In 2018, in recognition of the increasing expectation of shareholders to see disclosure regarding material environmental, social and governance issues that affect financial performance and communities, Senator Mark Warner asked the GAO to prepare a report on public company disclosure regarding ESG. That report has now been issued. According to Warner, “[m]ost institutional investors find current company financial disclosures limited in their usefulness, and augment company disclosures through burdensome engagement with the company, purchasing third party compilation data, or initiating shareholder proposals. It is time for the SEC to establish a task force to establish a robust set of quantifiable and comparable ESG metrics that all public companies can adhere to.” Although SEC Chair Jay Clayton has acknowledged “the growing drumbeat for ESG reporting standards,” he has made clear his lack of enthusiasm for imposing a prescriptive sustainability disclosure requirement that goes beyond principles-based materiality. (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) Will the SEC address the drumbeat?
You might think Congress would be too busy these days—what with a pandemic raging across the U.S., looming economic catastrophe and spiraling unemployment—to worry about the resubmission thresholds for shareholder proposals, but nope, they’re all over it. In the latest version of the appropriations bill passed in the House, known as the ‘‘Defense, Commerce, Justice, Science, Energy and Water Development, Financial Services and General Government, Homeland Security, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Act, 2021’’ for short, the bill authorizes funding for the SEC, while at the same time, putting the kibosh on various items on the SEC’s Spring RegFlex agenda (see this PubCo post)—and even on regulations that have already been adopted. But whether these provisions survive or are jettisoned in the Senate is another question.
In December 2019, as part of its strategy of enhancing transparency and accessibility through proactive stakeholder engagement, the PCAOB conducted conversations with almost 400 audit committee chairs, focused on audit committee perspectives on topics such as audit quality assessment and improvement and auditor communications, and reported on those conversations. (See this PubCo post.) As noted by PCAOB Chair William Duhnke in this PCAOB webinar for audit committees, the PCAOB prioritized this engagement, viewing informed and engaged audit committees as “force multipliers.” In addition, he noted, the PCAOB had heard criticism early in the process that the PCAOB did not play well with others and was not receptive to feedback—the conversations also represented an effort to address that problem. The PCAOB has continued this same outreach to audit committee chairs during 2020, focused this time on the unprecedented challenges created by COVID-19 and its effect on the chairs’ oversight of financial reporting and the audit. The responses regarding the impact of the pandemic varied widely, depending on the industry and company. The chairs identified a number of new or increased risks, including cybersecurity, employee safety and mental health, going concern, accounting estimates, impairments, international operations and accounting implications of the CARES Act. The PCAOB’s recent report summarizes two of the common themes the PCAOB regularly heard from audit committee chairs across industries and highlights some of the helpful questions and considerations that the chairs identified.
Has all of the current political unrest and social upheaval had any impact on the drive for political spending disclosure? Apparently so, according to the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability, which reports in its June newsletter that support for shareholder proposals in favor of political spending disclosure hit record highs this past proxy season. But one risk potentially arising out of political spending is reputational, which could fracture a company’s relationship with its employees, customers and shareholders. As companies and CEOs increasingly offer welcome statements on important social issues such as climate change, healthcare crises and racial injustice, the current heated political climate has heightened sensitivity to any dissonance or conflict between those public statements and the company’s political contributions. When a conflict between action in the form of political spending and publicly announced core values is brought to light, will companies be perceived to be merely virtue-signaling or even hypocritical? To borrow a phrase from asset manager BlackRock, if the public perceives that these companies are not actually doing “the right thing”—even as they may be saying the right thing—will they lose their “social license” to operate? (See this PubCo post.) CPA’s brand new report on Conflicted Consequences explores just such risks.
Delaware bill to update emergency powers, revise PBC provisions and amend indemnification provisions signed into law
Delaware Assembly Bill 341 has finally been signed into law. Among other things, the bill confirms the availability of specific powers relating to stockholders’ meetings that may be exercised by the board during an emergency condition, such as the current pandemic. These powers include changing the date, time and place of meetings (including to virtual formats) and, for public companies, providing notice of these changes through an SEC filing. These provisions are effective retroactively as of January 1, 2020. (See this PubCo post.) The bill also makes it easier to convert a traditional corporation to a public benefit corporation or a PBC to a traditional corporation and amps up the protections for directors of a PBC. (See this PubCo post.) Another provision of the bill, less widely discussed, relates to indemnification, discussed below.
