Nasdaq Is Advocating for U.S. Public Market Reform

In May 2017, Nasdaq published a report titled The Promise of Market Reform: Reigniting America’s Economic Engine.  The report stems from Nasdaq’s concern about the state of U.S. pubic markets, which have become “more complex and costly for issuers, particularly for publicly-listed small and medium growth companies and for private companies that might consider public offerings.”

The report emphasizes that “companies increasingly question whether the benefits of public ownership are worth the burdens” and warns that if such burdens are not addressed, it “could ultimately represent an existential threat to our markets” as “a growing number of companies have been choosing to remain private—and some public companies are reversing course and going private.”

But Nasdaq’s report does not just create an alarm, it sets forth a blueprint for “critically-needed reforms.”

The report identifies the following three specific problems and offers concrete solutions in these areas:

(i) a complex patchwork of regulation disincentivizes market participation and creates the need to reconstruct the regulatory framework;

(ii) a one-size-fits-all market structure deprives companies of the benefits they need to participate in public markets (particularly for small and medium growth companies), which can be fixed by modernizing the market structure; and

(iii) a culture in the investment community and in the mainstream media that values short-term returns that should be changed to promote long-termism.

For example, Nasdaq suggests that the reconstruction of the regulatory framework would involve: (i) reforming the proxy proposal process; (ii) reducing the burden of corporate disclosure; (iii) rolling back politically-motivated disclosure requirements; (iv) reducing the burden of meritless class action lawsuits; and (v) a tax reform to incentivize long-term investing.

The implementation of most Nasdaq-suggested reforms would involve a lengthy rulemaking process, but it’s important that a dialogue about these issues “among investors, public and private companies, industry groups, and policymakers” has been launched.

 

 

Advisory Committee Recommends Robust Diversity Disclosure to the SEC

On February 16, 2017, the Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies (“Advisory Committee”) provided a recommendation to the SEC regarding corporate board diversity.

The Advisory Committee was organized in 2011 to provide the SEC with advice on its rules, regulations, and policies related to capital raising by emerging privately held small businesses and publicly traded companies with less than $250 million in public market capitalization; trading in the securities of such businesses and companies; and public reporting and corporate governance requirements to which such businesses and companies are subject.

The Advisory Committee discussed the corporate board diversity recommendation at its meetings held on October 5 and December 7, 2016, and the recommendation was approved by the members of the Advisory Committee at its meeting held on February 15, 2017.

The Advisory Committee emphasized that “board diversity has been associated with improved competitiveness and talent management, greater access to capital, more sustainable profits, and better relations with stakeholders and therefore plays an important role in capital formation for small and emerging companies.”

The current rule related to board diversity was adopted by the SEC in 2009 (Item 407(c)(2)(vi) of Regulation S-K) and requires public companies to disclose in their proxy statements whether diversity is considered in identifying nominees for the company’s board of directors, and if it is considered, how. Item 407 also requires that if a company has a policy with regard to the consideration of diversity in identifying director nominees, it needs to disclose how that policy is implemented and how its effectiveness is assessed.

The Advisory Committee believes that this existing disclosure requirement failed to generate information useful to stockholders, employees and customers in assessing board diversity. The Advisory Committee recommended that the SEC “amend Item 407(c)(2) of Regulation S-K to require issuers to describe, in addition to their policy with respect to diversity, if any, the extent to which their boards are diverse.” The Advisory Committee did not suggest using a specific definition of the term “diversity” and recognized that “the definition of diversity should be up to each issuer.” However, the Advisory Committee’s recommendation offered a clear disclosure enhancement by recommending that “issuers should include disclosure regarding race, gender, and ethnicity of each member/nominee as self-identified by the individual.”

The final recommendation of the Advisory Committee follows former SEC Chair Mary Jo White’s opinion on diversity disclosures. In her June 27, 2016 speech, Chair White stated that “[c]ompanies’ disclosures on board diversity in reporting under our current requirements have generally been vague and have changed little since the rule was adopted.” Chair White expressed her view that “the SEC has a responsibility to ensure that our disclosure rules are serving their intended purpose of meaningfully informing investors. This rule does not and it should be changed.”

It remains to be seen whether the SEC will propose new diversity disclosure requirements based on the Advisory Committee’s recommendation.

Time to Review Your Severance Agreements

In August 2016, the SEC issued cease-and-desist orders against two different companies for using severance agreements which required exiting employees to waive their ability to obtain monetary awards under the SEC’s whistleblower program.

