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Although Dodd-Frank was enacted in 2010, the rule needed to implement one of its provisions – the requirement to disclose hedging policies – only recently took effect.  In fact, for calendar-year companies, 2020 will be the first year in which the proxy statement will have

In recent years, the SEC has made a number of incremental changes to make disclosures more effective – not only more meaningful and user-friendly for investors, but also helpful to those of us who prepare disclosures for our companies and clients.

The drive to make disclosures more effective seems to have kicked into a higher gear with the August 8 issuance of a proposal that may result in the most significant changes in the disclosure rules in more than 30 years.  The proposal would modify some key provisions of Regulation S-K, and in doing so would move considerably closer to a principles-based approach to disclosure.   Some details follow.
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I recently came across an article reporting that the interim president of a state university system had failed to report a number of corporate board seats on his ethics forms.  That got me thinking about the forms he may have been asked to complete, which in turn got me thinking about D&O questionnaires.

Getting directors and officers to accurately complete and return questionnaires in a timely manner is one of the most frustrating tasks faced by corporate secretaries.  Years ago, I was speaking at a program for aspiring corporate governance nerds, when a young aspirant asked me if I had the secret to getting this task done.  If memory serves me correctly, my response was to the effect that if I had the answer to her question, I could retire.

However, I sometimes think that people who circulate questionnaires are their own worst enemies.  For example, a recent study reported that D&O questionnaires averaged 40 pages and 65 questions.  That means that some, perhaps many, questionnaires are far longer.  It’s unrealistic to expect someone with a life – much less a day job – to devote the amount of time necessary to complete a 40-page (or longer) questionnaire, particularly when many questions don’t lend themselves to simple “yes” or “no” answers.
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As we previously reported, the SEC has adopted amendments to the public company disclosure rules intended to further streamline and simplify the reporting process for public companies. The amendments also significantly change the process for requesting and renewing confidential treatment of exhibits to SEC filings. Most of these amendments became effective on May 2, 2019. Below is a brief summary of several of the significant changes that resulted from these amendments.

Amendments to Form 10-K, Form 10-Q, and Form 8-K Cover Pages

Companies must now list on the cover page of Form 10-Q and Form 8-K each class of securities registered under Section 12(b) of the Exchange Act, the trading symbol, and the exchange(s) on which the securities trade, similar to the current requirements for the Form 10-K cover page. The cover page of Form 10-K was also modified to require the inclusion of the trading symbol for each class of registered securities, which previously was not required to be provided. The new Form 10-K cover page will also no longer include the checkbox related to delinquent filers under Section 16.

Description of Material Properties

Item 102 of Regulation S-K was revised to encourage disclosure regarding only material properties, plants and mines. The new rules make clear that it is acceptable for a company to determine that none of its properties are material for purposes of Item 102. However, the amendments do not alter disclosure requirements for companies engaged in the real estate, mining, and oil and gas industries, in which physical properties may be of particular importance. Companies in these industries must continue to comply with the existing instructions to Item 102 and applicable SEC industry guides governing their industries.
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As our readers know, I am irritated by Congress’s penchant for naming bills so as to create nifty acronyms. And for including provisions that have nothing to do with the name or the acronym.  However, I can better put up with these irritants when the legislation – and SEC regulations implementing the legislation – create a good result.

Such is the case with the FAST Act. It stands for “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act,” and despite its acronymic name and its questionable connection to securities law, it contained some provisions to make disclosures more effective and the process by which disclosures are made somewhat easier.

These benefits were engraved in stone by the SEC on March 20, when it adopted a series of rules under the FAST Act. The rules provide for the following types of relief:
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On February 19, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted to propose a new rule that would expand the availability of the “testing-the-waters” provisions that enable eligible companies to engage in certain communications to gauge institutional investor interest in a proposed IPO. Currently, only companies that qualify as “emerging growth companies” or “EGCs” are eligible to test the water. The new rule and related amendments would expand the availability of the provisions to all types of issuers, including investment companies.

The purpose of the testing-the-waters provisions is to allow potential issuers to gauge market interest in a possible initial public offering or other registered securities offering by discussing the offering with certain investors, including qualified institutional buyers (“QIBs”) and institutional accredited investors (“IAIs”), prior to filing a registration statement. SEC Chairman Jay Clayton said that “[t]he proposed rules would allow companies to more effectively consult with investors and better identify information that is important to them in advance of a public offering.” The proposed rules and related amendments are intended to give more issuers a cost-effective and flexible means of communicating with institutional investors regarding contemplated offerings and evaluating market interest.


