In December 2020, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, was signed into law. The HFCAA amended SOX to prohibit trading on U.S. exchanges of public reporting companies audited by audit firms located in foreign jurisdictions that the PCAOB has been unable to inspect for three sequential years. (See this PubCo post.) The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reports that, as of March 31, 2022, Chinese companies listed on the three largest U.S. exchanges had a total market capitalization of $1.4 trillion. As a result, the trading prohibitions of the HFCAA, which could kick in in just a couple of years—or perhaps even sooner, if Congress speeds up the timeline—could have a substantial impact. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[w]e have a basic bargain in our securities regime, which came out of Congress on a bipartisan basis under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. If you want to issue public securities in the U.S., the firms that audit your books have to be subject to inspection by the [PCAOB]….The Commission and the PCAOB will continue to work together to ensure that the auditors of foreign companies accessing U.S. capital markets play by our rules. We hope foreign governments will, working with the PCAOB, take action to make that possible.” But China and Hong Kong have not permitted PCAOB inspections, largely because of purported security concerns. Last week, in remarks to International Council of Securities Associations, YJ Fischer, Director of the SEC’s Office of International Affairs, addressed “recent regulatory developments related to the lack of US inspections of audits and investigations in China and Hong Kong, and the implications for continued trading of China-based issuers on US exchanges.” The main message: although there has been progress, “significant issues remain,” and reaching an agreement would be only “a first step.” In other words, there is still “a long way to go.”
Audit Analytics has just posted its 2021 annual review of financial restatements, which this year covered a 21-year period. The review showed a 289% increase in the number of restatements to 1470, the highest level of restatements since 2006. You may have guessed that the increase was attributable to restatements by SPACs. Excluding SPACs, the numbers actually reflected a 10% decrease in the number of restatements year over year. SPACs also account—largely but not entirely—for a large increase in the proportion of reissuance (“Big R”) restatements. Audit Analytics found that 62% of restatements were reissuance restatements, the biggest proportion since 2005. But even excluding SPAC restatements, 24% of 2021 restatements were reissuances, an increase from 2020 of three percentage points.
The California Secretary of State has announced that she has directed counsel to file an appeal of the May 13 verdict of the Los Angeles Superior Court in Crest v. Padilla, which ruled unconstitutional SB 826, California’s board gender diversity statute. Crest v. Padilla was filed in 2019 by three California taxpayers seeking to prevent implementation and enforcement of the law. Framed as a “taxpayer suit,” the litigation sought a judgment declaring the expenditure of taxpayer funds to enforce or implement SB 826 to be illegal and an injunction preventing the California Secretary of State from expending taxpayer funds for those purposes, alleging that the law’s mandate was an unconstitutional gender-based quota and violated the Equal Protection Provisions of the California Constitution. After a bench trial, the Court agreed with the plaintiffs and enjoined implementation and enforcement of the statute. (See this PubCo post.) This verdict follows summary judgment in favor of the same plaintiffs in their case against AB 979, California’s board diversity statute regarding “underrepresented communities,” which was patterned after the board gender diversity statute. (See this PubCo post.)
In testimony this week before the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government of the House Appropriations Committee, SEC Chair Gary Gensler talked about the budget request for SEC operations for next year. He emphasized that, over the last five years, while the capital markets have grown to $100 trillion, the SEC has “shrunk.” And for Corp Fin, the “shrinkage” has been quite significant.
