August 28, 2019

S-K Modernization: Two SEC Commissioners Concerned About “Principles-Based” Proposal

Yesterday, SEC Commissioners Rob Jackson & Allison Herren Lee issued this joint statement about the “modernization” amendments to Reg S-K that were proposed several weeks ago. Although they’re in favor of the proposed addition of human capital disclosure requirements, they want to encourage comments on the shift towards principles-based disclosure and the absence of the topic of climate risk. Here’s the body of their statement:

The proposal favors a principles-based approach to disclosure rather than balancing the use of principles with line-item disclosures as investors—the consumers of this information—have advocated. The flexibility offered by principles-based disclosure makes sense in some cases, but the benefits of that flexibility should be carefully weighed against its costs.

One concern with principles-based disclosure is that it gives company executives discretion over what they tell investors. Another is that it can produce inconsistent information that investors cannot easily compare, making investment analysis—and, thus, capital—more expensive. Our concern is that the proposal’s principles-based approach will fail to give American investors the information they need about the companies they own.

For example, the proposal takes a crucial step forward for investors who have long asked for transparency about whether and how public companies invest in the American workforce. But, because it favors flexibility over bright-line rules, the proposal may give management too much discretion—sacrificing important comparability—when describing a company’s investments in its workers.

That’s why investors representing trillions of dollars, and our Investor Advisory Committee, have urged the SEC to require specific, detailed disclosures reflecting the importance of human capital management to the bottom line. We hope that commenters will make sure we get this balance right by letting us know what, if any, specific measures would be useful for investors.

Additionally, the proposal does not seek comment on whether to include the topic of climate risk in the Description of Business under Item 101. Estimates of the scale of that risk vary, but what is clear is that investors of all kinds view the risk as an important factor in their decision-making process. Yet it remains tough for investors to obtain useful climate-related disclosure. One argument against mandating such disclosure is that climate risk is too difficult to quantify with acceptable accuracy. Whatever one thinks about disclosure of climate risk, research shows that we are long past the point of being unable to meaningfully measure a company’s sustainability profile.

For example, recent work shows that some sustainability measures reveal material information to the market. Despite early skepticism about the utility of those measures, recent efforts to refine them through engagement with issuers and investors have borne real fruit. We hope commenters will weigh in as to whether and how this topic should be included in a final rule. In addition, to the extent the SEC may consider whether and how additional rules should be updated to provide more transparency on climate risk, we hope commenters will provide data and analysis to help guide that important work.

Audit Committee Disclosure: Cyber Risks Getting More Play

Deloitte’s annual survey on audit committee disclosure shows that large companies are continuing to increase the amount of information they voluntarily provide – with more than half now explaining why the audit committee decided to appoint the independent auditor, and nearly 80% explaining how the independent auditor is evaluated.

As has been the case for a few years, 99 companies in the S&P 100 also disclose the audit committee’s role in risk oversight. What’s new on that front is that a growing number specifically describe whether & how the audit committee is involved in overseeing cyber risks.

Deloitte gives these suggestions to further enhance transparency & usefulness of the proxy (also see our newly updated “Audit Committee Disclosure Handbook“):

1. Provide more granular information on key topics on the audit committee agenda (see Coca Cola’s 2019 proxy statement)

2. Specify independent auditor evaluation criteria (see Allergan’s 2019 proxy statement)

3. Discuss issues encountered during the audit and how they were resolved (see KMI’s 2019 proxy statement)

4. Enhance readability by using graphics, or personalize the audit committee with photos or other messages tailored to readers (see Visa’s 2019 proxy statement)

Transcript: “Company Buybacks – Best Practices”

We’ve posted the transcript for our recent webcast: “Company Buybacks – Best Practices.”

Liz Dunshee