Corp Fin staff updates guidance regarding presentation of shareholder proposals in light of COVID-19
On Friday, the Corp Fin staff announced that it has updated its Guidance for Conducting Shareholder Meetings in Light of COVID-19 Concerns originally published on March 13, 2020 and updated on April 7, 2020 (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). The updated guidance posted on Friday tweaks the advice related to presentation of shareholder proposals, extending its application to the 2021 proxy season.
As has been widely reported, there has been a phenomenal increase in the volume of SPAC transactions as an alternative approach to becoming a public company. According to Bloomberg, around “300 SPACs launched on U.S. exchanges in the first quarter, raising almost $100 billion. That total was more than all of last year.” In this statement, Corp Fin Acting Director John Coates discusses liability risks potentially arising out of SPAC and de-SPAC transactions, that is, the transactions in which a private operating company undertakes a business combination with a SPAC, ultimately becoming a public operating company. The essence of his message is: why should a SPAC be treated differently from a traditional IPO?
In December 2020, the NYSE proposed to relax the requirements for shareholder approval of related-party equity issuances and bring them into closer alignment with the comparable Nasdaq rules by amending Sections 312.03, 312.04 and 314.00 of the NYSE Listed Company Manual. The amendments were intended to provide more flexibility to raise capital and included modifications that were similar to the temporary waiver in effect during the COVID-19 crisis. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) In observing the impact of that temporary waiver at that time, the NYSE indicated that it had seen “that a significant number of companies have benefited from the flexibility provided by the waiver and has not observed any significant problems associated with companies’ completion of transactions permitted by the waiver.” (For a description of the original proposal, see this PubCo post.) The NYSE subsequently amended the proposal, and the SEC has just approved the proposal, as amended, on an accelerated basis.
According to the staff of the SEC’s Office of the Chief Accountant, in “just the first two months of 2021, both the number of new SPACs and amount of capital raised by those SPACs have been reported to already match approximately three-fourths of all such activity last year.” And there was quite a bit of SPAC activity last year. In light of the incredible volume of SPAC deals, on Wednesday, the staffs of Corp Fin and the OCA issued special guidance for SPACs. These statements address shell company, financial reporting, accounting, internal control, governance and auditor considerations in connection with a de-SPAC transaction, that is, a transaction in which a private operating company undertakes a business combination with a SPAC, ultimately becoming a public operating company. Both staffs seem to question whether the timing and other circumstances of de-SPAC transactions mean that the private operating company targets may not be fully equipped for what comes next and want stakeholders to carefully consider whether each of these private targets, in the words of OCA, has “a clear, comprehensive plan to be prepared to be a public company.” Corp Fin also wants all those who are clamoring for SPACs to be aware of all restrictions, impediments and other potential hiccups that come with the package. Could they possibly be trying to put the kibosh on SPAC fever? According to Reuters, analysts think the SEC is “worried about how much due diligence is performed by SPACs before acquiring assets, and about disclosures to investors.”
A new piece in the NYT, “Corporations, Vocal About Racial Justice, Go Quiet on Voting Rights,” starts off this way: “As Black Lives Matter protesters filled the streets last summer, many of the country’s largest corporations expressed solidarity and pledged support for racial justice. But now, with lawmakers around the country advancing restrictive voting rights bills that would have a disproportionate impact on Black voters, corporate America has gone quiet.” The author is talking about new voting laws just passed in Georgia and the reluctance, with some exceptions, of the largest corporations to say anything or do anything—beyond anodyne statements of support for voting rights in general—that might pressure the state to back down, as major corporations did when several states passed their infamous transgender bathroom bills and many companies threatened to move business out of those states. As the NYT observed, the “muted response—coming from companies that last year promised to support social justice—infuriated activists, who are now calling for boycotts.” Last night, the NYT reported that two of the largest corporations in Georgia have abruptly reversed course and issued statements in opposition to the voting bills after a large group of prominent Black business leaders called on companies “to publicly oppose a wave of similarly restrictive voting bills that Republicans are advancing in almost every state.” In an interview with the WSJ, one of those business leaders emphasized that this “is a nonpartisan issue, this is a moral issue.” This battle is expected to continue as other states enact similar legislation, not to mention potential fights over guns, immigration and climate, to name a few. How do companies navigate the terrain of political activity and public scrutiny while staying true to their core values? In this new report, “Under a Microscope: A New Era of Scrutiny for Corporate Political Activity,” The Conference Board attempts to address this complicated issue.
