[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect in greater detail the contents of the proposing release.]
Last week, without an open meeting, the SEC finally adopted a new rule that will require disclosure of information reflecting the relationship between executive compensation actually paid by a company and the company’s financial performance—a new rule that has been 12 years in the making. In 2010, Dodd-Frank, in Section 953(a), added Section 14(i) to the Exchange Act, mandating that the SEC require so-called pay-versus-performance disclosure in proxy and information statements. The SEC proposed a rule on pay versus performance in 2015 (see this PubCo post and this Cooley Alert), but it fell onto the long-term, maybe-never agenda until, that is, the SEC reopened the comment period in January (see this PubCo post). According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the new rule “makes it easier for shareholders to assess a public company’s decision-making with respect to its executive compensation policies. I am pleased that the final rule provides for new, more flexible disclosures that allow companies to describe the performance measures it deems most important when determining what it pays executives. I think that this rule will help investors receive the consistent, comparable, and decision-useful information they need to evaluate executive compensation policies.” In the adopting release, the SEC articulates its belief that the disclosure “will allow investors to assess a registrant’s executive compensation actually paid relative to its financial performance more readily and at a lower cost than under the existing executive compensation disclosure regime.” For the most part, although there is some flexibility in some aspects of the new rule, the approach taken by the SEC in this rulemaking is quite prescriptive; the SEC opted not to take a “wholly principles-based approach because, among other reasons, such a route would limit comparability across issuers and within issuers’ filings over time, as well as increasing the possibility that some issuers would choose to report only the most favorable information.” Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented, and their statements about the rulemaking are discussed below.
At the end of last week, Corp Fin issued three new CDIs related to universal proxies under Rule 14a-19. In November 2021, the SEC amended the federal proxy rules to mandate the use of universal proxies in all non-exempt solicitations in connection with contested elections of directors of operating companies. By mandating the use of universal proxies—proxy cards that, when used in a contested election, include a complete list of all candidates for director duly nominated by both management and dissidents—the SEC’s rules now allow a shareholder voting by proxy to choose among director nominees in an election contest in a manner that closely mirrors in-person voting. (See this PubCo post.) The new CDIs address questions that have arisen in connection with notice and proxy statement disclosure. Below are brief summaries.
On Friday, the SEC, without holding an open meeting, adopted two amendments to the whistleblower program that had been proposed in February. The vote was three to two. Under the SEC’s whistleblower program, the SEC may “make monetary awards to eligible individuals who voluntarily provide original information that leads to successful SEC enforcement actions resulting in monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million and certain successful related actions.” Awards must be in the range of 10% to 30% of the monetary sanctions collected. The two new amendments relate to changes that had been adopted in 2020 regarding awards under related programs and award amounts. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the amendments will “help enhance the whistleblower program. The first amendment expands the circumstances in which a whistleblower who assisted in a related action can receive an award from the Commission for that related action rather than from the other agency’s whistleblower program. The second amendment concerns the Commission’s authority to consider and adjust the dollar amount of a potential award. Under today’s amendments, when the Commission considers the size of the would-be award as grounds to change the award amount, it can do so only to increase the award, and not to decrease it. This will give whistleblowers additional comfort knowing that the Commission would not decrease awards based on their size….I think that these rules will strengthen our whistleblower program. That helps protect investors.” The amendments to the whistleblower rule will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
For well over a decade, the PCAOB has been unable to fulfill its SOX mandate to inspect audit firms in “Non-Cooperating Jurisdictions,” or “NCJs,” including China. To address this issue, in December 2020, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, was signed into law. The HFCAA amended SOX to prohibit trading on U.S. exchanges of public reporting companies audited by audit firms located in foreign jurisdictions that the PCAOB has been unable to inspect for three sequential years. (See this PubCo post.) The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported that, as of March 31, 2022, Chinese companies listed on the three largest U.S. exchanges had a total market capitalization of $1.4 trillion. As a result, the trading prohibitions of the HFCAA could have a substantial impact. Years of negotiation to resolve the deadlock over audit inspections notwithstanding, China and Hong Kong have still not permitted PCAOB inspections, largely because of purported security concerns. (Interestingly, the WSJ reported that, in a “departure from what officials have said previously, the Chinese stock regulator said on Friday that audit working papers generally do not contain state secrets, individual privacy, companies’ vast user data or other sensitive information.”) In May, in remarks to the International Council of Securities Associations, YJ Fischer, Director of the SEC’s Office of International Affairs, indicated that, although there had been progress, “significant issues remain[ed],” and reaching an agreement would be only “a first step.” In other words, there was still “a long way to go.” On Friday, however, the PCAOB took that first step by signing a Statement of Protocol with the China Securities Regulatory Commission and the Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China governing inspections and investigations of audit firms based in China and Hong Kong. According to a statement from SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the “agreement marks the first time we have received such detailed and specific commitments from China that they would allow PCAOB inspections and investigations meeting U.S. standards.”
Today, the SEC announced that it was increasing the fees it charges issuers to register their securities. In fiscal 2023, the fee rates for registration of securities and certain other transactions will be $110.20 per million dollars, up from $92.70 per million dollars last year.
It’s been 12 years since Dodd-Frank mandated, in Section 953(a), so-called pay-versus-performance disclosure, and amazingly, no rules had been adopted to implement that mandate…until yesterday, when adoption of the final rule crept in “on little cat feet.” Well, ok, there was a press release, but it was still quite a surprise. Yesterday, without an open meeting, the SEC finally adopted a new rule that would require disclosure of information reflecting the relationship between executive compensation actually paid by a company and the company’s financial performance. The SEC proposed a rule on pay versus performance in 2015 (see this PubCo post and this Cooley Alert), but it fell onto the long-term, maybe-never agenda until, that is, the SEC reopened the comment period in January (see this PubCo post). According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[t]oday’s rule makes it easier for shareholders to assess a public company’s decision-making with respect to its executive compensation policies. I am pleased that the final rule provides for new, more flexible disclosures that allow companies to describe the performance measures it deems most important when determining what it pays executives. I think that this rule will help investors receive the consistent, comparable, and decision-useful information they need to evaluate executive compensation policies.” Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented.
Yesterday, the SEC published for public comment a draft of its strategic plan for fiscal 2022 to 2026. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the SEC “can’t take our leadership in capital markets for granted….Technology and business models always are changing, and it is important for our agency to evolve in kind. Through the goals we’ve laid out in this strategic plan, we will continue to bring a skilled and steady hand to the capital markets of a changing world. We look forward to reviewing public comments.” Here is the press release and the request for public comment. The SEC regularly develops strategic plans, and as is the nature of strategic plans, they tend to be long on gauzy statements of high-minded, ambitious objectives and short on details.
In this July report, Responses to the SEC’s Climate Proposal, KPMG discusses various themes and observations that it gleaned from its review of comment letters on the SEC’s 510-page comprehensive and stunningly detailed climate disclosure proposal issued in March. As you probably recall, the proposal was designed to require disclosure of “consistent, comparable, and reliable—and therefore decision-useful—information to investors to enable them to make informed judgments about the impact of climate-related risks on current and potential investments.” KPMG found that the sentiment about climate standard-setting as a general concept was favorable, with 29% of those commenting very supportive and 50% supportive of the concept. Only 21% had a negative response—12% very unsupportive and 9% generally unsupportive. But that positive attitude toward the general concept did not necessarily translate to support for the specific proposal from the SEC.
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?
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.