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When a company issues bad or less-than-good news on a Friday or the eve of a major holiday, say just before July 4th, investors and the media generally squawk like the proverbial stuck pig.  And there is some justification for that squawking.  After all, good news and bad news should be treated in a similar manner, and IMHO it’s too cute by half when a company tries to sneak something past the public at an odd time in the hopes that it won’t be noticed.

However, it appears that Institutional Shareholder Services does not regard itself as subject to the same concerns.  Specifically, on November 2, the eve of what was arguably one of the most newsworthy if not significant elections in recent history, ISS snuck out an announcement that, effective January 2, 2021, it would no longer provide draft proxy voting reports to the S&P 500.  Apparently, ISS – which has long been criticized for limiting the distribution of draft voting reports to the S&P 500 – has decided that the way to eliminate that criticism is not to send out draft reports at all.

Instead, ISS will send out proxy voting reports to its clients — i.e., investors — earlier and will send reports to all issuers at the same time at no cost.  Thus (according to ISS), companies will have the time to provide feedback, and we’re assured that its “formal ‘Alert’ process” will enable companies to correct any errors and investors to change their votes.  Anyone who’s gone head-to-head with ISS knows how well that process works; corrective alerts can get lost in the shuffle, votes don’t get changed, etc.  And this new policy will almost surely lead to a big increase in the number of alerts. Continue Reading ISS Tries to Hide in Not-So-Plain Sight

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Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought it was odd to enforce what was essentially an insider trading matter as an internal accounting controls matter.  Commissioners Peirce and Roisman agreed in a November 13, 2020  “statement” that can be found here.

Let’s assume that you are an executive of a company; that you have material non-public information about the company that will, when announced, cause the company’s stock to increase in value; that the company has a policy that prohibits trading when in possession of MNPI; and that you make an open market purchase of the company’s stock before the information is made publicly available.  What are the odds that you will be charged with fraud or insider trading?

Let’s assume a similar but slightly different set of facts:  The company has material, non-public information that will, when announced, cause the company’s stock to increase in value; the company has a policy that prohibits trading when in possession of MNPI; before this information is made publicly available, the company enters into a so-called Rule 10b5-1 plan to facilitate a stock buyback program; and the company then proceeds to buy shares of its stock under the Rule 10b5-1 plan.  What are the odds that the company will be charged with fraud or insider trading?

If you answered both questions the same way, you may be wrong.  In a recent enforcement action involving the second fact pattern above, the SEC opted not to charge the company or its executives with fraud or insider trading.  Rather, the problem, according to the SEC, was that the company had “insufficient” internal accounting controls.  Without going into too many details, the SEC’s theory goes something like this: Continue Reading Alternate routes (updated)

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There was good news and bad news from the SEC this week.

First, the good news.

It’s unofficial, but Bloomberg reported this week that the SEC is “shelving” its proposed overhaul of Form 13F.  (Hopefully, “shelving” doesn’t mean being put on the shelf to be taken down later on, as in a shelf registration.  In a hopeful sign, the Bloomberg piece says that “some within the [SEC] have been notified it’s dead.”)  As readers of this blog know, I was not a fan of the overhaul;  from my perspective, it was a misstep in what has otherwise been a run of pretty good rulemaking by the SEC.

As if to prove that investors and companies sometimes have more in common than one might think, the proposal was criticized by a broad swath of groups.  Companies objected to the fact that it would make it even harder to identify and communicate with their investors (that was the major concern I expressed in my blog posting).  But investors weren’t happy with it either; some questioned whether the proposal would generate the cost savings the SEC cited as one of the principal benefits.  In fact, the Bloomberg article cites a Goldman Sachs study to the effect that of the 2,238 comment letters received on the proposal, only 24 supported it.

The article states that the SEC “still believes that the…trigger [for 13F filings]…hasn’t been altered in four decades [and] needs to be changed.”  True, perhaps, but the SEC’s approach was to throw out baby (i.e., the benefits of 13F filings) with the bathwater.  The SEC is also quoted to the effect that “[t]he comments received illustrate that the form is being used in ways that were not originally anticipated.”  Also true, but that speaks to many larger issues, including so-called proxy plumbing, that the SEC needs to address.  In the meantime, this quick fix was not a fix at all.

