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CFTC Report: Climate Change Poses Major Risks to U.S. Financial System

Includes recommendations for action by SEC and other financial regulators

Last week, a subcommittee of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a sweeping report addressing climate change risks, concluding that they pose both major systemic and sector/regional-level risks to the stability of the U.S. financial system and its ability to sustain the American economy.  Further, it concludes that such risks are increasing rapidly, economic incentives are misdirected and immediate action across the global financial system is required.

The report is wide-ranging with a number of specific, detailed recommendations.  Its length and complexity make it impractical to summarize for this blog, but fortunately, the report does include a well-organized executive summary (beginning on page i).

Some of the report’s key points include:

  • The United States should establish a price on carbon. A fair, economy-wide carbon pricing regime is necessary to fix a fundamental market flaw in the economic system to ensure that appropriate incentives are in place for the efficient allocation of capital
  • U.S. regulators should use their broad, flexible authority to start addressing the risks now
  • Research arms of federal financial regulators should study the financial implications of climate-related risks, including the potential for and implications of climate-related “sub-systemic” shocks to financial markets and institutions in particular sectors and regions of the United States (e.g., agricultural and community banks and financial institutions serving low-to-moderate income or marginalized communities)
  • Financial regulators, in coordination with the private sector, should work together to rapidly improve the quality of data, analytics

SEC Staff Provides Roadmap for Extending Confidential Treatment Orders

The SEC staff amended CF Disclosure Guidance: Topic No. 7 on September 9, 2020 to address the options for companies with confidential treatment orders that are about to expire.  The guidance explains that companies have three choices:

  • Refile the unredacted exhibit. If the contract is still material and none of the redacted information still needs to be protected, the company should refile it in complete, unredacted form.
  • Extend the confidential period pursuant to Rules 406 or 24b-2. If the contract continues to be material, and the previously redacted information continues to be confidential, the company may request to extend the period of confidential treatment by filing an application under Rule 406 of the Securities Act of 1933 or Rule 24b-2 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
    • Short-form application for orders about to expire and initially issued less than three years ago.  If the order is about to expire and was initially issued less than three years ago, companies may use the short-form application, which provides a streamlined process to file an application to extend the time for which confidential treatment has been granted. If the company reduces the extent of omitted information, it must file the revised redacted version of the exhibit on Edgar when submitting the application.

Short-form applications should be submitted to CTExtensions@sec.gov. That email address should not be used for any other confidential treatment request.

    • New application for orders about to

SEC Staff Announces Temporary Procedures for Supplemental Materials and Rule 83 Confidential Treatment Requests

In light of health and safety concerns related to the pandemic, the SEC staff recently announced the availability of a temporary secure file transfer process for the submission of supplemental materials pursuant to Rule 418 under the Securities Act of 1933 or Rule 12b-4 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and information subject to Rule 83 confidential treatment requests (“CTRs”).

From time to time companies provide supplemental materials to the SEC staff, typically when responding to SEC comments.  Rule 418 provides broad authority to the SEC and its staff to request information concerning a company, its registration statement, the distribution of its securities and market or underwriter activities. Rule 12b-4 provides similar authority with respect to registration statements and periodic or other reports. Both rules require the SEC to return supplemental materials upon request, provided the request is made at the time they are furnished to the staff and return of the materials is consistent with the protection of investors and FOIA.  Rule 418 also requires that the materials not have been filed in electronic format.

SEC Rule 83 provides a procedure by which persons submitting information may include a CTR for portions of that information where no other confidential treatment process applies. Typically, this is utilized when companies provide responses to SEC staff comments.  Rule 83 generally requires the submission of the information covered by the CTR separately from that for which confidential treatment is not requested, appropriately marked as confidential, and accompanied by

Consider Updates to D&O Questionnaire as Pressure Mounts for Voluntary Racial, Ethnic and Gender Diversity Disclosures

As the pandemic and racial unrest continue in 2020, companies should consider whether to update their D&O questionnaires to gather information in response to the growing pressure for voluntary diversity disclosures from investors, proxy advisors, activists and others, as noted in our recent posts on August 3 and August 10.

Boards grappling with the possibility of voluntary diversity disclosures must consider how to accurately collect data.  In February 2019, the SEC issued Compliance and Disclosure Interpretation 133.13 requiring certain disclosures if a board or nominating committee considers self-identified diversity characteristics of an individual who has consented to the company’s disclosure of those characteristics.  Companies understandably were slow to address self-identification of diversity traits in D&O questionnaires, given the sensitivity of the topic.

