3102056181_031bf572a9_zIn 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Conflict Minerals:  It’s too soon to tell whether Dodd-Frank will be repealed in its entirety, if it will die the death of 1,000 cuts, or if it will stay pretty much as is.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 SEC’s brave new (Trump) world


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.

Continue Reading Another zombie from the PCAOB

Unless you’ve been off the grid, you’ve surely read about the kerfuffle between Senator Elizabeth Warren and SEC Chair Mary Jo White (here’s an example). It seems that Senator Warren is unhappy that the SEC, under Chair White’s leadership, hasn’t done enough. Specifically – among other things – it hasn’t adopted a bunch of rules that the Senator believes are critical, such as requiring public companies to disclose the ratio of CEO pay to that of rank-and-file employees.

I’ve written before about Congressional interference in SEC rulemakings (for example, Connecticut Senator Blumenthal’s recommendation that the SEC should deem “fee-shifting” by-laws not just a risk factor but a “major” risk factor – discussed here). I’ve also called out the SEC when I think it’s out of line (for example, here). However, the recent attacks by Senator Warren seem to me to be beyond the pale – they’re strident and scream disrespect for Chair White and for the Commission generally.

Moreover, they demonstrate Senator Warren’s inability, failure or refusal (or all of the above) to recognize certain fundamental issues with which the SEC has to deal, including these (among many others): Continue Reading Warren vs. SEC

A few weeks ago – “From the same wonderful folks who brought you conflict minerals (among other things)” – I complained about Senator Blumenthal’s attempt to tell the SEC what to regulate and how to regulate it.  I had an equal and opposite reaction to the recent news that Commissioner Gallagher and former Commissioner Grundfest had gone after the Harvard Shareholder Rights Project, in effect telling the Project (AKA Lucian Bebchuk) that its actions violate the federal securities laws.

I agree with some (though not all) of Commissioner Gallagher’s views.  I’m also troubled by the notion of an esteemed academic institution taking aggressive, one-size-fits-all positions on corporate governance matters.  However, in this case, I’m inclined to think that Commissioner Gallagher should have taken a higher road – encouraging discussion, maybe even holding an SEC Roundtable on the topic.  And if he really thinks that there’s a violation here, perhaps he should have whispered in the ear of the Enforcement Division that it might want to look into this.  Instead, he’s behaving somewhat like a bully – not that the Good Professor is likely to be quaking in his boots about it.

Also, it strikes me as downright inappropriate for a Commissioner to make a statement about a matter that the Commission could conceivably have to rule on if the matter ever does result in an enforcement action.  At a minimum, he’d have to recuse himself on the matter, which could mean the difference between victory and defeat.  And given recent criticisms of the SEC for (1) pursuing more matters as administrative proceedings than court cases and (2) unfairly touting its enforcement record, does Commissioner Gallagher think he’s enhanced the stature of the SEC by doing this?

Your thoughts?

Looking into the future of changes to corporate governanceInterest in corporate governance has increased exponentially over the last several years, as has shareholder and governmental pressure – often successful – for companies to change how they are governed.  Since 2002, we’ve seen Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, higher and sometimes passing votes on a wide variety of shareholder proposals, and rapid growth in corporate efforts to speak with investors.  And that’s just for starters.   

These developments represent the latest iteration of what has become part of our normal business cycle – scandals (e.g., Enron, WorldCom, Madoff, derivatives), followed by significant declines in stock prices, resulting in public outrage, reform, litigation, and shareholder activism.   Now that the economy is rebounding, should we anticipate a return to “normalcy” (whatever that may be)?  Are we back to “business as usual”? 

