November 2, 2023

Share Repurchase Disclosures: SEC Ordered to Fix “Arbitrary & Capricious” Rulemaking

Yesterday’s blog betrayed that I had resigned myself to parsing through exhibits with daily share repurchase data and explaining the reasons for share repurchase programs, under rules adopted by the SEC in May. I stand by the notion of having the mechanics of a share repurchase be consistent with the authorizing board resolution (not a new concept and something you’re probably already doing), but in a stroke of luck, the Fifth Circuit has stepped in to say that we may not need to publicly disclose the details after all. A 3-judge panel issued this opinion – which holds that the SEC acted arbitrarily and capriciously in adopting the final rule, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

The ruling was a partial win for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which – as discussed in our May webcast – had challenged the rule on multiple grounds. The court determined that the rule doesn’t violate the First Amendment by impermissibly compelling speech, and that the SEC’s 45-day comment period for this rule was adequate. The problem, in the court’s view, was that the SEC didn’t consider the Chamber’s comments on the rule, which suggested that the Commission quantify the costs & benefits of the proposed rule, even though the Chamber had provided the SEC with new data during the comment period that would have allowed it to do so. From the opinion:

The SEC — by continuing to insist that the rule’s economic effects are unquantifiable in spite of petitioners’ suggestions to the contrary — has failed to demonstrate that its conclusion that the proposed rule “promote[s] efficiency, competition, and capital formation” is “the product of reasoned decisionmaking.”

Additionally, the court went on to say that the supposed benefits of the new disclosure requirements don’t hold water, because the SEC hasn’t shown that opportunistic or improperly motivated buybacks are a genuine problem. According to the court, “That error permeates — and therefore infects — the entire rule.”

Hold off on deleting all your notes on the new requirements, though, because the SEC has 30 days to try to fix the defects in the rule and substantiate its decision to adopt it. My understanding is that the Commission could potentially ask for an extension – or appeal the ruling – but those avenues could be limited since the compliance date is quickly approaching. If the rule is actually vacated following expiration of this remand period, the SEC may be able to appeal that holding. The WSJ noted:

The ruling highlights the legal risks federal agencies face at a time of growing judicial scrutiny of their decisions. SEC Chair Gary Gensler is pushing an aggressive regulatory agenda that has angered American corporations and Wall Street, prompting groups such as the Chamber to challenge several rules in court.

This feels a little like when the SEC’s conflict minerals rule went on life support and nobody quite knew what would be required. The difference is that conflict minerals was struck down on First Amendment grounds, so it continued to exist, but on a much narrower basis. Whereas, if the SEC’s adoption of the share repurchase rule was faulty under the APA – and that’s not corrected – the entire rule would be vacated. We’ll see what the next 30 days bring.

Liz Dunshee