How do companies tackle the assignment of conveying to their shareholders and other stakeholders how they approach sustainability—in a way that is accurate, clear and genuine and that does not sound like a confected facsimile of every other peer company? That sounds like a challenging task. To address that challenge, The Conference Board convened a working group of over 300 executives from more than 150 companies who met five times between July 2020 and May 2021 to share ideas about how companies can effectively “tell their sustainability stories.” The Board captured some of those ideas in this report.
In the last couple of years, many CEOs have felt the need to voice their views on political, environmental and social issues, such as racial justice and voting restrictions. For example, after the murder of George Floyd and resulting national protests, many of the country’s largest corporations expressed solidarity and pledged support for racial justice. After 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. However, as The Conference Board has recently stated, in the current “era of intense political polarization in the United States, and with the immediacy, ubiquity, and (often) inaccuracy of social media, companies are subject to ever-greater scrutiny for their political activities.” In this article, Deloitte and the Society for Corporate Governance report on a survey they conducted in July 2021 about companies’ approaches to publicly addressing controversial social and political issues. As the authors note, “taking a stance publicly on controversial or sensitive topics poses both risks and opportunities, including alienating or appealing to key stakeholders; enhancing or damaging the corporate culture; and eroding or building trust and brand reputation,” leading some companies to consider more systematically how they approach public engagement on these types of issues.
SEC Chair testifies before Senate Banking Committee—firmly denies paternity of all public companies!
On Tuesday last week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler gave testimony before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. His formal testimony covered a number of topics on the SEC’s agenda that Gensler (and others) have addressed numerous times in past: market structure and equity markets, predictive analytics, crypto, issuer disclosure, China, SPACs and Rule 10b5-1 plans. (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) While the formal testimony covered some well-trod territory, the questioning highlighted the political polarization that we are likely to see continue as these proposals are presented for consideration.
In In re The Boeing Company Derivative Litigation, Vice Chancellor Morgan Zurn of the Delaware Court of Chancery opened her opinion this way:
“A 737 MAX airplane manufactured by The Boeing Company…crashed in October 2018, killing everyone onboard; a second one crashed in March 2019, to the same result. Those tragedies have led to numerous investigations and proceedings in multiple regulatory and judicial arenas to find out what went wrong and who is responsible. Those investigations have revealed that the 737 MAX tended to pitch up due to its engine placement; that a new software program designed to adjust the plane downward depended on a single faulty sensor and therefore activated too readily; and that the software program was insufficiently explained to pilots and regulators. In both crashes, the software directed the plane down. The primary victims of the crashes are, of course, the deceased, their families, and their loved ones. While it may seem callous in the face of their losses, corporate law recognizes another set of victims: Boeing as an enterprise, and its stockholders.”
Do the directors bear any responsibility for these losses? The question before the Court in this derivative litigation was whether the plaintiff stockholders—New York and Colorado public pension funds—had adequately alleged, under In re Caremark International Inc. Derivative Litigation and Marchand v. Barnhill, that, as a result of the directors’ “complete failure to establish a reporting system for airplane safety,” or “their turning a blind eye to a red flag representing airplane safety problems,” the board faced a “substantial likelihood of liability for Boeing’s losses.” In a 103-page opinion, the Court concluded that the answer was yes—on both bases. (Other claims regarding the company’s officers and the board’s handling of the CEO’s retirement and compensation were dismissed.) It’s worth noting that this case is one of several Caremark claims in recent years to survive dismissal (see, e.g., this PubCo post). In Marchand, then-Chief Justice Strine remarked that Caremark presents a very high hurdle, observing 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.) In light of this series of decisions, you have to wonder—at least with regard to matters that involve “essential and mission-critical” risk and safety issues—if that’s still the case.
Just how reliable are those carbon footprints that many large companies have been publishing in their sustainability reports? Even putting aside concerns about greenwashing, what about those nebulous Scope 3 GHG emissions? As we all know, the SEC is now is the midst of developing a proposal for mandatory climate-related disclosure. (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The WSJ reports that “[o]ne problem facing regulators and companies: Some of the most important and widely used data is hard to both measure and verify.” According to an academic cited in the article, the “measurement, target-setting, and management of Scope 3 is a mess….There is a wide range of uncertainty in Scope 3 emissions measurement…to the point that numbers can be absurdly off.”
