SEC Chair testifies before Senate Banking Committee—firmly denies paternity of all public companies!
On Tuesday last week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler gave testimony before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. His formal testimony covered a number of topics on the SEC’s agenda that Gensler (and others) have addressed numerous times in past: market structure and equity markets, predictive analytics, crypto, issuer disclosure, China, SPACs and Rule 10b5-1 plans. (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) While the formal testimony covered some well-trod territory, the questioning highlighted the political polarization that we are likely to see continue as these proposals are presented for consideration.
In remarks yesterday at London City Week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler elaborated a bit on the bare bones of some of the almost 50 items on the Reg-Flex Agenda that was made public earlier this month. (See this PubCo post.) In Gensler’s view, disclosure protects investors by helping them invest in “companies that fit their investing needs,” helps companies by facilitating capital formation and benefits markets by helping to keep them fair, orderly and efficient—all core responsibilities within the remit of the SEC.
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.
When, in August 2020, the SEC considered adopting a new requirement to discuss human capital as part of an overhaul of Regulation S-K, the debate centered largely on principles-based versus prescriptive regulation—a debate that continues to this day. In that instance, notwithstanding a rulemaking petition and clamor from numerous institutional and other investors for transparency regarding workforce composition, health and safety, living wages and other specifics, the “principles-based” team carried the day; the SEC limited the requirement to a “description of the registrant’s human capital resources, including the number of persons employed by the registrant, and any human capital measures or objectives that the registrant focuses on in managing the business (such as, depending on the nature of the registrant’s business and workforce, measures or objectives that address the development, attraction and retention of personnel).” What was the result? In this new Human Capital Disclosure Report: Learning on the Job, Intelligize took a look at how companies responded to the new disclosure mandate. Its conclusion: most companies made a “sincere effort to fulfill the scantly defined disclosure obligation”; nevertheless, the report contends, companies “capitalized on the fact that the new rule does not call for specific metrics,” as “[r]elatively few issuers provided meaningful numbers about their human capital, even when they had those numbers at hand.”
In November 2020, amendments to Reg S-K to modernize the required business narrative became effective. The amendments including changes related to disclosure about a company’s human capital resources, replacing a requirement to disclose only the number of employees with a new requirement to disclose, to the extent material, information about human capital resources. In particular, the amendments identified as non-exclusive examples of measures or objectives that the company may focus on in managing the business “measures and objectives that address the attraction, development, and retention of personnel.” Even these measures, the SEC emphasized, were not a mandate. However, then-SEC Chair Jay Clayton said at the time of adoption that he expected “to see meaningful qualitative and quantitative disclosure, including, as appropriate, disclosure of metrics that companies actually use in managing their affairs.” The principles-based rules did not articulate specific metrics for human capital resources disclosure, allowing companies wide latitude in crafting their disclosure to focus on information that is material to each company. At the same time, however, the rules did not provide much direction, leaving many companies at something of a loss for how to proceed. In this paper, Compensation Advisory Partners provides an “early read on developing best practices” regarding human capital disclosure, analyzing the earliest disclosures to provide some guidance on topics, trends and level of detail provided. The CAP paper also includes a number of useful samples. Similarly, Willis Towers Watson reviewed the first three dozen human capital disclosures by companies in the S&P 500 published in 10-Ks filed since the effective date of the new requirement and, in this report, provides some data on the prevalence of topics and metrics.
In August, the SEC amended the Reg S-K disclosure requirements related to the descriptions of business, legal proceedings and risk factors. Probably the most significant change was the enhancement of the disclosure requirement for human capital, a topic that has recently been front-burnered by the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. The amended rule requires companies to disclose, to the extent material, information about human capital resources, including any human capital measures or objectives that the company focuses on in managing the business. The new human capital disclosure requirement largely reflects the SEC’s historic “commitment to a principles-based, registrant-specific approach to disclosure” that is “rooted in materiality.” (See this PubCo post.) To emphasize that the requirement was “principles-based” did not mean that disclosure of vague generalities would suffice. Rather, in his Statement regarding the amendments, SEC Chair Jay Clayton remarked that, while the SEC was not prescribing “specific, rigid metrics,” under the principles-based approach, he did “expect to see meaningful qualitative and quantitative disclosure, including, as appropriate, disclosure of metrics that companies actually use in managing their affairs.” Although the principles-based approach offers the benefit of flexibility to allow disclosure to be adapted to each company, nevertheless, the absence of any prescriptive element left many companies searching for how best to address human capital disclosure. Now, independent standard-setting organization SASB, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, has issued a Human Capital Bulletin that summarizes the elements of the SASB Standards that relate to human capital and provides an overview of selected human capital-related topics and metrics that apply across all 77 SASB industry standards.