You might remember that the first legal challenge to SB 826, California’s board gender diversity statute, Crest v. Alex Padilla, was a complaint filed in 2019 in California state court by three California taxpayers seeking to prevent implementation and enforcement of the law. Framed as a “taxpayer suit,” the litigation sought a judgment declaring the expenditure of taxpayer funds to enforce or implement SB 826 to be illegal and an injunction preventing the California Secretary of State from expending taxpayer funds and taxpayer-financed resources for those purposes, alleging that the law’s mandate is an unconstitutional gender-based quota and violates the California constitution. A bench trial began in December in Los Angeles County Superior Court that was supposed to last six or seven days, but closing arguments didn’t conclude until March. (See this PubCo post.) The verdict from that Court has just come down. The Court determined that SB 826 violates the Equal Protection Provisions of the California Constitution and enjoined implementation and enforcement of the statute. This verdict follows summary judgment in favor of the same plaintiffs in their case against AB 979, California’s board diversity statute regarding “underrepresented communities,” which was patterned after the board gender diversity statute. (See this PubCo post.) The Secretary of State has not yet indicated whether there will be an appeal. In light of pressures from institutional investors and others for board gender diversity, together with the Nasdaq “comply or explain” board diversity rule (see the SideBar below), what impact the decision will have on board composition remains to be seen.
Most likely, what comes to mind when you think about companies’ impeding the ability of a whistleblower to communicate with the SEC are allegations of overly ambitious confidentiality provisions in employment agreements or company policies. Not so in this case. In April, the SEC issued an Order in connection with a settled action charging David Hansen, a co-founder and officer of NS8, Inc., a privately held fraud-detection technology company, with violating the whistleblower protections of the Exchange Act. The SEC alleged that, after an NS8 employee raised concerns to Hansen about a possible securities law violation, Hansen took action to limit the employee’s access to the company’s IT systems. The SEC charged that these actions impeded the employee’s ability to communicate with the SEC in violation of Rule 21F-17(a) and imposed a $97,000 civil penalty. SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce dissented, contending that the SEC’s Order “does not explain what, precisely, Mr. Hansen did to hinder or obstruct direct communication between the NS8 Employee and the Commission.”
Pharmas, biotechs and others may want to take notice—if they haven’t already—of a series of SEC comment letters to global biopharmaceutical company, Biogen, about one of the company’s non-GAAP financial measures. More specifically, in 2021, the SEC staff objected to the company’s exclusion from non-GAAP R&D and non-GAAP net income of material upfront and premium payments made in connection with collaboration agreements. In the end, Biogen agreed to discontinue these adjustments going forward and to recast prior period information. As reported in this article in MarketWatch, this year a number of biopharmas have taken a lesson from the exchange between Biogen and the SEC staff and have included language in their earnings releases explaining similar changes in practice, following guidance from the SEC staff, regarding exclusion of upfront payments from non-GAAP R&D. Moreover, the article indicated, the impact of the changes was “not insignificant,” leading, in one example, to a change of $0.15 in EPS for a single quarter.
Yesterday, the SEC announced that it had extended or reopened the public comment period on three proposals, including the proposed rulemaking to enhance and standardize climate-related disclosures. (See this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The comment period was originally scheduled to close on May 20, 2022, but will now be extended until June 17, 2022. (And rumor has it that the SEC will often accept comments submitted within a reasonable time after the deadline.) According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the proposal had “drawn significant interest from a wide breadth of investors, issuers, market participants, and other stakeholders….Commenters with diverse views have noted that they would benefit from additional time to review these three proposals, and I’m pleased that the public will have additional time to provide thoughtful feedback.” For example, in April, 36 trade and industry associations asked the SEC to provide a 180-day comment period, contending that, “given the size, scope, complexity, and ramifications of the rule,“ the time period allowed for comment was “woefully inadequate for the magnitude of this rule, which runs to 506 pages, contains 1,068 footnotes, references 194 dense academic and governmental reports, imposes a $10.235 billion cost on society, and seeks answers to 196 discrete questions.“ While the extension will certainly be welcome, will it be considered sufficient?
SEC’s Small Business Capital Formation Advisory Committee discusses climate disclosure and SPAC proposals
On Friday, the SEC’s Small Business Capital Formation Advisory Committee held a virtual meeting to discuss two of the SEC’s recent rulemaking initiatives: climate disclosure and SPACs, particularly as those proposals, if adopted, would impact smaller public companies and companies about to go public. The committee heard several presentations, including summaries of the proposals from SEC staff members, and voiced concerns about a number of challenges presented by the proposals. The committee also considered potential recommendations that it expects to make to the SEC.