Be on the alert for California’s Climate Corporate Data Accountability bill
If you’re waiting with bated breath to find out what the SEC has in store for public companies in its final version of its climate disclosure regulations (see this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post), you might also want to take a look at this California bill—the Climate Corporate Data Accountability Act (SB 253)—previously known as the Climate Corporate Accountability Act when it went belly up last year after sailing through one chamber of the legislature but coming up shy in the second (see this PubCo post). In fact, this year, the press release announces, the bill is part of California’s Climate Accountability Package, a “suite of bills that work together to improve transparency, standardize disclosures, align public investments with climate goals, and raise the bar on corporate action to address the climate crisis. At a time when rising anti-science sentiment is driving strong pushback against responsible business practices like risk disclosure and ESG investing,” the press release continues, “these bills leverage the power of California’s market to continue the state’s long tradition of setting the gold standard on environmental protection for the nation and the world.” If signed into law this time, the bill, which was introduced at the end of January and has a hearing scheduled in March, would mandate disclosure of GHG emissions data—Scopes 1, 2 and 3—by all U.S. business entities with total annual revenues in excess of a billion dollars that “do business in California.” The bill’s mandate would exceed, in several key respects, the requirements in the current SEC climate proposal. Whether this new bill will face the same fate as its predecessor remains to be seen.
Did the SEC’s rule changes succeed in transforming the risk factors section? What about climate risk?
Remember back in 2020, when the SEC adopted major amendments to Reg S-K designed to modernize the descriptions of business, legal proceedings and risk factors? You might recall that the SEC had long grumbled about “the lengthy and generic nature of the risk factor disclosure presented by many registrants”; to address that concern, the SEC instituted a number of requirements and “incentives” to encourage companies to be, um, more succinct. (See this PubCo post.) Among these changes were a new requirement to include a risk factor summary if the risk factor section exceeded 15 pages and changing the disclosure standard from “most significant” factors to “material” factors. In addition, because the SEC considered untailored, generic risks to be less informative and to contribute to increased length, it sought to discourage their use by requiring companies to organize the risk factors under relevant headings, with generic risk factors located at the end under a separate caption, “General Risk Factors.” So how’d that go? Did the rule changes achieve their purpose? Apparently, not so much—at least not at the largest public companies—according to this paper, published on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, from a group of authors from Deloitte and the USC Marshall School of Business. The authors also drilled down more specifically on risk factors related to climate change, where the increase in prevalence was dramatic (and probably also contributed to the increased length of risk factor sections in general).
How do companies view the current political environment and what can they do about it?
According to a new survey and related report from The Conference Board, 78% of US companies characterized the current political environment as “extremely challenging” or “very challenging” for companies—and 20% more described the environment as merely “challenging.” That totals 98%. (Who are the 2% who don’t find the political environment challenging?) Most striking about that data point is the stark contrast with the results of a survey conducted in 2021, which showed that only—only?—47% of companies attached one of the “extremely challenging” or “very challenging” labels to the political environment. What’s more, 42% said that they expected a “more challenging landscape in the next three years.” What’s fueling this shift in perspective? The Conference Board explores the reasons underlying this political environment and suggests ways for companies to address it.
“Diversity washing” is the new greenwashing
Is greenwashing old news? The latest component of ESG to be subject to a good scrubbing is diversity: specifically, “diversity washing.” What’s that? According to this paper authored by academics from several institutions, including Chicago Booth and the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford, there are a number of companies that actively promote their commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion in their public communications but, in actuality, their hiring practices, well, don’t quite measure up. The authors label companies with significant discrepancies—companies that “discuss diversity more than their actual employee gender and racial diversity warrants—as ‘diversity washers.’” What’s more, the authors found, companies that engaged in diversity washing received better ratings from ESG rating firms and were often financed by ESG-focused funds, even though these companies were “more likely to incur discrimination violations and pay larger fines for these actions.” The authors cautioned companies that getting a handle on the level of misrepresentation in this area is important because “a failure to adequately address deficiencies in DEI has real effects on firms, including costly ESG audits initiated by activist shareholders, increased scrutiny from regulators, and bad publicity that can negatively affect customer loyalty.” Not to mention the “social and economic loss” for ESG investors.
