[This post is Part II of a revision and update of my earlier post that primarily reflects the contents of the proposing release. Part I (here) covered the background of the proposal and described the SEC’s proposed climate disclosure framework, including disclosure of climate-related risks, governance, risk management, targets and goals, financial statement metrics and general aspects of the proposal. This post covers GHG emissions disclosure and attestation.]
So, what are the GHG emissions for a mega roll of Charmin Ultra Soft toilet paper? That was the question I asked to open this PubCo post. According to this article in the WSJ, the answer was 771 grams, a calculation performed by the Natural Resources Defense Council. But how did they figure that out? How public companies could be required to calculate and report on their GHG emissions is one of the major issues addressed by the SEC in its proposal on climate-related disclosure regulation issued last week. The proposal was designed to require disclosure of “consistent, comparable, and reliable—and therefore decision-useful—information to investors to enable them to make informed judgments about the impact of climate-related risks on current and potential investments.” Drawing on the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the proposal would, in addition to the disclosure mandate discussed in Part I of this Update, require disclosure of a company’s Scopes 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions, and, for larger companies, Scope 3 GHG emissions if material (or included in the company’s emissions reduction target), with a phased-in attestation requirement for Scopes 1 and 2 data for large accelerated filers and accelerated filers. The disclosure would be included in registration statements and periodic reports in the section captioned “Climate-Related Disclosure.” At 510 pages, the proposal is certainly thoughtful, comprehensive and stunningly detailed—some might say overwhelmingly so. If adopted, it would certainly require a substantial undertaking for many companies to get their arms around the extensive and granular requirements and comply with the proposal’s mandates. How companies would manage this enormous effort remains to be seen.
[This post is Part I of a revision and update of my earlier post primarily reflecting the contents of the proposing release. This post covers background and describes various aspects of the proposal other than the sections on GHG emissions disclosure and attestation, which will be covered in a separate post early next week.]
The SEC describes it modestly as a proposal to “enhance and standardize registrants’ climate-related disclosures for investors.” The WSJ called it “the biggest potential expansion in corporate disclosure since the creation of the Depression-era rules over financial disclosures that underpin modern corporate statements,” and Fortune said it “could be the biggest change to corporate disclosures in the U.S. in decades.” But now you can judge for yourself, after the SEC voted earlier this week, three to one, to propose new rules on climate disclosure regulation. The proposal was designed to require disclosure of “consistent, comparable, and reliable—and therefore decision-useful—information to investors to enable them to make informed judgments about the impact of climate-related risks on current and potential investments.” The proposal would require public companies to disclose information about climate-related risks that are reasonably likely to have a material impact on their businesses, results of operations or financial condition, as well as information about the effect of climate risk on companies’ governance, risk management and strategy. The disclosure, which would be included in registration statements and periodic reports, would draw, in part, on disclosures provided for under the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. Compliance would be phased in, with reporting for large accelerated filers due in 2024 (assuming an—optimistic—effective date at the end of this year). The proposal would also mandate disclosure of a company’s Scopes 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions, and, for larger companies, Scope 3 GHG emissions if material (or included in the company’s emissions reduction target), with a phased-in attestation requirement for Scopes 1 and 2 data for large accelerated filers and accelerated filers. The proposal would also require disclosure of certain climate-related financial metrics in a note to the audited financial statements. At 510 pages, the proposal is certainly thoughtful, comprehensive and stunningly detailed—some might say overwhelmingly so. If adopted, it would surely require a substantial undertaking for many companies to get their arms around the extensive and granular requirements and comply with the proposal’s mandates. How companies would manage this enormous effort remains to be seen.
“Highly anticipated” is surely an understatement for the hyperventilation that has accompanied the wait for the SEC’s new proposal on climate disclosure regulation. The proposed rulemaking has been a subject of conjecture for many months, and internal squabbles about where the proposal should land have leaked to the press. (See this PubCo post.) As one of those hyperventilators, I’ve been speculating for months about what it might include, what it might exclude. Would it require disclosure of Scope 3 GHG emissions? Would a particular framework be selected or endorsed? Would the framework sync up with international standards or, if not, how would they overlap or conflict? Would the framework be industry-specific? Would scenario analyses be mandated? Would companies be required to obtain third-party attestation or other independent assurance? Would reporting be scaled? There were a lot of questions. Now, we finally know at least some of the preliminary answers: yesterday, the SEC voted, three to one, to propose new rules requiring public companies to disclose information about the material impact of climate on their businesses, as well as information about companies’ governance, risk management and strategy related to climate risk. The disclosure, which would be included in registration statements and periodic reports, would draw, in part, on disclosures provided for under the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. Compliance would be phased in, with reporting for large accelerated filers due in 2024 (assuming an—optimistic—effective date at the end of this year). The proposal would also mandate disclosure of a company’s Scopes 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions, and, for larger companies, Scope 3 GHG emissions if material (or included in the company’s emissions reduction target), with a phased-in attestation requirement for Scopes 1 and 2 for large accelerated filers and accelerated filers. The proposal would also require disclosure of certain climate-related financial metrics in a note to the audited financial statements. For some, a sigh of relief, for others, not so much.
