It may look like just another run-of-the-mill insider trading case, but there’s one difference in this settled SEC Enforcement action: according to the SEC, it involved sales under a purported 10b5-1 trading plan while in possession of material nonpublic information. As you probably know, to be effective in insulating an insider from potential insider trading liability, the 10b5-1 plan must be established when the insider is acting in good faith and not aware of MNPI. Creating the plan when the insider has just learned of MNPI, as alleged in this Order, well, kinda defeats the whole purpose of the rule. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, and the two executives involved here—the CEO and President/CTO of Cheetah Mobile—found that out the hard way, with civil penalties of $556,580 and $200,254. The company’s CEO was also charged with playing a role in the company’s misleading statements and disclosure failures surrounding a material negative revenue trend. According to the Chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Market Abuse Unit in this press release, “[w]hile trading pursuant to 10b5-1 plans can shield employees from insider trading liability under certain circumstances, these executives’ plan did not comply with the securities laws because they were in possession of material nonpublic information when they entered into it.”
On Wednesday, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee held a jam-packed meeting to discuss, among other matters, human capital disclosure and the SEC’s proposal on Schedule 13D beneficial ownership. Wait, didn’t this Committee just have a meeting in June about human capital disclosure, part of the program about non-traditional financial information? (See this PubCo post.) Yes, but, as the moderator suggested, Wednesday’s program was really a “Part II” of that prior meeting, expanding the discussion from accounting standards for human capital disclosure to now consider other labor-related performance data metrics that may be appropriate for disclosure. The Committee also considered whether to make recommendations in support of the SEC’s proposals regarding cybersecurity disclosure and climate disclosure.
Last week, the SEC brought a settled action against VMware, a provider of cloud-storage software and services, alleging that it misled shareholders by failing to disclose material information about its “managed pipeline” of orders in quarterly and annual Exchange Act reports, on earnings calls and in earnings releases during its 2019 and 2020 fiscal years. According to the press release, the company used its “backlog management practices” to “push revenue into future quarters by delaying product deliveries to customers, concealing the company’s slowing performance relative to its projections.” Interestingly, the charges in the SEC’s Order were not about funny accounting or even that favorite Enforcement standby, failure to maintain and comply with adequate disclosure controls and procedures. As VMware noted in a statement, the “SEC’s findings do not include any findings that the Company failed to comply with generally accepted accounting principles.” Rather, the charges were about the disclosures about the accounting. “Although VMware publicly disclosed that its backlog was ‘managed based upon multiple considerations,’” the SEC said, “it did not reveal to investors that it used the backlog to manage the timing of the company’s revenue recognition.” VMware was ordered to cease and desist and pay a civil penalty of $8 million. According to an Associate Director in the Division of Enforcement, “by making misleading statements about order management practices, VMware deprived investors of important information about its financial performance….Such conduct is incompatible with an issuer’s disclosure obligations under the federal securities laws.”
Last week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler gave testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. While his prepared testimony largely revisited familiar themes, the Committee’s questioning offered a bit more insight. Committee Chair Senator Sherrod Brown cautioned at the outset that Republicans have “bellyached”—and he assumed would today—about Gensler’s “ambitious agenda,” but added that, “if Wall Street and its allies are complaining,” that means Gensler is doing his job. And right on cue, Ranking Member Senator Pat Toomey cast doubt on recent SEC actions that, he said, raised questions about how well the SEC was handling its responsibility to facilitate capital formation. Where was the SEC, he asked, when some crypto lending platforms “blew up,” resulting in billions in losses? And while the SEC has failed to provide regulatory clarity for the crypto market, he contended, it has instead been busy proposing many controversial and burdensome rules that are outside the SEC’s mission and authority. After West Virginia v. EPA (see this PubCo post), he warned, the SEC should consider itself to be on notice from the courts. In particular, some on the Committee—on both sides of the aisle—took aim at the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal—particularly Scope 3 disclosure—and Gensler’s responses made clear that he heard the criticisms, both from the Committee and from commenters, and that there would be some changes to the proposal as the SEC tries to “find a balance.” But far would those changes go?
Reg FD cases rarely get to court, but here’s one that, barring a settlement, appears to be headed to trial. In a 129-page opinion in SEC v. AT&T, 9/08/22, the federal district court for the SDNY denied summary judgment for both sides in a case the SEC brought in March of 2021 against AT&T and three members of its Investor Relations Department for violations of Reg FD. (See this PubCo post.) The SEC alleged that, in March 2016, AT&T learned that, as a result of a “steeper-than-expected decline in smartphone sales,” AT&T’s first quarter revenues would fall short of analysts’ estimates by over a $1 billion. Given that AT&T had missed consensus revenue estimates in two of the three preceding quarters, AT&T, it was alleged, embarked on a “campaign” to beat consensus revenue estimates for Q1: the three defendant IR employees were asked by the CFO and IR Director to contact the analysts whose estimates were too high to “walk” them down. As part of that campaign, the SEC alleged, they selectively disclosed the company’s “projected or actual total revenue, and internal metrics bearing on total revenue, including wireless equipment revenue and wireless equipment upgrade rates.” The campaign worked. But—and it’s a big but—it also led the SEC to bring claims against AT&T for violating Reg FD, and against the three IR employees for aiding and abetting that violation. As to AT&T and the other defendants, the Court was not persuaded by their arguments that there was insufficient evidence to support the SEC’s claims of a Reg FD violation, nor did the Court agree that Reg FD was “invalid” under the First Amendment. And, as to the SEC, while the Court viewed as “formidable” the evidence showing that the information at issue was material, nonpublic and selectively disclosed, the question of scienter was a closer one, and a reasonable jury could find for the defendants on that point.
