TheCorporateCounsel.net

February 4, 2020

CAMs vs. Critical Accounting Estimates: What’s the Difference?

This memo from the Journal of Accountancy gives me LSAT flashbacks. Based on remarks from an SEC Professional Accounting Fellow, it explains that while critical audit matters tend to be a subset of critical accounting estimates, some CAMs have not been reported as critical accounting estimates by management. Here’s an excerpt:

For example, one auditor reported that evaluation of the identification of related parties and related-party transactions was a critical audit matter, but there wasn’t a critical accounting estimate related to that topic.

Sometimes, Collins said, an auditor identifies a critical audit matter that is a component of a related critical accounting estimate. For example, one critical audit matter related to a goodwill impairment analysis for a specific reporting unit that was considered at risk for impairment. Management’s critical accounting estimate, meanwhile, related to goodwill impairment more broadly.

The memo also quotes SEC Deputy Chief Accountant Marc Panucci as urging auditors and companies to approach critical audit matters as a blank sheet of paper each year. Often, they might end up being the same from year to year, but auditors won’t know that until they’ve considered the facts & circumstances of each each individual audit.

Disclosure Reform: Are ESG Risks “Material”?

Over the past couple of years, the SEC has taken a few small steps toward “disclosure reform” – with its 2018 “Disclosure Update & Simplification” and 2019 “Fast Act Modernization” amendments – as well as with its more recent proposal to modernize Items 101, 103 and 105 of Reg S-K. Although the most recent proposal drew thousands of comments – including from Big Yoga! – none of the recent or anticipated rule changes would overhaul ESG risk disclosure in the way that some investors say they want.

One of the main objections to even considering rules on this topic is that the info wouldn’t be material. To get a sense of who shares that view, a recent study published in the Villanova Law Review takes a closer look at the comment letters submitted in response to the SEC’s 2016 Concept Release – apparently there were 25,000 comments but only 375 “unique” responses. Here’s an excerpt:

The findings here confirm that concerns about investors’ disclosure overload are overblown and indeed, outdated. While many investors support some streamlining of risk-related disclosure, most investor comments focus on the under-disclosure of material information, not the reverse.

The empirical results discussed in Part III below confirm that respondents’ support for, or opposition to, ESG disclosure reform has less to do with ESG and more to do with their underlying views on materiality, the value of prescriptive disclosure, and how satisfied they are with the current state of reporting.

At the same time, this study also finds a surprising level of agreement among respondents on a number of the SEC’s proposals to simplify risk-related disclosures, particularly with regard to market risk disclosures and MD&A.

What I found refreshing was that the study confirmed the SEC, investors and business community all agreed that risk disclosures are extensive but frequently generic and boilerplate – and there was general agreement for more principles-based disclosure. The study provides another entry point for conversations about ESG risk disclosure – e.g., consideration needs to be given to not only increased compliance costs that companies would incur with expanded disclosure but also costs to investors of under-disclosing material ESG information.

Tomorrow’s Webcast: “Conflict Minerals – Tackling Your Next Form SD”

Join us tomorrow for the webcast – “Conflict Minerals: Tackling Your Next Form SD” – to hear our own Dave Lynn of Morrison & Foerster, Ropes & Gray’s Michael Littenberg, Lawrence Heim of the Responsible Minerals Initiative and Deloitte’s Christine Robinson discuss what you should now be considering as you prepare this year’s Form SD.

Lynn Jokela

February 3, 2020

“Proxy Advisor” & “Shareholder Proposal” Regs: Comments Are In!

With the comment period for the SEC’s proposed rules on regulating proxy advisors and the shareholder proposal process closing today – February 3rd – let’s take a peek at some of the comment letters submitted so far on these topics – available here and here, respectively.

First, among other things, T. Rowe Price has asked the SEC to refocus on proxy infrastructure – e.g. end-to-end vote confirmation – and to go back to the drawing board.  That’s similar to recent recommendations from the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee – I blogged last week on our “Proxy Season” Blog that the Committee wants the SEC to revisit its priorities and re-do the proposals.

Some letters focus primarily on the proposal dealing with regulation of proxy advisors (see this letter from Value Edge Advisors, Nell Minow), while others focus primarily on the proposal dealing with the Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposal process (like this one from First Affirmative) – and some address both (e.g., Neuberger Berman).

The Council of Institutional Investors issued a press release criticizing the proposals and then submitted two letters, one on the regulation of proxy advisors and another on the Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposal process, each is 65 pages long.  Here’s an excerpt from CII’s press release:

The two proposals are the most significant attempt by the SEC to limit the voice of shareholders since the Commission was created in 1934. They would tighten regulation of proxy advisory firms and shareholder proposals in ways that CII believes are fundamentally flawed and unnecessary. If adopted, both proposals would introduce complexity and micromanagement in proxy voting and in shareholder-company engagement processes that have worked well for decades. CII urges the SEC to withdraw both proposals and focus instead on festering problems in the proxy voting system.

