Monthly Archives: May 2024

May 31, 2024

Happy 90th Birthday to Exchange Act (and the SEC)

The Exchange Act celebrates its 90th birthday on June 6th. Among other things, that statute created the SEC (the FTC was the original regulator under the Securities Act). The SEC is commemorating that milestone with a webcast event featuring two panels, one comprised of former SEC chairs, and another featuring historian Michael Beschloss, legal scholar Joel Seligman, and former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Lt. Gov. Townsend is also the granddaughter of the SEC’s first chair, Joseph Kennedy.

The SEC has a rich history that you can learn quite a bit about by visiting the SEC Historical Society’s website.  For example, this excerpt from the website’s discussion of the early days of the SEC provides a reminder that strong policy disagreements among commissioners are nothing new:

The Securities Exchange Act required a bipartisan Commission. The two Republicans appointed by Roosevelt were highly experienced: George C. Mathews had directed the Wisconsin Public Utilities Commission before joining the FTC; and Robert E. Healy sat on the Vermont Supreme Court and ran an FTC investigation of public utility holding companies before joining the Commission.

Not surprisingly, some conflict arose during the sessions that the Commission held nearly every day during its first three months. Pecora continually pushed for a more adversarial approach, hoping that further revelations would lead to greater reform. Owing to his public utilities knowledge, Healy sympathized, but sided with Kennedy in the end. Landis and Mathews both agreed with the Chairman that the SEC could best establish its legitimacy and further constructive reform by easing regulations and accommodating business.

Although he respected the Chairman’s abilities, Pecora tired of being in the minority and resigned after six months. For the remainder of Kennedy’s tenure, the four Commissioners handled the heavy load alone.

The Library of Congress also has resources devoted to the Exchange Act and the SEC, including this blog on how the agency’s activities have made public company information more transparent and broadly available, and this group photo of the first commissioners.

Seated, left to right: Ferdinand Pecora, Joseph P. Kennedy, James M. Landis. Standing, left to right: George C. Matthews, Robert F. Healy.

John Jenkins

May 31, 2024

Pandemic Loans: Big Lender Pays Big Settlement

The last time we checked in on the PPP loan program we found that the SBA had concluded that the level of fraud was apparently massive & that the loan forgiveness process was snarled in red tape. Now, bankrupt small business lender Kabbage, which was one of that program’s largest lenders, has agreed to pay up to $120 million to the federal government in order to resolve fraud allegations raised by the US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. Here’s an excerpt from the US Attorney’s press release announcing the settlement:

The first settlement, which provides the United States with a claim for recovery of up to $63.2 million, resolves allegations that Kabbage systemically inflated tens of thousands of PPP loans, causing the SBA to guarantee and forgive loans in amounts that exceeded what borrowers were eligible to receive under program rules. As part of the settlement, KServicing Wind Down Corp. admitted and acknowledged that Kabbage double-counted state and local taxes paid by employees in the calculation of gross wages; failed to exclude annual compensation in excess of $100,000 per employee; and improperly calculated payments made by employers for leave and severance.

The United States alleged that Kabbage was aware of its errors as early as April 2020, yet Kabbage failed to remedy all incorrect loans that had already been disbursed and continued to approve additional loans with miscalculations. The resolution also provides for Kabbage to receive a $12.5 million credit for payments it previously returned to the SBA during the Department’s investigation of this alleged misconduct.

The second settlement, which provides the United States with a claim for recovery of up to $56.7 million, resolves allegations that Kabbage knowingly failed to implement appropriate fraud controls to comply with its PPP and BSA/AML obligations. In particular, the United States allege that Kabbage removed underwriting steps from its pre-PPP procedures in order to process a greater number of PPP loan applications and maximize processing fees.

The government further alleged that Kabbage knowingly set substandard fraud check thresholds despite knowledge of SBA’s concerns that fraudulent borrowers might seek to benefit from the PPP; relied on automated tools that were inadequate in identifying fraud; devoted insufficient personnel to conduct fraud reviews; discouraged its fraud reviewers from requesting information from borrowers to substantiate their loan requests; and submitted to the SBA thousands of PPP loan applications that were fraudulent or highly suspicious for fraud.

During the pandemic, we blogged about Kabbage’s problematic PPP loans to purported agricultural businesses located on Long Beach Island, NJ. In addition to being my summer vacation destination of choice, LBI has recently achieved notoriety for another summer resident’s regrettable outdoor decoration choices. Anyway, I can assure you that LBI has miles of beaches, and plenty of ice cream shops, seafood markets, restaurants and delis – but like most beach communities, it’s pretty devoid of agricultural businesses, unless the Wawa in Ship Bottom somehow counts.

John Jenkins

May 31, 2024

Early Bird Registration Deadline for Our Conferences Extended to July 26th!

We’re really looking forward to reconnecting in person with many of our old friends & meeting new ones at our “2024 Proxy Disclosure & 21st Annual Executive Compensation Conferences” in San Francisco. We have assembled a terrific group of speakers who will cover a range of timely topics over two full days of sessions on October 14th & 15th.