Now for the bad news. Continue Reading Good News, Bad News

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While we have been busy in 2020 learning how to social distance, wear masks and do Zoom meetings, the SEC has spent the year turning out a relentless tsunami of new rules and amendments of old ones. Among the latter are extensive amendments to the financial disclosure obligations of a public company when it acquires or disposes of a business. Adopted in May 2020, these long-awaited amendments go into effect on January 1, 2021, so a summary seems timely.

Given the extent and complexity of these amendments, we will summarize them in installments. This first installment considers the changes to the periods to be presented in the financial statements, the amendments to the Investment Test and the Income Test in the definition of a “significant subsidiary,” and the codification of the staff practice of permitting abbreviated financial statements for acquisitions of components of an entity. In reading this and future summaries, bear in mind that the new rules are complex and need to be reviewed carefully against the detailed terms of an acquisition or disposition. Continue Reading The SEC Fixes those Pesky M&A Financial Disclosure Requirements

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Remember when you were a kid and you didn’t clean up your room or do something else you were supposed to do, and a parent would say “How many times do I have to tell you…?”  Well, the same holds true for perquisites disclosure.

Not quite four months ago, I wrote about an SEC enforcement action involving perquisites and the importance of paying close attention to perks.  Well, the SEC has done it again.  Two enforcement actions in four months may not a trend make, but as we approach the end of the calendar year – and the onset of the 2021 proxy season – a reminder seems in order.

The recent enforcement action, concluded at the end of September, sounds similar to so many other sagas of nondisclosure of perks.  In this case, the company disclosed “All Other Compensation” just shy of $600,000 over a four-year period.  The compensation included “certain personal travel and lodging costs.”  However, according to the SEC, the company failed to disclose $1.7 million of “travel-related perquisites and personal benefits,” consisting of personal use of corporate aircraft, expenses associated with hotel stays, and taxes related to both items.  It seems hard to overlook $1.7 million, but it’s not the first time it’s happened, and it almost surely will not be the last. Continue Reading Perquisites Disclosure: “How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?”

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On October 7, 2020, the SEC proposed the creation of “limited, conditional” exemptions from broker-dealer registration for certain “finders” in private company capital raising transactions. This has long been a problem area for private companies, as current regulations impose restrictions that may prevent them from using unregistered finders to raise capital, or impose draconian penalties on them if they do. Since these companies are often unable to raise capital on their own and normally do not have access to the efforts of established, registered broker dealers, the already difficult challenge of raising early stage capital is made even more difficult. The SEC’s October 7, 2020 Press Release and Fact Sheet lay out these proposed exemptions in detail, and the Fact Sheet contains links to a chart and a video that may be helpful.

It’s too early to tell if these proposed exemptions will be beneficial to small companies. Will they actually facilitate small companies’ ability to raise early stage capital? That remains to be seen, but it’s a positive sign that the SEC is expending at least some efforts to help small companies in their capital raising efforts.

Here are the high points of the proposed exemptions: Continue Reading Will Finders Find Relief from SEC Restrictions?

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One of the principal duties of corporate directors and officers is the duty of confidentiality.  That’s not just my personal opinion; it’s supported by case law, corporate governance treatises, law review articles, and more.  Generally viewed as a subset of the duty of loyalty, the duty of confidentiality means that directors and officers are expected to keep their knowledge of the company to themselves or, at a minimum, to disseminate it on a strict “need to know” basis.

My conviction (all puns intended) was reinforced some years ago, when Rajat Gupta, the former CEO of McKinsey and a member of the board of Goldman Sachs, among others, was convicted of insider trading for spilling secrets he learned in Goldman’s board room to Raj Rajaratnam.  Following his conviction, there was a flurry of activity among corporate governance nerds (present company included) as to the appropriateness and reasonability of asking directors and officers to enter into confidentiality agreements with the companies they served.  It seemed to me at the time that asking a member of your board – a person charged with oversight of your company, and effectively your boss – to sign a confidentiality agreement might be viewed as insulting or worse.

