FASB is moving ahead with new requirements for more information about public company expenses, approaching the issue from two perspectives: disaggregation of income statement expenses and segment reporting. More specifically, this week FASB published a proposed Accounting Standards Update intended to provide investors with more decision-useful information about expenses on the income statement. According to the press release announcing the proposed ASU, investors have said that more detailed information about a company’s expenses “is critically important to understanding a company’s performance, assessing its prospects for future cash flows, and comparing its performance over time and with that of other companies.” In addition, last week, FASB made a tentative decision to go forward with new requirements for enhanced disclosure about segment expenses and other segment items, and directed the staff to draft a final ASU for vote by written ballot. FASB had previously explained that investors find segment information to be critically important to understanding a company’s different business activities, as well as its overall performance and potential future cash flows. Although financial statements do provide information about segment revenue and a measure of profit or loss, not much information is disclosed about segment expenses.
More financial information about human capital? FASB looks to require disaggregation of expenses on the income statement
In June, the Working Group on Human Capital Accounting Disclosure, a group of ten academics that includes former SEC Commissioners Joe Grundfest and Robert Jackson, Jr. and former SEC general counsel, John Coates, submitted a rulemaking petition requesting that the SEC require more disclosure of financial information about human capital. According to the petition, there has been “an explosion” of companies “that generate value due to the knowledge, skills, competencies, and attributes of their workforce. Yet, despite the value generated by employees, U.S. accounting principles provide virtually no information on firm labor.” (See this PubCo post.) The Group may be about to have its wishes granted—at least in part—but not by the SEC. Rather, the FASB is hard at work on a project to disaggregate income statement expenses, and high on all of the FASB board members’ lists was the need to separately disclose labor costs/employee compensation. Of course, as reported by Bloomberg (here and here), there has been a push for disaggregation of expenses on the income statement since at least 2016, but in 2019, the FASB voted (5 to 2) “to put its once-high priority financial reporting project on pause.” It’s been quite a lengthy pause, but, in February 2022—perhaps hearing the call from investors and others—the FASB decided to restart work on the project to “improve the decision usefulness of business entities’ income statements through the disaggregation of certain expense captions.” It seemed from the FASB Board discussion that the Board members were favorably inclined to proceed with a disaggregation requirement—especially with respect to labor costs.
Last month, the FASB issued a proposed ASU on segment reporting. In its announcement, the FASB explained that investors find segment information to be critically important to understanding a company’s different business activities, as well as its overall performance and potential future cash flows. Although financial statements do provide information about segment revenue and a measure of profit or loss, not much information is disclosed about segment expenses. According to FASB Chair Richard Jones, the “proposed ASU would represent the FASB’s most significant change to segment reporting since 1997….On the basis of our extensive stakeholder outreach, the proposed ASU would provide investors and other allocators of capital with valuable insights into significant segment expenses, expand segment disclosures reported in interim periods, and require disclosures for single-segment entities.”
On Thursday last week, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee voted to approve, with two abstentions, a subcommittee recommendation regarding human capital management disclosure. You probably remember that, in 2020, during the tenure of then-SEC Chair Jay Clayton, the SEC adopted a new requirement to discuss human capital as part of an overhaul of Reg S-K that applied a “principles-based” approach. The new rule limited the requirement to a “description of the registrant’s human capital resources, including the number of persons employed by the registrant, and any human capital measures or objectives that the registrant focuses on in managing the business (such as, depending on the nature of the registrant’s business and workforce, measures or objectives that address the development, attraction and retention of personnel).” (See this PubCo post.) With workforce having grown in importance as a value driver, many viewed the amendment as a step in the right direction, but one that fell short. Subsequent reporting suggested that companies “capitalized on the fact that the new rule does not call for specific metrics,” as “[r]elatively few issuers provided meaningful numbers about their human capital, even when they had those numbers at hand” (although more recent studies have shown some expansion of disclosure). (See this PubCo post.) As you know, Corp Fin is currently working on a proposal to mandate enhanced company disclosures regarding HCM, and, according to the most recent Reg-Flex agenda, October is the target for issuance of the proposal. (See this PubCo post.) Recommendations from SEC advisory committees often hold some sway with the staff and the commissioners. Will the IAC recommendations have any impact?
SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee hears about non-traditional financial information and climate disclosure
Last week, at a meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee heard from experts on two topics: accounting for non-traditional financial information and climate disclosure. Interestingly, two of the speakers on the first panel are among the eight new members just joining the Committee. In his opening remarks, with regard to non-traditional financial information, SEC Chair Gary Gensler characterized the discussion as “an important conversation as we continue to evaluate types of information relevant to investors’ decisions. Whether the information in question is traditional financial statement information, like components in an income statement, balance sheet, or cash flow statement, or non-traditional information, like expenditures related to human capital or cybersecurity, it’s important that issuers disclose material information and that disclosures are accurate, not misleading, consistently applied, and tied to traditional financial information.” With regard to climate disclosure, Gensler returned to his theme that the SEC’s new climate disclosure proposal is simply part of a long tradition of expanded disclosures, addressing the topic of “a conversation that investors and issuers are having right now. Today, hundreds of issuers are disclosing climate-related information, and investors representing tens of trillions of dollars are making decisions based on that information. Companies, however, are disclosing different information, in different places, and at different times. This proposal would help investors receive consistent, comparable, and decision-useful information, and would provide issuers with clear and consistent reporting obligations.” In her opening remarks, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce asked the Committee to “consider whether our proposed climate disclosure mandate would change fundamentally this agency’s role in the economy, and whether such a change would benefit investors. Are these disclosure rules designed to elicit disclosure or to change behavior in a departure from the neutrality of our core disclosure rules?”
In February, then-Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee directed the staff of Corp Fin, in connection with the disclosure review process, to “enhance its focus on climate-related disclosure in public company filings,” starting with the extent to which public companies address the topics identified in the interpretive guidance the staff issued regarding climate change in 2010. (See this PubCo post.) In March, the SEC announced the creation of a new Climate and ESG Task Force in the Division of Enforcement. (See this PubCo post.) How else does this new ESG focus play out? On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported, Lindsay McCord, Corp Fin Chief Accountant, in remarks to the Baruch College spring financial reporting conference, said that the SEC staff are also “scrutinizing how public companies account for climate-related risks and impacts to their business based on existing accounting rules.” So, in addition to refreshing their understandings of the 2010 guidance, companies will also need to take a hard look at the how environmental issues could affect their financials.
This year’s PLI Securities Regulation Institute was a source for a lot of useful information and interesting perspectives. Panelists discussed a variety of topics, including climate disclosure (although no one shared any insights into the timing of the SEC’s final rules), proxy season issues, accounting issues, ESG and anti-ESG, and some of the most recent SEC rulemakings, such as pay versus performance, cybersecurity, buybacks and 10b5-1 plans. Some of the panels focused on these recent rulemakings echoed concerns expressed last year about the difficulty and complexity of implementation of these new rules, only this time, we also heard a few panelists questioning the rationale and effectiveness of these new mandates. What was the purpose of all this complication? Was it addressing real problems or just theoretical ones? Are investors really taking the disclosure into account? Is it all for naught? Pay versus performance, for example, was described as “a lot of work,” but, according to one of the program co-chairs, in terms of its impact, a “nothingburger.” (Was “nothingburger” the word of the week?) Aside from the agita over the need to implement the volume of complex rules, a key theme seemed to be the importance of controls and process—the need to have them, follow them and document that you followed them—as well as an intensified focus on cross-functional teams and avoiding silos. In addition, geopolitical uncertainty seems to be affecting just about everything. (For Commissioner Mark Uyeda’s perspective on the rulemaking process presented in his remarks before the Institute, see this PubCo post.) Below are just some of the takeaways, in no particular order.
