As evidenced by Corp Fin’s most recent Roundtable, short-termism is a major concern of SEC officials, both in terms of its potential impact on Main Street investors—who are investing for the long term to fund their retirements and other long-term needs—and its potential to deter companies with a long-term focus from becoming public companies, instead driving them to seek funding in the private markets, where short-termism is less of a factor. (See e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) As SEC Chair Jay Clayton commented during the Roundtable, with so many companies delaying their IPOs or avoiding them altogether, at the end of the day, he was concerned that, in 10 years, the general public would not be able to participate in 70% of the economy because those companies would be privately held. (See this PubCo post.) Will the Long-Term Stock Exchange, a novel concept for a stock exchange that was approved by the SEC in May (see this PubCo post), come to the rescue?
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.
Corp Fin has recently focused on the issue of corporate reporting and short-termism. At the end of last year, the SEC posted a “request for comment soliciting input on the nature, content, and timing of earnings releases and quarterly reports made by reporting companies.” (See this PubCo post.) Following up, Corp Fin then organized a roundtable, held last week, to discuss the issues surrounding short-termism. The roundtable consisted of two panels: the first explored “the causes and impact of a short-term focus on our capital markets,” with the goal of identifying potential market practices and regulatory changes that could promote long-term thinking and investment. In part, this panel developed into a debate about whether short-termism was actually creating a problem for the economy at all. In that regard, several of these panelists were quick to cite the oft-cited academic study revealing that “three quarters of senior American corporate officials would not make an investment that would benefit a company over the long run if it would derail even one quarterly earnings report.” (See this PubCo post and this article in The Atlantic.) Could the reason be a misalignment of incentives? The second panel was centered on the periodic reporting system and potential regulatory changes that might encourage a longer-term focus in that system. Does the current periodic reporting system, along with the practice of issuing quarterly earnings releases and, in some cases, quarterly earnings guidance contribute to or encourage an overly short-term focus by managers and other market participants? On this panel, the headline topic notwithstanding, the discussion barely touched on short-termism; rather, the focus was almost entirely on regulatory burden. At the end of the day, is the SEC seriously considering making changes to periodic reporting?
In this new paper from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford, “Stakeholders and Shareholders: Are Executives Really ‘Penny Wise and Pound Foolish’ About ESG?,” the authors examined survey data from CEOs and CFOs of companies in the S&P 1500 to understand the extent to which the respondents believed that, in business planning and long-term strategy development, they took into account and attributed importance to the needs of non-investor stakeholders, such as employees, unions, customers, suppliers, local communities, government and regulatory agencies and the public at large.
Almost 20 organizations, including the AFL-CIO and Public Citizen, have filed a rulemaking petition with SEC “to revise Rule 10b-18 to curb manipulative practices by firms and encourage corporations to fairly compensate American workers.” In essence, the petition seeks to repeal Rule 10b-18 and requests that the SEC “undertake a rulemaking to develop a more comprehensive framework for regulating stock repurchase programs that would deter manipulation and protect American workers.” In light of the almost—dare I say it—“bipartisan” interest in reviewing the practice of stock buybacks, will the SEC decide that it’s worth taking a look?
The SEC has just announced that the planned Corp Fin roundtable on short-termism will be held on July 18, 2019. In originally announcing the roundtable in May, SEC Chair Jay Clayton observed that the needs of “Main Street investors” have changed; they now have a longer life expectancy, and, in light of the shift from the security of company pensions to 401(k)s and IRAs, they now have greater responsibility for their own retirements. As a result, “Main Street investors are more than ever focused on long-term results.” However, from time to time, they also “need liquidity. In other words, at some point, long-term investors do become sellers. The SEC’s disclosure rules should reflect and foster these needs—long-term perspective and liquidity when needed.” To that end, the goal of the roundtable is not just to discuss the problems associated with short-termism, but also to promote “further dialogue on the causes of and potential solutions to the issue.”
