Spooktacular Cooley Alert on the new EU rules on ESG and their application to US companies

Trick or treat!  Public companies in the US may be haunted by concerns about the breadth and complexity of the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal, but if you are a US company with a presence in the EU, you may have something new to spook you—and it‘s not a ghost. We’re talking about expansive ESG reporting requirements under new EU rules expected to be finalized this fall.

SEC adopts final rules on compensation clawbacks in the event of financial restatements—“Big R” and “little r”

You might remember back to 2015 when the SEC initially proposed rules to implement Section 954 of Dodd-Frank, the clawback provision. The SEC did not then consider adoption of the proposal in the ordinary course, instead relegating it to the long-term agenda, where it was never heard from again. Until, that is, the topic found a spot on the SEC’s short-term agenda in 2021 (see this PubCo post) with a target date for a re-proposal of April 2022. Instead of a re-proposal, however, a year ago, the SEC simply posted a notice announcing that it was re-opening the comment period and posing a number of questions for public comment.  (See this PubCo post.) One possible change suggested by the SEC’s questions was a potential expansion of the concept of “restatement” to include not only “reissuance,” or “Big R,” restatements (which involve a material error and an 8-K), but also “revision” or “little r” restatements. Then, in June of this year, DERA issued a new staff memorandum addressing in part the restatement question, which led the SEC to once again re-open the comment period.  Finally, the SEC has concluded that, after more than seven years, the proposal has marinated long enough. Time to serve it up. Accordingly, at an open meeting yesterday, the SEC adopted, by a vote of—surprise!—three to two, new rules that direct the national securities exchanges to establish listing standards requiring listed issuers to adopt and comply with a clawback policy and to provide disclosure about the policy and its implementation. The clawback policy must provide that, in the event the listed issuer is required to prepare an accounting restatement—including a “little r” restatement—the issuer must recover the incentive-based compensation that was erroneously paid to its current or former executive officers based on the misstated financial reporting measure. Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented, contending that, among other problems, the rule was too broad and too prescriptive. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the key word here is “erroneously,” that is, the rule requires recovery of compensation to which the officers were never entitled in the first place. In his statement at the meeting, Gensler indicated that he believes “that these rules will strengthen the transparency and quality of corporate financial statements, investor confidence in those statements, and the accountability of corporate executives to investors….Through today’s action and working with the exchanges, we have the opportunity to fulfill Dodd-Frank’s mandate and Congress’s intention to prevent executives from keeping compensation received based on misstated financials.”

SEC’s Small Business Advisory Committee hears glimmers of positive news about the IPO market

Recently, at a meeting of the SEC’s Small Business Advisory Committee, a panel provided an update on the state of play of the IPO market.  While IPO activity—traditional IPOs, SPACs and direct listings—was off-the-charts in the second half of 2020 and throughout 2021, geopolitical upheavals, market volatility, inflationary pressure, economic uncertainty and fears of recession have put a dent in the data.  Quite a dent—the number of equity capital markets offerings has decreased 73% compared to a year ago, according to one of the panelists.  But does that mean the IPO market is broken? Not at all.  Despite the recent relatively moribund market, companies are continuing to prepare for IPOs and submit confidential filings to the SEC with the intent of going forward when an opening is in sight. As one of the two panelists observed, “despite the 2022 IPO drought, the pipeline for companies looking to access the public markets at some point in the future remains strong.” According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler’s statement at the meeting, “naturally, the number of IPOs ebbs and flows over the course of different economic and market cycles. We are living in one of those transitional times right now, shaped by economic uncertainty relating to the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, and central banks shifting from an accommodating to a tightening policy stance. What I am most interested in is the advice you might have for the long-term regarding traditional IPOs, Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs), and direct listings.” And he did hear some of that advice, albeit preliminarily, from the Committee. 

