Category: Corporate Governance

Comp Committees take note: stock buybacks as a mechanism for manipulation

You’ve surely seen all the press about companies spending much of their savings from the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on stock buybacks. See, for example, this article.   And this article reports on a JP Morgan prediction for this year of over $800 billion in stock buybacks.  According to this article in CFO.com, S&P 500 firms repurchased $166.3 billion worth of shares just during the first quarter of 2018, up 18.7% from a year ago. A common rationale for conducting a stock buyback is that the shares are undervalued—thus signaling optimism about the company’s future. In addition, buybacks are often viewed as a useful way to provide shareholders with a cash distribution or to offset dilution.   However, in some cases, the author of this study contends, the real motivation may be more opportunistic—managing EPS and increasing executive compensation, regardless of the operational success of the company, where EPS is a performance measure.  Comp committees: take note.

Are rumors of the demise of the public company greatly exaggerated?

As you’ve surely read and heard, there’s been a tremendous amount of hand wringing, particularly at the agency and congressional levels, about the steep decline in the number of public companies and IPOs.   For example, in congressional testimony in 2017, SEC Chair Jay Clayton expressed concern regarding the decline in the number of public companies, contending that it is Mr. and Ms. 401(k) who bear the cost of this trend because they now have “fewer opportunities…to invest directly in high quality companies.” (See this PubCo post.)  The topic has also been taken up by various House committees, SEC advisory committees and SEC forums, as well as by securities and industry organizations. (See this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post.)  However, in this article, a Cambridge professor cries “nonsense”: the primary dangers to public company status, such as buyouts by private equity and a recent bias against conducting IPOs, do not pose “an existential threat to the American public company.”  While there are certainly fewer public companies than in decades past, “the public company remains as crucial a feature of the American economy as it has ever been.”

Is it time to regulate proxy advisory firms?

The idea of regulating proxy advisory firms has been in the ether for quite some time, but it’s an idea that never quite comes to fruition. However, there seems to be a lot of chatter about this topic now, raising the question: is now the time? According to this paper, The Big Thumb on the Scale: An Overview of the Proxy Advisory Industry, from Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, while proxy advisory firms influence institutional voting decisions and corporate governance choices to a material extent, it “is not clear that the recommendations of these firms are correct and generally lead to better outcomes for companies and their shareholders.” In that light, the paper suggests that some type of regulation of proxy advisory firms might be warranted to increase their transparency and improve the reliability of their recommendations.

Are non-GAAP financial measures still problematic?

A couple of years ago, the SEC made a big push—through a series of staff oral admonitions and written guidance, as well as one enforcement action—toward requiring issuers to be more transparent and more consistent in the use of non-GAAP financial measures and to avoid altogether non-GAAP measures that were misleading. For example, companies were advised that they needed to present GAAP measures with equal or greater prominence relative to the non-GAAP measures.  (See, e.g., this PubCo post.) And, as this article revealed, according to Audit Analytics, in 2016, over 25% of the companies in the S&P 500 index had shifted their presentations to put GAAP at the top of their quarterly earnings releases and 81% made GAAP numbers most prominent, compared with only 52% for the prior quarterly earnings releases. (See this PubCo post.)  By the end of 2017, the SEC was apparently sufficiently satisfied with the response that the pendulum had swung back, and there was less staff focus and comment on non-GAAP financial measures.  (See this PubCo post.) But is that really the end of the story? How “good” are the numbers that are fed to investors?

SEC to hold another proxy roundtable

SEC Chair Jay Clayton announced earlier this week that the SEC will be holding a roundtable to discuss the proxy process, date TBD. Potential topics include the voting process, retail shareholder participation, shareholder proposals, proxy advisory firms and technology and innovation.  In 2010, the SEC issued a concept release soliciting public comment on whether the SEC should propose revisions to its proxy rules to address the infrastructure supporting the proxy system, so-called “proxy plumbing.”  Back then, the SEC had decided that it was time to do some maintenance on the creaky old plumbing system.   However, as then Commissioner Elisse Walter, quoting Kurt Vonnegut, commented at the 2010 open meeting to vote on the concept release: “It’s a flaw in the human character that everyone wants to build, but nobody wants to do maintenance.” That statement was more prophetic than she probably anticipated when she made it: nothing came of the concept release.  Whether more results from this current effort remains to be seen.

CAQ publishes new resource on critical audit matters

In October 2017,  the SEC approved the PCAOB’s new auditing standard for the auditor’s report, AS 3101, The Auditor’s Report on an Audit of Financial Statements When the Auditor Expresses an Unqualified Opinion, which will require auditors to include a discussion of “critical audit matters.” Given that, for larger companies, CAM disclosure is almost right around the corner, the Center for Audit Quality has made available this new resource, Critical Audit Matters: Key Concepts and FAQs for Audit Committees, Investors, and Other Users of Financial Statements, to help  audit committees, investors and other users of financial statements to better understand the concept of CAMs.

JOBS Act 3.0?

Will there be a JOBS Act 3.0?  The JOBS and Investor Confidence Act of 2018 just passed the House by a vote of 406 to 4, so, even though Senators may often be chary of jumping on the House bandwagon—remember the doomed Financial Choice Act of 2016 and then 2017— the overwhelming and bipartisan approval in the House still makes the odds look better than usual.