Alliance Advisors, a proxy solicitation and corporate advisory firm, has just posted its 2021 Proxy Season Preview, a useful introduction into the major themes of this season—well worth a read. First, and most obviously, there is COVID-19 and its direct and indirect impact. The pandemic is having a significant direct impact this year—not just in necessitating recourse to virtual-only annual meetings again this season—but also in focusing the attention of investors and proxy advisors on “how well corporate leaders navigated the crisis and protected business operations, liquidity and the health and welfare of employees.” But the pandemic has also had a somewhat surprising broader indirect impact. While it was widely anticipated that the challenges of COVID-19 would overwhelm any other concerns, the impact appears to be otherwise, as the pandemic has highlighted our increasingly precarious condition, including the effects of climate change, and intensified our social and economic inequality—all issues that are front and center this season. The Preview predicts that environmental and social proposals “are likely to see stronger levels of support in view of last year’s record 21 majority votes… and more assertive investor policies on diversity, climate change and political spending.”
Corp Fin staff updates guidance regarding presentation of shareholder proposals in light of COVID-19
On Friday, the Corp Fin staff announced that it has updated its Guidance for Conducting Shareholder Meetings in Light of COVID-19 Concerns originally published on March 13, 2020 and updated on April 7, 2020 (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). The updated guidance posted on Friday tweaks the advice related to presentation of shareholder proposals, extending its application to the 2021 proxy season.
One topic that directors were asked about in the PwC 2020 Annual Corporate Directors Survey was ESG. Although 55% of directors surveyed considered ESG issues to be a part of the board’s enterprise risk management discussions, 49% saw a link between ESG issues and the company’s strategy and 51% recognized that ESG issues were important to shareholders, directors were “not convinced that they’re connected to the company’s bottom line. Only 38% of directors say ESG issues have a financial impact on the company’s performance—down from 49% in 2019.” And only 32% thought that the board needed more reporting on ESG-related measures. Notably, 51% thought that their boards had “a strong understanding of ESG issues impacting the company.” As you may discern from its title, this study from the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, U.S. Corporate Boards Suffer From Inadequate Expertise in Financially Material ESG Matters, begs to differ.
In this new Bulletin, consultant Protiviti identifies key issues for the 2021 audit committee agenda and—no surprise—at least half reflect the impact of COVID-19. The agenda includes four topics related to enterprise, process and technology risks and four related to financial reporting, with a reminder regarding ESG. Also available is an audit committee self-assessment questionnaire. The topics suggested for the audit committee agenda are summarized below.
Just in time for the new proxy season comes this Report of the 2020 Multi-Stakeholder Working Group on Practices for Virtual Shareholder Meetings from the Rutgers Center for Corporate Law and Governance, the Council of Institutional Investors and the Society for Corporate Governance. The report is replete with helpful guidance, detailing best and emerging practices for virtual shareholder meetings. The Working Group updates its 2018 report (see this PubCo post) in light of the deluge of pandemic-induced VSMs that were convened during the 2020 proxy season. Sorry to say, but it seems likely that this new proxy season will see a repeat for the same reason—at least in the first part of the season—so this report should be especially useful.
Happy holidays everyone! Good riddance to 2020! Hooray for science and scientists!
In its first action against a public company for misleading investors about the financial effects of the pandemic, the SEC has announced settled charges against The Cheesecake Factory. In mid-March, the company, which operates a chain of restaurants, was compelled as a result of COVID-19 to temporarily change its business model from dine-in restaurants to “an ‘off-premise model’ (i.e., to-go and delivery).” The company then issued two press releases (furnished to the SEC on Form 8-K) advising of the transition and indicating that the new model was “enabling the Company’s restaurants to operate sustainably at present under this current model,” but failed to disclose that the claim of sustainable operations excluded expenses attributable to corporate operations as well as the weekly loss of $6 million in cash. Those statements, the SEC concluded, were “materially false and misleading.” According to SEC Chair Jay Clayton, “[a]s our local and national response to the pandemic evolves, it is important that issuers continue their proactive, principles-based approach to disclosure, tailoring these disclosures to the firm and industry-specific effects of the pandemic on their business and operations. It is also important that issuers who make materially false or misleading statements regarding the pandemic’s impact on their business and operations be held accountable.”
Today, the SEC staff issued a revised Statement regarding the extension, for an indeterminate period, of temporary relief related to authentication document retention requirements under Rule 302(b) of Reg S-T in light of light of public health and safety concerns regarding COVID-19. This staff Statement is temporary and remains in effect until the staff provides public notice that it no longer will be in effect; that notice will be published at least two weeks before the announced termination date. Nothing new there. But what is new is that the Statement indicates that the staff will not recommend enforcement action if filers take advantage of the new electronic signature rules even before the effective date of those rules.
If Matt Levine has a mantra in his “Money Stuff” column on Bloomberg, it’s this: everything is securities fraud. “You know the basic idea,” he often says in his most acerbic voice,
“A company does something bad, or something bad happens to it. Its stock price goes down, because of the bad thing. Shareholders sue: Doing the bad thing and not immediately telling shareholders about it, the shareholders say, is securities fraud. Even if the company does immediately tell shareholders about the bad thing, which is not particularly common, the shareholders might sue, claiming that the company failed to disclose the conditions and vulnerabilities that allowed the bad thing to happen. And so contributing to global warming is securities fraud, and sexual harassment by executives is securities fraud, and customer data breaches are securities fraud, and mistreating killer whales is securities fraud, and whatever else you’ve got. Securities fraud is a universal regulatory regime; anything bad that is done by or happens to a public company is also securities fraud, and it is often easier to punish the bad thing as securities fraud than it is to regulate it directly.” (Money Stuff, 6/26/19)
In this rulemaking petition filed by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform and the Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, petitioners ask the SEC to take on one aspect of this type of securities litigation—event-driven securities litigation arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will the SEC take action?
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!
NYSE again extends temporary waiver of shareholder approval requirements for certain equity issuances
In early April, the SEC approved and declared immediately effective an NYSE rule change to waive, through June 30, 2020 and subject to compliance with conditions, application of certain of the shareholder approval requirements in Section 312.03 of the NYSE Listed Company Manual. That waiver was extended through September 30. Now, the SEC has proposed to extend the waiver through December 31, 2020, and the SEC has declared the proposal immediately effective.