disclosure effectiveness

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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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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A few weeks ago, I attended the “spring” meeting of the Council of Institutional Investors in Washington (the quotation marks signifying that it didn’t feel like spring – in fact, it snowed one evening).  These meetings are always interesting, in part because over the 15+ years that I’ve been attending CII meetings, their tone has changed from general hostility towards the issuer community to a more selective approach and a general appreciation of engagement.

So what’s on the mind of our institutional owners?  First, an overriding concern with capital structures that limit or eliminate voting rights of “common” shareholders.  CII’s official position is that such structures should be subject to mandatory sunset provisions; that position strikes me as reasonable (particularly as opposed to seeking their outright ban), but it’s too soon to tell whether it will gain traction.


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Photo by Jeffrey Beall

Last year, Congress required the SEC to review the public company disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K and make detailed recommendations as to how those rules might be changed to modernize and simplify the requirements while still requiring disclosure of all material information. The ultimate goal was to reduce burdens on public companies while improving readability and navigation of public company filings, including through reducing repetition in such filings. On November 23, 2016, the SEC released its initial recommendations in a report (the “2016 Report”). The 2016 Report which served as the basis for proposed rules, which were set forth in a 253 page rules release on October 11, 2017. While the proposed rules largely implement the recommendations from the 2016 Report, the proposed rules deviated in certain respects from the recommendations in the 2016 Report. Specifically, the release contains proposed changes to the following provisions under Regulation S-K:

  • Description of Property (Item 102);
  • Management’s Discussion and Analysis (Item 303);
  • Directors, Executive Officers, Promoters, and Control Persons (Item 401);
  • Compliance with Section 16(a) of the Exchange Act (Item 405);
  • Outside Front Cover Page of the Prospectus (Item 501(b));
  • Risk Factors (Item 503(c));
  • Plan of Distribution (Item 508);
  • Material Contracts (Item 601(b)(10)); and
  • Various rules related to incorporation by reference.

Additionally, Some of the proposed amendments would require additional disclosure or incorporation of new technology. These include proposed changes to:

  • Outside Front Cover Page of the Prospectus (Item 501(b)(4));
  • Description of Registrant’s Securities (Item 601(b)(4));
  • Subsidiaries of the Registrant (Item 601(b)(21)(i)); and
  • Various regulations and forms to require all of the information on the cover pages of some Exchange Act forms to be tagged in Inline XBRL format.

While somewhat underwhelming with regard to the actual relief provided, the proposed changes are certainly a step in the right direction for improving the disclosure requirements for public companies. Nevertheless, the proposals seem to be relatively minor in nature and won’t likely do much for public companies as far as reducing their disclosure burdens. Below is a summary description of the material changes proposed in the release:
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back-to-school-954572_1280My last post was a re-posting of Adam Epstein’s great piece on the importance of the proxy statement.  I promised that I would follow up on Adam’s thoughts with some recommendations of my own.  Here goes.

General

  • Manage your proxy statement “real estate” to maximize user-friendliness and create an optimal flow: Think about where things go.  For example, if your company is owned largely by institutions (and perhaps even if it’s not), should you lead off with an endless Q&A about the annual meeting and voting, discussing such exciting topics as the difference between record and beneficial ownership and how to change your vote?  Some of it is required, but consider taking out what’s not required and moving what is required to the back of the book.
  • Use executive summaries: Investors like them, and even the SEC has more or less endorsed their use. Think of it this way – whatever you think of ISS, it does a great job of summarizing your key disclosures, albeit not with your company’s best interests in mind.  Why pass up an opportunity to convey your key disclosures with those interests in mind?


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Internet Archive Book Images

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:
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3003307653_f29d6e3b0c_zIf 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.
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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,