Those of you who’ve been reading my posts for a while know that I depart from securities and governance topics only once each year, to report on my 10 favorite books of the year just gone by. I will point out again that my list consists of the books I read during 2016 and is not limited to books that were published during the year.
By way of introduction, from my literary perspective, 2016 was the best of times and the not-so-good of times. By that I mean that in most years I struggle to limit my choices to my favorite five fiction and non-fiction books, while for 2016 it was hard for me to come up with my remaining books in each category beyond the top one or two.
So much for introductions. My top favorite works of fiction were: Continue Reading
In the few days since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Salman v. United States, many commentators have said, in effect, that criminal prosecutions for insider trading are alive and well. Alive, yes; well, maybe not.
At the risk of quoting myself, almost exactly two years ago I posted an item on this blog entitled “There ought to be a law”. My belief at the time was that insider trading law is so byzantine that it’s impossible to know where legally permissible behavior becomes legally impermissible behavior. For better or worse (worse, IMHO), nothing has changed all that much. In the Salman decision, SCOTUS says that a prosecutor need not prove that a tipper received something of a “pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” to convict the tipper of illegal insider trading. So far, so good. However, as many commentators have pointed out, Salman leaves any number of other issues wide open.
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As noted in a recent post, the future of SEC regulation – and perhaps even of the SEC itself – is uncertain in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. However, the SEC Staff, a smart, decent and hardworking group, continues to stick to its knitting despite the turmoil.
The most recent example of the Staff’s diligence is a “Report on Modernization and Simplification of Regulation S-K – As Required by Section 72003 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act”. The Report was issued on Thanksgiving Eve, and it’s no turkey. Don’t be put off by the incredibly long title or by the fact that SEC regulations have nothing to do with Surface Transportation. The Report provides a good summary of some actions impacting Reg S-K that have been taken to date, and the Staff’s recommendations for actions down the road (assuming there is a road).
Here are some of the highlights of things that may be on the come: Continue Reading
It remains to be seen whether the new administration will actually drain the swamp or do away with political correctness, but one hope that some of us have – regardless of our views on the election – is that the SEC may finally get around to some issues that have been on the back burner for years.
One such issue is a long-overdue overhaul of the rules surrounding shareholder proposals, including the submission and resubmission thresholds for proposals under SEC Rule 14a-8. Many organizations, including the Society for Corporate Governance, have repeatedly urged the SEC to update these rules, which have been in place for many years. However, the SEC has been reluctant to plunge into the area due to the likely political firestorm that would result.
Now, another organization has jumped in. At the end of October, the Business Roundtable published “Modernizing the Shareholder Proposal Process”, a rational and well thought-out series of suggestions for bringing shareholder proposals into the 21st Century.
In the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the next President, there has been a lot of speculation about the effect of a Trump administration on securities law and corporate governance. Looking into a crystal ball is always risky, but here are some observations.
Conflict Minerals: It’s too soon to tell whether Dodd-Frank will be repealed in its entirety, if it will die the death of 1,000 cuts, or if it will stay pretty much as is. What I will say is that few will cry if the conflict minerals provisions are eliminated (and I will not be among those few). Complying with the conflict minerals rules is time-consuming (and therefore costly), and it’s questionable whether many people care. Perhaps of equal or greater importance is that there is some evidence that the conflict minerals requirements are actually hurting the people they were supposed to help.
Pay Ratio: More of the same here. There is some support for pay ratio disclosure among labor pension funds, but that's about it. Companies don’t like it (duh…), and mainstream investors have no use for it. Given how the Democrats seem to have fared in the industrial states, it’s not clear that they would fall on their collective sword to save this one. Continue Reading
The morning after a surprising election outcome seems as good a time as any to bear in mind the old saw that the more things change the more they stay the same.
And so it goes with corporate governance trends. Lost in the piles of paper and ink (real and virtual) expended on the Wells Fargo scandal is an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago suggesting that the beleaguered bank will benefit from its post-oops decision to separate the positions of CEO and Chairman of the Board.
