How should companies evaluate whether there is a conflict of interest related to the compensation consultant’s work?

Tomorrow, on July 27, 2012, a new Regulation S-K, Item 407(e)(3)(iv), disclosure requirement focusing on the conflicts of interest of compensation consultants will become effective.  Item 407(e)(3)(iv) disclosure should be addressed in any proxy or information statement for a meeting of shareholders at which directors will be elected occurring on or after January 1, 2013.

Pursuant to the new requirement, public companies will have to disclose the nature of the conflict of interest, if any, related to the compensation consultant’s work on executive and director compensation and how the conflict of interest is being addressed.  To comply with this requirement, one of the threshold questions that a public company should ask is whether there is a conflict of interest.

In order to evaluate whether such conflict of interest exists, public companies should act now to establish controls and procedures for obtaining conflict of interest information. For example, the company should:

1. Establish internal procedures and processes to track:

(i)  all services provided to the company by the compensation consultant and the entity that employs the consultant starting from the last completed fiscal year; and

(ii) the amount of fees paid by the company to the entity that employs the compensation consultant.

2. Request from the compensation consultant, or from the entity that employs the consultant, the following information:

(i) the percentage that the amount of fees received from the company by the entity that employs the compensation consultant represents to the total revenue of such entit; and 

(ii) direct or indirect ownership of the company’s stock by the compensation consultant, and

(iii) policies and procedures of the entity that employs the compensation consultant that are designed to prevent conflicts of interest.

3. Add the following question to the company’s Directors’ and Officers’ Questionnaire:

Do you have a business or personal relationship with the compensation consultant or the entity employing the compensation consultant?   ___ Yes  ___ No         

If “yes,” please describe:

                                                                                                          

                                                                                                          

 

Lessons From a Recent SEC Enforcement Matter

On July 18, 2012, the SEC announced that it entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Amish Helping Fund (AHF).  AHF was formed in 1995 by a group of Amish elders interested in furthering the Amish way of life.  AHF offered and sold securities, the proceeds of which were used to fund mortgage and construction loans to young Amish families in Ohio.  The SEC asserted that AHF’s offering memorandum, drafted in 1995, was not updated for 15 years and contained material misrepresentations about the fund and the securities being offered.  When the SEC informed AHF of the alleged violations, AHF immediately cooperated, updated its offering memorandum and provided existing investors with a corrected copy of the updated  memorandum, offered all existing investors the right of rescission, and retained a certified public accountant to perform ongoing audits, among other things.  In its press release, the SEC emphasized that the SEC acknowledged and rewarded AHF’s cooperation.

What lessons can we learn from this enforcement matter?  First, that the securities laws apply without regard to the underlying reasons you are seeking to raise money.  Even when raising money for a “good cause”, such as helping young Amish families, when selling securities, compliance with applicable securities laws is still critical.  Second, offering materials must be reviewed and updated on a regular basis to reflect changes.  A company may not simply prepare a disclosure document, and then keep reusing the disclosure document from year to year without reviewing and updating it.  Updating is critical to providing accurate and complete information to investors.

What has changed in compensation committee requirements and disclosures after the issuance of the new SEC release last week? What should we do now?

Due to the SEC’s adoption of a new Rule 10C-1, Listing Standards Relating to Compensation Committees, we are one step closer to having the mandate of Section 952 of the Dodd-Frank Act fully implemented and to securities exchanges adopting listing standards relating to the independence of the compensation committee members, the committee’s authority to retain compensation advisers, and the committee’s responsibility for the appointment, compensation and oversight of the work of a compensation adviser. Each national securities exchange must provide to the SEC proposed rules that comply with Rule 10C-1 no later than September 25, 2012 and must have final rules that comply with Rule 10C-1 no later than June 27, 2013.

Public companies will also have to comply with a new disclosure requirement related to the conflicts of interest of compensation consultants in any proxy statement for a meeting of shareholders at which directors will be elected occurring on or after January 1, 2013.  Pursuant to this new requirement under Item 407(e)(3)(iv) of Regulation S-K,  public companies will have to disclose the nature of the conflict of interest, if any, related to the compensation consultant’s work on executive and director compensation and how the conflict is being addressed. 

In addition to monitoring the rulemaking of national securities exchanges related to the implementation of Rule 10C-1 directives, public companies should consider taking the following actions in connection with the required analysis of the conflicts of interest related to the work of a compensation consultant:

  • establish procedures for obtaining information about (i) all services provided to the company by the compensation consultant and the entity that employs the consultant during the last completed fiscal year, (ii) the amount of fees received from the company by the entity that employs the compensation consultant as a percentage of the total revenue of such entity, and (iii) any stock of the company owned by the compensation consultant;
  • request and review the policies and procedures of the entity that employs the compensation consultant that are designed to prevent conflicts of interest; and
  • update directors’ and officers’ questionnaires to include questions related to the business or personal relationships of (i) the compensation consultant with a member of the compensation committee; and (ii) the compensation consultant, or the entity employing the compensation consultant, with an executive officer of the company.

