Category: Corporate Governance

Acting Corp Fin Director Coates says ESG disclosure requirements “overdue”

As reported by Bloomberg, Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates told a webinar audience that mandatory ESG disclosures were “overdue,” and that the SEC was moving quickly on related rulemaking.  In the webinar, sponsored by NYU’s Institute of Accounting Research and the Institute for Corporate Governance & Finance, Coates said that he expects the SEC to soon be in a position to review and consider staff proposals for mandatory prescriptive rules on ESG addressing both general and industry-specific requirements. These actions are expected to be the SEC’s most significant action on climate since the 2010 guidance.  (See this PubCo post.)

BlackRock uses its voting power to support environmental and social issues

The outside pressure has been on.  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 outside of the company’s offices by climate activists are nothing new. But why this pressure on BlackRock?  BlackRock and its CEO, Laurence Fink, have played an outsized role in promoting corporate sustainability and social responsibility, announcing, in 2020, a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” (See this PubCo post.) Yet, BlackRock has historically conducted extensive engagement with companies and, 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. As a result, 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. Even a group of Democratic Senators highlighted that inconsistency in this October 2020 letter, characterizing the company’s voting record on climate issues as “troubling and inconsistent.” But that impression may be about to change.  In an interview with Reuters, BlackRock’s global head of investment stewardship since 2020 revealed that the company is “‘accelerating the pace of our stewardship activities; resulting in more engagement and more voting, reflecting heightened expectations, which … are just a function of the urgency of some of the issues.’” Indeed, in the first quarter of 2021, BlackRock supported 12 of 16 environmental and social shareholder proposals.

Tackling the underrepresentation of women of color on boards

With the passage of SB 826 in 2018, California became the first state to mandate board gender diversity (see this PubCo post). In 2020, the California Partners Project, which was founded by California’s current First Lady, released a progress report on women’s representation on boards of California public companies, tracking the changes in gender diversity on California boards since enactment of the law.  That same year,  AB 979 was signed into law in California.  That bill was designed to do for “underrepresented communities” on boards of directors what SB 826 did for board gender diversity. (See this PubCo post.) The CPP has just released a new report that not only updates its 2020 progress report on board gender diversity, but also provides data on women of color on California’s public company boards.  The takeaway is that, while there has been tremendous progress in increasing the number of women on boards, nevertheless, much work remains “to tap all of our talent and achieve racial and cultural equity. Most women on California’s corporate boards are white, while women of color—especially Latinas—remain severely underrepresented.”  In addition to new data, the report offers some strategies for overcoming these deficits in diversity.

Not much data disclosed on human capital, according to new survey

When, in August 2020, the SEC considered adopting a new requirement to discuss human capital as part of an overhaul of Regulation S-K, the debate centered largely on principles-based versus prescriptive regulation—a debate that continues to this day.  In that instance, notwithstanding a rulemaking petition and clamor from numerous institutional and other investors for transparency regarding workforce composition, health and safety, living wages and other specifics, the “principles-based” team carried the day; the SEC limited the requirement to a “description of the registrant’s human capital resources, including the number of persons employed by the registrant, and any human capital measures or objectives that the registrant focuses on in managing the business (such as, depending on the nature of the registrant’s business and workforce, measures or objectives that address the development, attraction and retention of personnel).”  What was the result?  In this new Human Capital Disclosure Report: Learning on the Job, Intelligize took a look at how companies responded to the new disclosure mandate.  Its conclusion: most companies made a “sincere effort to fulfill the scantly defined disclosure obligation”; nevertheless, the report contends, companies “capitalized on the fact that the new rule does not call for specific metrics,” as “[r]elatively few issuers provided meaningful numbers about their human capital, even when they had those numbers at hand.”

What role should the exchanges play in encouraging board diversity?

Board diversity and how (and whether) to try to achieve it is a topic that has certainly appeared on a lot of corporate governance agendas in the last few years.  Institutional investors have applied pressure on corporations, shareholders have submitted precatory proposals for shareholder votes, investment banks have insisted on diverse boards as preconditions for taking companies public, and California and a number of other states have adopted legislation, whether it be a board diversity mandate, a soft target or simply a disclosure requirement.  Most recently, Nasdaq filed with the SEC a proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure, adopting a comply-or-explain approach. According to Nasdaq’s President and CEO, Adena Friedman, “Nasdaq’s purpose is to champion inclusive growth and prosperity to power stronger economies….Our goal with this proposal is to provide a transparent framework for Nasdaq-listed companies to present their board composition and diversity philosophy effectively to all stakeholders; we believe this listing rule is one step in a broader journey to achieve inclusive representation across corporate America.”​ Interestingly, however, the NYSE has not followed suit.  In fact, in an interview on Bloomberg TV in December, NYSE President Stacey Cunningham said, when asked about the Nasdaq proposal, that it was not something that they were considering adopting at the NYSE: “When we use exchange listing standards to require things like diversity profiles or others, we’re defining the investable universe…. We just don’t think we should be using our listing standards because that forces our views on investors and prevents them from being able to make the choices that they want to make and that they are making.” In contrast to the SEC, whose remit is largely disclosure, the exchanges regularly impose corporate governance requirements.  Should board diversity be one of them?

