SEC Chair Gary Gensler has certainly heard from Republicans with some frequency about proposal comment periods that they consider too abbreviated. The charge is that, under Gensler’s tenure, the time periods allowed for public responses to voluminous and complex proposals—which were initially set at 30 days, and then, in response to complaints, extended for a longer period under a slightly more complex formulation—just don’t leave enough time for public review and comment. (Of course, the not-very-secret secret is that the SEC typically accepts comments submitted well after the deadlines.) SEC Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda, as well as former Commissioner Elad Roisman, have all taken on the issue (see the SideBar below). And it’s not just commissioners that have tackled the comment period issue— Republicans in Congress have also voiced disapproval. Now, as reported by Politico, in a September 13 letter that has recently surfaced, a group of 12 Senate Democrats have joined the chorus. Although the letter is focused on the duration of comment periods, according to Politico, “Senate Democrats are privately urging SEC Chair Gary Gensler to slow work and take more time for feedback on a slew of regulations rattling Wall Street, as tensions surrounding the agency’s Biden-era agenda reach a boiling point.” Are problems with the comment period signaling a larger issue?
Here’s an unexpected pair: Jon Stewart interviewing SEC Chair Gary Gensler on his podcast, The Problem with Jon Stewart. In many ways, the interview was remarkably financially sophisticated, with acronyms like “PFOF” tossed around pretty casually, not to mention “naked shorts,” “best execution,” “dark pools” and “lit markets.” Somebody definitely did his homework.
Last week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler gave testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. While his prepared testimony largely revisited familiar themes, the Committee’s questioning offered a bit more insight. Committee Chair Senator Sherrod Brown cautioned at the outset that Republicans have “bellyached”—and he assumed would today—about Gensler’s “ambitious agenda,” but added that, “if Wall Street and its allies are complaining,” that means Gensler is doing his job. And right on cue, Ranking Member Senator Pat Toomey cast doubt on recent SEC actions that, he said, raised questions about how well the SEC was handling its responsibility to facilitate capital formation. Where was the SEC, he asked, when some crypto lending platforms “blew up,” resulting in billions in losses? And while the SEC has failed to provide regulatory clarity for the crypto market, he contended, it has instead been busy proposing many controversial and burdensome rules that are outside the SEC’s mission and authority. After West Virginia v. EPA (see this PubCo post), he warned, the SEC should consider itself to be on notice from the courts. In particular, some on the Committee—on both sides of the aisle—took aim at the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal—particularly Scope 3 disclosure—and Gensler’s responses made clear that he heard the criticisms, both from the Committee and from commenters, and that there would be some changes to the proposal as the SEC tries to “find a balance.” But far would those changes go?
For well over a decade, the PCAOB has been unable to fulfill its SOX mandate to inspect audit firms in “Non-Cooperating Jurisdictions,” or “NCJs,” including China. To address this issue, in December 2020, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, was signed into law. The HFCAA amended SOX to prohibit trading on U.S. exchanges of public reporting companies audited by audit firms located in foreign jurisdictions that the PCAOB has been unable to inspect for three sequential years. (See this PubCo post.) The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported that, as of March 31, 2022, Chinese companies listed on the three largest U.S. exchanges had a total market capitalization of $1.4 trillion. As a result, the trading prohibitions of the HFCAA could have a substantial impact. Years of negotiation to resolve the deadlock over audit inspections notwithstanding, China and Hong Kong have still not permitted PCAOB inspections, largely because of purported security concerns. (Interestingly, the WSJ reported that, in a “departure from what officials have said previously, the Chinese stock regulator said on Friday that audit working papers generally do not contain state secrets, individual privacy, companies’ vast user data or other sensitive information.”) In May, in remarks to the International Council of Securities Associations, YJ Fischer, Director of the SEC’s Office of International Affairs, indicated that, although there had been progress, “significant issues remain[ed],” and reaching an agreement would be only “a first step.” In other words, there was still “a long way to go.” On Friday, however, the PCAOB took that first step by signing a Statement of Protocol with the China Securities Regulatory Commission and the Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China governing inspections and investigations of audit firms based in China and Hong Kong. According to a statement from SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the “agreement marks the first time we have received such detailed and specific commitments from China that they would allow PCAOB inspections and investigations meeting U.S. standards.”
