Photo of Robert B. Lamm

Bob Lamm co-chairs Gunster’s Securities and Corporate Governance Practice Group.  He has held senior legal positions at several major companies – most recently Pfizer, where he was assistant general counsel and assistant secretary; has served as Chair of the Securities Law Committee and in other leadership positions with the Society for Corporate Governance; and is a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board Center for Corporate Governance.  Bob writes and speaks extensively on securities law and governance matters and has received several honors, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in Corporate Governance from Corporate Secretary magazine.

 

With Chair Jay Clayton and Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman now in office for several months, the SEC seems to be gaining traction in a number of areas of interest to
public companies.

Pay Ratio Disclosures

As we noted in a Gunster E-Alert, on September 21, the SEC issued interpretations to assist companies in preparing the pay ratio disclosures called for under Item 402(u) of Regulation S-K.  The consensus (with which we agree) is that the interpretations will make it much easier for companies to prepare their ratios and related disclosures and hopefully to reduce litigation exposure associated with those disclosures.

Continue Reading Your tax dollars at work (at the SEC)

This is a first for The Securities Edge – a book review.  The book in question is The Chickenshit Club – Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives by Jesse Eisinger.  Mr. Eisinger is a writer for Pro Publica.  He’s a very smart man and a good (even great) reporter; among other things, he’s won the Pulitzer Prize.  I met him once and was impressed by his intellect and commitment.

However, the book bothers me greatly, and that’s why I’ve decided to post this review.  As indicated by his title, he is concerned with the failure to prosecute executives, both generally and in connection with the financial collapse.  That concern is legitimate; many people – including people in business – share it, and some hold the failure at least partially responsible for our political situation today.  The problem with the book is that in Mr. Eisinger’s view there are heroes and villains and nothing in between; those who prosecute are good, and those who don’t (or who do so halfheartedly) are bad – and the businessmen themselves are the worst of all.

For example, among the people he idolizes is Stanley Sporkin, a retired USDC judge who previously served as the SEC’s Director of Enforcement. Mr. Sporkin’s integrity may be beyond question, but in Mr. Eisinger’s view, his judgment is (and was) as well.  Those of us who practiced during Mr. Sporkin’s tenure at Enforcement may have a different view.  Among other things, Mr. Sporkin was responsible for pursuing insider trading cases against Vincent Chiarella and Ray Dirks.   Mr. Eisinger lauds Mr. Sporkin for going after Mr. Chiarella – a typesetter for a financial printer who saw some juicy (nonpublic) information and traded on it.  Did he trade on the basis of inside information?  Yes, but at the end of the day he was a schnook who should have gotten a slap on the wrist rather than being subjected to a (literal) full court press by the federal government.  The courts apparently felt the same way, and, as courts often do, they found a way to let him off the hook by developing a strained approach to insider trading law that continues to haunt us today.  (Mr. Eisinger doesn’t mention the equally ill-advised insider trading prosecution of Ray Dirks, which also contributed to the current garbled state of affairs in insider trading law.)

Continue Reading Heroes and villains: A review of “The Chickenshit Club” by Jesse Eisinger

Now that I have your attention, you may be disappointed to know that I’m referring to another s-word: “sustainability”.  It’s surely one of the big governance words of 2017.  Investors are pressuring companies to do and say more about it.  Organizations are developing standards – sometimes inconsistent ones – by which to measure companies’ performance in it.  And companies are dealing with it in a growing variety of ways, including through investor engagement and disclosure.

Being a governance and disclosure nerd, I’ve given lots of thought to sustainability in both contexts.  Lately, I’ve come up with two thoughts about it.

Thought 1 Continue Reading The s-word and your investment portfolio

Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve proposed changes to its guidance on corporate governance for banking organizations.  The proposals suggest a new approach to corporate governance that could extend beyond the banking industry; among other things, they suggest that boards should spend more time on more important matters, such as strategy and risk tolerance, than on compliance box-ticking. However, taken as a whole, the proposals strike me as being something of a mixed bag.  And some of the positive aspects of the proposals are already being subjected to attacks.

