The SEC’s Office of Chief Accountant has updated its FAQs regarding auditor independence. The new and revised questions relate to the general standard for independence, prohibited non-audit services, partner rotation, definitions and miscellaneous other independence issues. It is important to keep in mind that violations of the auditor independence rules can have serious consequences not only for the audit firm, but also for the audit client. For example, an independence violation may cause the auditor to withdraw its audit report, requiring the audit client to have a re-audit by another audit firm. As a result, in most cases, inquiry into the topic of auditor independence should be another menu item on the audit committee’s plate.
By now, we all know that, sooner or later, audit reports for most public companies will be required to disclose critical audit matters, which are intended to make the audit report more informative for investors. (See this PubCo post.) But, as this article from the EY Center for Board Matters reports, over the last several years, companies and their audit committees have gone a long way toward increasing the amount of audit-related information they provide to investors voluntarily. To carry out its assessment, EY reviewed audit-related disclosures in the proxy statements of Fortune 100 companies over the period from 2012 to 2019. While year to year, the changes appear largely incremental, the change over the entire period is considerable.
As foreshadowed by Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman at an event in July put on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (see this PubCo post), Corp Fin has announced that it is revisiting its approach to responding to no-action requests to exclude shareholder proposals. In essence, 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. How will companies respond?
Yesterday morning, at a telephonic meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee voted to adopt revised recommendations addressing “proxy plumbing”—the panoply of problems associated with the infrastructure supporting the proxy voting system. (See this PubCo post.) The recommendations were originally presented at a meeting of the Committee in late July, but the Committee elected to study the proposal further and offer revisions before voting. The changes are fairly nuanced, now also including some minority views. For the most part, the recommendations would not “reinvent” the proxy voting system, instead targeting improvements that are considered essentially “low-hanging fruit.” However, there appeared to be a consensus that eventually more would need to be done. The recommendations were adopted by a majority of the Committee with two dissents. Will the SEC pay attention?
In a post last month, I noted that, notwithstanding the growth in the number of shareholder proposals related to corporate social responsibility, for the 2019 proxy season (unlike 2018), we did not find any shareholder proposals that were submitted for shareholder votes directly addressing gun safety (although some did indirectly). I wondered out loud whether, in light of current events and the renewed national debate on gun safety—not to mention the gridlock leaving government incapable of doing anything—investors, customers, employees and other stakeholders might turn to companies to “do something.” Would they begin to apply more pressure to companies involved with firearms, including retailers and banks, to reexamine their relationships with the gun industry? It turns out that at least one of them has. Will others follow?
Reg FD prohibits selective disclosure of material, nonpublic information by public companies (or by its senior officials or specified other employees) to securities market professionals and shareholders reasonably likely to trade on the information. If a public company does make a disclosure of that kind, the company is required under Reg FD to disclose the information to the public. Information is considered “material” if there is “a substantial likelihood that a reasonable investor would consider the information important in making an investment decision or if the information would significantly alter the total mix of available information.” And that’s where the thorny part comes in. The test for materiality is a subjective one, based on the facts and circumstances. But judgments about materiality of disclosures are often complicated and muddy and frequently made in real time.
Two SEC commissioners: Is the Reg S-K modernization proposal too principles-based? And why no climate change disclosure?
Yesterday, Commissioners Robert Jackson and Allison Lee published a joint statement to encourage public comment about two aspects of the proposal to modernize Reg S-K (see this PubCo post), released on August 8, about which they had some, uh, reservations. They both indicated their support for release of the proposal, particularly its focus on adding “human capital” as a disclosure topic, but—and it’s a significant “but”— they took issue with the proposal’s “shift toward a principles-based approach to disclosure and the absence of the topic of climate risk.”