I’ve studied this issue for several years, and I can state with confidence that there is no proof that separating the positions or having an independent Board Chair does anything to improve performance or to avoid problems. The most that can be said is that the studies are inconclusive.
If you’ve been reading our posts (and probably even if you haven’t), you should know by now that the SEC has launched a “disclosure effectiveness” initiative and has already taken actions to make some disclosures more “effective”. One such action was the publication of a 341-page “concept” release asking hundreds of questions about whether and how to address a wide range of disclosure issues. More recently, the SEC has proposed rule changes that would eliminate some particularly pesky disclosure burdens.
The United Kingdom has a new Prime Minister. Her name is Theresa May, and she’s a member of the
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Conservative Party. Remember that, because what you are about to read will probably lead you to think otherwise.
In a speech made a couple of days before Ms. May became Prime Minister, she said that she would pursue the following actions if she were to become Prime Minister: Continue Reading
In a June 27 speech to the International Corporate Governance Network, SEC Chair Mary Jo White engaged in a bit of full disclosure herself:
“I can report today that the staff is preparing a recommendation to the Commission to propose amending the rule to require companies to include in their proxy statements more meaningful board diversity disclosures on their board members and nominees where that information is voluntarily self-reported by directors.”
As noted in her remarks, the SEC adopted the current disclosure requirements on board diversity in 2009. However, the requirements were added to other board-related disclosure requirements at the last minute, when it was reported that Commissioner Aguilar refused to support the other requirements unless diversity disclosure was also mandated. As a result, the diversity requirements were never subjected to public comment, did not define “diversity,” and seemed to require disclosure only if the company had a diversity “policy”. When companies failed to provide the disclosure because they had no policy, the SEC clarified that if diversity was a factor in director selection then, in fact, the company would be deemed to have a policy, thus requiring disclosure.
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In recent weeks, the SEC has given public companies some new menu items, including the following:
- On June 1, the SEC adopted an “interim final rule” that permits companies to include a summary of business and financial information in Annual Reports on Form 10-K. The rule implements a provision of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, in keeping with the new trend to give statutes names that someone thinks make nifty acronyms. (Of course, the connection between this rule and surface transportation remains a mystery.)
- On June 13, the SEC issued an order permitting companies to file financial statement data in a format known as “Inline XBRL” rather than filing such data in exhibits to a filing.
Here is a quick review of these new menu items.
The new, improved 10-K summary – The rule permitting a 10-K summary is interesting in several respects. First, companies have long been able to provide summaries; in other words, there doesn’t seem to have been any reason for the “new” rule. Second, as noted, it permits but does not require the use of summaries; thus, companies that have not provided summaries in the past and don’t want to now don’t have to. Continue Reading
It’s almost exactly one year to the day since I took Senator Elizabeth Warren to task for what I believed was an unwarranted and particularly vicious attack on the SEC – or, rather, Chair White’s tenure at the SEC. Apparently, Senator Warren decided to celebrate the anniversary with another attack on the SEC and Chair White at a Senate Banking Committee hearing. (You can watch the entire unpleasantness here, including Senator Warren’s refusal to allow Chair White to answer any of her questions before launching another attack.)
This time, the attack was directed to the SEC’s “effective disclosure” project – something that many companies and investors support – claiming that by pursuing this project the SEC is putting companies’ interests ahead of investor protection and demanding that Chair White provide evidence to justify that investors are suffering from information overload. Her comments to Chair White included the following: “Your job is too look out for investors, but you have put the interests of the Chamber of Commerce and their big business members at the top of your priority list.”