SEC Chair Gary Gensler may just have some paternal affection for SOX, especially on the week of its 20th birthday. In these remarks to the Center for Audit Quality, he recalls having “a front-row seat” for the negotiations and signing of the bill, working as Senior Advisor to the late Senator Paul Sarbanes on this legislation. The bill passed the House almost unanimously and the Senate by a vote of 99 to 0—hard to imagine that ever happened, let alone only 20 years ago. In giving SOX its 20-year review, he discusses the significant role SOX played in restoring public trust in the financial system after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, but also offers some, let’s say, opportunities for improvement. (He also drops the hint that the SEC may be taking a “fresh look at the SEC’s auditor independence rules.”)
Earlier this week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler gave the keynote address for an investor briefing on the SEC Climate Disclosure Rule presented by nonprofit Ceres. In his remarks, entitled “Building Upon a Long Tradition,” Gensler vigorously pressed his case that the SEC’s new climate disclosure proposal (see this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post) was comfortably part of the conventional tapestry of SEC rulemaking. Growing out of the core bargain of the 1930s that let investors “decide which risks to take, as long as public companies provide full and fair disclosure and are truthful in those disclosures,” Gensler observed, the SEC’s disclosure regime has continually expanded—adding disclosure requirements about financial performance, MD&A, management, executive comp and risk factors. Over the generations, the SEC has “stepped in when there’s significant need for the disclosure of information relevant to investors’ decisions.” As has been the case historically, the SEC, he insisted, “has a role to play in terms of bringing some standardization to the conversation happening between issuers and investors, particularly when it comes to disclosures that are material to investors.” The proposed rules, he said, “would build on that long tradition.” But has everyone bought into that view?
Who doesn’t love the latest gossip—I mean reporting—about internal squabbles—I mean debate—at the SEC? This news from Bloomberg sheds some fascinating light on reasons for the ongoing delay in the release of the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal: internal conflicts about the proposal. But, surprisingly, the conflicts are not between the Dems and the one Republican remaining on the SEC; rather, they’re reportedly between SEC Chair Gary Gensler and the two other Democratic commissioners, Allison Herren Lee and Caroline Crenshaw, about how far to push the proposed new disclosure requirements, especially in light of the near certainty of litigation, and whether to require that the disclosures be audited. Just how tough should the proposal be? The article paints the SEC’s dilemma about the rulemaking this way: “If its rule lacks teeth, progressives will be outraged. On the flip side, an aggressive stance makes it more likely the regulation will be shot down by the courts, leaving the Biden administration with nothing. Either way, someone is going to be disappointed.”
What could Aristotle possibly have to say about SPACs? In remarks on Thursday before the Healthy Markets Association, SEC Chair Gary Gensler shared his thoughts on the regulation of SPACs with a theme drawn from antiquity: Aristotle’s maxim that we must “treat like cases alike.” That concept, in Gensler’s view, should apply as finance evolves in response to new technologies and new business models. Take SPACs, for example—a type of transaction that, while not exactly new, has really “taken off in the last couple of years.” A SPAC, he said, is really an alternative method of conducting an IPO. The question addressed by Gensler in his remarks is how “this competitive market innovation [should] be treated under our public policy framework,” in effect, giving us a preview of what we may see in SPAC rulemaking, possibly next year.
In a virtual “fireside chat”—is that an oxymoron?—hosted by NYU law, SEC Chair Gary Gensler was interviewed by former SEC Commissioner and current NYU professor Robert Jackson. Much of the discussion involved topics that Gensler has already addressed in the past, such as gamification and digital engagement practices (see e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post). Gensler was also quite reluctant to “get ahead of the rest of the SEC” on some issues and purposefully avoided discussion of actions by specific companies, such as Glass-Lewis’s recent announcement that it would offer equity plan advisory services—will that present a conflict?—and BlackRock’s recent decision to pass-through certain voting rights to institutional clients (see this PubCo post). However, he did offer some updates on various projects at the SEC.
At yesterday’s “SEC Speaks” conference from PLI, SEC Chair Gary Gensler and Commissioners Allison Herren Lee, Elad Roisman and Caroline Crenshaw all delivered remarks on different topics. Gensler discussed the use of predictive digital analytics in finance, Lee examined the explosive growth of the private markets and proposed to address the lack of transparency by revising how we define “holders of record” under Section 12(g), Roisman focused on the SEC’s past efforts to facilitate capital formation by reviewing and streamlining existing regulation, and Crenshaw discussed crypto and the need for a meaningful exchange of ideas between innovators and regulators.