SEC Updates Procedures for Non-Public Submission of Registration Statements by Foreign Private Issuers

On May 30th, the SEC updated its procedures for foreign private issuers wishing to make non-public submission to the SEC of draft registration statements for review by the SEC.  Prior to the enactment of the JOBS Act, domestic issuers filing initial registration statements with the SEC were required to file publicly through the EDGAR system.  Under certain limited circumstances, however, foreign private issuers had the option of submitting to the SEC registration statements and amendments on a non-public basis for SEC review in connection with their first-time registration of securities with the SEC.   

Pursuant to Section 106(a) of the JOBS Act, any emerging growth company (EGC), in connection with its initial public offering, may submit to the SEC a draft registration statement for confidential, non-public review.  Section 106(a) of the JOBS Act also requires that the EGC file publicly the initial confidential submission and all amendments at least 21 days prior to the date the company starts its road show.  In addition, SEC policy requires EGCs to submit on EDGAR all company responses to SEC comment letters on confidential draft registration statements at the time the EGC first files its registration statement publicly on EDGAR.  The SEC will then publicly release its comment letters and company responses no earlier than 20 business days following the effective date of the registration statement, which is the same time frame the SEC uses for non-confidential filings.

Pursuant to the updated procedures, the process for non-public submission of initial registration statements by foreign private issuers that are not EGCs now tracks the process applicable to EGCs.  When a foreign private issuer utilizing the SEC’s non-public submission policy first publicly files its registration statement, it is also required to file publicly all previously submitted draft registration statements and to resubmit all previously submitted responses to SEC comment letters.  Thereafter, the SEC will publicly release its comment letters and company responses in accordance with its policy described above.  A foreign private issuer that both qualifies as an EGC and meets the SEC’s requirements for non-public submission of registration statements by foreign private issuers can elect to submit its initial draft registration statement confidentially to the SEC as an EGC or non-publicly as a foreign private issuer.  The new filing and submission requirements set forth in the SEC’s May 30th update apply to foreign private issuers seeking non-public review (as opposed to confidential review as an EGC) only where the initial draft registration statement was submitted after May 30, 2012.

JOBS Act – What People Are Talking About

The JOBS Act continues to be a hot topic.  Yesterday, the Practicing Law Institute presented its continuing legal education seminar on the JOBS Act.  Some discussion highlights from the seminar include:

  • Under Section 105(c) of the JOBS Act, an issuer that qualifies as an emerging growth company can engage in oral or written communications, prior to or after filing the registration statement with the SEC, with qualified institutional buyers and institutional accredited investors to determine whether they might have an interest in a contemplated securities offering, also known as “testing the waters.”   The panel discussed the SEC’s recent requests, in connection with reviews of issuers’ registration statements, that the issuers provided on a supplemental basis any written materials used by issuers in connection with such testing the waters.  It appears that the SEC is requesting these materials to determine if the materials are consistent with the issuer’s registration statement.  The fact that the SEC is requesting copies of such materials, combined with the general reluctance on the part of issuers and investment bankers to engage in testing the waters process due to liability concerns, probably means that most issuers and investment bankers will not be using written materials to test the waters, at least in the near term. 
  • The SEC is asking emerging growth companies to indicate on the cover of their registration statements that they are an emerging growth company and to include in the registration statement disclosure regarding how and when emerging growth company status may be lost, the various exemptions available to the issuer as an emerging growth company, such as exemptions from Section 404(b) of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and the issuer’s election under Section 107(b) of the JOBS Act.  Unless an issuer that is an emerging growth company opts out, under Section 107(b) of the JOBS Act, the issuer will be subject to any new or revised financial accounting standards on the effective dates applicable to private companies, rather than the effective dates applicable to public companies.  Historically, the effective dates for private companies have been later than the effective dates for public companies.  If the emerging growth company elects to opt out of the extended transition period, the SEC requests the issuer to state that such election is irrevocable.  If the emerging growth company chooses to be subject to the later effective dates for new or revised financial accounting standards, the SEC is requesting issuers to include a risk factor (as well as disclosure in the critical accounting policies section of the MD&A) explaining that the issuer’s financial statements may not be comparable to companies that comply with the public company effective dates.  There are at least a few SEC comments letters publicly available requesting this information.
  • Under the JOBS Act, once SEC rules are in place, general solicitation or advertising will be permitted in connection with Rule 506 offerings so long as the issuer sells securities only to accredited investors.  Interestingly, the definition of the term “accredited investor” provides that an accredited investor is not only someone that is actually an accredited investor, but also someone the issuer “reasonably believes” is an accredited investor.  The general consensus was that the SEC will likely not seek to change the definition of “accredited investor,” but will seek to provide for fairly stringent steps issuers will have to take in order to satisfy the JOBS Act requirement that an issuer take “reasonable steps to verify” accredited investor status in connection with Rule 506 offerings that use general solicitation or advertising.   
 

