The Corp Fin staff has issued a group of revised and new compliance & disclosure interpretations on the use of non-GAAP financial measures. The CDIs are more detailed and expansive in describing disclosure that the staff considers to be misleading as well as presentations that the staff believes reflect excessive non-GAAP prominence over the comparable GAAP number under Reg S-K Item 10(e). Summaries are below.
At an open meeting yesterday, the SEC voted to adopt new rules regarding Rule 10b5-1 plans. The vote was unanimous—albeit somewhat grudgingly in one case. Still, the notion of unanimity on an important Corp Fin regulation has seemed like something of a pipe dream in the last several years. Commissioner Mark Uyeda was even complimentary of the process employed for this rulemaking—and he is typically quite critical of the process (see this PubCo post)—noting that the process employed this time facilitated the development of more responsive final rules. Did I detect a note of relief in the Chair’s voice? Perhaps the unanimity was in part the result of concerns long expressed about potential abuse of Rule 10b5-1 plans—from studies reported in media to letters from Senators to probes conducted by the SEC and DOJ (see this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post). These concerns have been percolating for many years, and the adoption of rules adding new conditions to the use of the Rule 10b5-1 affirmative defense and new disclosure requirements for 10b5-1 plans has long been anticipated. After all, these plans were one of the first rulemaking targets that SEC Chair Gary Gensler identified after he was sworn in as Chair: 10b5-1 plans, he said last year, “have led to real cracks in our insider trading regime” and called for a proposal to “freshen up” these rules. (See this PubCo post.) The final amendments add new conditions to the availability of the Rule 10b5-1(c) affirmative defense, including cooling-off periods for directors, officers, and persons other than issuers, and create new disclosure requirements. According to Gensler, “[a]bout 20 years ago, the SEC established Exchange Act Rule 10b5-1. This rule provided affirmative defenses for corporate insiders and companies to buy and sell company stock as long as they adopted their trading plans in good faith—before becoming aware of material nonpublic information. Over the past two decades, though, we’ve heard from courts, commenters, and members of Congress that insiders have sought to benefit from the rule’s liability protections while trading securities opportunistically on the basis of material nonpublic information. I believe today’s amendments will help fill those potential gaps….These issues speak to the confidence that investors have in the markets. Anytime we can increase investor confidence in the markets, that’s a good thing. It helps investors decide where to put their money. It lowers the cost of capital for businesses seeking to raise capital, grow, and innovate, and thus facilitates capital formation.”
Is it ok for an agency to change its mind? The Federal District Court for the Western District of Texas seems to think so—at least if the agency’s decision is “reasonable and reasonably explained.” So says this Order granting summary judgment to the SEC and Chair Gary Gensler and denying summary judgment to the National Association of Manufacturers and the Natural Gas Services Group in the litigation surrounding the SEC’s adoption in 2022 of amendments to the rules regarding proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis. Those 2022 rules reversed some of the key controversial provisions governing proxy voting advice that were adopted by the SEC in July 2020 and favored by NAM. In July of this year, NAM filed a complaint asking that the 2022 rules be set aside under the Administrative Procedure Act and declared unlawful and void, and, in September, NAM filed its motion for summary judgment, characterizing the case as “a study in capricious agency action.” The Court begged to differ. But, no surprise, we haven’t heard the last of this matter—NAM has already filed its notice of appeal.
Last week, Corp Fin posted another sample comment letter—this one urging affected companies to provide “specific, tailored disclosure” about the “disruption” in the crypto markets and collateral events, the “company’s situation in relation to those events and conditions, and the potential impact on investors.” The sample comments focus on “the material impacts of crypto asset market developments, which may include a company’s exposure to counterparties and other market participants; risks related to a company’s liquidity and ability to obtain financing; and risks related to legal proceedings, investigations, or regulatory impacts in the crypto asset markets.” Below is a brief summary.
Corp Fin has issued three new CDIs regarding universal proxy. 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 compliance by dissident shareholders with advance notice provisions and the use by dissident shareholders of their own proxy cards. Below are brief summaries.
