On Friday, August 6, 2021, the SEC approved a Nasdaq proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure, accompanied by a proposal to provide free access to a board recruiting service. The new listing rules adopted a “comply or explain” mandate for board diversity for most listed companies and required companies listed on Nasdaq’s U.S. exchange to publicly disclose “consistent, transparent diversity statistics” regarding the composition of their boards. (See this PubCo post.) As anticipated, a court challenge to these rules didn’t take long to materialize. On Monday, August 9, the Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment filed a slim petition under Section 25(a) of the Exchange Act in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals—the Alliance has its principal place of business in Texas—for review of the SEC’s final order approving the Nasdaq rule. (See this PubCo post.) That petition was soon followed by a new petition challenging the rules filed by the National Center for Public Policy Research and subsequently transferred to the Fifth Circuit where the earlier filed petition was pending. (See this PubCo post.) Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit—by repute, the Circuit of choice for advocates of conservative causes—denied those petitions, in effect upholding Nasdaq’s board diversity listing rules. According to the unanimous decision, “AFBR and NCPPR have given us no reason to conclude that the SEC’s Approval Order violates the Exchange Act or the APA.” The case is Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment, National Center for Public Policy Research v. SEC.
After all the PubCo posts on the avalanche of SEC enforcement cases muscled into the last couple of days before the SEC’s fiscal year end, I thought this column in Bloomberg from Matt Levine might be of particular interest. The relevant portion of the column, called the “SEC silly season,” discusses the apparent scramble by the SEC at the end of its fiscal year to bring as many enforcement actions as possible in response to “performance-reporting pressures,” that is, the pressures to make its stats to achieve optimal Congressional funding. According to academic research cited in the column, that scramble is not just “apparent,” it’s real, and it has practical implications for enforcement behavior. The research showed that the average number of cases filed in September “is almost double the average in other months,” and that the “spike is larger when case totals are behind pace to meet last year’s case total, which likely serves as a de facto performance benchmark.” The SEC achieves this fiscal-year-end increase, according to the research, “by changing its enforcement behavior related to substantive cases,” that is, through prioritization of less complex cases and imposition of more lenient penalties, including financial discounts, relative to other periods. For example, the September cases are “significantly more likely to reference defendant cooperation and to only name companies as defendants, and are less likely to include a fraud allegation and to reference parallel criminal proceedings.” Accordingly, the authors found that the “evidence is consistent with the SEC agreeing to more lenient settlement terms to increase case volume at fiscal year-end—an unintended consequence of performance reporting that undermines the SEC’s core values.” As the authors of the research suggest, might defendants familiar with this “regulatory inconsistency” be able to use it to their advantage?
[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect the contents of the adopting release.]
Last week, without an open meeting, the SEC adopted rule amendments governing beneficial ownership reporting under Exchange Act Sections 13(d) and 13(g), updating Reg 13D-G to “require market participants to provide more timely information on their positions to meet the needs of investors in today’s financial markets.” Commissioner Hester Peirce dissented. In essence, the amendments accelerate the filing deadlines for Schedules 13D and 13G. The adopting release also clarifies the disclosure requirements of Schedule 13D with respect to derivative securities and provides guidance on the definition of “group” formation. In addition, the amendments require that these Schedules be filed in XBRL, and to that end, the SEC made a number of technical changes to Reg S-T. The adopting release also discusses the changes that had been proposed, but that, in response to comment, were not adopted, including proposed changes to the rules that would have deemed certain holders of cash-settled derivative securities to be beneficial owners of the reference covered class, and proposed rule amendments that would have addressed formation of a group and provided two new exemptions. Instead, the SEC is amending Schedule 13D to clarify that interests in derivative securities must be disclosed and, in the adopting release, provides guidance on those two topics. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the “adoption updates rules that first went into effect more than 50 years ago. Frankly, these deadlines from half a century ago feel antiquated….In our fast-paced markets, it shouldn’t take 10 days for the public to learn about an attempt to change or influence control of a public company. I am pleased to support this adoption because it updates Schedules 13D and 13G reporting requirements for modern markets, ensures investors receive material information in a timely way, and reduces information asymmetries.”
