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The Securities Edge

Securities Blog for Middle-Market Companies

Be scared…be very scared

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Corporate Governance, investor empowerment, Shareholder proposals

A week or two ago I was asked to speak at a meeting of the Small- and Mid-Cap Companies Committee of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals. That’s not unusual or even noteworthy, as I’m a long-time, active member of the Society and often speak at Society functions.

What was unusual and perhaps noteworthy is the topic on which I was asked to speak and the reason I was asked to speak on it. Specifically, one of the Committee members had asked the Chair if someone could give a general primer on shareholder proposals, because his/her company had received its first shareholder proposal ever.

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SEC adopts final crowdfunding rules – Last gasp of the JOBS Act (plus some bonus proposed new rule amendments)

Posted in Capital Raising
Photo by Dieter Drescher

Photo by Dieter Drescher

After much anticipation, the SEC adopted final crowdfunding rules on October 30, 2015. These rules (called Regulation Crowdfunding) will become effective 180 days after they are published in the Federal Register. Here are links to the SEC’s press release and a helpful summary of these new rules as well as some good background commentary from Chair White. Click here for the final rules. VentureBeat also recently posted a helpful and practical summary of Regulation Crowdfunding.

There is a lot of optimism regarding these crowdfunding rules and their potential positive impact on capital raising, and there is certainly a high degree of good intent behind these rules. I continue to doubt, however, that crowdfunding will have a major impact on capital raising for many companies because of the associated regulatory requirements and high costs (particularly the costs associated with audited financial statements and the use of an intermediary).

The most important components of these crowdfunding rules are:

  • Issuers can raise up to $1 million during each 12 month period in crowdfunding offerings.
  • There are substantial limits on the amounts that an investor can invest. If an investor has less than $100,000 in either annual income or net worth, that investor can only invest the greater of $2,000 or 5% of their annual income or net worth in all crowdfunding transactions over a 12 month period. Investors whose annual income and net worth are both at least $100,000 can invest up to 10% of their annual income or net worth in all crowdfunding transactions over a 12 month period. It is important to note that during this 12 month period the aggregate amount of securities sold to an investor in all crowdfunding transactions cannot exceed $100,000.
  • Certain entities, such as Exchange Act reporting companies, non-U.S. companies, “blank check” companies and certain disqualified companies, are not eligible to use Regulation Crowdfunding.
  • Issuers must submit detailed reports to the SEC and to investors in connection with each crowdfunding transaction and also annually. These reports must contain, among other things, information about the issuer’s officers, directors and principal shareholders, related party transactions and the use of proceeds. Audited financial statements (prepared by an independent accounting firm) are generally required, although there is some relief from the audit requirement for certain issuers who are utilizing Regulation Crowdfunding for the first time. In these cases the financial statements must be reviewed. The issuer’s principals may be required to disclose certain personal financial information.
  • Securities purchased in a crowdfunding transaction can generally not be resold for one year.
  • Holders of securities obtained in a crowdfunding transaction will generally not be counted in the determination of whether an issuer must register under Section 12(g) of the Exchange Act.
  • An intermediary (called a funding portal) must be used. The requirements for an intermediary under Regulation Crowdfunding are complex and contain numerous important provisions and restrictions that are specific to crowdfunding transactions.

The SEC’s press release also described some interesting proposed Continue Reading

Conflict management: the Staff Legal Bulletin on shareholder proposals

Posted in Disclosure Guidance, Proxy access, Shareholder proposals

The SEC has issued its much-anticipated Staff Legal Bulletin on two rules impacting shareholder proposals. You can find the SLB here. The SLB looks a bit more benign than some had feared; in other words, it’s got some bad news, but the good news is that it’s not as bad as some feared.

2162651915_df13af7594_zRule 14a-8(i)(9) – Conflicting Proposals

The SLB deals with two areas of SEC Rule 14a-8 – the Rule governing shareholder proposals. The first area relates to Rule 14a-8(i)(9), which addresses what happens when a shareholder proposal “directly conflicts” with a company proposal. This issue reared its head during the 2015 proxy season, when the SEC withdrew a no-action letter it had granted to Whole Foods permitting it to exclude a shareholder proposal on proxy access and, at the direction of SEC Chair White, declared a moratorium on issuing no-action letters under Rule 14a-8(i)(9).

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Politician, heal thyself

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Corporate Governance, SEC

My favorite quote of the week seems to have gone largely unnoticed, despite the fact that I tweeted about it and told several people about it. The quote, attributed to former Congressman Barney Frank, was “people expect too much from boards”. If you don’t believe me, you can find it here – in the venerable New York Times, no less.

Am I the only one who thinks that the statement, particularly considering the source, is offensive? Am I the only one who thinks that the co-sponsor of the legislation that bears his name, and the author and/or instigator of many of its provisions that imposed extensive obligations on boards, saying that we expect too much from boards is similar to the child who kills his parents throwing himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan?

