Right after celebrating its second birthday, proposal to change the definition of “smaller reporting company” is adopted (updated)
[This post has been updated to reflect the adopting release, which has now been posted here, as well as posted statements from the Commissioners.] The pressure has been coming from all directions—the Congress, the Treasury—indeed, there’s been nary an advisory committee that hasn’t weighed in on this topic: time for the SEC to change the definition of “smaller reporting company.” After all, the proposal has just celebrated its second birthday—has it aged like a fine wine or is it moldy and stinky like an old piece of cheese? The verdict: moldy cheese that made no one happy, but they all ate it anyway.
In this report, Expanding the On-Ramp: Recommendations to Help More Companies Go and Stay Public, eight organizations—the American Securities Association, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, Equity Dealers of America, Nasdaq, National Venture Capital Association, Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, TechNet and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—joined forces to make recommendations about how to revitalize the IPO market and make public company status more appealing. Many of these recommendations have in the past been the subject of legislation or proposed rulemaking or have otherwise been floated in the ether but, nevertheless, have not advanced. Will the weight of these groups propel any of these recommendations forward?
The WSJ is reporting that “people familiar with the matter”—every reporter’s favorite source—say that the SEC is “weighing” expanding “test the waters” beyond just EGCs. You might recall that, in 2012, the JOBS Act allowed IPO candidates that were EGCs to take preliminary steps to determine the potential level of investor interest before committing to the expensive and time-consuming prospectus drafting and SEC review process. That flexibility, together with the new confidential IPO filing process—which allowed EGCs to start the SEC review process on a confidential basis so that sensitive information would not be disclosed if they ultimately determined not to move forward with the offering—was intended to promote and facilitate access to the public capital markets. Since that time, however, the IPO market has not exactly taken off like a rocket, and the hand-wringing over the lack of interest in going public has continued. In June 2017, Corp Fin extended the confidential filing process, permitting non-EGCs to submit confidential draft registration statement for IPOs and for most offerings made in the first year after going public. Will testing the waters be the next step?
Summarized below are some of the highlights of the 2017 PLI Securities Regulation Institute panel discussions with the SEC staff (Michele Anderson, Wesley Bricker, Karen Garnett, William Hinman, Mark Kronforst, Shelley Parratt, Ted Yu), as well as a number of former staffers and other commentators. Topics included the Congressional and SEC agendas, fresh insights into the shareholder proposal guidance, as well as expectations regarding cybersecurity, conflict minerals, pay ratio disclosure, waivers and many other topics.
The Treasury Department recently issued a new report, A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities—Capital Markets, that, in its recommendations, not surprisingly, echoed in many respects the House’s Financial CHOICE Act of 2017. Having passed the House, the CHOICE Act has since foundered in the Senate (see this PubCo post). The recommendations in the Treasury report addressed approaches to improving the attractiveness of primarily the public markets, focusing in particular on ways to increase the number of public companies by limiting the regulatory burden. According to this Bloomberg article, SEC Chair Jay Clayton “called the report ‘a valuable framework for discussion’ among market participants ‘that will most certainly benefit the American people….We appreciate Treasury’s willingness to seek the SEC’s input during the drafting process, and we look forward to working alongside other financial regulators and Congress as we pursue our three part mission to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation.’”
At the final meeting yesterday of the SEC Committee on Small and Emerging Companies (apparently soon to morph into the Small Business Capital Formation Advisory Committee), the Committee finalized the discussion draft of its Final Report to the SEC and heard presentations on SOX 404(b), the most recent bête noire of deregulation advocates. (The Committee also heard a presentation on Rule 701, which will be addressed in a subsequent post.)
It’s not just Dodd-Frank that has been roundly disparaged in some quarters, SOX 404(b)—the requirement to have an auditor attestation and report on management’s assessment of internal control over financial reporting—has also recently been much maligned. For example, at a recent House subcommittee hearing devoted to the reasons for the decline in the number of IPOs and public companies, a majority of the subcommittee members attributed the decline largely to regulatory overload, with a number of the witnesses training their sights directly on SOX 404(b). (See the SideBar below.) And then there are the legislative efforts to limit the application of SOX 404(b), such as the provision in the Financial Choice Act to allow certain time-lapsed EGCs another five-year exemption from the audit-attestation requirement. (See this PubCo post.) Whether you view these efforts as heavy-handed or not enough of a good thing, the notion that internal controls might diminish fraud risk remains controversial: some maintain that they are a strong deterrent, while others challenge that contention in light of management’s ability to override controls. A recent study by academics in Texas analyzed whether the strength of internal control significantly affects fraud risk. The result: the study found “a strong association between material weaknesses and future fraud revelation,” leading to the authors’ conclusion that “control opinions that do cite material weaknesses provide a meaningful signal of increased fraud risk.”