Events, both recent and not-so-recent, are changing my mind.  To start with the not-so-recent, in my many years of in-house practice, I came across the occasional director or officer who, to put it bluntly, was a media whore.   They love seeing their names in the paper and being quoted as authorities.  I get that; I’ve been quoted in some publications, and it’s very nice.  However, in at least one case, a director’s leaks to a reporter resulted in my getting calls from that reporter, literally demanding that I provide information, some of which was clearly privileged, arguing that if it was good enough for a board member it was good enough for me.  (I declined.) Continue Reading Shhh!

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How did we get here?

On September 11, 2020, the SEC adopted new rules to “update and expand the statistical disclosures” that bank holding companies, banks, savings and loan holding companies, and savings and loan associations are required to provide to investors. The old regime – Industry Guide 3, “Statistical Disclosure by Bank Holding Companies” – had not been meaningfully updated for more than 30 years.  There have been all sorts of developments since then, including new accounting standards, a financial crisis, and new disclosure requirements imposed by banking agencies. So it’s not surprising that the SEC began questioning the need to make changes to Industry Guide 3, requesting comments in 2017 and again with a proposed rule in September 2019.

So, what’s new?

The changes were implemented in part to eliminate overlaps with disclosures already required under SEC rules, U.S. GAAP, and International Financial Reporting Standards (“IFRS”), as well as to incorporate new accounting standards. Under the new rules, disclosures are required for each annual period presented (as well as any additional interim period should a material change in the information or trend occur), aligning these disclosures with the annual periods for financial statements. Continue Reading Out with the old, in with the new: Banks and S&Ls must now provide updated and expanded statistical disclosures

I’ve often said that lawyers representing corporations should never underestimate the creativity of the plaintiffs’ bar.  However, it seems that the white collar criminal defense bar may not be slouches in the creativity department either.

I’m referring to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that the legal team representing Elizabeth Holmes, the “disgraced Theranos founder,” is considering using her mental health (presumably, the lack thereof) as a defense in her upcoming federal trial for engaging in a variety of frauds.

I’m prepared to admit that I am totally if morbidly fascinated by the Theranos case: I’ve read the phenomenal book, Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou – twice, in fact – and will surely be among the first to see the movie (which reportedly will star Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes in what strikes me as the best casting choice ever); I’ve attended programs featuring Tyler Shultz, the whistleblower who blew the top off the fraud (and whose grandfather, former Secretary of State George Shultz, was on the Theranos board at the time in a family saga worthy of Aeschylus); I’ve listened to the podcast; I’ve watched the HBO documentary; and much more.  Still, it seems just surreal. Continue Reading Legal surrealism

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On August 26, 2020, the SEC continued to keep its foot on the gas with respect to its recent practice of modernizing disclosure rules by adopting amendments to the description of business (Item 101), legal proceedings (Item 103), and risk factor disclosures (Item 105) that registrants are required to make pursuant to Regulation S-K. As discussed in a previous post by my colleague, Bob Lamm, regarding the rule changes as originally proposed on August 8, 2019, the changes significantly update the provisions of Regulation S-K and signal a continuing shift to a principles-based approach to disclosure. The SEC gave the green light to the amendments substantially as proposed in 2019, with some minor modifications. Details of the final amendments are included below. The previous post provides commentary on some of the rule changes and some observations regarding the potential impacts of the shift to a principles-based approach to disclosure on registrants and their advisors.

In its press release announcing the amendments, the SEC acknowledged that these updates were due – actually, overdue – after decades of evolution in the capital markets and the domestic and global economy without any corresponding revisions in the disclosure rules. SEC Chairman Jay Clayton stated that  the improvements to these rules “are rooted in materiality and seek to elicit information that will allow today’s investors to make more informed investment decisions,” adding that the revisions “add[] efficiency and flexibility to our disclosure framework.” Continue Reading Pedal to the metal on principles-based disclosure