What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on companies’ sustainability efforts? On the one hand, as discussed in this article from the WSJ, C-suite occupants have been “trying to figure out what they’re willing to throw overboard as the economic storm spawned by the pandemic is swamping their ships. Businesses that were planning to help save the world are now simply saving themselves….History suggests this new [sustainability] paradigm is probably on the back burner.” Even BlackRock, which had previously announced that it was putting “sustainability at the center of [its] investment approach,” acknowledged in April, that “certain non-financial projects like sustainability reports had been ‘de-prioritized’ due to COVID-19. ‘We recognize that in the near-term companies may need to reallocate resources to address immediate priorities in these uncertain times.’ BlackRock’s report stated. BlackRock said it would ‘expect a return to companies focusing on material sustainability management and reporting in due course.’”
On the other hand, however, as this article from Financial Executives International observed, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted “the very issues that have been driving ESG concerns—managing resources, sustainability, community impact and employee well-being.” While it might have been “easy to assume the current crisis may permanently shift attention away from environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns as management teams grapple with existential issues,” it turned out that “the very actions companies are taking will likely bring them closer to the multi-stakeholder, long-term value principles that lie at the heart of ESG.” How are companies viewing the effects?
To gain insight into the new governance challenges faced by boards over the next few months as companies begin a reopening and recovery process—hopefully a permanent one—the NACD undertook a pulse survey of 306 directors across multiple industries, conducted between May 14 and May 21. The survey revealed that directors expect the COVID-19 pandemic to have lasting effects—on business strategy, on the nature of work and on board-management interactions.
Is EBITDAC a thing? Yes, according to the FT. This article describes the use of a new non-GAAP metric: “earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, amortisation—and coronavirus.” Applying the new metric, a few companies have actually added back profits they contend they would have earned but for the mandatory lockdowns resulting from COVID-19. Hmmm. While, according to the article, the add-back has “bemused some observers,” it does raise the question: how should companies employ non-GAAP financial measures (NGFMs) in the context of COVID-19? How should audit committees conduct oversight of the use of NGFMs that have been adjusted for coronavirus-related effects? Auditors weigh in.
At the end of last week, SEC Chair Jay Clayton addressed the Financial Stability Oversight Council, focusing on three areas: market function, market monitoring and corporate and other issuer disclosure. Early in his remarks, Clayton praised the efforts of FSOC “to preserve the flows of credit and capital in our economy[, which] have substantially mitigated the economic consequences of COVID-19.” He noted in particular that “the rapid fiscal, monetary and financial regulatory response to market and economic effects of COVID-19 has been both remarkable and appropriate.” However, it was the data he provided on market functioning and volatility that was most revealing.
The SEC has declared immediately effective (yet another) proposed change to the rules of an exchange—this one from the NYSE. The NYSE has adopted new Section 312.03T of the NYSE Listed Company Manual, which will provide a temporary exception, through June 30, 2020, from the application of the shareholder approval requirements for specified issuances of 20% or more of the outstanding shares (Section 312.03) and, in certain narrow circumstances, by a limited exception for issuances to related parties or other capital-raising issuances that could be considered equity compensation (Sections 312.03 and 303A.08). Although not entirely congruent, the exception appears to be modeled closely on the comparable Nasdaq exception that was approved just over a week ago. (See this PubCo post.) In light of the unprecedented disruption in the economy as a result of COVID-19, many listed companies “are experiencing urgent liquidity needs during this period of crisis due to lost revenues and maturing debt obligations.” The temporary exception is designed to respond to this unprecedented emergency and to help companies access necessary capital quickly.
New FAQ 46 from the SBA provides a “safe harbor” for borrowers of less than $2 million under the Paycheck Protection Program provisions of the CARES Act. Under the safe harbor, for borrowers of amounts below the $2 million threshold, the SBA will deem their certifications regarding the “necessity” of the loans to have been made in good faith. What’s more, while loans over the $2 million threshold will be subject to SBA review (as has been widely publicized), if the SBA determines that the borrower “lacked an adequate basis” for the required “necessity” certification, but the borrower then repays the loan, the SBA “will not pursue administrative enforcement or referrals to other agencies” with respect to the “necessity” certification.
In his keynote address to Securities Enforcement Forum West 2020, SEC Enforcement Co-Director Steven Peikin discussed some of the efforts of the Division of Enforcement to detect misconduct arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic and related market disruption, including the formation of a steering committee to proactively identify and monitor areas of potential misconduct. Of particular interest here are the focus on insider trading and financial and disclosure-related fraud.
As discussed in this PubCo post, in April, the Treasury Department issued a series of FAQs related to loans made under the Paycheck Protection Program provisions of the CARES Act, one of which was addressed to borrowers that are large companies and, particularly, public companies. The FAQ provides that, to be eligible for a PPP loan, a borrower must certify, in good faith, that the loan is necessary to support continuing operations. According to the FAQ, that may be difficult in some cases, contending that “it is unlikely that a public company with substantial market value and access to capital markets will be able to make the required certification in good faith….” The FAQ provided a safe harbor, under which the SBA would deem the borrower to have made the required certification in good faith if the funds were repaid in full by May 14 (as extended in question 43). As reported here, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has warned that companies receiving loans over $2 million would be audited and could have potential criminal liability if their certifications were untrue. Now, a House oversight subcommittee has demanded that certain public companies return the funds.
When I first saw this temporary relief from the NYSE, I dismissed it as relief designed to help an overwhelmed Broadridge. The relief temporarily allowed discretionary voting on routine matters even if the proxy materials were transmitted to beneficial owners only 10 days in advance of shareholders’ meetings instead of the required 15 days. I had no idea there might be a tragedy underlying it.
The SEC has declared immediately effective new Nasdaq Rule 5636T, which will provide a temporary exception, through June 30, 2020, from the shareholder approval requirements for certain issuances of 20% or more of the outstanding shares (Rule 5635(d)) and for a narrow subset of capital-raising issuances that could be considered equity compensation (Rule 5635(c)). Given that stay-at-home orders in effect in many communities have wreaked havoc on the revenue streams of many businesses, companies may have urgent needs to raise capital. Nasdaq believes that this temporary exception “will permit companies to raise capital quickly to continue running their businesses and address the immediate health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including its impact on their employees, customers, and communities.”