Is mandatory climate risk disclosure a done deal yet? Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee has taken almost every opportunity to emphasize the importance of the SEC’s taking action to mandate climate risk disclosure. (See, for example, this NYT op-ed, her remarks at PLI entitled Playing the Long Game: The Intersection of Climate Change Risk and Financial Regulation and this statement, “Modernizing” Regulation S-K: Ignoring the Elephant in the Room.”) And now, according to Reuters, Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates remarked during a conference on climate finance that the SEC “‘should help lead’ the creation of a disclosure system for environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues for corporations.” But how to craft the new rules? With the new Administration in Washington, many of the think tanks and advocacy groups are making their voices heard on just that—crafting mandatory climate disclosure regulations. The reports of two are discussed below; there are definitely some common threads, such as the need for the SEC to onboard climate expertise and organize a platform or two for stakeholder input. Their recommendations may also provide some ideas for voluntary compliance and some insight into the direction the SEC may be going.
In his 2021 letter to CEOs, BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink asked companies to disclose a “plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net zero economy”—that is, “one that emits no more carbon dioxide than it removes from the atmosphere by 2050, the scientifically-established threshold necessary to keep global warming well below 2ºC.” (See this PubCo post.) Now BlackRock Investment Stewardship has posted a powerpoint presentation that sets out BIS’s expectations in greater detail. The presentation concludes with a caution that, “where corporate disclosures are insufficient to make a thorough assessment, or a company has not provided a credible plan to transition its business model to a low-carbon economy, including short- medium- and long-term targets, we may vote against the directors we consider responsible for climate risk oversight.”
Issues regarding political donations have been thrown into sharp relief recently in light of the stands taken by a number of companies to pause or discontinue some or all political donations in response to the shocking events of January 6. A number of companies announced that their corporate PACs had suspended—temporarily or permanently—their contributions to one or both political parties or to lawmakers who objected to certification of the presidential election. But how widely adopted was this approach? To find out, The Conference Board conducted a survey. It turns out that those announcements reflected only a slice of the actions taken by corporate PACs. What’s more, the survey indicated that corporate boards typically had little role in these decisions. Nevertheless, for some companies, boards may find that political spending associated with their companies is front and center this proxy season.
Democrats and Republicans are busy “lobbying” the SEC these days. Republicans want the SEC to nix Nasdaq’s proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure. Democrats want the SEC to beef up its insider trading rules in connection with Rule 10b5-1 plans. Will either find a receptive audience?
In November 2020, amendments to Reg S-K to modernize the required business narrative became effective. The amendments including changes related to disclosure about a company’s human capital resources, replacing a requirement to disclose only the number of employees with a new requirement to disclose, to the extent material, information about human capital resources. In particular, the amendments identified as non-exclusive examples of measures or objectives that the company may focus on in managing the business “measures and objectives that address the attraction, development, and retention of personnel.” Even these measures, the SEC emphasized, were not a mandate. However, then-SEC Chair Jay Clayton said at the time of adoption that he expected “to see meaningful qualitative and quantitative disclosure, including, as appropriate, disclosure of metrics that companies actually use in managing their affairs.” The principles-based rules did not articulate specific metrics for human capital resources disclosure, allowing companies wide latitude in crafting their disclosure to focus on information that is material to each company. At the same time, however, the rules did not provide much direction, leaving many companies at something of a loss for how to proceed. In this paper, Compensation Advisory Partners provides an “early read on developing best practices” regarding human capital disclosure, analyzing the earliest disclosures to provide some guidance on topics, trends and level of detail provided. The CAP paper also includes a number of useful samples. Similarly, Willis Towers Watson reviewed the first three dozen human capital disclosures by companies in the S&P 500 published in 10-Ks filed since the effective date of the new requirement and, in this report, provides some data on the prevalence of topics and metrics.
In December 2019, as part of its strategy of enhancing transparency and accessibility through proactive stakeholder engagement, the PCAOB launched an effort to engage with audit committees, conducting conversations with almost 400 audit committee chairs focused on audit committee perspectives on topics such as audit quality assessment and improvement and auditor communications. (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.” The PCAOB continued this outreach to audit committee chairs during 2020, contacting the audit committee chairs of most of the U.S. public companies that had audits inspected by the PCAOB during 2020. The PCAOB spoke with almost 300 audit committee chairs and discussed the results in this new report. The discussions involved Covid-19, communications by the auditor with the audit committee, new auditing and accounting standards and emerging technologies. As part of their discussions with the PCAOB, the chairs identified a number of practices in connection with each topic that they viewed as particularly effective—advice that could be useful to other audit committees.
On Monday, the SEC announced that John Coates has been appointed Acting Director of Corp Fin. He has been the John F. Cogan Professor of Law and Economics at Harvard University, where he also served as Vice Dean for Finance and Strategic Initiatives. If that name sounds familiar—even if you haven’t been one of his students—it may be because he sometimes pops up in Matt Levine’s column in Bloomberg as the author of “The Problem of Twelve,” which he describes as the “likelihood that in the near future roughly twelve individuals will have practical power over the majority of U.S. public companies.” Beyond that, he has been a very active member of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, and Committee recommendations he has authored may give us some insight on his perspective on issues.
In this paper, Gaming the System: Three ‘Red Flags’ of Potential 10b5-1 Abuse, from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford, the authors examined data from over 20,000 Rule 10b5-1 plans to investigate the extent of insider trading abuse. The study found that some executives did use 10b5-1 plans to conduct “opportunistic, large-scale selling that appears to undermine the purpose of Rule 10b5-1” and highlighted three “red flags” that could be used to detect potentially improper exploitation of Rule 10b5-1. Although the authors acknowledge that they could not determine for certain whether any insiders that avoided losses or otherwise achieved “market-beating returns” actually traded on the basis of material nonpublic information, they contended that average trading returns of the magnitude they found in the study “are highly suspect and, as such, these red flags are suggestive of potential abuse.”
In his 2020 annual letter to CEOs, Laurence Fink, CEO and Chair of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, announced a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” According to Fink’s letter, “[c]limate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.” What’s more, he made it clear that companies need to step up their games when it came to sustainability disclosure. (See this PubCo post.) At the Northwestern Law Securities Regulation Institute this week, former SEC Chair Mary Schapiro said that, at companies where she was on the board, Fink’s statement had “an enormous impact last year.” Fink has just released his 2021 letter to CEOs, in which he asks companies to disclose a “plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net zero economy.” Will this year’s letter have the same impact?
For several years, we’ve witnessed a fierce debate regarding the extent to which, in making decisions, boards of traditional corporations may take into account constituencies or stakeholders other than shareholders, such as employees and the larger community, or must consider only the impact of the decision on shareholder value. In a 2014 article In the Harvard Business Law Review, then-Chief Justice Leo Strine of the Delaware Supreme Court argued forcefully that, notwithstanding the allure of “stakeholder capitalism,” current corporate accountability structures make it difficult for directors to “do the right thing.” However, he contended, there is a way to effectively shift the power balance to create incentives for good corporate citizenship: the public benefit corporation. By articulating new corporate purposes and mandates, in Strine’s view, the PBC tweaks the normal corporate accountability and incentive structure that traditionally has made corporate managers accountable to only one constituency—shareholders. (See this PubCo post.) But while there have been a few corporations willing to take the IPO plunge as PBCs, there haven’t been any that have taken the risk, as public companies, of changing to the benefit corporation form—until now that is. And what’s most intriguing is that the shareholder vote at this company in favor of becoming a PBC was overwhelming. Is there more public shareholder support for PBCs than we thought?