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Category Archives: Disclosure Guidance

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Another SEC concept release

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Disclosure Guidance, SEC

 

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

Bob

Governance by the numbers

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Corporate Governance, Disclosure Guidance, investor empowerment

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.

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Bob

News from the front lines

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Corporate Governance, Disclosure Guidance, IPOs, Mergers and Acquisitions, SEC

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.

Bob

Bob

Bespoke financial data?

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

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

  1. cannot make non-GAAP disclosures more prominent than GAAP disclosures;
  2. need to explain why they use non-GAAP disclosures; and
  3. 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.

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Bob

They’re back…

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Disclosure Guidance, SEC

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.

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Bob

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. Rule 14a-8(i)(9)… Continue Reading

Pay ratio (unfortunately) coming to public company filings soon

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

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… Continue Reading

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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Bob

 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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Bob

The third horseman leaves the paddock

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Compensation, Disclosure Guidance

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.

Bob

CEO pay ratios: ineffective disclosure on steroids

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Compensation, Disclosure Guidance

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.

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Bob

Ineffective disclosure

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Disclosure Guidance

It’s not for nothing that I’m a securities lawyer.  I sincerely believe in the need for and efficacy of full and fair disclosure, both professionally and personally.  That’s one of the many reasons why I have been advocating disclosure reform – or, as we now call it, “effective disclosure” – to assure that important matters are disclosed, and that unimportant matters need not be.

So it’s not surprising that I’m upset about something that happened recently.  I attended a program at which a representative of a major institutional investor said that his firm just doesn’t have time to read the proxy statements of the companies in which the firm has invested.  I’ve heard this song before in various guises – for example, one major institution told me a few years ago that the most they’d ever spend reading a 100-page proxy statement was 15-20 minutes – but for some reason the statement I heard recently really bothered me.

Why do securities lawyers spend most of their waking hours, and many of the hours when they should be sleeping, trying to provide investors with the information they need to make important decisions?  (And, for the cynics out there, I’ve never heard a securities lawyer say anything like “How can we hide this?”)  Why do companies spend untold amounts of money paying their lawyers to do that?  More important, why is it acceptable for major investors to say that they don’t read their investees’ disclosures?  Does it ever occur to them that they may be in violation of their legal and ethical obligations to their clients by blowing off the obligation to read those disclosures and voting on significant matters without reading those disclosures?

Which brings me back to “effective disclosure.”  I’m passionate about the topic, and I’ve put my time (which is, after all, money) where my mouth is.  But I’d be crazy not to think about whether it’s really worth the time and effort it will take to overhaul our approach to disclosure if, at the end of the proverbial day, few if any people will benefit from it or even care about it.

Years ago I commented on an SEC rule proposal by saying, among other things, that it would result in more disclosure that no one would read.  I was told by the then-Director of the SEC Division of Corporation Finance that rulemaking isn’t based on whether anyone reads the disclosures in question.  At the time, I thought he was probably right, but now I’m not so sure.

Your thoughts?

Bob

In sickness and in health

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Disclosure Guidance

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, is reputed to be a decisive person with a strong personality.  Of course, that shouldn’t be news to anyone who follows business or who knows what it takes to be CEO of a major company.  So it’s interesting that he recently said that he struggled with whether JPM should disclose that he was battling cancer.  (For the record, he seems to have won the battle.)

I’m not the only securities lawyer who’s had similar struggles when the CEO of a client has become seriously ill.  It’s a very challenging issue for several reasons.  First, there isn’t any rule – or even any literature (at least to my knowledge) – that tells us whether and what to disclose in this situation.  So when a client says, “show me the rule that says we have to disclose this,” there’s nothing to show.  Second, and more important, the issue pits the need to disclose against information that is quintessentially personal.  It’s also not just an issue between the executive and the company; often, the executive’s family and, possibly, his/her medical team and others are equally involved.  And even when there’s agreement to disclose, it’s very difficult to know what to say about the prognosis, if and when the executive can return to work, and so on.

I think JPM’s decision to disclose was the right one.  Among other things, JPM and Mr. Dimon are inextricably linked with each other; he is the public face of the company, and it’s hard to imagine mentioning one without the other.  In fact, it’s arguably this linkage that led to the defeat of shareholder proposals seeking to deprive Mr. Dimon of his title as Chairman of the Board; no one wanted to see if he would carry out his threat to leave the company if the proposals passed.  Second, his illness was grave and could have killed him.  In other words, it seems pretty clear that the information was market-moving – a factor that must be considered in making the disclosure decision.  (That said, contrast this with Apple’s treatment of Steve Jobs’s illness.)  Also, according to Mr. Dimon, he lost 35 pounds in his battle, making it painfully obvious that something was up.  So why hesitate to disclose something that everyone could see?