Here are a few other letters worth noting:

Boston Trust Walden (signatories include, among others, As You Sow, Mercy Investment Services, NYC Comptroller, Trillium Asset Management)

Principles for Responsible Investment (sign-on letter – signatories include, among others, BMO Global Asset Management, ClearBridge Investments, Legal & General Investment Management, MFS Investment Management, New York State Comptroller, Wellington Management Company)

Robeco

Washington State Investment Board

Aside from traditional comments to the SEC, at least one asset manager has criticized the proposed rules in a letter to clients – here’s a client letter from Daniel Loeb’s Third Point (comments on rule proposal on pg 4).

As reported in the NY Times and Reuters, in a speech last week, SEC Commissioner Roisman defended the proposals and said that some of the comments are based on misinformation but he is “open to changing his mind” on the direction of the proposals.

And, even though the comment period closes today, comments will continue to roll in…

CalPERS and CalSTRS Report on Climate-Related Financial Risk

CalPERS has issued its first report on climate-related financial risk of its public market portfolio, including the fund’s alignment with the Paris Agreement and California climate policy goals and the exposure of the fund to long-term risks.

Among information included in the report is a summary of public market exposures and anticipated climate-related financial risks in sectors noted by the TCFD as most exposed to climate risks and opportunities.  The report also provides an analysis of how CalPERs work on climate change is aligned with the Paris Agreement and California climate policy goals and it outlines some of CalPERS engagement activities.  Engagement activities have included meeting in person with company management and in some cases board members about climate risk.

CalSTRS also filed its first report on climate-related financial risk under California Senate Bill 964.  CalSTRS’ report, titled “Green Initiative Task Force“, includes additional content compared to prior reports in that it says the report analyzes CalSTRS climate risk exposure and describes how it supports California’s climate goals.  The report also is structured to align with the TCFD framework of recommended climate-related financial disclosures – governance, strategy, risk management, and metrics and targets.

The reports also summarize CalPERS and CalSTRS proxy voting on environmental proposals during the 2019 proxy season – each fund typically supports proposals asking for improved environmental risk reporting unless it believes that the company already provides adequate disclosure about these risks.  In 2019, CalPERS and CalSTRS each supported 54% of environmental proposals.

As noted in the reports, California Senate Bill 964 requires CalPERS and CalSTRS to publicly report this information every three years until January 31, 2035.  Because this was CalPERS first report, in the report CalPERS states that it welcomes the California legislature’s feedback.  So, let’s check back in three years and see how the report has evolved.  In the interim, CalSTRS report says that it will provide an annual update highlighting its low-carbon transition activities.

Our February Eminders is Posted!

We have posted the February issue of our complimentary monthly email newsletter. Sign up today to receive it by simply entering your email address!

Lynn Jokela

January 31, 2020

S-K Financial Disclosure: SEC Proposes Big Changes!

Yesterday, the SEC voted to propose significant changes to the financial disclosure provisions of Regulation S-K.  The changes are intended to eliminate duplicative disclosures & modernize and enhance MD&A disclosures while simplifying compliance efforts. Here’s the 196-page proposing release. This excerpt from the SEC’s press release summarizes the proposed rule changes:

The proposed amendments would eliminate Item 301 (selected financial data) and Item 302 (supplementary financial data), and amend Item 303 (management’s discussion and analysis). The proposed amendments are intended to modernize, simplify, and enhance the financial disclosure requirements by reducing duplicative disclosure and focusing on material information in order to improve these disclosures for investors and simplify compliance efforts for registrants.

Among other things, the proposed amendments to Item 303 would:

– Add a new Item 303(a), Objective, to state the principal objectives of MD&A;

– Replace Item 303(a)(4), Off-balance sheet arrangements, with a principles-based instruction to prompt registrants to discuss off-balance sheet arrangements in the broader context of MD&A;

– Eliminate Item 303(a)(5), Tabular disclosure of contractual obligations given the overlap with information required in the financial statements and to promote the principles-based nature of MD&A;

– Add a new disclosure requirement to Item 303, Critical accounting estimates, to clarify and codify existing Commission guidance in this area; and

– Revise the interim MD&A requirement in Item 303(b) to provide flexibility by allowing companies to compare their most recently completed quarter to either the corresponding quarter of the prior year (as is currently required) or to the immediately preceding quarter.

Yesterday’s vote was another divisive one. Commissioner Allison Herren Lee issued a dissenting statement criticizing the proposal for ignoring “the elephant in the room” – climate change disclosure. She observed that in all of the SEC’s efforts to modernize Reg S-K in recent years, it has not once mentioned climate change or its relevance to these disclosures.

