On Monday, the International Sustainability Standards Board released its first two reporting standards. Not another ESG standard you say? Aren’t there enough standards already in play, with both the US and Europe proposing or adopting mandatory standards? Not to mention that the ISSB standards are just voluntary, although some countries, such as Canada, Japan, Hong Kong and the UK, may adopt the standards as mandatory. But take note—the WSJ suggests that the ISSB standards could well become “the global baseline” because “the advantages of using a single standard worldwide may, for many companies, outweigh the disadvantages of being more demanding than the SEC’s coming climate reporting rules.” According to Mary Schapiro, former SEC Chair and current Head of the TCFD Secretariat and Vice Chair for Global Public Policy at Bloomberg L.P., “The global economy needs common reporting standards to reduce fragmentation and drive comparability in climate-related financial data. Built upon the foundation of the TCFD framework, the ISSB Standards provide a global baseline for companies to disclose decision-useful, climate-related financial information—information that is critical for creating more transparent markets, helping achieve a smooth low-carbon transition, and building a more resilient and sustainable global economy.”
The SEC’s Spring 2023 Reg-Flex Agenda—according to the preamble, compiled as of April 10, 2023, reflecting “only the priorities of the Chair”—has now been posted. Here is the short-term agenda, which shows most Corp Fin agenda items targeted for action by October 2023, potentially making the next four months an especially frenetic period, with only a few proposal-stage items targeted for April 2024. And here is the long-term (maybe never) agenda. Describing the new agenda, SEC Chair Gary Gensler observed that “[t]echnology, markets, and business models constantly change. Thus, the nature of the SEC’s work must evolve as the markets we oversee evolve. In every generation since President Franklin Roosevelt’s, our Commission has updated its ruleset to meet the challenges of a new hour. Consistent with our legal mandate, guided by economic analysis, and informed by public comment, this agenda reflects the latest step in that long tradition.”
The short-term agenda includes a half dozen or so potential proposals that were on the Fall 2022 agenda, but didn’t quite make it out of the starting gate, such as plans for disclosure regarding corporate board diversity and human capital. Similarly, issues related to the private markets are still awaiting proposals. The question of why and how to address the decline in the number of public companies has, in the recent past, been a point of contention among the commissioners: is excessive regulation of public companies a deterrent to going public or has deregulation of the private markets juiced their appeal, but sacrificed investor protection in the bargain? That debate may play out in the coming months with two new proposals targeted for October this year: a plan to amend the definition of “holders of record” and a proposal to amend Reg D, including updates to the accredited investor definition. And the behemoth proposal regarding climate change disclosure—identified on the last agenda as targeted for final action but not considered for adoption on the schedule as planned—reappears on the current calendar with a later target date. Will that new target be met? Notably, political spending disclosure is, once again, not identified on the agenda. That’s because Section 633 of the Appropriations Act once again prohibits the SEC from using any of the funds appropriated “to finalize, issue, or implement any rule, regulation, or order regarding the disclosure of political contributions, contributions to tax exempt organizations, or dues paid to trade associations.”
The SEC’s Fall 2022 Reg-Flex Agenda—according to the preamble, compiled as of October 6, 2022, reflecting “only the priorities of the Chair”—has just been posted, and it looks like the SEC will have another frenetic year ahead dealing with new and pending proposals—and so will we. Describing the new agenda, SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that it “reflects the need to modernize our ruleset, moving deliberately to update our rules in light of ever-changing technologies and business models in the securities markets. Our ability to meet our mission depends on having an up-to-date rulebook—consistent with our mandate from Congress, guided by economic analysis, and shaped by public input.” Here are the short-term and long-term lists, which show all Corp Fin agenda items scheduled for action by either April or October 2023, with the first four months looking especially jam-packed. There’s no dispute that the agenda is laden with major proposals, and many of these proposals—climate disclosure, cybersecurity, SPACs, share buybacks—are apparently at the final rule stage. Implementing all of these proposals, if adopted, would likely represent a challenge for many companies; whether overwhelmingly so remains to be seen.