The Good News

The good news is that the Fed seems to be acknowledging that the board’s role is that of oversight and that boards are spending far too much time micro-managing compliance and should focus on big picture items such as strategy and risk.  Those of us who speak with board members know that this has been a significant concern since the enactment of Dodd-Frank.

Continue Reading Federal Reserve governance guidance: the pendulum swings back (?)

In late July, S&P Dow Jones and FTSE Russell announced that they were changing or proposing to change the standards that govern whether a company is included in their indices.  Although their approaches differ, the changes would effectively bar most companies with differential voting rights from their indices, as follows:

  • In its July 31 announcement, S&P Dow Jones said that companies with multiple share classes will no longer be included in the indices comprising the S&P Composite 1500 – which includes the S&P 500, S&P MidCap 400 and S&P SmallCap 600. There are some exceptions; companies currently in these indices will be grandfathered, as will any newly public company spun off from a company currently included in any of the indices.
  • Five days earlier, FTSE Russell proposed to require more than 5% of a company’s voting rights – across all equity securities, whether or not listed or traded – to be held by “free float” holders to be eligible for inclusion in the FTSE Russell indices.

Continue Reading Class Acts: Stock Indices Bar Differential Voting Rights

Some of you may remember Christopher Cox, who served as SEC Chair from 2005 to early 2009, when he was succeeded by Mary Schapiro.  His name doesn’t come up often, perhaps because his legacy was a weakened Commission tarnished by, among other things, the financial crisis and the Madoff scandal.

While Chairman Cox may not have been responsible for either of those debacles, he did leave another unpleasant legacy – XBRL.  He was among the biggest cheerleaders for XBRL, claiming that it would enable investors to compare companies within and across industries and would perform various other miracles.  Suffice it to say it hasn’t done that.  Aside from the fact that it’s time-consuming, it has failed to provide the benefits of comparability.  As a client recently said,

“[E]ven if two companies use the same taxonomy/tagging for Cost of Sales, they probably are not consistent in the underlying details that go into Cost of Sales.  One company might classify certain components as G&A instead.  There are many other examples.  Consistency is very important for one company’s reporting from period to period, however comparisons of competitors’ financials will always be approximations at best.”

Continue Reading RIP XBRL?

The young ones among you may not be familiar with Harvey Pitt, but he is an incredibly smart man and a gifted attorney who chaired the SEC some years back.  He made some political gaffes in that role, but that doesn’t diminish his understanding of the securities laws and how disclosure works.

A few weeks ago, he was quoted in The Wall Street Journal on the subject of disclosure (“Harvey Pitt Envisions a New Form of Corporate Disclosure”).  Specifically, he points out that “[d]isclosure is supposed to be for the purpose of informing…but…it’s become for the purpose of providing a defense”.  He also says “…when you have proxy statements that run hundreds of pages…it’s impossible to expect any normal individual to put in the time to read all of those pages”.  As I said, he’s an incredibly smart man.

So what is his solution?  He suggests a “summary disclosure document the way disclosure used to be” – say five or six pages – and that more detailed information be available by hyperlink for the investors who want to dig deep.  At the same time, companies could track how many people actually make that deep dive and make judgments as to eliminating information that no one seems interested in.

Continue Reading On the subject of effective disclosure…

monkey-557586_1920A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that two former directors of Theranos – the embattled blood testing company – “did not follow up on public allegations that…the firm was relying on standard technology rather than its much-hyped proprietary device for most tests”.

The report states that the two board members in question – a former admiral and Secretary of State, respectively – were on the Theranos board when concerns about the company’s device were aired publicly.  However, they seem to have believed that it wasn’t their job to ask questions, at least not in the absence of some sort of proof that the concerns were valid.  The former admiral said he “did not have the information that would tell me that it’s true or not true”; the former Secretary of State said that “it didn’t occur to” him to ask questions, adding “[s]ince I didn’t know, I didn’t have anything to look into”. Continue Reading Ducks and monkeys

back-to-school-954572_1280My last post was a re-posting of Adam Epstein’s great piece on the importance of the proxy statement.  I promised that I would follow up on Adam’s thoughts with some recommendations of my own.  Here goes.