SEC Chair Jay Clayton issued his own lengthy statement in which he addressed, among other things, the SEC’s ongoing efforts to get its arms around climate change & environmental disclosure issues. Meanwhile, the ever-quotable Commissioner Hester Peirce weighed-in with a statement in support of the proposal, in which she warned that due in part to the efforts of “an elite crowd pledging loudly to spend virtuously other people’s money, the concept of materiality is at risk of degradation” through its expansion to ESG & sustainability disclosures.

But Wait! There’s More! SEC Issues Guidance on MD&A Metrics

As if a revamp of S-K’s financial disclosures wasn’t enough, the SEC also issued this 7-page interpretive release providing guidance on disclosure of key performance metrics in MD&A. The guidance says that when companies disclose such metrics, they should also consider whether additional disclosures are necessary and gives examples of such disclosures. The guidance also cites the requirements in Exchange Act Rules 13a-15 and 15d-15 to maintain disclosure controls and procedures and advises companies to consider these requirements when disclosing metrics.

Risk Factors: Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak

Jay Clayton also addressed the disclosure implications of the coronavirus outbreak in his statement on the S-K financial disclosure rule proposals. He noted the significant uncertainty surrounding the outbreak’s implications for businesses, but also observed that “how issuers plan for that uncertainty and how they choose to respond to events as they unfold can nevertheless be material to an investment decision.”

Speaking of that, Levi-Strauss filed its Form 10-K yesterday and it includes the first 10-K risk factor disclosure addressing the outbreak (see p. 19). Here’s an excerpt:

Disasters occurring at our or our vendors’ facilities also could impact our reputation and our consumers’ perception of our brands. Moreover, these types of events could negatively impact consumer spending in the impacted regions or depending upon the severity, globally, which could adversely impact our operating results. For example, in December 2019, a strain of coronavirus was reported to have surfaced in Wuhan, China, resulting in store closures and a decrease in consumer traffic in China. At this point, the extent to which the coronavirus may impact our results is uncertain.

John Jenkins

January 30, 2020

Cryptocurrencies: Rising NBA Star Launches ICO

If there’s one thing we know about cryptocurrencies, it’s that celebs love them. We’ve blogged about rapper Ghostface Killah’s unsuccessful efforts to launch his own cryptocurrency, and we also mentioned how boxer Floyd Mayweather & music impresario DJ Khaleed managed to get themselves sideways with the SEC due to their involvement in touting some ICOs on social media.

Now Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets has entered into the crypto game with his SD8 coin offering. This excerpt from a recent Forbes article explains what he’s up to:

After nearly three months of delays, including a threat from the NBA to ban him from the league during negotiations, Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie plans to launch his token-based investment vehicle on Monday in conjunction with a bid to get selected to his first career All-Star Game.

I reported in October that the 26-year-old planned to launch DREAM Fan Shares, a blockchain-based investment platform, where he’ll sell 90 SD8 coins that will enable Dinwiddie to collect up to $13.5 million of his guaranteed three-year, $34 million contract upfront, as a business loan. But Dinwiddie ran into some disagreements with the NBA about this first-of-its-kind initiative, which he outlined over the phone on Sunday as Brooklyn arrived in Orlando for a game the next night against the Magic.

The third year of Dinwiddie’s Nets contract is a player option for just over $12.3 million. And his original tokenization plan called for the possibility of significant dividends for investors if he elected to opt out of the final year of his deal in 2021 and come to terms on a more lucrative contract with Brooklyn or another team. And that is where the NBA had some real issues, according to Dinwiddie.

“Pretty much what they said was that the player option was gambling,” he said, “and that would’ve been cause for termination.”

Dinwiddie ultimately agreed to tweak his coin to eliminate the portion of it that related to his 3rd year player option, and the NBA backed down. While the NBA may not have liked his deal, it appears that Dinwiddie’s trying to stay on-side with the SEC. He’s doing his offering in reliance on Reg D, and will sell the coins to accredited investors only.

Venture Capital: Marky Mark Backed Co. to Toe the IPO Mark

You know what celebs love even more than the crypto? That’s right – cocaine! venture capital! We’ve blogged about Snoop Dogg’s venture investments, but there are lots of other celebrities in the venture capital game. This recent Coinspeaker article says that Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg’s investment in F45 Training Fitness may be ready for an IPO as soon as the first half of this year. And the article says that his investment has already paid off big-time:

The franchise has quickly gained traction. In March 2019, it attracted an American actor, producer, businessman, model, rapper, singer and songwriter Mark Wahlberg. Hollywood celebrity once tried the F45 Training program. After that, his Investment Group and FOD Capital bought a minority stake in F45 Training. The investment made as much as $450 million.

Wow – talk about Good Vibrations! Makes me want to buy a pair of parachute pants. Wahlberg appears to have really hit the jackpot here, and it looks like that in addition to his achievements in show biz, when it comes to venture investing, he can now echo the words of one of his most famous characters: “I’m a star. I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m a star. I’m a big, bright shining star.”

Blue Sky Cops & Robbers: “The Story You are About to Hear is True. . .”

