Earlier this week, SEC Commissioner Allison Lee delivered keynote remarks at the 2021 ESG Disclosure Priorities Event hosted by the AICPA, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, SASB and the Center for Audit Quality. Her topic: “Myths and Misconceptions about ‘Materiality.’” In the context of the discussion about potential mandatory ESG disclosures, Lee observed, there has been a lot of attention to the concept of materiality, which is fundamental to our securities laws. The public company disclosure system “is generally oriented around providing information that is important to reasonable investors,” and “the viewpoint of the reasonable investor is the lens through which we all are meant to operate.” Since investors are the ones who make the investment choices, “investors are also the ones who decide what information they need to make those choices.” But, in the course of the ongoing discourse about ESG, Lee has found that a number of myths have proliferated about the role and meaning of materiality; her purpose in these remarks is to dissect and dispel those myths, which she believes have hampered the “important debate on how best to craft a rule proposal on climate and ESG risks and opportunities.”
It’s widely anticipated that we’ll soon be seeing more action from the SEC on sustainability disclosure, including possibly a prescriptive ESG framework that draws on some global metrics. (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) Trying to head those prescriptive ESG metrics off at the pass is Commissioner Hester Peirce—yes, she who once described “ESG” as standing for “enabling shareholder graft”—in her statement, Rethinking Global ESG Metrics. With Gary Gensler now sworn in as SEC Chair, the revised composition of the SEC does not bode well for Peirce’s mission. Peirce concludes her statement with the admonition, “[l]et us rethink the path we are taking before it is too late.” But has the train already left that station?
Today, the Senate, by a vote of 53 to 45, confirmed Gary Gensler as SEC Chair—for a little while anyway. Presumably, he will be sworn in in the next several days. The current SEC Commissioners offered their congratulations here. The pivot from the approach taken by former SEC Chair Jay Clayton on issues such as adoption of standardized mandatory climate disclosure and other ESG disclosure issues could be head-spinning, so stay tuned.
Elections have consequences, as they say, and one of those consequences is new leadership at the SEC who bring with them a markedly different agenda. In remarks yesterday to the Center for American Progress, entitled A Climate for Change: Meeting Investor Demand for Climate and ESG Information at the SEC, Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee provided important insights into where the SEC is headed with regard to environmental, social and governance issues. As Lee confirmed in the introduction to her speech, “no single issue has been more pressing for [her] than ensuring that the SEC is fully engaged in confronting the risks and opportunities that climate and ESG pose for investors, our financial system, and our economy.” Investors are not getting the information they need, and that’s why the SEC has “begun to take critical steps toward a comprehensive ESG disclosure framework.” In addition, she has directed Corp Fin to revisit the shareholder proposal process and is also considering whether the SEC should establish a dedicated ESG standard setter. According to Lee, “climate and ESG are front and center for the SEC.”
Environmental, social and governance activism continues to adopt new approaches. One of the latest is from The Shareholder Commons, a non-profit organization founded by CEO Rick Alexander—you might recognize the name from B-Lab and Morris Nichols in Delaware—that uses “shareholder activism, thought leadership, and policy advocacy to catalyze systems-first investing and create a level playing field for sustainable competition.” In essence, TSC seeks to shift the focus from the impact of a company’s activities and conduct on its own financial performance to “systemic portfolio risk,” the impact of the company’s activities and conduct on society, the environment and the wider economy as a whole, which would affect most investment portfolios. In particular, the group has helped with submission of a number of shareholder proposals that address issues in its sweet spot—influencing corporate behavior regarding social and environmental systems that affect the economy as a whole. This season, the proposals have advocated conversion to public benefit corporations (see this PubCo post), disclosure of reports on the external public health costs created by the subject company’s retail food business, studies on the external costs resulting from underwriting of multi-class equity offerings, and reports on the external social costs (e.g., inequality) created by the company’s compensation policy. Earlier this year, TSC, working with a long-term shareholder, submitted a shareholder proposal to Yum! Brands, asking the company to disclose a study on “the external environmental and public health costs created by the use of antibiotics in the supply chain of [the] company… and the manner in which such costs affect the vast majority of its shareholders who rely on a healthy stock market.” TSC has just announced that it has withdrawn its proposal because Yum! has agreed to “provide comprehensive reporting on the systemic effects of the use of antibiotics in its supply chain by the end of 2021.”
