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ISS Releases Policy Application Guidance For COVID-19’s Impact

On Wednesday, April 8, 2020, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) issued guidance on voting policies of various corporate governance-related issues that are likely to be implicated by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic during the 2020 proxy season. The guidance does not introduce any new formal policies. Rather, the guidance provides ISS’s perspective on selected market developments and application of several of its existing policies relevant to the U.S. markets. Importantly, the guidance sheds some light on which company-specific and market-specific facts and circumstances are more likely to influence the proxy advisor’s determinations during and following the pandemic.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The guidance makes three points relevant to the U.S.
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Glass Lewis Reports: Companies Can Now Include Unfiltered Opinions

Late yesterday, Glass Lewis (GL) announced that a company now has the option of having its opinion or position included in GL’s proxy research reports without being edited by the proxy advisor. This new service ensures that a company’s position will be delivered directly to every GL investor client and included on or accessible from the front page of the report. The option to include a statement is offered at no extra cost, but only upon purchase of the relevant GL report and satisfying other eligibility requirements. Shareholder proponents may also use the service.

A company wishing to use the new service must submit a Report Feedback Statement (RFS) within the 7-day window immediately following the publication of the GL research report, and no later than 14 days before the applicable annual or special meeting.
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BlackRock Releases Its 2020 Public Company Engagement Priorities

While managing COVID-19 related risks and impacts may be the current priority for many public companies, BlackRock provided a reminder yesterday that environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues will form a core part of its engagement strategy this proxy season.  Publishing its investment stewardship team’s public company engagement priorities for 2020 (Priorities), BlackRock stressed, among other things, that it intends to hold board directors accountable for demonstrating “material progress” on ESG-related disclosures and practices.

BlackRock’s 2020 Investment Stewardship Engagement Priorities

The Priorities place an enhanced focus on sustainability-related issues and disclosures. Moreover, the Priorities articulate key performance indicators against which the asset manager will track companies’ progress and identify those directors whom it will hold responsible for demonstrating progress on these issues. 
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EU Publishes Final Taxonomy Report to Support its Sustainable Finance Regulations

Last week, the European Commission’s Technical Expert Group on Sustainable Finance (TEG) published its final report along with a technical annex setting forth its recommendations regarding the design and implementation of a unified classification system, known as EU Taxonomy, which will define what economic activities are considered environmentally sustainable under the EU’s sustainable finance regulations.  The final report is the result of a nearly two year long process conducted at the direction of the European Commission to assist in the implementation of the Taxonomy regulation.  The European Commission will consider the final report as it develops legislation to implement elements of the Taxonomy regulation.
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SEC Closely Monitors the Impact of the Coronavirus and Offers Conditional Regulatory Relief and Assistance

Yesterday, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that the agency was concurrently issuing an Order that provides relief, subject to certain conditions, for publicly traded companies affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19). The relief is necessitated by the fact that COVID-19 may impede certain companies’ timely communication to the trading markets, the SEC and shareholders. Chairman Clayton observed that, “The health and safety of all participants in our markets is of paramount importance. While timely public filing of Exchange Act reports is a cornerstone of well-functioning markets, [the SEC] recognize[s] that this situation may prevent certain issuers from compiling these reports within required timeframes.”
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SEC and PCAOB Leadership Announce Potential Relief to Companies Affected by the Coronavirus

Yesterday, senior leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Chairman of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) issued a joint statement (Statement) noting the potential effect that the coronavirus (COVID-19) may have on reporting companies, reminding companies of their disclosure obligations and notifying companies affected by the virus that they may contact the SEC for guidance or a determination of their eligibility for relief from filing deadlines. The Statement comes in the wake of numerous articles contemplating the virus’ effect on businesses that rely on global supply chains. On Tuesday, one Wall Street Journal commentator posited that “the coronavirus could cause supply-chain disruptions that are unlike anything we have seen in the past 70 years.”
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SEC Chairman Releases Statement on Proposed Changes to Financial Reporting and Discusses Climate-Related Disclosure

Today, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) voted to propose amendments to certain financial disclosure requirements under Regulation S-K, specifically those requirements related to Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations (MD&A).  In addition to these proposed amendments, the SEC issued guidance for registrants to consider when using metrics and key performance indicators in their MD&A disclosures.  The press release announcing these developments explains that the proposals are part of an overarching effort by the SEC to improve and “modernize” the disclosure regime for the benefit of both investors and issuers.