Happy Earth Day!

Climate Action 100+ reports that, last year, there were 22 climate-related weather disasters in the U.S. that “each caused more than $1 billion in damages—far and away a record. To investors, climate change poses not only physical risks of damage to assets, supply chains and infrastructure but also transitional risk if portfolio companies do not adjust rapidly enough as the economy decarbonizes and systemic risk posed to the entire economy.” According to environmental nonprofit Ceres, as of April 21, 408 businesses and investors “with a footprint” in the U.S. have signed an open letter to the President indicating their support for the administration’s commitment to climate action and for setting a new climate target to reduce emissions. The signatories collectively represent over $4 trillion in annual revenue, over $1 trillion in assets under management and employ over 7 million U.S. workers across all 50 states. The letter states that to “restore the standing of the U.S. as a global leader, we need to address the climate crisis at the pace and scale it demands. Specifically, the U.S. must adopt an emissions reduction target that will place the country on a credible pathway to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. We, therefore, call on you to adopt the ambitious and attainable target of cutting GHG emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.” As reported by the NYT and others, the President announced today that the U.S. is setting a new climate target with a goal of reducing U.S. emissions by 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030.  The target “calls for a steep and rapid decline of fossil fuel use in virtually every sector of the American economy and marks the start of what is sure to be a bitter partisan fight over achieving it.”

Can SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce avert adoption of ESG metrics?

It’s widely anticipated that we’ll soon be seeing more action from the SEC on sustainability disclosure, including possibly a prescriptive ESG framework that draws on some global metrics.  (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) Trying to head those prescriptive ESG metrics off at the pass is Commissioner Hester Peirce—yes, she who once described “ESG” as standing for “enabling shareholder graft”—in her statement, Rethinking Global ESG Metrics. With Gary Gensler now sworn in as SEC Chair, the revised composition of the SEC does not bode well for Peirce’s mission. Peirce concludes her statement with the admonition, “[l]et us rethink the path we are taking before it is too late.”  But has the train already left that station? 

Does gender diversity in the C-suite change the way management thinks?

There’s been a lot written about the benefits of board gender diversity, but this article from the Harvard Business Review, Adding Women to the C-Suite Changes How Companies Think, reports on a study by three academics of the impact of adding women to the C-Suite—not just whether the businesses performed better, but why they performed better. In other words, “[w]hat are the specific mechanisms that drive the positive business outcomes associated with increasing the number of women in the C-suite?” According to the authors, much past research has revealed that companies with more women executives “are more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide safer, higher-quality customer experiences.” But why is that the case? To find out, the authors looked at a narrower question of how the addition of women to top management teams changes companies’ “strategic approach to innovation”?  The authors conclude that the addition of women executives to the management team brought more than “new perspectives”—they “actually shift how the C-suite thinks about innovation, ultimately enabling these firms to consider a wider variety of strategies for creating value.”

What’s ahead for this proxy season?

Alliance Advisors, a proxy solicitation and corporate advisory firm, has just posted its 2021 Proxy Season Preview, a useful introduction into the major themes of this season—well worth a read.  First, and most obviously, there is COVID-19 and its direct and indirect impact. The pandemic is having a significant direct impact this year—not just in necessitating recourse to virtual-only annual meetings again this season—but also in focusing the attention of investors and proxy advisors on “how well corporate leaders navigated the crisis and protected business operations, liquidity and the health and welfare of employees.”  But the pandemic has also had a somewhat surprising broader indirect impact.  While it was widely anticipated that the challenges of COVID-19 would overwhelm any other concerns, the impact appears to be otherwise, as the pandemic has highlighted our increasingly precarious condition, including the effects of climate change, and intensified our social and economic inequality—all issues that are front and center this season.  The Preview predicts that environmental and social proposals “are likely to see stronger levels of support in view of last year’s record 21 majority votes… and more assertive investor policies on diversity, climate change and political spending.”

Staff posts guidance on accounting for warrants issued in SPAC transactions

Warrants are frequently issued in connection with the formation and initial registered offerings of SPACs, but apparently there have been some problems with accounting for some of these warrants, or at least, so it appears from this Staff Statement on Accounting and Reporting Considerations for Warrants Issued by Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (“SPACs”) from Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates and Acting Chief Accountant Paul Munter.  The Statement is intended to “highlight the potential accounting implications of certain terms that may be common in warrants included in SPAC transactions” and to discuss what needs to be done if this Statement leads a company and its auditors to determine there is an error in any previously filed financial statements.  The primary issue identified in the Statement is whether these warrants should be classified as equity or liability, which depends largely on the specific terms of the warrant and the entity’s specific facts and circumstances. If warrants are classified as a liability, according to the Statement, they should be “measured at fair value, with changes in fair value reported each period in earnings.”