At last week’s PLI program, SEC Speaks, Corp Fin Director Renee Jones and crew discussed a number of topics, among them disclosure of emerging risks, recent rulemakings, staff focus on Part III disclosures, shareholder proposals and MD&A disclosures. But there’s no denying that the most entertaining moments came from the caustic side commentary provided by former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins, whose perspective on current trends is, hmmm, distinctly at odds with the zeitgeist currently prevailing at the SEC.
Today, the SEC adopted a number of inflation-related adjustments under the JOBS Act, including an adjustment to the revenue cap in the definition of “emerging growth company,” as well as adjustments to certain thresholds and limitations in the crowdfunding exemption under Reg Crowdfunding. Inflation has been very real in the last couple of years, so the adjustments are more substantial than for the prior period. The new inflation-adjusted amounts will become effective upon publication in the Federal Register.
Countries outside the U.S. have sometimes been trendsetters when it comes to board diversity. For example, according to the California’s board gender diversity bill, SB 826, signed into law in 2018, “in 2003, Norway was the first country to legislate a mandatory 40 percent quota for female representation on corporate boards.” Under Nasdaq’s board diversity rules (see this PubCo post), board diversity encompasses more than gender diversity—it also includes persons who self-identify as underrepresented minorities or LGBTQ+. Nasdaq’s new diversity rules also apply to foreign private issuers. What does “board diversity” mean for foreign private issuers and non-US companies considering US IPOs? Does it focus solely on women or does it have a broader scope? Who are “underrepresented individuals in home country jurisdiction”? These questions and more are addressed in this fascinating piece, Board Diversity for Foreign Private Issuers: Does Board Diversity Mean the Same Thing Worldwide?, from Cooley’s Singapore office, posted on the Cooley CapitalXchange blog.
Fifth Circuit hears oral argument on challenge to Nasdaq board diversity rules—will the rules survive?
On Friday, August 6, 2021, the SEC approved a Nasdaq proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure, accompanied by a proposal to provide free access to a board recruiting service. The new listing rules adopted a “comply or explain” mandate for board diversity for most listed companies and required companies listed on Nasdaq’s U.S. exchange to publicly disclose “consistent, transparent diversity statistics” regarding the composition of their boards. (See this PubCo post.) As anticipated, a court challenge to these rules didn’t take long to materialize. On Monday, August 9, the Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment filed a slim petition under Section 25(a) of the Exchange Act in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals—the Alliance has its principal place of business in Texas—for review of the SEC’s final order approving the Nasdaq rule. (See this PubCo post.) That petition was soon followed by a new petition challenging the rules filed by the National Center for Public Policy Research and subsequently transferred to the Fifth Circuit where the earlier filed petition was pending. (See this PubCo post.) Last week, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit heard oral argument in the case, Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment, National Center for Public Policy Research v. SEC. Did it signal a result?
“California Approves a Wave of Aggressive New Climate Measures” was a headline in the NYT on Thursday, and that included a “record $54 billion in climate spending, a measure to prevent the state’s last nuclear power plant from closing, sharp new restrictions on oil and gas drilling and a mandate that California stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2045.” But one climate bill didn’t make the cut. That was SB 260, California’s Climate Corporate Accountability Act, which, on Wednesday, failed to pass in the California legislature, notwithstanding much ink being devoted to it this past year (see, e.g., this Bloomberg article). Had the bill been signed into law, it would have mandated reporting and disclosure of GHG emissions data—Scopes 1, 2 and 3—by all U.S. business entities with total annual revenues in excess of a billion dollars that “do business in California.” Those requirements for GHG emissions reporting and attestation exceeded even the SEC’s proposed climate disclosure proposal. (See this PubCo post.) And, under the existing broad definition of “doing business” in California, the bill would have captured a large number of companies, estimated to be about 5,500, including many incorporated outside of California. (Nothing new for the Golden State—see this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) According to Politico Pro, Scott Wiener, the sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed in this result….If we want to avoid a full climate apocalypse, we need to understand corporate pollution—all the way down the supply chain.” He added that “he ‘won’t give up’ and that he’s ‘very likely’ to reintroduce SB 260 next year.” Time will tell.