Category: Securities

State legislation targets company policies on ESG—how will it affect the corporate balancing act?

Over the past several years of political discord, many CEOs have felt the need to voice their views on important political, environmental and social issues. For example, after the murder of George Floyd and resulting national protests, many of the country’s largest corporations expressed solidarity and pledged support for racial justice. After January 6, a number of companies announced that their corporate PACs had suspended—temporarily or permanently—their contributions to one or both political parties or to lawmakers who objected to certification of the presidential election.  Historically, companies have faced reputational risk for taking—or not taking—positions on some political, environmental or social issues, which can certainly impair a company’s social capital and, in some cases, its performance.  These types of risks can be more nebulous and unpredictable than traditional operating or financial risks—and the extent of potential damage may be more difficult to gauge. As if it weren’t hard enough for companies to figure out whether and how to respond to social crises, now, another potent ingredient has been stirred into the mix: the actions of state and local governments—wielding the levers of government—to enact legislation or take executive action that targets companies that express public positions on sociopolitical issues or conduct their businesses in a manner disfavored by the government in power.  As described by Bloomberg, 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 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. How will these legislative trends affect the difficult corporate balancing act?

SEC approves new PCAOB requirements for lead auditor’s use of other auditors

At the end of last week, the SEC approved the PCAOB’s updated standards for audits that involve multiple auditing firms. SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that the amended standards “will strengthen the requirements for lead auditors who supervise other auditors in an audit, helping to enhance audit quality and protect investors.”  Why were these updates necessary? According to Gensler, the globalization and increasing complexity of public company operations has meant that auditors must increasingly “rely on other auditors—working across different firms, countries, and even languages—in completing an audit. Last year,” he said, “26 percent of all issuer audit engagements used multiple auditors, and more than half of large accelerated filer audits used multiple auditors. Given the challenges that such multi-firm audits present, it is important that there be robust standards for how lead auditors supervise, communicate with, and coordinate with other auditors on the audit engagement.”  Gensler noted that the updates enhance the standards “across two broad areas. First, the amended standards specify certain procedures for lead auditors to perform when supervising other auditors. Second, they require lead auditors to prioritize their supervisory activities around higher-risk areas in the audit.”  PCAOB Chair Erica Williams observed that companies “continue to increase their global presence. As a result, the use of other auditors has become more prevalent in the conduct of an audit, which can create additional challenges for the lead auditor. Adding other auditors into the process requires careful consideration and clear communications between all auditors involved in the audit. And when miscommunication occurs or when there are misunderstandings about the nature, timing, and extent of the other auditor’s procedures, audit quality will likely suffer.” It’s worth noting that some aspects of the new amendments will affect communications with the audit committee. The amendments will be effective for audits of financial statements for fiscal years ending on or after December 15, 2024.

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.

What’s wrong with ESG ratings?

About a year ago, the Brookings Institution held a panel discussion regarding the role that the SEC should play in ESG investing and invited SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce to speak at the panel. It’s well known, of course, that she is not exactly a fangirl of ESG in any of its manifestations, and she came prepared to engage, armed with a voluminous speech consisting of 10 theses, footnoted to the hilt. One of her theses was that figuring out what “good” means in the context of ESG is very subjective—that’s why, she said, there’s a lot of debate over best ESG practices and that’s especially why ESG ratings firms are so inconsistent in their results. (See this PubCo post.) There may be even more to it than that.  This new paper, ESG ratings—a compass without direction, from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, looks at ESG ratings and examines issues about their reliability. The authors conclude that, “while ESG ratings providers may convey important insights into the nonfinancial impact of companies, significant shortcomings exist in their objectives, methodologies, and incentives which detract from the informativeness of their assessments.” 

More prescriptive proposals, less support for 2022 proxy season

This proxy season, companies saw more shareholder proposals than in the past, a change that has been widely attributed to actions by the SEC and its Division of Corporation Finance that had the effect of making exclusion of shareholder proposals—particularly proposals related to environmental and social issues—more of a challenge for companies. As discussed in this article in the WSJ, investors are taking the opportunity to press for more changes at companies. Nevertheless, the prescriptive nature of many of the proposals, especially climate-related proposals, has prompted many shareholders, including major asset managers, to vote against these proposals. Will next season reflect lessons learned by shareholder proponents from this proxy season?

More financial information about human capital? FASB looks to require disaggregation of expenses on the income statement

In June, the Working Group on Human Capital Accounting Disclosure, a group of ten academics that includes former SEC Commissioners Joe Grundfest and Robert Jackson, Jr. and former SEC general counsel, John Coates, submitted a rulemaking petition requesting that the SEC require more disclosure of financial information about human capital. According to the petition, there has been “an explosion” of companies “that generate value due to the knowledge, skills, competencies, and attributes of their workforce. Yet, despite the value generated by employees, U.S. accounting principles provide virtually no information on firm labor.” (See this PubCo post.) The Group may be about to have its wishes granted—at least in part—but not by the SEC. Rather, the FASB is hard at work on a project to disaggregate income statement expenses, and high on all of the FASB board members’ lists was the need to separately disclose labor costs/employee compensation. Of course, as reported by Bloomberg (here and here), there has been a push for disaggregation of expenses on the income statement since at least 2016, but in 2019, the FASB voted (5 to 2) “to put its once-high priority financial reporting project on pause.” It’s been quite a lengthy pause, but, in February 2022—perhaps hearing the call from investors and others—the FASB decided to restart work on the project to “improve the decision usefulness of business entities’ income statements through the disaggregation of certain expense captions.” It seemed from the FASB Board discussion that the Board members were favorably inclined to proceed with a disaggregation requirement—especially with respect to labor costs.

