Some U.S. companies may well have to report on ESG—even if the SEC takes no action on climate or other ESG disclosure proposals! How’s that? According to this press release from the Council of the European Union, the Council and the European Parliament reached a provisional agreement last week on a corporate sustainability reporting directive (CSRD) that would require more detailed reporting on “sustainability issues such as environmental rights, social rights, human rights and governance factors.” The provisional agreement is subject to approval by the Council and the European Parliament. The press release indicates that the requirements would apply to all large companies and all companies listed on regulated markets, as well as to listed small- to medium-size companies (“taking into account their specific characteristics”). Importantly, for companies outside the EU, “the requirement to provide a sustainability report applies to all companies generating a net turnover of €150 million in the EU and which have at least one subsidiary or branch in the EU. These companies must provide a report on their ESG impacts, namely on environmental, social and governance impacts, as defined in this directive.”
At a recent meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee discussing the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal, a speaker in charge of ESG investing at an asset manager raised the possible risk that companies, faced with a disclosure mandate, would just buy carbon offsets to satisfy investors that they are making progress toward their climate goals. His firm, he said, has been seeing this phenomenon occur, but he thought that the practice could lead to poor outcomes. Companies would probably experience better outcomes, he advised, if they first considered spending those same funds on investments that would actually reduce their carbon footprints. What’s that about? While many experts view carbon offsets as essential ingredients in the recipe for net-zero, some commentators worry that they are just part of a “well-intentioned shell game” or perhaps, less generously, a “racket with trees being treated as hostages”? And some think both concepts—essential and racket—may be true in some cases at the same time. Are carbon offsets effective or are they just a way to assuage, as the NYT phrases it, “carbon guilt”?
The SEC has posted its Spring 2022 Reg-Flex agenda and it’s crammed with pending and new rulemakings—and they’re all going to be proposed or adopted in October! (Ok, admittedly, that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one.) Here is the short-term agenda and here is the long-term agenda. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the “U.S. is blessed with the largest, most sophisticated, and most innovative capital markets in the world….But we cannot take that for granted. As SEC alum Robert Birnbaum and his team said decades ago, ‘no regulation can be static in a dynamic society.’ That core idea still rings true today.” Gensler’s public policy goals for the agenda are “continuing to drive efficiency in our capital markets and modernizing our rules for today’s economy and technologies.” As with recent prior agendas, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce has almost no kind words for the agency’s plans—“flawed goals and a flawed method for achieving them.” In fact, she went so far as to characterize the agenda as “dangerous”: in her view, the agenda represents “the regulatory version of a rip current—fast-moving currents flowing away from shore that can be fatal to swimmers. Just as certain wave and wind conditions can create dangerous rip currents, the pace and character of the rulemakings on this agenda make for dangerous conditions in our capital markets.” There’s no dispute that the agenda is laden with major proposals—human capital, SPACs, board diversity. What’s more, many of these proposals—climate disclosure, cybersecurity, Rule 10b5-1—are apparently at the final rule stage. Whether or not we’ll see a load of public companies submerged by the rip tide of rulemakings remains to be seen, but there’s not much question that implementing them all would certainly be a challenge in any case.
The CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability (from the Center for Political Accountability and the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) annually benchmarks public companies’ disclosure, management and oversight of corporate political spending. The Index also includes specific rankings for companies based on their Index scores, as well as best practice examples of disclosure and other helpful information. (See this PubCo post.) CPA launched the Index in 2011 following the decision by SCOTUS in Citizens United, benchmarking only the S&P 100. In 2015, it began to benchmark the S&P 500. The Index has just announced that, beginning this fall, it will expand its coverage to the Russell 1000. As reported in MarketWatch, the President of CPA observed that, “[w]ith companies under much greater scrutiny on their election-related spending, it really is incumbent on them that they have strong [governance] policies that they adhere to. They face the threat of boycotts. They face the threat of employee morale problems….They face the threat of very harmful publicity. Bottom lines can be adversely affected by the way companies engage in political spending.”
SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee hears about non-traditional financial information and climate disclosure
Last week, at a meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee heard from experts on two topics: accounting for non-traditional financial information and climate disclosure. Interestingly, two of the speakers on the first panel are among the eight new members just joining the Committee. In his opening remarks, with regard to non-traditional financial information, SEC Chair Gary Gensler characterized the discussion as “an important conversation as we continue to evaluate types of information relevant to investors’ decisions. Whether the information in question is traditional financial statement information, like components in an income statement, balance sheet, or cash flow statement, or non-traditional information, like expenditures related to human capital or cybersecurity, it’s important that issuers disclose material information and that disclosures are accurate, not misleading, consistently applied, and tied to traditional financial information.” With regard to climate disclosure, Gensler returned to his theme that the SEC’s new climate disclosure proposal is simply part of a long tradition of expanded disclosures, addressing the topic of “a conversation that investors and issuers are having right now. Today, hundreds of issuers are disclosing climate-related information, and investors representing tens of trillions of dollars are making decisions based on that information. Companies, however, are disclosing different information, in different places, and at different times. This proposal would help investors receive consistent, comparable, and decision-useful information, and would provide issuers with clear and consistent reporting obligations.” In her opening remarks, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce asked the Committee to “consider whether our proposed climate disclosure mandate would change fundamentally this agency’s role in the economy, and whether such a change would benefit investors. Are these disclosure rules designed to elicit disclosure or to change behavior in a departure from the neutrality of our core disclosure rules?”
