This week, ISS issued its benchmark policy updates for 2022. The policy changes will apply to shareholder meetings held on or after February 1, 2022. The key changes for U.S. companies relate to say-on-climate proposals, board diversity, board accountability for climate disclosure by high GHG emitters, board accountability for unequal voting rights and shareholder proposals for racial equity audits, as well as the decidedly less buzzy topics of capital stock authorizations and burn rate methodology in compensation plans.
To that end, in March, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Robert Menendez reintroduced the Shareholder Protection Act of 2021, a bill to mandate not only political spending disclosure, but also shareholder votes to authorize corporate political spending. (See this PubCo post.) The chances that this bill will pass in this Senate? Not great.
Failure to disclose executive perks continues to be a flashing target for SEC Enforcement. Just last year, there were two actions against companies for disclosure failures regarding perks—Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. (see this PubCo post) and Argo Group International Holdings, Ltd. (see this PubCo post). And earlier this year, Enforcement brought settled charges against Gulfport Energy Corporation and its former CEO, Michael G. Moore, for failure to disclose some of the perks provided to Moore (see this PubCo post). Now, the SEC has once again filed settled charges against a company, ProPetro Holding Corp., and its co-founder and former CEO, Dale Redman, for failure to properly disclose executive perks—including, once again, personal use of aircraft at the company’s expense—as well as two stock pledges. While the topic is not new, the different types of blunders and slip-ups—which seem to be unique to each case—can be instructive. In this case, the focus was—in addition to absence of a policy regarding personal travel reimbursement, inadequate internal controls around perks and failure to disclose paid personal travel expenses—an inadequate process for completion and review of D&O questionnaires.
Yesterday, the staff of the SEC’s Office of the Chief Accountant and Corp Fin released Staff Accounting Bulletin No. 120, which provides guidance about proper recognition and disclosure of compensation cost for “spring-loaded” awards made to executives. According to the SEC press release, “[s]pring-loaded awards are share-based compensation arrangements where a company grants stock options or other awards shortly before it announces market-moving information such as an earnings release with better-than-expected results or the disclosure of a significant transaction.” When these grants are not routine, according to the staff, they “merit particular scrutiny.” Notably, the staff advises that, in measuring compensation actually paid to executives, companies “must consider the impact that the material nonpublic information will have upon release. In other words, companies should not grant spring-loaded awards under any mistaken belief that they do not have to reflect any of the additional value conveyed to the recipients from the anticipated announcement of material information when recognizing compensation cost for the awards.”
Yesterday, yet another complaint was filed in federal district court charging that California’s board diversity statutes, SB 826 and AB 979, are unconstitutional under the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment. This complaint was filed by The National Center for Public Policy Research, which, you may recall, has also filed a petition challenging the Nasdaq board diversity rule (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). The NCPPR describes itself as “a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that supports free market solutions to social problems and opposes corporate and shareholder social activism that detracts from the goal of maximizing shareholder returns.” The case is National Center for Public Policy Research v. Weber, and the initial scheduling conference for this case isn’t set to occur until March of next year.
In early January 2015, hedge fund activist Trian launched a closely followed proxy fight against DuPont, claiming that the company had underperformed and that it should, among other things, be broken up into three parts. DuPont responded that, through implementation of its own strategic plan, it had delivered total shareholder return and cumulative capital return in excess of its proxy peers and the S&P 500. Rejecting DuPont’s offer of a single board seat, Trian nominated a short slate of four directors and commenced an election contest. Fast forward to February, when Trian submitted to the DuPont board a request that DuPont allow the use of a “universal proxy,” thus allowing shareholders to vote for their preferred combination of DuPont and Trian nominees using a single proxy card. Trian argued that it would provide shareholders with “maximum freedom of choice” and represent “best-in-class corporate governance.” After consulting “with a range of proxy and governance experts” and evaluating the DuPont shareholder base, DuPont rejected that request, contending that there was “insufficient infrastructure” to support the use of a universal proxy card and that the process could “undermine voting access” for DuPont’s huge contingent of retail shareholders. In particular, DuPont was concerned that “the use of a universal proxy card would limit voting options for our ‘Street-name’ holders, as well as deprive holders of the ability to simply sign and return voting forms without marking a preference.” At the annual meeting, Trian lost its bid, and DuPont’s full slate of nominees was elected. But the DuPont story ultimately ended favorably for Trian, notwithstanding its loss in the proxy contest. After the election contest, Trian reignited its battle to break up the company and, after the company failed to hit targeted earnings, the CEO resigned. DuPont ultimately entered into an agreement to be acquired. A new rulemaking from the SEC to mandate the use of universal proxy, adopted last week by a vote of four to one, would likely have affected the course of that campaign and perhaps its outcome. Will we see more contested elections in the future?
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of whistleblower complaints received by regulators has exploded on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s the subject of this new Cooley Alert, Whistleblower Complaints and Rewards Explode Worldwide, from our White Collar Defense and Investigations group.
It’s been weeks since the SEC last took SPACs to task! According to Bloomberg, the SEC is now requiring many SPACs to “Big R” restate their financial statements because they tripped over the classification of certain shares they offered to investors. Auditors with whom Bloomberg spoke said that the latest SPAC accounting snafu relates to incorrect categorization of Class A shares—which are typically redeemable—as “permanent equity instead of temporary equity.” One auditor described the issue as “pervasive[:] everyone’s dealing with it because everyone did it wrong.”
According to audit firm Deloitte, “[i]nformative climate reporting requires a complex transformation of reporting processes, of data collection, education of the finance function, and in many cases, of the audit committee itself. Yet, despite the urgency and magnitude of the task, many boards are hesitating in the face of inconsistent standards, fragmented global standard-setting, and myriad expectations from investors.” Just how prepared are companies, their boards and especially their audit committees to deal with climate risk and climate reporting? That’s the big question that Deloitte asked 353 audit committee members globally (56% of whom were chairs) in September 2021. The answer? Not so much. According to Deloitte’s new report, 42% of respondents indicated that their company’s “climate response is not as swift and robust as they would like” and almost half “do not believe that they are well-equipped to fulfil their climate regulatory responsibilities.” Deloitte called the responses “sobering.”
While the global powers are occupied at the COP26 climate summit with negotiating and pledging (or, is it more “blah, blah, blah,” as teenage activist Greta Thunberg contends in some, uh, straight talk?), and we await the SEC’s expected climate disclosure framework, it might be worthwhile to get a handle on what companies are doing about sustainability reporting in the meantime. To help companies understand the current state of the art, CEO advisory firm Teneo surveyed 200 sustainability reports from S&P 500 companies in eleven industries published in the period between January 1 to June 30, 2021. Teneo’s report, The-State-of-U.S.-Sustainability-Reporting, provides useful samples, market statistics for various aspects of the content and design of these reports, as well as some practical considerations.