Audit committee oversight of ESG fraud risk
In this article, accounting firm Deloitte observes that boards and managements often experience “denial” when the topic of fraud risk arises—no one wants to feel that the trust they place in their own employees is actually misplaced. Still, fraud risk is one topic that typically finds its way onto the agendas of audit committees. Deloitte advises that, with the current attention to ESG and in anticipation of new rulemaking from the SEC on disclosure related to climate, human capital and other ESG-related topics (see this PubCo post), “fraud risk in this area should be top of mind for audit committees and a focal point in fraud risk assessments overseen by the audit committee.” While audit committees focus primarily on financial statement fraud risk, Deloitte suggests that audit committees should consider expanding their attention to fraud risk related to ESG, an area that is “not governed by the same types of controls present in financial reporting processes,” and, therefore, may be more susceptible to manipulation. In their oversight capacity, audit committees have a role to play, Deloitte suggests, by engaging with “management, including internal audit, fraud risk specialists, and independent auditors to understand the extent to which fraud risk is being considered and mitigated.”
ISS issues benchmark policy updates for 2023
At the end of last week, ISS announced its benchmark policy updates for 2023. The policy changes will apply to shareholder meetings held on or after February 1, 2023, except for those with one-year transition periods. The changes for U.S. companies relate to policies regarding, among other things, unequal voting rights, problematic governance structures, board gender diversity, exculpation of officers, poison pills, quorum requirements, racial equity audits, shareholder proposals on alignment between public commitments and political spending and board accountability for climate among the Climate Action 100+. The results are based in part on the results of ISS’s global benchmark surveys (see this PubCo post) as well as a series of roundtables.
What is the financial impact of legislation targeting companies taking disfavored stances?
As discussed in this PubCo post, we’ve lately been witnessing a profusion of state and local legislation targeting companies that express public positions or adopt policies on sociopolitical issues or conduct their businesses in a manner disfavored by the government in power. Bloomberg observes that, while “companies usually faced mainly reputational damage for their social actions, politicians are increasingly eager to craft legislation that can be used as a cudgel against businesses that don’t share their social views.” And many of these state actions are aimed, not just at expressed political positions, but rather at environmental and social measures that companies may view as strictly responsive to investor or employee concerns, shareholder proposals, current or anticipated governmental regulation, identified business risks or even business opportunities. These laws are presumably detrimental to the targeted companies, but are there any adverse consequences for the state or locality adopting this legislation and its citizens? To better understand the phenomenon and its impact on financial market outcomes, this paper from authors at the University of Pennsylvania and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago looked at the impact of one example of this type of legislation—a law recently adopted in Texas that blocks banks from government contracts in the state if the banks restrict funding to oil and gas companies or gun manufacturers. The authors concluded that the Texas legislation has had, and is expected to continue to have, a “large negative impact on the ability for local governments to access external finance. Our results suggest that if economies around the world that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels attempt to undo ESG policies by imposing restrictions on the financial sector, local borrowers are likely to face significant adverse consequences such as decreased credit access and poor financial markets outcomes.”
Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive receives final approval, applicable to US companies with EU presence
On Monday, according to this press release from the Council of the European Union, all 27 members of the European Council voted in favor of the adoption of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, the last step for the CSRD to become law in the EU. The new rules require subject companies […]
Should we link pay to ESG measures?
According to this report by The Conference Board, in collaboration with Semler Brossy and ESGAUGE, the vast majority (73% in 2021) of companies in the S&P 500 are “now tying executive compensation to some form of ESG performance.” To be sure, some companies have long tied executive comp to particular […]
What happened at the 2022 PLI Securities Regulation Institute?
At the PLI Securities Regulation Institute last week, the plethora of SEC rulemaking took some hits. It wasn’t simply the quantity of SEC rules and proposals, although that was certainly a factor. But the SEC has issued a lot of proposals in the past. Rather, it was the difficulty and complexity of implementation of these new rules and proposals that seemed to have created the concern that affected companies may just be overwhelmed. Former Corp Fin Director Meredith Cross, a co-chair of the program, pronounced the SEC’s climate proposal “outrageously” difficult, complicated and expensive for companies to implement, and those problems, the panel worried, would only be compounded by the adoption of expected new rules in the EU that would be applicable to many US companies and their EU subsidiaries. (See this Cooley Alert.) The panel feared that companies would be bombarded with a broad, complicated and often inconsistent series of climate/ESG disclosure mandates. Single materiality/double materiality anyone? But it wasn’t just the proposed climate disclosure that contributed to the concern. Recent rulemakings or proposals on stock buybacks, pay versus performance and clawbacks were also singled out as especially challenging for companies to put into effect.
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