In this report, Change the Conversation: Redefining How Companies Engage Investors on Sustainability, sustainability nonprofit Ceres provides some guidance on how companies should best engage with their investors on the issue of sustainability. While almost half of the 600 largest U.S. public companies communicate with investors about environmental, social and governance issues, according to Ceres, they could be doing a much better job of it. To that end, Ceres offers a set of nine recommendations “to guide companies toward more meaningful and effective investor engagement on ESG issues.” What is the key message? Don’t “fall into the trap of positioning sustainability as the ‘right thing to do,’ without making the connection to the business case.” And make the business case for sustainability by tying it to financial performance and demonstrating that it can drive business value. Whether or not you buy into the whole program, you may still find Ceres’ perspective and examples provided helpful in guiding your engagement efforts.
Studies have shown that, following announcement of a restatement, stock prices are abnormally negative for the period 20 to 30 trading days after the announcement. But what happens after the restatement is actually filed? In a study from Audit Analytics, the authors found that, following the date of the restated financials, there were no significant abnormal returns in either the first 30-day window or after a 90-day window, but, in the second 30-day window, the authors found long-term abnormal positive returns “of up to 3.28% following the resolution of the restatement process and filing of the restated financial statements.”
A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a new bill, the Fostering Innovation Act of 2019 (S. 452), that would amend SOX to provide a temporary exemption from the auditor attestation requirements of Section 404(b) for low-revenue issuers, such as biotechs. The bill is designed to help those EGCs that will lose their exemptions from SOX 404(b) five years after their IPOs, but still do not report much revenue. For those companies, proponents contend, the auditor attestation requirement is time-consuming and expensive, diverting capital from other critical uses, such as R&D. According to the press release, the bill would provide “a very narrow fix that temporarily extends the Sarbanes-Oxley Section 404(b) exemption for an additional five years for a small subset of EGCs with annual average revenue of less than $50 million and less than $700 million in public float.” I know it’s Valentine’s Day, but does it also feel a bit like Groundhog Day? That’s because, in 2016, the House passed the Fostering Innovation Act of 2015—the very same bill. That bill went nowhere, but the question is: have we now reached an inflection point for SOX 404(b)?
The issue of mandatory arbitration bylaws is a hot potato—and a partisan one at that (with Rs tending to favor and Ds tending to oppose). And in this no-action letter issued yesterday to Johnson & Johnson—granting relief to the company if it relied on Rule 14a-8(i)(2) (violation of law) to exclude a shareholder proposal requesting adoption of mandatory arbitration bylaws—Corp Fin successfully passed the potato off to the State of New Jersey. Crisis averted. However, the issue was so fraught that SEC Chair Jay Clayton felt the need to issue a statement supporting the staff’s hands-off position: “The issue of mandatory arbitration provisions in the bylaws of U.S. publicly-listed companies has garnered a great deal of attention. As I have previously stated, the ability of domestic, publicly-listed companies to require shareholders to arbitrate claims against them arising under the federal securities laws is a complex matter that requires careful consideration,” consideration that would be more appropriate at the Commissioner level than at the staff level. However, as Clayton has previously indicated, mandatory arbitration is not an issue that he is anxious to have the SEC wade into at this time. To be sure, if the parties really want a binding answer on the merits, he suggested, they might be well advised to seek a judicial determination.
In remarks for a telephone call on February 6 with SEC Investor Advisory Committee members, SEC Chair Jay Clayton briefly discussed three topics: disclosure requirements in general, human capital disclosure and proxy plumbing, the latter two topics being subjects of the committee’s call.
Corp Fin has posted a new Compliance & Disclosure Interpretation under Reg S-K that relates to diversity disclosure. The new interpretation applies to both Item 401— Directors, Executive Officers, Promoters and Control Persons and Item 407—Corporate Governance.
NYC Comptroller goes straight to court to compel inclusion of shareholder proposal—is this the Comptroller’s new normal?
Post-shutdown, the SEC is starting to catch up on no-action requests to exclude shareholder proposals, posting several new entries at the end of last week. While most of the responses reflected withdrawals of requests in light of withdrawal of the subject proposal, one of the more interesting withdrawal letters relates to a decision to include a shareholder proposal. The proposal, submitted by the New York City Employees’ Retirement System and other pension funds overseen by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, sought to have TransDigm Group Incorporated, a manufacturer of aerospace components, adopt a policy related to climate change. After the company sought no-action relief from the SEC staff—and notably well before the government shutdown and before the SEC had even responded to the company’s request—the proponent pension funds filed suit in the SDNY seeking to enjoin the company from soliciting proxies without including the shareholder proposal and declaratory relief that the exclusion of the proposal violated Section l4(a) and Rule l4a-8. Will the Comptroller use the same tactic of circumventing the traditional SEC process and commencing litigation for any proposal the pension funds submit in the future? Will going straight to court be the new normal?