As we anticipate new proposals from the SEC on human capital and climate disclosure, this recent paper from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford, Seven Myths of ESG, seems to be especially timely. The trend to take ESG into account in decision-making by companies and investors, not to mention the focus on ESG issues by regulators and even associations like the Business Roundtable, is “pervasive,” say the authors. Still, ESG is subject to “considerable uncertainty.” In the paper, the authors set about debunking some of the most common and persistent myths about what ESG is, how it should be implemented and its impact on corporate outcomes, “many of which,” they contend, “are not supported by empirical evidence.” Their objective is to provide a better understanding of ESG so that companies, institutions and regulators can “take a more thoughtful approach to incorporating stakeholder objectives into the corporate planning process.” The authors’ seven myths are summarized below.
In December 2020, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, 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.) According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[w]e have a basic bargain in our securities regime, which came out of Congress on a bipartisan basis under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. If you want to issue public securities in the U.S., the firms that audit your books have to be subject to inspection by the [PCAOB]….This final rule furthers the mandate that Congress laid out and gets to the heart of the SEC’s mission to protect investors….The Commission and the PCAOB will continue to work together to ensure that the auditors of foreign companies accessing U.S. capital markets play by our rules. We hope foreign governments will, working with the PCAOB, take action to make that possible.” Last week, the SEC adopted final amendments to implement the HFCAA. The amendments will be effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect the contents of the proposing release.]
At an open meeting on November 17, the SEC voted, three to two, to propose amendments to the proxy rules that would reverse some of the key provisions governing proxy voting advice that were adopted in July 2020. Those amendments had codified the SEC’s interpretation that made proxy voting advice subject to the proxy solicitation rules. The intent was not, however, to cause ISS and other proxy voting advice businesses, which the SEC refers to as “PVABs,” to file a slew of proxy statements. To address the real issue that the SEC was targeting, the 2020 rules added to the exemptions from those solicitation rules two significant new conditions—one requiring disclosure of conflicts of interest and the second calling for PVABs to engage with the companies that are the subjects of their advice. The proposed amendments would rescind that second central condition—which some might characterize as a core element, if not the core element, of the 2020 amendments. The proposal would also rescind a note to Rule 14a-9, adopted as part of the 2020 rules, that provided examples of situations in which the failure to disclose certain information in proxy voting advice may be considered misleading. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, PVABs “play an important role in the proxy process. Their clients deserve to receive independent proxy voting advice in a timely manner.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce had quite a different take on the proposal, contending that the “rules finalized by the SEC last year created a level playing field and ensured that investors would have access to high quality information free of bias. If the SEC decides to roll back these rules, it will signal that it is not serious about rooting out and eliminating misinformation and conflicts of interest in the proxy process and will instead place special interests at the head of the line, harming investors and markets. We will engage with the SEC to stop these misguided proposals from moving forward.” The proposal will be open for public comment for 30 days after publication of the proposing release in the Federal Register.
In early January 2015, hedge fund activist Trian launched a closely followed proxy fight against DuPont, claiming that the company had underperformed and that it should, among other things, be broken up into three parts. DuPont responded that, through implementation of its own strategic plan, it had delivered total shareholder return and cumulative capital return in excess of its proxy peers and the S&P 500. Rejecting DuPont’s offer of a single board seat, Trian nominated a short slate of four directors and commenced an election contest. Fast forward to February, when Trian submitted to the DuPont board a request that DuPont allow the use of a “universal proxy,” thus allowing shareholders to vote for their preferred combination of DuPont and Trian nominees using a single proxy card. Trian argued that it would provide shareholders with “maximum freedom of choice” and represent “best-in-class corporate governance.” After consulting “with a range of proxy and governance experts” and evaluating the DuPont shareholder base, DuPont rejected that request, contending that there was “insufficient infrastructure” to support the use of a universal proxy card and that the process could “undermine voting access” for DuPont’s huge contingent of retail shareholders. In particular, DuPont was concerned that “the use of a universal proxy card would limit voting options for our ‘Street-name’ holders, as well as deprive holders of the ability to simply sign and return voting forms without marking a preference.” At the annual meeting, Trian lost its bid, and DuPont’s full slate of nominees was elected. But the DuPont story ultimately ended favorably for Trian, notwithstanding its loss in the proxy contest. After the election contest, Trian reignited its battle to break up the company and, after the company failed to hit targeted earnings, the CEO resigned. DuPont ultimately entered into an agreement to be acquired. A new rulemaking from the SEC to mandate the use of universal proxy, adopted last week by a vote of four to one, would likely have affected the course of that campaign and perhaps its outcome. Will we see more contested elections in the future?
