Yesterday, in remarks before the WSJ’s CFO Network Summit, SEC Chair Gary Gensler scooped the Summit with news of plans to address issues he and others have identified in Rule 10b5-1 plans. Problems with 10b5-1 plans have long been recognized—including by former SEC Chair Jay Clayton—so it will be interesting to see if any proposal that emerges will find support among the Commissioners on both sides of the SEC’s aisle. In an interview, Gensler also responded to questions about climate disclosure rules, removal of the PCAOB Chair, Enforcement, SPACs and other matters.
Earlier this week, SEC Commissioner Allison Lee delivered keynote remarks at the 2021 ESG Disclosure Priorities Event hosted by the AICPA, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, SASB and the Center for Audit Quality. Her topic: “Myths and Misconceptions about ‘Materiality.’” In the context of the discussion about potential mandatory ESG disclosures, Lee observed, there has been a lot of attention to the concept of materiality, which is fundamental to our securities laws. The public company disclosure system “is generally oriented around providing information that is important to reasonable investors,” and “the viewpoint of the reasonable investor is the lens through which we all are meant to operate.” Since investors are the ones who make the investment choices, “investors are also the ones who decide what information they need to make those choices.” But, in the course of the ongoing discourse about ESG, Lee has found that a number of myths have proliferated about the role and meaning of materiality; her purpose in these remarks is to dissect and dispel those myths, which she believes have hampered the “important debate on how best to craft a rule proposal on climate and ESG risks and opportunities.”
Leadership survey: How prepared are leaders to face key business issues? Do executives think boards give good advice?
While it’s certainly not yet in the rear-view mirror, as we start to see COVID-19 begin to fade as an all-consuming crisis for business—thank you science and scientists!—what are the next issues that corporate leaders must face and how ready are they to face them? Consultant Russell Reynolds Associates has just released its 2021 Global Leadership Monitor, designed to track top business issues and monitor leadership preparedness. Some of the more interesting findings: In terms of “stakeholder capitalism,” while customers are top of the heap, employees come in second as key stakeholders—ahead of stockholders. Most fascinating perhaps is this revelation: 40% of CEOs and other C-Suite executives “don’t believe the executive team receives good advice and input from the board.”
As reported by Bloomberg, Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates told a webinar audience that mandatory ESG disclosures were “overdue,” and that the SEC was moving quickly on related rulemaking. In the webinar, sponsored by NYU’s Institute of Accounting Research and the Institute for Corporate Governance & Finance, Coates said that he expects the SEC to soon be in a position to review and consider staff proposals for mandatory prescriptive rules on ESG addressing both general and industry-specific requirements. These actions are expected to be the SEC’s most significant action on climate since the 2010 guidance. (See this PubCo post.)
The outside pressure has been on. As reported by Bloomberg, “[e]nvironmental advocates in cities including New York, Miami, San Francisco, London and Zurich targeted BlackRock for a wave of protests in mid-April, holding up images of giant eyeballs to signal that ‘all eyes’ were on BlackRock’s voting decisions.” Of course, protests outside of the company’s offices by climate activists are nothing new. But why this pressure on BlackRock? BlackRock and its CEO, Laurence Fink, have played an outsized role in promoting corporate sustainability and social responsibility, announcing, in 2020, a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” (See this PubCo post.) Yet, BlackRock has historically conducted extensive engagement with companies and, in the end, voted with management much more often than activists preferred; for example, in the first quarter of 2020, the company supported less than 10% of environmental and social shareholder proposals and opposed three environmental proposals. As a result, as reflected in press reports like this one in the NYT, activists have reacted to the appearance of stark inconsistencies between the company’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record. Even a group of Democratic Senators highlighted that inconsistency in this October 2020 letter, characterizing the company’s voting record on climate issues as “troubling and inconsistent.” But that impression may be about to change. In an interview with Reuters, BlackRock’s global head of investment stewardship since 2020 revealed that the company is “‘accelerating the pace of our stewardship activities; resulting in more engagement and more voting, reflecting heightened expectations, which … are just a function of the urgency of some of the issues.’” Indeed, in the first quarter of 2021, BlackRock supported 12 of 16 environmental and social shareholder proposals.
With the passage of SB 826 in 2018, California became the first state to mandate board gender diversity (see this PubCo post). In 2020, the California Partners Project, which was founded by California’s current First Lady, released a progress report on women’s representation on boards of California public companies, tracking the changes in gender diversity on California boards since enactment of the law. That same year, AB 979 was signed into law in California. That bill was designed to do for “underrepresented communities” on boards of directors what SB 826 did for board gender diversity. (See this PubCo post.) The CPP has just released a new report that not only updates its 2020 progress report on board gender diversity, but also provides data on women of color on California’s public company boards. The takeaway is that, while there has been tremendous progress in increasing the number of women on boards, nevertheless, much work remains “to tap all of our talent and achieve racial and cultural equity. Most women on California’s corporate boards are white, while women of color—especially Latinas—remain severely underrepresented.” In addition to new data, the report offers some strategies for overcoming these deficits in diversity.
