Jarkesy and climate disclosure: how far will the courts go in constraining the administrative state?
On Wednesday, in an Expert Forum sponsored by Cornerstone Research, Stanford professor and former SEC Commissioner Joe Grundfest and Vice Chair and Chief Legal Officer of Millennium Management and former SEC General Counsel Simon Lorne discussed “The Evolving SEC Landscape: Jarkesy v. SEC and the Proposed Climate Rules.” The two seemingly disparate topics were united by a common thread—the intense skepticism exhibited by some courts (including a likely majority of SCOTUS) of the vast power of the administrative state and their undisguised enthusiasm to constrain it. As Grundfest put it, in a slightly different context, the words are different but the melody is the same. What will be the impact?
Yesterday, the SEC announced that it is reopening the comment period for its 2015 proposal for listing standards for recovery of erroneously awarded compensation. Wait—didn’t they just do that? Yes, in October 2021. (See this PubCo post.) But no, that’s not Sonny and Cher on the radio. The SEC has decided to reopen the comment period AGAIN to allow further public comment in light of a new, just released DERA staff memorandum containing “additional analysis and data on compensation recovery policies and accounting restatements.” The new comment period will be open until 30 days after publication of the reopening notice in the Federal Register.
Are corporate boards awash in faux gatekeepers? This article, Board Gatekeepers, from a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, begins with a catalogue of infamous board failures to act as effective monitors of company conduct—including, in one case, a nascent scandal that continued for 11 years and another the subject of a successful Caremark claim. As framed by the author, the board plays a critical role, serving on behalf of the shareholders—and now perhaps also other stakeholders—to “ensure that the executive team is acting in the company’s best long-term interests,” in particular, “to ‘set up guardrails for the CEO’—that is, protect shareholders (and stakeholders) from corporate malfeasance.” Given the “structural power” that CEOs typically hold in the boardroom—such as through control over information and renominations—courts, regulators and investors often look to independent directors to act as a check on that power. Investors and regulators have also sought to address this power imbalance within the boardroom by introducing two key independent leadership roles—an independent board chair and a lead independent director. One or both of these “board gatekeepers” are now regular fixtures on boards, intended to add a “second layer of protection to the independence of the board” and signal and ensure “the existence of proper monitoring of management by the board.” The proliferation of these board gatekeepers, the author contends, “should have cemented board independence in what one can term its functional form: the ability to serve the crucial gatekeeping role that has been demanded of it.” But the inventory of recent scandals calls that conclusion into question. Are board gatekeepers really just window dressing?
On Friday, the SEC announced that it had adopted amendments to require electronic submission of several forms that currently may be submitted on paper and to require structured data reporting (i.e., XBRL) for Form 11-K. Most notably, the amendments require electronic submission of Forms 144 and, in PDF format, of “glossy” annual reports. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, in “fiscal year 2021, more than half of all filed Form 144 forms—30,000 in total—were filed on paper. In a digital age, it’s important for investors to have easy, online access to material information, rather than needing to visit SEC facilities to access that information. This is particularly important during Covid-19, which has made in-person visits to access these filings even more challenging. Even when access to physical copies isn’t restricted, there are other costs associated with paper filings. It costs investors money and time to travel to the SEC’s reading room. It costs the SEC money and time to process paper filings. These amendments will reduce costs and drive more efficiencies for investors, filers, and the SEC.”
In a recent report, Board Composition: Diversity, Experience, and Effectiveness, The Conference Board explores the implications for board composition of current trends toward ESG expertise and board diversity, together with the continuing emphasis on ensuring the right mix of skills and experience. This expanding list of priorities has led to increased diversity disclosure as well as greater functional expertise, larger boards and enhanced needs for board education. But while there has been a significant increase in disclosure regarding board diversity, that increase “has not been matched by increases in racial/ethnic diversity.” One cautionary note from the report: as boards seek to recruit more directors with functional expertise, such as cybersecurity or climate, the proportion of board members with business strategy experience has declined. For example, among companies in the Russell 3000, the percentage of directors with experience in business strategy decreased by five percentage points in the last three years. According to the Executive Director of the ESG Center at The Conference Board, the “recent decline in board members with business strategy experience is worrisome. Directors without broad strategic experience risk hindering effective board discussions and will likely be less useful partners for management….Although boards may want to add functional experience…, directors can bring meaningful value only if they can make the connection between these functional areas and business strategy.”