The GAO has just issued its 2022 Report on Conflict Minerals, which examines companies’ conflict minerals compliance in 2022. As you probably know, the SEC’s conflict minerals rules were originally mandated by Congress in an attempt to limit the use of revenue from the trade in conflict minerals to fund the operations of armed groups in the DRC and adjoining countries. Under Dodd-Frank, the GAO is required to assess periodically the effectiveness of the SEC’s conflict minerals rules in promoting peace and security in the DRC region. Are the SEC’s rules having any impact? Based on this report, it seems that the violence in the DRC has not abated: “overall peace and security in the eastern DRC has not improved since 2014 because of persistent, interdependent factors that fuel violence by non-state armed groups.” In 2020, the GAO reports, about 122 armed groups operated in the region, using revenue from the trade in conflict minerals as one source of funding. Experts view corruption as a contributing factor. The GAO observes that, in 2022, “armed groups continue to raise revenue from various sources, such as illegal taxation on citizens and the exploitation of natural resources,” such as conflict minerals.
Under Dodd-Frank, the GAO is required to assess annually the effectiveness of the SEC’s conflict minerals rules in promoting peace and security and to report on the rate of sexual violence in the DRC and adjoining countries. Recently, the GAO released its annual report submitted to Congress on conflict mineral disclosures filed with the SEC in 2018. The report is based on a random sample of 100 Forms SD, interviews with company representatives, DRC officials and other stakeholders, as well as reviews of government reports and fieldwork conducted at an industry conference. Any big changes? Not really. But, interestingly, in the GAO sample, only two companies indicated that they relied on Corp Fin’s 2017 guidance (discussed below) to avoid filing a conflict minerals report or providing an independent private-sector audit. With the 2017 guidance apparently not having much impact, is a revision of the conflict minerals rules to address the impact of the litigation (which held that the requirements violated the First Amendment) even a twinkle in the staff’s eye at this point?
We have all watched with anguish and trepidation the profound horror inflicted on Ukraine—transfixed by the brilliant and courageous fight of the Ukrainian people. That fight is also being pursued in much smaller ways, even through action at the SEC. The Ukrainian-American Bar Association, a former Ukrainian finance minister and a U.S. charity focused on Ukraine have just filed a rulemaking petition with the SEC, requesting that the SEC enact a rule requiring issuers to disclose their business dealings in and with the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. Whether or not the SEC considers or accedes to the request remains to be seen, but let’s hope that Ukraine’s victory is so swift that this rulemaking becomes entirely unnecessary.
The SEC’s Fall 2022 Reg-Flex Agenda—according to the preamble, compiled as of October 6, 2022, reflecting “only the priorities of the Chair”—has just been posted, and it looks like the SEC will have another frenetic year ahead dealing with new and pending proposals—and so will we. Describing the new agenda, SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that it “reflects the need to modernize our ruleset, moving deliberately to update our rules in light of ever-changing technologies and business models in the securities markets. Our ability to meet our mission depends on having an up-to-date rulebook—consistent with our mandate from Congress, guided by economic analysis, and shaped by public input.” Here are the short-term and long-term lists, which show all Corp Fin agenda items scheduled for action by either April or October 2023, with the first four months looking especially jam-packed. There’s no dispute that the agenda is laden with major proposals, and many of these proposals—climate disclosure, cybersecurity, SPACs, share buybacks—are apparently at the final rule stage. Implementing all of these proposals, if adopted, would likely represent a challenge for many companies; whether overwhelmingly so remains to be seen.
You might recall that this past proxy season witnessed a significant number of shareholder proposals related to ESG—from both sides of the aisle. (See this PubCo post.) One of those proposals was submitted by the National Center for Public Policy Research to The Kroger Co., which operates supermarkets, regarding the omission of consideration of “viewpoint” and “ideology” from its equal employment opportunity policy. Kroger sought to exclude the proposal as “ordinary business” under Rule 14a-8(i)(7), and Corp Fin concurred. After Corp Fin and the SEC refused reconsideration of the decision, the NCPPR petitioned the Fifth Circuit for review. Now, the National Association of Manufacturers has requested, and been granted, leave to intervene in the case, claiming that neither the federal securities laws nor the First Amendment allows the SEC to use Rule 14a-8 to compel companies to speak about contentious political or social issues, such as abortion, climate change, diversity or gun control, that are “unrelated to its core business or the creation of shareholder value.” That is, NAM isn’t just arguing about Corp Fin’s greenlighting of the exclusion of NCPPR’s proposal—in fact, NAM agrees that “Kroger should not be forced to include petitioners’ policy proposal in Kroger’s proxy statement.” Rather, NAM is upping the ante considerably by challenging whether the SEC has any business “dictat[ing] the content of public company proxy ballots and the topics on which shareholders are required to cast votes.” According to NAM’s Chief Legal Officer, “[m]anufacturers are facing an onslaught of activists seeking to hijack the proxy ballot to advance narrow political agendas, and the SEC has become a willing partner in the effort. The corporate proxy ballot is not the appropriate venue for policy decisions better made by America’s elected representatives, and manufacturers are regularly caught in the middle as activists on the left and the right bring fights from the political arena into the boardroom.”
