Month: April 2023

Mild reprieve on timing of clawback policy

As noted in blog, this week, the SEC posted notices that it is extending the time period for approval of the NYSE and Nasdaq proposed listing standards for clawback policies for listed issuers. Originally, the SEC was expected to approve (or disapprove or institute proceedings to determine whether to disapprove) the proposed new standards by April 27, 2023; the approval date is now extended to June 11. The SEC is extending the time period to allow “sufficient time to consider the proposed rule change and the comments received.” What does that time delay mean for companies? Under the SEC final rules and the proposed listing standards, each listed issuer must adopt the required clawback policy no later than 60 days following the effective date of rule, which, under the exchange proposals, is the approval date. That approval date now moves to June 11, which looks to be a Sunday, allowing companies a brief extension of time until around August 10 or so (depending on the date of the actual approval) to get their policies together.

What we need to know about corporate governance—but don’t

In this paper, Seven Gaping Holes in Our Knowledge of Corporate Governance, from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford, the authors observe that it “is extremely difficult to produce high-quality, fundamental insights into corporate governance.”  Why is that? Well there are lots of reasons.  According to the authors, instead of the theory, measurement and analysis that you might expect—given that corporate governance is a social science—the “dialogue about corporate governance is dominated by rhetoric, assertions, and opinions that—while strongly held—are not necessarily supported by either applicable theory or empirical evidence.” And even empirical work from academics has serious shortcomings, often detecting a pattern that is not amenable to specific application or making findings that are too specific to generalize.  Or, studies might find correlation but not permit attribution of causation; or it may be hard to suss out key variables that may not be publicly observable. As a result, there remain “central issues where insufficient or inadequate study has left us unable to answer basic questions, and where key assumptions relied upon by experts have not been verified or validated.” The paper attempts to identify some of them and home in on potential further areas of study.

SCOTUS hears oral argument in Slack direct listing case—did the Court float its likely resolution?

When the SEC was considering the NYSE’s proposal to permit direct listings of primary offerings, one of the frequently raised difficulties related to the potential “vulnerability” of “shareholder legal rights under Section 11 of the Securities Act.” Section 11 provides statutory standing to sue for misstatements in a registration statement to any person acquiring “such security,” historically interpreted to mean a security registered under the specific registration statement. The “vulnerability” was thought to arise as a result of the difficulty plaintiffs may have—in a direct listing where both registered and unregistered shares may be sold at the same time—in “tracing” the shares purchased back to the registration statement in question. In approving adoption of the NYSE rule, the SEC said that it did not “expect any such tracing challenges in this context to be of such magnitude as to render the proposal inconsistent with the Act. We expect judicial precedent on traceability in the direct listing context to continue to evolve,” pointing to Pirani v. Slack Technologies. As the NYSE had observed, only the court in Slack had addressed the issue, and had concluded that, at the pleading stage, plaintiffs could still pursue their claims even if they could not definitively trace the securities they acquired to the registration statement. However, the NYSE noted, the case was on appeal. (See this PubCo post.)  The case,  Pirani v. Slack Technologies, was decided by a divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, with the court affirming, with one dissent, the district court’s order, ruling that the plaintiff had standing to sue under Section 11. But that decision was appealed to SCOTUS, which granted cert.  On Monday, SCOTUS heard oral argument. Justice Kagan may be a bellwether: addressing Pirani’s counsel, she advised that “it does seem to me like you have a hard row to hoe here.”  But that was about Section 11.  Section 12(a)(2)?  Well, that’s another matter.

Is greenwashing running rampant?

According to a recent survey discussed in Global Executives Say Greenwashing Remains Rife, in the WSJ, executives think greenwashing is widespread: almost “three-quarters of executives said most organizations in their industry would be caught greenwashing if they were investigated thoroughly.” Moreover, almost “60% say their own organization is overstating its sustainability methods.” However, the article suggests, although some companies may be intentionally overstating their progress, for the most part, the greenwashing is more benign: companies set their sustainability goals but didn’t have a “concrete plan” to achieve them or reliable data to measure them. At least that’s the view of some commentators cited in the article: “There are actors that are maybe intentionally overstating what they’re doing, but I honestly think for the most part, companies are sincere—they’ve set their goals, they’re working towards them, but they don’t always have the data to be transparent.” 

Edelman Trust Barometer depicts business as a trusted, potentially stabilizing, force

Are there any institutions that we trust? According to an article from Edelman, which has just published the firm’s 23rd annual trust and credibility survey, while, as a society, we are still polarized and deeply distrustful, business was viewed as “the only trusted institution” at 62%. It’s sure not the ‘60s anymore! As the article recognizes, “[s]ome might have a hard time believing that today’s corporate leaders now stand as a stabilizing power in a fragile world.”   As detailed in the new 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, “business is now the sole institution seen as competent and ethical; government is viewed as unethical and incompetent. Business is under pressure to step into the void left by government.” From 2020 to 2023, international survey participants increased the ethics grade for business by 19 points. Edelman attributes the stunning increase to business’s response “to the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 and Russia’s attack on Ukraine—among other pressing issues,” during which many “corporate leaders put self-interest aside.” In the survey, government and media were viewed as neither competent nor ethical, driving a “cycle of distrust” as “sources of “misleading information,” particularly social media.  To what does the barometer attribute these poor outcomes? In large part, to a sense of entrenched division and polarization that both arises out of a loss of faith in institutions and also generates it. Economic anxiety and income inequality are also seen as major forces in fueling polarization.  “Given the unsettled state of the world,” Edelman asks, “can business remain a stabilizing force”?

