All the focus on COVID-19 disclosures notwithstanding, the SEC has not taken its collective eyes off the basics. This Order discusses settled charges against Argo Group International Holdings, Ltd. related to its failure to disclose in its proxy statements—for five years—millions in personal expenses and perks paid to its CEO, such as personal use of corporate aircraft and cars, “personal services provided by Argo employees and watercraft-related costs.” Not to mention that the CEO was able to approve his own expense reports. According to the press release, Enforcement continues “to focus on whether companies are fully disclosing compensation paid to their top executives and have appropriate internal controls in place to ensure that shareholders receive information to which they are entitled.”
It should come as no surprise that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of virtual shareholder meetings this proxy season has jumped—off the page. But will this year’s broad experience leave companies wanting more? And will investor groups, which have tended to be skeptical of the virtual-only format, begin to view VSMs more favorably?
Is EBITDAC a thing? Yes, according to the FT. This article describes the use of a new non-GAAP metric: “earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, amortisation—and coronavirus.” Applying the new metric, a few companies have actually added back profits they contend they would have earned but for the mandatory lockdowns resulting from COVID-19. Hmmm. While, according to the article, the add-back has “bemused some observers,” it does raise the question: how should companies employ non-GAAP financial measures (NGFMs) in the context of COVID-19? How should audit committees conduct oversight of the use of NGFMs that have been adjusted for coronavirus-related effects? Auditors weigh in.
At a meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee last week, the Committee voted to make recommendations to the SEC on three topics: accounting and financial disclosure; ESG (environmental, social and governance) disclosure; and disclosure effectiveness. The ESG recommendation concluded that “the time has come for the SEC to address this issue,” and it should be no surprise that there was some controversy—including some dissenting votes—surrounding that recommendation. While recommendations from SEC advisory committees often hold some sway with the commissioners, given the long-held views of the current commissioners, it seems highly unlikely that the ESG recommendation will have much traction—at least not in the near term. The recommendations come as the membership of the committee undergoes a substantial shift as many members time out on their appointments. The recommendations are discussed below.
Nasdaq proposes new rules to address emerging market listings; Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act
Yesterday, the SEC formally announced its July 9 roundtable on emerging markets. In the announcement, the SEC observed that, “while the U.S. securities laws and regulations applicable to emerging market companies listed on U.S. exchanges are the same as (or comparable to) the laws and regulations applicable to U.S. public companies, the practical effects often are substantially different, based on the inability of U.S. regulators to inspect for compliance and enforce these rules and regulations.” In the meantime, Nasdaq appears to have taken the matter to the next level. Nasdaq’s three new proposals haven’t been posted by the SEC yet—so there may still be a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation before they see the light of day on the SEC’s website—but they are clearly designed to address these concerns about emerging market issuers, especially lack of accounting controls and transparency. Not to be outdone, the Senate yesterday passed a bill that could bar from listing on U.S. exchanges companies audited by firms that the PCAOB is prohibited by foreign authorities from inspecting.
The SEC has declared immediately effective (yet another) proposed change to the rules of an exchange—this one from the NYSE. The NYSE has adopted new Section 312.03T of the NYSE Listed Company Manual, which will provide a temporary exception, through June 30, 2020, from the application of the shareholder approval requirements for specified issuances of 20% or more of the outstanding shares (Section 312.03) and, in certain narrow circumstances, by a limited exception for issuances to related parties or other capital-raising issuances that could be considered equity compensation (Sections 312.03 and 303A.08). Although not entirely congruent, the exception appears to be modeled closely on the comparable Nasdaq exception that was approved just over a week ago. (See this PubCo post.) In light of the unprecedented disruption in the economy as a result of COVID-19, many listed companies “are experiencing urgent liquidity needs during this period of crisis due to lost revenues and maturing debt obligations.” The temporary exception is designed to respond to this unprecedented emergency and to help companies access necessary capital quickly.
New FAQ 46 from the SBA provides a “safe harbor” for borrowers of less than $2 million under the Paycheck Protection Program provisions of the CARES Act. Under the safe harbor, for borrowers of amounts below the $2 million threshold, the SBA will deem their certifications regarding the “necessity” of the loans to have been made in good faith. What’s more, while loans over the $2 million threshold will be subject to SBA review (as has been widely publicized), if the SBA determines that the borrower “lacked an adequate basis” for the required “necessity” certification, but the borrower then repays the loan, the SBA “will not pursue administrative enforcement or referrals to other agencies” with respect to the “necessity” certification.
In his keynote address to Securities Enforcement Forum West 2020, SEC Enforcement Co-Director Steven Peikin discussed some of the efforts of the Division of Enforcement to detect misconduct arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic and related market disruption, including the formation of a steering committee to proactively identify and monitor areas of potential misconduct. Of particular interest here are the focus on insider trading and financial and disclosure-related fraud.
Are the allegations in Hughes v. Hu an example of the SEC/PCAOB’s recent cautionary Statement on emerging market risks come to life? (See this PubCo post.) The case involves a Caremark claim against the audit committee and various executives of Kandi Technologies, a publicly traded Delaware company listed on the Nasdaq Global Select Market and based in an emerging market country. The complaint alleged that they consciously failed “to establish a board-level system of oversight for the Company’s financial statements and related-party transactions, choosing instead to rely blindly on management while devoting patently inadequate time to the necessary tasks.” You might recall that, in Marchand v. Barnhill (June 18, 2019), then-Chief Justice Strine, writing for the Delaware Supreme Court, started out his analysis with the recognition that “Caremark claims are difficult to plead and ultimately to prove out,” and constitute “possibly the most difficult theory in corporation law upon which a plaintiff might hope to win a judgment.” (See this PubCo post.) Although Caremark presented a high hurdle, the complaint in Marchand was able to clear that bar and survive a motion to dismiss. In the view of the Delaware Chancery Court, Hughes proved to be comparable—the Court denied two motions to dismiss, holding that the allegations in the complaint were sufficient to support “a reasonable pleading-stage inference of a bad faith failure of oversight by the named director defendants.” Is clearing the Caremark bar becoming a thing?
As discussed in this PubCo post, in April, the Treasury Department issued a series of FAQs related to loans made under the Paycheck Protection Program provisions of the CARES Act, one of which was addressed to borrowers that are large companies and, particularly, public companies. The FAQ provides that, to be eligible for a PPP loan, a borrower must certify, in good faith, that the loan is necessary to support continuing operations. According to the FAQ, that may be difficult in some cases, contending that “it is unlikely that a public company with substantial market value and access to capital markets will be able to make the required certification in good faith….” The FAQ provided a safe harbor, under which the SBA would deem the borrower to have made the required certification in good faith if the funds were repaid in full by May 14 (as extended in question 43). As reported here, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has warned that companies receiving loans over $2 million would be audited and could have potential criminal liability if their certifications were untrue. Now, a House oversight subcommittee has demanded that certain public companies return the funds.