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.
Elections have consequences, as they say, and one of those consequences is new leadership at the SEC who bring with them a markedly different agenda. In remarks yesterday to the Center for American Progress, entitled A Climate for Change: Meeting Investor Demand for Climate and ESG Information at the SEC, Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee provided important insights into where the SEC is headed with regard to environmental, social and governance issues. As Lee confirmed in the introduction to her speech, “no single issue has been more pressing for [her] than ensuring that the SEC is fully engaged in confronting the risks and opportunities that climate and ESG pose for investors, our financial system, and our economy.” Investors are not getting the information they need, and that’s why the SEC has “begun to take critical steps toward a comprehensive ESG disclosure framework.” In addition, she has directed Corp Fin to revisit the shareholder proposal process and is also considering whether the SEC should establish a dedicated ESG standard setter. According to Lee, “climate and ESG are front and center for the SEC.”
On Tuesday, SEC Commissioner Caroline Crenshaw spoke to the Council of Institutional Investors. Her presentation, Moving Forward Together—Enforcement for Everyone, concerned “the central role enforcement plays in fulfilling our mission, how investors and markets benefit, and how a decision made 15 years ago has taken us off course.” In her view, the SEC should revisit its approach to assessing financial penalties and should not be reluctant to impose appropriately tailored penalties that effectively deter misconduct, irrespective of the impact on the wrongdoer’s shareholders. Is this a sign of things to come?
Corp Fin has once again amended Disclosure Guidance Topic No. 7, Confidential Treatment Applications Submitted Pursuant to Rules 406 and 24b-2, to modify—slightly—the alternatives available for companies with confidential treatment orders that are about to expire. The guidance was last amended in September 2020 (see this PubCo post), but apparently needed another revamp. The guidance addresses procedures for CTRs that were submitted, not under the new streamlined approach adopted in 2019 (see this PubCo post), but rather under the old traditional process that continues in use to a limited extent.
Environmental, social and governance activism continues to adopt new approaches. One of the latest is from The Shareholder Commons, a non-profit organization founded by CEO Rick Alexander—you might recognize the name from B-Lab and Morris Nichols in Delaware—that uses “shareholder activism, thought leadership, and policy advocacy to catalyze systems-first investing and create a level playing field for sustainable competition.” In essence, TSC seeks to shift the focus from the impact of a company’s activities and conduct on its own financial performance to “systemic portfolio risk,” the impact of the company’s activities and conduct on society, the environment and the wider economy as a whole, which would affect most investment portfolios. In particular, the group has helped with submission of a number of shareholder proposals that address issues in its sweet spot—influencing corporate behavior regarding social and environmental systems that affect the economy as a whole. This season, the proposals have advocated conversion to public benefit corporations (see this PubCo post), disclosure of reports on the external public health costs created by the subject company’s retail food business, studies on the external costs resulting from underwriting of multi-class equity offerings, and reports on the external social costs (e.g., inequality) created by the company’s compensation policy. Earlier this year, TSC, working with a long-term shareholder, submitted a shareholder proposal to Yum! Brands, asking the company to disclose a study on “the external environmental and public health costs created by the use of antibiotics in the supply chain of [the] company… and the manner in which such costs affect the vast majority of its shareholders who rely on a healthy stock market.” TSC has just announced that it has withdrawn its proposal because Yum! has agreed to “provide comprehensive reporting on the systemic effects of the use of antibiotics in its supply chain by the end of 2021.”
On Friday of last week, the SEC announced that it had filed a complaint charging AT&T, Inc. and three of its Investor Relations executives with violations of Reg FD as a result of one-on-one disclosures of AT&T’s “projected and actual financial results” to a number of Wall Street research analysts by the three executives. In March 2016, the SEC alleges, AT&T learned that, as a result of a “steeper-than-expected decline in smartphone sales,” AT&T’s first quarter revenues would fall short of analysts’ estimates by over a $1 billion. The three IR executives were then asked to contact the analysts whose estimates were too high to “walk” them down. This case illustrates the tightrope that IR personnel walk when talking one-on-one with analysts in the context of Reg FD.
Last week, Allison Lee, Acting Chair of the SEC, directed the staff of Corp Fin to “enhance its focus on climate-related disclosure in public company filings.” Yesterday, the SEC announced that the new climate focus would not be limited to Corp Fin—the SEC has created a new Climate and ESG Task Force in the Division of Enforcement. According to the press release, the initial focus of the Task Force will be to identify any material gaps or misstatements in issuers’ disclosure of climate risks under existing rules, giving us all another reason to excavate the staff’s 2010 interpretive guidance regarding climate change. (You may recall that the guidance addressed in some detail how existing disclosure obligations, such as the Reg S-K requirements for business narrative and risk factors, could apply to climate change. See this PubCo post.) Apparently, however, the remit of the Task Force goes beyond climate to address other ESG issues. Lee said that the Task Force is designed to bolster the efforts of the SEC as a whole in addressing climate risk and sustainability, which “are critical issues for the investing public and our capital markets.”
When Gary Gensler was rumored to be the nominee for SEC Chair, Reuters reported that, in light of his “reputation as a hard-nosed operator willing to stand up to powerful Wall Street interests”—notwithstanding his former life as an investment banker—the appointment was “likely to prompt concern” among some that he would promote “tougher regulation.” (See this PubCo post.) This week, Gensler faced his interrogators on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, but the questioning didn’t really generate much heat—unless you count Senator Pat Toomey’s observation that Gensler had a “history of pushing legal bounds.” There was, however, a mild skirmish over—of all things—the meaning of “materiality,” essentially a surrogate for the fundamental divide on the Committee about whether the securities laws should be used to elicit disclosure regarding social and environmental issues.