I’ve been a huge fan of “Dragnet” since I was a little kid. I still can’t get enough of Joe Friday and his partners & their true crime tales from the files of the LAPD. Maybe that’s why I was excited to read Keith Bishop’s recent blog discussing a new series of podcasts from the North American Securities Administrators Association.

The series is called “Real Life Regulators”, which NASAA’s press release says recounts “true crime stories straight from the investigative files of the securities regulators closest to investors.” That sounds awesome. Here’s a link to the first episode.

You may have noticed that I referred to Joe Friday’s “partners” in the first sentence. That’s not a typo. Sgt. Friday actually had 4 partners on TV & radio before Officer Bill Gannon: Ben Romero, Ed Jacobs, Bill Lockwood and Frank Smith.

John Jenkins

January 29, 2020

SEC’s Proxy Advisor Interpretive Guidance on Hold

Last fall, Liz blogged that ISS was suing the SEC to overturn the Commission’s August 2019 interpretations saying that proxy voting advice is “proxy solicitation” under SEC rules. As reported in Bloomberg Law, that lawsuit is now on hold.

As part of the stay, the SEC has indicated that its guidance issued last August doesn’t have the effect of law and it won’t be invoked while the stay is in place. All of the underlying court filings are available on Pacer.

Insider Trading: Bharara Task Force Weighs In

A few years ago, I blogged over on The Mentor Blog about the establishment of a task force led by former SDNY chief Preet Bharara to make recommendations about reforming insider trading law.  The task force recently issued its report, which recommends enactment of a new statute setting forth the elements of insider trading.  Here’s an excerpt from the executive summary summarizing what the task force thinks that statute should include:

The language and structure of any statute should aim for clarity and simplicity.

– The law should focus on material nonpublic information that is “wrongfully” obtained or communicated, as opposed to focusing exclusively on concepts of “deception” or “fraud,” as the current case law does.

– The “personal benefit” requirement should be eliminated.

– The law should clearly and explicitly define the knowledge requirement for criminal and civil insider trading enforcement, as well as the knowledge requirement for downstream tippees who receive material nonpublic information and trade on it.

The task force’s report includes specific language that it would like to see included in any statute, including this definition of what it means to “wrongfully” obtain MNPI:

“Wrongfully shall mean obtained or communicated in a manner that involves (a) deception, fraud, or misrepresentation, (b) breaches of duties of trust or confidence or breach of an agreement to keep information confidential, express or implied, (c) theft, misappropriation, or embezzlement, or (d) unauthorized access to electronic devices, documents, or information.”

There’s a lot to unpack in this definition, but among other things, the inclusion of language covering the breach of an NDA would address one of the key weaknesses in the SEC’s failed enforcement action against Mark Cuban, while the language in clause (d) would shore up insider trading cases against data hackers, which also face some impediments under existing law.

Building Better Board Evaluations

Over the years, some boards have become pretty good at implementing effective & insightful self-evaluation schemes.  But others struggle with a formulaic, “fill-in-the-blanks” process that leaves many directors wondering just exactly what this all was supposed to accomplish.  If you advise any boards that fall into this latter category, this Weil memo laying out a framework for more effective board evaluations may be a helpful resource.  Check it out!

John Jenkins

January 28, 2020

Board Diversity: Goldman Says No More “Boys Club” IPOs

Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomon made news at Davos last week by announcing that his firm would no longer help companies go public unless they had “at least one diverse board candidate, with a focus on women.” I knew women were underrepresented on IPO boards, but Solomon’s statement made me wonder exactly what the gender composition of IPO boards was like. So, I did a little digging, and now I’m kind of sorry that I asked.

Last May, this Quartz article looked at the gender diversity of the 10 biggest IPO filings of 2019. While it was early in the year, the list included Uber, Lyft, Pinterest, Slack, Chewy, WeWork & CrowdStrike – so the kind of unicorns that banks like Goldman court were all in the mix. The results were pretty dismal:

Of the 10 biggest companies that have gone public or filed to go public this year, none is led by a woman, and the average number of women on their boards is less than two. Excluding WeWork, which filed its registration confidentially, the average number of women on the list of the highest paid executives, disclosed in each company’s S-1 filing, is 0.56.

WeWork’s public filing disclosed one woman on the list of its highest paid executives, but it also didn’t have a single woman serving on its board. Uber and Lyft were the medalists in the group, with both companies having 3 women on their board. In terms of overall percentage of women board members, Pinterest topped the list with 2 women serving on its 6 member board.

This isn’t just a problem among tech unicorns. According to this Equilar report, in 2018, the 4 most popular IPO industry sectors all averaged fewer than 2 female board members. Tech & Consumer companies led the way with an average of approximately 1.3 women on their boards, while Financial companies averaged 1.0 women and Healthcare companies brought up the rear with an average of less than one woman per board.  Healthcare’s not necessarily an outlier.  A 2018 Equilar report said that only about 60% of recent IPOs had a woman on their boards.