[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect in greater detail the contents of the adopting release.]
Last week, without an open meeting, the SEC finally adopted a new rule that will require disclosure of information reflecting the relationship between executive compensation actually paid by a company and the company’s financial performance—a new rule that has been 12 years in the making. In 2010, Dodd-Frank, in Section 953(a), added Section 14(i) to the Exchange Act, mandating that the SEC require so-called pay-versus-performance disclosure in proxy and information statements. The SEC proposed a rule on pay versus performance in 2015 (see this PubCo post and this Cooley Alert), but it fell onto the long-term, maybe-never agenda until, that is, the SEC reopened the comment period in January (see this PubCo post). According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the new rule “makes it easier for shareholders to assess a public company’s decision-making with respect to its executive compensation policies. I am pleased that the final rule provides for new, more flexible disclosures that allow companies to describe the performance measures it deems most important when determining what it pays executives. I think that this rule will help investors receive the consistent, comparable, and decision-useful information they need to evaluate executive compensation policies.” In the adopting release, the SEC articulates its belief that the disclosure “will allow investors to assess a registrant’s executive compensation actually paid relative to its financial performance more readily and at a lower cost than under the existing executive compensation disclosure regime.” For the most part, although there is some flexibility in some aspects of the new rule, the approach taken by the SEC in this rulemaking is quite prescriptive; the SEC opted not to take a “wholly principles-based approach because, among other reasons, such a route would limit comparability across issuers and within issuers’ filings over time, as well as increasing the possibility that some issuers would choose to report only the most favorable information.” Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented, and their statements about the rulemaking are discussed below.
Yesterday, the staff of Corp Fin issued Disclosure Guidance: Topic No. 9A, which supplements CF Topic No. 9 with additional views of the staff regarding disclosures related to operations, liquidity and capital resources that companies should consider as a consequence of business and market disruptions resulting from COVID-19. You might recall that, in March, the staff issued CF Topic No. 9, which offered the staff’s views regarding disclosure considerations, trading on material inside information and reporting financial results in the context of COVID-19 and related uncertainties. (See this PubCo post.) As with the original guidance, the new supplemental guidance includes a valuable series of questions designed to help companies assess, and to stimulate effective disclosure regarding, the impact of COVID-19, in advance of the close of the June quarter. As always these days, the guidance makes clear that it represents only the views of the staff, is not binding and has no legal force or effect.
[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect the contents of the proposing release.]
At an open meeting last week, the SEC voted—unanimously—to propose new rules regarding Rule 10b5-1 plans. (The SEC also voted three to two to propose new rules regarding issuer stock repurchases. The proposing release on stock buybacks will be discussed in a subsequent post.) Concerns about potential abuse of Rule 10b5-1 plans have been percolating for many years, and the proposal to add new conditions to the use of the Rule 10b5-1 affirmative defense and new disclosure requirements for 10b5-1 plans has long been anticipated. After all, these plans were one of the first rulemaking targets that SEC Chair Gary Gensler identified after he was sworn in as Chair: 10b5-1 plans, he said back in June, “have led to real cracks in our insider trading regime” and called for a proposal to “freshen up” these rules. (See this PubCo post and the SideBar below.) And in the related press release, Gensler again highlighted concerns about “gaps in Rule 10b5-1—gaps that today’s proposals would help fill.” What wasn’t anticipated was that the vote to issue the proposal would be unanimous! (Remember, though, even former SEC Chair Jay Clayton had discussed the need for “good corporate hygiene” in connection with Rule 10b5-1 plans. See this PubCo post.) But how likely is it that this newfound spirit of unanimity will carry forward to adoption? Time will tell. But do the statements on the proposal, discussed below, of Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman already give us a preview of issues they might raise in possible future dissents on adoption of the rulemaking? There is a 45-day comment period after publication in the Federal Register, a time period that Roisman (perhaps taking a cue from Peirce) found to be of insufficient duration.