Gazing into a crystal ball can be risky, but I’m going to take a chance and say “no.”  While our economic problems have abated, I believe that the past is prologue – in other words, we’re going to continue to see more of the same: investor pressure on companies, legislation and regulation seeking a wide variety of corporate reforms, and the like.  Some more specific predictions follow: 

  • Increased Focus on Small- and Mid-Cap Companies:  Investors have picked most if not all of the low-hanging governance fruit from large-cap companies.  Sure, there are some issues that may generate heat and some corporate “outliers” that investors will continue to attack.  However, most big companies have long since adopted such reforms as majority voting in uncontested director elections, elimination of supermajority votes and other anti-takeover provisions, and shareholder ability to call special meetings, to name just a few.  If investors (and their partners, the proxy advisory firms) are to continue to grow, Continue Reading The shape of things to come in corporate governance

Proxy advisory firms' influence over proxy votingAs we say “goodbye” to 2012 we say “hello” to another proxy season full of angst caused by the self-appointed czars of corporate governance, the proxy advisory firms.  Although ISS and Glass Lewis have been making voting recommendations for more than a decade, over the past two years their power over voting outcomes has increased.  When the Dodd-Frank Act was enacted in 2010 Congress was very clear that the Say-on-Pay votes were merely advisory and that directors would not be subjected to increased liability over a company’s executive compensation practice; however, the unintended consequence of Dodd-Frank was to strengthen the unregulated proxy advisory firm industry by allowing these firms to be the near-final arbiters of whether executive compensation should be approved by shareholders.  Failure to comply with the arbitrary guidelines of ISS or the often unknowable guidelines of Glass Lewis can cause a company the potential embarrassment of a “failed” Say-on-Pay vote regardless of whether the independent directors at the company, who painstakingly analyzed various metrics in deciding what to pay the executive officers, determined the compensation to be in the best interests of the company and its shareholders.  In fact, Matteo Tonello of the Conference Board suggests there is substantial evidence demonstrating that the proxy advisory firms have significant influence over the design of executive compensation programs, but no evidence that they have contributed at all to improved governance quality or increased shareholder value.

The SEC clairvoyantly expected a growing conflict between issuers and the proxy advisory firms when it Continue Reading Are investors’ interests served by proxy advisory firms?

Finally, we have had some recent bipartisanship in Congress.  The only problem, of course, is that the recent bipartisanship further burdened public companies with additional disclosure requirements.  As Broc Romanek noted in his blog last week, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 requiring public companies to disclose to the SEC its dealings with Iran. 

As we have been blogging about for nearly a year, Congress has picked up a bad habit of burdening public companies in advancing an agenda that has nothing to do with the protection of investors.  These so called “social disclosures” (many of which are really “political” – or politically motivated – disclosures) while arguably related to important issues, burden public companies with specific tasks to compile and disclose certain information.  These same burdens, however, are not placed on private companies.  Yet, Congressman Darrell Issa, the Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been demanding to know why there are fewer public companies today as compared to a decade ago. 

To be fair, I note that the House has recently passed (in bipartisan fashion) HR 4078, Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act, which would limit the ability of the SEC to add more regulatory burden on public companies, but given recent Congressional acts, HR 4078 appears more “Do as I say and not as I do.”  For example, Congress passed the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, which requires public companies to disclose in its Form 10-K if the company incurs a specific type of tax penalty from the IRS involving abusive or tax avoidance (shelter) transactions.  More recently, as everyone is keenly aware, laws have passed pertaining to conflict minerals, mine safety, and executive compensation pay ratios.  Laws that have been proposed, but have not passed (yet), include Continue Reading You asked for it: Bipartisan agreement in congress

Recent comments from SEC commissioner Luis Aguilar indicate that the SEC may consider new rules that would require public companies to disclose political expenditures. In his recent speech from February 24, 2012, Commissioner Aguilar informally called on the SEC to adopt political spending disclosure rules in light of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down federal restrictions on corporate political spending as unconstitutional. Although public companies are still restricted from directly contributing corporate funds to political candidates, they are permitted to contribute funds for campaign advertisements that support or oppose political candidates. Additionally, companies may contribute to independent organizations that engage in political advertising or lobbying.