SOX at 20! Happy birthday SOX!

SEC Chair Gary Gensler may just have some paternal affection for SOX, especially on the week of its 20th birthday.   In these remarks to the Center for Audit Quality,  he recalls having “a front-row seat” for the negotiations and signing of the bill, working as Senior Advisor to the late Senator Paul Sarbanes on this legislation. The bill passed the House almost unanimously and the Senate by a vote of 99 to 0—hard to imagine that ever happened, let alone only 20 years ago.  In giving SOX its 20-year review, he discusses the significant role SOX played in restoring public trust in the financial system after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, but also offers some, let’s say, opportunities for improvement. (He also drops the hint that the SEC may be taking a “fresh look at the SEC’s auditor independence rules.”)

How are boards addressing sustainability?

With regulators in the U.S. and around the world looking hard at the possibility of imposing sustainability disclosure requirements, and investors and other stakeholders continuing to focus on sustainability in their engagements with companies—according to a PwC survey, “ESG is the topic investors most want to discuss during engagements with shareholders”—one question that arises is just what corporate boards are doing to deal with sustainability—what are their attitudes and commitments? Are they even prepared to address sustainability issues? In an article reporting on a 2022 survey by consulting firm Russell Reynolds (published on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance), the firm tried to answer these questions. One conclusion from the survey: “Rather than having a sole ‘ESG director’ or ‘sustainability director,’ expectations are increasing for the entire board to bring a minimum level of sustainability awareness—if not expertise—to their work, using it to identify both risks and new opportunities for value creation.”

FASB plans to require supply chain financing disclosure beginning next year

For several years, the SEC staff and advisory committees, credit rating agencies, investors, the Big Four accounting firms and other interested parties have been making noise about a popular financing technique called “supply chain financing.” It can be a perfectly useful financing tool in the right hands—companies with healthy balance sheets. But it can also disguise shaky credit situations and allow companies to go deeper into debt, often unbeknownst to investors and analysts, with sometimes disastrous ends. Currently, there are no explicit GAAP disclosure requirements to provide transparency about a company’s use of supply chain financing. That may be why Bloomberg has referred to supply chain financing as “hidden debt.” In December, the FASB announced that it had issued a proposed Accounting Standards Update intended to help investors and others “better consider the effect of supplier finance programs on a buyer’s working capital, liquidity, and cash flows.” The proposed ASU would require the buyer in a supply chain financing program to “disclose sufficient information about the program to allow an investor to understand the program’s nature, activity during the period, changes from period to period, and potential magnitude.” On Wednesday, the FASB finalized the details of the plan and gave the go-ahead to draft the new ASU (which is expected to be available later this year). The new ASU would apply to both public and private companies. Although the final ASU has not yet been issued and is still subject to a final ballot, companies with supply chain financing programs may want to take note of this anticipated new requirement now. According to Bloomberg, there “will be a shorter turnaround than usual for complying with new FASB requirements”; compliance will be required retrospectively for fiscal years beginning after December 15, 2022, i.e., the first quarter of 2023.

SEC cuts key provisions of proxy advisor regulations

[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect the contents of the proposing release.]

At an open meeting last week, the SEC voted, three to two, to adopt new amendments to the rules regarding proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis—which the SEC refers to as proxy voting advice businesses, or “PVABs”—terms that the commissioners seemed to think…hmmm… needed some work. The amendments to the PVAB rules reverse some of the key provisions governing proxy voting advice that were adopted in July 2020 (referred to as the 2020 Final Rules). Those rules had codified the SEC’s interpretation that made proxy voting advice subject to the proxy solicitation rules, but added to the exemptions from those solicitation rules two significant new conditions—one requiring disclosure of conflicts of interest and the second designed to facilitate effective engagement between PVABs and the companies that are the subjects of their advice. (See this PubCo post.) Under the new final amendments as adopted last week, proxy voting advice will still be considered a “solicitation” under the proxy rules and proxy advisory firms will still be subject to the requirement to disclose conflicts of interest; however, the new amendments rescind that second central condition designed to facilitate engagement—which some might characterize as a core element, if not the core element, of the 2020 amendments. The amendments also rescind a note to Rule 14a-9, also adopted as part of the 2020 Final Rules, which provided examples of situations in which the failure to disclose certain information in proxy voting advice may be considered misleading. According to the press release, institutional investors and other clients of proxy advisory firms had “continued to express concerns that these conditions could impose increased compliance costs on proxy voting advice businesses and impair the independence and timeliness of their proxy voting advice.” In his statement, SEC Chair Gary Gensler observed that many investors expressed concerns that “certain conditions in the 2020 rule might restrain independent proxy voting advice. Given those concerns, we have revisited certain conditions and determined that the risks they impose to the independence and timeliness of proxy voting advice are not justified by their informational benefits.”