The SEC calls “technical glitch”—what happened to your comment letter?

Surprise!  The SEC has just reopened a slew of comment periods! Late Friday, the SEC announced that, as a result of a technical error, it had not received a number of electronically submitted comments for at least 11 rulemaking proposals.  Accordingly, it is reopening the comment periods for those identified proposals for an additional two weeks. Presumably, that also means that none of the affected proposals will be considered for adoption for at least two more weeks as the staff takes into account the new comments—pushing some of those proposals beyond their target dates in the Spring agenda. (See the “Octobers” on the agenda in this PubCo post.) Big exhale or big disappointment, depending on your point of view! What’s more, it turns out that some major proposals were affected, including the climate disclosure proposal. (You recognize, of course, that that means there were actually more than 4,000 unique comments on the climate proposal!) The announcement advises that everyone who submitted a public comment letter on one of the affected proposals through the SEC’s internet comment form between June 2021 and August 2022 should check the relevant comment file on SEC.gov to determine whether their comment letters were received and posted. If your letter has been posted, you can just relax. If it has not been posted, you should resubmit it. The reopening release provides instructions on how to resubmit comments electronically or on paper, which are pretty much the same way you could submit them in the first place, so good luck with that.

SEC charges Compass Minerals with disclosure violations resulting from “deficient disclosure process”

Toward the end of last month, the SEC announced settled charges against Compass Minerals International, Inc., for alleged disclosure violations that were “the consequence of a deficient disclosure process.”   In the Order, the SEC alleged that Compass misrepresented the impact of a technology upgrade at its Goderich mine—the world’s largest underground salt mine—which the company had claimed would lead to cost savings, but actually led to increased costs and below-expectation results.  Central to the case, however, was the purported failure of the company’s disclosure controls that resulted in the misleading statements: “statements to investors were not reviewed by personnel who were sufficiently knowledgeable about both Compass’s operations and its disclosure obligations.” The company was also charged with failing to disclose the potential financial risks arising out of the company’s contamination of a river in Brazil with excessive discharges of mercury, a failure the SEC also attributed to inadequate disclosure controls.  According to Melissa Hodgman, Associate Director of the Division of Enforcement, “[w]hat companies say to investors must be consistent with what they know. Yet Compass repeatedly made public statements that did not jibe with the facts on—or under—the ground at Goderich….By misleading investors about mining costs in Canada and failing to analyze the potential financial consequences of its environmental contamination in Brazil, Compass fell far short of what the federal securities laws require.” Compass agreed to pay $12 million to settle the charges. 

The FASB issues new ASU on supply chain financing arrangements

For several years, the SEC staff and advisory committees, credit rating agencies, investors, the Big Four accounting firms and other interested parties have been making noise about a popular financing technique called “supply chain financing.”  It can be a perfectly useful financing tool in the right hands—companies with healthy balance sheets.  But it can also disguise shaky credit situations and allow companies to go deeper into debt, often unbeknownst to investors and analysts, with sometimes disastrous ends. Moreover, there were no explicit GAAP disclosure requirements to provide transparency about a company’s use of supply chain financing. That may be why Bloomberg has referred to supply chain financing as “hidden debt.”  But that’s about to change. Last week, the FASB announced that it has issued a new Accounting Standards Update that enhances the transparency surrounding the use of supplier finance programs.  According to FASB Chair Richard Jones, the “FASB’s new ASU responds to requests from investors for greater transparency around a buyer’s use of supplier finance programs….It enhances transparency by requiring new disclosures intended to help them better consider the effect of these programs on a company’s working capital, liquidity, and cash flows over time.” The ASU will be effective for fiscal years beginning after December 15, 2022, including interim periods within those fiscal years, except for the amendment on rollforward information, which has a one-year delay.

NAM celebrates victory over SEC on non-enforcement of proxy advisory firm rules—what did it really win?

