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?
Tuesday afternoon, SEC Chair Jay Clayton moderated a virtual roundtable, with Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman alongside, to hear how investors viewed current disclosure in connection with COVID-19 and, given that Q2 reporting is around the corner, what they would like to see. Participants on the panel included Gary Cohn, Former Director of the National Economic Council; Glenn Hutchins, Chair of North Island; Tracy Maitland, President and CIO of Advent Capital; and Barbara Novick, Vice Chair and Co-Founder of BlackRock. While it was entirely predictable that forward-looking information about liquidity would be a key concern, the call by all the participating investors for disclosure about social issues—particularly human capital and diversity—was something of a revelation.
At a meeting today of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the committee discussed disclosure considerations arising in the context of COVID-19. In addition to relentlessly complimenting the SEC for its efforts during the pandemic, the committee members offered a number of valuable insights, particularly related to human capital disclosure (which one committee member characterized as “as important a mission as the SEC has ever faced”) and other stakeholder disclosures, as well as accounting, controls and liability issues. Many of the committee also seemed to be pleased with nature of the disclosure that companies were providing, even offering in-quarter information in some cases. There was also a brief discussion of virtual shareholder meetings.
As noted in thecorporatecounsel.net, the EY Center for Board Matters has released a new study of human capital disclosures. Human capital has recently become recognized, especially by many institutional investors, as among companies’ key assets in creating long-term value. SEC Chair Jay Clayton has observed that, in the past, companies’ most valuable assets were plant, property and equipment, and human capital was primarily a cost. But now, human capital and intellectual property often represent “an essential resource and driver of performance for many companies.” According to EY, a “company’s intangible assets, which include human capital and culture, are now estimated to comprise on average 52% of a company’s market value.” And human capital has “emerged as a critical focus area for stakeholders. There is clear and growing market appetite to understand how companies are managing and measuring human capital.” These developments have led the SEC to propose adding human capital as a topic for discussion in companies’ business narratives. (See this PubCo post.) To see how companies are voluntarily disclosing their practices regarding human capital and culture—and perhaps in anticipation of a new SEC requirement—EY undertook to review the proxy statements of 82 companies in the 2019 Fortune 100. The study may prove to be especially useful for companies trying to understand the contours of human capital disclosure, whether or not the SEC ultimately goes ahead with its proposal to require material human capital disclosures.
In this article from Directors & Boards, SEC Chair Jay Clayton talks again about short-termism and discusses his views on ESG disclosure, particularly disclosure regarding human capital management.
SEC Investor Advisory Committee wants SEC to consider human capital management disclosure — will it happen?
At a meeting today of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee voted—14 to 6—to recommend that the SEC consider imposing human capital management disclosure requirements as a part of its Disclosure Effectiveness Review and disclosure modernization project. As the vote count suggests, with a significant bloc of votes against, the debate about the recommendation was quite contentious. Now that the recommendation moves to the SEC, the question is: whose views will prevail?