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Lest you think that the SEC’s focus on the use of non-GAAP financial metrics is so, well, 2018, think again.  On December 26, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order against a company based entirely on the company’s use of non-GAAP metrics without giving “equal or greater prominence [to] the most directly comparable financial measure or measures calculated and presented in accordance with GAAP…”, as required by Item 10(e)(1)(i)(A) of Regulation S-K.

According to the SEC order, the company in question – ADT, the security company based in Boca Raton, Florida – issued earnings releases for fiscal 2017 and the first quarter of fiscal 2018 that prominently included such non-GAAP metrics as adjusted EBITDA, adjusted net income, and free cash flow before special items, without giving equal or greater prominence to the comparable GAAP data.  For example, the order states:
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As we approach the end of 2018, it’s only natural to look back on some of the year’s events – and some non-events.  For my money, one of the most significant non-events was the inauguration of CEO pay ratio disclosure, one of the evil spawn of Dodd-Frank.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll skip the background of the disclosure requirement, except to say that it seemed intended to shame CEOs – or, more accurately, their boards – into at least slowing the rate of growth in CEO pay.  Some idealists may have actually thought that it would lead to reductions in CEO pay.  Poor things; they failed to realize not only that all legislative and regulatory attempts to reduce CEO pay have failed, but also that such attempts have in every single instance been followed by increases in CEO pay.

So the 2018 proxy season, and with it pay ratio disclosures, came and went.  Sure, there were media outcries about some of the ratios, but they failed to generate any traction.  Companies may have incurred significant monetary and other costs to develop the data needed to prepare the disclosures, but their concerns about peasants storming the corporate gates with torches and pitchforks proved needless.  Few, if any, investors – and certainly no mainstream investors – seemed to care about the pay ratios.  Employees making less than the “median” employee didn’t rise up in anger.  Even the proxy advisory firms seemed to yawn in unison.

So that’s that.  Or so you’d think.


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Since the beginning of this month (July 2018), the SEC has brought two enforcement cases involving perquisites disclosure – one involving Dow Chemical, and one involving Energy XXI.  As my estimable friend Broc Romanek noted in a recent posting, over the past dozen years, the SEC has brought an average of one such case per year.  It’s not clear why the SEC is doubling down on these actions, but regardless of the reasons, it makes sense to pay attention.

The SEC’s complaint in the Dow Chemical case is an important read, as it summarizes the requirements for perquisites disclosure.  Among other things, it’s worth noting the following:

  • While SEC rules require disclosure of “perquisites and other personal benefits”, they do not define or provide any clarification as to what constitutes a “perquisite or other personal benefit.” Instead, the SEC addressed the subject in the adopting release for the current executive compensation disclosure rules, and it has also been covered in numerous speeches and other statements over the years by members of the SEC staff.
  • For those of you who prefer a principles-based approach to rulemaking, you win. Specifically, the adopting release stated as follows:

“Among the factors to be considered in determining whether an item is a perquisite or other personal benefit are the following:

  1. An item is not a perquisite or personal benefit if it is integrally and directly related to the performance of the executive’s duties.
  2. Otherwise, an item is a perquisite or personal benefit if it confers a direct or indirect benefit that has a personal aspect, without regard to whether it may be provided for some business reason or for the convenience of the company, unless it is generally available on a non-discriminatory basis to all employees.”

The SEC has also noted on several occasions that if an item is not integrally and directly related to the performance of the executive’s duties, it’s still a “perk”, even if it may be provided for some business reason or for the convenience of the company.


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If you find the title of this posting confusing, let me explain:  On June 28, the SEC announced revisions to the definition of “smaller reporting company”that will significantly expand the number of companies that fit within that category (i.e., “smaller gets bigger”).  As a result, more public companies will be able to reduce the disclosure they are required to provide under SEC rules (i.e., “which means less”).  The new definition will go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Background

The SEC adopted the reduced disclosure requirements applicable to smaller reporting companies, or SRCs, in 2007. These reduced requirements were intended to ease the costs and other burdens of disclosure for small companies.  The reduced requirements enabled SRCs, among other things, to:

  • present only two (rather than three) years of financial statements and the related management’s discussion and analysis;
  • provide executive compensation for only three (rather than five) “named executive officers”;
  • omit the compensation discussion and analysis in its entirety;
  • present only two (vs. three) years of information in the summary compensation table; and
  • omit other compensation tables, pay ratio disclosure, and narrative descriptions of various compensation matters.

In addition, SRCs that are not “accelerated filers” (companies that must file their Exchange Act reports on an accelerated basis) need not provide an audit attestation of management’s assessment of internal controls, required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.  More on this below.
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