As many of you know, we hold our conferences in conjunction with our friends at the National Association of Stock Plan Professionals (NASPP), which is hosting its own annual conference in San Francisco that week. NASPP has set July 26th as the early bird registration deadline for its conference. We thought it would make sense to have a consistent deadline, so we’ve decided to extend our early bird deal to that date as well.

Our early bird in-person Single Attendee Price is $1,750, which is discounted from the regular $2,195 rate! If you can’t make it in person, we also offer a virtual option so you won’t miss out on the practical takeaways our speaker lineup will share, and we offer discounted rate options for groups of virtual attendees. You can register now by visiting our online store or by calling us at 800-737-1271.

John Jenkins

May 30, 2024

ESG: The Big Three’s Voting Policies

Weil recently issued “The Big Three & ESG,” a report that provides guidance on BlackRock, State Street & Vanguard’s voting policies on key ESG issues. The report also addresses important policy changes announced by the Big Three in 2024, summarizes the expectations of these asset managers concerning company practices and disclosures around selected ESG topics, and highlights areas where failing to meet expectations may result in votes against directors. Here’s an excerpt with some practice pointers for public companies:

Refine Approach to Shareholder Engagement. Companies should review agendas and goals for engagement meetings with the Big Three, to ensure they reflect shareholder engagement priorities and can address as appropriate areas where the company may not be currently meeting expectations. Companies should ensure that directors and senior management participating in engagement meetings are well-briefed on material ESG-related risks and opportunities, current disclosures and practices relating to ESG topics, and do’s and don’ts of shareholder engagement.

Identify Vulnerabilities. Companies should review their disclosures and practices in light of the Big Three’s policies and guidance, to help identify where one or more of the Big Three may vote against directors and/or support shareholder proposals. Companies may work with proxy solicitors to determine the expected support of the Big Three and other major shareholders on ballot items, as well as the expected recommendations of proxy advisory firms. To reduce the risk of significant votes against directors, companies should assess director vulnerabilities and may wish to conduct additional shareholder outreach.

Refresh Materiality Analysis as to ESG-Related Risks and Board Oversight. Given significant recent ESG developments, companies should refresh their materiality analysis relating to ESG-related risks, and how ESG-related risks are integrated into the company’s enterprise risk management framework that facilitates risk identification, assessment, mitigation and monitoring. Companies should also review how the board provides oversight of material ESG-related risks and opportunities, and how this is reflected in board committee charters and related disclosure.

The report also recommends that companies confirm that their ESG narrative is cohesive across SEC filings, sustainability reports, company websites and other materials. In planning ESG disclosures for the year ahead, the report suggests that companies consider refining their ESG disclosures on certain ESG topics to better address the Big Three’s expectations.

John Jenkins

May 30, 2024

Corporate Governance: C-Suite Says Boards Fall Short on Emerging Issues

A recent survey of 600 C-Suite executives by PwC and The Conference Board found that although they felt that boards did a pretty good job in traditional areas of responsibility, executives felt that they fell short when it came to emerging areas of oversight responsibility. This excerpt from the survey’s introduction suggests that executives also perceive overboarding as a significant concern:

Executives continue to express confidence in their boards in traditional areas such as strategy and knowledge of key business risks but are less confident about areas such as digital transformation and ESG. We’re seeing a significant increase in executives who think directors are unprepared, perhaps in large part because executives see an issue with overboarding — their top complaint. This may be one of the reasons a record-high 92% of executives advocate replacing at least one director on their board.

At least 70% of executives surveyed said that their boards were proficient in providing oversight in traditional areas such as corporate strategy, key business risks and opportunities, and executive comp. However, only a little more than 50% of those executives said that their boards were proficient in addressing the impact of digital transformation/emerging technologies and non-climate ESG risks and strategy. Finally, only 48% felt that their boards had a good grasp on US and international ESG reporting requirements.

John Jenkins

May 30, 2024

Liz Update: She’s Heading Home!

As most of our readers know, our friend and colleague Liz Dunshee is on medical leave and has spent the last few weeks here in Cleveland recuperating from thoracic surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. Liz has asked me to thank everyone for their good wishes and to let you know that she’s doing well and is heading home to Minneapolis today.  We know that you join us in continuing to wish her a speedy recovery and look forward to having her back with us soon!

John Jenkins

May 29, 2024

Exclusive Forum Bylaws: “Nevada-ware” Corporations?

Last month, Meredith blogged about the ongoing kerfuffle over whether Delaware corporations should consider reincorporating in another jurisdiction. In that blog, she cited a Wilson Sonsini memo pointing out that one of the big factors that might prompt a corporation to remain in Delaware is the ability to access the Delaware judiciary’s corporate law expertise.  According to a recent blog from Keith Bishop, one newly converted Nevada corporation appears to want to keep that access:

I was doubly surprised to come across the following provision in the articles of incorporation of a corporation that had recently converted from a Delaware corporation to a Nevada corporation:

Unless the Corporation consents in writing to the selection of an alternative forum, the Court of Chancery in the State of Delaware shall, to the fullest extent permitted by law, be the sole and exclusive forum for (i) any derivative action or proceeding brought on behalf of the Corporation, (ii) any action asserting a claim of breach of fiduciary duty owed by any director, officer, other employee or stockholder of the Corporation to the Corporation or the Corporation’s stockholders . . . (iv) any action to interpret, apply, enforce or determine the validity of these Articles of Incorporation or the Bylaws . . .

