On Thursday, in addition to voting to issue a new rule proposal regarding changes to MD&A and other financial disclosure requirements (see this PubCo post), the SEC also issued new companion guidance on the disclosure of key performance indicators and other metrics in MD&A. There has been an increase in investor interest in disclosure of KPIs and similar metrics, as part of MD&A and especially outside of MD&A, for example, in connection with sustainability reporting. (See this PubCo post.) Although the SEC’s guidance applies specifically in the context of MD&A, companies may want to take the guidance into account in other contexts as well.
On Thursday, once again without holding an open meeting, the SEC voted, with a dissent from Commissioner Allison Lee, to propose to simplify and modernize MD&A and the other financial disclosure requirements of Reg S-K. As summed up in the press release, the proposed amendments are intended to “eliminate duplicative disclosures and modernize and enhance Management’s Discussion and Analysis disclosures for the benefit of investors, while simplifying compliance efforts for companies.” The proposal is part of the SEC’s Disclosure Effectiveness Initiative and follows on the 2013 S-K Study, the Report on Review of Disclosure Requirements in Regulation S-K, required by Section 108 of the JOBS Act, and the 341-page 2016 concept release, which sought comment on modernizing certain business and financial disclosure requirements in Reg S-K (see this PubCo post). The proposal also took into account the staff’s experience with Reg S-K as part of Corp Fin’s disclosure review program. Once again, the proposal employs a more principles-based approach, describing the objectives of MD&A with the goal of eliciting more thoughtful, less rote analysis. Some of the proposed changes are fairly dramatic—such as eliminating selected financial data (Item 301), supplementary financial data (Item 302), and that pesky table of contractual obligations, or adding a requirement to disclose critical accounting estimates—while some just address moving parts and conforming changes. Whether the proposal, if adopted, actually leads to more nuanced, analytical disclosure remains to be seen. The proposal will be open for comment for 60 days.
You might recall that, at the end of October, proxy advisory firm ISS filed suit against the SEC and its Chair, Jay Clayton (or Walter Clayton III, as he is called in the complaint) in connection with the interpretation and guidance directed at proxy advisory firms issued by the SEC in August. (See this PubCo post.) That interpretation and guidance addressed the application of the proxy rules to proxy advisory firms, confirming that proxy advisory firms’ vote recommendations are, in the view of the SEC, “solicitations” under the proxy rules, subject to the anti-fraud provisions of Rule 14a-9, and providing some suggestions for disclosures that would help avoid liability. (See this PubCo post.) Then, in November, the SEC proposed amendments to the proxy rules to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms, codifying and elaborating on some of the earlier interpretation and guidance. (See this PubCo post.) As reported in Bloomberg, the SEC has now filed an Unopposed Motion to Hold Case in Abeyance, which would stay the litigation until the earlier of January 1, 2021 or the promulgation of final rules in the SEC’s proxy advisor rulemaking. In the Motion, the SEC confirmed that, during the stay, it would not enforce the interpretation and guidance. ISS did not oppose the stay, and the Court has granted that motion. As a result, this proxy season, companies should not expect proxy advisory firms to feel compelled to comply with the SEC interpretation and guidance, including advice to proxy advisors to provide certain disclosures to avoid Rule 14a-9 concerns.
Last week, the NYT, reporting from Davos, said that the “business titans” at the annual World Economic Forum seemed to show a “newfound enthusiasm” for the cause of climate change, rallying “around a consensus that accelerating global temperatures pose a significant risk to society—and to business. Missing, though, was a clear answer to the question of what exactly they would do about it and how quickly. ‘It’s an increase in rhetoric, absolutely,’ said one commentator, ‘Will we see a walking of the talking? The jury is out.’” One way that a group of some of the largest businesses at Davos, together with the Big Four accounting firms, have been trying to “walk the talking” is through an effort “to develop a core set of common metrics to track environmental and social responsibility.” Is it just virtue-signaling or will the effort toward creation of new metrics make a difference?
You might recall that in the FAST Act Modernization and Simplification of Regulation S-K, adopted last year, the SEC amended Item 303 of Reg S-K to provide that, where a company includes in the filing financial statements covering three years, the company may omit “discussion about the earliest of the three years…if such discussion was already included in the registrant’s prior filings on EDGAR…, provided that registrants electing not to include a discussion of the earliest year must include a statement that identifies the location in the prior filing where the omitted discussion may be found.” (See this PubCo post.) Notably, there was no specific condition in the new amendment that discussion of the earliest year not be material, although MD&A continued to be subject to an overarching materiality analysis. Corp Fin has now issued three new CDIs that address omission of the earliest year, summarized below.
SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee critical of SEC proposals on proxy advisory firms and shareholder proposals
At a meeting on Friday of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee members voted (ten in favor, five opposed, with two abstentions) to submit to the SEC a recommendation regarding SEC guidance and rule proposals on proxy advisory firms and shareholder proposals. The recommendation is highly critical of the guidance and of both proposals as unlikely to reliably achieve the SEC’s own stated goals, ultimately advising the SEC to rethink and republish the proposals and reconsider its guidance. (Apparently, the initial draft of the recommendations was even more of a scold, as the author, John Coates, indicated to the Committee that the current version reflected substantial revisions, including removing the word “failure” throughout.) The recommendation contends that the proposals and guidance are almost futile without addressing in parallel more basic proxy plumbing issues (as the Committee had previously recommended) (see this PubCo post), that none of the SEC’s actions at issue adequately identifies the underlying problems that are intended to be remedied, provides a sufficient cost/benefit analysis or discusses reasonable alternatives that might have been proposed. SEC advisory committees typically have a fair amount of sway, so time will tell whether the recommendation will lead the SEC to do any revamping of its actions.
What’s the news from Davos? Well, the new Goldman Sachs CEO made some news when he told CNBC that, starting July 1, in the U.S. and Europe, Goldman will take companies public only if there is “at least one diverse board candidate, with a focus on women…. And we’re going to move towards 2021 requesting two.” He continued that, recently, there have been about 60 companies in the U.S. and Europe that have gone public with all white, male boards. However, over the last four years, “the performance of public offerings of U.S. companies with at least one female director is ‘significantly better’ than those without.” [Emphasis added.] While he recognized that the decision could cause Goldman to lose some business, “in the long run,” he said, “this I think is the best advice for companies that want to drive premium returns for their shareholders over time.” Will other investment banks follow suit?