Today, in light of the continuing impact of COVID-19, the SEC issued an order extending the filing periods covered by its previous conditional reporting relief. The order provides public companies with a 45-day extension to file or furnish specified SEC filings that would otherwise have been due between March 1 and July 1, 2020. The order supersedes and extends the SEC’s original order of March 4, 2020, which had applied to filings due between March 1 and April 30, 2020. As SEC Chair Jay Clayton observed, “[h]ealth and safety continue to be our first priority….These actions provide temporary, targeted relief to issuers, investment funds and investment advisers affected by COVID-19. At the same time, we encourage public companies to provide current and forward-looking information to their investors and, in these uncertain times, companies are reminded that they can take steps to avail themselves of the safe harbor in Section 21E of the Exchange Act for forward-looking statements.” At the same time, the staff of Corp Fin issued Disclosure Guidance Topic No. 9, which offers the staff’s views regarding disclosure considerations and other securities law obligations in the context of COVID-19 and related uncertainties (to be covered in a separate post). The SEC encourages companies to contact the SEC staff with questions or matters of particular concern, such as administrative issues related to inability to obtain a required signature due to a quarantine or other issues that may need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Reg FD cases rarely get to court, but here’s one that, barring a settlement, appears to be headed to trial. In a 129-page opinion in SEC v. AT&T, 9/08/22, the federal district court for the SDNY denied summary judgment for both sides in a case the SEC brought in March of 2021 against AT&T and three members of its Investor Relations Department for violations of Reg FD. (See this PubCo post.) The SEC alleged that, in March 2016, AT&T learned that, as a result of a “steeper-than-expected decline in smartphone sales,” AT&T’s first quarter revenues would fall short of analysts’ estimates by over a $1 billion. Given that AT&T had missed consensus revenue estimates in two of the three preceding quarters, AT&T, it was alleged, embarked on a “campaign” to beat consensus revenue estimates for Q1: the three defendant IR employees were asked by the CFO and IR Director to contact the analysts whose estimates were too high to “walk” them down. As part of that campaign, the SEC alleged, they selectively disclosed the company’s “projected or actual total revenue, and internal metrics bearing on total revenue, including wireless equipment revenue and wireless equipment upgrade rates.” The campaign worked. But—and it’s a big but—it also led the SEC to bring claims against AT&T for violating Reg FD, and against the three IR employees for aiding and abetting that violation. As to AT&T and the other defendants, the Court was not persuaded by their arguments that there was insufficient evidence to support the SEC’s claims of a Reg FD violation, nor did the Court agree that Reg FD was “invalid” under the First Amendment. And, as to the SEC, while the Court viewed as “formidable” the evidence showing that the information at issue was material, nonpublic and selectively disclosed, the question of scienter was a closer one, and a reasonable jury could find for the defendants on that point.
SEC Chair Jay Clayton has streamlined the Regulatory Flexibility Act Agenda to limit it to the rulemakings that the SEC actually expects to take up in the subsequent period. Clayton has previously said that the short-term agenda signifies rulemakings that the SEC actually plans to pursue in the following 12 months. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The SEC’s Fall 2019 short-term and long-term agendas have now been posted, reflecting priorities as of August 7, the date on which the SEC’s staff completed compilation of the data. Items on the short- and long-term agendas are discussed below.
It’s well recognized that the equity markets work pretty well for companies that trade in high volumes, but companies with low trading volumes? Not so much. Thinly traded securities often face liquidity challenges, including wider spreads, higher transaction costs, fewer market makers and potential difficulties for investors that seek to unwind their positions. These issues can discourage small- and medium-sized enterprises from accessing the public markets, a problem that the SEC has been anxious to address. To find potential solutions for these problems, in October 2019, the SEC solicited proposals for changes in equity market structure designed to improve the secondary trading markets for thinly traded securities. Nasdaq has just announced that it has submitted to the SEC an application for exemptive relief that would facilitate its proposal “to establish a tier nestled [sounds very cozy!] within the U.S. public equity markets that is better tailored and far more hospitable to thinly-traded securities than is the all-purpose, undifferentiated market environment in which they suffer today.”
You might think Congress would be too busy these days—what with a pandemic raging across the U.S., looming economic catastrophe and spiraling unemployment—to worry about the resubmission thresholds for shareholder proposals, but nope, they’re all over it. In the latest version of the appropriations bill passed in the House, known as the ‘‘Defense, Commerce, Justice, Science, Energy and Water Development, Financial Services and General Government, Homeland Security, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Act, 2021’’ for short, the bill authorizes funding for the SEC, while at the same time, putting the kibosh on various items on the SEC’s Spring RegFlex agenda (see this PubCo post)—and even on regulations that have already been adopted. But whether these provisions survive or are jettisoned in the Senate is another question.
Earlier this week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler gave the keynote address for an investor briefing on the SEC Climate Disclosure Rule presented by nonprofit Ceres. In his remarks, entitled “Building Upon a Long Tradition,” Gensler vigorously pressed his case that the SEC’s new climate disclosure proposal (see this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post) was comfortably part of the conventional tapestry of SEC rulemaking. Growing out of the core bargain of the 1930s that let investors “decide which risks to take, as long as public companies provide full and fair disclosure and are truthful in those disclosures,” Gensler observed, the SEC’s disclosure regime has continually expanded—adding disclosure requirements about financial performance, MD&A, management, executive comp and risk factors. Over the generations, the SEC has “stepped in when there’s significant need for the disclosure of information relevant to investors’ decisions.” As has been the case historically, the SEC, he insisted, “has a role to play in terms of bringing some standardization to the conversation happening between issuers and investors, particularly when it comes to disclosures that are material to investors.” The proposed rules, he said, “would build on that long tradition.” But has everyone bought into that view?
Development International has posted its most recent Conflict Minerals Benchmarking Study, analyzing the results of filings for the 2016 filing period. The study looked at filings submitted by the 1,153 issuers that had filed conflict minerals disclosures as of July 10, 2017. The number of issuers filing disclosures for 2016 reflected a decline of 5.6% compared to 2015. Most interesting, however, is that, notwithstanding statements from Corp Fin, echoed by the Acting SEC Chair at the time, advising companies that they would not face enforcement if they filed only a Form SD and did not include a conflict minerals report, the vast majority of companies continued to file conflict minerals reports.
SEC Chair Jay Clayton has repeatedly made a point of his intent to take the Regulatory Flexibility Act Agenda “seriously,” streamlining it to show what the SEC actually expected to take up in the subsequent period. (Clayton has previously said that the short-term agenda signifies rulemakings that the SEC actually planned to pursue in the following twelve months. See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The SEC’s Spring 2019 short-term and long-term agendas have now been posted, reflecting the Chair’s priorities as of March 18, when the agenda was compiled. What stands out is not so much the matters that show up on the short-term agenda—although there are plenty of significant proposals to keep us all busy—but rather the legislatively mandated items that have taken up protracted residency on the long-term (i.e., the maybe never) agenda.
by Cydney Posner Bloomberg BNA is reporting that the State Department has launched a new review of “how best to support responsible sourcing of conflict minerals,” which will continue through April 28. Although it’s not known whether the SEC is involved in the State Department’s efforts, BNA suggests that the […]
In a speech delivered by video to the Securities Regulation Institute in San Diego, SEC Chair Jay Clayton shed some light (but just a little) on the anticipated completion of the rulemaking mandates under Dodd-Frank.