Commissioner Hester Peirce issued a statement on Friday supporting the Trading and Markets Rule 15c2-11 no-action letter, but disagreeing with the very short extension of the compliance date for fixed income securities. She stated:
The Commission’s amendments to Exchange Act Rule 15c2-11 that were finalized last fall will take effect next week. In recent months, market participants have raised concerns about the potentially significant negative effects of these amendments on trading in the fixed-income markets. I agree with the staff of the Division of Trading and Markets that relief is necessary to forestall these effects. However, the time-limited relief—three months—being granted in the no-action letter released today is wholly inadequate to that need. Instead, we should issue longer Commission-level no-action relief and reopen the rulemaking as part of a broader fixed-income modernization initiative.
Commissioner Peirce’s statement indicates that while the text of Rule 15c2-11 has always contemplated application of the rule beyond equity securities, “there appears to have been limited, if any, application of the rule to fixed income markets prior to the Commission’s 2020 adopting release. Nothing in the adopting release suggests that the Commission considered the application of these rules to the fixed-income markets.”
Commissioner Peirce also noted in her statement that, in the context of the OTC equities market, the changes to Rule 15c2-11 could “have unintended harmful consequences on certain shareholders” which could have been mitigated by the establishment of an expert market; however, as I indicated in this blog, the Staff stated over the summer that the expert market was not on the Chair’s near term agenda. We will see the consequences of that decision beginning tomorrow.
Today, the SEC’s Small Business Capital Formation Advisory Committee will meet, and the Committee plans to discuss changing dynamics for pre-IPO companies raising capital and the pathways those companies take to becoming public. Part of the discussion will focus on “crossover investors” (i.e., mutual funds and other traditional public company investors that now invest in late-stage, pre-IPO funding rounds) and how they are changing the dynamics of pre-IPO capital raising and impacting the timing to go public. The Committee will also discuss pathways going public, discussing “how companies and investors are weighing traditional IPOs, direct listings, and the re-emergence of mergers with special purpose acquisition companies.”
Earlier this week, Activision Blizzard confirmed media reports that it was the subject of an SEC investigation concerning “the company’s disclosures regarding employment matters and related issues.” Regardless of its outcome, the SEC’s decision to pursue such an investigation has proven to be controversial. After all, when was the last time that allegations relating to employment practices caught the eye of the Division of Enforcement?
In defending the investigation, some have observed that the workplace misconduct allegations against the company may call into question the accuracy of the human capital disclosures that appeared in its Form 10-K. But UCLA’s Stephen Bainbridge suggests that the SEC’s investigation represents a revival of the agency’s long-ago abandoned efforts to persuade courts to compel disclosure of uncharged wrongdoing. Here’s an excerpt from his recent blog on the investigation:
Obviously, the SEC will claim that it is about Activision’s allegedly deficient disclosures relating to its Human Resources practices. But even if we accept that risible claim at face value, the SEC is still overstepping its bounds. It’s critical that Activision management has not been convicted of any civil or criminal violations. If they had been, it would be arguable that failing to disclose those convictions would be a material omission (obviously, I realize that one is not convicted of civil violations, but I’m using it as a shorthand).
Where plaintiff complains of noncriminal conduct allegedly constituting mismanagement, courts have been unwilling to require disclosure. In Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, AFL―CIO v. J. P. Stevens & Co., 475 F. Supp. 328 (S.D.N.Y.1979), for example, plaintiffs argued that the board of directors had either knowingly violated the labor laws or, at least, failed to prevent management from doing so. According to plaintiffs, this alleged misconduct had harmed the corporation’s reputation and exposed it to liability. The failure to disclose these purported facts in connection with the election of the directors allegedly constituted an omission of material facts. In rejecting plaintiff’s argument, the court held that it would be “silly” to “require management to accuse itself of antisocial or illegal policies.”
Yet, that is precisely what the SEC investigation of Activision assumes management is required to do.
I’m inclined to sympathize with this argument, and I agree that efforts to expand the SEC’s authority beyond financial regulation involve the kind of “mission creep” that threatens its credibility. But I think there’s an important difference between the SEC’s 1970s “qualitative materiality” crusade and situations like this one. Instead of trying to pluck disclosure duties from the ether, this time the SEC has a line-item in its quiver.
Risible or not, that line-item creates a duty to disclose material human capital information, which puts the substance of the disclosure that Activision provided squarely within the SEC’s jurisdiction. The SEC isn’t investigating an omission in search of some amorphous duty to disclose, but whether there were potential misstatements or omissions in response to line-item disclosures that the company was obligated to make.
There’s some irony in the fact that this “principles based” disclosure requirement is being cited as a jumping-off point for a renewed foray by the SEC into the qualitative materiality morass. After all, it was conservatives who championed this “DIY” approach to human capital disclosure, while liberals called for detailed line-item requirements addressing specific metrics. The SEC’s reliance on the new disclosure requirement to investigate conduct that’s pretty far from the core focus of the securities laws suggests that, in the end, the flexibility provided by principles based disclosure requirements may give companies just enough rope to hang themselves.