Last week, in an action by the National Association of Manufacturers against the SEC and Chair Gary Gensler, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas held that the SEC violated the Administrative Procedure Act when, in June 2021, Corp Fin stated that it would not recommend enforcement of the 2020 proxy advisory firm rules while those rules were under reconsideration. In 2022, however, the SEC formally adopted new amendments to the 2020 rules reversing some of the key provisions and, at the same time, rescinding Corp Fin’s non-enforcement statement. You might think that the adoption of the new 2022 rules and rescission of the non-enforcement statement would make NAM’s suit moot?  At least, that’s what the SEC seemed to think when it moved to dismiss NAM’s complaint in August 2022, contending that the relief NAM sought would now be “meaningless.” But, in mid-September, the Court denied the SEC’s motion—citing West Virginia v. EPA—and late last week, the same Court granted NAM’s summary judgment motion for declaratory and injunctive relief: the SEC’s “suspension” of the rules was vacated because it violated the APA, and the SEC was enjoined from refusing to acknowledge or recognize the 2020 rule’s compliance date.  NAM declared victory.  But was it a hollow victory? Not according to NAM.

The “737 MAX is as safe as any airplane that has ever flown the skies”— Boeing settles antifraud charges with SEC

In a kind of sad coda to the litany of claims, charges, investigations and litigation surrounding the tragic crashes in 2018 and 2019 of two Boeing 737 MAX airplanes and the heartbreaking deaths of 346 passengers, the SEC announced last week, as discussed in this Order, that the Boeing Company had agreed to pay $200 million to settle charges that it made materially misleading statements following the crashes, including statements assuring the public that the 737 MAX airplane was “as safe as any airplane that has ever flown the skies.”  (As discussed in this order, the CEO will pay $1 million to settle charges.) Of course, that settlement pales against the $2.5 billion settlement agreed on last year with Department of Justice to resolve a criminal charge related to a conspiracy to defraud the FAA in connection with the FAA’s evaluation of the Boeing’s 737 MAX airplane.  Also last year, as reported by the NYT, Boeing’s directors reached a $237.5 million settlement of Caremark claims filed in Delaware, which asserted that, as a result of the directors’ “complete failure to establish a reporting system for airplane safety,” and “their turning a blind eye to a red flag representing airplane safety problems,” the board consciously breached its fiduciary duty and violated corporate responsibilities and, as a result, should bear some responsibility for Boeing’s losses. (For a discussion of that case, see this PubCo post.) According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[t]here are no words to describe the tragic loss of life brought about by these two airplane crashes….In times of crisis and tragedy, it is especially important that public companies and executives provide full, fair, and truthful disclosures to the markets. The Boeing Company and its former CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, failed in this most basic obligation. They misled investors by providing assurances about the safety of the 737 MAX, despite knowing about serious safety concerns. The SEC remains committed to rooting out misconduct when public companies and their executives fail to fulfill their fundamental obligations to the investing public.” How do these things happen? The facts of the Boeing case may be instructive.

“The electronic Form 144 may be a big change, but it doesn’t have to feel like one!”

That’s the headline on a sidebar on the SEC’s newest Form 144 EDGAR page, providing psychological support and comfort to ease the trauma—I mean the transition—for new filers of electronic Forms 144.  You might recall that, in June, the SEC adopted rule amendments that require electronic submission of Forms 144 related to the sale of securities of Exchange Act reporting companies. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, in “fiscal year 2021, more than half of all filed Form 144 forms—30,000 in total—were filed on paper. In a digital age, it’s important for investors to have easy, online access to material information, rather than needing to visit SEC facilities to access that information. This is particularly important during Covid-19, which has made in-person visits to access these filings even more challenging. Even when access to physical copies isn’t restricted, there are other costs associated with paper filings. It costs investors money and time to travel to the SEC’s reading room. It costs the SEC money and time to process paper filings. These amendments will reduce costs and drive more efficiencies for investors, filers, and the SEC.”  (See this PubCo post.) The SEC has now posted the updated EDGAR Filer Manual instructions for electronic filing of Forms 144, commencing the transition; electronic filing will become mandatory in about six months. To facilitate the transition, the SEC has put together FAQs, step-by-instructions and a “wealth” of other resources to assist new electronic filers.  There’s even a communications toolkit with the message “Don’t panic!”