In fairness to Mr. (no longer Congressman) Frank (not that I feel compelled to be fair to him), he is also quoted to have said that the most important oversight of financial companies comes not from its directors but from regulators. If that’s the case, however, why does the eponymous legislation bother to impose so many burdens on boards? Why not leave it all to the regulators (or would that leave the plaintiffs’ bar in the lurch)? Alternatively, why not expand the concept of mandatory say on pay votes (which the Dodd-Frank Act imposes upon most publicly held companies) to everything a board does and do away with the board entirely? Need a new plant? Put it to a shareholder vote! Want to think about entering new line of business? How about a say on that?

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Signed, sealed, delivered – and retained

Posted in records retention, SEC, SEC Enforcement

Record retentionThose of us who have been around long enough to remember paper SEC filings may recall the requirement to file one manually signed copy of Exchange Act filings and, if memory serves me correctly, three manually signed copies of Securities Act registration statements.  When EDGAR was implemented, we hoped to be spared the often last-minute scramble to find an authorized officer to sign a filing, but our hopes were not rewarded; not only were we required to obtain manually signed copies, but we were admonished to retain them for five years.

Lest you think that the SEC doesn’t care about these requirements, a recent enforcement action clarifies that it does.  In the action, the SEC cited MusclePharm Corporation for a variety of serious disclosure and books and records violations.  However, one paragraph of the SEC Order notes that “MSLP failed to maintain signed signature pages for most of its filings with the Commission from 2010 through 2013 as required under Rule 302 of Regulation S-T.  MSLP failed to receive or maintain any manually signed signature pages prior to December 2012.  After December 2012, while MSLP had made over 23 Commission filings, MSLP only received or maintained original signature pages for all signatories on eight filings.”

So be sure to get those signature pages signed and make sure they are retained in your files for the required five-year period.

Pay ratio (unfortunately) coming to public company filings soon

Posted in Disclosure Guidance
Pay ratio disclosures

Photo by Brian Talbot

After much foot dragging, I have finished reading the adopting release for the new pay ratio disclosure rules.  Yes, the release is long (300 pages or so), but adopting releases are always long.  The real reason why it took so long is that the whole concept of pay ratio disclosure just seems silly to me (and apparently to Bob Lamm as well) so I just hoped it would go away.

I am not against finding ways to strengthen the middle class.  Just like I am not against ending the sale of certain minerals in Central Africa that end up funding deadly conflict.  The problem I have is that public companies should not have to bear the complete burden of fixing social ills.  Less than 1% of the 27 million companies in the United States are publicly traded.  And there are plenty of private companies that are larger than most publicly traded companies.  Thus, while we may not agree whether the social goals are worth achieving, I think we can all agree that there are better ways to achieve them than selective enforcement (particularly since the SEC itself has said that the pay ratio will not be comparable from one company to another).  The Securities Edge  has been criticizing the social disclosure movement for some time, but we haven’t yet seemed to have stopped Congress from continuing to go down that path.

So, unless Congress acts to reverse its mandate for public companies to disclose their pay ratios before 2018 (the first year of required disclosure), I suppose we should all start learning how to comply.  Leading practices for calculating the ratio and providing narrative disclosure will develop over the next couple of years, but I have summarized the important parts of the rules in this post:

What is the required disclosure?

Registrants must disclose:

  • The median of the annual total compensation of all employees of the registrant (excluding the CEO)
  • The annual total compensation of the CEO; and
  • The ratio of the median to the CEO’s compensation.

The ratio needs to be expressed as X:1 or X to 1 where “X” represents the CEO’s total compensation and “1” represents the median employee’s salary.  The ratio can also be expressed in narrative form such as: “The CEO’s annual total compensation is X times the median employee’s annual total compensation.”  You can’t Continue Reading

Registered investment advisers and anti-money laundering compliance: Is it practical?

Posted in Financial Institutions
Photo by Nancy Kamergorodsky

Photo by Nancy Kamergorodsky

Earlier this week, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) proposed a rule that would require investment advisers registered with the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) to establish anti-money laundering (“AML”) programs and report suspicious activity to FinCEN pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). FinCEN’s proposed rule would also add “investment advisers” to the general definition of “financial institution,” which, among other things, would require such advisers to file reports and keep records relating to certain transfers of funds. The public comment period for the proposed rule will commence once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register and will continue for a period of 60 days. In the spirit of public debate, here are a few of our initial thoughts regarding the proposed rule:

