Category: Corporate Governance

Alliance Advisors wraps up the 2021 proxy season

Alliance Advisors has just released its 2021 proxy season review, a season they characterize as “dynamic,” as investors stepped forward to express their views on a variety of environmental and social topics. At least 34 E&S shareholder proposals won majority support, compared to 21 proposals last year.  And over a dozen shareholder proposals on diversity, climate change and political spending won with votes in excess of 80%.  There were also some new entries among the shareholder proposals—such as requests for racial audits, access to COVID-19 medicines and say on climate—that received support averaging around 30%, a level that Alliance characterizes as “remarkably” good for first timers. Alliance acknowledges that these results did not come entirely out of the blue, as large asset managers such as BlackRock and Vanguard had previously signaled that they might take steps this season to more closely align their proxy voting records with their advocacy positions.

Gensler discusses potential elements of climate risk disclosure rule proposal

In remarks yesterday on a webinar, “Climate and Global Financial Markets,” from Principles for Responsible Investment, SEC Chair Gary Gensler offered us some clues about what to expect from the SEC’s anticipated climate disclosure requirements by analogizing to the Olympics:  there are rules to measure performance and the “scoring system is both quantitative and qualitative,” which “brings comparability to evaluating” performance among athletes and over time. In addition, as with the components of public company reporting generally, the types of sports included in the Olympics change over time—there was no Olympic women’s surfing competition 100 years ago, but interests and demand have changed.  So with disclosure requirements, which have gradually expanded to include disclosure about management, MD&A, compensation and risk factors, some hotly debated topics in their time.  Now, investors are demanding disclosure about climate risk, and it’s time for the SEC to “take the baton.” To that end, Gensler has asked the SEC staff to “develop a mandatory climate risk disclosure rule proposal for the Commission’s consideration by the end of the year.”  In his remarks, he outlines some of the concepts that are being considered for inclusion in that proposal. 

BlackRock flexes its muscles during the 2020-21 proxy period

Although BlackRock, which manages assets valued at over $9 trillion, and its CEO, Laurence Fink, have long played an outsized role in promoting corporate sustainability and social responsibility, BlackRock has also long been a target for protests by activists. As reported by Bloomberg, “[e]nvironmental advocates in cities including New York, Miami, San Francisco, London and Zurich targeted BlackRock for a wave of protests in mid-April, holding up images of giant eyeballs to signal that ‘all eyes’ were on BlackRock’s voting decisions.” Of course, protests by climate activists outside of the company’s offices are nothing new. There’s even a global network of NGOs, social movements, grassroots groups and financial advocates called “BlackRock’s Big Problem,” which pressures BlackRock to “rapidly align [its] business practices with a climate-safe world.”  Why this singular outrage at BlackRock? Perhaps because, as reflected in press reports like this one in the NYT, activists have reacted to the appearance of stark inconsistencies between the company’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record: BlackRock has historically conducted extensive engagement with companies but, in the end, voted with management much more often than activists preferred. For example, in the first quarter of 2020, the company supported less than 10% of environmental and social shareholder proposals and opposed three environmental proposals. BlackRock has just released its Investment Stewardship Report for the 2020-2021 proxy voting year (July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021).  What a difference a year makes.

Commissioner Peirce offers Brookings her views on ESG

On Tuesday, the Brookings Institution held a panel discussion regarding the role that the SEC should play in ESG investing. In describing the event, Brookings said that ESG issues “continue to climb in importance for many investors and policy makers. What role should public policy and financial regulation play in response to ESG concerns? These questions are of particular importance for the [SEC] tasked with protecting America’s capital markets and American investors.” You might have assumed that Brookings would have invited as the speaker one of the SEC’s fervent advocates for more prescriptive ESG disclosure regulation, such as Commissioner Allison Herren Lee.  But instead, Brookings invited the contrarian Commissioner Hester Peirce as the SEC representative.  As an opponent of the SEC’s venturing into the mandatory ESG metrics disclosure business, Peirce came prepared to engage, armed with a voluminous speech consisting of 10 theses, footnoted to the hilt.  Recognizing that “whether and how we will move toward a more prescriptive ESG disclosure framework” is now front and center on the SEC’s current agenda, Peirce offered ten theses “without much sugar-coating” in the hopes of catalyzing “a textured conversation about the complexities and consequences of a potential ESG rulemaking.”