Yesterday, the SEC announced that it was reopening (again) the public comment period for its proposed rule on stock buyback disclosure modernization, a rule proposed at the end of 2021. (Remember that the comment period for this proposal was previously reopened in October because of the “technical glitch.” See this PubCo post.) The proposal is focused on enhancing disclosure by requiring more detailed and more frequent and timely disclosure about stock buybacks. (See this PubCo post.) Why did the SEC reopen the buyback proposal comment period? Because, at the time the proposal was issued, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 had not yet been enacted, which meant that the implications of that Act could not be considered as part of the proposal’s original cost/benefit analysis. However, as demonstrated in a new memo from the SEC’s Division of Economic and Risk Analysis, the excise tax on stock buybacks imposed under the IRA could affect that analysis, and consequently, the public’s evaluation of the proposal. As a result, the SEC determined to make the DERA memo part of the comment file and to reopen the comment period for an additional 30 after publication of the reopening release in the Federal Register.
Yesterday, the SEC announced that it had settled charges against AT&T for alleged violations of Reg FD for $6.25 million, an amount that it characterized as a “record penalty”—the “largest ever in a Reg FD case.” The case involved allegations of one-on-one disclosures by three company executives of AT&T’s “projected and actual financial results” to a number of Wall Street research analysts in violation of Reg FD and Exchange Act 13(a). (See this PubCo post.) The three executives agreed to pay $25,000 each to settle charges. After the federal district court for the SDNY denied summary judgment for both sides in September (see this PubCo post), the case appeared to be on its way to trial, but that was headed off by this new settlement. According to Gurbir Grewal, Director of Enforcement, the “actions allegedly taken by AT&T executives to avoid falling short of analysts’ projections are precisely the type of conduct Regulation FD was designed to prevent….Compliance with Regulation FD ensures that issuers publicly disclose material information to the entire market and not just to select analysts.”
As discussed in this PubCo post, we’ve lately been witnessing a profusion of state and local legislation targeting companies that express public positions or adopt policies on sociopolitical issues or conduct their businesses in a manner disfavored by the government in power. Bloomberg observes that, 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 state 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. These laws are presumably detrimental to the targeted companies, but are there any adverse consequences for the state or locality adopting this legislation and its citizens? To better understand the phenomenon and its impact on financial market outcomes, this paper from authors at the University of Pennsylvania and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago looked at the impact of one example of this type of legislation—a law recently adopted in Texas that blocks banks from government contracts in the state if the banks restrict funding to oil and gas companies or gun manufacturers. The authors concluded that the Texas legislation has had, and is expected to continue to have, a “large negative impact on the ability for local governments to access external finance. Our results suggest that if economies around the world that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels attempt to undo ESG policies by imposing restrictions on the financial sector, local borrowers are likely to face significant adverse consequences such as decreased credit access and poor financial markets outcomes.”
Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive receives final approval, applicable to US companies with EU presence
On Monday, according to this press release from the Council of the European Union, all 27 members of the European Council voted in favor of the adoption of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, the last step for the CSRD to become law in the EU. The new rules require subject companies […]
As the SEC mulls its 10b5-1 proposal (see this PubCo post), neither its Enforcement Division nor the DOJ are waiting around to see what happens. According to Bloomberg, they are using data analytics “in a sweeping examination of preplanned equity sales by C-suite officials.” The question is whether executives “been gaming prearranged stock-sale programs designed to thwart the possibility of insider trading”? Of course, there have been countless studies and “exposés” of alleged 10b5-1 abuse over the years, the most recent being this front-page analysis of trading by insiders under Rule 10b5-1 plans in the WSJ (see this PubCo post). While these concerns have been percolating for quite some time, no legislation or rules have yet been adopted (although several bills have been introduced and the SEC proposed new regs at the end of 2021). Bloomberg reports that these investigations by Enforcement and the DOJ are consistent with the recent “tougher line on long-standing Wall Street trading practices during the Biden era. Federal officials requested information from executives early this year, said one person. They’re now preparing to bring multiple cases, said two other people.”