Even the SEC’s new Reg Flex Agenda (which reflect the priorities of the SEC Chair) has now elicited a “dissent” from the two SEC Commissioners on the other side of the political aisle. In this statement, posted yesterday, Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman lambast the new Spring 2021 Agenda for “the regrettable decision to spend our scarce resources to undo a number of rules the Commission just adopted.” While the Agenda contains several “important and timely items”—which they identify as rules related to transfer agents and government securities alternative trading systems—the absence of other items was notable, including important rulemakings that would “provide clarity for digital assets, allow companies to compensate gig workers with equity, and revisit proxy plumbing.” (Of course, two of those rulemakings were not entirely absent, but have instead been moved to the long-term agenda. See this PubCo post.) Perhaps, they suggest, too much attention to undoing existing rules rather than creating new ones?
The SEC’s Spring 2023 Reg-Flex Agenda—according to the preamble, compiled as of April 10, 2023, reflecting “only the priorities of the Chair”—has now been posted. Here is the short-term agenda, which shows most Corp Fin agenda items targeted for action by October 2023, potentially making the next four months an especially frenetic period, with only a few proposal-stage items targeted for April 2024. And here is the long-term (maybe never) agenda. Describing the new agenda, SEC Chair Gary Gensler observed that “[t]echnology, markets, and business models constantly change. Thus, the nature of the SEC’s work must evolve as the markets we oversee evolve. In every generation since President Franklin Roosevelt’s, our Commission has updated its ruleset to meet the challenges of a new hour. Consistent with our legal mandate, guided by economic analysis, and informed by public comment, this agenda reflects the latest step in that long tradition.”
The short-term agenda includes a half dozen or so potential proposals that were on the Fall 2022 agenda, but didn’t quite make it out of the starting gate, such as plans for disclosure regarding corporate board diversity and human capital. Similarly, issues related to the private markets are still awaiting proposals. The question of why and how to address the decline in the number of public companies has, in the recent past, been a point of contention among the commissioners: is excessive regulation of public companies a deterrent to going public or has deregulation of the private markets juiced their appeal, but sacrificed investor protection in the bargain? That debate may play out in the coming months with two new proposals targeted for October this year: a plan to amend the definition of “holders of record” and a proposal to amend Reg D, including updates to the accredited investor definition. And the behemoth proposal regarding climate change disclosure—identified on the last agenda as targeted for final action but not considered for adoption on the schedule as planned—reappears on the current calendar with a later target date. Will that new target be met? Notably, political spending disclosure is, once again, not identified on the agenda. That’s because Section 633 of the Appropriations Act once again prohibits the SEC from using any of the funds appropriated “to finalize, issue, or implement any rule, regulation, or order regarding the disclosure of political contributions, contributions to tax exempt organizations, or dues paid to trade associations.”
The SEC has posted its Spring 2022 Reg-Flex agenda and it’s crammed with pending and new rulemakings—and they’re all going to be proposed or adopted in October! (Ok, admittedly, that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one.) Here is the short-term agenda and here is the long-term agenda. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the “U.S. is blessed with the largest, most sophisticated, and most innovative capital markets in the world….But we cannot take that for granted. As SEC alum Robert Birnbaum and his team said decades ago, ‘no regulation can be static in a dynamic society.’ That core idea still rings true today.” Gensler’s public policy goals for the agenda are “continuing to drive efficiency in our capital markets and modernizing our rules for today’s economy and technologies.” As with recent prior agendas, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce has almost no kind words for the agency’s plans—“flawed goals and a flawed method for achieving them.” In fact, she went so far as to characterize the agenda as “dangerous”: in her view, the agenda represents “the regulatory version of a rip current—fast-moving currents flowing away from shore that can be fatal to swimmers. Just as certain wave and wind conditions can create dangerous rip currents, the pace and character of the rulemakings on this agenda make for dangerous conditions in our capital markets.” There’s no dispute that the agenda is laden with major proposals—human capital, SPACs, board diversity. What’s more, many of these proposals—climate disclosure, cybersecurity, Rule 10b5-1—are apparently at the final rule stage. Whether or not we’ll see a load of public companies submerged by the rip tide of rulemakings remains to be seen, but there’s not much question that implementing them all would certainly be a challenge in any case.