April 2015

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone nerdy enough to be reading this blog that the Dodd-Frank Act mandated SEC rulemaking in four areas relating to the disclosure of executive compensation:

  • pay ratio,
  • hedging,
  • clawbacks, and
  • pay-for performance.

These items have been variously referred to as the “four horsemen” (as in apocalypse) or the “gang of four” (as in Chairman Mao’s evil wife and her evil friends).

Up until now, the SEC has been moving at a rather leisurely pace to get the horsemen – er, rules – out. In fact, the SEC’s failure to adopt final pay ratio disclosure rules has generated some criticism (see my recent UpTick). Perhaps for that reason, the SEC seems to be moving forward to propose the remaining rules at a somewhat faster pace. Just about 10 weeks ago, the SEC proposed rules on hedging.

And now the SEC has scheduled an open meeting on April 29 at which it will consider proposing rules for pay-for-performance disclosure. You can find the SEC’s Sunshine Act notice of this meeting here. It’s anyone’s guess what the proposed rules will look like, but the proposals will definitely generate lots of interest. So, for the time being, all I can suggest is “watch this space.” We’ll let you know once we have a chance to see what emerges from the open meeting.

I’ve done my share of griping about the SEC, but credit needs to be given where credit is due. And credit is due to the SEC for adopting a new, improved version of Regulation A that has become known as “Reg A+”. (OK, we can gripe about how long it took the SEC to adopt the final rule, but let’s be gracious and remember that justice delayed isn’t necessarily justice denied.)

Reg A has been around forever, but has been used very infrequently. Like many other long-time SEC practitioners, I’ve never done a Reg A deal. There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that Reg A limited the maximum amount of an offering to $5 million – hardly enough to justify the costs involved (which included compliance with Blue Sky laws). Then Reg D came along, as well as the amendment of Rule 144 reducing the amount of time that an investor had to hold “restricted securities,” and the rest is history.

The JOBS Act called for the SEC to review and update Reg A, and they’ve done an A+ job – all puns intended. Here are some key provisions of Reg A+ Continue Reading A high mark (would you believe an A+?) for the SEC

On Sunday, April 12, the Business section of the New York Times led with an article by Gretchen Morgenson taking the SEC to task for not having adopted rules requiring disclosure of CEO pay ratios. This follows similar complaints by members of Congress, most recently in the form of a March letter by 58 Democratic congressmen to Chair White. And going further back – specifically, to Chair White’s Senate confirmation hearing in March 2013 – Senator Warren told Chair-Designate White that SEC action on this rule “should be near the top of your list.”

Really?

I’ve given this a great deal of thought since Congress mandated pay ratio disclosure in the Dodd-Frank Act, and I’ve yet to figure out why – aside from political considerations – so many people think this disclosure is so important or what it will achieve. In fact, when I coordinated a comment letter on the rule proposal as Chair of the Securities Law Committee of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals, I told a number of people that it was the hardest comment letter I’d ever worked on, and I believe that was the case because it was hard to comment on a proposal that struck and continues to strike me as ill-advised and unnecessary in its entirety.

Ms. Morgenson’s article proves my point. It provides pay ratio data for a number of companies, as determined by a Washington think tank. But at the end of the article, all the data demonstrate is that the CEOs of the companies in question make a ton of money. The ratios don’t tell us anything more than that; Disney had the highest ratio, but does anyone need a ratio to know that its CEO makes lots of money? Ditto Oracle, Starbucks and the others – in all cases, the ratio is far less informative than the dollar amounts, which of course are and have for many years been disclosable.

The ratios might – but only might – be more meaningful if we knew what the underlying facts are; for example, what is the mix of US to non-US employees? To what extent are the employees part-time or seasonal? But of course the article doesn’t reveal this information, and neither would the proposed SEC rules. And the SEC Staff has indicated the final rules are not likely to allow companies to exclude non-US, part-time or seasonal employees. In other words, we won’t be able to distinguish between two companies with the same pay ratios regardless of the fact that one may have vast numbers of employees in the third world while the other’s employees are located in major industrialized countries.