Cooley’s Cydney Posner recently blogged about an SEC enforcement action targeting a lawyer who allegedly facilitated violations of Section 5 of the Securities Act by rendering legal opinions to transfer agents. Here’s the intro:
Attorneys who may think they can give short shrift to those pesky legal opinions to transfer agents might think twice after reading this complaint, SEC v. Frederick Bauman, filed on September 8, 2021, in the federal district court in Nevada. As described in the SEC’s litigation release, the SEC charged Bauman “with playing a critical role as an attorney who facilitated the unregistered sale of millions of shares of securities by two groups engaged in securities fraud.” According to the SEC’s complaint, between 2016 and August 2019, Bauman issued at least a dozen legal opinions to transfer agents advising that certain shares of four public companies were unrestricted and freely tradeable and that the holders of the shares were not affiliates of the public company issuers. However, the SEC alleged, the shareholders were actually part of groups that controlled those issuers, which made them affiliates under the securities laws.
The SEC alleged that the lawyer lacked a reasonable basis for representing that the shareholders weren’t affiliates, and alleged that their unregistered sales violated Section 5 of the Act, and that in rendering these opinions, the lawyer violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act.
The SEC has brought a number of these actions against lawyers over the years, and they’ve also attracted attention from the DOJ. For example, the SDNY indicted two lawyers last year for their role in cranking out allegedly fraudulent Rule 144 opinions for OTC companies.
The September-October issue of the Deal Lawyers newsletter was just posted – & also sent to the printer. Articles include:
– Recasting a Boilerplate Provision: Exclusive Forum Provisions for Private Delaware LLCs After a Decade of Public Corporate Developments
– Buyer Loses an MAE Claim (Again) in Delaware
– Discounted Cash Flow: “I’m Not Dead Yet!”
Remember that, as a “thank you” to those that subscribe to both DealLawyers.com & our Deal Lawyers newsletter, we are making all issues of the Deal Lawyers newsletter available online. There is a big blue tab called “Back Issues” near the top of DealLawyers.com – 4th from the end of the row of tabs. This tab leads to all of our issues, including the most recent one.
And a bonus is that even if only one person in your firm is a subscriber to the Deal Lawyers newsletter, anyone who has access to DealLawyers.com will be able to gain access to the Deal Lawyers newsletter. For example, if your firm has a firmwide license to DealLawyers.com – and only one person subscribes to the print newsletter – everybody in your firm will be able to access the online issues of the newsletter. That is real value. Here are FAQs about the Deal Lawyers newsletter including how to access the issues online.
Earlier this year, Acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee issued a directive to the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance to enhance its focus on climate-related disclosure in public company filings. Yesterday, Corp Fin posted a sample letter identifying some of the comments that companies should expect to receive during the filing review process. Not surprisingly, the sample letter includes comments seeking additional risk factor disclosure concerning climate change-related risks, but it’s also pretty clear that the Staff expects the MD&A section to do a lot of heavy lifting on climate change disclosure.
In fact, the bulk of the sample letter addresses MD&A disclosures. Specific areas where additional MD&A disclosure is sought include:
– the material impact of climate change-related legislation, regulation or international accords, historical and anticipated cap ex for climate-related projects;
– the indirect consequences of climate-related regulation or business trends, such as changes in demand for products and services, increasing competition to develop new lower-emission products, increases in demands for alternative energy & the reputational risks associated with operations or products that produce material greenhouse gas emissions;
– the physical effects of climate change on operations and results, including the impact of severe weather, quantification of weather-related damages and weather-related impacts on the cost of insurance;
– quantification of increased compliance costs and disclosure concerning the purchase and sale of carbon credits and any material effects on the company’s business, results of operations or financial condition.
Another topic addressed in the sample letter was discrepancies between the level of disclosure provided in corporate sustainability reports and in SEC filings. Companies should expect to be asked to what consideration they gave to providing the same type of climate-related disclosure in their SEC filings as they provided in their sustainability reports. Not to blow our own horn, but in our March issue, we told subscribers to The Corporate Counsel to keep an eye on this issue in preparing for Staff scrutiny of their climate change disclosures:
Look Beyond SEC Filings. Many companies have addressed climate change in sustainability reports and other publications beyond their Exchange Act reports. Those communications and third-party publications should be reviewed with an eye toward determining whether what is said in them is appropriately addressed in the company’s SEC filings.
Okay, so maybe the SEC did mention this issue back in its 2010 guidance, but I’m still calling this one a “W” for Dave & me.
While it’s helpful to know what kind of climate comments the Staff says companies should expect to receive, it’s also good to have some insight into what comments the Staff’s provided to date. My colleague Lawrence Heim addressed that topic in this recent PracticalESG.com blog, and it turns out that those comments are pretty consistent with what the Staff is telling companies to expect.
Lawrence cites this Gibson Dunn alert that reviews these comments & provides advice on how to prepare for them, but he also adds the following additional thoughts:
The alert walks through recommendations to prepare for the possibility of a comment on this topic. I would add to those – validate the data and assumptions on which you relied in (a) quantifying your emissions and (b) making future reduction commitments. At a minimum, consider using an internal team of environmental and internal audit staff, augmented with other internal functions as needed. Alternatively, it may be worth considering engaging a qualified external climate emissions quantification and/or risk management expert.