Although it may seem like the last millennium, it was only in January of this year that the CEO of BlackRock, Laurence Fink, in his annual letter to CEOs, announced a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” (See this PubCo post.) According to Fink’s letter, “[c]limate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.” Although he had seen many financial crises over the course of his long career, in the broad scheme of things, they were all ultimately relatively short-term in nature. Not so with climate change: “Even if only a fraction of the projected impacts is realized, this is a much more structural, long-term crisis.” And investors are now “recognizing that climate risk is investment risk,” making climate change the topic that clients raised most often with BlackRock. To that end, BlackRock announced a number of new initiatives, among them “strengthening our commitment to sustainability and transparency in our investment stewardship activities.” As part of that initiative, BlackRock said that it would hold companies accountable if they failed to make sufficient progress. That position came in the face of press reports, like this one in the NYT, highlighting what appeared to be stark inconsistencies between the BlackRock’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record, protests outside of its offices by climate activists, letters from Senators and charges of greenwashing. So what has been the result? BlackRock has just published a report describing its investment stewardship actions taken during 2020 in connection with climate and other sustainability issues. Given that BlackRock is the largest asset manager, companies may want to take note.
Will companies accede to calls for actions to improve racial and ethnic diversity in hiring and promotion? California considers a new mandate for racial/ethnic board diversity
In this excellent NYT article from early June, the author painfully explores the view of many African-American executives that, notwithstanding the public condemnations of racism by many public companies and the “multimillion-dollar pledges to anti-discrimination efforts and programs to support black businesses,” still, many of these companies “have contributed to systemic inequality, targeted the black community with unhealthy products and services, and failed to hire, promote and fairly compensate black men and women. ‘Corporate America has failed black America,” said [the African-American president of the Ford Foundation]. ‘Even after a generation of Ivy League educations and extraordinary talented African-Americans going into corporate America, we seem to have hit a wall.’” In the article, a number of Black executives offer recommendations for actions companies should take to begin to implement the needed systemic transformation. And now, third parties—from proxy advisors to institutional investors to legislators—are taking steps to induce companies to take some of these actions. Will they make a difference?
With so much going on in connection with COVID-19 and its impact, it would be easy to overlook the rest of the SEC’s agenda. And it’s a lengthy one. The new Spring Regulatory Flexibility Act Agenda was published at the end of June, so it’s time to look at what’s on deck for the SEC in the coming year or so. (That reference to “on deck” may be the only sports anyone gets this year….) SEC Chair Jay Clayton has repeatedly made clear his intent to make the RegFlex Agenda more realistic, streamlining it to show what the SEC actually expects to take up in the subsequent period. (Clayton has previously said that the short-term agenda signifies rulemakings that the SEC actually planned to pursue in the following 12 months. See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The SEC’s Spring 2020 short-term and long-term agendas reflect the Chair’s priorities as of March 31, when the agenda was compiled. What stands out here are the matters that have, somewhat surprisingly, moved up onto the final-rule-stage agenda—think universal proxy—from perpetual residence on the long-term (i.e., the maybe never) agenda.
In early April, the SEC approved and declared immediately effective an NYSE rule change to waive, through June 30, 2020 and subject to compliance with conditions, application of certain of the shareholder approval requirements in Section 312.03 of the NYSE Listed Company Manual. The waiver was designed to address the concern that, as a result of the impact of COVID-19, many listed companies with urgent liquidity needs had to access additional capital from insiders, but the NYSE’s shareholder approval requirements could have created impediments to quickly satisfying those capital needs. Since the implementation of the original waiver in April, the NYSE notes, “a number of listed companies have completed capital raising transactions that would not have been possible without the flexibility provided by the Waiver.” While equity markets have generally recovered from their initial precipitous declines, the NYSE observes, many listed companies are continuing to experience difficulty. Accordingly, the NYSE has now proposed to extend this temporary relief through September 30, 2020, and the SEC has declared the proposal immediately effective.