In 2016 and early 2017, the SEC made a big push—through a series of staff oral admonitions and written guidance, as well as an enforcement action—to require issuers to be more transparent and more consistent in the use of non-GAAP financial measures and to avoid altogether non-GAAP measures that were misleading. In May 2016, the Corp Fin chief accountant, as reported in CFO.com, cautioned companies in neon lights that, with regard to non-GAAP financial measures, “[f]or lack of a better way to say it, we are going to crack down.” (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) By early 2017, the SEC staff were apparently sufficiently satisfied (see this PubCo post) with the responses to their campaign that the pendulum swung back, and the relentless finger-wagging by the staff about non-GAAP financial measures appeared to have tailed off. (See this PubCo post.) And, according to this analysis from Audit Analytics, in 2018, SEC staff comments regarding non-GAAP financial measures actually began to decline. But, MarketWatch has reported, with the onset of COVID-19, there seems to have been something of a resurgence in the use of non-GAAP measures. Will we see another crackdown?
As reported by Bloomberg, Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates told a webinar audience that mandatory ESG disclosures were “overdue,” and that the SEC was moving quickly on related rulemaking. In the webinar, sponsored by NYU’s Institute of Accounting Research and the Institute for Corporate Governance & Finance, Coates said that he expects the SEC to soon be in a position to review and consider staff proposals for mandatory prescriptive rules on ESG addressing both general and industry-specific requirements. These actions are expected to be the SEC’s most significant action on climate since the 2010 guidance. (See this PubCo post.)
The outside pressure has been on. As reported by Bloomberg, “[e]nvironmental advocates in cities including New York, Miami, San Francisco, London and Zurich targeted BlackRock for a wave of protests in mid-April, holding up images of giant eyeballs to signal that ‘all eyes’ were on BlackRock’s voting decisions.” Of course, protests outside of the company’s offices by climate activists are nothing new. But why this pressure on BlackRock? BlackRock and its CEO, Laurence Fink, have played an outsized role in promoting corporate sustainability and social responsibility, announcing, in 2020, a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” (See this PubCo post.) Yet, BlackRock has historically conducted extensive engagement with companies and, in the end, voted with management much more often than activists preferred; for example, in the first quarter of 2020, the company supported less than 10% of environmental and social shareholder proposals and opposed three environmental proposals. As a result, as reflected in press reports like this one in the NYT, activists have reacted to the appearance of stark inconsistencies between the company’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record. Even a group of Democratic Senators highlighted that inconsistency in this October 2020 letter, characterizing the company’s voting record on climate issues as “troubling and inconsistent.” But that impression may be about to change. In an interview with Reuters, BlackRock’s global head of investment stewardship since 2020 revealed that the company is “‘accelerating the pace of our stewardship activities; resulting in more engagement and more voting, reflecting heightened expectations, which … are just a function of the urgency of some of the issues.’” Indeed, in the first quarter of 2021, BlackRock supported 12 of 16 environmental and social shareholder proposals.
In February, then-Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee directed the staff of Corp Fin, in connection with the disclosure review process, to “enhance its focus on climate-related disclosure in public company filings,” starting with the extent to which public companies address the topics identified in the interpretive guidance the staff issued regarding climate change in 2010. (See this PubCo post.) In March, the SEC announced the creation of a new Climate and ESG Task Force in the Division of Enforcement. (See this PubCo post.) How else does this new ESG focus play out? On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported, Lindsay McCord, Corp Fin Chief Accountant, in remarks to the Baruch College spring financial reporting conference, said that the SEC staff are also “scrutinizing how public companies account for climate-related risks and impacts to their business based on existing accounting rules.” So, in addition to refreshing their understandings of the 2010 guidance, companies will also need to take a hard look at the how environmental issues could affect their financials.
On Monday, the SEC announced settled charges against Under Armour, Inc., a manufacturer of sports apparel, for misleading investors by failing to disclose material information about its “revenue management practices.” According to the Order, Under Armour had established a reputation for consistent revenue growth that exceeded analysts’ consensus estimates. But when internal forecasts began to indicate that it would miss those estimates, the company sought to close the gap by accelerating—“pulling forward”—existing orders that had been scheduled by customers for future quarters. Although this practice continued for six quarters, the SEC charged, the company failed to disclose this pull-forward practice as a driver of its revenue growth nor did it disclose the “known uncertainty” that this practice created with regard to revenues in future quarters. It’s worth noting that the SEC’s charges related solely to disclosure failures; the Order expressly indicated that the SEC did “not make any findings that revenue from these sales was not recorded in accordance with [GAAP].” Under Armour agreed to pay $9 million to settle the action.
