Late Friday, the SEC announced that its Spring 2021 Regulatory Flexibility Agenda—both short-term and long-term—has now been posted. And it’s a doozy. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, to meet the SEC’s “mission of protecting investors, maintaining fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitating capital formation, the SEC has a lot of regulatory work ahead of us.” That’s certainly an understatement. While former SEC Chair Jay Clayton considered the short-term agenda to signify rulemakings that the SEC actually planned to pursue in the following 12 months, Gensler may be operating under a different clock. What stands out here are plans for disclosure on climate and human capital (including diversity), cybersecurity risk disclosure, Rule 10b5-1, universal proxy and SPACs. In addition, with a new sheriff in town, some of the SEC’s more recent controversial rulemakings of the last year or so may be revisited, such as Rule 14a-8. The agenda also identifies a few topics that are still just at the pre-rule stage—i.e., just a twinkle in someone’s eye—such as gamification (behavioral prompts, predictive analytics and differential marketing) and exempt offerings (updating the financial thresholds in the accredited investor definition and amendments to the integration framework). Notably, political spending disclosure is not expressly identified on the agenda, nor is there a reference to a comprehensive ESG disclosure framework (see this PubCo post). Below is a selection from the agenda.
Audit firm Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity have just released the Missing Pieces Report: The Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards, a study examining the representation of women and racial/ethnic minorities (including Black, Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic persons) on public company boards among the Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies. The analysis of the Fortune 100 began in 2004 and the Fortune 500 in 2010, based on public filings reviewed through the end of June 2020. The Report finds that the rate of change has been quite slow, espcially for some demographic groups. It remains to be seen whether the social unrest roiling the U.S. body politic—which has brought systemic racial inequity and injustice, exacerbated by the pandemic, into sharp focus—together with actions to mandate or encourage board diversity, such as California’s AB 979 or, if approved, the Nasdaq board diversity proposal, will accelerate the rate of change evidenced in the Report.
Board diversity and how (and whether) to try to achieve it is a topic that has certainly appeared on a lot of corporate governance agendas in the last few years. Institutional investors have applied pressure on corporations, shareholders have submitted precatory proposals for shareholder votes, investment banks have insisted on diverse boards as preconditions for taking companies public, and California and a number of other states have adopted legislation, whether it be a board diversity mandate, a soft target or simply a disclosure requirement. Most recently, Nasdaq filed with the SEC a proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure, adopting a comply-or-explain approach. According to Nasdaq’s President and CEO, Adena Friedman, “Nasdaq’s purpose is to champion inclusive growth and prosperity to power stronger economies….Our goal with this proposal is to provide a transparent framework for Nasdaq-listed companies to present their board composition and diversity philosophy effectively to all stakeholders; we believe this listing rule is one step in a broader journey to achieve inclusive representation across corporate America.” Interestingly, however, the NYSE has not followed suit. In fact, in an interview on Bloomberg TV in December, NYSE President Stacey Cunningham said, when asked about the Nasdaq proposal, that it was not something that they were considering adopting at the NYSE: “When we use exchange listing standards to require things like diversity profiles or others, we’re defining the investable universe…. We just don’t think we should be using our listing standards because that forces our views on investors and prevents them from being able to make the choices that they want to make and that they are making.” In contrast to the SEC, whose remit is largely disclosure, the exchanges regularly impose corporate governance requirements. Should board diversity be one of them?
Although an audit firm might not be the first place you’d look for advice on board behavioral psychology, here’s an exception: a really interesting article from PwC about board dynamics and psychological biases that can impede boards from optimal performance and decision-making. The article identifies four common biases—authority bias, groupthink, status quo bias and confirmation bias—and provides clues for recognizing when your board might be afflicted with any of these problems, along with tips to address them. Well worth a read!
You probably remember that, late last year, Nasdaq filed with the SEC a proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure. The new listing rules would adopt a “comply or explain” mandate for board diversity for most listed companies and require companies listed on Nasdaq’s U.S. exchange to publicly disclose “consistent, transparent diversity statistics” regarding the composition of their boards. The proposal received a substantial number of comments, many of which were favorable and some of which were highly critical. For those of you who expected a speedy approval of this proposal by the SEC, you may need to reset your expectations.
Democrats and Republicans are busy “lobbying” the SEC these days. Republicans want the SEC to nix Nasdaq’s proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure. Democrats want the SEC to beef up its insider trading rules in connection with Rule 10b5-1 plans. Will either find a receptive audience?
In his 2021 letter to directors, Cyrus Taraporevala, President and CEO of State Street Global Advisors, one of the largest institutional investors, announced SSGA’s main stewardship priorities for 2021: systemic risks associated with climate change and the absence of racial and ethnic diversity. SSGA intends, he said, “to hold boards and management accountable for progress on providing enhanced transparency and reporting on these two critical topics.” SSGA’s new voting policies reflect those intentions.
Yesterday, Nasdaq announced that it has filed with the SEC a proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure. If approved, it would likely be a game changer. The new listing rules would adopt a “comply or explain” mandate for board diversity for most listed companies and require companies listed on Nasdaq’s U.S. exchange to publicly disclose “consistent, transparent diversity statistics” regarding the composition of their boards. The announcement indicates that the goal is to “provide stakeholders with a better understanding of the company’s current board composition and enhance investor confidence that all listed companies are considering diversity in the context of selecting directors, either by including at least two diverse directors on their boards or by explaining their rationale for not meeting that objective.” In its 271-page filing, Nasdaq explains its rationale by presenting an analysis of over two dozen studies that “found an association between diverse boards and better financial performance and corporate governance.” According to Nasdaq’s President and CEO, Adena Friedman, “Nasdaq’s purpose is to champion inclusive growth and prosperity to power stronger economies….Our goal with this proposal is to provide a transparent framework for Nasdaq-listed companies to present their board composition and diversity philosophy effectively to all stakeholders; we believe this listing rule is one step in a broader journey to achieve inclusive representation across corporate America.”
Yesterday, ISS released its new benchmark policies, effective for shareholder meetings on or after February 1, 2021. In addition to anticipated policy changes (see this PubCo post) regarding board racial and ethnic diversity, shareholder litigation rights (such as exclusive federal forum provisions) and director accountability for governance failures related to environmental or social issues, ISS also made a number of other policy changes and clarifications, not previewed during the comment period, that generally relate to changing market practices, certain shareholder proposals and policies that were announced previously but subject to a transition period.
Legislation—such as California’s board racial/ethnic diversity mandate (see this PubCo post) and board gender diversity mandate (see this PubCo post)—is not the only route that diversity advocates are employing to diversify the ranks of corporate directors. Moral suasion—together with implicit or explicit voting pressure—is another avenue that some groups are pursuing. One group following this path is the Russell 3000 Board Diversity Disclosure Initiative, a new initiative recently organized by the Illinois State Treasurer. At the end of October, the Initiative sent a letter to companies on the Russell 3000, urging that they all disclose board racial/ethnic/gender data. Signed by over 20 investor organizations representing more than $3 trillion in assets under management and advisement, the letter waited until the end to note that many of the signatories “either have or are examining policies to vote against nominating committees with no reported racial/ethnic diversity in their proxy statements and expanding more direct shareholder engagement.”