SEC votes to modernize Reg S-K requirements for business, legal proceedings and risk factor disclosures
At an open meeting this morning, the SEC voted (three to two) to adopt amendments, substantially as proposed, to modernize the Reg S-K disclosure requirements related to the descriptions of business, legal proceedings and risk factors. As Chair Jay Clayton observed in his Statement, these Reg S-K disclosure items “essentially have not changed in over 30 years,” but much has changed in our economy since that time, making these updates well warranted. The changes are a component of the SEC’s Disclosure Effectiveness Initiative and reflect public comments on the SEC’s 2016 Concept Release (see this PubCo post) and the 2019 proposal (see this PubCo post)—although the extent to which those comments were taken into account was subject to some debate, as discussed below—as well as learning from the staff’s disclosure review process. As described in the press release, the amendments mainly adopt a “principles-based, registrant-specific approach to disclosure” that is intended to elicit information “on a basis consistent with the lens that management and the board of directors use to manage and assess the registrant’s performance.” The amendments are also intended to discourage repetition, reduce disclosure of information that is not material and simplify compliance. While there are changes throughout, the most significant change is the enhancement of the disclosure requirement for human capital, a topic that has been front-burnered by the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. The amendments will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
With the SEC presumably about to adopt enhanced disclosure requirements for human capital next week (see this PubCo post), this new report from the World Economic Forum in Davos, prepared in collaboration with consultant Willis Towers Watson, offers a timely new framework for valuing human capital. While the COVID-19 pandemic has increased our focus on the value of the workforce as an asset, this shift in perspective is not entirely new: SEC Chair Jay Clayton has long recognized that, while, historically, companies’ most valuable assets were plant, property and equipment, and human capital was primarily a cost, now, human capital often represents “an essential resource and driver of performance for many companies. This is a shift from human capital being viewed, at least from an income statement perspective, as a cost.” But he also recognized that developing a metric around this issue was not so easy. (See this PubCo post.) The pandemic, however, serves as a springboard: the new WEF report contends that, as “companies look to reset for the new world of work that emerges from the pandemic, they would benefit from an approach that values talent as a key asset that contributes to an organization’s sustained value creation. This calls for the development of a new human capital accounting framework, which would enable a company’s board and management to track how their investment in people is augmenting the firm’s human capital, and support the delivery of better outcomes for the business, the workforce and the wider community.” The report seeks to offer that framework. Whether it actually catches on is another question.
With so much going on in connection with COVID-19 and its impact, it would be easy to overlook the rest of the SEC’s agenda. And it’s a lengthy one. The new Spring Regulatory Flexibility Act Agenda was published at the end of June, so it’s time to look at what’s on deck for the SEC in the coming year or so. (That reference to “on deck” may be the only sports anyone gets this year….) SEC Chair Jay Clayton has repeatedly made clear his intent to make the RegFlex Agenda more realistic, streamlining it to show what the SEC actually expects to take up in the subsequent period. (Clayton has previously said that the short-term agenda signifies rulemakings that the SEC actually planned to pursue in the following 12 months. See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The SEC’s Spring 2020 short-term and long-term agendas reflect the Chair’s priorities as of March 31, when the agenda was compiled. What stands out here are the matters that have, somewhat surprisingly, moved up onto the final-rule-stage agenda—think universal proxy—from perpetual residence on the long-term (i.e., the maybe never) agenda.
In mid-June, a large group of nonprofits, socially responsible investors, labor unions and others submitted a letter to SEC Chair Jay Clayton, stating that, while the guidance related to COVID-19 disclosure that he and Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman provided in April exhorting companies “to provide as much information as practicable” was a “step in the right direction” (see this PubCo post), it really did not go far enough in mandating the necessary transparency. They urged the SEC to impose new requirements for disclosure about how “companies are acting to protect workers, prevent the spread of the virus, and responsibly use any federal aid they receive.” With the SEC’s current propensity for principles-based disclosure, will it be persuaded to adopt these mandates?