You remember Matt Levine’s mantra in his “Money Stuff” column on Bloomberg: “everything is securities fraud”? “You know the basic idea,” he says, a
“company does something bad, or something bad happens to it. Its stock price goes down, because of the bad thing. Shareholders sue: Doing the bad thing and not immediately telling shareholders about it, the shareholders say, is securities fraud. Even if the company does immediately tell shareholders about the bad thing, which is not particularly common, the shareholders might sue, claiming that the company failed to disclose the conditions and vulnerabilities that allowed the bad thing to happen. And so contributing to global warming is securities fraud, and sexual harassment by executives is securities fraud, and customer data breaches are securities fraud, and mistreating killer whales is securities fraud, and whatever else you’ve got. Securities fraud is a universal regulatory regime; anything bad that is done by or happens to a public company is also securities fraud, and it is often easier to punish the bad thing as securities fraud than it is to regulate it directly.” (Money Stuff, 6/26/19)
(See this PubCo post.) But here’s a new one—bribery and political corruption as securities fraud. As described in this press release, in the fiscal-year-end enforcement crush, the SEC brought settled charges against Exelon Corporation, a utility services holding company, and its subsidiary, electric utility company Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd), and filed a complaint against ComEd’s former CEO alleging “fraud in connection with a multi-year scheme to corruptly influence and reward the then-Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.” Exelon and ComEd agreed to settle the charges, with Exelon paying a civil penalty of $46.2 million. The charges against the CEO are headed for trial. So how is this securities fraud? According to the Chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Public Finance Abuse Unit, the CEO’s “remarks to investors about ComEd’s lobbying efforts hid the reality of the long-running political corruption scheme in which they were engaged….When corporate executives speak to investors, they must not mislead by omission.”
Yesterday, without an open meeting, the SEC adopted rule amendments governing beneficial ownership reporting under Exchange Act Sections 13(d) and 13(g), updating Reg 13D-G to “require market participants to provide more timely information on their positions to meet the needs of investors in today’s financial markets.” Commissioner Hester Peirce dissented. In essence, the amendments accelerate the filing deadlines for Schedules 13D and 13G. The adopting release also provides guidance on the definition of “group” formation. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[t]oday’s adoption updates rules that first went into effect more than 50 years ago. Frankly, these deadlines from half a century ago feel antiquated….In our fast-paced markets, it shouldn’t take 10 days for the public to learn about an attempt to change or influence control of a public company. I am pleased to support this adoption because it updates Schedules 13D and 13G reporting requirements for modern markets, ensures investors receive material information in a timely way, and reduces information asymmetries.”
As part of its fiscal-year-end enforcement surge, the SEC filed charges against three former executives of Pareteum Corporation, a telecommunications and cloud software company, for fraudulent revenue recognition practices—a settled action against the former controller and a complaint against the former CFO and former Chief Commercial Officer (also, formerly CEO). As described in the complaint, the SEC charged the former executives with orchestrating a fraudulent scheme to overstate revenue by recording revenue from non-binding purchase orders and concealing the practice from the company’s auditors. From 2018 through mid-2019, the SEC alleged, the defendants’ improper revenue recognition practices resulted in the company’s overstating revenue by “approximately $12 million for fiscal year 2018 (60% of the ultimately restated revenue), and by approximately $30 million for the first and second quarters of 2019 (91% of the ultimately restated revenue).” In addition, the former CFO, the SEC charged, did not establish sufficient internal accounting controls to assess whether revenue should be recognized under GAAP. According to the press release, Pareteum previously settled with the SEC on accounting and disclosure fraud charges in 2021 and filed for bankruptcy in 2022. Notably, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the SDNY has announced parallel criminal charges against the former CFO and CCO. According to the Associate Director of Enforcement for the SEC’s Philadelphia Regional Office, as the SEC alleged in its complaint, “Pareteum’s executives artificially inflated Pareteum’s revenue numbers to create the illusion of robust revenue growth….Investors should be able to trust public companies to issue truthful and accurate financial statements, and we will hold accountable any executives who abuse that trust and defraud investors.”
In this settled action, the SEC charged Newell Brands and its former CEO with providing misleading disclosure about a prominently featured non-GAAP financial measure—“core sales,” a key NGFM that Newell portrayed as providing “a more complete understanding of underlying sales trends.” As described in the Order and press release, Newell and its CEO took a number of actions—reclassifications, accrual reductions, order pull-forwards—that increased “core sales” growth, but the resulting increases “were out of step with Newell’s actual but undisclosed sales trends, allowing the company to announce ‘strong’ or ‘solid’ results in quarters it internally described as disappointing due to shortfalls in sales.” In fact, the SEC charged, Newell misled investors, depriving them of “information relevant to an accurate and complete understanding of Newell’s actual sales trends.” Moreover, in Newell’s effort to manage revenues, what began as tinkering with an NGFM metastasized into problems with GAAP accounting. According to the Associate Director of Enforcement, the SEC found that “Newell’s former CEO issued an instruction to ‘scrub’ the company’s accruals after he learned that the company was projecting a ‘massive’ and ‘disappointing’ miss for the quarter….Senior executives of public companies hold positions of trust, and they risk abusing the duties attendant to their offices when they reach into a company’s accounting control processes as a way of making up for performance shortfalls.” Newell agreed to pay a civil penalty of $12.5 million and its CEO to pay $110,000.