It remains to be seen how scrupulously Goldman Sachs will stick to its pledge and whether any of its cohorts in the “bulge bracket” will follow its lead, but the numbers indicate that there’s a lot of work to be done. Check out this Cydney Posner blog for more on Goldman’s decision.

This Bloomberg Law analysis says that Goldman’s decision has the potential to cost it more than $100 million in underwriting fees – and that’s nearly 1/3rd of the fees that it earned from underwriting U.S. IPOs last year.

Brexit: FAQs

I guess I’ve been paying a lot more attention to Megxit than to Brexit lately. But while Harry & Meghan sip on free Tim Horton’s coffee & plot to seize the Canadian throne, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU becomes effective on Friday – and that means after the end of an 11 month transition period, the Continent will be cut off!

In case you haven’t been paying as much attention to Brexit as you should, then you’ll find this Hogan Lovells memo helpful. It’s a series of FAQs designed to help businesses sort out the legal consequences of the UK’s departure from the EU. Topics include the provisions of EU law that will continue to apply during the transition period, the consequences of a failure of the UK & EU to reach a trade agreement before the end of the transition period, and the impact of Brexit on the enforceability of UK judgments in EU states.

The NYSE’s Annual Compliance Letter

The NYSE has sent its “annual compliance letter” to remind listed companies of their obligations. There aren’t any new rules this year – but the letter highlights the enhanced functionality of the NYSE’s “listing manager” app, which replaced the egovdirect.com website last spring & is now the way that companies submit materials to the Exchange.

John Jenkins

January 27, 2020

That Pesky 3rd Year: Corp Fin Issues 3 New MD&A CDIs

On Friday, Corp Fin issued three new Regulation S-K CDIs addressing interpretive issues arising out of last year’s Fast Act rule changes that, under some circumstances, permit companies to exclude the discussion of the earliest of the 3 years covered by the financial statements from their MD&A. Here they are:

Question 110.02

Question: A registrant providing financial statements covering three years in a filing relies on Instruction 1 to Item 303(a) to omit a discussion of the earliest of three years and includes the required statement that identifies the location of such discussion in a prior filing. Does the statement identifying the disclosure in a prior filing incorporate such disclosure by reference into the current filing?

Answer: No. A statement merely identifying the location in a prior filing where the omitted discussion can be found does not incorporate such disclosure into the filing unless the registrant expressly states that the information is incorporated by reference. See Securities Act Rule 411(e) and Exchange Act Rule 12b-23(e). [Jan. 24, 2020]

Question 110.03

Question: May a registrant rely on Instruction 1 to Item 303(a) to omit a discussion of the earliest of three years from its current MD&A if it believes a discussion of that year is necessary?

Answer: No. Item 303(a) requires that the registrant provide such information that it believes to be necessary to an understanding of its financial condition, changes in financial condition and results of operations. A registrant must assess its information about the earliest of three years and, if it is required by Item 303(a), include it in the current disclosure or expressly incorporate by reference its discussion from a previous filing. [Jan. 24, 2020]

Question 110.04

Question: A registrant has an effective registration statement that incorporates by reference its Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2018. In its Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2019, the registrant will omit the discussion of its results for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2017 pursuant to Instruction 1 to Item 303(a) and include a statement identifying the location of the discussion presented in its Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2018. The filing of the Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2019 will operate as the Section 10(a)(3) update to the registration statement. After the company files the Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2019, will the company’s discussion of its results for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2017 be incorporated by reference in the registration statement?

Answer: No. The filing of the Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2019 establishes a new effective date for the registration statement. As of the new effective date, the registration statement incorporates by reference only the Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2019, which does not contain the company’s discussion of results for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2017 unless, as indicated in Question 110.02, the information is expressly incorporated by reference. [Jan. 24, 2020]

We’ve gotten a few questions on our “Q&A Forum” about the mechanics of omitting the discussion of the earliest year from a company’s MD&A, and one of the things I’ve learned from them is that I’m not the only one who finds that process a little disorienting. Fortunately, this recent SEC Institute blog includes a bunch of MD&A examples from companies that opted to take advantage of the new rule, so now we all have plenty of precedent to look at.

Farewell to Bob Bostrom

All of us here at TheCorporateCounsel.net were saddened to learn of the passing of Bob Bostrom, and extend our sincere condolences to his family. Bob enjoyed a distinguished & award-winning legal career and generously shared his expertise with other practitioners. Here’s a remembrance from ACC President Veta Richardson.

Transcript: “Pat McGurn’s Forecast for 2020 Proxy Season”

We have posted the transcript for our recent webcast: “Pat McGurn’s Forecast for 2020 Proxy Season.”

John Jenkins

January 24, 2020

More on “The (Very) Pregnant Securities Lawyer”

Some of you might know that we’re soon moving to “zone defense” in my house – my husband & I are expecting our third child any day now. We also took on parenthood later in life, and we love a challenge, so they’re all under age 5.