In response to the SCOTUS’s 2018 Cyan decision upholding the ability of plaintiffs to bring Securities Act claims in state court, many companies have adopted federal form bylaws providing that federal courts will be the exclusive forum for bringing claims arising under the Securities Act. Last year, the Delaware Supreme overruled the Chancery Court and held that these federal forum bylaws were permissible under Delaware law. Since that time, federal forum bylaws have served as the basis for several California state courts to dismiss Section 11 claims. Now, this recent blog from Kevin LaCroix reports that a New York court has joined them. Here’s the intro:
In an important development affirming the use of federal forum provisions (FFP) to avoid duplicative parallel state court securities lawsuits, a New York state court judge has granted the securities suit defendants’ motion to dismiss based on the FFP in the corporate defendant’s charter. The ruling appears to be the first in New York – indeed, the first outside of California – to enforce an FFP. The New York court’s enforcement of the FFP is a significant step in companies’ efforts to try to avoid the duplicative litigation problems caused by the U.S. Supreme Court’s March 2018 decision in Cyan.
Kevin points out that the decision is significant because the vast majority of the post-Cyan state court securities class action lawsuits were filed in either California or New York. If federal forum bylaws are enforceable in both of these jurisdictions, Section 11 plaintiffs may find themselves in a bit of a box.
According to a recent CFO Dive article, everybody’s largest shareholder is running out of patience with the pace of ESG disclosures. Here’s an excerpt:
BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, is losing patience with companies that are slow to disclose the details of their adherence to environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles, according to Jessica McDougall, a director for investment stewardship at BlackRock. “We don’t have patience much longer for these disclosures to be forthcoming,” McDougall said Tuesday in a webcast sponsored by Diligent, adding “we are increasingly seeing the impacts of climate change not only across our portfolios but also across the global economy.”
BlackRock, which manages $9 trillion in assets, has pressed for more disclosure in recent years, “but this was the year that we really started to take more concerted action based on what companies were providing us” before the 2021 proxy season, McDougall said. “Where we felt that companies were falling short for a variety of ESG issues, we were more inclined to support those [shareholder] proposals this year.”
Value Edge Advisors blogged that, during this same webcast, T. Rowe Price’s head of corporate governance said that the big asset managers are feeling the heat from their own clients, regulators & the media, so they’re ratcheting up the pressure on their portfolio companies. Specifically, they’re looking for inconsistencies between those companies’ stated ESG priorities and their political advocacy:
Large asset managers are feeling acute pressure on ESG from clients, the press and regulators, explained Donna Anderson, vice president and head of corporate governance at T. Rowe Price. She said the fund firm is developing analytical and tracking tools to help portfolio managers and stewardship teams identify gaps between companies’ stated ESG priorities that are undermined or canceled out by political spending or membership in trade associations that lobby state and federal legislators for regulations contrary to companies’ official positions.
“If you’re doing business as usual but your [corporate social responsibility] departments are generating tons of reports, assertively staking claim to these various goals, but they’re not being operationalized, it’s going to become evident,” said Anderson during the event. “That’s a real problem in our view.”
According to BlackRock’s recent Stewardship Report, its support for shareholder proposals doubled this year from 17% to 34%, and it voted against 10% of incumbent directors this year, up from 8.5% last year. These recent comments suggest that there’s more bludgeoning to come from the mega asset managers if companies don’t get religion when it comes to both ESG disclosure & operationalizing their stated ESG priorities.
While BlackRock & T. Rowe ramp up the heat, companies that dutifully churn out the kind of detailed ESG disclosure investors say they want may find themselves in for an unpleasant surprise from the ESG ratings industry, at least according to a new study discussed in this HBS newsletter:
Receiving more information can clarify the complex, but not when it comes to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scores. A recent study shows that the more information a company discloses about its ESG practices, the more rating agencies disagree on how well that company is performing along these dimensions. According to the research, a 10 percent increase in corporate disclosure is associated with a 1.3 to 2 percent increase in ESG score variation among major ratings providers, which all interpret and process disclosures differently.
With more than $30 trillion in sustainable investment capital on the line, the stakes are high for companies and investors. Institutions, such as asset managers, pension funds, and endowments, often rely on ESG ratings to make investment decisions. Divergent scores hurt firms, investors, and markets, the research findings suggest, and these effects appear to be worsening over time.
“People are being sold on money being invested responsibly by using these ratings that nobody really understands,” says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Anywhere “Siko” Sikochi, who co-authored the paper Why Is Corporate Virtue in the Eye of the Beholder? The Case of ESG Ratings with HBS professor George Serafeim and Dane Christensen of the University of Oregon. “That’s where the danger is in having all these different ratings not being aligned in some way.”
You know, there’s something about this problem that’s strangely familiar – where have I heard something like it before? Oh yeah, that’s right – in the Book of Genesis:
And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.