There has been a lot of speculation about the extent to which Congress would take advantage of the Congressional Review Act to dispense with some of the “midnight regulations” adopted during the prior administration. (See this PubCo post.) We may finally be getting some insight into that question. Senator Sherrod Brown has now introduced a joint resolution providing for congressional disapproval of the SEC’s new(ish) shareholder proposal amendments, which were the subject of strong dissents from the Democratic SEC Commissioners when they were adopted in September 2020. The resolution simply provides that Congress disapproves the rule and, as a result, the rule will have no force or effect. As reported by Bloomberg, Brown stated that “[b]y raising eligibility and resubmission thresholds for shareholder proposals, the rules take away an important tool to push for better corporate governance, increase transparency, and address the gender pay gap….Congress must repeal the rule, and we need to find ways to increase shareholder participation and to make executives more accountable.” As reported by Reuters, the National Association of Manufacturers described the resolution as “heavy-handed” and stated that it “does not believe the CRA is the appropriate mechanism for review of the SEC’s rule to modernize the proxy process […] and looks forward to engaging with the SEC to defend the vital reforms included within it.” Will the resolution win the necessary support?
SEC issues form amendments related to disclosure and submissions under the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act
In December 2020, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act was signed into law. As you may recall, the HFCAA amends SOX to impose certain requirements on a public company identified by the SEC as a company that files in its periodic reports financial statements audited by a registered public accounting firm with a branch or office located in a foreign jurisdiction and that the PCAOB is “unable to inspect or investigate completely because of a position taken by an authority in the foreign jurisdiction.” The HFCAA imposes requirements on SEC-identified issuers, under SEC rules that the HFCAA requires the SEC to adopt within 90 days after enactment, to submit certain documentation to the SEC establishing that the company is not owned or controlled by a governmental entity in the foreign jurisdiction. In addition, the law imposes certain disclosure requirements on foreign issuers that have been “identified” by the SEC. (See this PubCo post.) Yesterday, the SEC announced that it has adopted interim final amendments to Forms 20-F, 40-F, 10-K, and N-CSR to implement the submission and disclosure requirements of the HFCAA. The interim final amendments will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, and comments are due by the same date.
On Friday, the SEC’s Asset Management Advisory Committee met to discuss various matters, including possible recommendations to the SEC regarding—what else?—ESG. The latest version of subcommittee draft recommendations do not advocate a change from the current materiality disclosure requirements. Rather, they support adoption of mandatory standards to guide those materiality requirements, standards that take a “parsimonious” approach with a limited number of material metrics by industry—not exactly the “comprehensive” direction that the SEC appears to be headed, at least at the moment. Although the recommendations address investment product disclosure, the focus at the meeting was primarily on company ESG disclosure as the necessary predicate to investment product disclosure. Accordingly, the Committee heard from a panel of issuer representatives, who expressed a variety of views, but on the whole, appeared to advocate a cautious approach.
The events of January 6 heightened sensitivity to any dissonance or conflict between a company’s public statements or announced core values and its political contributions. In the aftermath, a number of companies determined to pause or discontinue some or all political donations, but the clamor for disclosure regarding corporate political spending has continued. To that end, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Robert Menendez have reintroduced the Shareholder Protection Act of 2021 to mandate not only political spending disclosure, but also shareholder votes to authorize corporate political spending. According to the press release, “[s]ome public companies’ decision to suspend or reevaluate further political donations is an acknowledgment that political donations can significantly affect a company’s reputation and financial health. Without public disclosure of political contributions, shareholders are left in the dark about decisions that may affect a company’s bottom-line, and in the case of the January 6th insurrection, decisions to support organizations and campaigns that may have advocated stopping the certification of a free and fair election.”
You probably remember that, late last year, Nasdaq filed with the SEC a proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure. The new listing rules would adopt a “comply or explain” mandate for board diversity for most listed companies and require companies listed on Nasdaq’s U.S. exchange to publicly disclose “consistent, transparent diversity statistics” regarding the composition of their boards. The proposal received a substantial number of comments, many of which were favorable and some of which were highly critical. For those of you who expected a speedy approval of this proposal by the SEC, you may need to reset your expectations.