According to the SEC’s order regarding BlueLinx Holdings Inc., beginning prior to August 12, 2011 and continuing through the present, BlueLinx entered into severance agreements with departing employees. While the agreements were not uniform, most contained language prohibiting the departing employees from divulging confidential information, unless compelled to do so by law or legal process. In or about June 2013, BlueLinx reviewed and revised each of its outstanding severance agreements and added provisions which (i) required such former employees to waive their rights to monetary recovery should they file a charge or complaint with the SEC or other federal agencies, and (ii) required such former employees to notify the company’s legal department prior to disclosing any financial or business information to any third parties.

According to the SEC’s order regarding Health Net, Inc., beginning prior to August 12, 2011 and continuing through October 22, 2015, Health Net entered into severance agreements with departing employees. In August 2011, after the whistleblower rules were adopted, Health Net updated its form of severance agreement to add language which prohibited former employees from filing an application for, or accepting, a whistleblower award from the SEC. This language was contained in severance agreement entered into from approximately August 2011 to June 2013. In June 2013, Health Net updated its form of severance agreement to remove the SEC-specific language; however, Health Net retained language that removed the financial incentive for reporting information. On October 22, 2015, Health Net updated its form of severance agreement and struck the restrictive language related to monetary awards.

The SEC charged each of BlueLinx and Health Net with violating Rule 21F-17 under the Exchange Act. Rule 21F-17, adopted pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act, provides that “[n]o person may take any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the Commission staff about a possible securities law violation, including enforcing, or threatening to enforce, a confidentiality agreement. . .with respect to such communications.”

BlueLinx consented to the SEC’s cease-and-desist order without admitting or denying the findings. BlueLinx agreed to include in all of its severance agreements after the date of the order language which makes it clear that employees may report possible securities law violations to the SEC and other federal agencies without BlueLinx’s prior approval and without having to forfeit any resulting whistleblower award. In addition, BlueLinx agreed to make reasonable efforts to contact former employees who had executed severance agreements from August 12, 2011 through the present to notify them that BlueLinx does not prohibit former employees from providing information to the SEC staff without notice to BlueLinx or from accepting SEC whistleblower awards. In addition, BlueLinx agreed to pay the SEC a civil penalty of $265,000.

Health Net also consented to the SEC’s cease-and-desist order without admitting or denying the findings. Health Net agreed to make reasonable efforts to inform former employees who signed severance agreements from August 12, 2011 through October 22, 2015 that Health Net does not prohibit former employees from seeking and obtaining a whistleblower award from the SEC under Section 21F of the Exchange Act. In addition, Health Net agreed to pay the SEC a civil penalty of $340,000.

In light of the above orders, companies should review new and existing severance agreements that they have or enter into with former employees to make sure that such documents do not restrict such former employees’ ability to provide information to the SEC or from accepting SEC whistleblower awards. The mere existence of such restrictive language in severance agreements in and of itself could be found to be a violation of Section 21F of the Exchange Act.

What Is Good Corporate Governance? A Commonsense Approach

It seems to be a very simple question that does not always produce a clear-cut response. A group of high profile executives, including CEOs of major US corporations, tried to reach consensus on commonsense principles that are “conducive to good corporate governance, healthy public companies and the continued strength of … public markets.” On July 21, 2016, they released Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance for public companies to promote further conversation on corporate governance.

These principles do not break new ground in corporate governance – it was not the purpose; these principles serve as a compilation of best practices that provide a “basic framework for sound, long-term-oriented governance.” The authors acknowledge that given the differences among public companies “not every principle … will work for every company, and not every principle will be applied in the same fashion by all companies.” These principles should promote discussions at the executive and board levels. They are a must read for board members, C-suite executives and corporate secretaries. Some of these principles can also be used by private companies and large non-profit organizations. Continue reading “What Is Good Corporate Governance? A Commonsense Approach”

Non-GAAP Financial Measures – Agenda Item for Upcoming Audit Committee Meetings

On June 27, 2016, SEC Chair Mary Jo White delivered a speech, which focused, in part, on non-GAAP financial measures, which have become the new old “hot button” issue for the SEC. Chair White strongly urged companies to carefully consider the SEC’s new Compliance & Disclosure Interpretations (“C&DIs”) that were issued in May 2016 and to “revisit their approach to non-GAAP disclosures.” In addition, Chair White emphasized that appropriate controls should be considered and that audit committees should carefully oversee their company’s use of non-GAAP financial measures and disclosures.

