Last week, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee held a meeting focused in part on the use of environmental, social and governance information in the capital allocation process—how do investors use ESG information in making investment decisions? The panelists—an academic and several representatives of asset managers—all viewed ESG data as important to decision-making, particularly in relation to potential financial impact, even for investment portfolios that were not dedicated to sustainability.
There’s now another legal challenge to SB 826, California’s board gender diversity statute, filed today in the federal district court in the Eastern District of California. In Creighton Meland v. Alex Padilla, Secretary of State of California, a conservative legal organization filed a complaint on behalf of a shareholder of a publicly traded company that is incorporated in Delaware and headquartered in California. The case seeks a declaratory judgment that the statute is unconstitutional under the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment and a permanent injunction preventing implementation and enforcement of the statute. A representative of the legal organization contended that the statute “puts equal numbers above equal treatment….This law is built on the condescending belief that women aren’t capable of getting into the boardroom unless the government opens the door for them. Women are capable of earning a spot on corporate boards without the government coercing businesses to hire them.” This case appears to be the second complaint filed to challenge the new law, the first being, Crest v. Alex Padilla. As you may recall, Crest, filed in California State Court, was framed as a “taxpayer suit” that sought to enjoin Padilla from expending taxpayer funds and taxpayer-financed resources to enforce or implement the statute, claiming violations of the equal protection provisions of the California constitution. (See this PubCo post.)
Last week, the SEC voted to issue a new rule proposal intended to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules, with Commissioners Robert Jackson and Allison Lee dissenting. Generally, the proposal would modify the criteria for eligibility and resubmission of shareholder proposals; provide that a person may submit only one proposal per meeting, whether as a shareholder or acting as a representative; and facilitate engagement with the proponent. As anticipated, at the meeting, the commissioners expressed strong views on these issues, with Chair Jay Clayton observing that a “system in which five individuals accounted for 78% of all the proposals submitted by individual shareholders” needs some work, and Commissioner Jackson characterizing the proposal as swatting “a gadfly with a sledgehammer.” The proposal is subject to a 60-day comment period.
Last week, the SEC voted (by a vote of three to two) to propose amendments to the proxy rules to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis. The proposal is part of the third phase of the SEC’s efforts to address perceived problems in the proxy voting system, the first phase being the proxy process roundtable (see this PubCo post) and the second phase being the SEC’s recently issued interpretation and guidance (see this PubCo post). Of course, not everyone perceives the same problems in the system or perceives them the same way—a disparity that was plainly evident at the open meeting as the proposal’s advocates and critics were hardly reticent in expressing their views. (For a discussion of the goings-on at the open meeting, see this PubCo post.) The proposal is subject to a 60-day comment period and, if adopted, the rules would be subject to a one-year transition period.
You may recall that, last month, Corp Fin announced that it had revisited its approach to responding to no-action requests to exclude shareholder proposals. In essence, under the new policy, the staff may respond to some requests orally, instead of in writing, and, in some cases, may decline to state a view altogether, leaving the company to make its own determination. (See this PubCo post.) In its most recent proxy guidelines, Glass Lewis explains its expectations from companies in light of the new approach.
SEC proposes new obligations for proxy advisory firms and changes to rules for shareholder proposals
Are issuers precluded from raising concerns about proxy advisory firm recommendations, particularly errors and incomplete or outdated information that form the basis of a recommendation? Are firm conflicts of interest insufficiently transparent? Are proxy advisory firms an effective “market-based solution” helping large numbers of institutional investors with time and resource constraints make better voting decisions? Are proxy advisory firms “faux regulators,” wielding too much influence—with too little accountability—in corporate elections and other corporate matters? Maybe all of the above? At an open meeting this morning, the SEC voted, with two dissents, to propose amendments to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms and to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by increasing the eligibility and resubmission thresholds. These actions represent the third phase of the SEC’s efforts to address the proxy voting system, the first phase being the proxy process roundtable (see this PubCo post) and the second phase being the SEC’s recently issued interpretation and guidance (see this PubCo post). As anticipated, at the meeting, the commissioners expressed strong views on these topics, with Chair Jay Clayton observing that a “system in which five individuals accounted for 78% of all the proposals submitted by individual shareholders” needs some work, and Commissioner Robert Jackson characterizing the proposal as swatting “a gadfly with a sledgehammer.” Both proposals are subject to 60-day comment periods. Next up, according to Clayton, proxy plumbing and universal proxy.
Does appointment of a former partner of the client’s audit firm to the client’s audit committee impair audit quality?
Studies of former partners of audit firms that have assumed management positions at audit clients have raised concerns, at least pre-SOX, about potentially lower audit quality, perhaps reflecting hesitation by the audit firm to “challenge aggressive accounting decisions” made by former partners of their firms. But what happens when a former partner joins the audit client’s audit committee? Does the former partner feel pressured not to question the audit firm’s decisions or lose objectivity about the quality of the work of the audit firm? Does the audit firm feel pressured to accept the company’s more aggressive accounting decisions when a former partner sits on the audit committee? In this study, published in Auditing: a Journal of Practice & Theory, a group of academics looked at that question. Their conclusion was that affiliated former partners on audit committees actually led to improved audit processes and outcomes. Why? Applying psychology’s “social identity theory,” the authors posit that the former partners continued to identify with their former firms, but instead of losing their objectivity, the former audit partners “use their knowledge of, and identification with, the audit firm to improve the audit process and the communication between the two parties,” leading to improvement in audit quality.