General

  • Manage your proxy statement “real estate” to maximize user-friendliness and create an optimal flow: Think about where things go.  For example, if your company is owned largely by institutions (and perhaps even if it’s not), should you lead off with an endless Q&A about the annual meeting and voting, discussing such exciting topics as the difference between record and beneficial ownership and how to change your vote?  Some of it is required, but consider taking out what’s not required and moving what is required to the back of the book.
  • Use executive summaries: Investors like them, and even the SEC has more or less endorsed their use. Think of it this way – whatever you think of ISS, it does a great job of summarizing your key disclosures, albeit not with your company’s best interests in mind.  Why pass up an opportunity to convey your key disclosures with those interests in mind?

Continue Reading Required reading (Part 2)

board-1848717_1280Those of you who know me have probably heard me sing the praises of Adam Epstein.  Adam was trained as a lawyer, has been an investor, and now advises small-cap companies on matters like board composition and disclosure.  IMHO, Adam is brilliant, and his insights need to be read, absorbed and acted on.

Adam has given me permission to copy one of his recent writings here.  It was originally posted on NASDAQ MarketINSITE.  His writing addresses how important it is for small-caps to get their proxy disclosures right.  My only quibble with it is that it’s not only true for small-caps; it’s equally true for any company that seeks to get favorable votes from institutional investors.  On the subject of singing (see above), I’ve been singing this song for a long time to minimal effect, but I’m hopeful that great advocacy from people like Adam will once again prove that justice delayed isn’t always justice denied.  By the way – Adam has written a book on the importance to small companies of getting the right board members.  I don’t often read books of that type, but Adam’s is a gem.

Here’s the posting:

Considering that 78 percent of activist campaigns were waged in companies with market capitalizations below $2 billion in 2016 (according to Activist Insight), it’s incumbent upon small-cap companies to communicate clearly about issues investors care most about. Notwithstanding the fact that proxy statements address many of those issues (e.g., board composition, compensation, etc.), too many small-cap boards outsource responsibility for drafting and refining proxy statements. That’s a mistake.

Consider a few suggestions in this regard from a buy-side perspective.

Board composition. Proxies provide an invaluable opportunity for companies to clearly answer a top-of-mind concern for seasoned investors: does a company have fulsome, objective, value-added governance, or is its board primarily composed of the CEO’s friends (i.e., oversight “lite”)? The most effective proxies set forth how the backgrounds of each board member map to a company’s key strategic imperatives, key enterprise risks, and key stakeholders and customers. An inability to succinctly explain why a company has the right people in the boardroom should serve as a warning to the board that it might be time to refresh its directors.

Compensation. Most small-cap investors aren’t compensation consultants or human resource experts; it’s unwise to draft a Compensation Discussion and Analysis (CD&A) as if they were. Investors principally want to understand how officer and director compensation is aligned with strategic value drivers, particularly for companies that are performing poorly and/or compensating richly when compared to peers. Rather than just repeating last year’s CD&A, boards should spend time each year simplifying and clarifying key investor takeaways.

Storytelling. A proxy statement is a legal document, but great proxies tell a cohesive story about: (1) a company’s values, strategic imperatives and ownership; (2) who the company is run and governed by; and (3) how and why officers and directors are appropriately compensated (among other things). Why would a company expend material time and money perfecting its storytelling to customers, and then outsource a great chance to communicate directly with investors to service providers who can’t possibly know the story as well as those inside the company?

Plain English. When proxy statements are formulaic and lawyerly, savvy small-cap investors often think two things: (1) the company doesn’t value the opportunity to communicate transparently with shareholders; and/or (2) the company is trying to hide something. Most small-cap investors aren’t lawyers, and few captivating tales have ever been written in “legalese.” So if your proxy statement doesn’t tell a compelling story that virtually any investor can understand… consider starting over again.

In addition to selling goods and services, public companies also sell stock. And whether it’s to passive, active, current, or prospective investors, it’s hard to successfully sell stock when investors don’t sufficiently understand what they’re buying.

Thanks, Adam (and NASDAQ MarketINSITE).  I’ll be writing a bit more on this topic in the coming weeks.