
Although there is an SEC open meeting scheduled for this week, the commissioners won’t be taking up any proposals from Corp Fin at that meeting (see the agenda). That’s a little puzzling given that the SEC’s agenda for Corp Fin was near to bursting, especially for highly anticipated disclosure proposals on climate and human capital, among other things. Those two topics, for example, had appeared on the two most recent SEC reg-flex agendas with proposal target dates of October 2021, then delayed to December 2021, with expectations later vaguely conveyed for January 2022, unlikely now to be met. [UPDATE: At the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Annual Securities Regulation Institute on Tuesday, Corp Fin Director Renee Jones indicated that said that they expect to have a proposal on climate disclosure before the SEC this quarter.] However, according to Bloomberg, the SEC does have Corp Fin-related plans for this week: to reopen the public comment period on the 2015 pay-versus-performance proposal “after a vote taken behind closed doors.”
For all who admired her greatly—I think that’s just about everyone—and miss seeing her on the Court, especially now with SCOTUS so prominent in our lives, you might want to take a long look through Bonham’s online auction of The Library of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s wonderful and moving just to look through the catalogue, which has lots of photos and text with personal stories accompanying some of the lot descriptions.
Corp Fin staff updates annual meeting guidance for presentation of shareholder proposals in light of continuation of COVID-19
Back in March 2020, before we could even imagine that we would still be struggling with COVID-19 in 2022, the SEC announced Corp Fin staff guidance regarding annual meetings. Because of limitations on the ability to hold in-person annual meetings as a result of health and travel concerns, the staff guidance provided “regulatory flexibility to companies seeking to change the date and location of the meetings and use new technologies, such as ‘virtual’ shareholder meetings that avoid the need for in-person shareholder attendance, while at the same time ensuring that shareholders and other market participants are informed of any changes.” (See this PubCo post.) That guidance was then updated in April 2020 and April 2021. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) Now, the Corp Fin staff has once again updated that guidance for this year, tweaking the advice related to presentation of shareholder proposals to extend its application to the 2022 proxy season.
In August last year, the SEC announced that it had filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court charging Matthew Panuwat, a former employee of Medivation Inc., an oncology-focused biopharma, with insider trading in advance of Medivation’s announcement that it would be acquired by a big pharma company. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill insider trading case. Panuwat didn’t trade in shares of Medivation or shares of the acquiror, nor did he tip anyone about the transaction. No, according to the SEC, he engaged in what has been referred to as “shadow trading”; he used the information about his employer’s acquisition to purchase call options on a separate biopharma company, Incyte Corporation, which the SEC claimed was comparable to Medivation. According to the SEC, Panuwat made that purchase based on an assumption that the acquisition of Medivation at a healthy premium would probably boost the share price of Incyte. Incyte’s stock price increased after the sale of Medivation was announced. The SEC charged that Panuwat committed fraud against Medivation in connection with the purchase or sale of securities, with scienter, in violation of Rule 10b-5; he had, the SEC charged, breached his “duty to refrain from using Medivation’s proprietary information for his own personal gain” and traded ahead of the announcement. The SEC sought an injunction and civil penalties. (See this PubCo post.) In November, Panuwat filed a motion to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), calling it “an unprecedented expansion” of the Exchange Act. Last week, the Court denied the motion.
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?