Category: Executive Compensation

SEC reopens comment period (again) for proposal on stock buyback disclosure

Yesterday, the SEC announced that it was reopening (again) the public comment period for its proposed rule on stock buyback disclosure modernization, a rule proposed at the end of 2021. (Remember that the comment period for this proposal was previously reopened in October because of the “technical glitch.” See this PubCo post.)  The proposal is focused on enhancing disclosure by requiring more detailed and more frequent and timely disclosure about stock buybacks. (See this PubCo post.) Why did the SEC reopen the buyback proposal comment period? Because, at the time the proposal was issued, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 had not yet been enacted, which meant that the implications of that Act could not be considered as part of the proposal’s original cost/benefit analysis.  However, as demonstrated in a new memo from the SEC’s Division of Economic and Risk Analysis, the excise tax on stock buybacks imposed under the IRA could affect that analysis, and consequently, the public’s evaluation of the proposal.  As a result, the SEC determined to make the DERA memo part of the comment file and to reopen the comment period for an additional 30 after publication of the reopening release in the Federal Register.

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 […]

SEC and DOJ conducting Rule 10b5-1 probe

As the SEC mulls its 10b5-1 proposal (see this PubCo post), neither its Enforcement Division nor the DOJ are waiting around to see what happens.  According to Bloomberg, they are using data analytics “in a sweeping examination of preplanned equity sales by C-suite officials.” The question is whether executives “been gaming prearranged stock-sale programs designed to thwart the possibility of insider trading”?  Of course, there have been countless studies and “exposés” of alleged 10b5-1 abuse over the years, the most recent being this front-page analysis of trading by insiders under Rule 10b5-1 plans in the WSJ (see this PubCo post).  While these concerns have been percolating for quite some time, no legislation or rules have yet been adopted (although several bills have been introduced and the SEC proposed new regs at the end of 2021).  Bloomberg reports that these investigations by Enforcement and the DOJ are consistent with the recent “tougher line on long-standing Wall Street trading practices during the Biden era. Federal officials requested information from executives early this year, said one person. They’re now preparing to bring multiple cases, said two other people.”

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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SEC adopts final rules on compensation clawbacks in the event of financial restatements—“Big R” and “little r” [UPDATED]

[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect in greater detail the contents of the adopting release. For a discussion of the comments and criticisms of the SEC Commissioners at the open meeting at which the rules were adopted, see my earlier post.]

At an open meeting last week, the SEC adopted, by a vote of—surprise—3 to 2, rules to implement Section 954 of Dodd-Frank, the clawback provision. Clawback rules were initially proposed by the SEC back in 2015, but were relegated to the long-term agenda, until they suddenly reemerged on the SEC’s short-term agenda in 2021 (see this PubCo post) with a target date for a re-proposal of April 2022. Instead of a re-proposal, however, a year ago, the SEC simply posted a notice announcing that it was re-opening the comment period and posing a number of questions for public comment. (See this PubCo post.) One possible change suggested by the SEC’s questions was a potential expansion of the concept of “restatement” to include not only “reissuance,” or “Big R,” restatements (which involve a material error and an 8-K), but also “revision” or “little r” restatements. Then, in June of this year, DERA issued a new staff memorandum addressing in part the restatement question, which led the SEC to once again re-open the comment period. Finally, the SEC concluded that, after more than seven years, the proposal had marinated long enough. Time to serve it up. The new rules direct the national securities exchanges to establish listing standards requiring listed issuers to adopt and comply with a clawback policy and to provide disclosure about the policy and its implementation. The clawback policy must provide that, in the event the listed issuer is required to prepare an accounting restatement—including a “little r” restatement—the issuer must recover the incentive-based compensation that was erroneously paid to its current or former executive officers based on the misstated financial reporting measure. Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented, contending that, among other problems, the rule was too broad and too prescriptive. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the key word here is “erroneously,” that is, the rule requires recovery of compensation to which the officers were never entitled in the first place. In his statement at the meeting, Gensler indicated that he believes “that these rules will strengthen the transparency and quality of corporate financial statements, investor confidence in those statements, and the accountability of corporate executives to investors….Through today’s action and working with the exchanges, we have the opportunity to fulfill Dodd-Frank’s mandate and Congress’s intention to prevent executives from keeping compensation received based on misstated financials.”

