Reuters has reported that former CFTC Chair Gary Gensler will be President-elect Biden’s choice for SEC Chair. According to the article, 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 is “likely to prompt concern” among some that he will promote “tougher regulation.” The NY Post attributed his nomination to the most recent Democratic wins in the Senate, which allowed selection of “the more progressive candidate. Only two weeks ago, people close to the Biden transition team had penciled in centrist Robert Jackson Jr….as the SEC frontrunner because he was seen as more likely to win confirmation by a GOP-controlled Senate.” Jackson is a former Democratic SEC Commissioner appointed in 2017. Gensler is an MIT professor and has been leading the Biden transition planning for financial industry oversight.
Has all of the current political unrest and social upheaval had any impact on the drive for political spending disclosure? Apparently so, according to the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability, which reports in its June newsletter that support for shareholder proposals in favor of political spending disclosure hit record highs this past proxy season. But one risk potentially arising out of political spending is reputational, which could fracture a company’s relationship with its employees, customers and shareholders. As companies and CEOs increasingly offer welcome statements on important social issues such as climate change, healthcare crises and racial injustice, the current heated political climate has heightened sensitivity to any dissonance or conflict between those public statements and the company’s political contributions. When a conflict between action in the form of political spending and publicly announced core values is brought to light, will companies be perceived to be merely virtue-signaling or even hypocritical? To borrow a phrase from asset manager BlackRock, if the public perceives that these companies are not actually doing “the right thing”—even as they may be saying the right thing—will they lose their “social license” to operate? (See this PubCo post.) CPA’s brand new report on Conflicted Consequences explores just such risks.
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?
In July, Representative Carolyn Maloney contacted SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson to solicit his views on legislation that would require public companies to disclose their corporate political spending. Jackson has now responded. In his view, the absence of transparency about political spending has led to a lack of accountability, allowing executives to “spend shareholder money on politics in a way that serves the interests of insiders, not investors.” But because investors typically put their money into mutual funds and other similar investment vehicles, their voting rights are typically exercised, not by the investors themselves, but instead by these institutions on their behalf—and most often not in sync with the surveyed preferences of investors: “while ordinary investors overwhelmingly favor transparency in this area, the biggest institutions consistently vote their shares to keep political spending in the dark.” And, he charges, it’s not just corporations that are opaque about their own political spending—institutional investors are likewise opaque about their votes against shareholder proposals for spending disclosure.
In this article from the Center for Political Accountability, the authors tout the recent “banner proxy season” for disclosure of political spending, both in terms of the uptick in shareholder support for disclosure proposals submitted by CPA (and its “shareholder partners”) and the number of shareholder proposals withdrawn as a result of agreements reached with companies for disclosure of political spending and board oversight. According to the authors, these results reinforce “earlier findings about ‘private ordering’ making political disclosure and accountability the new norm for companies.” Is there a new “eagerness by companies to adopt or strengthen political disclosure and accountability policies”? Is it now viewed as a key element of good governance? What is the impact of today’s highly politicized environment?
Notwithstanding the deregulatory emphasis of the current administration, two campaigns are currently being waged to convince the SEC to adopt new regulations mandating more disclosure—one related to human capital management and the other related to a frequent target, corporate political spending. Are these just pipe dreams? Is it time for a reality check? Or might there be some basis for believing that this SEC might act on these requests?
by Cydney Posner On Friday, the House passed H.R. 5485, the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2017, which includes appropriations for the SEC. As noted here and here, included as part of the bill were several amendments directed at defunding SEC rules, potential rules and […]
by Cydney Posner In a speech last week to the International Corporate Governance Network Annual Conference, SEC Chair Mary Jo White announced that the Corp Fin staff is preparing a proposal to amend the current rule requiring board diversity disclosure in proxy statements. The goal will be to require “more […]
Politico reports: prohibition on corporate political spending disclosure a sticking point in omnibus spending bill negotiations
by Cydney Posner According to Politico (subscription required), a “provision to prohibit the SEC from requiring companies to disclose their political campaign contributions is one of the last sticking points in the omnibus spending package, two sources said.” One of bill’s negotiators said there were a few sticking points remaining, one […]