In this article, representatives of The Conference Board and Rutgers Law School discuss the current phenomenon of director engagement with shareholders. While company managements have long engaged with shareholders at annual meetings and investor presentations, the notion of director engagement with shareholders is a more recent development. Why is shareholder engagement increasingly being added to the job description of the corporate director? The article posits several theories for the trend and, based on a survey of corporate secretaries, general counsel and investor relations officers at public companies, identifies the most common engagement topics, provides data on frequency of engagement and highlights emerging practices related to director engagement.
Yesterday, SEC Chair Jay Clayton, SEC Chief Accountant Sagar Teotia and Corp Fin Director William Hinman posted a “Statement on Role of Audit Committees in Financial Reporting and Key Reminders Regarding Oversight Responsibilities.” As the year draws to a close, given the vital role of audit committees in the financial reporting system, the Statement is intended to provide “observations and reminders on a number of potential areas of focus for audit committees. Issuers and independent auditors also should be mindful of these considerations with an eye toward ensuring that audit committees have the resources and support they need to fulfill their obligations.”
Happy New Year Everyone!
Recently, SEC Chief Accountant Sagar Teotia hinted at possible forthcoming changes to the auditor independence rules, remarking that, in connection with the recent changes related to lending relationships, the SEC “also received comments on other aspects of auditor independence rules. In conjunction with that feedback, the Chairman directed the staff to formulate recommendations to the Commission for possible additional changes to the auditor independence rules for potential rulemaking.” However, the nature of the potential changes remained something of a mystery. The proposal to amend the auditor independence rules has now been released. According to the press release issued today, the proposal is intended to modernize aspects of the independence rules to minimize the potential for “relationships and services that would not pose threats to an auditor’s objectivity and impartiality [to] trigger non-substantive rule breaches or potentially time consuming audit committee review of non-substantive matters.” It is important to keep in mind that violations of the auditor independence rules can have serious consequences not only for the audit firm, but also for the audit client. For example, an independence violation may cause the auditor to withdraw its audit report, requiring the audit client to have a re-audit by another audit firm. As a result, in most cases, inquiry into the topic of auditor independence should be a menu item on the audit committee’s plate. The comment period will be open for 60 days.
SEC Chair Jay Clayton has streamlined the Regulatory Flexibility Act Agenda to limit it to the rulemakings that the SEC actually expects to take up in the subsequent period. Clayton has previously said that the short-term agenda signifies rulemakings that the SEC actually plans to pursue in the following 12 months. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The SEC’s Fall 2019 short-term and long-term agendas have now been posted, reflecting priorities as of August 7, the date on which the SEC’s staff completed compilation of the data. Items on the short- and long-term agendas are discussed below.
In November, the SEC voted to propose amendments to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms and to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by increasing the eligibility and resubmission thresholds. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) At the SEC open meeting, in explaining his perspective on the proposals, SEC Chair Jay Clayton indicated that, following the SEC’s proxy process roundtable (see this PubCo post), the SEC had received hundreds of comment letters, but there were seven letters that were most striking to him. Clayton seemed to be genuinely moved by these letters, ostensibly submitted by various Main Street investors, a group that Clayton considers to be core to the SEC’s protective mission. (See this PubCo post.) But, according to Bloomberg, there was something not quite right—something “fishy”—about those letters. (See this PubCo post.) Now, Bloomberg reports, a Democratic watchdog group is calling for an investigation into what is behind the “fishy” letters. And, as reported in this Bloomberg article, Clayton has said that the SEC is investigating.
How many people have strong opinions about most hot topics in corporate governance— staggered boards, proxy advisory firms or dual-class share structure? In Pay for Performance… But Not Too Much Pay: The American Public’s View of CEO Pay, from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford, the authors take a look at a corporate governance subject on which everyone seems to have an opinion—CEO pay—and the public’s perceptions about it. While academics may be arguing about labor market efficiency, much of the public takes a more intuitive or pragmatic approach: “the issue of CEO pay boils down to a personal assessment of whether any executive deserves to be paid so much money.” The authors’ conclusion from the survey: “the disconnect between observed pay levels and the public’s view of pay is stark.” Overall, the survey results were quite fascinating.