Really? Perhaps Ms. Warren should ask some investors to testify. She might learn that many investors do not read disclosure documents, particularly proxy statements (which will soon contain the pay ratio disclosures that she once said should be the SEC’s highest priority), because they are too long and investors just don’t have the time. She might also learn that many investors applaud the SEC’s initiative, because it is designed to enhance some disclosures rather than just eliminate them. Continue Reading
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Over the years, the PCAOB has developed a reputation for pursuing zombie proposals – proposals that appear to be dead due to widespread opposition and even congressional action. Remember mandatory auditor rotation? It practically took a stake through the heart to kill that one off, and I’m informed that even after it was presumed to be long gone some PCAOB spokespersons were telling European regulators that it might yet be adopted.
Well, here we go again. The latest zombie proposal (OK, reproposal) would modify the standard audit report in a number of respects, the most significant of which would be to require disclosure of “critical audit matters”. The headline of the PCAOB’s announcement of the reproposal says that it would “enhance” the auditor’s report; not clarify, just “enhance”. And, as is customary whenever the PCAOB proposes to change the fundamental nature of the audit report, the proposal starts out by sayng that’s not the intention at all: “The reproposal would retain the pass/fail model of the existing auditor's report,” it says. It seems to me to lead to the opposite result – the introduction of critical audit matter (“CAM”) disclosure could easily lead to qualitative audit reports; one CAM would be viewed as a “high pass”, two would be ranked as a medium pass, and so on, possibly even resulting in numerical “grades” based upon the number of CAMs in the audit report. And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that any audit firm would ever issue a clean – i.e., CAM-free – opinion. I just can’t envision that happening, ever.
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Until recently, I’ve firmly believed that the SEC’s use of the bully pulpit can be effective in getting companies to act – or refrain from acting – in a certain way. Speeches by Commissioners and members of the SEC Staff usually have an impact on corporate behavior. However, the use of non-GAAP financial information – or, more correctly, the improper use of such information – seems to persist despite jawboning, rulemaking and other attempts to stifle the practice.
Concerns about the (mis)use of non-GAAP information are not new. In fact, abuses in the late 1990s and early 2000s led the SEC to adopt Regulation G in 2003. It’s hard to believe that Reg G has been around for 13+ years, but at the same time it seems as though people have been ignoring it ever since it was adopted. Over the last few months, members of the SEC and its Staff have devoted a surprising amount of time to jawboning about the misuse of non-GAAP information; for example, the SEC’s Chief Accountant discussed these concerns in March 2016; the Deputy Chief Accountant spoke about the problem in early May 2016; and SEC Chair White raised the subject in a speech in December 2015. And yet, the problem seems to persist.
On April 13, the SEC authorized the issuance of a major concept release. Concept releases are trial balloons that the SEC publishes to elicit input on possible rulemaking, including whether rulemaking is needed and what form it should take if it happens. The April 13 concept release is entitled "Business and Financial Disclosure Required by Regulation S-K". Given that Regulation S-K spells out many of the disclosure requirements applicable to all sorts of Exchange Act filings, it's bound to be significant.
The concept release is a very large trial balloon indeed – it runs to nearly 350 pages – and I have yet to crack it open. However, I do intend to read it. And I urge you to do the same, as it's likely to impact disclosure requirements for the next generation.
Some preliminary thoughts about the concept release, based upon press reports and the opening statements made by the Commissioners during the meeting at which the release was approved for publication: Continue Reading
One of the hottest topics in governance today is director refreshment. (No, that doesn't refer to what your board members have for lunch.) Boards comprised of long-serving directors do, in fact, tend to be "pale, male and stale" – i.e., comprised of old white men. Self-perpetuating boards are less likely to be diverse, and there is increasing evidence that companies with diverse boards tend to perform better (the evidence demonstrates correlation rather than causation, but it's still evidence). There is also a plausible argument that self-perpetuating boards are less likely to challenge long-standing assumptions and practices, leading to board (and corporate) stagnation.