SEC charges executives with insider trading— purported 10b5-1 plan provided no defense

It may look like just another run-of-the-mill insider trading case, but there’s one difference in this settled SEC Enforcement action: according to the SEC, it involved sales under a purported 10b5-1 trading plan while in possession of material nonpublic information. As you probably know, to be effective in insulating an insider from potential insider trading liability, the 10b5-1 plan must be established when the insider is acting in good faith and not aware of MNPI. Creating the plan when the insider has just learned of MNPI, as alleged in this Order, well, kinda defeats the whole purpose of the rule.  That’s not how it’s supposed to work, and the two executives involved here—the CEO and President/CTO of Cheetah Mobile—found that out the hard way, with civil penalties of $556,580 and $200,254. The company’s CEO was also charged with playing a role in the company’s misleading statements and disclosure failures surrounding a material negative revenue trend.  According to the Chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Market Abuse Unit in this press release, “[w]hile trading pursuant to 10b5-1 plans can shield employees from insider trading liability under certain circumstances, these executives’ plan did not comply with the securities laws because they were in possession of material nonpublic information when they entered into it.”

SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee discusses human capital and beneficial ownership

On Wednesday, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee held a jam-packed meeting to discuss, among other matters, human capital disclosure and the SEC’s proposal on Schedule 13D beneficial ownership.   Wait, didn’t this Committee just have a meeting in June about human capital disclosure, part of the program about non-traditional financial information? (See this PubCo post.) Yes, but, as the moderator suggested, Wednesday’s program was really a “Part II” of that prior meeting, expanding the discussion from accounting standards for human capital disclosure to now consider other labor-related performance data metrics that may be appropriate for disclosure. The Committee also considered whether to make recommendations in support of the SEC’s proposals regarding cybersecurity disclosure and climate disclosure.

VMware charged with failure to disclose “backlog management practices”

Last week, the SEC brought a settled action against VMware, a provider of cloud-storage software and services, alleging that it misled shareholders by failing to disclose material information about its “managed pipeline” of orders in quarterly and annual Exchange Act reports, on earnings calls and in earnings releases during its 2019 and 2020 fiscal years.   According to the press release, the company used its “backlog management practices” to “push revenue into future quarters by delaying product deliveries to customers, concealing the company’s slowing performance relative to its projections.”  Interestingly, the charges in the SEC’s Order were not about funny accounting or even that favorite Enforcement standby, failure to maintain and comply with adequate disclosure controls and procedures. As VMware noted in a statement, the “SEC’s findings do not include any findings that the Company failed to comply with generally accepted accounting principles.”  Rather, the charges were about the disclosures about the accounting. “Although VMware publicly disclosed that its backlog was ‘managed based upon multiple considerations,’” the SEC said, “it did not reveal to investors that it used the backlog to manage the timing of the company’s revenue recognition.” VMware was ordered to cease and desist and pay a civil penalty of $8 million.  According to an Associate Director in the Division of Enforcement, “by making misleading statements about order management practices, VMware deprived investors of important information about its financial performance….Such conduct is incompatible with an issuer’s disclosure obligations under the federal securities laws.” 

SEC Chair Gensler faces Senate Committee—will the SEC moderate Scope 3 disclosure requirements?

Last week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler gave testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. While his prepared testimony largely revisited familiar themes, the Committee’s questioning offered a bit more insight. Committee Chair Senator Sherrod Brown cautioned at the outset that Republicans have “bellyached”—and he assumed would today—about Gensler’s “ambitious agenda,” but added that, “if Wall Street and its allies are complaining,” that means Gensler is doing his job. And right on cue, Ranking Member Senator Pat Toomey cast doubt on recent SEC actions that, he said, raised questions about how well the SEC was handling its responsibility to facilitate capital formation.  Where was the SEC, he asked, when some crypto lending platforms “blew up,” resulting in billions in losses?  And while the SEC has failed to provide regulatory clarity for the crypto market, he contended, it has instead been busy proposing many controversial and burdensome rules that are outside the SEC’s mission and authority. After West Virginia v. EPA (see this PubCo post), he warned, the SEC should consider itself to be on notice from the courts. In particular, some on the Committee—on both sides of the aisle—took aim at the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal—particularly Scope 3 disclosure—and Gensler’s responses made clear that he heard the criticisms, both from the Committee and from commenters, and that there would be some changes to the proposal as the SEC tries to “find a balance.” But far would those changes go?