Category: Executive Compensation
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.
WSJ raises more concerns about potential insider trading under Rule 10b5-1 plans
When the WSJ performs a study and publishes the results on the front page, it often has consequences. It’s worth remembering that it was a study reported in the WSJ about stock option backdating that kicked off the option backdating scandal of the mid-2000s (see, e.g., this news brief, this news brief and this news brief). Now, the WSJ has conducted a new front-page analysis of trading by insiders under Rule 10b5-1 plans that “shows that executives benefit when sales happen quickly after the plans’ adoption.” Academics and the SEC, the WSJ observes, suggest that “some corporate insiders might be using nonpublic information to game the system.” Under SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the SEC has already proposed new rules to “freshen up,” as Gensler likes to say, the rules on 10b5-1 plans, including mandatory cooling-off periods after adoption or modification of the plan—an aspect of the proposal designed to address precisely this issue. The WSJ analysis found that about 44% of the trades reviewed (about 33,000 stock sales), would not have been permitted under the cooling-off periods proposed in the SEC rule. The SEC has targeted April 2023 as the target date for adoption. (See this PubCo post.) In the light of some of the results shown, will the new study reinforce the SEC’s inclination to adopt its new proposal?
A jam-packed Spring 2022 agenda for the SEC
The SEC has posted its Spring 2022 Reg-Flex agenda and it’s crammed with pending and new rulemakings—and they’re all going to be proposed or adopted in October! (Ok, admittedly, that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one.) Here is the short-term agenda and here is the long-term agenda. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the “U.S. is blessed with the largest, most sophisticated, and most innovative capital markets in the world….But we cannot take that for granted. As SEC alum Robert Birnbaum and his team said decades ago, ‘no regulation can be static in a dynamic society.’ That core idea still rings true today.” Gensler’s public policy goals for the agenda are “continuing to drive efficiency in our capital markets and modernizing our rules for today’s economy and technologies.” As with recent prior agendas, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce has almost no kind words for the agency’s plans—“flawed goals and a flawed method for achieving them.” In fact, she went so far as to characterize the agenda as “dangerous”: in her view, the agenda represents “the regulatory version of a rip current—fast-moving currents flowing away from shore that can be fatal to swimmers. Just as certain wave and wind conditions can create dangerous rip currents, the pace and character of the rulemakings on this agenda make for dangerous conditions in our capital markets.” There’s no dispute that the agenda is laden with major proposals—human capital, SPACs, board diversity. What’s more, many of these proposals—climate disclosure, cybersecurity, Rule 10b5-1—are apparently at the final rule stage. Whether or not we’ll see a load of public companies submerged by the rip tide of rulemakings remains to be seen, but there’s not much question that implementing them all would certainly be a challenge in any case.
Is it Groundhog Day? SEC reopens comment period for clawback proposal
Yesterday, the SEC announced that it is reopening the comment period for its 2015 proposal for listing standards for recovery of erroneously awarded compensation. Wait—didn’t they just do that? Yes, in October 2021. (See this PubCo post.) But no, that’s not Sonny and Cher on the radio. The SEC has decided to reopen the comment period AGAIN to allow further public comment in light of a new, just released DERA staff memorandum containing “additional analysis and data on compensation recovery policies and accounting restatements.” The new comment period will be open until 30 days after publication of the reopening notice in the Federal Register.
SEC reopens comment period for 2015 pay-versus-performance proposal
It’s been almost 12 years since Dodd-Frank mandated, in Section 953(a), so-called pay-versus-performance disclosure, but amazingly, no rules have yet been adopted to implement that mandate. Even more amazing, the SEC is still working on it. As expected, on Thursday last week, the SEC announced that it had reopened the comment period on rules, originally proposed in 2015, that would require disclosure of information reflecting the relationship between executive compensation actually paid by a company and the company’s financial performance. The reopening of the proposal is due in part “to certain developments since 2015 when the proposing release was issued,” particularly, “developments in executive compensation practices.” Here is the SEC’s original proposing release, fact sheet and the proposal reopening the comment period. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler in his statement on the reopening of the proposal, “this proposed rule would strengthen the transparency and quality of executive compensation disclosure….The Commission has long recognized the value of information on executive compensation to investors.” The questions posed by the SEC in the notice (discussed below) give us some insight into where the SEC may be headed with the proposal. In particular, as noted by Gensler, the 2015 proposal “relied upon total shareholder return as the sole measure of financial performance. Some commenters expressed concerns that total shareholder return would provide an incomplete picture of performance. In this reopening release, we are considering whether additional performance metrics would better reflect Congress’s intention in the Dodd-Frank Act and would provide shareholders with information they need to evaluate a company’s executive compensation policies.” The public comment period will be open for 30 days following publication of the release in the Federal Register.
What’s happening with the SEC’s key agenda items?
Although there is an SEC open meeting scheduled for this week, the commissioners won’t be taking up any proposals from Corp Fin at that meeting (see the agenda). That’s a little puzzling given that the SEC’s agenda for Corp Fin was near to bursting, especially for highly anticipated disclosure proposals on climate and human capital, among other things. Those two topics, for example, had appeared on the two most recent SEC reg-flex agendas with proposal target dates of October 2021, then delayed to December 2021, with expectations later vaguely conveyed for January 2022, unlikely now to be met. [UPDATE: At the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Annual Securities Regulation Institute on Tuesday, Corp Fin Director Renee Jones indicated that said that they expect to have a proposal on climate disclosure before the SEC this quarter.] However, according to Bloomberg, the SEC does have Corp Fin-related plans for this week: to reopen the public comment period on the 2015 pay-versus-performance proposal “after a vote taken behind closed doors.”
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