Tomorrow, in addition to Rule 10b5-1 plan recommendations (see this PubCo post), the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee is slated to take up draft subcommittee recommendations regarding SPACs. The new SPAC recommendations address SPAC regulatory and investor protection issues that have been under scrutiny as a result of the proliferation of SPACs in 2020 and 2021. The IAC subcommittee observes that the SEC and its staff have addressed many issues related to SPACs in staff guidance, and the topic’s appearance on the SEC’s most recent agenda signals that it may be headed for further regulatory action. With that in mind, the recommendations are focused “on the practical challenges SPAC investors face in fully assessing the risks and opportunities associated with these investment vehicles.” In light of the dynamic nature of the SPAC market in recent months, however, the subcommittee frames its recommendations as “preliminary,” and indicates an intent “to revisit the issue of SPAC governance” in the future as more data becomes available. [Update: this recommendation was approved by the Committee for submission to the SEC.]
On Friday, the SEC announced settled charges against Kraft Heinz Company, its Chief Operating Officer and Chief Procurement Officer for “engaging in a long-running expense management scheme that resulted in the restatement of several years of financial reporting.” According to the SEC’s Order regarding the company and the COO, as well as the SEC’s complaint against the CPO, the company employed a number of expense management strategies that “misrepresented the true nature of transactions,” including recognizing unearned discounts from suppliers, maintaining false and misleading supplier contracts and engaging in other accounting misconduct, all of which resulted in accounting errors and misstatements. The misconduct, the SEC contended, was designed to allow the company to report sham cost savings consistent with the operational efficiencies it had touted would result from the 2015 merger of Kraft and Heinz, as well as to inflate EBITDA—a critical earnings measure for the market—and to achieve certain performance targets. And, once again, charges of failure to design and implement effective internal controls played a prominent role. After the SEC began its investigation, KHC restated its financials, reversing “$208 million in improperly-recognized cost savings arising out of nearly 300 transactions.” According to Anita B. Bandy, Associate Director of Enforcement, “Kraft and its former executives are charged with engaging in improper expense management practices that spanned many years and involved numerous misleading transactions, millions in bogus cost savings, and a pervasive breakdown in accounting controls. The violations harmed investors who ultimately bore the costs and burdens of a restatement and delayed financial reporting….Kraft and its former executives are being held accountable for placing the pursuit of cost savings above compliance with the law.” KHC agreed to pay a civil penalty of $62 million. Interestingly, this case comes on the heels of an earnings management case brought by the SEC against Healthcare Services Group, Inc. for alleged failures to properly accrue and disclose litigation loss contingencies.
Audit Analytics has just released a deep dive into the impact of COVID-19 on financial reporting and financial wellbeing. To assess the effect of the pandemic, the report looked at going-concern audit opinions, impairment charges, late filings and changes in the control environment, as well as restatements. Some of the results might be surprising. For example, the pandemic had a significant impact on impairment charges, but the number of going-concern qualifications in audit opinions? Not so much.
This month, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee will be taking up draft subcommittee recommendations regarding two hot topics—Rule 10b5-1 plans and SPACs—both of which have now been posted. The wide berth Rule 10b5-1 gives insiders to conduct transactions under Rule 10b5-1 plans, together with the absence of public information requirements, has long fueled controversy about these plans. Potential problems with 10b5-1 plans have been recognized in many quarters—including by former SEC Chair Jay Clayton and current Chair Gary Gensler—and the IAC subcommittee believes there is “strong bipartisan support” for improvements to Rule 10b5-1 that would enhance the rule’s effectiveness and “improve transparency regarding insider trades and enable effective investigation and enforcement of violations.” The IAC subcommittee recommends that the SEC “move quickly to close identified gaps in the current rule.” Given the widespread advocacy for modification of Rule 10b5-1, is it practically a fait accompli? This month, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee will be taking up draft subcommittee recommendations regarding two hot topics—Rule 10b5-1 plans and SPACs—both of which have now been posted. The wide berth Rule 10b5-1 gives insiders to conduct transactions under Rule 10b5-1 plans, together with the absence of public information requirements, has long fueled controversy about these plans. Potential problems with 10b5-1 plans have been recognized in many quarters—including by former SEC Chair Jay Clayton and current Chair Gary Gensler—and the IAC subcommittee believes there is “strong bipartisan support” for improvements to Rule 10b5-1 that would enhance the rule’s effectiveness and “improve transparency regarding insider trades and enable effective investigation and enforcement of violations.” The IAC subcommittee recommends that the SEC “move quickly to close identified gaps in the current rule.” Given the widespread advocacy for modification of Rule 10b5-1, is it practically a fait accompli? [Update: This recommendation was approved by the Committee for submission to the SEC, subject to the opportunity to reconsider after addition of a footnote clarifying that the recommendation was not intended to address corporate buybacks.]