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton issued a statement in support of the proposed amendments and related guidance, a statement that largely focuses on a topic that the Chairman himself notes is “not the particular focus of today’s Commission action” – environmental and climate-related disclosures.
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Glass Lewis Is Currently Accepting Peer Group Submissions

Glass Lewis is currently accepting peer group submissions on its website until next Friday, January 31, 2020, from public companies making proxy filings through July 31, 2020. For all other companies making proxy filings through January 31, 2021, the deadline for submissions is July 31, 2020.

Glass Lewis utilizes its Pay-for-Performance Model with its A-F grading system (the “P4P Methodology”) to assess the degree to which a company’s executive compensation aligns with the company’s performance. In turn, these assessments inform the quantitative input for Glass Lewis’ Say-on-Pay voting recommendations. Glass Lewis advises that its new proprietary peer group methodology now drives the P4P Methodology and is critical to its Say-on-Pay recommendations.
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A Snapshot of Board-Shareholder Engagement Trends

Directors of SEC-registered public companies are increasingly taking a more active role in the shareholder engagement process given the evolving corporate governance landscape, including the increasing number of requests for their participation by some of the largest institutional investors. The Conference Board and Rutgers University’s Center for Corporate Law and Governance have recently published a report showing the emerging practices surrounding when and how corporate directors engage with shareholders based on a survey administered in 2018. Because board-shareholder engagements are often undisclosed and private, the results from this survey provide greater insight about how these communications are evolving and may help public company boards prepare for their shareholder engagements going forward.
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A Profile of Some of the Largest U.S. Tech Boards

The 2019 U.S. Technology Spencer Stuart Board Index (Tech Index) reflects the board practices and trends of 200 public tech companies with the highest revenues based on proxy statements released between July 1, 2018 and July 1, 2019.

I. Selected Spencer Stuart Perspectives

  • Like the S&P 500 companies, the largest tech companies are enhancing board diversity on multiple fronts including gender, skills and experiences as they add new independent directors.
  • The profile of the new director class is shifting, and CEO experience is required less often. While a technology background remains a priority, tech boards are also adding directors with more diverse functional and industry backgrounds.

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SEC Chairman Clayton Testifies Before Senate Banking Committee

On Tuesday, December 10, 2019, Chairman Jay Clayton testified before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (Committee) on the “Oversight of the Securities and Exchange Commission.” After Committee Chairman Mike Crapo delivered his opening remarks, which were supportive of the agency, Chairman Clayton gave an overview of the agency’s initiatives over the past year. Given that most of the governance-related topics that Chairman Clayton addressed were also raised back in September before the House Financial Services Committee, which we discussed, there were no real surprises.

Nonetheless, Chairman Clayton verbally reiterated that during SEC examinations, examiners will be looking for and reviewing the nature and extent of climate change disclosures, made both inside and outside SEC filings.
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Davis Polk Client Memo: Human Capital and Climate Risk Disclosure – Analysis of 2019 Mandatory and Voluntary Reporting

To help guide public companies in preparing their annual reports and proxy statements for the 2020 season, we examined the climate change and human capital management disclosures that have been provided by the largest public companies in six industries. A key finding is that to date 10-Ks and proxy statements have generally contained only disclosures that are required by law. Nonfinancial information – which may be important to certain stakeholders, though may also be immaterial under federal securities laws – is overwhelmingly limited to standalone, voluntary ESG reports. Our memo looks at broad trends shaping this ever-changing disclosure landscape and what may be to come.
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What Risk Trends in 2020 Should Be on Directors and Officers’ Radar Screens?