Final climate rules are months away, reports Bloomberg

Here’s a big scoop from Bloomberg: the “SEC is months away from finalizing expansive new climate disclosure requirements as the agency juggles investor demands for more transparency, tech glitches and a tough Republican legal threat.”   Are you really surprised though? That was a substantial, complex undertaking that elicited thousands of comments and a lot of pressure from opponents and proponents. Then, in July, came another challenge, as SCOTUS handed down West Virginia v EPA, which, although not directly addressing the SEC’s climate proposal, sure seemed to put a bull’s eye on it. (See this PubCo post.) Not to mention the SEC’s technical glitch, which led to a reopening of the comment period for a couple of weeks until November 1. (See this PubCo post.) That alone would have been enough to smoke the October target date set in the most recent SEC agenda.  (See this PubCo post.)  But what is real timeframe? Well, who knows. According to Bloomberg, SEC Chair Gary “Gensler has declined to give a timeline for finishing the climate regulations in recent public appearances, repeatedly pointing to thousands of comments that still need to be reviewed.” Bloomberg also reports that SEC “officials in private conversations have given no indication they’ll finish the rules this year, according to several people in contact with the agency.”

ISS releases results of 2022 global benchmark policy survey

ISS has released the results of its annual global benchmark policy survey, a survey that is used every year as part of ISS’ policy development process.  This year, the survey included a number of questions on climate change risk management—including board accountability, management say-on-climate proposals, climate risk as a critical audit matter, financed emissions and climate expectations—and then addressed other governance issues such as potential policy exemptions for multi-class capital structures, handling of problematic governance structures and views on proposals calling for third-party racial equity and civil rights audits. ISS received 417 responses to this year’s survey, including 205 from institutional investors or investor-affiliated organizations (an increase of 29% over last year) and 202 responses from companies and corporate-affiliated organizations, with the remainder from academic and other responders. Not surprisingly, investor and non-investor respondents often had disparate views.

Are auditors falling down on the job of detecting fraud?

Paul Munter, the SEC’s Acting Chief Accountant, seems to think so. In this Statement, Munter expresses his concern that, in conducting audits, auditors are not adequately making use of the “fraud lens”—a focus on the consideration of fraud in the audit—in fulfilling their gatekeeper role. That is, auditors may not be adequately responding to fraud risks and red flags or otherwise exercising “professional skepticism.” It is critical, he said, that auditors evaluate whether the audit has surfaced information that may be indicative of fraud and “how fraud could be perpetrated or concealed by management.” Are auditors exhibiting a type of bias, focusing risk assessments on risks of error and essentially overlooking or minimizing risks of fraud?  In light of Munter’s statement, companies could well find that their auditors may be doubling down on their application of professional skepticism. What’s more, some of Munter’s recommendations may prove useful for companies in establishing their own ethics environments and conducting their own fraud risk assessments.

Jon Stewart interviews SEC Chair Gary Gensler—an acronym bonanza?

Here’s an unexpected pair: Jon Stewart interviewing SEC Chair Gary Gensler on his podcast, The Problem with Jon Stewart. In many ways, the interview was remarkably financially sophisticated, with acronyms like “PFOF” tossed around pretty casually, not to mention “naked shorts,” “best execution,” “dark pools” and “lit markets.”  Somebody definitely did his homework.

Is there an “ESG backlash” among CFOs?

While a recent survey of CEOs (discussed in this PubCo post yesterday) showed increasingly favorable reactions to ESG and its potential impact—transforming ESG “from a nice-to-have to integral to long-term financial success”— what about CFOs? According to this survey of CFOs from CNBC, they’re just not all that into it. Granted, this survey of CFOs was minuscule compared to the KPMG survey of CEOs—actually, compared to any survey. But the results were strikingly different. CNBC labeled it an “ESG backlash.”

How do CEOs view ESG?

KPMG has recently posted its 2022 CEO Outlook. With inflation raging and a possible recession looming, KPMG found that CEOs were “ready and prepared to weather current geopolitical and economic challenges while still anticipating long-term global growth.” According to the survey, confidence in economic growth over the next three years has risen to 71%. Of particular interest were the survey results related to ESG.  According to KPMG, “ESG has gone from a nice-to-have to integral to long-term financial success.” But will a potential recession curtail their enthusiasm?

Corp Fin issues new Section 16 and Section 13 CDIs related to ETFs

Corp Fin has issued a few new CDIs—two relating to Section 16 and one relating to beneficial ownership under Rule 13d-3. The new CDIs address issues in connection with exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, and the use of “informational barriers.”