Social Media and Regulation FD

Given the role that social media is playing in our lives now, would a tweet or a message posted on LinkedIn or Facebook qualify as “public disclosure” under Regulation FD? 

Regulation FD states that dissemination of information through a method (or combination of methods) of disclosure that is “reasonably designed to provide broad, non-exclusionary distribution of the information to the public” would qualify as public disclosure of previously conveyed material nonpublic information regarding the company.

To follow the SEC’s logic described in its 2008 interpretative release regarding the use of company web sites, it seems that company tweets or LinkedIn/Facebook disclosure would qualify as broad and non-exclusionary distribution of information only if: (i) a company’s presence on these social media web sites is viewed as a recognized channel of distribution for information about the company, its business, financial condition and operations, and (ii) disclosure of information through social media tools disseminates the information in a manner making it available to the securities marketplace in general.  It remains to be seen whether social media web sites will become an appropriate FD disclosure vehicle.   

 

SEC Issues Additional FAQs on JOBS Act

The SEC today issued additional Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act) frequently asked questions (FAQs 18-41).  These FAQs address questions relating to emerging growth company status,  treatment of comment letters on confidential submissions of draft registration statements and issuer responses to such comment letters, financial accounting standards and restatement of financial statements, foreign private issuers’ compliance with the JOBS Act, and disclosures required in registration statements and periodic reports filed by emerging growth companies.  The new FAQs represent helpful additional guidance for emerging growth companies considering whether to take advantage of “IPO on Ramp” provisions of the JOBS Act.

 

Don’t Forget About Your FCPA Risk Factor

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is back in the news.  The Securities and Exchange Commission has a specialized unit established to enhance the SEC’s enforcement of the FCPA, and the SEC reports that it has brought more than 30 FCPA enforcement actions since the start of 2010.  Moreover, as my colleagues Shawn M. Wright and James R. Billings-Kang recently wrote in The National Law Journal, the United States Department of Justice has over 150 open FCPA investigations and together the SEC and the DOJ netted approximately $1.8 billion in fines, penalties and disgorgement of profits in 2010 alone for FCPA violations. 

Generally, the FCPA covers, among others, any company with securities registered under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and any company that is required to file reports under the Exchange Act or has its principal place of business in the United States.  The anti-bribery provisions of the FCPA prohibit corrupt payments to foreign officials for the purpose of procuring or maintaining business.  The FCPA is extremely broad in its scope and determining exactly what is prohibited by the FCPA can be very difficult.  Because the FCPA makes illegal many payments that individuals working in countries other than the United States may consider ordinary or customary, it can be particularly difficult to put a stop to the sorts of payments that may be covered by the FCPA, even where a company has a robust training and compliance program. 

If your company has significant operations outside the United States, especially where those operations are in countries where unofficial payments or gifts are a regular part of the business culture, a risk factor about your company’s FCPA exposure is likely to be warranted.    

 

SEC Issued Guidance on MD&A and Accounting Policy Disclosures of Smaller Financial Institutions

On April 20, 2012, the SEC issued CF Disclosure Guidance: Topic No. 5, providing examples of comments it may issue to smaller financial institutions on Management’s Discussion and Analysis and accounting policy disclosures related to asset quality and loan accounting issues (for example, allowance for loan losses, charge-off and nonaccrual policies, commercial real estate loans, loans measured for impairment based on collateral value, credit risk concentrations, troubled debt restructurings and modifications, and other real estate owned).  In addition, the SEC provided examples of comments that may be issued to companies that acquired material assets in FDIC – Assisted Transactions.  This guidance is very timely for the current 10-Q season.

SEC Starts Posting Its Orders Revoking Exchange Act Registration and Stop Orders on EDGAR

Today, the SEC will begin to republish through the EDGAR system its orders revoking a company’s Exchange Act registration pursuant to Exchange Act Section 12(j) and SEC stop orders pursuant to Securities Act Section 8.  Currently, these orders are posted on the SEC web site, but they are not part of the EDGAR database.  The SEC will begin republishing most recently issued orders first going back to orders issued in 2004, and it will be publishing new orders as they are issued. The order revoking Exchange Act registration will appear as the document type “REVOKED,” and stop orders will appear as the document type “STOP ORDER,” in the company’s filing history. In addition, when the SEC republishes its order revoking Exchange Act registration on EDGAR, it will modify the company information at the top of a company’s EDGAR search results to include the phrase “This company’s Exchange Act registration has been revoked.”  As a result of this change, information about the status of the company’s Exchange Act registration or existence of stop orders suspending the effectiveness of a registration statement will be much more transparent and easier to search.