Acting Enforcement Director warns of ESG enforcement actions

According to Law 360 reporting on a webcast panel last week, Acting Director of Enforcement Melissa Hodgman, warned that, in addition to “increased scrutiny” of “funds touting green investments,” we may well see more ESG disclosure-related enforcement actions in general. In March, then-Acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee announced the creation of a new climate and ESG task force in the Division of Enforcement. The moderator of the panel, a former co-Director of Enforcement, observed that “usually you don’t stand up a task force unless you’re pretty sure that task force is going to produce something.”  So what should we expect?

Bills introduced to address 8-K trading gap—again

In 2015, an academic study, reported in the WSJ, showed that corporate insiders consistently beat the market in their companies’ shares in the four days preceding 8-K filings, the period that the researchers called the “8-K trading gap.” The study also showed that, when insiders engaged in open market purchases—relatively unusual transactions for insiders—during that trading gap, insiders “are correct about the directional impact of the 8-K filing more often than not—and that the probability that this finding is the product of random chance is virtually zero.” The WSJ article reported that, after reviewing the study, Representative Carolyn Maloney, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, characterized the results as “troubling” and said she was preparing legislation to address the issue. Five years later, in January 2020, by an unusually bipartisan vote of 384 to 7, the House passed HR 4335, the “8-K Trading Gap Act of 2019.”  A substantially similar bill was introduced in the Senate. But then, the bill disappeared into the vapor.  Now, a similar bill, the ‘‘8–K Trading Gap Act of 2021,” has been introduced by Maloney in the House as H.R. 4467, and in the Senate by Senator Chris Van Hollen as S.2360. According to Van Hollen, “Time and again we’ve seen corporate executives take advantage of the 8-K trading gap by selling off bundles of shares prior to a major announcement. It’s clear this gap gives corporate insiders a massive unfair advantage over the public….Our legislation will close this harmful loophole and provide fairness to everyday shareholders. I’ll be working with my colleagues on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee to move this legislation at once.” Although Congress certainly has a full legislative plate, with the Dems now controlling both houses of Congress, will the bill finally make its way through Congress?

New challenge to California board diversity laws

There’s a new case challenging both of California’s board diversity laws. The case, which was filed in a California federal district court against the California Secretary of State, Dr. Shirley Weber, seeks declaratory relief that California’s board diversity statutes (SB 826 and AB 979) violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the internal affairs doctrine, and seeks to enjoin Weber from enforcing those statutes. The plaintiff,  the Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment, is described as “a Texas non-profit membership association,” with members  that include “persons who are seeking employment as corporate directors as well as shareholders of publicly traded companies headquartered in California and therefore subject to SB 826 and AB 979.” Will this case be the one to jettison these two statutes? 

Is tax transparency the new ESG disclosure demand?

When the press publishes articles alleging that a slew of profitable businesses are, quite legally, not paying much—if anything—in income taxes, and politicians argue that companies are just not paying their fair share, it’s bound to raise a few hackles.  Now, this article in Bloomberg reports that tax transparency has become one of the “under-the-radar” elements of ESG disclosure that’s “gaining traction.”  According to the article, ESG-oriented investors “want large public companies to disclose where they shift their profits and how much they pay in taxes, and to cut back on aggressive tax planning.”

SEC Advisory Committee makes recommendations on ESG disclosure

Yesterday, at a meeting of the SEC’s Asset Management Advisory Committee, the Committee adopted recommendations (developed by the ESG Subcommittee) regarding ESG disclosure by issuers, intended to improve the information and disclosure used by investment managers for ESG investing. While addressing a broad array of issues regarding ESG investment products, the Committee recognized “that issuer disclosure is the starting discussion point for all ESG matters.” Given the dependence of the investment management industry on issuer disclosure regarding ESG matters and the resulting demand for consistent and comparable ESG disclosure, the recommendations are surprisingly mild—designed to prod rather than mandate.

What’s happening with the shareholder proposal for mandatory arbitration bylaws?

In 2018, a Harvard law professor submitted (on behalf of a related trust/shareholder) a shareholder proposal to Johnson & Johnson requesting that the board adopt a mandatory arbitration bylaw. After receiving a no-action letter from Corp Fin, J&J excluded the proposal, and the professor then sued J&J.  A decision has just been rendered dismissing the complaint. But that’s not necessarily the end of the shareholder’s proposal to J&J for mandatory arbitration.