This year’s PLI Securities Regulation Institute was a source for a lot of useful information and interesting perspectives. Panelists discussed a variety of topics, including climate disclosure (although no one shared any insights into the timing of the SEC’s final rules), proxy season issues, accounting issues, ESG and anti-ESG, and some of the most recent SEC rulemakings, such as pay versus performance, cybersecurity, buybacks and 10b5-1 plans. Some of the panels focused on these recent rulemakings echoed concerns expressed last year about the difficulty and complexity of implementation of these new rules, only this time, we also heard a few panelists questioning the rationale and effectiveness of these new mandates. What was the purpose of all this complication? Was it addressing real problems or just theoretical ones? Are investors really taking the disclosure into account? Is it all for naught? Pay versus performance, for example, was described as “a lot of work,” but, according to one of the program co-chairs, in terms of its impact, a “nothingburger.” (Was “nothingburger” the word of the week?) Aside from the agita over the need to implement the volume of complex rules, a key theme seemed to be the importance of controls and process—the need to have them, follow them and document that you followed them—as well as an intensified focus on cross-functional teams and avoiding silos. In addition, geopolitical uncertainty seems to be affecting just about everything. (For Commissioner Mark Uyeda’s perspective on the rulemaking process presented in his remarks before the Institute, see this PubCo post.) Below are just some of the takeaways, in no particular order.
It’s not just Mickey Mouse that’s feeling the heat from anti-ESG efforts lately. Reuters reports that, so far this year, legislators have filed about 99 so-called “ESG backlash” bills compared with only 39 in 2022; as of April 3, they report, “seven of the bills had been enacted into law, 20 were effectively dead, and 72 were still pending.” What are they about? A number of them are designed to protect fossil fuel companies from climate-related demands of various investment funds, while others relate to “hot-button environmental, social and governance (ESG) topics like abortion rights and firearms.” Not to mention the 68 anti-ESG proposals submitted this year to date (compared to 45 in 2022) as reported by Axios, citing data from the nonprofit Sustainable Investments Institute. According to the article, about a third of these proposals relate to corporate diversity endeavors, requesting that companies “report on the ‘risks’ that their anti-discrimination or racial justice efforts pose to their business.” Several others request that companies “avoid public policy positions unless there’s a business justification” or report on the risks arising out of their attempts to “achieve net zero” or other “decarbonization goals.” What is the fallout from these anti-ESG attempts? How can companies address the growing investor demands for ESG disclosure without—or perhaps despite—creating the impression among ESG opponents that they are just pursuing “an agenda”—or “Satan’s plan” according to Utah’s State Treasurer (as quoted in Reuters)?