It’s time to dig back into your mental archives for 2015. That’s when the SEC, by a vote of three to two, initially proposed rules to implement Section 954 of Dodd-Frank, the clawback provision. But the proposal was relegated to the SEC’s long-term agenda and never heard from again. Until, that is, the topic found a spot on the SEC’s short-term agenda this spring (see this PubCo post) with a target date for a re-proposal of April 2022. The SEC had scheduled an open meeting for Wednesday to consider re-opening the comment period, but instead cancelled the meeting and, on Thursday, simply posted a notice. Here is the original 2015 Proposing Release and here is the new fact sheet. SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that, with re-opening of the comment period, he believed “we have an opportunity to strengthen the transparency and quality of corporate financial statements as well as the accountability of corporate executives to their 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. It’s worth noting that one possible change suggested by the questions is a potential expansion of the concept of “restatement” to include not only “reissuance” restatements (which involve a material error and an 8-K), but also “revision” restatements (or some version thereof). The public comment period will remain open for 30 days following publication of the release in the Federal Register.
ISS has just released the results of its 2021 global benchmark policy survey, which, this year, actually comprises two surveys—one related to a broad array of policies and the other specifically addressing climate change. Along with issues related to executive pay and governance, the broad survey also addressed issues such as non-financial ESG performance metrics in executive compensation, racial equity audits and virtual-only shareholder meetings. The climate survey solicited views on topics such as board oversight of climate risks, say-on-climate proposals and other issues relevant to ISS’ climate voting policy.
Alliance Advisors has just released its 2021 proxy season review, a season they characterize as “dynamic,” as investors stepped forward to express their views on a variety of environmental and social topics. At least 34 E&S shareholder proposals won majority support, compared to 21 proposals last year. And over a dozen shareholder proposals on diversity, climate change and political spending won with votes in excess of 80%. There were also some new entries among the shareholder proposals—such as requests for racial audits, access to COVID-19 medicines and say on climate—that received support averaging around 30%, a level that Alliance characterizes as “remarkably” good for first timers. Alliance acknowledges that these results did not come entirely out of the blue, as large asset managers such as BlackRock and Vanguard had previously signaled that they might take steps this season to more closely align their proxy voting records with their advocacy positions.
On Monday, in a keynote address before the Society for Corporate Governance 2021 National Conference, SEC Commissioner Allison Herren Lee discussed the challenges boards face in oversight of ESG matters, including “climate change, racial injustice, economic inequality, and numerous other issues that are fundamental to the success and sustainability of companies, financial markets, and our economy.” Shareholders, employees, customers and other stakeholders are now all looking to corporations to adopt policies that “support growth and address the environmental and social impacts these companies have.” Why is that? Because actions or inactions by our largest corporations can have a tremendous impact. According to Lee, a 2018 study showed that, of the top 100 revenue generators across the globe, only 29 were countries—the rest were corporations, that is, corporations “often operate on a level or higher economic footing than some of the largest governments in the world.”
Late Friday, the SEC announced that its Spring 2021 Regulatory Flexibility Agenda—both short-term and long-term—has now been posted. And it’s a doozy. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, to meet the SEC’s “mission of protecting investors, maintaining fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitating capital formation, the SEC has a lot of regulatory work ahead of us.” That’s certainly an understatement. While former SEC Chair Jay Clayton considered the short-term agenda to signify rulemakings that the SEC actually planned to pursue in the following 12 months, Gensler may be operating under a different clock. What stands out here are plans for disclosure on climate and human capital (including diversity), cybersecurity risk disclosure, Rule 10b5-1, universal proxy and SPACs. In addition, with a new sheriff in town, some of the SEC’s more recent controversial rulemakings of the last year or so may be revisited, such as Rule 14a-8. The agenda also identifies a few topics that are still just at the pre-rule stage—i.e., just a twinkle in someone’s eye—such as gamification (behavioral prompts, predictive analytics and differential marketing) and exempt offerings (updating the financial thresholds in the accredited investor definition and amendments to the integration framework). Notably, political spending disclosure is not expressly identified on the agenda, nor is there a reference to a comprehensive ESG disclosure framework (see this PubCo post). Below is a selection from the agenda.
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.”
In BlackRock Investment Stewardship’s recent commentary, BIS observed that ESG-related metrics have increasingly been incorporated as performance measures in companies’ incentive plans. BIS cited a recent study from the GECN Group, which showed that 67% of companies in the study used ESG measures (but only 56% in the U.S. alone) and that COVID-19 had accelerated the incorporation of ESG factors into incentive plans. Importantly, however, BIS cautioned that, to the extent that companies included sustainability metrics in their incentive plans, they should “be material and aligned with a company’s long-term strategy. It is important that companies using sustainability performance metrics explain carefully the connection between what is being measured and rewarded alongside business goals and long-term performance. Failure to do so may leave companies vulnerable to reputational risks and undermine their sustainability efforts.” How do companies determine which sustainability objectives are most material for them, and how do they transform those goals into measures for purposes of incentive compensation? This new article from consultant Semler Brossy offers some advice. What is the overarching message? “Move carefully, but move.”
The term-end crunch continues! Yesterday, the SEC voted, without an open meeting, to issue two separate proposals to amend Rule 701 and Form S-8, both “substantially informed by public comment” received in response to the SEC’s July 2018 Concept Release on Compensatory Security Offerings and Sales. First, the SEC is proposing new amendments, on a temporary five-year trial basis, that would allow a company to provide equity compensation to a slice of “gig” workers—specifically only “platform workers” who provide services through the company’s technology-based platform—subject to percentage limits (no more than 15% of annual compensation), dollar limits (no more than $75,000 in three years) and other conditions. The proposal is structured as temporary to allow the SEC an opportunity to assess whether issuances are being made for legitimate compensatory purposes and not for capital-raising purposes, whether the issuances benefit companies, platform workers and other investors in the “gig economy,” and whether there are any unintended consequences. To help with that assessment, looking toward an evaluation of whether to make the rule permanent, the SEC will require participating companies to furnish certain information to the SEC at six-month intervals. Second, the SEC is also proposing amendments to Rule 701 and Form S-8 designed to modernize the framework for compensatory securities offerings in light of the significant evolution in compensatory offerings and composition of the workforce since the SEC last substantively amended those regulations. Both proposals will be open for public comment for 60 days.
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!
According to Protiviti, in 2019, 90% of companies in the S&P 500 issued separate sustainability reports—not part of SEC filings—and, as of February 2020, over 1,000 companies with an aggregate market cap of $12 trillion have endorsed the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations for sustainability disclosure (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). Similarly, use of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) framework has increased by 180% over the last two years (see this PubCo post). With this heightened focus on sustainability, how can boards best oversee ESG? To that end, in this article, consultant Protiviti offers ten questions about ESG reporting that boards should consider with their management teams.