The SEC’s mission with respect to non-GAAP financial measures has been the same since its adoption of non-GAAP rules in 2003 — “to eliminate the manipulative or misleading use of non-GAAP financial measures and, at the same time, enhance the comparability associated with the use of that information.” Although the SEC recognizes that “investors want non-GAAP information,” as Chair White mentioned in her speech, the concern is that instead of supplementing the GAAP information, non-GAAP financial measures have “become the key message to investors, crowding out and effectively supplanting the GAAP presentation.” To make her message crystal clear, Chair White also stated in her speech that the SEC is “watching this space very closely and [is] poised to act through the filing review process, enforcement and further rulemaking if necessary to achieve the optimal disclosures for investors and the markets.”

If a company uses non-GAAP financial measures, then the use of such measures and disclosures in the company’s SEC filings, earnings press releases, earnings calls and other presentations should be an agenda item for upcoming audit committee meetings. On June 28, 2016, the Center for Audit Quality issued a new publication, Questions on Non-GAAP Measures: A Tool for Audit Committees, which is designed to facilitate the conversation between audit committees and management about non-GAAP financial measures. Questions included in this publication focus on transparency, consistency, and comparability of non-GAAP financial measures. The publication also includes a few procedural questions that are important to assess whether appropriate controls exist with respect to the use and disclosure of non-GAAP financial measures.

Five Nutshell Questions about Cybersecurity for the Board of Directors

 

CybersecurityOn April 29, 2016, the Council of Institutional Investors (CII) published its new Special Report, Prioritizing Cybersecurity: Five Investor Questions for Portfolio Company Boards. 

To facilitate effective cybersecurity risk oversight by the board, CII has suggested five questions that a board of directors needs to be able to answer:

  1. How are the company’s cyber risks communicated to the board, by whom, and with what frequency?
  2. Has the board evaluated and approved the company’s cybersecurity strategy?
  3. How does the board ensure that the company is organized appropriately to address cybersecurity risks? Does management have the skill sets it needs?
  4. How does the board evaluate the effectiveness of the company’s cybersecurity efforts?
  5. When did the board last discuss whether the company’s disclosure of cyber risk and cyber incidents is consistent with SEC guidance?

Continue reading “Five Nutshell Questions about Cybersecurity for the Board of Directors”

Is SEC Regulation of Political Spending Dead?

It is unlikely that it is dead, but it certainly is on life support.  But, I believe that board oversight, and disclosure, of corporate political expenditures will continue to increase.

In 2011, the Committee of Corporate Political Spending, a group of ten academics focusing on corporate and securities law, submitted a petition for rulemaking to the SEC asking the SEC to adopt rules to require public companies to disclosure to shareholders the use of corporate resources for political activities. In the following months, the SEC received in excess of one million comments to the petition. Reportedly, most of the comments expressed support for the requested rulemaking. In 2012, the SEC placed disclosure by public companies of their political expenditures on its rulemaking agenda. It would seem that with disclosure of political expenditures being on the SEC’s rulemaking agenda, combined with broad public interest in such a rule (as evidenced by other one million comments on the petition), the SEC would move forward with rulemaking. But, that didn’t happen.

The SEC dropped from its rule making agenda political expenditures disclosure in 2013.   But, the issue was not dead; press coverage continued.   For example, on October 29, 2014, the New York Times published an editorial advocating for an SEC rule requiring disclosure of corporate political expenditures. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times responding to the editorial, Commissioner Daniel M. Gallagher stated “[m]andatory political contribution disclosure deserves no place on the agency’s agenda, and I will fight to keep it that way.” Given the removal of political expenditures disclosure from the SEC’s rulemaking agenda and Commissioner Gallagher’s public opposition to any such rule, it is probably a fairly safe bet that, unless prodded by congress, the SEC will not take any rulemaking action with respect to disclosure of corporate political expenditures in the near future.

While it appears that the SEC will not take action any time soon, the idea of requiring public companies to disclose political expenditures has certainly not gone away. As we have written about in the past, Institutional Shareholder Services continues to generally recommend that shareholders vote for proposals to require greater disclosure of a company’s political contributions and trade association spending policies and activities. Further, a majority of companies reviewed by the Center for Political Accountability and the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research (generally, the top 300 companies in the S&P 500) continue to have some level of board oversight of their political contributions and expenditures. The Shareholders Protection Act of 2015 was also recently introduced in the House of Representatives. If passed (which is unlikely), the bill would amend The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to require not only disclosure, but shareholder approval of political expenditures and require national securities exchanges and associations to require a board of directors vote for political expenditures in excess of $50,000.