SEC adopts final rules on compensation clawbacks in the event of financial restatements—“Big R” and “little r”

You might remember back to 2015 when the SEC initially proposed rules to implement Section 954 of Dodd-Frank, the clawback provision. The SEC did not then consider adoption of the proposal in the ordinary course, instead relegating it to the long-term agenda, where it was never heard from again. Until, that is, the topic found a spot on the SEC’s short-term agenda in 2021 (see this PubCo post) with a target date for a re-proposal of April 2022. Instead of a re-proposal, however, a year ago, the SEC simply posted a notice announcing that it was re-opening the comment period and posing a number of questions for public comment.  (See this PubCo post.) One possible change suggested by the SEC’s questions was a potential expansion of the concept of “restatement” to include not only “reissuance,” or “Big R,” restatements (which involve a material error and an 8-K), but also “revision” or “little r” restatements. Then, in June of this year, DERA issued a new staff memorandum addressing in part the restatement question, which led the SEC to once again re-open the comment period.  Finally, the SEC has concluded that, after more than seven years, the proposal has marinated long enough. Time to serve it up. Accordingly, at an open meeting yesterday, the SEC adopted, by a vote of—surprise!—three to two, new rules that direct the national securities exchanges to establish listing standards requiring listed issuers to adopt and comply with a clawback policy and to provide disclosure about the policy and its implementation. The clawback policy must provide that, in the event the listed issuer is required to prepare an accounting restatement—including a “little r” restatement—the issuer must recover the incentive-based compensation that was erroneously paid to its current or former executive officers based on the misstated financial reporting measure. Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented, contending that, among other problems, the rule was too broad and too prescriptive. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the key word here is “erroneously,” that is, the rule requires recovery of compensation to which the officers were never entitled in the first place. In his statement at the meeting, Gensler indicated that he believes “that these rules will strengthen the transparency and quality of corporate financial statements, investor confidence in those statements, and the accountability of corporate executives to investors….Through today’s action and working with the exchanges, we have the opportunity to fulfill Dodd-Frank’s mandate and Congress’s intention to prevent executives from keeping compensation received based on misstated financials.”

“The electronic Form 144 may be a big change, but it doesn’t have to feel like one!”

That’s the headline on a sidebar on the SEC’s newest Form 144 EDGAR page, providing psychological support and comfort to ease the trauma—I mean the transition—for new filers of electronic Forms 144.  You might recall that, in June, the SEC adopted rule amendments that require electronic submission of Forms 144 related to the sale of securities of Exchange Act reporting companies. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, in “fiscal year 2021, more than half of all filed Form 144 forms—30,000 in total—were filed on paper. In a digital age, it’s important for investors to have easy, online access to material information, rather than needing to visit SEC facilities to access that information. This is particularly important during Covid-19, which has made in-person visits to access these filings even more challenging. Even when access to physical copies isn’t restricted, there are other costs associated with paper filings. It costs investors money and time to travel to the SEC’s reading room. It costs the SEC money and time to process paper filings. These amendments will reduce costs and drive more efficiencies for investors, filers, and the SEC.”  (See this PubCo post.) The SEC has now posted the updated EDGAR Filer Manual instructions for electronic filing of Forms 144, commencing the transition; electronic filing will become mandatory in about six months. To facilitate the transition, the SEC has put together FAQs, step-by-instructions and a “wealth” of other resources to assist new electronic filers.  There’s even a communications toolkit with the message “Don’t panic!”

SEC adopts final pay-versus-performance disclosure rule [updated]

[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect in greater detail the contents of the adopting release.]