Last week, a global insurance company identified what it believes are the risk trends in 2020 that “have significant implications” to directors and officers (D&Os). The firm’s perspective provides a window into the types of trends insurers and underwriters are watching.

1. “Bad news” events resulting in more litigation

The insurer notes that there has been a rise in nonfinancial-based claims against D&Os stemming from what the firm calls “bad news” events, such as cybersecurity attacks, toxic culture (i.e., #MeToo movement), product liability, corruption and environmental disasters. The insurer warns that “bad news” events can prompt a regulatory investigation or cause share prices to fall, which the report states can “often result in significant securities or derivative claims.
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SEC’s Fall 2019 Reg Flex Agenda

The SEC’s 2019 fall agenda of its rulemaking actions under the Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA) has been posted. The agenda, commonly referred to as the “Reg Flex Agenda,” is published semiannually and reflects the actions the Chairman anticipates the SEC will complete in the short term (within a year) and the long term (longer than a year).  As you may recall, Chairman Jay Clayton reduced the number of agenda items roughly two years ago in hopes that the agenda would be viewed more as a transparency and accountability tool of the agency’s initiatives, as opposed to merely aspirational goals.

The RFA mandates that each federal agency semiannually publish in the Federal Register an agenda identifying rules that the agency expects to consider in the next 12 months that are likely to have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities.
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Davis Polk Client Alert: Chamber of Commerce Releases Best Practices for Voluntary ESG Disclosure

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released this month a set of ESG voluntary reporting best practices. By releasing its best practice guide, the Chamber makes clear that it believes further regulatory requirements mandating ESG disclosures are not warranted. A departure from a one-size-fits-all approach, the best practices guide asserts that each company should have the discretion to determine which ESG factors and related metrics are relevant to it without necessarily being tied to the various third-party frameworks and standards currently in existence. Finally, the best practices guide emphasizes that ESG reports need not be incorporated into filings with the SEC, nor should ESG information be required as part of an SEC filing if it is not “material”.
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SEC Investor Advisory Committee Panel on ESG – Data, Disclosure and Materiality

Last Thursday, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee (IAC) held an open meeting, which included a session to discuss investor use of environmental, social and governance (ESG) data in their investment and capital allocation decisions. During this session, the IAC heard insights from and asked questions of a panel consisting primarily of ESG-focused investors, as well as one academic. The panelists represented investment management firms Neuberger Berman, AllianceBerstein, State Street Global Advisors and Calvert Research and Management, as well as Columbia University’s program in sustainability management.

SEC Chairman’s Written Comments

SEC Chairman Clayton was not in attendance, though he submitted written remarks to the IAC, expressing his views on the matters to be considered at the meeting.
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Spencer Stuart Shows How Boards Are Transforming

The 2019 U.S. Spencer Stuart Board Index (Index) reflects the board practices and trends of S&P 500 companies. According to the Index, boards are responding to investors’ increasing calls for greater diversity of “gender, age, race/ethnicity and professional backgrounds.” Spencer Stuart found that “boards are accelerating the addition of women and minority directors,” which in turn is driving notable changes in board composition. Spencer Stuart predicts that the biggest drivers of board refreshment will be replacing retiring directors and adding new skills to the board.

The Index covers public companies in the S&P 500 as of May 15, 2019 and the proxy statements released between May 30, 2018 and May 15, 2019.
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Next SEC Investor Advisory Group Meeting–How Are Investors Using ESG Data?

Earlier this week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that its Investor Advisory Committee (IAC) will be holding a meeting on Thursday, November 7, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. E.T. The agenda includes a morning discussion on whether and how investors use environmental, social and governance (ESG) data in their investment and capital allocation decisions. The agenda and press release provide no further details on the session topic other than the panelist list provided below.