At the end of last week, ISS announced its benchmark policy updates for 2023. The policy changes will apply to shareholder meetings held on or after February 1, 2023, except for those with one-year transition periods. The changes for U.S. companies relate to policies regarding, among other things, unequal voting rights, problematic governance structures, board gender diversity, exculpation of officers, poison pills, quorum requirements, racial equity audits, shareholder proposals on alignment between public commitments and political spending and board accountability for climate among the Climate Action 100+. The results are based in part on the results of ISS’s global benchmark surveys (see this PubCo post) as well as a series of roundtables.
In light of the billions that even the SEC’s economic analysis estimates would be spent complying with its proposed climate disclosure regulations (see this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post), will those disclosures catalyze real climate action? In this recent EY Global Climate Risk Barometer, accounting firm EY analyzed why, notwithstanding the vast amounts spent on climate disclosures, they “are still not translating into practical strategies to accelerate decarbonization.” In fact, EY pointed out, “global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6% in 2021 to 36.3 billion tonnes [a metric unit of mass equal to 2,240 lbs], their highest-ever level, according to the International Energy Agency.” Will companies be able to “close the major disconnect between the disclosures they are making” and “their own transformation journeys”? Is integrating climate risk into the financial statements the key? Is climate risk disclosure just a “box-ticking exercise” or, by enabling accountability, can climate disclosures help to accelerate “the decarbonization process”?
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.
The SEC has posted its Spring 2022 Reg-Flex agenda and it’s crammed with pending and new rulemakings—and they’re all going to be proposed or adopted in October! (Ok, admittedly, that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one.) Here is the short-term agenda and here is the long-term agenda. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the “U.S. is blessed with the largest, most sophisticated, and most innovative capital markets in the world….But we cannot take that for granted. As SEC alum Robert Birnbaum and his team said decades ago, ‘no regulation can be static in a dynamic society.’ That core idea still rings true today.” Gensler’s public policy goals for the agenda are “continuing to drive efficiency in our capital markets and modernizing our rules for today’s economy and technologies.” As with recent prior agendas, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce has almost no kind words for the agency’s plans—“flawed goals and a flawed method for achieving them.” In fact, she went so far as to characterize the agenda as “dangerous”: in her view, the agenda represents “the regulatory version of a rip current—fast-moving currents flowing away from shore that can be fatal to swimmers. Just as certain wave and wind conditions can create dangerous rip currents, the pace and character of the rulemakings on this agenda make for dangerous conditions in our capital markets.” There’s no dispute that the agenda is laden with major proposals—human capital, SPACs, board diversity. What’s more, many of these proposals—climate disclosure, cybersecurity, Rule 10b5-1—are apparently at the final rule stage. Whether or not we’ll see a load of public companies submerged by the rip tide of rulemakings remains to be seen, but there’s not much question that implementing them all would certainly be a challenge in any case.
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?
In September last year, Corp Fin posted a sample letter to companies containing illustrative comments regarding climate change disclosures, presumably designed to help companies think about and craft their climate-related disclosure. (See this PubCo post.) Corp Fin began by noting that, under its 2010 guidance (see this PubCo post), depending on the facts and circumstances, climate change disclosure could be elicited in a company’s SEC filings in connection with the description of business, legal proceedings, risk factors and MD&A. Still, right now, there is little in the way of prescriptive climate disclosure requirements, although a proposal for climate disclosure regulation is high on the SEC’s agenda. (See this PubCo post.) Instead, companies have instead looked largely to standards of materiality to determine whether climate disclosure is required in their SEC filings. However, many companies provide climate disclosure in corporate social responsibility reports that are not filed with the SEC, but instead typically posted on company websites. As reported in a recent analysis by Audit Analytics, in the SEC’s most recent round of comment letters about climate last month, the climate disclosure on which the SEC is commenting is primarily contained in these CSR reports. And the SEC wants companies to justify—in some detail—why that disclosure isn’t also in companies’ SEC filings.