Continue Reading CEO pay ratios: ineffective disclosure on steroids

I’m a governance nerd. I really believe that corporate governance is important, that it makes a difference, and that there is such a thing as good governance – though I don’t believe that one size fits all.

So it troubles me that in governance, as in life, virtue is usually not its own reward. In fact, no one seems to care about governance unless and until performance deteriorates.

I was reminded of this the other day when reading a story about an investigation by New York Attorney General Schneiderman of governance practices at Cooper Union, a venerated educational institution in New York. It seems that Cooper Union, whose mission is to provide free education, started charging tuition last year because of poor financial condition. (As an aside, Cooper Union’s major asset is the Chrysler Building in New York City – yes, THAT Chrysler Building, which to me and many others is the most beautiful skyscraper ever built.) The story says that the investigation “has signaled that the laissez-faire approach to nonprofit governance is over.” In other words, as long as performance was OK, no one cared about governance. Or so it seems.

Another story made the same point a couple of months ago, albeit in different circumstances, when an institutional shareholder announced that it had submitted a proposal to separate the positions of CEO and board chair at a major company. In the article, the proponent seemed to be saying that the proposal hadn’t been necessary before because the company had been performing well. Now I’m no advocate of CEO/board chair separation, but if you believe that having an independent, non-executive board chair is critical (which the proponent clearly believed), why should it make a difference that the company had been performing well?

And just the other day, an executive told me that while his company doesn’t have Grade A governance, it doesn’t hear anything on the subject from investors because it’s had year after year of improved performance.

So the question is out there: does governance matter? What do you think?

Last December, I wrote an UpTick (“There ought to be a law”) about a decision in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that appears to be wreaking havoc with insider trading prosecutions past and present. The Second Circuit has now rejected a Justice Department request to reconsider the decision, and so we now face a period of uncertainty regarding whether and to what extent insider trading can be prosecuted.

Since the terms “inside information” and “insider trading” have never been defined, one suggestion is that Congress should enact legislation that would define one or both terms. That’s a good idea in principle, but the proposals that have been bandied about thus far provide little confidence that legislation would clarify the situation. For example, one bill would prohibit trading on information that “is not publicly available” but not “information that the person has independently developed from publicly available sources”. I’m not sure this helps; after all, Ray Dirks (the subject of an SEC vendetta that, in my opinion, led to the current confusion on what is and is not insider trading) independently developed the information in question, but the SEC prosecuted him anyway.

Another bill would (1) define inside information as nonpublic information obtained illegally from the issuer “with an expectation of confidentiality” or “in violation of a fiduciary duty” and (2) remove the requirement that a tipper receive a personal benefit for leaking the information. I like the second part, but I’m not sure that the first part works; for example, if I hear the information from someone who heard it from someone who heard it from the issuer, does that remove the taint?

There are also suggestions that Congress may consider a broader approach – i.e., making it illegal to trade when in possession of confidential information regardless of how it’s obtained. This reminds me of a hypothetical posed years ago by Stanley Sporkin, then the very feisty Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division: you’re flying in a plane and look out of your window to see XYZ Corporation’s biggest plant going up in flames. As interpreted by Mr. Sporkin, if you got off the plane and called your broker with a sell order, you would be engaging in illegal insider trading. Of course, these days you could place the order online well before the plane lands. Is that really how we’d like it to turn out?

It seems to me that before Congress even thinks about acting (not that Congress can act on very much if anything these days), we need to think about what goal we’re trying to achieve. If the objective is to create a level playing field for all investors, that’s one thing, and would probably require a much broader approach. If the goal is less ambitious — i.e., to curtail trading based on knowing leaks and thefts of inside information — that’s another. In any case, wishing for legislation on this topic reminds me of the old saw about being careful what you wish for.

Your thoughts?