Does appointment of a former partner of the client’s audit firm to the client’s audit committee impair audit quality?
Studies of former partners of audit firms that have assumed management positions at audit clients have raised concerns, at least pre-SOX, about potentially lower audit quality, perhaps reflecting hesitation by the audit firm to “challenge aggressive accounting decisions” made by former partners of their firms. But what happens when a former partner joins the audit client’s audit committee? Does the former partner feel pressured not to question the audit firm’s decisions or lose objectivity about the quality of the work of the audit firm? Does the audit firm feel pressured to accept the company’s more aggressive accounting decisions when a former partner sits on the audit committee? In this study, published in Auditing: a Journal of Practice & Theory, a group of academics looked at that question. Their conclusion was that affiliated former partners on audit committees actually led to improved audit processes and outcomes. Why? Applying psychology’s “social identity theory,” the authors posit that the former partners continued to identify with their former firms, but instead of losing their objectivity, the former audit partners “use their knowledge of, and identification with, the audit firm to improve the audit process and the communication between the two parties,” leading to improvement in audit quality.
Today, ISS filed suit against the SEC and its Chair, Jay Clayton (or Walter Clayton III, as he is called in the complaint) in connection with the interpretation and guidance directed at proxy advisory firms issued by the SEC in August. (See this PubCo post.) That interpretation and guidance (referred to as the “Proxy Adviser Release” in the complaint) confirmed that proxy advisory firms’ vote recommendations are, in the view of the SEC, “solicitations” under the proxy rules and subject to the anti-fraud provisions of Rule 14a-9. In its complaint, ISS contends that the Proxy Adviser Release is unlawful and its application should be enjoined for a number of reasons, including that the SEC’s determination that providing proxy advice is a “solicitation” is contrary to law, that the SEC failed to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act and that the views expressed in the Release were arbitrary and capricious.
Interestingly, the litigation comes right before the SEC is scheduled to consider and vote (on November 5) on a proposal to amend certain exemptions from the proxy solicitation rules to provide for disclosure, primarily by proxy advisory firms such as ISS and Glass Lewis, of material conflicts of interest and to set forth procedures to facilitate issuer and shareholder engagement and otherwise improve information provided. There are various rumors circulating about the details of the proposal, including this Reuters article stating that the proposal would require proxy advisory firms to “give companies two chances to review proxy materials before they are sent to shareholders.” (Note that also on the agenda is a proposal to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by changing the submission and resubmission requirements.) Whether the firms’ advice is a “solicitation” takes on particular significance given that the SEC’s anticipated proposal appears to be predicated on the firms’ reliance on the exemptions from the proxy solicitation rules.
What are companies disclosing about their efforts to oversee cybersecurity risk? In this article, Ernst & Young analyzes cybersecurity-related disclosures in the proxy statements and Forms 10-K of Fortune 100 companies from 2018 to 2019, focusing on disclosure regarding board oversight, cybersecurity risk and risk management. Building on its similar analysis conducted for 2018 (see this PubCo post), EY detected “modest” enhancements in disclosures compared to the prior year—most significantly regarding board oversight practices—although the depth, detail and company-specificity of the disclosures continued to vary widely. Nevertheless, based on its observations of companies’ activities in the market, EY found that even these enhanced disclosures sometimes failed to capture all of a company’s oversight activities, such as third-party independent assessments or tabletop exercises designed to enhance preparedness. Given that many stakeholders have interests in cybersecurity risk preparedness and board oversight, EY advises, enhanced disclosure can serve to build “stakeholder confidence and trust as the cybersecurity risk landscape evolves and as technological innovations raise the stakes for data privacy and protections.”
At the end of 2018, the SEC dredged up its 2015 rule proposal regarding hedging disclosure (required by Dodd-Frank) and voted to adopt final rule amendments. The amendments mandate disclosure about the ability of a company’s employees or directors to hedge or offset any decrease in the market value of equity securities granted as compensation to, or held directly or indirectly by, an employee or director. As described in the legislative history of the related Dodd-Frank provision, the purpose of the requirement was to “allow shareholders to know if executives are allowed to purchase financial instruments to effectively avoid compensation restrictions that they hold stock long-term, so that they will receive their compensation even in the case that their firm does not perform.” As required, companies have now begun to include the new hedging disclosure in their proxy statements. To see how companies were approaching their responses to the new rule, comp consultant F.W. Cook examined the first 40 proxies that contained the new disclosure (covering the period from August 23, 2019 to October 4, 2019) and provides us with a number of observations that may well be helpful as we head into the new proxy season.
What does good governance really mean? What does it mean to follow best practices? Are there really best practices that make sense for all companies? Do we tend to latch onto easily identified and measured structural features that may not really be effective for good governance and ignore qualities that may be more effective but are not as easily identified or measured? Do we even have a common understanding of the meaning of concepts central to governance? These are some of the questions addressed in an interesting paper, “Loosey-Goosey Governance Four Misunderstood Terms in Corporate Governance,” from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford.
NYC Comptroller’s Office initiates Boardroom Accountability Project 3.0 promoting adoption of the “Rooney Rule”
And speaking of the NYC Comptroller’s Boardroom Accountability Project, as I just did in this PubCo post on the Project’s push for proxy access, on Friday, Stringer announced the the newest phase of the Project, Boardroom Accountability Project 3.0, an initiative designed to increase board and CEO diversity. The third phase of the initiative calls on companies to adopt a version of the “Rooney Rule,” a policy originally created by the National Football League to increase the number of minority candidates considered for head coaching and general manager positions. Under the policy requested by the Comptroller’s Office, companies would commit to including women and minority candidates in every pool from which nominees for open board seats and CEOs are selected. The announcement claims that the Project 3.0 represents “the first time a large institutional investor has called for this structural reform for both new board directors and CEOs.” Notably, the announcement also indicates that the Comptroller’s Office will “file shareholder proposals at companies with lack of apparent racial diversity at the highest levels.” The Comptroller’s Office characterizes the new initiative as the “cornerstone” of its Boardroom Accountability Project that “seeks to make meaningful, long-lasting, and structural change in the market practice so that women and people of color are welcomed in the door and considered for every open director seat as well as for the job of CEO.” Given Stringer’s success with his proxy access campaign, companies should pay close attention.