I, for one, hope that Commission Gallagher is successful in his efforts to keep political expenditures disclosure off the SEC’s rulemaking agenda. Existing disclosure documents are already far too long and far too complex. Heaping more disclosure obligations on public companies would simply contribute to that problem. While new SEC rulemaking appears to be unlikely, pressure from shareholders, shareholder groups and others will likely lead to increasing board oversight, and increased voluntary disclosure, of corporate political expenditures.

SEC Proposes Rules for Hedging Disclosure

On February 9, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission, as required by Section 955 of the Dodd-Frank Act[1] , issued proposed rules requiring enhanced proxy disclosure of a company’s hedging policies for its directors, officers and other employees. The proposed rules would require a company to disclose, in any proxy statement or information statement relating to an election of directors, whether its directors, officers or other employees are permitted to hedge or offset any decrease in the market value of equity securities that are either granted by the company as compensation, or held (directly or indirectly) by the individual.

Currently, companies are required to make disclosures regarding their hedging policies in the company’s Compensation Discussion and Analysis (“CD&A”) section of their proxy. In the CD&A section of a proxy, companies are required to disclose material information necessary to an understanding of a company’s compensation policies and decisions regarding its named executive officers. Item 402(b)(2)(xiii) provides that, if material, disclosure regarding a company’s equity or other security ownership requirements or guidelines (specifying applicable amounts and forms of ownership), and any company policies regarding hedging the economic risk of such ownership should be included in the CD&A. The CD&A disclosure requirement does not apply to smaller reporting companies, emerging growth companies, registered investment companies or foreign private issuers. The new proposed rules would expand both the disclosure requirements regarding hedging policies and the types of companies required to make disclosure regarding hedging policies.

The proposed rules would add paragraph (i) to Item 407 of Regulation S-K and would require companies to disclose whether the registrant permits any employees (including officers) or directors, to purchase financial instruments (including prepaid variable forward contracts, equity swaps, collars and exchange funds) or otherwise engage in transactions that are designed to or have the effect of hedging or offsetting any decrease in the market value of a company’s equity securities. Companies that permit hedging by certain employees would be required to disclose the categories of persons who are permitted to engage in hedging transactions and those who are not. In addition, companies would also be required to disclose the categories of hedging transactions that they permit and those that they prohibit. The new disclosure would apply to all issuers registered under Section 12 of the Exchange Act, including smaller reporting companies, emerging growth companies, and listed closed-end funds, but excluding foreign private issuers and other types of registered investment companies.

The proposed rules do not require a company to prohibit its directors, officers or other employees from engaging in hedging transactions in the company’s securities or to adopt hedging policies. Rather, the proposed rules, consistent with the SEC’s view[2] of the statutory purpose of Section 14(j) of the Exchange Act, are intended to provide investors with additional information, enabling them to ascertain whether a company’s directors, officers or other employees, through hedging transactions, are able to avoid any requirements that they hold stock long-term, and thereby receive their compensation even if their company underperforms. The disclosure aims to give stockholders a better understanding of whether the interests of a company’s directors, officers and other employees are aligned with their own interests.

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[1] Section 955 of the Dodd-Frank Act added Section 14(j) to the Exchange Act. Section 14(j) directs the SEC to require, by rule, each issuer to disclose in any proxy or consent solicitation material for an annual meeting of the shareholders of the issuer whether any employee or member of the board of directors of the issuer, or any designee of such employee or director, is permitted to purchase financial instruments (including prepaid variable forward contracts, equity swaps, collars, and exchange funds) that are designed to hedge or offset any decrease in the market value of equity securities either (1) granted to the employee or director by the issuer as part of the compensation of the employee or director; or (2) held, directly or indirectly, by the employee or director.

[2] The proposing release cites a report issued by the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs which stated that Section 14(j) is intended to “allow shareholders to know if executives are allowed to purchase financial instruments to effectively avoid compensation restrictions that they hold stock long-term, so that they will receive their compensation even in the case that their firm does not perform.”  In this regard, the SEC explained “we infer that the statutory purpose of Section 14(j) is to provide transparency to shareholders, if action is to be taken with respect to the election of directors, about whether employees or directors are permitted to engage in transactions that mitigate or avoid the incentive alignment associated with equity ownership.”