For years, many companies and business lobbies, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, repeatedly raised concerns about proxy advisory firms’ concentrated power and significant influence over corporate elections and other matters put to shareholder votes, leading to questions about whether these firms should be subject to more regulation and accountability. (See, e.g., this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) In July 2020, the SEC adopted, by a vote of three to one, new amendments to the proxy rules regarding proxy advisory firms. At the time of adoption of the new rules, then-SEC Chair Jay Clayton observed that the final rules were the product of a 10-year effort—commencing with the SEC’s 2010 Concept Release on the U.S. Proxy System—which led to “robust discussion” from all market participants. Commissioner Allison Herren Lee, who dissented, objected to the rule changes as “unwarranted, unwanted, and unworkable.” When new SEC Chair Gary Gensler was confirmed, he asked the SEC staff to take another look at the rule amendments, and Corp Fin stated that, during the reconsideration period, it would not recommend enforcement action. Now, as reported on thecorporatecounsel.net blog, NAM has just announced that it has filed suit in federal court against the SEC for failure to enforce its final rules on proxy advisory firms.
On Friday, the SEC approved Nasdaq’s proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure, along with a proposal to provide free access to a board recruiting service. The new listing rules adopt a “comply or explain” mandate for board diversity for most listed companies and require companies listed on Nasdaq’s U.S. exchange to publicly disclose “consistent, transparent diversity statistics” regarding the composition of their boards in a matrix format. (See this PubCo post.) Nasdaq has now posted a three-page summary of its new board diversity rule, What Nasdaq-listed Companies Should Know.
You probably remember that, late last year, Nasdaq filed with the SEC a proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure, accompanied by a proposal to provide free access to a board recruiting service. The new listing rules would adopt a “comply or explain” mandate for board diversity for most listed companies and require companies listed on Nasdaq’s U.S. exchange to publicly disclose “consistent, transparent diversity statistics” regarding the composition of their boards. In March, after Nasdaq amended its proposal, and in June, the Division of Trading and Markets, pursuant to delegated authority, took actions that had the effect of postponing a decision on the proposal—until now. On Friday afternoon, the SEC approved the two proposals.
On Friday, the President signed an Executive Order designed to promote competition in the American economy. Here is the Fact Sheet. The Order, which, in addition to corporate consolidation, relates to barriers to competition and the impact on the workforce and consumers of the lack of competition, includes “72 initiatives by more than a dozen federal agencies to promptly tackle some of the most pressing competition problems across our economy.” The Order addresses several industries specifically, such as tech, financial services, telecom, agriculture, transportation and shipping, and pharma and healthcare. The Order could also broadly impact a number of other industries, for example, through efforts to curtail the use of “non-compete and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility” or efforts to limit “manufacturers from barring self-repairs or third-party repairs of their products.” For the most part, the Order does not change the law or even any regulations at this point, and some of the agencies identified, such as the FTC, are independent and not subject to Presidential directives. Congress and the courts are likely to have a say as well. Nevertheless, companies may want to assess whether the initiatives and shift in regulatory emphasis may have some impact on their businesses that could warrant disclosure.
On Friday, the SEC announced that it had “removed” William D. Duhnke III from the PCAOB and designated Duane M. DesParte to serve as Acting Chair, effective Friday. Duhnke has been serving as Chair since January 2018. The SEC also announced that it intends to seek candidates to fill all five board positions on the PCAOB. In the press release, SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that the “PCAOB has an opportunity to live up to Congress’s vision in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act….I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners, Acting Chair DesParte, and the staff of the PCAOB to set it on a path to better protect investors by ensuring that public company audits are informative, accurate, and independent.” What’s it all about?
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.