On April 6, the Governor of Delaware signed an emergency order applicable to public reporting companies addressing the urgent need of many companies, in light of COVID-19, to change their annual meetings from physical locations to virtual-only formats, including at different dates. The order allowed companies to provide notice of the change by issuing and filing with the SEC a press release instead of complying with the Delaware requirement to send a formal written notice to stockholders or convening the meeting to adjourn, which could be extremely difficult under the current circumstances. (See this PubCo post.) However, the order provided relief only to companies that had already sent out, as of the date of the order, notice of a meeting of stockholders that indicated a physical location. What about companies that sent out their notices after April 6, but still needed to make a change? The relief under the Delaware order was apparently not available to them. Now, the Corporate Law Section of the Delaware State Bar has approved a proposal to amend the DGCL to address this issue. Will the Delaware legislature provide the necessary relief? And if so, when?
The SEC has declared immediately effective new Nasdaq Rule 5636T, which will provide a temporary exception, through June 30, 2020, from the shareholder approval requirements for certain issuances of 20% or more of the outstanding shares (Rule 5635(d)) and for a narrow subset of capital-raising issuances that could be considered equity compensation (Rule 5635(c)). Given that stay-at-home orders in effect in many communities have wreaked havoc on the revenue streams of many businesses, companies may have urgent needs to raise capital. Nasdaq believes that this temporary exception “will permit companies to raise capital quickly to continue running their businesses and address the immediate health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including its impact on their employees, customers, and communities.”
At a meeting today of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the committee discussed disclosure considerations arising in the context of COVID-19. In addition to relentlessly complimenting the SEC for its efforts during the pandemic, the committee members offered a number of valuable insights, particularly related to human capital disclosure (which one committee member characterized as “as important a mission as the SEC has ever faced”) and other stakeholder disclosures, as well as accounting, controls and liability issues. Many of the committee also seemed to be pleased with nature of the disclosure that companies were providing, even offering in-quarter information in some cases. There was also a brief discussion of virtual shareholder meetings.
A lot of worthwhile energy in the last few years has been concentrated on increasing diversity in corporate leadership—especially board gender diversity— but how much progress is being made at the level of the C-suite? This paper from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business addresses the sorry state of the C-suite as a whole when it comes to diversity of any kind. According to the paper, notwithstanding numerous efforts launched by asset managers, institutional investors and companies to increase diversity in board and senior leadership, these efforts “have not contributed to tangible progress in increasing the prevalence of diverse executives in corporate leadership positions.” Why have these efforts not been more successful? The paper looks at C-suite (CEO and direct reports) demographics to get a better handle on the “actual pipeline, as it stands today, for next year’s newly appointed CEOs and future board members.”
The FT is reporting that the SEC is abandoning a key component of its proposal to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis. (See this PubCo post.) According to the report, the SEC has “scrapped the portion of the proposal that would have forced proxy advisers—led by Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass Lewis—to submit their voting recommendations to companies for checking before distributing them to investors in advance of shareholder meetings.” The proposal had received substantial pushback, including from the Council of Institutional Investors and even the SEC’s own Investor Advisory Committee. However, the FT appears to point the finger, or attribute the victory, depending on your point of view, primarily to hedge fund activists “who court proxy advisers’ support when fighting for board seats.”
Several leaders of the World Economic Forum have published Stakeholder Principles in the COVID Era, characterizing the “business community’s contribution” as “to be leaders of responsiveness and stewards of resilience.” Nice cadence—I like it. But what does it mean in practice?
As you know, critical audit matters are defined for purposes of the auditor’s report as “matters communicated or required to be communicated to the audit committee and that: (1) relate to accounts or disclosures that are material to the financial statements; and (2) involved especially challenging, subjective, or complex auditor judgment.” The standard for CAMs became effective for audits of large accelerated filers (LAFs) for fiscal years ended on or after June 30, 2019, and will be required for companies other than LAFs (excluding emerging growth companies) for fiscal years ending on or after December 15, 2020. CAM disclosure is strictly the province of the auditors and included in the auditor’s report. But what has been the role of audit committees? Audit Analytics has performed an analysis of companies in the S&P 1500 to see what, if anything, they have disclosed in their proxy statements about the part that audit committees have played in connection with CAM identification and disclosure.
In this new Statement, a number of SEC and PCAOB officials—SEC Chair Jay Clayton, PCAOB Chair William D. Duhnke III, SEC Chief Accountant Sagar Teotia, Corp Fin Director William Hinman and Investment Management Director Dalia Blass—discuss the risks and exposures of companies based, or with significant operations, in emerging markets, for both U.S. issuers and foreign private issuers. Although the SEC is committed to high-quality disclosure standards, its ability to enforce these standards in emerging markets is limited and is “significantly dependent on the actions of local authorities” and the constraints of “national policy considerations.” As a result, in many emerging markets, “there is substantially greater risk that disclosures will be incomplete or misleading and, in the event of investor harm, substantially less access to recourse, in comparison to U.S. domestic companies.” The Statement is summarized below. The message is that, notwithstanding similarity in form and appearance between disclosures from U.S. domestic companies and disclosures from or related to emerging markets, disclosures from emerging markets may well differ in scope and quality and companies need to provide appropriate risk disclosure in that regard.
The Treasury Department has issued a series of FAQs related to loans made under the Paycheck Protection Program provisions of the CARES Act, one of which is addressed to borrowers that are large companies and, particularly, public companies. The FAQ provides that, to be eligible for a PPP loan, a borrower must certify, in good faith, that the loan is necessary to support continuing operations. According to the FAQ, that may be difficult in some cases.
Like Nasdaq (see this Pubco post), the NYSE has filed with the SEC, and the SEC has declared immediately effective, a rule change providing relief to listed companies that, in light of market conditions resulting from the impact of COVID-19, have fallen out of compliance with two of the NYSE continued listing standards. The relief will provide listed companies with a longer period to regain compliance with the Dollar Price Standard (i.e., when the average closing price of the security is less than $1.00 over a consecutive 30 trading-day period) and the $50 Million Standard (i.e., when a company’s average global market cap over a consecutive 30 trading-day period is less than $50 million and, at the same time, stockholders’ equity is less than $50 million) by tolling the compliance periods through June 30, 2020. Since the last week of February 2020, the NYSE has witnessed an unusually high number of listed companies that have fallen out of compliance with these continued listing standards. The NYSE “believes that it is undesirable to impose on companies in the midst of this crisis the additional burden of attempting to return to compliance with these market price-based standards while the crisis is ongoing, which may be unrealistic for many companies in the immediate term whereas their prospects may be better once the current extraordinary conditions have passed.”