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State Street’s 2021 Proxy Voting Agenda

State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) released its eagerly awaited 2021 proxy voting agenda earlier this week and, unsurprisingly, climate change risk and the lack of racial and ethnic diversity are among the investor’s top priorities. In the annual letter from the President and CEO Cyrus Taraporevala (CEO’s Letter), companies are urged to increase their transparency around racial and ethnic diversity.
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DOL Finalizes Proxy Voting and Shareholder Rights Rule

The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued a final rule on December 11, 2020 to clarify how and when the ERISA fiduciary duties apply to the exercise of shareholder rights, including proxy voting, proxy voting guidelines and the use of proxy advisory firms. The final rule requires fiduciaries to put the economic interest of plan participants and beneficiaries first and to ensure that voting decisions advance these interests.
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The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets – An Introduction

In September 2020, the Institute of International Finance (IIF), the global financial services industry association, convened the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets. The Taskforce is working to scale a voluntary carbon market which would allow companies to meet their carbon reduction or net-zero commitments. In November 2020, the Taskforce released for public comment its Consultation Document, which includes a draft blueprint for a voluntary carbon market and a companion roadmap to implementation.
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Glass Lewis Makes Key Changes to Proxy Voting and ESG Proposal Guidelines – Full Summary

On November 24, 2020, Glass Lewis (GL) released its 2021 Proxy Voting Policy Guidelines for the United States and its 2021 “Environmental, Social and Governance (‘ESG’) Initiatives,” which outlines the firm’s approach to ESG shareholder proposals.  The policies are effective for shareholder meetings held after January 1, 2021.  Feedback on GL’s policies may be submitted using the link at the top of GL’s voting policy guidelines page.
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Glass Lewis Releases 2021 Proxy Voting Guidelines

Glass Lewis (GL) announced yesterday that its 2021 Proxy Voting Policy Guidelines for the United States are now available. In addition, the proxy advisor announced the release of its 2021 “Environmental, Social and Governance (‘ESG’) Initiatives,” which includes the firm’s approach to shareholder proposals.

We are preparing a more fulsome Briefing: Governance blogpost summary.  In the meantime, the following are a few key changes:

  • BOARD GENDER DIVERSITY.   

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ISS Releases 2021 Benchmark Policies Updates

On November 12, 2020, ISS announced the release of its 2021 benchmark policy updates that will apply to shareholder meetings occurring on or after February 1, 2021. The updated policies substantially adopt the policies as ISS proposed in October 2020 relating to (1) racial and ethnic diversity, (2) board oversight of environmental and social risks, including climate risks and (3) exclusive forum provisions, which we previously discussed here.
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World Economic Forum’s Climate Governance Initiative – Climate Governance on Corporate Boards

As market players begin to pay greater attention to the impacts of climate change on businesses, many international organizations are publishing an array of frameworks, principles and guidelines to help companies and boards who wish to incorporate climate risk into their decision-making.

Among the most prominent, the World Economic Forum has established a Climate Governance Initiative and published a related set of eight guiding principles (Climate Governance Principles) to help foster effective climate governance on corporate boards.
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TCFD Releases Third Status Report on the Adoption of Its Climate-Related Disclosure Recommendations

Yesterday, the FSB’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, commonly referred to as the TCFD, issued its third status report describing companies’ progress in aligning with the TCFD recommendations. While the TCFD has observed great momentum in the global adoption and support of its recommendations since its last status report in June 2019, it states progress is still needed.
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G&A Finds Sustainability Reporting Increases for Russell 1000 Companies

On October 26, 2020, the Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc., or G&A, released a report on the sustainability reporting trends by Russell 1000 companies. The G&A report presents the Russell 1000 companies’ rate of (1) non-reporting on a sector basis; (2) utilizing, referencing or aligning selected standards or sustainability goals; (3) responding to a selected climate-related questionnaire; and (4) utilizing external assurances.
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ISS Proposes 2021 Benchmark Voting Policy Changes

On October 14, 2020, ISS released its proposed voting policy changes for 2021. The changes for the United States focus mainly in these three areas: (1) racial and ethnic board diversity, (2) board oversight of environmental, climate and social risks and (3) exclusive forum provisions.

ISS requests feedback on the proposed changes. Market participants can submit comments via email to policy@issgovernance.com
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World Economic Forum Releases ESG Reporting Metrics and Disclosure Standards

On September 22, 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF), through its International Business Council (IBC), recommended common standards to aid all companies around the globe, regardless of industry, in their sustainable value creation. The IBC invites all its members, which includes numerous large corporations, to declare their intention to report on these common standards, and encourages the wider corporate community to join them.
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ISS Releases 2020 Benchmark Policy Survey Results

On September 25, 2020, ISS announced the results of its annual Global Benchmark Policy Survey.  ISS, as in prior years, based its results on the survey responses of investors, public company executives, and company advisors. ISS will use these results to inform its policies for shareholder meetings occurring on or after February 1, 2021. ISS plans to request comments on its draft policies scheduled for release in October 2020, and publish its final policies in mid-November 2020.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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).
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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.
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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.
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Department of Labor Proposes Investment Duties Rule Affecting ESG Investments

The U.S. Department of Labor issued a proposed rule on June 23, 2020 to clarify how and when ERISA fiduciaries can select and monitor plan investments based on environmental, social or corporate governance (“ESG”) and similar objectives.

  • Who is subject?

The proposed rule would apply to fiduciaries of private-sector retirement plans, such as company-sponsored defined benefit pension plans and 401(k) plans.
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SEC Urged to Mandate Disclosures on COVID-19 Risks and Responses

On June 15, 2020, Americans for Financial Reform (AFR), a nonprofit coalition founded in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, called on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require public companies to disclose how they are protecting employees from coronavirus (COVID-19), citing that consistent, comprehensive information is critical to investors and public health.

Although the SEC Division of Corporate Finance issued Staff Guidance in March 2020 providing companies with its views on COVID-19 disclosures, followed by a joint statement on COVID-19 disclosures in April 2020 by SEC Chairman Clayton and Corp Fin Director Hinman which statement recommended that companies “provide as much information as is practicable” about how they are responding to the pandemic, AFR claims that these efforts were only one step in the right direction.
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SEC Asset Management Advisory Subcommittee Provides Report on ESG Practices in Asset Management Space

Earlier today, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) held an open virtual meeting with the Asset Management Advisory Committee to discuss the impact of the coronavirus (“COVID-19”) and, in particular, to hear updates and recommendations from its subcommittee on ESG (the “ESG Subcommittee”).  The ESG Subcommittee provided an overview of its current areas of research, which has taken the form of five separate workstreams. 
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World Economic Forum Pledges to Stand By Stakeholders in the COVID-19 Era

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has posed unprecedented health risks and has led to global economic disruptions. The World Economic Forum (WEF), an international organization that fosters public-private cooperation on global, regional and industry agendas, released this month the “Stakeholder Principles in the COVID Era” (Stakeholder Principles) as part of its COVID Action Platform and called businesses to action stating that, during this time of crisis, “[t]he business community’s contribution: [is] to be leaders of responsiveness and stewards of resilience.”
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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.
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