In this statement from the SEC’s Office of the Chief Accountant, Acting Chief Accountant Paul Munter discusses materiality assessments in the context of errors in financial statements. As he summarizes the issue, the “determination of whether an error is material is an objective assessment focused on whether there is a substantial likelihood it is important to the reasonable investor.” And when an error in historical financial statements is determined to be material, a “Big R” restatement of the prior period financial statements is required. On the other hand, if the error is not material, “but either correcting the error or leaving the error uncorrected would be material to the current period financial statements, a registrant must still correct the error, but is not precluded from doing so in the current period comparative financial statements by restating the prior period information and disclosing the error,” known as a revision or “little r” restatement. In either case, Munter observes, “both of these methods—reissuance and revision, or ‘Big R’ and ‘little r’—constitute restatements to correct errors in previously-issued financial statements as those terms are defined in U.S. GAAP.” According to a review by Audit Analytics, “while the total number of restatements by registrants declined each year from 2013 to 2020, ‘little r’ restatements as a percentage of total restatements rose to nearly 76% in 2020, up from approximately 35% in 2005.” Should we attribute this change to improvements in audit quality or internal control over financial reporting, or could it be that some companies are not being entirely objective in making their materiality determinations? In the event of error in the financial statements, Munter emphasizes, companies, auditors and audit committees must “carefully assess whether the error is material by applying a well-reasoned, holistic, objective approach from a reasonable investor’s perspective based on the total mix of information.”
Who doesn’t love the latest gossip—I mean reporting—about internal squabbles—I mean debate—at the SEC? This news from Bloomberg sheds some fascinating light on reasons for the ongoing delay in the release of the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal: internal conflicts about the proposal. But, surprisingly, the conflicts are not between the Dems and the one Republican remaining on the SEC; rather, they’re reportedly between SEC Chair Gary Gensler and the two other Democratic commissioners, Allison Herren Lee and Caroline Crenshaw, about how far to push the proposed new disclosure requirements, especially in light of the near certainty of litigation, and whether to require that the disclosures be audited. Just how tough should the proposal be? The article paints the SEC’s dilemma about the rulemaking this way: “If its rule lacks teeth, progressives will be outraged. On the flip side, an aggressive stance makes it more likely the regulation will be shot down by the courts, leaving the Biden administration with nothing. Either way, someone is going to be disappointed.”
In November 2021, Audit Analytics posted its 20-year review of restatements, showing that the number of “Big R” reissuance restatements in 2020, the last year of the review, was at a record low. According to the report, there were “81% fewer restatements in 2020 than the high in 2006 and 26% fewer than 2019.” Notably, however, while in 2005 reissuance restatements represented the majority of restatements, in 2020, reissuance restatements represented only 24.3% of restatements; revision restatements represented 75.7% of all restatements. At yesterday’s Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Annual Securities Regulation Institute, Lindsay McCord, Corp Fin Chief Accountant, raised a question: were companies being properly “objective” in assessing whether a restatement should be a “Big R” or “little r” restatement?
For over two years, the SEC staff and advisory committees, credit rating agencies, investors, the Big Four accounting firms and other interested parties have been making noise about a popular financing technique called “supply chain financing.” It can be a perfectly useful financing tool in the right hands—companies with healthy balance sheets. But it can also disguise shaky credit situations and allow companies to go deeper into debt, often unbeknownst to investors and analysts, with sometimes disastrous ends. Currently, there are no explicit GAAP disclosure requirements to provide transparency about a company’s use of supply chain financing. That may be why Bloomberg has referred to supply chain financing as “hidden debt.” Late last month, the FASB announced that it had issued a proposed Accounting Standards Update intended to help investors and others “better consider the effect of supplier finance programs on a buyer’s working capital, liquidity, and cash flows.” The proposed ASU would require the buyer in a supply chain financing program to “disclose sufficient information about the program to allow an investor to understand the program’s nature, activity during the period, changes from period to period, and potential magnitude.” The comment period will be open until March 21, 2022.
Last week, the SEC staff issued a new statement on the LIBOR transition. LIBOR, the London Interbank Offered Rate, is a widely used reference rate calculated based on estimates submitted by banks of their own borrowing costs. LIBOR has been used extensively as a benchmark reference for short-term interest rates for various commercial and financial contracts—including interest rate swaps and other derivatives, as well as floating rate mortgages and corporate debt. In 2012, the revelation of the LIBOR rigging scandals made clear that the benchmark was susceptible to manipulation, and British regulators decided to phase it out at the end of 2021. The staff statement addresses a wide variety of issues for various market participants, but central for many public companies is the discussion of applicable disclosure obligations with respect to the transition away from LIBOR.
In December 2020, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, was signed into law. The HFCAA amended SOX to prohibit trading on U.S. exchanges of public reporting companies audited by audit firms located in foreign jurisdictions that the PCAOB has been unable to inspect for three sequential years. (See this PubCo post.) According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[w]e have a basic bargain in our securities regime, which came out of Congress on a bipartisan basis under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. If you want to issue public securities in the U.S., the firms that audit your books have to be subject to inspection by the [PCAOB]….This final rule furthers the mandate that Congress laid out and gets to the heart of the SEC’s mission to protect investors….The Commission and the PCAOB will continue to work together to ensure that the auditors of foreign companies accessing U.S. capital markets play by our rules. We hope foreign governments will, working with the PCAOB, take action to make that possible.” Last week, the SEC adopted final amendments to implement the HFCAA. The amendments will be effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.