When Gary Gensler was rumored to be the nominee for SEC Chair, Reuters reported that, in light of his “reputation as a hard-nosed operator willing to stand up to powerful Wall Street interests”—notwithstanding his former life as an investment banker—the appointment was “likely to prompt concern” among some that he would promote “tougher regulation.” (See this PubCo post.) This week, Gensler faced his interrogators on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, but the questioning didn’t really generate much heat—unless you count Senator Pat Toomey’s observation that Gensler had a “history of pushing legal bounds.” There was, however, a mild skirmish over—of all things—the meaning of “materiality,” essentially a surrogate for the fundamental divide on the Committee about whether the securities laws should be used to elicit disclosure regarding social and environmental issues.
Let’s just say that the SEC’s Investor Advocate, Rick Fleming, was none too pleased with the work of the SEC this year. Although, in his Annual Report on Activities, he complimented the SEC for its prompt and flexible response to COVID-19, that’s about where the accolades stopped. For the most part, Fleming found the SEC’s rulemaking agenda “disappointing.” While cloaked in language about modernization and streamlining, he lamented, the rulemakings that were adopted were too deregulatory in nature, with the effect of diminishing investor protections. But issues that definitely called for modernization—such as the antiquated proxy plumbing system—despite all good intentions, were not addressed, nor did the SEC establish a “coherent framework” for ESG disclosure. And the SEC “also selectively abandoned its deregulatory posture by erecting higher barriers for shareholders’ exercise of independent oversight over the management of public companies” through the use of shareholder proposals and by imposing regulation on proxy advisory firms. That regulation could allow management to interfere in the advice investors pay to receive from proxy advisory firms and was widely opposed by investors. What’s your bet that he’ll be a lot happier next year?
According to Protiviti, in 2019, 90% of companies in the S&P 500 issued separate sustainability reports—not part of SEC filings—and, as of February 2020, over 1,000 companies with an aggregate market cap of $12 trillion have endorsed the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations for sustainability disclosure (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). Similarly, use of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) framework has increased by 180% over the last two years (see this PubCo post). With this heightened focus on sustainability, how can boards best oversee ESG? To that end, in this article, consultant Protiviti offers ten questions about ESG reporting that boards should consider with their management teams.
Back in January, in Davos, the World Economic Forum International Business Council— a group of 120 of the largest businesses—together with the Big Four accounting firms, announced a new initiative “to develop a core set of common metrics to track environmental and social responsibility” and released a draft set of metrics for review and consideration. (See this PubCo post.) Last month, the final results, the IBC Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics, were presented in this whitepaper, “Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism—Towards Common Metrics and Consistent Reporting of Sustainable Value Creation.” The preface to the whitepaper observes that we are “in the midst of the most severe series of challenges the world has experienced since World War Two. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our global systems. It has exacerbated underlying economic and social inequalities and is unfolding at the same time as a mounting climate crisis…. The private sector has a critical role to play.” The whitepaper is presented in that larger context, as an effort
“to improve the ways that companies measure and demonstrate their contributions towards creating more prosperous, fulfilled societies and a more sustainable relationship with our planet. It also recognizes that companies that hold themselves accountable to their stakeholders and increase transparency will be more viable—and valuable—in the long-term. The culmination of a year’s effort from contributors on every continent, this work defines the essence of stakeholder capitalism: it is the capacity of the private sector to harness the innovative, creative power of individuals and teams to generate long-term value for shareholders, for all members of society and for the planet we share. It is an idea whose time has come.”
Quite a heavy lift. But will the framework be widely adopted?
In 2018, in recognition of the increasing expectation of shareholders to see disclosure regarding material environmental, social and governance issues that affect financial performance and communities, Senator Mark Warner asked the GAO to prepare a report on public company disclosure regarding ESG. That report has now been issued. According to Warner, “[m]ost institutional investors find current company financial disclosures limited in their usefulness, and augment company disclosures through burdensome engagement with the company, purchasing third party compilation data, or initiating shareholder proposals. It is time for the SEC to establish a task force to establish a robust set of quantifiable and comparable ESG metrics that all public companies can adhere to.” Although SEC Chair Jay Clayton has acknowledged “the growing drumbeat for ESG reporting standards,” he has made clear his lack of enthusiasm for imposing a prescriptive sustainability disclosure requirement that goes beyond principles-based materiality. (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) Will the SEC address the drumbeat?