At about this point with our second, I went way out of my comfort zone and blogged about some of the issues I was facing. I loved that many of you responded with your own anecdotes, words of encouragement and advice. Even more gratifying was that a few people confided that they were facing similar issues and felt less alone after reading that post. I’ll say that most of the things in that list still apply the third time around, but I have a few more to add:

1. Living the Cliche: The biggest difference this time around is my “time flies” mindset. With our oldest starting kindergarten next year and our “baby” (soon-to-be middle child) well into the toddler phase, I’m really starting to grasp how quickly this all goes. I’ve barely accepted the fact that I’m pregnant and it’s already over!

2. ESG Is Everywhere: People are mad at Fisher Price/Mattel and the Consumer Product Safety Commission for failing to share stats about infant deaths caused by the Rock ‘n Play, a super popular product that we used for both of our kids. The info came to light, and the product was recalled, only because the CPSC accidentally shared product-specific info with Consumer Reports. So that’s not too reassuring. Only read the report if you can stomach the tragic human element of the story. This truly is a “buyer beware” world – which is scary when you’re desperate, sleep-deprived, faced with loads of conflicting info and in charge of keeping a defenseless human alive.

Will there be long-term legal or reputational fallout for the company or the agency? At least one well-known “baby sleep” author (yes, that’s a thing – she also runs a 45,000-member Facebook group) has renounced her trust of any products and is rewriting her book. I’m left wondering what kind of info the company’s board was getting and whether there’s an advisory board that will get more attention in future disclosures, since there don’t appear to be any pediatricians or child safety experts on the board itself. This WaPo article about “voluntary safety standards” set by companies is also…interesting. I guess that’s good for shareholders, at least in the short-term?

3. My Kids Make Me Better: I suspect that many in our community – myself included – can identify with this HBR article about overworking. Sometimes I try to do some “light work” around the family on nights & weekends. But lately, my 2-year-old walks up, shuts my laptop and carries it away – then he grabs my phone too, saying, “No more, mommy!!” Unfortunately, that’s the kind of “tough love” that I need right now to be able to live in the moment. Among other things, our kids are also constantly teaching me patience, new perspectives, organization, appreciation for beauty in small things and a nuanced understanding of bathroom humor. After seeing the two of them interact over the last couple years, I’m even more excited to see how the new baby’s personality will fit into the mix.

4. Transitions Aren’t Easy: I blogged last time about “transition mechanics,” which are very important. This is more about the “transition mindset.” I’m lucky in being afforded an opportunity to take leave – not everyone has that. However, I feel I’m not “optimizing” that benefit because – rather than gradually ramping down – I tend to work excessively until the moment it’s physically impossible. I know from personal experience that this makes the birth and recovery much more difficult and I’ll spend a few weeks or months afterwards regaining the ability to function and beating myself up for not taking better care of myself and the baby during pregnancy. I also have to set really firm boundaries for myself during leave, because I know I’ll struggle with not feeling “productive” (despite producing a brand new person and having the primary responsibility to feed and keep that new, helpless person alive).

I recall that returning from leave can be pretty rough too, though I’m not in that moment yet. Whether you’re “leaning in” or “leaning out,” it takes a while to find a rhythm – and this NYT piece points out that for many, the “push-pull” doesn’t ever fully disappear. I try to remind myself that – while parenting continues forever – leave itself is such a short time period in the big picture and it’s best to stay healthy and present. Parenthood is also just one example of a big transition – everyone has “life” stuff going on throughout their career, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we glorify robotic compartmentalization.

5. Cultural Shift: Last time around, I blogged that professional networking while pregnant is particularly awkward. I do enjoy bonding over the shared parenting journey, but I know there are other things that we can also talk about, and regularly fielding “body” comments can make even the most confident person self-conscious. I’ve experienced much less of that this time, which I love. One person was surprised when I mentioned I was expecting and said they now look at people only from the neck up – bravo!

Another positive change I’ve noticed in the last few years is that many more men are unapologetically – even proudly – taking parental leave. One fellow lawyer has been posting daily updates about the time away from his “easier” job and told me that the expectation at the firm these days is that everyone (birthing & non-birthing parents) will take their full leave – it’s frowned upon to do otherwise. Shortly after that, I received a to-the-point auto reply from another male contact – “I’m out on parental leave and will not be responding to messages” – with contact info for colleagues. Two thumbs up to that team approach.

I (still) know I’m not alone on this journey of balancing pregnancy, parenthood & lawyering. I’d welcome more emails with any experiences & “lessons learned” that you want to share – just don’t be surprised if you get an auto reply! I’m extremely grateful to John, Lynn, Dave, Alan, Mike, Mark and the folks in our HQ for being so on top of their game and willing to handle some “extras” these next few months.

