Is there a business case for ESG?

Do companies that ignore long-term environmental or social costs in the pursuit of near-term profits pay another price in foregoing potentially long-term sustainable profit opportunities? The Business Case for ESG, from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, authored by Stanford academics and representatives of ValueAct Capital, considers a framework for incorporating sustainability or ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors into corporate strategy and decision-making.  The prevailing theory is that the failure to take sustainability into account is a component of short-termism, “leading to decisions that increase near-term reported profits at the expense of the long-term sustainability of those profits. The costs of those decisions are assumed to manifest themselves as externalities borne by members of the workforce or society at large.” The paper cites investors like Laurence Fink of BlackRock and innovative approaches like The New Paradigm as examples of efforts to encourage companies to take into account stakeholders other than solely shareholders. The paper suggests that, properly analyzed, sustainability can affect not only externalities, but can also benefit the business itself—there is a business case for ESG.

New PCAOB guidance on auditor communications regarding CAMs

The PCAOB has just published new guidance on auditors’ communication of critical audit matters in the auditor’s report.  The guidance includes some new FAQs related to how auditors should describe their principal considerations in determining CAMs, how they should describe audit procedures and the outcome of audit procedures, as well as the relationship between CAMs and company disclosures and the treatment of recurring CAMs.  While the FAQs are intended for auditors, they can provide some insight for company management into the process and the resulting auditor communications.

Whistleblower receives award after internal reporting resulted in SEC case

In February 2018, SCOTUS handed down its decision in Digital Realty v. Somers, holding that the Dodd-Frank whistleblower anti-retaliation protections apply only if the whistleblower blows the whistle all the way to the SEC; internal reporting to the company alone would not suffice. As Justice Gorsuch remarked during oral argument, the Justices were largely “stuck on the plain language” of the statute.  However, by requiring SEC reporting as a predicate, it was widely thought that the decision might have a somewhat perverse impact:  while the win by Digital would limit the liability of companies under Dodd-Frank for retaliation against whistleblowers who did not report to the SEC, the holding that whistleblowers were not protected unless they reported to the SEC could well discourage internal reporting by driving all securities-law whistleblowers directly to the SEC to ensure their protection from retaliation under the statute—which just might not be a consequence that many companies would favor. (See this PubCo post.)

The LTSE has just been approved as an exchange—will it make a difference?

Many have recently lamented the decline in the number of IPOs and public companies generally (about half the number since the boom in 1996), and numerous reasons have been offered in explanation, from regulatory burden to hedge-fund activism. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.)  In response, some companies are exploring different approaches to going public, leading to a resurgence in SPACs and the launch of IPOs as “direct listings,” which avoid the underwritten IPO process altogether.   At the same time, companies are seeking ways to address some of the perceived drawbacks associated with being public companies—including the pressures of short-termism, the risks of activist attacks and potential loss of control of companies’ fundamental mission—through dual-class structures and other approaches.  Even the SEC is currently planning a roundtable to address the causes of and potential solutions to short-termism. (See this PubCo post.) Changing dynamics are not, however, limited to the IPO process itself.  And one of the most interesting concepts designed to address these issues on completely different turf was just approved by the SEC this month—a novel concept for a stock exchange located in San Francisco, the Long-Term Stock Exchange.  The concept has been in the works for a couple of years now and is backed by some heavy-hitting investors.  According to the LTSE’s founder and CEO, the “IPO is like a wedding. The IPO process is, what kind of wedding planner do you hire? What kind of wedding do you want to have? But being a public company is you’re now married to the public markets for the rest of your life. People have mostly focused on the IPO process — it’s like making the wedding more efficient….That’s not the problem. The problem is we have to live like this forever.”  How will the new Exchange seek to improve this “married life” going forward?

Coming this summer: SEC roundtable on the impact of short-termism

Yesterday, SEC Chair Jay Clayton announced that the SEC will be holding a roundtable this summer to discuss “the impact of short-termism on our capital markets and whether our reporting system, or other aspects of our regulations, should be modified to address these concerns…. The SEC staff roundtable will seek to explore the causes of short-termism and to facilitate conversations on what market-based initiatives and regulatory changes could foster a longer-term performance perspective in American companies.” In his statement, Clayton observed that, in light of increases in life expectancy, together with the greater responsibility of “Main Street investors” for their own retirements—largely as a result of the shift from the security of company pensions to 401(k)s and IRAs—the needs of these investors have changed: “Main Street investors are more than ever focused on long-term results.” However,  from time to time, they also “need liquidity. In other words, at some point, long-term investors do become sellers. The SEC’s disclosure rules should reflect and foster these needs—long-term perspective and liquidity when needed.” To that end, the goal of the roundtable is not just to discuss the problems associated with short-termism, but also to promote “further dialogue on the causes of and potential solutions to the issue.”

SEC proposes narrow carve-out to exempt low-revenue smaller reporting companies from the SOX 404(b) auditor attestation requirement (UPDATED)

[This post has been updated primarily to reflect the contents of the proposing release as well as the statement of Commissioner Hester Peirce.]

Those of you who expected the SEC to go big and propose raising the current threshold for status as an “accelerated filer” to be commensurate with the cap for “smaller reporting companies” will be sorely disappointed, as will anyone looking for regulatory simplification and harmonization. Nevertheless, the SEC did address the big elephant in the room—the SOX 404(b) auditor attestation requirement—with a measured, narrowly tailored exception that attempted to thread the needle with regard to the controversy over exempting additional companies from SOX 404(b), viewed by some as a critical investor protection. However, the resulting framework proposed for determining filer categories and requirements adds another layer of complexity to the current labyrinth, including some rather head-spinning new transition provisions. Will anyone—other than low-revenue smaller reporting companies—be happy with the result?

SEC proposes narrow carve-out to allow low-revenue smaller reporting companies to avoid SOX 404(b) auditor attestation requirement

Those of you who expected the SEC to go big and propose raising the current threshold for status as an “accelerated filer” to be commensurate with the cap for “smaller reporting companies” will be sorely disappointed. Nevertheless, the SEC did address the big elephant in the room—SOX 404(b)—with a narrowly tailored exception.

At an open meeting this morning, the SEC voted (by a vote of three to two, with Commissioner Robert Jackson dissenting) to propose amendments to the accelerated filer and large accelerated filer definitions that provide a narrow carve-out from these  definitions for companies that qualify as smaller reporting companies and reported less than $100 million in annual revenues in the most recent fiscal year for which audited financial statements were available. As a result, if the proposal were adopted, those companies would no longer need to comply with the shorter timeframes applicable to accelerated filers and large accelerated filers for filing periodic reports.  And, most significantly, the proposed revision would mean that those companies qualifying for the carve-out would no longer be subject to the SOX 404(b) auditor attestation requirement, which has been anathema to many deregulation advocates.  Notably, companies with a public float between $75 million and $250 million would still be subject to the accelerated filer requirements unless their revenues were under the $100 million revenue cap. The proposal, which has not yet been posted, would also increase from $50 million to $60 million the transition thresholds for accelerated and large accelerated filers to become a non-accelerated filer and increase the threshold for exiting large accelerated filer status from $500 million to $560 million.  In addition, the proposal would add a revenue test to the transition thresholds for exiting both accelerated and large accelerated filer status.  (Here is the press release.) There is a 60-day comment period. (The proposing release has just now been posted. Check this space for updates.)