When, in August 2020, the SEC considered adopting a new requirement to discuss human capital as part of an overhaul of Regulation S-K, the debate centered largely on principles-based versus prescriptive regulation—a debate that continues to this day. In that instance, notwithstanding a rulemaking petition and clamor from numerous institutional and other investors for transparency regarding workforce composition, health and safety, living wages and other specifics, the “principles-based” team carried the day; the SEC limited the requirement to a “description of the registrant’s human capital resources, including the number of persons employed by the registrant, and any human capital measures or objectives that the registrant focuses on in managing the business (such as, depending on the nature of the registrant’s business and workforce, measures or objectives that address the development, attraction and retention of personnel).” What was the result? In this new Human Capital Disclosure Report: Learning on the Job, Intelligize took a look at how companies responded to the new disclosure mandate. Its conclusion: most companies made a “sincere effort to fulfill the scantly defined disclosure obligation”; nevertheless, the report contends, companies “capitalized on the fact that the new rule does not call for specific metrics,” as “[r]elatively few issuers provided meaningful numbers about their human capital, even when they had those numbers at hand.”
Reuters is reporting—exclusively—that the SEC is contemplating issuing more guidance that would “rein in growth projections” made by listed SPACs and clarify when the PSLRA would be available to protect SPAC projections, “according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.” According to Reuters, the SEC guidance “would escalate its crackdown on the deal frenzy” in SPACs and could exacerbate the slowdown that has already occurred in reaction to the SEC’s previous guidance on SPAC warrants. For 2021 so far, Reuters, citing data from Dealogic, reported the value of de-SPAC transactions at a record $263 billion; however, SPACs raised only $2.5 billion during the first 20 days of April compared to $17 billion raised during the first 20 days of January.
You might recall that the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act added Section 13(r) to the Exchange Act, which requires public reporting companies that knowingly engaged (directly or through affiliates) in certain transactions or dealings with Iran to report those transactions or dealings in their periodic reports and through separate filings with the SEC. But some sections of the statute are not necessarily limited to Iran. In fact, following the imposition on Russia of sanctions by the State Department in March, those disclosure and filing requirements could apply to dealings with certain Russian agencies and persons.
Board diversity and how (and whether) to try to achieve it is a topic that has certainly appeared on a lot of corporate governance agendas in the last few years. Institutional investors have applied pressure on corporations, shareholders have submitted precatory proposals for shareholder votes, investment banks have insisted on diverse boards as preconditions for taking companies public, and California and a number of other states have adopted legislation, whether it be a board diversity mandate, a soft target or simply a disclosure requirement. Most recently, Nasdaq filed with the SEC a proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure, adopting a comply-or-explain approach. According to Nasdaq’s President and CEO, Adena Friedman, “Nasdaq’s purpose is to champion inclusive growth and prosperity to power stronger economies….Our goal with this proposal is to provide a transparent framework for Nasdaq-listed companies to present their board composition and diversity philosophy effectively to all stakeholders; we believe this listing rule is one step in a broader journey to achieve inclusive representation across corporate America.” Interestingly, however, the NYSE has not followed suit. In fact, in an interview on Bloomberg TV in December, NYSE President Stacey Cunningham said, when asked about the Nasdaq proposal, that it was not something that they were considering adopting at the NYSE: “When we use exchange listing standards to require things like diversity profiles or others, we’re defining the investable universe…. We just don’t think we should be using our listing standards because that forces our views on investors and prevents them from being able to make the choices that they want to make and that they are making.” In contrast to the SEC, whose remit is largely disclosure, the exchanges regularly impose corporate governance requirements. Should board diversity be one of them?
It’s widely anticipated that we’ll soon be seeing more action from the SEC on sustainability disclosure, including possibly a prescriptive ESG framework that draws on some global metrics. (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) Trying to head those prescriptive ESG metrics off at the pass is Commissioner Hester Peirce—yes, she who once described “ESG” as standing for “enabling shareholder graft”—in her statement, Rethinking Global ESG Metrics. With Gary Gensler now sworn in as SEC Chair, the revised composition of the SEC does not bode well for Peirce’s mission. Peirce concludes her statement with the admonition, “[l]et us rethink the path we are taking before it is too late.” But has the train already left that station?