As required by SB 826, California’s board gender diversity law, the California Secretary of State has posted its March 2020 report on the status of compliance with the new law. The report combines information gathered in the July 2019 report (see this PubCo post) with data for the additional six-month period of July 1, 2019 through December 31, 2019. The report counts 625 publicly held corporations that identified principal executive offices in California in their 2019 10-Ks, but indicates that only 330 of these “impacted corporations” had filed a 2019 California Publicly Traded Corporate Disclosure Statement, which would reflect their compliance with the board gender diversity requirement. Of the 330 companies that had filed, 282 reported that they were in compliance with the board gender diversity mandate.
In 2019, investor support for shareholder proposals related to environmental, social and governance matters reached a record average high of 29%, according to Morningstar. And that doesn’t take into account the number of climate-related proposals that were withdrawn after successful negotiation—a number that exceeded the number of climate proposals that actually went to a vote. In this report, Morningstar analyzes the level of proxy voting support by 52 of the largest fund families for ESG-related shareholder proposals in 2019 and over the five years from 2015 to 2019. Although Morningstar finds substantial increases in average support over the last five years, five of the largest fund families, including BlackRock, voted against over 88% of ESG-related proposals, enough to prevent many of these proposals from achieving majority support. But, in 2020, with BlackRock having joined Climate Action 100+— reportedly “the world’s largest group of investors by assets pressuring companies to act on climate change”—and having announced that it was putting “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach,” the question is whether that voting strategy is about to change?
The SEC has just settled an action against Diageo PLC, a producer of liquor, wine and beer, for failure to disclose known trends and uncertainties. Diageo’s omission resulted in materially misleading disclosures regarding its financial results and material inflation of key performance indicators—organic net sales growth and organic operating profit growth. It’s worth noting that the SEC has not been reluctant to take enforcement action against companies that have misled investors by inflating KPIs, such as subscriber counts, revenue-per-subscriber, number of vehicles sold monthly, net new customers added, backlog and now organic net sales growth and organic operating profit growth. These types of metrics—typically outside of the financial statements—are metrics on which investors and analysts often rely to assess performance, and companies have been held to account if their presentations are materially inaccurate or misleading or the related controls are inadequate.
It’s not just BlackRock’s CEO that has words for companies. Cyrus Taraporevala, the CEO of State Street Global Advisers, another large asset manager, has recently sent his own letter to company boards cautioning that SSGA’s engagement on sustainability this year will also include the possibility of a proxy vote against directors “to press companies that are falling behind and failing to engage.” While directors can play a vital role in catalyzing action on ESG matters, SSGA recognizes that, in many ways, our understanding of ESG is still in its early stages, making board oversight of ESG something of a challenge. To help demystify sustainability for directors, SSGA has developed a framework intended to provide a roadmap for boards—where to begin—in conducting oversight of sustainability as a strategic and operational issue.
The SEC has granted accelerated approval of Nasdaq’s amended proposal, originally filed in May 2019, to modify the definition of a “family member” for purposes of determining director independence under Listing Rule 5605(a)(2). As part of the new definition, Nasdaq excludes stepchildren from the definition of “family member,” but will ultimately leave to the board the determination of whether stepchildren who do not live at home with the director nevertheless have a relationship with the director that could interfere with the director’s exercise of independent judgment. Calling Dr. Phil….
Remember California’s SB 826, the board gender diversity mandate? That law requires each public company with principal executive offices located in California, no matter where they are incorporated, to have a minimum of one woman on its board of directors by the close of 2019. That minimum increases to two by December 31, 2021, if the corporation has five directors, and to three women directors if the corporation has six or more directors. (See this PubCo post.) Has it made a difference? According to reporting from the WSJ, the answer is a big yes. Given the success of the new law in making progress toward its goals, the question then is—are other states now following California’s playbook? Well, kinda, sorta….
On Thursday, January 30, the SEC proposed amendments designed to simplify and modernize MD&A and the other financial disclosure requirements of Reg S-K. (See this PubCo post.) Although the SEC did not hold an open meeting to consider the proposal, several of the Commissioners issued statements that addressed, for the most part, not what was in the proposal, but rather, what wasn’t—standardized disclosure requirements related to climate change. These statements allow us a peek into an apparently heated debate among the Commissioners on the issue of climate disclosure.