The NYSE has proposed to adopt new listing standards for the common equity securities of a “Natural Asset Company,” a new type of public company defined by the NYSE as “a corporation whose primary purpose is to actively manage, maintain, restore (as applicable), and grow the value of natural assets and their production of ecosystem services.” And, “where doing so is consistent with the company’s primary purpose,” a NAC would also be required to “seek to conduct sustainable revenue-generating operations,” and “may also engage in other activities that support community well-being, provided such activities are sustainable.” In addition, NACs would be prohibited from engaging in unsustainable activities, that is, activities that “cause any material adverse impact on the condition of the natural assets under its control, and that extract resources without replenishing them.” Although existing regulatory and listing requirements would continue to apply to NACs, in many ways, the proposal contemplates something approaching a new NAC governance and reporting ecosystem, if you will, that would involve specific provisions in corporate charters, new mandatory policies (environmental and social, biodiversity, human rights, equitable benefit sharing), new prescribed responsibilities for audit committees and a new reporting framework, including mandatory “Ecological Performance Reports.” Why did the NYSE introduce this proposal? Notwithstanding all of the developments in ESG disclosure and investing (such as ESG funds), the NYSE contends that “investors still express an unmet need for efficient, pure-play exposure to nature and climate.” According to the Intrinsic Exchange Group, which pioneered the NAC concept and advises public sector and private landowners on the creation of NACs, “[b]y taking a NAC public through an IPO, the market transaction will succeed in converting the long-understood—but to-date unpriced—value of nature into financial capital. This monetization event will generate the funding needed to manage, restore, and grow healthy ecosystems around the world and bring us closer to achieving a truly sustainable, circular economy.” Will this proposal be a game changer to rescue our environment or merely a chimera? Time will tell. The proposal is open for comment for 21 days following publication in the Federal Register.
The rubber meets the road again—inflated sales, inflated projections charged at electric vehicle manufacturers
Is it Groundhog Day again? Haven’t we heard about this before? An electric vehicle manufacturer that went public through a SPAC transaction is charged by the SEC with fraudulently misrepresenting the status of its products, even posting a misleading video of a truck purportedly operating on hydrogen fuel when it did not. But no, it’s not Nikola Corporation (see this PubCo post). Just this past week, in the rush to beat the shutdown and fortify the SEC’s fiscal year-end statistics, Enforcement announced two settled actions against two manufacturers of electric vehicles for misleading investors. In the first case, Hyzon Motors Inc., a maker of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), was charged with misleading investors about the status of Hyzon’s products, business relationships and vehicle sales, agreeing to pay a civil penalty of $25 million. Two executive officers, also charged, agreed to pay civil penalties of $100,000, and $200,000. Not to mention a restatement to reverse revenue improperly recognized. According to a Regional Director, “[t]ransparency in the form of full, fair, and accurate disclosure is fundamental to the federal securities laws….The defendants allegedly violated this principle by misleading investors about virtually every aspect of Hyzon’s business.” [Emphasis added.] In the second case, the predecessor to Spruce Power Holding Corporation, XL Fleet, which provided fleet hybrid electrical vehicles, was alleged to have misled investors about its sales pipeline and revenue projections. As the successor, Spruce agreed to pay a civil penalty of $11 million. According to the Associate Director of Enforcement, “[i]t goes without saying that investors commonly rely on revenue projections when deciding how and where to invest, and that’s perhaps especially true for investment decisions involving early-stage companies in the SPAC market….By linking its bold revenue projections to misleading claims about the company’s historical performance, XL Fleet misled investors by inhibiting their ability to differentiate between credible facts and mere aspiration.” It’s worth noting here that, in March last year, the SEC proposed new rules regarding SPACs, including rules related to the use of projections in SEC filings “to address concerns about their reliability.” (See this PubCo post.)
On Friday last week, the SEC posted a new NYSE proposed rule change that would “modify the circumstances under which a listed company must obtain shareholder approval of a sale of securities to a substantial security holder,” a holder of 5% or more. Under current listing rules, shareholder approval is required for sales in excess of 1% of the common stock to a substantial security holder, unless the transaction is a cash sale for a price that is at least equal to the “Minimum Price.” Under the proposal, the shareholder approval requirement would be narrowed to apply only to control parties, that is, in addition to directors and officers, the shareholder approval requirement would apply to “a controlling shareholder or member of a control group or any other substantial security holder of the company that has an affiliated person who is an officer or director of the company.” By eliminating the shareholder approval requirement for sales to passive holders—which the NYSE views as unnecessary—the proposal is designed to facilitate the ability of NYSE-listed companies to raise necessary capital. Comments on the proposal are due 21 days after publication of the proposal in the Federal Register.