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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.” The target for improving this disclosure has been the SEC, which received an October 2018 petition from a coalition of investment managers, public pension funds and non-profit organizations requesting that the agency develop a robust ESG disclosure framework.
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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.”

Each proxy season, ISS constructs a peer group for each company prior to the company’s new proxy statement.
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SEC Selects July 18th for Roundtable on Short-Term / Long-Term Corporate Management, Regulations and Public Reporting

The SEC announced yesterday that the Division of Corporation Finance (“Division”) will host an afternoon roundtable on July 18, 2019 on the effects of short-termism on the capital markets and whether any regulatory modifications should be made to address the impacts.

Agenda: Division staff will moderate two back-to-back panels.  The first panel will address the causes and impact of short-termism with Director William Hinman and Deputy Director Shelley Parratt moderating.

The second panel will discuss the regulatory reporting system and potential regulatory modifications “to foster a longer-term focus in [the SEC’s] periodic reporting system.” David Fredrickson, Division Chief Counsel and Luna Bloom, Chief of the Office of Rulemaking, will moderate.
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CFTC Holds a Public Meeting to Address Climate-Related Financial Risks

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (CFTC) Market Risk Advisory Committee (MRAC) held a public meeting yesterday focusing on climate-related financial risks. The meeting featured presentations by regulators, market participants and academics.

Opening Statements

CFTC Commissioner Rostin Behnam, the sponsor of MRAC, stressed the economic costs of natural disasters in his opening remarks, also noting that climate change affects several parts of the U.S. economy. CFTC Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo emphasized in his opening remarks that the CFTC supports the work of MRAC and all five of the Commission’s advisory committees, including looking at climate change and other externalities like Brexit and new asset classes such as cryptocurrency.
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TCFD Releases Second Status Report on the Adoption of Its Climate-Related Disclosure Recommendations

The Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, commonly referred to as the TCFD, issued its second status report on June 5, 2019. This report, which follows its first status report in September 2018, states that the TCFD sees signs of progress in companies’ implementation of its recommendations on climate-related disclosures. Michael Bloomberg, TCFD Chair, commented that the TCFD is encouraged by the continued growth in the number of companies whose disclosures are aligning with its recommendations.

Nonetheless, the TCFD expressed in the report its concern that not enough companies are disclosing information on their climate-related risks or seeing the importance of incorporating climate-related information in their current business decisions.
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SEC Announces Summer Roundtable on Short-Term / Long-Term Corporate Management, Regulations and Public Reporting

The SEC has announced that the staff will host a roundtable this summer on important topics such as the short-term / long-term management of public companies and related periodic reporting and regulatory requirements.

The SEC’s four-year strategic plan highlights its focus on the long-term interests of Main Street investors. In its roundtable announcement, the SEC stresses the dual needs of Main Street investors – liquidity to pay for retirement and other expenses while at the same time long-term value to fund increasing longer lifespans – and how disclosure rules should reflect and foster these needs. The SEC questions whether the current disclosure framework and other regulations have encouraged companies and certain investors to prioritize short-term over long-term results.
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Potential Legislation on HCM Reporting and Stock Buybacks

Earlier in the week, a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing on four draft bills that, if enacted, would impact corporate reporting, and more. Proponents of these bills contend that the disclosure will “provide more information to help investors make decisions based on long-term economic growth.”

What Were the Topics?

1. Mandatory HCM Reporting. Representative Cynthia Axne (D. Iowa) introduced a draft bill to amend the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act) to require issuers to disclose information about human capital management (HCM) in annual reports on topics such as demographics, compensation, composition, skills, culture, health, safety, and productivity.
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IFC Launches Framework for Impact Investing with Commitments by 60 Global Investors

On April 12, 2019, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a World Bank Group, officially launched their Operating Principles for Impact Management (the Principles).  As of the official launch date, 60 global investors have committed to the Principles.  The first adopters range from large asset managers, private funds to non-profit investment firms.  The focus of the Principles is on impact investing, a term that IFC defines as “investments made into companies or organizations with the intent to contribute to measurable positive social or environmental impact, alongside a financial return.”  IFC adapted this definition from GIIN and notes that impact investing focuses on more than just avoiding harm or managing environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks; it aims to utilize investing’s ability to positively impact society by “choosing and managing investments to generate positive impact while also avoiding harm.”  This focus seemingly goes beyond the UN initiated Principles of Responsible Investing or UN PRI, which were tailored to the idea of responsible investing – investing with the goal of incorporating ESG factors into decisions in order to manage risk and generate long-term returns.
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Recent Executive Order on Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth – ESG Disclosure and Proxy Voting Implications

President Trump’s Executive Order yesterday on energy infrastructure and economic growth contained an unexpected Section 5 entitled “Environment, Social and Governance Issues; Proxy Firms and Financing Energy Projects Through the United States Capital Markets.”  While the section does not directly address environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosure, it restates the definition of materiality from the U.S. Supreme Court case, TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc., and reiterates a company’s fiduciary duties to its shareholders to strive to maximize shareholder return, consistent with the long-term growth of the company.  This order comes on the heels of last week’s U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing on ESG Principles in Investing and the Role of Asset Managers, Proxy Advisors and Other Intermediaries, as well as ongoing activity at the U.S.
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Will the SEC Adopt Additional Human Capital Management Disclosure Requirements?