Lots of shareholder proposals on ESG this proxy season—and quite a few anti-ESG proposals too

Notwithstanding legislative and executive action by several states in opposition to the supposed “woke” stances of some businesses on ESG and ESG investing—or perhaps because of it—this proxy season will see a significant number of shareholder proposals related to ESG. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) As described in the 100+-page Proxy Preview 2023 from the Sustainable Investments Institute, As You Sow and Proxy Impact, there have been 542 ESG-related proposals as of mid-February and the number is “on track to match or exceed last year’s unprecedented final total of 627.” Of course, proponents of shareholder proposals don’t often expect to gain a majority vote—even if they did, the proposals are rarely binding.  Rather, the goal is frequently to raise the issue for management and shareholders and hope to secure a substantial enough vote in favor to convince management to take action or, as the WSJ reports, to “create pressure for companies to change [or] to take a position on hot-button issues.” The Preview identified as the two biggest changes for the 2023 proxy season a continued increase in climate change-related proposals and, post-Dobbs, a significant number of proposals related to reproductive health. There has also been an increase in proposals identified as “anti-ESG,” and the Preview expects these proposals to increase, despite “the cool reception they receive.” According to a co-author of the report, “[c]omplex environmental and social challenges are not going away just because they prompt controversy….Proxy season will give companies feedback on reform ideas, but there’s no indication attacks on ESG investing are going to dampen investor appetite for facts and disclosure, which make the capital markets work better.”

Audit committee oversight of non-GAAP financial measures

According to audit firm PwC, non-GAAP financial measures play an important role in financial reporting, “showing a view of the company’s financial or operational results to supplement what is captured in the financial statements,” and help to tell the company’s financial story, as the SEC has advocated in connection with MD&A, “through the eyes of management.” Yet, they also have the potential to open the proverbial can of worms, subjecting the company to serious SEC scrutiny and possible SEC enforcement if misused. Just a couple of weeks ago, the SEC announced settled charges against DXC Technology Company, a multi-national information technology company, for making misleading disclosures about its non-GAAP financial performance.  According to the Order, DXC materially increased its reported non-GAAP net income “by negligently misclassifying tens of millions of dollars of expenses ” and improperly excluding them from its reported non-GAAP earnings. In addition to misclassification, DXC allegedly provided a misleading description of the scope of the expenses included in the company’s non-GAAP adjustment and failed to adopt a non-GAAP policy or to have adequate disclosure controls and procedures in place specific to its non-GAAP financial measures. Consequently, DXC “negligently failed to evaluate the company’s non-GAAP disclosures adequately.” DXC agreed to pay a civil penalty of $8 million. (See this PubCo post.) So what can a company’s audit committee do to help prevent the types of problems that have arisen at DXC and elsewhere? Audit committees may find helpful this recent article from PwC providing guidance for committees tasked with oversight of the use of non-GAAP financial measures.

COSO introduces “internal control over sustainability reporting”

Under the pressure of institutional investors, environmental groups, employees, consumers and other stakeholders, many companies have sought to demonstrate their bona fides when it comes to ESG through disclosure about their sustainability efforts, goals and achievements, whether in periodic reports or in separate sustainability reports.  But, as reporting increases, so do concerns by some about potential greenwashing.  How can companies assure the quality of their sustainability reporting and create more trust and confidence among stakeholders? One way might be through effective internal controls. So far, however, according to a new report from Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission, known as COSO, ”[f]ew best practices have been established. While some larger institutions have progressed in building controls around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting, many organizations have designed ad hoc controls around certain key sustainable business metrics. Many also perform internal verification and assurance procedures to ensure management comfort with this information. Yet few of them seem to have developed effective, integrated systems of internal control over their material or decision-useful sustainable business information.” Now, leveraging insights gleaned from development of the most widely used internal control framework—the COSO Internal Control-Integrated Framework—COSO has developed the concept of  ”internal control over sustainability reporting” (ICSR).  In its new report, which weighs in at 114 pages, COSO provides supplemental guidance that explains and interprets how each of the 17 principles in the 2013 version of the COSO ICIF applies to sustainable business activities and sustainable business information. According to the authors, “[i]nternal controls have value beyond compliance and external financial reporting. Effective internal controls can help an organization articulate its purpose, set its objectives and strategy, and grow on a sustained basis with confidence and integrity in all types of information.”  As companies seek to “generate sustained value—ethically and responsibly—over the longer term,” with an emphasis on sustainability and ESG, both companies and their stakeholders need effective controls and oversight to provide the reliable and high-quality data needed for “decision making in this changing world.”  

Weaponization of the SEC? The House questions the SEC Chair

Will “weaponization” be Merriam-Webster’s word of the year? On Wednesday, SEC Chair Gary Gensler testified to the House Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government on the topic of SEC appropriations.   The SEC is asking for a 12% increase.  Why? Gensler cited tremendous growth in the markets and the “wild west of crypto,” which, he said, without prejudging any one token or exchange, was “rife with non-compliance”; the SEC was stretched thin in its efforts to investigate, but “must be able to meet the match of bad actors.”  In response, Gensler heard from some subcommittee members about heavy-handed enforcement, the “blistering pace” of rulemaking (which distracts the SEC from the work some members perceived as its real mission), and capital formation treated as just an afterthought. There was certainly some time spent questioning the vast number of proposals the SEC was making (which Gensler reminded the member was fewer than proposed during Jay Clayton’s tenure) and some attention to staffing issues highlighted in the Inspector General’s report.  By far, however, the spotlight was on climate, with much of the subcommittee going on a tear—well, as much of a tear as possible in a five-minute allocation of time—about the SEC’s climate proposal. One member even went so far as to suggest that the climate proposal represented a “weaponization” of the SEC. What impact will these criticisms have on the proposal? (See this PubCo post.)