April 14, 2021

The Future is Now: “Alexa, Vote My Proxy!”

This Mediant announcement caught my eye as it says the firm offers proxy voting by voice with Alexa. It’s only available to a small subset of companies and retail shareholders right now – those who use Mediant – and shareholders with access to an Amazon Alexa device so they can tell Alexa their 12-digit control number in order to get access to voting. This could be big though – it could be a step up from voting by phone, especially if Broadridge ends up offering it down the road.

Retail voting is important because instances where retail shareholders tip the scales on a vote outcome do crop up – last year, I blogged about this on our “Proxy Season Blog.” The Alexa feature to vote all proposals at once could help companies get a positive retail turnout, because the default is to vote with management on everything. With Alexa, the possibilities for voice-enabled automation are seemingly endless, right now it’s unclear whether companies could also set up reminders. It’s kind of a fun concept, although I was disappointed that I didn’t have a 12-digit control number to test it…

Division of Examinations Observes Instances of ESG Proxy Voting Inconsistencies

Last week, the SEC’s Division of Examinations issued a risk alert with observations from its review of investment advisers, investment companies and funds that offer ESG investment products and services.  The Division examined firms to evaluate whether they accurately disclose their ESG investment approach, and whether they implement policies, procedures and practices that synch with their ESG-related disclosures.  The risk alert describes some of the Division’s observations relating to deficiencies and internal control weaknesses, including this excerpt about inconsistencies in proxy voting with advisers’ stated approaches:

The staff observed inconsistencies between public ESG-related proxy voting claims and internal proxy voting policies and practices. For example, the staff observed public statements that ESG-related proxy proposals would be independently evaluated internally on a case-by-case basis to maximize value, while internal guidelines generally did not provide for such case-by-case analysis. The staff also noted public claims regarding clients’ ability to vote separately on ESG-related proxy proposals, but clients were never provided such opportunities, and no policies concerning these practices existed.

The takeaway here is that companies, who think they may be doing and disclosing what certain investment companies and funds will value and evaluate, might not be able to count on these firms following their proxy voting guideline of a case-by-case analysis for a particular proposal.  Whether this means the vote would be with management or not isn’t clear but when voting determinations are “case-by-case,” companies doing the right thing might think there’s a chance votes would be cast with management’s recommendation. This discrepancy highlights the need for companies, particularly those with ESG-related ballot items, to actively engage with shareholders to help stay on top of how different investment firms intend to cast their votes.

Commissioner Hester Peirce released a Public Statement about the ESG risk alert providing some added context. With respect to the risk alert discussion about inconsistencies in proxy voting, Commissioner Peirce reminds readers to keep the Commission’s previously issued proxy voting interpretive releases in mind. Commissioner Peirce notes that ‘While not applicable only to advisers using ESG strategies, these Commission statements remind advisers that proxy voting, when such authority is undertaken on behalf of the client, is subject to advisers’ fiduciary duty and must be undertaken in the client’s best interest.’

Corp Fin & OCA Staff Clarify How to Account for SPAC Warrants – Restatement Analysis Coming Your Way?

Warrants are a standard part of how SPACs raise money, and they’re often classified on balance sheets as equity. But as part of the SEC’s ongoing scrutiny of these deals – and as a follow-up to statements issued in early April – Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates and Acting Chief Accountant Paul Munter issued a Joint Statement on Monday saying that these instruments might instead need to be classified as liabilities, which means that they need to be revalued every period and cause fluctuations in net income that are complicated to explain.

That’s a big issue, especially for SPACs that have been filing financials for many reporting periods that could now be considered erroneous, and also for SPACs that are trying to go effective with registration statements.

When it comes to accounting for warrants, the statement discusses fact patterns and specific warrant terms that can impact whether the warrants can be classified as equity or as an asset or liability that requires a fair value assessment each period. Equity classification requires that the instrument (or embedded feature) be indexed to the company’s own stock (e.g., the payoff can’t depend on who the holder is). Another common situation that GAAP treats as a liability is if an event not within the company’s control could require net cash settlement. There’s a big emphasis on this being a “facts & circumstances” analysis – for each entity and each contract. Here are a couple of examples from the statement:

We recently evaluated a fact pattern relating to the terms of warrants that were issued by a SPAC. In this fact pattern, the warrants included provisions that provided for potential changes to the settlement amounts dependent upon the characteristics of the holder of the warrant. Because the holder of the instrument is not an input into the pricing of a fixed-for-fixed option on equity shares, OCA staff concluded that, in this fact pattern, such a provision would preclude the warrants from being indexed to the entity’s stock, and thus the warrants should be classified as a liability measured at fair value, with changes in fair value each period reported in earnings.

We recently evaluated a fact pattern involving warrants issued by a SPAC. The terms of those warrants included a provision that in the event of a tender or exchange offer made to and accepted by holders of more than 50% of the outstanding shares of a single class of common stock, all holders of the warrants would be entitled to receive cash for their warrants. In other words, in the event of a qualifying cash tender offer (which could be outside the control of the entity), all warrant holders would be entitled to cash, while only certain of the holders of the underlying shares of common stock would be entitled to cash. OCA staff concluded that, in this fact pattern, the tender offer provision would require the warrants to be classified as a liability measured at fair value, with changes in fair value reported each period in earnings.

Even though it may be painful, if you haven’t already talked with your auditors about this, it’s probably time to give them a call. If you determine there’s a material error in previously filed financial statements — such as a reclassification of warrants from equity to a liability that also experienced a material fluctuation in value — the statement includes a reminder about information to include in an amended Form 10-K and any subsequent Form 10-Qs. It also reminds companies of their need to maintain internal controls over financial reporting and disclosure controls and procedures to determine whether those controls are adequate.

This latest statement could have the effect of slowing the deluge of SPAC transactions, as companies will need to wrangle with their accountants and others over terms of any warrants. If you have questions about technical accounting matters involving SPAC warrants, you should contact the Office of the Chief Accountant – and for questions about restating financial statements, contact Corp Fin’s Chief Accountant’s Office.

– Lynn Jokela