When, in August 2020, the SEC considered adopting a new requirement to discuss human capital as part of an overhaul of Regulation S-K, the debate centered largely on principles-based versus prescriptive regulation—a debate that continues to this day. In that instance, notwithstanding a rulemaking petition and clamor from numerous institutional and other investors for transparency regarding workforce composition, health and safety, living wages and other specifics, the “principles-based” team carried the day; the SEC limited the requirement to a “description of the registrant’s human capital resources, including the number of persons employed by the registrant, and any human capital measures or objectives that the registrant focuses on in managing the business (such as, depending on the nature of the registrant’s business and workforce, measures or objectives that address the development, attraction and retention of personnel).” What was the result? In this new Human Capital Disclosure Report: Learning on the Job, Intelligize took a look at how companies responded to the new disclosure mandate. Its conclusion: most companies made a “sincere effort to fulfill the scantly defined disclosure obligation”; nevertheless, the report contends, companies “capitalized on the fact that the new rule does not call for specific metrics,” as “[r]elatively few issuers provided meaningful numbers about their human capital, even when they had those numbers at hand.”
Board diversity and how (and whether) to try to achieve it is a topic that has certainly appeared on a lot of corporate governance agendas in the last few years. Institutional investors have applied pressure on corporations, shareholders have submitted precatory proposals for shareholder votes, investment banks have insisted on diverse boards as preconditions for taking companies public, and California and a number of other states have adopted legislation, whether it be a board diversity mandate, a soft target or simply a disclosure requirement. Most recently, Nasdaq filed with the SEC a proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure, adopting a comply-or-explain approach. According to Nasdaq’s President and CEO, Adena Friedman, “Nasdaq’s purpose is to champion inclusive growth and prosperity to power stronger economies….Our goal with this proposal is to provide a transparent framework for Nasdaq-listed companies to present their board composition and diversity philosophy effectively to all stakeholders; we believe this listing rule is one step in a broader journey to achieve inclusive representation across corporate America.” Interestingly, however, the NYSE has not followed suit. In fact, in an interview on Bloomberg TV in December, NYSE President Stacey Cunningham said, when asked about the Nasdaq proposal, that it was not something that they were considering adopting at the NYSE: “When we use exchange listing standards to require things like diversity profiles or others, we’re defining the investable universe…. We just don’t think we should be using our listing standards because that forces our views on investors and prevents them from being able to make the choices that they want to make and that they are making.” In contrast to the SEC, whose remit is largely disclosure, the exchanges regularly impose corporate governance requirements. Should board diversity be one of them?
Climate Action 100+ reports that, last year, there were 22 climate-related weather disasters in the U.S. that “each caused more than $1 billion in damages—far and away a record. To investors, climate change poses not only physical risks of damage to assets, supply chains and infrastructure but also transitional risk if portfolio companies do not adjust rapidly enough as the economy decarbonizes and systemic risk posed to the entire economy.” According to environmental nonprofit Ceres, as of April 21, 408 businesses and investors “with a footprint” in the U.S. have signed an open letter to the President indicating their support for the administration’s commitment to climate action and for setting a new climate target to reduce emissions. The signatories collectively represent over $4 trillion in annual revenue, over $1 trillion in assets under management and employ over 7 million U.S. workers across all 50 states. The letter states that to “restore the standing of the U.S. as a global leader, we need to address the climate crisis at the pace and scale it demands. Specifically, the U.S. must adopt an emissions reduction target that will place the country on a credible pathway to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. We, therefore, call on you to adopt the ambitious and attainable target of cutting GHG emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.” As reported by the NYT and others, the President announced today that the U.S. is setting a new climate target with a goal of reducing U.S. emissions by 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030. The target “calls for a steep and rapid decline of fossil fuel use in virtually every sector of the American economy and marks the start of what is sure to be a bitter partisan fight over achieving it.”
It’s widely anticipated that we’ll soon be seeing more action from the SEC on sustainability disclosure, including possibly a prescriptive ESG framework that draws on some global metrics. (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) Trying to head those prescriptive ESG metrics off at the pass is Commissioner Hester Peirce—yes, she who once described “ESG” as standing for “enabling shareholder graft”—in her statement, Rethinking Global ESG Metrics. With Gary Gensler now sworn in as SEC Chair, the revised composition of the SEC does not bode well for Peirce’s mission. Peirce concludes her statement with the admonition, “[l]et us rethink the path we are taking before it is too late.” But has the train already left that station?