California’s “Board Gender Diversity” Law: FAQs

It’s official – California-headquartered companies are now required to have at least one female director. This WSJ article says that 244 California-based companies have added a woman to their board since the law went into effect, and 41 companies added two. For companies with five or more directors, the law requires having 2-3 female directors by the end of next year. This Wilson Sonsini memo provides some up-to-date info on how reporting and enforcement will work in the days ahead. Here’s an excerpt:

Are there any reporting obligations for companies under SB 826? Yes and no. Because the California secretary of state has not yet adopted implementing regulations under SB 826, there is currently no official regulatory mechanism for reporting that would result in a fine (see list in next section). However, the secretary of state has modified the current annual Corporate Disclosure Statement for publicly traded companies to include questions regarding the number of female directors currently serving on a company’s board (see question 5 in the statement).

Based on our conversations with an individual handling SB 826 matters at the secretary of state’s office, during calendar 2019 and as of the date of this Alert, responding to those questions on the Corporate Disclosure Statement is the only current way a company can inform the secretary of state’s office regarding compliance with SB 826. We do not expect the secretary of state’s office to review a company’s annual report on Form 10-K, proxy statement, website, or any other documentation to determine whether a company had a female director serving during a portion of calendar 2019.

The memo goes on to say that it’d be unlikely at this point for a company to be fined for being out of compliance based on 2019 board composition. However, there’s a “public shaming” factor that could motivate companies to comply:

If there are currently no official reporting obligations, why should my company report on the Corporate Disclosure Statement? SB 826 requires the California secretary of state to publish on its website a report documenting the number of companies whose principal executive offices are located in California and who have at least one female director. An initial report was published in July 2019, and with no official reporting mechanism there were a number of anomalies reported.

No later than March 1, 2020, and then on an annual basis, the secretary of state must publish a more detailed report on its website regarding the number of:

• companies subject to SB 826 that were in compliance with the law during at least one point during the preceding calendar year;
• publicly held corporations that moved their U.S. headquarters to California from another state or out of California into another state during the preceding calendar year; and
• publicly held corporations that were subject to SB 826 during the preceding year, but are no longer publicly traded.

Based on our conversations with an individual handling SB 826 matters at the California secretary of state’s office, the March 2020 report is currently being prepared based on responses received during 2019 from the Corporate Disclosure Statement. If companies want to be named on the secretary of state’s annual report as being compliant because a female director has served on their board for at least a portion of the calendar year, they will need to inform the secretary of state’s office through the Corporate Disclosure Statement.

California isn’t the only state to be taking a closer look at board diversity – New York is the latest jurisdiction to adopt a law on the topic. Starting in June of this year, companies will be required to report the number of directors on their boards and how many of those people are women. See this Ogletree Deakins memo for more info…

Auditor Independence: Proposed Rule Changes are Good News for Dealmakers

Here’s something John recently blogged on DealLawyers.com (and also see this four-part piece in Francine McKenna’s newsletter about the SEC’s auditor independence proposal): This recent blog from Weil’s Howard Dicker & Lyuba Goltser reviews the potential benefits to PE funds, IPOs & participants in M&A transactions associated with proposed changes to the SEC’s auditor independence rules. This excerpt discusses how the rule changes would address inadvertent independence violations that can arise in M&A transactions when the buyer’s auditor has also performed impermissible non-audit services for the target:

The SEC proposes a transition framework to address these types of inadvertent independence violations. An accounting firm’s independence will not be impaired because an audit client engages in a merger or acquisition that gives rise to a relationship or service that is inconsistent with the independence rules, provided that the accounting firm:

– is in compliance with applicable independence standards from inception of the relationship or service;

– corrects the independence violations arising from the merger or acquisition as promptly as possible (and in no event later than six months post-closing); and

– has in place a quality control system to monitor the audit client’s M&A activity and to allow for prompt identification of potential independence violations before closing.

The blog also points out that for PE funds, rule changes would codify Staff practice concerning independence issues that arise when sister companies with a common PE fund owner have engaged an audit firm to provide non-audit services that could impair the independence of the audit firm with respect to another sibling company. The rule changes would also shorten the look-back period for auditor independence from three years to one year, which would provide increased flexibility for IPO companies to address potential disqualifying relationships with their audit firms.

Liz Dunshee

January 23, 2020

Congress Moves to Close the “8-K Trading Gap”

Last week, the House passed the “8-K Trading Gap Act” by a vote of 384 to 7. This Troutman Sanders memo explains how this bill could impact insider trading policies if it becomes law. Here’s an excerpt (also see this Cooley blog and this Davis Polk memo):

A public company currently has up to four business days after the occurrence of a material corporate event before it must file or furnish a Form 8-K (the 8-K Gap Period). Current law does not prohibit insider trading per se during the 8-K Gap Period, absent a showing that the insiders have traded on material nonpublic information in their possession or violated the prohibition against “short swing” trading under Section 16(b) of the Exchange Act.