Last week, without an open meeting, the SEC finally adopted a new rule that will require disclosure of information reflecting the relationship between executive compensation actually paid by a company and the company’s financial performance—a new rule that has been 12 years in the making. In 2010, Dodd-Frank, in Section 953(a), added Section 14(i) to the Exchange Act, mandating that the SEC require so-called pay-versus-performance disclosure in proxy and information statements. The SEC proposed a rule on pay versus performance in 2015 (see this PubCo post and this Cooley Alert), but it fell onto the long-term, maybe-never agenda until, that is, the SEC reopened the comment period in January (see this PubCo post). According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the new rule “makes it easier for shareholders to assess a public company’s decision-making with respect to its executive compensation policies. I am pleased that the final rule provides for new, more flexible disclosures that allow companies to describe the performance measures it deems most important when determining what it pays executives. I think that this rule will help investors receive the consistent, comparable, and decision-useful information they need to evaluate executive compensation policies.” In the adopting release, the SEC articulates its belief that the disclosure “will allow investors to assess a registrant’s executive compensation actually paid relative to its financial performance more readily and at a lower cost than under the existing executive compensation disclosure regime.” For the most part, although there is some flexibility in some aspects of the new rule, the approach taken by the SEC in this rulemaking is quite prescriptive; the SEC opted not to take a “wholly principles-based approach because, among other reasons, such a route would limit comparability across issuers and within issuers’ filings over time, as well as increasing the possibility that some issuers would choose to report only the most favorable information.” Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented, and their statements about the rulemaking are discussed below.

SEC adopts final pay-versus-performance disclosure rule

It’s been 12 years since Dodd-Frank mandated, in Section 953(a), so-called pay-versus-performance disclosure, and amazingly, no rules had been adopted to implement that mandate…until yesterday, when adoption of the final rule crept in “on little cat feet.” Well, ok, there was a press release, but it was still quite a surprise. Yesterday, without an open meeting, the SEC finally adopted a new rule that would require disclosure of information reflecting the relationship between executive compensation actually paid by a company and the company’s financial performance. The SEC proposed a rule on pay versus performance in 2015 (see this PubCo post and this Cooley Alert), but it fell onto the long-term, maybe-never agenda until, that is, the SEC reopened the comment period in January (see this PubCo post).  According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[t]oday’s rule makes it easier for shareholders to assess a public company’s decision-making with respect to its executive compensation policies. I am pleased that the final rule provides for new, more flexible disclosures that allow companies to describe the performance measures it deems most important when determining what it pays executives. I think that this rule will help investors receive the consistent, comparable, and decision-useful information they need to evaluate executive compensation policies.” Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented. 

ESG metrics in compensation plans—a growing trend

Consultant Semler Brossy’s new report, ESG+Incentives, examines the prevalence of various ESG metrics as part of incentive compensation structures among companies in the S&P 500. Although some view ESG targets as just too nebulous to measure—how do you measure company culture?—and too amenable to “architecting” to ensure executive payouts, the use of ESG metrics as part of executive compensation plans appears to be a growing trend. The report concludes that the majority of companies in the S&P 500 now include ESG metrics, largely reflecting increased stakeholder interest in human capital and environmental issues. In 2022, “there was a nearly 23% increase in the proportion of S&P 500 companies applying ESG metrics in incentive plans, at 70% prevalence compared to 57% prevalence a year ago”—that’s a 13 percentage point increase year over year. Metrics related to human capital management were included most often as part of comp plans—used by 65% of all companies in the S&P 500, meaning that almost all companies that included any ESG metrics included HCM metrics.  And, while environmental metrics still remained scarce at only 23%, that percentage reflects a 64% increase over the 14% reported last year. The report indicates that the predominant metric overall was diversity and inclusion (46% of companies in the S&P 500); carbon-footprint metrics predominate in the environmental category, having increased by over 300% from last year.