Do companies that ignore long-term environmental or social costs in the pursuit of near-term profits pay another price in foregoing potentially long-term sustainable profit opportunities? The Business Case for ESG, from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, authored by Stanford academics and representatives of ValueAct Capital, considers a framework for incorporating sustainability or ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors into corporate strategy and decision-making. The prevailing theory is that the failure to take sustainability into account is a component of short-termism, “leading to decisions that increase near-term reported profits at the expense of the long-term sustainability of those profits. The costs of those decisions are assumed to manifest themselves as externalities borne by members of the workforce or society at large.” The paper cites investors like Laurence Fink of BlackRock and innovative approaches like The New Paradigm as examples of efforts to encourage companies to take into account stakeholders other than solely shareholders. The paper suggests that, properly analyzed, sustainability can affect not only externalities, but can also benefit the business itself—there is a business case for ESG.
Many have recently lamented the decline in the number of IPOs and public companies generally (about half the number since the boom in 1996), and numerous reasons have been offered in explanation, from regulatory burden to hedge-fund activism. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) In response, some companies are exploring different approaches to going public, leading to a resurgence in SPACs and the launch of IPOs as “direct listings,” which avoid the underwritten IPO process altogether. At the same time, companies are seeking ways to address some of the perceived drawbacks associated with being public companies—including the pressures of short-termism, the risks of activist attacks and potential loss of control of companies’ fundamental mission—through dual-class structures and other approaches. Even the SEC is currently planning a roundtable to address the causes of and potential solutions to short-termism. (See this PubCo post.) Changing dynamics are not, however, limited to the IPO process itself. And one of the most interesting concepts designed to address these issues on completely different turf was just approved by the SEC this month—a novel concept for a stock exchange located in San Francisco, the Long-Term Stock Exchange. The concept has been in the works for a couple of years now and is backed by some heavy-hitting investors. According to the LTSE’s founder and CEO, the “IPO is like a wedding. The IPO process is, what kind of wedding planner do you hire? What kind of wedding do you want to have? But being a public company is you’re now married to the public markets for the rest of your life. People have mostly focused on the IPO process — it’s like making the wedding more efficient….That’s not the problem. The problem is we have to live like this forever.” How will the new Exchange seek to improve this “married life” going forward?
Yesterday, SEC Chair Jay Clayton announced that the SEC will be holding a roundtable this summer to discuss “the impact of short-termism on our capital markets and whether our reporting system, or other aspects of our regulations, should be modified to address these concerns…. The SEC staff roundtable will seek to explore the causes of short-termism and to facilitate conversations on what market-based initiatives and regulatory changes could foster a longer-term performance perspective in American companies.” In his statement, Clayton observed that, in light of increases in life expectancy, together with the greater responsibility of “Main Street investors” for their own retirements—largely as a result of the shift from the security of company pensions to 401(k)s and IRAs—the needs of these investors have changed: “Main Street investors are more than ever focused on long-term results.” However, from time to time, they also “need liquidity. In other words, at some point, long-term investors do become sellers. The SEC’s disclosure rules should reflect and foster these needs—long-term perspective and liquidity when needed.” To that end, the goal of the roundtable is not just to discuss the problems associated with short-termism, but also to promote “further dialogue on the causes of and potential solutions to the issue.”
In December 2018, the SEC posted a “request for comment soliciting input on the nature, content, and timing of earnings releases and quarterly reports made by reporting companies.” According to the press release, the request for comment solicits “public input on how the Commission can reduce burdens on reporting companies associated with quarterly reporting while maintaining, and in some cases enhancing, disclosure effectiveness and investor protections. In addition, the Commission is seeking comment on how the existing periodic reporting system, earnings releases, and earnings guidance, alone or in combination with other factors, may foster an overly short-term focus by managers and other market participants.” (See this PubCo post.) At the end of March, the influential Council of Institutional Investors submitted its comments in response to the SEC request.