Brief Backdrop

SEC Chairman Clayton has raised a similar question at prior IAC meetings on human capital management (HCM) as the one posed for the November 7, 2019 meeting.
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SEC Commissioners Testify Before House Financial Services Committee on ESG, Proxy and Other Topics

On Tuesday, September 24, 2019, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, along with Commissioners Jackson, Lee, Peirce and Roisman, testified before the House Financial Services Committee (Committee) in a hearing titled “Oversight of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Wall Street’s Cop on the Block.” Chairwoman Maxine Waters observed that the last time all the SEC Commissioners had been before the Committee was over a decade ago, in 2007.

The SEC submitted written remarks that begin with the agency’s “tripartite mission—to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly and efficient markets and facilitate capital formation . . . .” The remarks describe the agency’s strategic plan and highlight the 2019 initiatives in the following areas: (1) enforcement and compliance; (2) market developments and risks; (3) regulatory and policy agenda; and (4) investor education.
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ESG in the US: Current State of Play and Key Considerations for Issuers

Davis Polk recently contributed a chapter to The International Comparative Legal Guide: Corporate Governance 2019 titled ESG in the US: Current State of Play and Key Considerations for Issuers. With the growing importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues to public companies and their investors, this chapter aims to provide insights on the current ESG landscape – from the voting policies and ESG investing platforms of top asset managers to the dizzying array of ESG disclosure regimes and third-party raters.

Read the Full Chapter >
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SEC Roundtable on Short-Term / Long-Term Management of Public Companies

Yesterday, the SEC Division of Corporation Finance hosted a roundtable on the impact of short-termism on U.S. capital markets and whether modifications should be made to the reporting system to address these impacts. In December, the SEC published a request for comment on these topics, specifically with respect to earnings releases and quarterly reports. At yesterday’s roundtable, the SEC reiterated that the comment period is still currently open. The roundtable was comprised of  two panels, both featuring a variety of market participants including investors, issuers, attorneys, accountants, academics and governance experts. Panelists voiced their own perspectives and opinions, in representing their respective fields and interests.
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U.S. House Financial Services Committee Hearing on ESG Disclosure

In a House Financial Services Committee hearing yesterday, committee members debated the merits of five draft bills that would require public companies to disclose information on several environmental, social and governance, or ESG, topics including climate change risk, political expenditures and human rights risk. Hosted by the Subcommittee on Investor Protection, Entrepreneurship and Capital Markets, the hearing included witnesses representing CalPERS, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Ceres, Decatur Capital Management, an investment management firm, and Patomak Global Partners, a consulting firm for which former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins serves as CEO.

Mandatory or Voluntary Disclosure? The committee memorandum prepared by the majority staff prior to the hearing stated that “investors have increasingly been demanding more and better disclosure of ESG information from public companies.”
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Principles for Responsible Banking Gain Support of First Large U.S. Bank

Last week, Citi announced its support of the Principles for Responsible Banking (the Principles), joining a list of banks from around the world that have committed to becoming signatories. The Principles were developed by a group of 28 banks, jointly representing more than $17 trillion in assets, on behalf of the wider United Nations Environment Programme Initiative (UNEP FI). Citi has been a member of UNEP FI, a partnership between UNEP and the global financial sector, since 1997 and has undertaken several initiatives related to sustainability in the recent past.

So far, the majority of endorsers of the Principles are non-U.S.
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ISS Opens Window Today for Peer Group Submissions

Today begins the window where certain public companies in the U.S. and Canada have the option of submitting changes to their respective peer groups to Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (“ISS”). The submission window closes next Friday at 8:00 PM EDT, July 19, 2019.

ISS’ invitation is directed to companies with annual meetings scheduled between September 16, 2019 and January 31, 2020 that have changed or anticipate changing their respective peer group from their last proxy disclosures. ISS advises that “[s]ubmissions should reflect peer companies used (or to be used) by the submitting company for pay-setting for the fiscal year ending prior to the company’s next upcoming annual meeting.”
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