Once again, a “control failure” is a lever used by SEC Enforcement to bring charges against a company, this time for failure to timely disclose a cybersecurity vulnerability. Yesterday, the SEC announced settled charges against a real estate settlement services company, First American Financial Corporation, for violation of the requirement to maintain adequate disclosure controls and procedures “related to a cybersecurity vulnerability that exposed sensitive customer information.” This action follows charges regarding control violations against GE (see this PubCo post), HP, Inc. (see this PubCo post) and Andeavor (see this PubCo post) where, instead of attempting to make a case about funny accounting or, in Andeavor, a defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted to make its point by, among other things, charging failure to maintain and comply with internal accounting controls or disclosure controls and procedures. Companies may want to take note that charges related to violations of the rules regarding internal controls and disclosure controls seem to be increasingly part of the SEC’s Enforcement playbook, making it worthwhile for companies to make sure that their controls are in good working order. Perhaps we should pirate the Matt Levine mantra, “everything is securities fraud” (see this PubCo post): how ’bout “everything is also a control failure”?
Even the SEC’s new Reg Flex Agenda (which reflect the priorities of the SEC Chair) has now elicited a “dissent” from the two SEC Commissioners on the other side of the political aisle. In this statement, posted yesterday, Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman lambast the new Spring 2021 Agenda for “the regrettable decision to spend our scarce resources to undo a number of rules the Commission just adopted.” While the Agenda contains several “important and timely items”—which they identify as rules related to transfer agents and government securities alternative trading systems—the absence of other items was notable, including important rulemakings that would “provide clarity for digital assets, allow companies to compensate gig workers with equity, and revisit proxy plumbing.” (Of course, two of those rulemakings were not entirely absent, but have instead been moved to the long-term agenda. See this PubCo post.) Perhaps, they suggest, too much attention to undoing existing rules rather than creating new ones?
Today, the SEC announced that Renee Jones has been appointed as the new Director of Corp Fin, replacing Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates, who will become SEC General Counsel. Both appointments are effective June 21, 2021.
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.
How often does this happen? SEC Commissioners Allison Lee (D) and Elad Roisman (R) on the same page? Ok, well, maybe they’re just on the same fragment of a sentence, but still…. Bloomberg is reporting that, at the WSJ’s CFO Network Summit, Lee expressed her view that companies’ compliance with any new SEC disclosure requirements on ESG should not be subject to “gotcha” enforcement, instead indicating that companies will be cut plenty of slack in experimenting with any new ESG rules that the SEC may adopt. She also offered several suggestions that, interestingly, were quite consistent with suggestions made last week by Roisman to mitigate the cost of compliance.
Not only does he want to “freshen up” Rule 10b5-1 (see this PubCo post), SEC Chair Gary Gensler has the same prescription for the rules governing the equity markets. In remarks yesterday at the Global Exchange and FinTech Conference, Gensler observed that “technology has changed how market makers interact, how trading platforms compete, how investors access those markets, and the economic incentives amongst these various market participants.” For example, a few years ago, retail investors weren’t even trading on commission-free brokerage apps. But the rules governing markets were “mostly adopted 16 years ago” and “do not fully reflect today’s technology.” Gensler believes that “it’s appropriate to look at ways to freshen up the SEC’s rules to ensure that our equity markets reflect our mission: to maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, while ensuring we protect investors and facilitate capital formation.” Gensler focused his remarks on segmentation and concentration in the equity markets, as well as two fairly recent developments: the rise of payment for order flow (and the related issue of best execution) and gamification. This is clearly an area in Gensler’s sweet spot—having conducted research and taught classes on the intersection of finance and technology—and his remarks were of interest even for those of us who do not typically focus on market structure issues.
Yesterday, in remarks before the WSJ’s CFO Network Summit, SEC Chair Gary Gensler scooped the Summit with news of plans to address issues he and others have identified in Rule 10b5-1 plans. Problems with 10b5-1 plans have long been recognized—including by former SEC Chair Jay Clayton—so it will be interesting to see if any proposal that emerges will find support among the Commissioners on both sides of the SEC’s aisle. In an interview, Gensler also responded to questions about climate disclosure rules, removal of the PCAOB Chair, Enforcement, SPACs and other matters.
On Friday, the SEC announced that it had “removed” William D. Duhnke III from the PCAOB and designated Duane M. DesParte to serve as Acting Chair, effective Friday. Duhnke has been serving as Chair since January 2018. The SEC also announced that it intends to seek candidates to fill all five board positions on the PCAOB. In the press release, SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that the “PCAOB has an opportunity to live up to Congress’s vision in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act….I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners, Acting Chair DesParte, and the staff of the PCAOB to set it on a path to better protect investors by ensuring that public company audits are informative, accurate, and independent.” What’s it all about?
In remarks yesterday before the ESG Board Forum, Putting the Electric Cart before the Horse: Addressing Inevitable Costs of a New ESG Disclosure Regime, SEC Commissioner Elad Roisman weighed in with his views on mandatory prescriptive ESG requirements and the likely associated costs. As he has indicated before, he’s not really keen on the idea, particularly the environmental and social components of potential requirements. As a general matter, while investors want to see comparable standardized environmental data, in his view, standardization of that type of information is really hard to do; some of it “is inherently imprecise, relies on underlying assumptions that continually evolve, and can be reasonably calculated in different ways. And ultimately, unless this information can meaningfully inform an investment decision, it is at best not useful and at worst misleading.” But, if a new regulatory regime requiring ESG disclosure is adopted—and it certainly looks that way— he has some ideas for ways to make it less costly for companies to comply.
Whether and how to regulate proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis, has long been a contentious issue, with some arguing that their vote recommendations were plagued by conflicts of interest and often erroneous, while others saw no reason for regulation given that the clients of these firms were satisfied with their services. In September 2019, the SEC published in the Federal Register a new interpretation and guidance directed at proxy advisory firms confirming that their vote recommendations were considered to be “solicitations” under the proxy rules and subject to the anti-fraud provisions, and providing some “suggestions” about disclosures that would help avoid liability. (See this PubCo post.) In July 2020, the SEC adopted new amendments to the proxy rules regarding proxy advisory firms, codifying the SEC’s interpretation that made proxy voting advice subject to the proxy solicitation rules. In addition, the SEC adopted two new conditions to the exemptions from those rules for proxy advisory firms, which required disclosure of conflicts of interest and adoption of principles-based policies to make proxy voting advice available to the subject companies and to notify clients of company responses. Compliance with the new conditions was not required prior to December 1, 2021. (See this PubCo post). Yesterday, SEC Chair Gary Gensler directed the staff to consider whether to recommend further regulatory action regarding proxy voting advice. In his statement, Gensler highlighted his direction that the staff consider “whether to recommend that the Commission revisit its 2020 codification of the definition of solicitation as encompassing proxy voting advice, the 2019 Interpretation and Guidance regarding that definition, and the conditions on exemptions from the information and filing requirements in the 2020 Rule Amendments, among other matters.” As a result, Corp Fin issued a Statement indicating that “it will not recommend enforcement action to the Commission based on the 2019 Interpretation and Guidance or the 2020 Rule Amendments during the period in which the Commission is considering further regulatory action in this area.” What approach will the SEC now take to proxy advisory firm regulation?