Jarkesy and climate disclosure: how far will the courts go in constraining the administrative state?
On Wednesday, in an Expert Forum sponsored by Cornerstone Research, Stanford professor and former SEC Commissioner Joe Grundfest and Vice Chair and Chief Legal Officer of Millennium Management and former SEC General Counsel Simon Lorne discussed “The Evolving SEC Landscape: Jarkesy v. SEC and the Proposed Climate Rules.” The two seemingly disparate topics were united by a common thread—the intense skepticism exhibited by some courts (including a likely majority of SCOTUS) of the vast power of the administrative state and their undisguised enthusiasm to constrain it. As Grundfest put it, in a slightly different context, the words are different but the melody is the same. What will be the impact?
Yesterday, the SEC announced that it is reopening the comment period for its 2015 proposal for listing standards for recovery of erroneously awarded compensation. Wait—didn’t they just do that? Yes, in October 2021. (See this PubCo post.) But no, that’s not Sonny and Cher on the radio. The SEC has decided to reopen the comment period AGAIN to allow further public comment in light of a new, just released DERA staff memorandum containing “additional analysis and data on compensation recovery policies and accounting restatements.” The new comment period will be open until 30 days after publication of the reopening notice in the Federal Register.
Are corporate boards awash in faux gatekeepers? This article, Board Gatekeepers, from a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, begins with a catalogue of infamous board failures to act as effective monitors of company conduct—including, in one case, a nascent scandal that continued for 11 years and another the subject of a successful Caremark claim. As framed by the author, the board plays a critical role, serving on behalf of the shareholders—and now perhaps also other stakeholders—to “ensure that the executive team is acting in the company’s best long-term interests,” in particular, “to ‘set up guardrails for the CEO’—that is, protect shareholders (and stakeholders) from corporate malfeasance.” Given the “structural power” that CEOs typically hold in the boardroom—such as through control over information and renominations—courts, regulators and investors often look to independent directors to act as a check on that power. Investors and regulators have also sought to address this power imbalance within the boardroom by introducing two key independent leadership roles—an independent board chair and a lead independent director. One or both of these “board gatekeepers” are now regular fixtures on boards, intended to add a “second layer of protection to the independence of the board” and signal and ensure “the existence of proper monitoring of management by the board.” The proliferation of these board gatekeepers, the author contends, “should have cemented board independence in what one can term its functional form: the ability to serve the crucial gatekeeping role that has been demanded of it.” But the inventory of recent scandals calls that conclusion into question. Are board gatekeepers really just window dressing?
On Friday, the SEC announced that it had adopted amendments to require electronic submission of several forms that currently may be submitted on paper and to require structured data reporting (i.e., XBRL) for Form 11-K. Most notably, the amendments require electronic submission of Forms 144 and, in PDF format, of “glossy” annual reports. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, in “fiscal year 2021, more than half of all filed Form 144 forms—30,000 in total—were filed on paper. In a digital age, it’s important for investors to have easy, online access to material information, rather than needing to visit SEC facilities to access that information. This is particularly important during Covid-19, which has made in-person visits to access these filings even more challenging. Even when access to physical copies isn’t restricted, there are other costs associated with paper filings. It costs investors money and time to travel to the SEC’s reading room. It costs the SEC money and time to process paper filings. These amendments will reduce costs and drive more efficiencies for investors, filers, and the SEC.”
In a recent report, Board Composition: Diversity, Experience, and Effectiveness, The Conference Board explores the implications for board composition of current trends toward ESG expertise and board diversity, together with the continuing emphasis on ensuring the right mix of skills and experience. This expanding list of priorities has led to increased diversity disclosure as well as greater functional expertise, larger boards and enhanced needs for board education. But while there has been a significant increase in disclosure regarding board diversity, that increase “has not been matched by increases in racial/ethnic diversity.” One cautionary note from the report: as boards seek to recruit more directors with functional expertise, such as cybersecurity or climate, the proportion of board members with business strategy experience has declined. For example, among companies in the Russell 3000, the percentage of directors with experience in business strategy decreased by five percentage points in the last three years. According to the Executive Director of the ESG Center at The Conference Board, the “recent decline in board members with business strategy experience is worrisome. Directors without broad strategic experience risk hindering effective board discussions and will likely be less useful partners for management….Although boards may want to add functional experience…, directors can bring meaningful value only if they can make the connection between these functional areas and business strategy.”