Today, in light of the continuing impact of COVID-19, the SEC issued an order extending the filing periods covered by its previous conditional reporting relief. The order provides public companies with a 45-day extension to file or furnish specified SEC filings that would otherwise have been due between March 1 and July 1, 2020. The order supersedes and extends the SEC’s original order of March 4, 2020, which had applied to filings due between March 1 and April 30, 2020. As SEC Chair Jay Clayton observed, “[h]ealth and safety continue to be our first priority….These actions provide temporary, targeted relief to issuers, investment funds and investment advisers affected by COVID-19. At the same time, we encourage public companies to provide current and forward-looking information to their investors and, in these uncertain times, companies are reminded that they can take steps to avail themselves of the safe harbor in Section 21E of the Exchange Act for forward-looking statements.” At the same time, the staff of Corp Fin issued Disclosure Guidance Topic No. 9, which offers the staff’s views regarding disclosure considerations and other securities law obligations in the context of COVID-19 and related uncertainties (to be covered in a separate post). The SEC encourages companies to contact the SEC staff with questions or matters of particular concern, such as administrative issues related to inability to obtain a required signature due to a quarantine or other issues that may need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
SEC staff offers relief regarding manual signature retention requirements for electronic filings in light of COVID-19
The staff of various SEC divisions, including Corp Fin, has just issued a new Statement Regarding Rule 302(b) of Regulation S-T in Light of COVID-19 Concerns. The statement offers some relief in connection with “the authentication document retention requirements under Rule 302(b) [of Reg S-T] in light of health, transportation, and other logistical issues raised by the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).”
Today, the Co-Directors of the SEC Division of Enforcement, Stephanie Avakian and Steven Peikin, issued a brief cautionary statement regarding market integrity in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. The statement acknowledged the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on the securities markets and emphasized the importance of “maintaining market integrity and following corporate controls and procedures.”
The SEC has announced that, in light of the challenges associated with COVID-19 and particularly the difficulty associated with submission of comment letters, it will not take formal action before April 24 on a number of different proposed rulemakings with comment periods otherwise set to expire in March. Of course, the SEC has historically been open to consider comments submitted after the deadline but before adoption. The purpose of this extension was to expressly allow commenters additional time to comment if needed. Apparently, however, the SEC’s action was not enough for two Senators on the Senate Banking Committee, ranking member Sherrod Brown and Chris Van Hollen.
Today, in light of the spread of COVID-19, the SEC announced new Corp Fin staff guidance regarding annual meetings. Because of limitations on the ability to hold in-person annual meetings as a result of health and travel concerns, the staff guidance “provides regulatory flexibility to companies seeking to change the date and location of the meetings and use new technologies, such as ‘virtual’ shareholder meetings that avoid the need for in-person shareholder attendance, while at the same time ensuring that shareholders and other market participants are informed of any changes.”
Corp Fin has issued an announcement regarding Corp Fin’s operating status, in light of the impact of the coronavirus. Not to worry—Corp Fin is still open and operating, but many Corp Fin staff members are “teleworking.” (Apparently, according to the WSJ, an employee at the SEC was “referred for novel coronavirus testing.”) Nonetheless, Corp Fin continues “to conduct normal business functions,” including reviewing filings and accelerating registration statements under normal time frames—at least that’s the plan.
Last week, SEC officials suggested that the SEC might provide relief to address the impact of the coronavirus (see this PubCo post), and today, the SEC came through, issuing an order providing “conditional regulatory relief for certain publicly traded company filing obligations.” As SEC Chair Jay Clayton observed, the “health and safety of all participants in our markets is of paramount importance. While timely public filing of Exchange Act reports is a cornerstone of well-functioning markets, we recognize that this situation may prevent certain issuers from compiling these reports within required timeframes.” According to the order, a number of companies have advised the staff that the coronavirus “may present challenges in timely meeting certain of their obligations under the federal securities laws. These entities may include U.S. companies with significant operations in the affected areas, as well as companies located in those regions.” The SEC encourages companies to contact SEC staff with questions or matters of particular concern, such as administrative issues related to inability to obtain a required signature due to a quarantine or other issues that may need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
The spread of the devastating coronavirus has created alarm around the world, with the health and safety of the world’s populations obviously being the most important concern. There has also been significant anxiety about the disruptive impact of the virus on the global economy—and the market has reacted to that anxiety. This special report from Dun & Bradstreet, “Business Impact of the Coronavirus,” may help companies preparing disclosures get a better handle on the effects. In addition to closure of factories, retail stores and hospitality venues, as well as cancellation of travel plans and quarantines (and resulting unavailability) of employees, the report indicates that companies may need to consider the disruptive effects of the coronavirus on both product demand and supply— the potential hit to consumer demand, especially in locked-down parts of China, and the interruption to supply chains for raw materials and components.
In a public statement issued today, SEC Chair Jay Clayton, Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman, SEC Chief Accountant Sagar Teotia and PCAOB Chairman William D. Duhnke III provided guidance regarding the impact of the coronavirus on financial reporting and audit quality, as well as the potential availability of regulatory relief. The statement arose out of the recent continuing dialogue between these officials and the senior leaders of the largest U.S. audit firms regarding difficulties in connection with conducting audits in emerging markets.
On Thursday, once again without holding an open meeting, the SEC voted, with a dissent from Commissioner Allison Lee, to propose to simplify and modernize MD&A and the other financial disclosure requirements of Reg S-K. As summed up in the press release, the proposed amendments are intended to “eliminate duplicative disclosures and modernize and enhance Management’s Discussion and Analysis disclosures for the benefit of investors, while simplifying compliance efforts for companies.” The proposal is part of the SEC’s Disclosure Effectiveness Initiative and follows on the 2013 S-K Study, the Report on Review of Disclosure Requirements in Regulation S-K, required by Section 108 of the JOBS Act, and the 341-page 2016 concept release, which sought comment on modernizing certain business and financial disclosure requirements in Reg S-K (see this PubCo post). The proposal also took into account the staff’s experience with Reg S-K as part of Corp Fin’s disclosure review program. Once again, the proposal employs a more principles-based approach, describing the objectives of MD&A with the goal of eliciting more thoughtful, less rote analysis. Some of the proposed changes are fairly dramatic—such as eliminating selected financial data (Item 301), supplementary financial data (Item 302), and that pesky table of contractual obligations, or adding a requirement to disclose critical accounting estimates—while some just address moving parts and conforming changes. Whether the proposal, if adopted, actually leads to more nuanced, analytical disclosure remains to be seen. The proposal will be open for comment for 60 days.