SEC proposes new obligations for proxy advisory firms and changes to rules for shareholder proposals
Are issuers precluded from raising concerns about proxy advisory firm recommendations, particularly errors and incomplete or outdated information that form the basis of a recommendation? Are firm conflicts of interest insufficiently transparent? Are proxy advisory firms an effective “market-based solution” helping large numbers of institutional investors with time and resource constraints make better voting decisions? Are proxy advisory firms “faux regulators,” wielding too much influence—with too little accountability—in corporate elections and other corporate matters? Maybe all of the above? At an open meeting this morning, the SEC voted, with two dissents, to propose amendments to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms and to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by increasing the eligibility and resubmission thresholds. These actions represent the third phase of the SEC’s efforts to address the proxy voting system, the first phase being the proxy process roundtable (see this PubCo post) and the second phase being the SEC’s recently issued interpretation and guidance (see this PubCo post). As anticipated, at the meeting, the commissioners expressed strong views on these topics, with Chair Jay Clayton observing that a “system in which five individuals accounted for 78% of all the proposals submitted by individual shareholders” needs some work, and Commissioner Robert Jackson characterizing the proposal as swatting “a gadfly with a sledgehammer.” Both proposals are subject to 60-day comment periods. Next up, according to Clayton, proxy plumbing and universal proxy.
Does appointment of a former partner of the client’s audit firm to the client’s audit committee impair audit quality?
Studies of former partners of audit firms that have assumed management positions at audit clients have raised concerns, at least pre-SOX, about potentially lower audit quality, perhaps reflecting hesitation by the audit firm to “challenge aggressive accounting decisions” made by former partners of their firms. But what happens when a former partner joins the audit client’s audit committee? Does the former partner feel pressured not to question the audit firm’s decisions or lose objectivity about the quality of the work of the audit firm? Does the audit firm feel pressured to accept the company’s more aggressive accounting decisions when a former partner sits on the audit committee? In this study, published in Auditing: a Journal of Practice & Theory, a group of academics looked at that question. Their conclusion was that affiliated former partners on audit committees actually led to improved audit processes and outcomes. Why? Applying psychology’s “social identity theory,” the authors posit that the former partners continued to identify with their former firms, but instead of losing their objectivity, the former audit partners “use their knowledge of, and identification with, the audit firm to improve the audit process and the communication between the two parties,” leading to improvement in audit quality.
Today, 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 (referred to as the “Proxy Adviser Release” in the complaint) confirmed that proxy advisory firms’ vote recommendations are, in the view of the SEC, “solicitations” under the proxy rules and subject to the anti-fraud provisions of Rule 14a-9. In its complaint, ISS contends that the Proxy Adviser Release is unlawful and its application should be enjoined for a number of reasons, including that the SEC’s determination that providing proxy advice is a “solicitation” is contrary to law, that the SEC failed to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act and that the views expressed in the Release were arbitrary and capricious.
Interestingly, the litigation comes right before the SEC is scheduled to consider and vote (on November 5) on a proposal to amend certain exemptions from the proxy solicitation rules to provide for disclosure, primarily by proxy advisory firms such as ISS and Glass Lewis, of material conflicts of interest and to set forth procedures to facilitate issuer and shareholder engagement and otherwise improve information provided. There are various rumors circulating about the details of the proposal, including this Reuters article stating that the proposal would require proxy advisory firms to “give companies two chances to review proxy materials before they are sent to shareholders.” (Note that also on the agenda is a proposal to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by changing the submission and resubmission requirements.) Whether the firms’ advice is a “solicitation” takes on particular significance given that the SEC’s anticipated proposal appears to be predicated on the firms’ reliance on the exemptions from the proxy solicitation rules.
Yikes! What is going on at the PCAOB? You may recall that, back in 2018, former staffers at the PCAOB and former partners of KPMG were charged by the SEC in connection with “their participation in a scheme to misappropriate and use confidential information relating to the PCAOB’s planned inspections of KPMG.” You know, that case where the former PCAOB staffers were accused of leaking to KPMG the plans for PCAOB inspections of KPMG—“literally stealing the exam.” (See this PubCo post.) The same scheme led the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the SDNY to file criminal charges against the former staffers, and some have actually been sentenced to prison. But that’s not even the half of it.
The SEC today slipped a new proposal in on us, without an open meeting or even so much as a press release. Could they perhaps have had a premonition that we might not be spellbound in reading it? The proposal is intended to modernize filing fee disclosure and payment methods, which are currently manual and labor-intensive. The proposal would amend almost everything—“most fee-bearing forms, schedules, statements, and related rules”—to require each fee table and accompanying explanatory notes (which would be expanded by the proposal) to include “all required information for fee calculation in a structured format.” You know what that means—more inline XBRL. The proposed amendments would add an option for fee payment using Automated Clearing House (“ACH”) and retain the current option for payment by wire transfer, but eliminate fee payment with paper checks and money orders. According to the proposing release, the proposed amendments “are intended to improve filing fee preparation and payment processing by facilitating both enhanced validation through fee structuring and lower-cost, easily routable payments through the ACH payment option.”
What are companies disclosing about their efforts to oversee cybersecurity risk? In this article, Ernst & Young analyzes cybersecurity-related disclosures in the proxy statements and Forms 10-K of Fortune 100 companies from 2018 to 2019, focusing on disclosure regarding board oversight, cybersecurity risk and risk management. Building on its similar analysis conducted for 2018 (see this PubCo post), EY detected “modest” enhancements in disclosures compared to the prior year—most significantly regarding board oversight practices—although the depth, detail and company-specificity of the disclosures continued to vary widely. Nevertheless, based on its observations of companies’ activities in the market, EY found that even these enhanced disclosures sometimes failed to capture all of a company’s oversight activities, such as third-party independent assessments or tabletop exercises designed to enhance preparedness. Given that many stakeholders have interests in cybersecurity risk preparedness and board oversight, EY advises, enhanced disclosure can serve to build “stakeholder confidence and trust as the cybersecurity risk landscape evolves and as technological innovations raise the stakes for data privacy and protections.”