We previously blogged about a petition which was submitted by a group of ten law professors in response to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Citizens United asking the SEC to consider adopting rules that would require public companies to make disclosures about their political contributions. The petition was prompted by, among other things, the Court’s assertion that procedures of corporate democracy would be a means by which shareholders could monitor the use of corporate assets for political purposes and also effect corporate change where such political purposes were inconsistent with shareholder interests. As the petitioners pointed out, the Court’s reasoning is partially based on the assumption that shareholders have access to information concerning a company’s political spending. While certain companies voluntarily make political spending disclosures in their public filings with the SEC, there are currently no rules or regulations that require a company to make such disclosures. Continue Reading Are more disclosure requirements for public companies in the works?

The Dodd-Frank Act mandated the SEC to adopt rules to require reporting companies to make certain “social disclosures.” For example, Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank requires the SEC to adopt disclosure rules that will require reporting companies to make certain disclosures if “conflict minerals” are “necessary to the functionality or production” of its manufactured products. Metals and ores currently classified as “conflict minerals” are (1) Tin – Cassiterite, (2) Tantalum – Columbite-tantalite, (3) Tungsten – Wolframite and (4) Gold. Congress’ intention in enacting Section 1502 was to attempt to stop the national army and rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from using illicit profits from the minerals trade to fund their military efforts. These types of disclosures are often referred to as “social disclosures” because they are intended to effect social changes.

In an effort to expand reporting companies’ duty to make disclosures relating to social issues, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced a bill on August 1, 2011 that would “require companies to include in their annual reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission a disclosure describing any measures the company has taken during the year to identify and address conditions of forced labor, slavery, human trafficking, and the worst forms of child labor within the company’s supply chains.” This bill, entitled the “Business Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act” (H.R. 2759), is intended to curb reliance on a loophole in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 which prohibits importation of goods made with forced labor or convict labor but has a broad exception for goods that cannot be produced in the United States in sufficient quantities to meet the demands of American consumers.

 This proposed legislation is part of a current trend of increasing disclosure burdens of public companies related to social issues. Although required social disclosures may be well-intentioned, such requirements seem to be inconsistent with the fundamental purpose of Federal securities laws (i.e. investor protection) and such disclosures will likely result in an increased costs borne by companies and shareholders without providing additional information that is useful or beneficial to the investing public.

To view H.R. 2759, click here.

Pay ratio disclosures
Photo by Brian Talbot

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 (and apparently to Bob Lamm as well) so I just hoped it would go away.

I am not against finding ways to strengthen the middle class.  Just like I am not against ending the sale of certain minerals in Central Africa that end up funding deadly conflict.  The problem I have is that public companies should not have to bear the complete burden of fixing social ills.  Less than 1% of the 27 million companies in the United States are publicly traded.  And there are plenty of private companies that are larger than most publicly traded companies.  Thus, while we may not agree whether the social goals are worth achieving, I think we can all agree that there are better ways to achieve them than selective enforcement (particularly since the SEC itself has said that the pay ratio will not be comparable from one company to another).  The Securities Edge  has been criticizing the social disclosure movement for some time, but we haven’t yet seemed to have stopped Congress from continuing to go down that path.

So, unless Congress acts to reverse its mandate for public companies to disclose their pay ratios before 2018 (the first year of required disclosure), I suppose we should all start learning how to comply.  Leading practices for calculating the ratio and providing narrative disclosure will develop over the next couple of years, but I have summarized the important parts of the rules in this post:

What is the required disclosure?

Registrants must disclose:

  • The median of the annual total compensation of all employees of the registrant (excluding the CEO)
  • The annual total compensation of the CEO; and
  • The ratio of the median to the CEO’s compensation.

The ratio needs to be expressed as X:1 or X to 1 where “X” represents the CEO’s total compensation and “1” represents the median employee’s salary.  The ratio can also be expressed in narrative form such as: “The CEO’s annual total compensation is X times the median employee’s annual total compensation.”  You can’t Continue Reading Pay ratio (unfortunately) coming to public company filings soon