Earlier this month, the SEC announced settled charges against former Wells Fargo CEO and Chairman, John G. Stumpf, as well as charges against former head of Wells Fargo’s Community Bank, Carrie L. Tolstedt, alleging that they misled investors about the success of the Community Bank, Wells Fargo’s core business. (Wells had already agreed to pay $3 billion to settle charges from the SEC and the Department of Justice.) The SEC charged that they made misleading public statements about the company’s strategy and a key performance indicator, the “cross-sell metric,” and signed misleading certifications and sub-certifications as to the accuracy of these and other public disclosures. In the Order, Stumpf has agreed to settle the action against him for $2.5 million, but Tolstedt has not agreed to settle, and the SEC has filed a complaint against her in Federal District Court, seeking an officer and director bar, a monetary penalty and disgorgement. The Order and complaint highlight, once again, problems that can arise out of public disclosure of misleading key performance indicators. Moreover, the SEC’s allegations provide a cautionary tale about the responsibility of those signing certifications (and sub-certifications) regarding the accuracy of periodic reports to heed clear alarm bells and question sub-certifications where appropriate to do so.
Commissioners Peirce and Roisman criticize “unduly broad view” of “internal accounting controls” in Andeavor
In October, the SEC settled charges against Andeavor, an energy company formerly traded on the NYSE and now wholly owned by Marathon Petroleum, in connection with stock repurchases authorized by its board in 2015 and 2016. (See this PubCo post.) Pursuant to that authorization, in 2018, Andeavor’s CEO had directed the legal department to establish a Rule 10b5-1 plan to repurchase company shares worth $250 million. At the time, however, Andeavor’s CEO was on the verge of meeting with the CEO of Marathon Petroleum to resume previously stalled negotiations on an acquisition of Andeavor at a substantial premium. After Andeavor’s legal department concluded that the company did not possess material nonpublic information about the acquisition, Andeavor went ahead with the stock repurchase. Rather than attempting to build a 10b-5 case based on a debatably defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted instead to make its point with allegations that Andeavor had failed to maintain an effective system of internal control procedures in violation of Exchange Act Section 13(b)(2)(B). On Friday, the SEC posted the joint statement of SEC Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman, who voted against the settled action, explaining the reasons for their dissents. In sum, they contend that, in the action, the SEC took an “unduly broad view of Section 13(b)(2)(B).”
Yesterday, ISS released its new benchmark policies, effective for shareholder meetings on or after February 1, 2021. In addition to anticipated policy changes (see this PubCo post) regarding board racial and ethnic diversity, shareholder litigation rights (such as exclusive federal forum provisions) and director accountability for governance failures related to environmental or social issues, ISS also made a number of other policy changes and clarifications, not previewed during the comment period, that generally relate to changing market practices, certain shareholder proposals and policies that were announced previously but subject to a transition period.
At last week’s PLI annual securities regulation institute, SEC Commissioner Allison Lee gave the keynote address, Playing the Long Game: The Intersection of Climate Change Risk and Financial Regulation. She began her remarks with the pandemic as metaphor: a global crisis that, before it struck, was “understood intellectually to be a serious risk,” but not fully appreciated as something we really needed to worry about. Now, we have experience of a crisis, no longer viewed “antiseptically through our TVs or phones, but firsthand as it unfolds in our homes, families, schools, and workplaces—not to mention in our economy. Seemingly theoretical risks have become very real.” Another dramatic risk that looms even larger with potential for more dire consequences is the topic of Lee’s remarks: climate change. According to a 2018 study by scientists in the U.K. and the Netherlands, the “point of no return” for achieving the goal of two degrees Celsius by 2100 set by the Paris Accord may arrive as soon as 2035. To be sure, the lesson from the pandemic is “not to wait in the face of a known threat. We should not wait for climate change to make its way from scientific journals, economic models, and news coverage of climate events directly into our daily lives, and those of our children and theirs. We can come together now to focus on solutions.” And while this is hardly Lee’s first rodeo when it comes to advocating that the SEC mandate climate risk disclosure, it seems much more likely now, with the imminent change in the administration in D.C., that the SEC may actually take steps toward implementing a regulatory solution.