IAC Meeting.  Last week, the Investor Advisory Committee (IAC or Committee) to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) voted to ask the SEC to further investigate and evaluate whether public companies should be required to disclose information related to human capital management (HCM), in other words, how companies manage workplace relationships including training, talent development and retention.

Over the last few decades, as the US economy has increasingly become based on technology and services, certain investors have expressed more interest in HCM disclosure. 
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The SEC on ESG Disclosure – Latest Developments

At the 18th Annual Institute on Securities Regulation in Europe last week, SEC Director Bill Hinman spoke about the benefits of the SEC’s current, flexible approach to environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosure for public companies. He noted that current disclosure requirements are largely principles-based and “apply in areas where the disclosure topics may be complex, associated with uncertain risks and rapidly evolving.” Such an adaptable principles-based disclosure regime, Director Hinman posited, is well suited for addressing often complex, risk-laden and rapidly evolving ESG topics, including how companies consider climate change risks, labor practices or board diversity in their decision-making.
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EU Proposes Legislation to Establish Low-Carbon Financial Market Benchmarks

Last week the European Parliament and European Union (EU) member states reached a tentative agreement on proposed legislation that would set standards for low-carbon benchmarks in the EU. In financial markets, a benchmark is essentially an index, or a standard or measure pegged to the value of a “basket” of underlying equities, bonds or other assets or prices, that is used for a variety of investment purposes, such as evaluating the performance of a security, mutual fund, or other investment. Many in the investing community rely on low-carbon benchmarks to create investment products, to measure the performance of investments and for asset allocation strategies.
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PRI to Require Reporting on Climate Change Risks

Last week, the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), the largest investor network focused on sustainable investing, challenged its over 2,250 signatories to step up their financial reporting when it announced that, beginning in 2020, all signatories will be required to report on climate change risks. PRI requires signatories, which include international asset owners, investment managers, and service providers that collectively manage over $83 trillion in assets, to report various environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics on an annual basis. PRI currently requests voluntary reporting on four indicators of climate risks: governance, strategy, risk management, and metrics and targets. Beginning in 2020, as part of their efforts to improve ESG-related disclosure, PRI plans to make risk indicators on both climate-related governance and strategy mandatory to report but voluntary to disclose.
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CII Analysis of Board Evaluation Disclosure

CII has published an update to its analysis of disclosure on board evaluations in proxy statements, highlighting as “Seven Indicators of Strength” a wish list of information.

The report contains multiple qualifications and statements designed to reassure companies, including that they are not expected to reveal any specific details about the results of the evaluations, but instead the disclosure should focus on the process for continued improvement.  In addition, the seven benchmarks selected in the report are not intended to be prescriptive, as they are observations of what CII believes investors find to be useful information based on CII’s review of the proxy statements of more than “100 prominent companies”.
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California Imposes Climate Risk Disclosure Requirements on the U.S.’s Two Largest Pension Funds

Citing concerns of climate change’s impact on the financial sector, California passed SB 964 last week requiring the country’s two biggest pension funds to publicly disclose and analyze their climate-related investment risks. Under the new law, The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) must review and report “climate related financial risks” that are “material” to the stability of their public market portfolios. Such “climate-related financial risks” include “intense storms, rising sea levels, higher global temperatures, economic damages from carbon emissions, and other financial and transition risks due to public policies to address climate change, shifting consumer attitudes, changing economics of traditional carbon-intense industries.” SB 964’s obligations, which will take effect on January 1, 2020 and continue every three years until 2035, also require the funds to report on their alignment to the Paris climate agreement, California climate policy goals, and any long-term climate-related financial risks.
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Investors Petition the SEC to Develop ESG Reporting Requirements

A group of investors representing more than $5 trillion in assets under management petitioned the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on October 1, 2018 to develop a comprehensive framework that would require public companies to disclose environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects relating to their operations.  Petitioners include CalPERS, the New York State Comptroller and the U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment.  The 19-page petition, available here, cites increasing demands by certain investors for information to better understand the long-term performance and risk management strategies of public companies. The petition notes that the voluntary “sustainability reports” that some companies have produced in response to these demands are insufficient and instead, an SEC-mandated comprehensive framework for clearer, more consistent and more fulsome, reliable and decision-useful ESG disclosure (above and beyond existing SEC disclosure requirements) would meet this demand. 
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