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.
Who doesn’t love the latest gossip—I mean reporting—about internal squabbles—I mean debate—at the SEC? This news from Bloomberg sheds some fascinating light on reasons for the ongoing delay in the release of the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal: internal conflicts about the proposal. But, surprisingly, the conflicts are not between the Dems and the one Republican remaining on the SEC; rather, they’re reportedly between SEC Chair Gary Gensler and the two other Democratic commissioners, Allison Herren Lee and Caroline Crenshaw, about how far to push the proposed new disclosure requirements, especially in light of the near certainty of litigation, and whether to require that the disclosures be audited. Just how tough should the proposal be? The article paints the SEC’s dilemma about the rulemaking this way: “If its rule lacks teeth, progressives will be outraged. On the flip side, an aggressive stance makes it more likely the regulation will be shot down by the courts, leaving the Biden administration with nothing. Either way, someone is going to be disappointed.”
The SEC’s new Fall reg-flex agenda is posted and, no surprise, it’s packed. Here is the short-term agenda and here is the long-term version. And just as with the spring agenda, Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman have lambasted it in a dissenting statement. The agenda is laden with major proposals that were on the Spring agenda, but didn’t quite make it out the door, such as plans for disclosure on climate and human capital (including diversity), cybersecurity risk disclosure, Rule 10b5-1, Rule 14a-8 amendments and SPACs, as well as a new, already controversial, proposal to amend the definition of “holders of record.” Some of the agenda items have recently been proposed, for example, new rules regarding mandated electronic filings (see this PubCo post) and amendments to the proxy rules governing proxy voting advice (see this PubCo post). Similarly, three items identified as at the “final rule stage” have already been adopted: universal proxy (see this PubCo post), filing fee disclosure (see this PubCo post) and amendments under the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act (see this PubCo post). The agenda also identifies a couple of topics that are still just at the pre-rule stage, such as exempt offerings (updating the financial thresholds in the accredited investor definition, amendments to Rule 701 and amendments to the integration framework). Notably, political spending disclosure is not expressly identified on the agenda (see this PubCo post), nor is there a reference to a comprehensive ESG disclosure framework (see this PubCo post). Below is a selection from the agenda.