Russell Reynolds identifies corporate governance trends for boards in 2020

Consultant Russell Reynolds Associates opens this report on 2020 corporate governance trends by observing that, “[f]or the first time, in 2020, we see the focus on the ‘E’ and the ‘S’ of environment, social and governance (ESG) as the leading trend globally, including in the United States, where it traditionally has not received as much attention by boards.” That conclusion—that sustainability has now ascended to the forefront of corporate governance trends—is reinforced by this year’s annual letter to CEOs from BlackRock CEO, Laurence Fink, announcing initiatives to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach,” as well as the Business Roundtable’s new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which outlined a “modern standard for corporate responsibility” that makes a commitment to all stakeholders. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) For its report, RRA interviewed over 40 governance professionals, including institutional and activist investors, pension fund managers and proxy advisors to “identify the corporate governance trends that will impact boards and directors in 2020.” Those trends are summarized below.

McKinsey looks at socioeconomic impact of climate risk

If you need a good scare, take a look at this study on climate risk from consultant McKinsey.  The study was the result of a year’s effort to measure the potential socioeconomic impact of climate change. As the risk of acute and chronic hazards intensifies, McKinsey assessed physical risk, looking at nine examples to illustrate the potential impact. Could this study focusing on socioeconomic impact have been one of factors driving BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink to put sustainability at the center of BlackRock’s investment strategy? (See this PubCo post.) According to the WSJ, “[c]limate crises in the next 30 years may resemble financial crises in recent decades: potentially quite destructive, largely unpredictable and, given the powerful underlying causes, inevitable. Climate has muscled to the top of business worries….Yet worrying about it isn’t the same as doing something about it.”  McKinsey suggests that climate change will “need to feature as a major factor in decisions. For companies, this will mean taking climate considerations into account when looking at capital allocation, development of products or services, and supply chain management, among others.” As the study asks, “could climate become the weak link in your supply chain?” The study makes plain that companies will need to think carefully about climate risk and its “knock-on effects” in considering, planning for and describing for investors the risks of their businesses. McKinsey also provides some questions for companies to consider in that regard.

In overwhelming bipartisan vote, House passes bill to address the 8-K trading gap

In 2015, an academic study, reported in the WSJ, showed that corporate insiders consistently beat the market in their companies’ shares in the four days preceding 8-K filings, the period that the researchers called the “8-K trading gap.” The study also showed that, when insiders engaged in open market purchases—relatively unusual transactions for insiders—during that trading gap, insiders “are correct about the directional impact of the 8-K filing more often than not—and that the probability that this finding is the product of random chance is virtually zero.” The WSJ article reported that, after reviewing the study, Representative Carolyn Maloney, D.N.Y., a member of the House Financial Services Committee, characterized the results as “troubling” and said she was preparing legislation to address the issue. Five years later, in January 2020, by a vote of 384 to 7, the House has passed HR 4335, the “8-K Trading Gap Act of 2019.” A substantially similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.  Given the remarkably bipartisan vote in the House—and assuming that the legislation isn’t suddenly tinged with politics—the bill appears likely to pass in the Senate as well…sometime.

BlackRock puts sustainability at the center of investment strategy, expects more transparency in sustainability disclosure

Was it the heartbreaking photos of scorched koalas in Australia?  Was it the pressure from activists such as As You Sow, which submitted a shareholder proposal asking for a report on how the company plans to implement the new Business Roundtable statement of purpose?  (See this PubCo post.) Was it the press reports, like this one in the NYT, highlighting what appeared to be stark inconsistencies between the company’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record? Was it the protests outside of the company’s offices by climate activists?  The letters from Senators? The charges of greenwashing? Whatever the precipitating factor, in this year’s annual letter to CEOs, Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, announced a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” What’s more, he made clear that companies need to step up their games when it comes to sustainability disclosure.

Audit committee chairs identify effective practices for audit quality improvement

In December, the PCAOB posted a report on the results of its 2019 conversations with almost 400 audit committee chairs, focused on audit committee perspectives on audit quality assessment and improvement, auditor communications, new auditing and accounting standards, and technology and innovation. Valuably, the report identifies practices—not necessarily endorsed by the PCAOB—that the committee chairs found to be most effective for improving audit quality across these categories. The report also includes a few PCAOB staff responses to FAQs raised during the conversations.

Will the Delaware Supreme Court revive exclusive federal forum provisions for ’33 Act claims?

Yesterday, the Delaware Supreme Court heard the appeal in Sciabacucchi v. Salzberg (pronounced Shabacookie!) in which the Chancery Court held invalid exclusive federal forum provisions for ’33 Act litigation in the charters of three Delaware companies. Few of the justices revealed their inclinations, so it’s difficult to predict the outcome.  We’ll have to wait for the Court’s final decision.

Trends and practices in director engagement with shareholders

In this article, representatives of The Conference Board and Rutgers Law School discuss the current phenomenon of  director engagement with shareholders.  While company managements have long engaged with shareholders at annual meetings and investor presentations, the notion of director engagement with shareholders is a more recent development.  Why is shareholder engagement increasingly being added to the job description of the corporate director?  The article posits several theories for the trend and, based on a survey of corporate secretaries, general counsel and investor relations officers at public companies, identifies the most common engagement topics, provides data on frequency of engagement and highlights emerging practices  related to director engagement.