Legislation—such as California’s board racial/ethnic diversity mandate (see this PubCo post) and board gender diversity mandate (see this PubCo post)—is not the only route that diversity advocates are employing to diversify the ranks of corporate directors. Moral suasion—together with implicit or explicit voting pressure—is another avenue that some groups are pursuing. One group following this path is the Russell 3000 Board Diversity Disclosure Initiative, a new initiative recently organized by the Illinois State Treasurer. At the end of October, the Initiative sent a letter to companies on the Russell 3000, urging that they all disclose board racial/ethnic/gender data. Signed by over 20 investor organizations representing more than $3 trillion in assets under management and advisement, the letter waited until the end to note that many of the signatories “either have or are examining policies to vote against nominating committees with no reported racial/ethnic diversity in their proxy statements and expanding more direct shareholder engagement.”
ISS has provided some early guidance regarding how it will view pandemic-related changes to executive compensation as part of its pay-for-performance qualitative evaluation. According to ISS, the guidance was informed by direct discussions with investors as well as the results of its annual policy survey. The guidance is summarized below.
Don’t forget to vote!
According to Protiviti, in 2019, 90% of companies in the S&P 500 issued separate sustainability reports—not part of SEC filings—and, as of February 2020, over 1,000 companies with an aggregate market cap of $12 trillion have endorsed the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations for sustainability disclosure (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). Similarly, use of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) framework has increased by 180% over the last two years (see this PubCo post). With this heightened focus on sustainability, how can boards best oversee ESG? To that end, in this article, consultant Protiviti offers ten questions about ESG reporting that boards should consider with their management teams.
A couple of weeks ago, the SEC settled charges against Andeavor, an energy company formerly traded on the NYSE and now wholly owned by Marathon Oil, in connection with stock repurchases, authorized by its board in 2015 and 2016. Pursuant to that authorization, in 2018, Andeavor’s CEO directed the legal department to establish a Rule 10b5-1 plan to repurchase company shares worth $250 million. At the time, however, the company’s CEO was on the verge of meeting with the CEO of Marathon Oil to resume previously stalled negotiations on an acquisition of Andeavor at a substantial premium. Of course, a 10b5-1 plan typically doesn’t work to protect against insider trading charges if you have material inside information when you establish the plan, and the SEC’s order highlights facts that, from the SEC’s perspective, make the information appear material—at least in hindsight. But wait—this isn’t even an insider trading case. No, it’s a case about inadequate internal controls—at least, that’s how it ended up. Instead of attempting to make a 10b-5 case based on a debatably defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted instead to make its point by focusing on the failure to maintain effective internal control procedures and comply with them. Companies may want to take note that charges related to violations of the rules regarding internal controls and disclosure controls seem to be increasingly part of the SEC’s Enforcement playbook, making it worthwhile for companies to emphasize, in the words of SEC Chair Jay Clayton, the practice of “good corporate hygiene.”
Tuesday, at the CNBC Financial Advisor Summit, SEC Chair Jay Clayton was interviewed by CNBC’s Bob Pisani, touching on a variety of issues, including SPACs, proposed changes to Form 13F, ESG ratings and investing, emerging market listings and other topics of interest. No breaking news, but some insight into the SEC’s thinking on these subjects.
Last week, ISS released for public comment a number of proposed voting policy changes to be applied for shareholder meetings taking place on or after February 1, 2021. The proposed changes for U.S. companies relate to board racial/ethnic diversity, director accountability for governance failures related to environmental or social issues and shareholder litigation rights, i.e., exclusive forum provisions. Comments may be submitted on the proposals through October 26, 2020.