The corporation’s preference to have a Delaware court interpret and apply Nevada law is one reason that Keith was “doubly surprised” by this provision. More importantly for companies that might be interested in this kind of “Nevada-ware” alternative, the other reason for his surprise was the failure of the articles to include at least one Nevada court as a forum for internal actions, which is required by Nevada’s statute.

By the way, I’m very pleased with myself for the “Nevada-ware” moniker, which I think I’ve coined. It will be interesting to see if other companies that opt to move away from Delaware try to figure out ways to take the parts of Delaware they like with them as they move to their new homes. Anyway, if Nevada-ware corporations become a thing, just remember you heard it here first.

John Jenkins

May 29, 2024

Shareholder Proposals: 2024 Scorecard

A new report from ISS Corporate Services reviews shareholder proposals received in 2024. Among the report’s other conclusions, it says that pro-ESG shareholder proposals have seen a slight uptick in support during the current proxy season. Here’s an excerpt with some of the key takeaways:

– The volume of shareholder proposals submitted for annual meetings held between Jan. 1 through May 31 increased to 739 proposals with 273 voted thus far and 249 still pending.

– The median support level of all shareholder proposal is largely unchanged at 20.6% for 2024, but those receiving majority support is ticking up.

– Governance and compensation proposals are regaining focus and interest from investors, with 268 such proposals submitted for the first five months of 2024. The median support surged to 34.9%, a level unseen in the past five years.

– The volume of environmental proposals decreased to 130 proposals and social proposal volume remained mostly flat. However, support on both environmental and social proposals are up slightly, reversing the two-year consecutive decline in support since 2021.

– Anti-ESG proposals continue to increase in number, but the support remains low.

-Top 5 most prevalent proposals on ballot represent a broad range of topics, including shareholder rights, board accountability, executive pay, GHG emissions, and political spending.

To put some numbers around the excerpt’s characterization of “slightly” increased support for ESG related proposals, support for environmental proposals increased from 19.8% last year to 21.0% this year, and support for social proposals rose from 18.5% in 2023 to 20.7% this year. In contrast, support for anti-ESG proposals dropped from 1.7% to 1.6%. Part of the increase in support for environmental proposals may reflect a little more selective approach by proponents – the 130 proposals submitted this year represent more than a 11% drop from the 147 submitted last year.

John Jenkins

May 29, 2024

AI Expertise Adds a Hefty Premium to Lawyer Pay

If you are looking for motivation to take a deep dive into artificial intelligence, my guess is this information may do the trick – according to PwC’s “AI Jobs Barometer” report, lawyers are at the top of the list when it comes to the premium they earn for having AI skills. Here’s an excerpt from the press release announcing the report’s findings:

Across the five major labour markets for which wage data is available (US, UK, Canada, Australia and Singapore), jobs that require AI specialist skills carry a significant wage premium (up to 25% on average in the US), underlining the value of these skills to companies. Across industries (in the US for example), this can range from 18% for accountants, 33% for financial analysts, 43% for sales and marketing managers, to 49% for lawyers.

A little reality check – you aren’t going to command a premium if you just play around with ChatGPT to help you write a memo or brief. The lawyers that businesses will pay through the nose for are those with what the report calls “AI specialist skills.” These are technical AI skills like deep learning or cognitive automation, so no posers need apply. Obviously, that leaves me out.

John Jenkins

May 28, 2024

SEC Climate Disclosure Rules: New Effective Date to be Provided

When the SEC announced its decision to stay the climate disclosure rules pending the outcome of litigation challenging them, it didn’t address the issue of whether there would be any changes in the implementation period for the new rules if the agency prevailed. This Gibson Dunn blog addressing the briefing schedule established by the 8th Circuit for that litigation highlights a recent court filing by the SEC that indicates that it intends to establish a new implementation period:

The SEC stated in a subsequent court filing that its voluntary stay eliminates the harms challengers had asserted that compliance with the rule would impose, including in the form of costs incurred to prepare for compliance with the rule, and that “[t]he Commission will publish a document in the Federal Register at the conclusion of the stay addressing a new effective date for the [final climate disclosure rules].” While the SEC has not specified the duration of the further implementation period if the rules survive the litigation, it thus has confirmed that a new implementation period will be provided.

The blog says that in light of this statement, companies may prefer to monitor the litigation and delay significant compliance investments until the outcome of the litigation is known, but observes that a complete “pencils down” approach isn’t viable for those companies that must prepare for climate disclosure requirements under other reporting regimes.

John Jenkins