Withdrawal of Whole Foods No-Action Letter Leaves a Hole in Proxy Access Proposal Defense

On January 16, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced  that, for the 2015 proxy season, the Division of Corporation Finance will not express any views as to whether a company may exclude a shareholder proposal from its annual meeting proxy statement based on Exchange Act Rule 14a-8(i)(9).   The announcement was issued in connection with a statement issued by Chair White that, in light of questions about the proper scope and application of the Rule, she directed the SEC staff to review the rule and report to the Commission.  As a result the Whole Foods no-action letter, discussed below, was withdrawn and issuers will not have an easy path in addressing “proxy access” proposals from their shareholders for the 2015 proxy season (and perhaps in subsequent proxy seasons).

Rule 14a-8(i)(9) permits a company to exclude a shareholder proposal that “directly conflicts with one of the company’s own proposals to be submitted to shareholders at the same meeting.”  The Staff has historically granted no-action relief under Rule 14a-8(i)(9) where a shareholder proposal and a company/management proposal present alternative and conflicting decisions for shareholders and where the inclusion of both proposals could lead to inconsistent and ambiguous results.

The SEC’s action comes on the heels of a letter, published  on January 4, 2015, by the Council of Institutional Investors asking the SEC staff to review the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) in light of the SEC staff’s issuance of the Whole Foods no-action letter.  In that letter, the SEC Staff took a no-action position to the exclusion of a shareholder proxy access proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(9).  The shareholder proposal would have amended Whole Foods’ governance documents to allow shareholders holding 3% of the company’s stock for a period of three years to include in the annual meeting proxy statement nominees for up to 20% of Whole Foods’ directors. Whole Foods’ competing proposal would have provided shareholders holding 9% of the company’s stock for a period of five years the right to include such nominees.  Conveniently for Whole Foods, its proposal would have significantly limited the universe of its shareholders who would be entitled, in 2015 and in the future, to proxy access under its amendment. Following the issuance of the Whole Foods no-action letter, a number of companies sought no-action relief from the Staff in connection with similar shareholder proxy access proposals; however, the Whole Foods no-action letter was subsequently withdrawn in connection with the Staff’s announcement of its review of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) and the staff noted in its responses to the other Rule 14a-8(i)(9) requests that it could not express a view in light of the recent announcement.

Despite the lack of no-action relief from the SEC staff for the 2015 proxy season, companies may still utilize a number of mechanisms to exclude shareholder proposals:

  • A company may continue to rely on Rule 14a-8(i)(9) – including complying with the timing and notice requirements of Rule 14a-8 – to exclude the shareholder’s proposal, but without the comfort of a SEC no-action letter.
  • A company may seek judicial relief to exclude the shareholder’s proposal – a challenging path that will involve potentially significant expense and could also result in negative publicity.
  • In addition, a company could, in theory, choose to include its own proposal and the shareholder’s proposal in its annual meeting proxy. This, however, is a novel approach involving significant considerations (including practical and disclosure considerations).
  • Lastly, a company could adopt its own proxy access mechanism (assuming that the company’s board has the authority to amend the relevant portions of the company’s governance documents) and seek to exclude a shareholder’s proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(10) on the grounds that the Company “has already substantially implemented the proposal.”  This exception is not subject to the SEC’s current suspension of no-action relief for Rule 14a-8(i)(9) matters; however this  alternative may strike some as waiving the white flag.

Consistent with Rule 14a-8, a company seeking to exclude a shareholder proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(9) or (10) must still submit a no-action request to the SEC staff (technically, the company is required to submit to the SEC its reasons for excluding the proposal), with a copy of the request provided simultaneously to the proposing shareholder, at least 80 days before the company files its definitive proxy statement and form of proxy. A company seeking such relief should also be mindful that proposing shareholders may challenge the company’s exclusion of their proposals in federal court. Courts often give deference to SEC staff positions, including no-action letters, and, in the absence of such no-action letters for the 2015 proxy season, an institutional shareholder whose proposal is excluded from a company’s annual meeting proxy under Rule 14a-8(i)(9) may be more likely to initiate litigation to challenge the exclusion.

Boards Should Put Time and Resources into Cybersecurity Issues – It Is Good for Business and Works as a Defense Strategy

We have previously blogged about Commissioner Aguilar’s recommendations at a NYSE conference, “Cyber Risks and the Boardroom” on what boards of directors should do to ensure that their companies are appropriately considering and addressing cyber threats. On October 20, 2014, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissed a derivative lawsuit (Palkon v. Holmes, Case No. 2:14-CV-01234) filed against directors and certain officers, including General Counsel, of Wyndham Worldwide Corporation (WWC). The Court’s opinion can be viewed as a real life validation of the principles outlined in the Commissioner’s speech. Continue reading “Boards Should Put Time and Resources into Cybersecurity Issues – It Is Good for Business and Works as a Defense Strategy”