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.
It’s not just mandatory climate disclosure that’s on the agenda for Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee. Last week, as reported by Reuters, in remarks to a forum for securities industry professionals, she said that the SEC “should think more ‘creatively and broadly’ about tackling issues of race and gender diversity, including by potentially revisiting public companies’ disclosure requirements.” In the past, Lee has not hesitated to emphasize her concerns about the absence of prescriptive requirements in rulemakings that would have more certainly elicited disclosure regarding diversity. (See, for example, her statement regarding amendments to Reg S-K as well as her remarks to the Council of Institutional Investors, Diversity Matters, Disclosure Works, and the SEC Can Do More.) Now that she has directed Corp Fin to focus on climate disclosure, will diversity be next?
Disclosure of executive perks is once again in the SEC Enforcement spotlight. Just last year, there were two actions against companies for disclosure failures regarding perks—Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. (see this PubCo post) and Argo Group International Holdings, Ltd. (see this PubCo post). Now, Enforcement has brought settled charges against Gulfport Energy Corporation, a gas exploration and production company that filed for Chapter 11 in November, and its former CEO, Michael G. Moore, for failure to disclose some of the perks provided to Moore as well as related-person transactions involving Moore’s son. The case serves as a reminder that the analysis of whether a benefit is a disclosable perk can be complicated.
Yesterday, 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.” This action should come as no surprise. As I wrote just yesterday, Lee has used almost every opportunity to emphasize the importance of the SEC’s taking action to mandate climate risk disclosure. (See, for example, this NYT op-ed, her remarks at PLI entitled Playing the Long Game: The Intersection of Climate Change Risk and Financial Regulation and this statement, “Modernizing” Regulation S-K: Ignoring the Elephant in the Room.”) “Now more than ever,” Lee said in her statement, “investors are considering climate-related issues when making their investment decisions. It is our responsibility to ensure that they have access to material information when planning for their financial future.” But what will this enhanced focus on climate entail?
Is mandatory climate risk disclosure a done deal yet? Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee has taken almost every opportunity to emphasize the importance of the SEC’s taking action to mandate climate risk disclosure. (See, for example, this NYT op-ed, her remarks at PLI entitled Playing the Long Game: The Intersection of Climate Change Risk and Financial Regulation and this statement, “Modernizing” Regulation S-K: Ignoring the Elephant in the Room.”) And now, according to Reuters, Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates remarked during a conference on climate finance that the SEC “‘should help lead’ the creation of a disclosure system for environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues for corporations.” But how to craft the new rules? With the new Administration in Washington, many of the think tanks and advocacy groups are making their voices heard on just that—crafting mandatory climate disclosure regulations. The reports of two are discussed below; there are definitely some common threads, such as the need for the SEC to onboard climate expertise and organize a platform or two for stakeholder input. Their recommendations may also provide some ideas for voluntary compliance and some insight into the direction the SEC may be going.
In his 2021 letter to CEOs, BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink asked companies to disclose a “plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net zero economy”—that is, “one that emits no more carbon dioxide than it removes from the atmosphere by 2050, the scientifically-established threshold necessary to keep global warming well below 2ºC.” (See this PubCo post.) Now BlackRock Investment Stewardship has posted a powerpoint presentation that sets out BIS’s expectations in greater detail. The presentation concludes with a caution that, “where corporate disclosures are insufficient to make a thorough assessment, or a company has not provided a credible plan to transition its business model to a low-carbon economy, including short- medium- and long-term targets, we may vote against the directors we consider responsible for climate risk oversight.”
The new Administration in Washington brings an expectation of change at the SEC in many areas, one of them being SEC Enforcement, where a shift toward more aggressive enforcement is anticipated. That change has already begun. A week ago, Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee restored authority to senior officers in Enforcement to approve the issuance of Formal Orders of Investigation, an action designed to allow senior officers, under delegated authority, to authorize staff to subpoena documents and take sworn testimony. This delegated authority could have the effect of accelerating action by the SEC. And just a couple of days later, Lee, in consultation with Corp Fin, Enforcement and Investment Management, took action to ensure that Enforcement will no longer recommend to the SEC “contingent settlement offers,” that is, settlement offers that are conditioned on the grant of waivers of the automatic disqualification that results from certain securities violations or sanctions. The action was intended “to reinforce the critical separation” between the enforcement process and the consideration of requests for waivers to ensure that the process for “consideration of waivers is forward looking and focused on protecting investors, the market, and market participants from those who fail to comply with the law.” Will the change have any impact?
In November 2020, amendments to Reg S-K to modernize the required business narrative became effective. The amendments including changes related to disclosure about a company’s human capital resources, replacing a requirement to disclose only the number of employees with a new requirement to disclose, to the extent material, information about human capital resources. In particular, the amendments identified as non-exclusive examples of measures or objectives that the company may focus on in managing the business “measures and objectives that address the attraction, development, and retention of personnel.” Even these measures, the SEC emphasized, were not a mandate. However, then-SEC Chair Jay Clayton said at the time of adoption that he expected “to see meaningful qualitative and quantitative disclosure, including, as appropriate, disclosure of metrics that companies actually use in managing their affairs.” The principles-based rules did not articulate specific metrics for human capital resources disclosure, allowing companies wide latitude in crafting their disclosure to focus on information that is material to each company. At the same time, however, the rules did not provide much direction, leaving many companies at something of a loss for how to proceed. In this paper, Compensation Advisory Partners provides an “early read on developing best practices” regarding human capital disclosure, analyzing the earliest disclosures to provide some guidance on topics, trends and level of detail provided. The CAP paper also includes a number of useful samples. Similarly, Willis Towers Watson reviewed the first three dozen human capital disclosures by companies in the S&P 500 published in 10-Ks filed since the effective date of the new requirement and, in this report, provides some data on the prevalence of topics and metrics.