All five SEC Commissioners testified yesterday at an oversight hearing held by the House Financial Services Committee, the first time all five have appeared since 2007, according to Chair Maxine Waters. (Here is their formal testimony.) These hearings are, of course, broken up into bite-size five-minute Q&A sessions, so there is not much opportunity for in-depth questioning. And most often, it seemed that the Representatives directed their questions to the Commissioners that were most likely to provide gratifying answers—meaning a Commissioner of the Representative’s own party. There were, however, some notable exceptions, such as Representative Katie Porter’s pointed questioning of Commissioner Hester Peirce with regard to her views on ESG disclosure. In the end, the hearing did provide some insight into the current thinking and expectations of many of these legislators and regulators.
Yesterday, the SEC announced settled fraud charges under Rule 10b-5 against Nissan, its former CEO Carlos Ghosn, and Gregory Kelly, a former director, related to the failure to disclose over $140 million to be paid to Ghosn in retirement. (Here is the SEC’s Order and the complaint against Ghosn and Kelly filed in the SDNY.) Of course, you may be aware that Ghosn and the former director have been arrested by Japanese authorities and are awaiting trial, so these SEC charges were probably not the biggest glitch in their career paths. Nevertheless, the SEC’s action does stand as a warning that the SEC remains on the lookout for efforts to hide or disguise compensation from required public disclosure, especially where CEO discretion regarding compensation is largely unconstrained.
Yes, it can be, according to the Executive Director of the Council of Institutional Investors, in announcing CII’s new policy on executive comp. Among other ideas, the new policy calls for plans with less complexity (who can’t get behind that?), longer performance periods for incentive pay, hold-beyond-departure requirements for shares held by executives, more discretion to invoke clawbacks, rank-and-file pay as a valid reference marker for executive pay, heightened scrutiny of pay-for-performance plans and perhaps greater reliance on—of all things—fixed pay. It’s back to the future for compensation!
ISS recently released the results of its 2019 Global Policy Survey. In this year’s integrated survey, the topics included board gender diversity, overboarding, sunsetting of multi-class capital structures, combined chair and CEO roles and climate change risk. The respondents included 128 investors (including 88 asset managers, 24 asset owners, four advisors and 12 other investors), and 268 non-investors (including 227 corporate issuers, 19 advisors, six corporate directors and 16 other non-investors). Highlights of the survey are summarized below.
The SEC’s Office of Chief Accountant has updated its FAQs regarding auditor independence. The new and revised questions relate to the general standard for independence, prohibited non-audit services, partner rotation, definitions and miscellaneous other independence issues. 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 another menu item on the audit committee’s plate.
By now, we all know that, sooner or later, audit reports for most public companies will be required to disclose critical audit matters, which are intended to make the audit report more informative for investors. (See this PubCo post.) But, as this article from the EY Center for Board Matters reports, over the last several years, companies and their audit committees have gone a long way toward increasing the amount of audit-related information they provide to investors voluntarily. To carry out its assessment, EY reviewed audit-related disclosures in the proxy statements of Fortune 100 companies over the period from 2012 to 2019. While year to year, the changes appear largely incremental, the change over the entire period is considerable.
As foreshadowed by Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman at an event in July put on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (see this PubCo post), Corp Fin has announced that it is revisiting its approach to responding to no-action requests to exclude shareholder proposals. In essence, the staff may respond to some requests orally, instead of in writing and, in some cases, may decline to state a view altogether, leaving the company to make its own determination. How will companies respond?