The purpose of the Act is to address this perceived loophole by directing the SEC to issue rules, no later than one year after its enactment, to require a reporting company under the Exchange Act to “establish and maintain policies, controls, and procedures that are reasonably designed to prohibit executive officers and directors of the issuer from purchasing, selling, or otherwise transferring any equity security of the issuer, directly or indirectly” during the 8-K Gap Period.

Under the current version of the bill, the SEC would be permitted to exempt transactions under Rule 10b5-1 plans that were adopted outside of the gap period – and the prohibition wouldn’t be triggered when an event is announced in a press release or publicly disseminated in a Reg FD-compliant way. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

This follows another insider trading bill that the House passed last month. Meanwhile, a former Congressman was just sentenced to 26 months in prison for insider trading (a case that Broc and John blogged about when it broke).

XBRL: Check Your Public Float!

Time to double check your XBRL data. Here’s a recent announcement about XBRL “scaling errors” from the SEC’s Division of Economic Risk & Analysis:

DERA staff has observed that some filers are inconsistently reporting public float values. For example, one filer reported a public float of $800 million in its HTML filing, but reported a public float of $8 billion in its XBRL data. Filers should carefully review their XBRL data to ensure scaling accuracy. Furthermore, filers should verify that information in their HTML filing is consistent with their XBRL data.

See the “Staff Observations & Guidance” for other data quality reminders.

Non-Financial Disclosure: What “Audit Assurance” Looks Like

One of the suggestions that keeps turning up for ESG disclosures is that companies should explain how they verify the accuracy of the info or provide some external assurance – for example, see the Chamber’s recent “best practices.” This 16-page memo from the Center for Audit Quality discusses shareholders’ increasing interest in non-financial info and notes some industry guidance for auditors on how to review it.

From the company perspective, this 52-page guide – from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales – is even more helpful because it explains what the assurance process would look like, how to decide whether it’s right for your company, and how to enter into an assurance engagement. The report shows that this endeavor doesn’t have to be “all-or-nothing” – e.g. a project’s scope could range from:

– Site visits to head office only, no detailed tests, only reviews

– Site visits to 5 of 10 locations, detailed tests at 2 sites and a review of information at other locations

– Site visits to 7 of 10 locations, detailed tests at all 4 major sites and a review of information at other locations

Liz Dunshee

January 22, 2020

The Myth of the Friday Earnings Release

At one point or another, most of us have clients who want to avoid scrutiny of sub-par results and consider the “Friday earnings release” approach. Legend has it that everyone will be too busy with their weekend to pay any attention to Friday news.

Sadly, this WSJ article confirms that the opposite is true: because fewer companies release earnings on Fridays, there tends to be more attention – and market volatility – for those who do. The most popular days for earnings are Tuesdays, Wednesdays & Thursdays – typically three or four weeks into earnings season. And here’s what the article says happens on those days:

Attention paid to companies’ earnings—measured by metrics such as downloads of regulatory filings, Google searches and news articles—drops on popular reporting days, said Ed deHaan, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. Mr. deHaan and his colleagues analyzed the timing and impact of 120,000 results announcements in 2015 and found that trading volumes of individual stocks also went down on busy earnings days. Their findings were published in the Journal of Accounting and Economics.

The article also points out that companies may miss out on attention if they hold their earnings call at the same time as industry competitors. It spotlights Citrix, whose earnings date typically conflicts with Microsoft’s – Citrix is now considering moving its earnings date based on unsolicited feedback from analysts & investors. A move might be worth some thought if you’re not getting the attendance you want…

Using Tax Shelters? It May Affect Your ESG Reporting

Recently, the Global Reporting Initiative – one of the longer-standing and more widely-adopted frameworks for sustainability reporting – published a new tax disclosure standard that’s intended to discourage “tax avoidance.” See pages 5-13 for the recommended disclosures – the “effective date” is next January, but early adoption is encouraged. Here’s an excerpt from GRI’s announcement:

The GRI Tax Standard is the first global standard for comprehensive tax disclosure at the country-by-country level. It supports public reporting of a company’s business activities and payments within tax jurisdictions, as well as their approach to tax strategy and governance. Global investors, civil society groups, labor organizations and other stakeholders have all signaled their backing for the Tax Standard, as it will help address their growing demands for tax transparency.

The Tax Standard has been developed in response to concerns over the impact tax avoidance has on the ability of governments to fund services and support sustainable development – and to give clarity on how much companies contribute to the tax income of the countries where they operate.

Tomorrow’s Webcast: “Cybersecurity Due Diligence in M&A”

Tune in tomorrow for the DealLawyers.com webcast – “Cybersecurity Due Diligence in M&A” – to hear Jeff Dodd of Hunter Andrews, Sten-Erik Hoidal of Fredrikson & Byron and Jamie Ramsey of Calfee Halter discuss how to approach cybersecurity due diligence, and how to address and mitigate cybersecurity risks in M&A transactions.

Liz Dunshee