Another way of evaluating the matter is to consider whether there are any meritorious reasons not to disclose.  When I had to grapple with a similar decision, the facts were different; among other things, the CEO wasn’t the company’s alter ego, and it was questionable whether the stock would tank if we disclosed.  On the other hand, the company had just gotten past a nasty scandal and a period of intense upheaval in which two senior people had left and the company’s credibility had been shattered.  In these circumstances I couldn’t see a significant reason not to disclose.  I took some heat from the CEO’s family, but I had no doubt that I made the right decision.

Your thoughts?

Bob

Update to the JOBS Act? Probably not…

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

On January 14th, the House passed H.R. 37 “Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act.”  Although passed with some support from the Democrats (29 votes, which in these days of hyper-partisanship is practically a bipartisan bill), the White House issued a veto threat on January 12th because the bill also delays part of… Continue Reading

Wrong turn?: Is the SEC looking to further expand its regulatory jurisdiction through the disclosure process?

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

In the wake of the recent financial crisis, the Dodd-Frank Act created the SEC Investor Advisory Committee with the stated purpose of advising the SEC on (i) regulatory priorities of the SEC; (ii) issues relating to the regulation of securities products, trading strategies, and fee structures, and the effectiveness of disclosure; (iii) initiatives to protect… Continue Reading

Despite First Amendment concerns, the conflict minerals rule is here to stay

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

A few months ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld portions of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, known as the “conflicts mineral rule.” The rule, enacted by Congress in July of 2010,requires certain public companies to provide disclosures about the use of specific conflict… Continue Reading

Institutional investor organization asks the SEC to require disclosure of "golden leashes"

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

The compensation disclosure rules contained in Regulation S-K are intended to provide meaningful disclosure regarding an issuer’s executive and director compensation practices such that the investing public is provided with full and fair disclosure of material information on which to base informed investment and voting decisions. However, as we pointed out in a blog from last… Continue Reading

Institutional investor organization asks the SEC to require disclosure of “golden leashes”

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

The compensation disclosure rules contained in Regulation S-K are intended to provide meaningful disclosure regarding an issuer’s executive and director compensation practices such that the investing public is provided with full and fair disclosure of material information on which to base informed investment and voting decisions. However, as we pointed out in a blog from last… Continue Reading

4th and 108, SEC elects to punt on Regulation S-K disclosure reform

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

Section 108 of the Jump Start Our Business Startups Actrequired the SEC to undertake a study of the disclosure requirements of Regulation S-K. Specifically, the statute mandated that the SEC shall: conduct a review of its Regulation S-K to— comprehensively analyze the current registration requirements of such regulation; and determine how such requirements can be… Continue Reading

Government mandated pay ratio disclosure will fail to achieve its intended objectives

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

Compensation of public company executives re-emerged back into the public limelight after the recent financial crisis which began in late 2007. The public perception was one of outrage in large part due to the fact that many investors in public companies were experiencing significant losses in their investment portfolios while CEOs and other executives were… Continue Reading

Hurricanes, flash freezes and other disasters – plan and disclose accordingly or you may be hearing from the SEC

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

Almost 10 months since Superstorm Sandy caused widespread destruction to the northeastern U.S., an area not known for frequent hurricane activity, the people and businesses affected have still not fully recovered. As we now reenter the peak of hurricane season, businesses along the eastern seaboard are probably taking a closer look now than in years… Continue Reading

Time to throw XBRL in the trash bin?

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

It has been four years since XBRL became a four letter word to issuers and nearly eight years since the SEC introduced the concept to issuers, yet XBRL hasn’t fulfilled the SEC’s prediction of XBRL increasing the “speed, accuracy and usability of financial disclosure.”  Largely, the reason for the failed prediction is that many potential… Continue Reading

New SEC Chair: Mary Jo White

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

The mission of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) is to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation. This sounds great, but how does the SEC actually carry out its mission? The answer lies in the SEC’s oversight and regulation function of the key participants in the securities world,… Continue Reading

Recent meeting between the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals and SEC Staff provides insight

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

On Tuesday, the Securities Law Committee of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals met with officials from the Divisions of Corporation Finance, Investment Management, and Trading and Markets and the Office of the Whistleblower.  While neither new Chair Mary Jo White (confirmed in April) nor new Director of Corporation Finance Keith Higgins (starts… Continue Reading