Perhaps it's a poorly kept secret, but companies and boards have been concerned about this for years if not decades. Even boards that don't engage in much introspection are often aware that some directors do not contribute much. As a result, companies and boards have tried all sorts of devices to force board refreshment – term limits and/or age limits having been the most common. Unfortunately, these devices have not worked very well, perhaps because they may be inherently ineffective, and no doubt also because companies often move the goalposts – age limits are waived (because keeping director X is deemed to be "in the best interests of the company", whatever that means) or creep upward, term limits force good directors to retire, etc. And so, corporate America continues to search for the right approach. Some companies have adopted extremely long term limits (15 years), and others have said that average tenure may not exceed X years, but it's too soon to tell whether these or other newer approaches will succeed.
Two news items from the front lines:
First, you may recall my mentioning that the Council of Institutional Investors was considering adopting a new policy that would limit newly public companies' ability to include "shareholder-unfriendly" provisions in their organizational documents (see "Caveat Issuer", posted on February 13). I just came back from Washington, DC, where I attended the Council's Spring Meeting, and the new policy appears to have been adopted as proposed. While the text of the new policy was not made available at the meeting, and has yet to be posted on the Council's website, it appears to provide that while some of these provisions can be in place when a company goes public, others -- such as plurality voting for directors in uncontested elections -- should be absent from the get-go.
By the way, my hotel room had a lovely view of the Jefferson Memorial, and the cherry blossoms were about to pop.
In other news, the SEC has announced, by way of a Sunshine Act Notice, that at an open meeting to be held on March 30 it “will consider whether to issue a concept release seeking comment on modernizing certain business and financial disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K”. Looks like the disclosure effectiveness program may be moving forward. Watch this space for details.
According to SEC Chair White, regulators are looking – and not happily – at companies’ increasing use of customized financial disclosures. In fact, her recent remarks suggest that additional regulation is not being ruled out to curb the use of such “bespoke” data.
For some of us it may seem like only yesterday – though it was actually in 2003 – that the SEC adopted Regulation G to address the then-growing concern that companies were developing odd ways of communicating financial information to make their numbers look better. In general, Reg G says that companies
- cannot make non-GAAP disclosures more prominent than GAAP disclosures;
- need to explain why they use non-GAAP disclosures; and
- must provide a reconciliation showing how each non-GAAP measure derives from the GAAP financial statements.
So far, so good. However, some companies give little more than lip service to these requirements. For example, it’s not unusual to see Item 2 addressed by a statement along the lines of “investors who follow the company use this measure to assess its performance.” And, more recently, companies seem to be developing more peculiar ways of showing performance, such as excluding the effects of some taxes but not others. This creativity may not be as arch as excluding recurring items or turning losses into gains, but it still makes regulators uneasy.
Despite the wave of corporate governance reform that began after the enactment of Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002 – and that continues pretty much unabated today – companies going public have gotten a pass. Whether the process of going public takes the form of a spin-off or a conventional IPO, newly public companies have been able to emerge into the world with a full (or nearly full) arsenal of defensive weapons that can help them stave off an unwanted acquisition.
The rationale for this leniency is that newly public companies are like tadpoles that need to be given time to turn into frogs (or princes) before they are gobbled up.
That seems to be changing.
This time I'm not writing about disclosure or governance. Rather, I'm posting my annual list of my 10 favorite books. For those of you who haven't seen these lists before, (1) I apologize if this seems hubristic (or "braggadocious", if you will) – I do it because some folks have told me they like it; and (2) the list involves books that I happened to read (or re-read) in 2015, not necessarily books that were published in 2015.
I didn't encounter lots of great fiction last year; for me, the great books were non-fiction. Let's see if the trend continues in the New Year.
So here goes (in order of preference):
Those of you who've been following my postings know that I'm not a fan of Congressional interference in the workings of the SEC. Well, those same wonderful folks who've garnered the lowest opinion ratings in history are at it again.
First, you may recall that Congress acted a few weeks ago to avoid another federal government shutdown. Well, a few interesting provisions were added to that legislation and – you guessed it – one of them was precisely the kind of thing that sets me off; in this case, it was a prohibition against any SEC rulemaking requiring disclosure of political contributions.
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.
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?
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.
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.)