[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect the contents of the proposing release.]
At an open meeting last week, the SEC voted three to two to propose new rules regarding company stock repurchases. (At the same time, the SEC also voted unanimously to propose new rules regarding Rule 10b5-1 plans. See this PubCo post.) The amount that companies have spent on stock repurchases has generally increased substantially over the years—in 2020, companies spent almost $700 billion to repurchase their own shares, which, the SEC asserts, “has been accompanied by public interest in corporate payouts in the form of share repurchases.” These repurchases can impact the market, and, the SEC suggests, questions have been raised as to the adequacy of buyback disclosure. The proposal is intended to modernize and improve that disclosure, taking into consideration the academic literature and the SEC’s own analysis, according to the remarks of Corp Fin Director Renee Jones at the open meeting. The proposal would enhance transparency around stock repurchases, including by requiring daily reports of stock repurchases on a new Form SR and expanding the disclosure required regarding repurchases in periodic reports, including a requirement for use of Inline XBRL. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[s]hare buybacks have become a significant component of how public issuers return capital to shareholders….I think we can lessen the information asymmetries between issuers and investors through enhanced timeliness and granularity of disclosures that today’s proposal would provide.” Dissenting Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman seemed to view the proposal as a rulemaking without much of a reason. There is a 45-day comment period after publication in the Federal Register, a time period that Roisman (perhaps taking a cue from Peirce) found to be of insufficient duration.
Happy holidays and happy new year!!
At an open meeting yesterday, the SEC voted to propose new rules addressing trading in the market by insiders and companies. The commissioners voted—unanimously—to propose new rules regarding Rule 10b5-1 plans and voted three to two to propose new rules regarding issuer stock repurchases. The proposal to add new conditions to use of the Rule 10b5-1 affirmative defense and new disclosure requirements for 10b5-1 plans has long been anticipated. After all, these plans were one of the first rulemaking targets that SEC Chair Gary Gensler identified after he was sworn in as Chair: 10b5-1 plans, he said back in June, “have led to real cracks in our insider trading regime” and called for a proposal to “freshen up” these rules. (See this PubCo post.) Yesterday, Gensler again highlighted concerns about “gaps in Rule 10b5-1—gaps that today’s proposals would help fill.” What wasn’t anticipated was that the vote to issue the proposal would be unanimous! (Remember, though, even former SEC Chair Jay Clayton had discussed the need for “good corporate hygiene” in connection with Rule 10b5-1 plans. See this PubCo post.) But how likely is it that this newfound spirit of unanimity will carry forward to adoption? Time will tell. But do the statements on the proposal, discussed below, of Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman already give us a preview of issues they might raise in possible future dissents on adoption of the rulemaking? The second proposal, stock buyback disclosure, is designed to enhance transparency around stock repurchases, including by requiring daily reports of stock repurchases on a new Form SR and expanding the disclosure required regarding repurchases in periodic reports, including a requirement for use of Inline XBRL. According to Gensler, “[s]hare buybacks have become a significant component of how public issuers return capital to shareholders….I think we can lessen the information asymmetries between issuers and investors through enhanced timeliness and granularity of disclosures that today’s proposal would provide.” Both Peirce and Roisman seemed to view the proposal as a rulemaking without much of a reason. There is a 45-day comment period after publication in the Federal Register for both of these proposals, a time period that Roisman (perhaps taking a cue from Peirce) found to be of insufficient duration.
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?
In remarks Monday before the Center for American Progress, SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson discussed his recent research on corporate stock buybacks, in the light of the substantial increase in buybacks following the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. His focus: to call on the SEC to update its buyback rules “to limit executives from using stock buybacks to cash out from America’s companies.” If executives are so convinced that “buybacks are best for the company, its workers, and its community,” Jackson suggested, “they should put their money where their mouth is.”
In 2016, the AFL-CIO submitted several shareholder proposals designed to curb the impact of stock buybacks on executive compensation. (See this PubCo post.) The question at the time was whether we would see many more of these proposals. However, amid significant media and academic criticism, as well as relatively high stock valuations, the levels of stock buybacks declined, and the anticipated wave of proposals on buybacks did not materialize. However, the new tax act is expected to trigger a new spike in the levels of stock buybacks. (See this MarketWatch article.) Perhaps with that in mind, one of the most prolific proponents of shareholder proposals has submitted a proposal to eliminate the impact of stock buybacks in determining executive compensation. Will these proposals now become a thing?
While the topic of last week’s fourth SEC-NYU Dialogue on Securities Markets was shareholder engagement—focusing on the roles of institutional and activist investors— the real hot topic was the recent letter to CEOs from BlackRock’s Laurence Fink, which was at least mentioned on every panel. (See this PubCo post.)
As has been widely reported, there are currently two nominees to fill the two empty slots at the SEC—from the Democratic side, Robert Jackson, a professor at Columbia Law School, and from the Republican side, Hester Peirce, a fellow at George Mason University. However, Senator Tammy Baldwin had put a “hold” on the nominees back in November, as reported in the WSJ, until they provided “their views on whether regulators should rein in activist investors, stock buybacks and executive pay.” Now that they have both responded to her questions, Baldwin has lifted her hold on the nominees, according to Law360, “clearing a hurdle for confirmation.” Their responses, although not exactly surprising, provide some insight into their views on these key issues.
In Senate testimony, SEC Chair offers insights into his thinking on a variety of issues before the SEC
In testimony last week before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, SEC Chair Jay Clayton gave us some insight into his thinking about a number of issues, including cybersecurity at the SEC, cybersecurity disclosure, the regulatory agenda, disclosure effectiveness, the shareholder proposal process, climate change disclosure, conflict minerals, compulsory arbitration provisions, stock buybacks, the decline in IPOs and overregulation (including some interesting sparring with Senator Warren). Whether any of the topics identified as problematic result in actual rulemaking—particularly in an administration with a deregulatory focus—is an open question.
As discussed in this PubCo post, in November of last year, the U.K. Government published a “Green Paper” on Corporate Governance Reform, which, in the face of rising economic inequality, sought “to consider what changes might be appropriate in the corporate governance regime to help ensure that we improve business performance and have an economy that works for everyone.” The Paper requested input on several proposals, including pay-ratio disclosure, giving employees more influence on company boards and making say-on-pay votes binding, leading to “a broad-ranging debate on ways to strengthen the UK’s corporate governance framework.” The results are now in. Corporate Governance Reform, The Government response to the green paper consultation identifies nine proposals for reform that the U.K. Government intends to advance. The reforms, many of which would not require legislation, are expected to become effective by June 2018 to apply in the following fiscal years. Whether any of these reforms will have a significant impact—either at home in the U.K. or as an influence abroad in the U.S.—remains to be seen.