  • The rule would require those investment advisers registered with the SEC to comply with its obligations. Generally speaking, only those investment advisers who manage $100 million or more in client assets must register with the SEC. This, in addition to the laundry list of exemptions from the SEC’s registration requirements, appears to leave a gaping whole through which potential money launderers may nonetheless access the United States financial system through an investment adviser, i.e., through small, midsize, or other unregistered advisers.
  • Most, if not all, investment advisers regularly work with financial institutions already subject to BSA requirements, such as when executing trades through broker-dealers to purchase or sell client securities, or when directing custodial banks to transfer assets. And if FinCEN’s August 2014 proposed rule requiring financial institutions to identify and verify the beneficial owners of legal entity customers comes to fruition, it may, in many cases, expand the scope of customer due diligence for banks and broker dealers with respect to their investment adviser customers and, in turn, the customers of their investment adviser customers. Thus, in many ways, imposing BSA compliance obligations on registered investment advisers might be unnecessarily duplicative.
  • FinCEN’s proposed rule would not require registered advisers to develop and maintain a customer identification program (“CIP”) or comply with certain other AML requirements applicable to financial institutions. While FinCEN has, in other cases, omitted CIP requirements for certain financial institutions, it did not do so with respect to broker dealers and, given FinCEN’s emphasis on investment advisers’ ability to appreciate a broader understanding of their clients’ movement of funds through the financial system, a CIP might actually be a key to accurately capturing and utilizing that broad understanding.
  • FinCEN is proposing to delegate its authority to examine investment advisers for compliance with these requirements to the SEC. Even assuming the SEC isn’t busy enough already, given the issues discussed above, the increase in supervisory and enforcement burden on the SEC may not be justified.

Feel free to join the debate, and please contact us if you have any questions regarding the proposed rule, the BSA or AML compliance generally. After the close of the public comment period, the proposed rule will be subject to additional review and revision based on public comments before it is finalized by FinCEN.

Pay ratio disclosure: Myths and madness

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Compensation, Corporate Governance, Disclosure Guidance, SEC

It’s done. On August 5, the SEC adopted final rules that will require publicly traded companies to disclose the ratio of the CEO’s “total compensation” to that of the “median employee.” We’re still wending our way through the massive (294 pages) adopting release, but one piece of good news (possibly the only one) is that it appears that pay ratio disclosures won’t be needed until 2018 for most companies.

I’ve already posted my views on this rule (see “CEO pay ratios: ineffective disclosure on steroids”), so it’s no surprise that I’m not happy. However, what is surprising are the myths and madness that the mandate has already created. First, there’s the “median employee,” who may be a myth in and of him/herself. But that’s not all; the media (notably The New York Times) have begun to tout the rule and make all sorts of predictions about how it will impact CEO pay, many of which involve myths and madness of their own.

Myth: In an August 6 column, Peter Eavis wrote about the rule, saying “the ratio, cropping up every year in audited financial statements, could stoke and perhaps even inform a debate over income inequality”. Really? In the audited financial statements? I haven’t finished reading the rule, despite its being such a page-turner, but I didn’t see that in there and don’t think I will. Someone better tell the audit firms – and also tell Mr. Eavis that the ratio is not auditable.

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Why I hate “best practices”

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Corporate Governance

Governance wonks can rest easy. In fact, we can all go home and think about another career. The reason? CalSTRS – California State Teachers’ Retirement System – has issued a “fact sheet” entitled “Best Practices in Board Composition”.

It’s interesting that CalSTRS calls it a fact sheet, since much if not most (if not all) of what it says is opinion, belief or aspiration rather than fact. However, I suppose calling it an “opinion sheet” or an “aspiration sheet” would have resulted in fewer hits.

The document lists five “best practices” (though the fifth has four sub-items; perhaps that means there are nine best practices?). No indication is given as to whether the practices are listed in order of their best-ness. However, it’s notable that the first practice is “independent leadership” – in other words, having “an independent chair that is separate from the Chief Executive Officer”.   I’ve done lots and lots of research on this point, and the most that can be said is that there is no conclusive evidence of any connection between an independent board chair and performance. Again – that’s the most that can be said. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at this Yale study.)

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 Summer doldrums in DC? Not so much!

Posted in Accounting, Bob's Upticks, Compensation, Disclosure Guidance, PCAOB, SEC

For those who think nothing ever gets done in Washington, last week must have been a challenge. From outward appearances, both the SEC and the PCAOB seem to be working overtime, possibly in order to ruin our holiday weekend or at least lay some guilt on us for not spending the weekend reading what they’ve put out.

First, on July 1 the SEC published rule proposals on the last of the so-called Dodd-Frank “four horsemen” (or, as the SEC Staffers called them, the “Gang of Four”) compensation and governance provisions – specifically, clawbacks. It’s too soon for even nerds like me to have gone over the proposed rules in any detail, but at first blush they disappoint in a few respects. Among other things, they appear to call for mandatory recoupment of performance-based compensation whenever the financials are restated, without regard to fault or misconduct; even a “mere” mistake will trigger the clawback. Moreover, neither the board, nor the audit committee, nor the compensation committee will have any discretion or any ability to consider mitigating circumstances. Last (for now), they do not seem to provide any exemptions or relief for small companies, emerging growth companies or the like. Interestingly, equity awards that are solely time-vested will not be considered performance-based compensation for purposes of the proposed rules. Of course, these are only proposed rules, and they will eventually take the form of exchange listing standards rather than SEC rules, but the basic approach is absolute and draconian, and it’s difficult to envision them changing very much.

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