CFTC Identifies Climate-Related Financial Risks and Urges Action from Financial Regulators and Legislators

On September 9, 2020, the Climate-Related Market Risk Subcommittee of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission published a report, Managing Climate Risk in the U.S. Financial System, describing the links between climate change and the U.S. financial system.  The Report was largely the product of efforts from its sponsor, CFTC Commissioner Rostin Benham, but was prepared with input from the Subcommittee, comprised of over 30 stakeholders, including banks; investment firms and advisors; oil and gas companies; and public interest and non-profit organizations.

The Report makes two key arguments. First, climate change poses major risks to the stability of the U.S.
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BlackRock’s 2020 Investment Stewardship Report: Hits Record Level for Firm in Engagements and Director Accountability

BlackRock released its Investment Stewardship 2020 Annual Report. The report provides an overview of the asset manager’s engagements, views and voting statistics related to the 12-month period ended June 30, 2020. The report, which is double the length of last year’s, describes how the asset manager prioritized engagements with its portfolio companies, reaching the firm’s highest levels. In addition, the report indicates that the firm held more directors accountable this proxy season than it has in any other.

Key Takeaways.

Adaptation/Resilience. BlackRock predicts more engagements and voting proposals will center on corporate risks, such as climate change, social and racial equity, and demographic and technological changes.
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Vanguard Spotlights Climate Change and Diversity as Priorities in its Latest Stewardship Report

Vanguard announced the publishing of its Investment Stewardship 2020 Annual Report.  The report shares the highlights of the asset manager’s engagements with its portfolio companies, observations and voting statistics relating to the 12-month period ended June 30, 2020. The firm’s key focus areas are primarily climate change and diversity.

Vanguard believes environmental, social and governmental (ESG) matters came into sharper focus during the 2020 proxy season because of certain events and circumstances, including the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, escalating climate risks and historic social justice movements. Vanguard wants to know how boards plan to preserve long-term relevance.

Engagement Data.
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Long-Term Stock Exchange Launches

The Long-Term Stock Exchange (LTSE) announced its launch last week for trading stocks on its platform and listing companies on the exchange. As the name suggests, the exchange aims to list companies that desire to create value over time.

The LTSE’s listing requirements take a “principles-based approach” to long-termism (in contrast to a one-size-fits-all approach) requiring listed companies to pledge to operate consistently with five principles:

  • Stakeholders. Long-term focused companies should consider a broader group of stakeholders and the critical role they play in one another’s success.
  • Strategy. Long-term focused companies should measure success in years and decades and prioritize long-term decision-making.

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Key Sustainability Standard Setters Converge to Promote Consistency in Corporate Sustainability Reporting

Five framework- and standard-setting institutions announced a joint statement on September 11, 2020 reflecting their collaborative vision to develop a comprehensive global corporate reporting system for disclosing sustainability topics such as climate change, biodiversity, wages and skills. The participants include the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB).

Relevance to Companies.  The overarching purpose of the new system is to reduce the reporting burden on companies while improving the completeness, consistency and comparability of sustainability data available for decision-making. The participants’ plan is that companies who choose to disclose sustainability topics need to collect data only once.
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SEC Called Upon to Take Action on Diversity & Inclusion in the Asset Management Industry

The SEC’s Asset Management Advisory Committee hosted a meeting on July 16, 2020 to discuss the current state of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the asset management industry.  SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, SEC Commissioner Elad Roisman and Director of the SEC’s Division of Investment Management Dalia Blass opened the meeting.  Each expressed an interest in understanding why minority- and women-owned firms make up only approximately 1.3% of the total assets under management in the global asset management industry. They asked what efforts the industry is taking to increase this percentage.

Meeting participants included Gilbert Garcia of the asset management firm, Garcia, Hamilton & Associates, Robert Raben of the public policy firm, The Raben Group, Juan Martinez of the Knight Foundation, Brenda Chia of the Association of Asian American Investment Managers, Ron Parker of the National Association of Securities Professionals, Solange Brooks of the New America Alliance and Robert Greene of the National Association of Investment Companies.
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ESG Disclosure Frameworks – Recent Updates

Updates in the past two months to voluntary ESG disclosure frameworks raise questions for companies about these overlapping and arguably competing standards.

GRI Launches Sector-Specific Disclosure Framework

On July 8, 2020, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) published an initial draft of a standard for ESG disclosures for the oil & gas industry. The draft, open for public comment until October 6, 2020, marks the first sector-specific ESG disclosure framework created by GRI, which, unlike the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), has before now provided only a uniform framework for all industries.

The GRI sector program, currently in its pilot phase, “focus[es] reporting on the sustainability issues that matter most” to an industry. 
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Legal Liability for ESG Disclosures – Investor Pressure, State of Play and Practical Recommendations

Davis Polk ESG co-heads, Joseph A. Hall and Betty M. Huber, and Katherine J. Brennan and Connor Kuratek of Marsh & McLennan Companies are authors of the 13th edition of The International Comparative Legal Guide: Corporate Governance 2020: Legal Liability for ESG Disclosures – Investor Pressure, State of Play and Practical Recommendations, the second chapter in the guide. The chapter discusses litigation related to ESG voluntary disclosures and what companies can do to limit that risk. It also describes the current pressure leading to more ESG disclosures and the SEC response to these trends.

Read the full publication here.
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ISS Peer Group Submission Window Is Currently Open

Each proxy season, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (“ISS”) constructs a peer group for each company prior to the company’s next proxy disclosure. ISS’ methodology for constructing the peer group is based in part on the company’s self-selected peer group. ISS recently invited submissions from certain U.S. and Canadian companies with annual meetings scheduled between September 16, 2020 and January 31, 2021. The submission deadline is next Friday at 8:00 PM EDT, July 17, 2020.

As one input in its peer group selection methodology, ISS will generally look to the peer group disclosed in the company’s last proxy and utilized by the company in determining CEO pay.
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SEC’s Q2 Roundtable Offers Insight to Investor Views

On June 30, 2020, Chairman Jay Clayton moderated a virtual roundtable titled “Q2 Reporting: A Discussion of COVID-19 Related Disclosure Considerations” to solicit views from a small panel of highly experienced and well-informed private investors and asset managers (“Roundtable”).  The Roundtable included the following panelists: Gary Cohn, Former Director of the U.S. National Economic Council; Glenn Hutchins, Chairman of North Island and Co-Founder of Silver Lake; Tracy Maitland, President and CIO of Advent Capital Management; and Barbara Novick, Vice Chair and Co-Founder of BlackRock. The Director of the Division of Corporation Finance, William H. Hinman, also participated in the Roundtable.

Standardization, Transparency and Forward-Looking Information

There was a general consensus among panelists that companies’ providing greater transparency and forward-looking information is crucial when there is a lot of economic uncertainty, such as presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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