But now, as pressures mount and some companies publicly pledge to add diverse directors to their boards within one year, the annual D&O questionnaire can be a useful way to document the issue and provide a basis for any voluntary disclosures a company may decide to make.  Given the sensitivity of the issue, companies could consider discussing the topic in advance of circulating the questionnaire in order to evaluate whether or how directors wish to proceed. To maintain collegiality, companies should make clear responses are optional, and take care to avoid any implication that particular directors were appointed because of their race, gender or other characteristics.  In lieu of a questionnaire, the board could consider addressing self-identification disclosures during a board meeting or in

SEC stays approval of NYSE rule changes allowing primary capital raises by issuers in direct listings

On August 26, 2020, pursuant to delegated authority by the Commission, the SEC’s Division of Trading and Markets approved changes to NYSE listing rules to allow companies to raise capital in connection with a direct listing on the NYSE without a firm commitment offering.   Currently, the NYSE has discretion to approve direct listings at the time of effectiveness of a company’s initial registration statement under the Securities Act of 1933 filed solely for the purpose of allowing existing shareholders to sell their shares without a firm commitment offering (a “selling shareholder direct listing”).  Under the new rules, the NYSE would be permitted to approve a direct listing by a company that sells shares itself in the opening auction on the first day of trading on the NYSE (a “primary direct listing”) in addition to, or instead of, a selling shareholder direct listing.

On August 31, 2020, the SEC notified the NYSE that the rule changes have been stayed following receipt of notice, reportedly by the Council of Institutional Investors (CII), that CII plans to submit a petition for review by the full Commission of the delegated approval by the Division of Trading and Markets.

The CII had commented on the rule proposal expressing concern about, among other things, the potential for reduced liability under technical principles under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933 due to challenges in tracing shares back to the registration statement.  The SEC staff had considered those concerns, but had noted

SEC, in Split Vote, Expands Accredited Investor Definition, Paving Way for More Investors to Access Private Capital Markets

The SEC adopted amendments on August 26, 2020 by a 3-2 vote, to expand the definition of “accredited investor,” paving the way for certain financially sophisticated institutional and individual investors to participate in private capital market offerings. The SEC release notably invited members of the public to propose to the Commission additional specific certifications, designations, degrees, or programs of study that should qualify someone to be an accredited investor.

Click here to read the Alert in full.

Divided SEC amends Regulation S-K rules to modernize descriptions of business, legal proceedings and risk factors

On August 26, 2020, by a 3-2 party-line vote, the SEC adopted amendments to Regulation S-K that aim to modernize the descriptions of business and legal proceedings, and risk factor disclosure requirements. The amendments reflect a principles-based approach in which disclosure objectives are set and management is permitted to exercise judgment on how to satisfy those objectives — tailored to the particular registrant — to the extent such information is material to an understanding of the topic.

We have prepared a client alert describing the amendments in more detail.  The following is a brief summary.

Description of Business (Items 101(a) and (c)). The amendments provide a nonexclusive list of the types of information that a company may need to disclose, based on a principles-based approach. For example, a company would describe its dependence on key products and services that are material instead of focusing on products and services that meet the quantitative thresholds based on revenue currently prescribed in Item 101(c)(1)(i).

Among other things, the revised list of disclosure topics relating to the general development of a company’s business and accompanying business description:

  • Eliminates the look-back in Item 101(a) – generally five years, or three years for smaller reporting companies — to focus on material developments of a company’s business, regardless of a specific time frame.
  • Revises and expands the list of disclosure topics in Item 101(c) with a principles-based, non-exclusive list of topics.
  • Require, to the extent material, new disclosures regarding “human capital resources,” which includes any

Q2 Reporting Trends: Few Jump on EBITDAC Bandwagon

Based on Q2 reporting to date, few companies opted to present non-GAAP financial measures using the new metric term “EBITDAC” (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, amortization – and COVID-19).  That is not surprising, given the concerns raised by credit rating agencies, the CFA Institute and U.S. creditors, among others, about the potential for EBITDAC to distort and misrepresent companies’ earnings.

Instead, many companies appeared to heed SEC advice, including CF Disclosure Guidance: Topic No. 9A, as described in our June 24, 2020 post, and CF Disclosure Guidance: Topic No. 9 as described in our April 2, 2020 post .  In addition to including discussions of COVID-19 business impacts in earnings releases, many included such discussions in MD&A in the Q2 Form 10-Q filed with the SEC.  Rather than disclosing the impact of COVID-19 as a non-GAAP financial measure, many presented traditional operating or statistical metrics while separately quantifying the effect of the pandemic, such as “Operating expenses increased 25% compared to the second quarter of 2019, 15% of which was due to COVID-19 supplies, cleaning and other incremental costs.”

While few companies used the EBITDAC label as noted above, some appeared to be using the concept without the label.  For example, some adjusted their adjusted EBITDA for COVID-19 expenses or presented gross margin without COVID-19 impacts.  Such COVID-19 adjustments may be more likely to draw SEC scrutiny during ordinary periodic filing reviews, especially when viewed in hindsight.  The staff has taken the position that “presenting a

Lawsuits challenge alleged false proxy statements about commitment to diversity

A well-known plaintiffs’ law firm recently filed derivative lawsuits against four prominent companies, alleging false proxy disclosures and breaches of fiduciary duties.  The allegations focus on the absence of Black directors and executive leadership, and in some cases other persons of color, and very few Black employees, and purported false statements about the companies’ commitment to diversity.

The allegations of proxy statement misstatements, which include breaches of the duty of candor, vary somewhat among the complaints, but generally focus on:

  • Statements touting the board’s consideration of diversity in the nominating process;
  • Statements regarding the importance of diversity and inclusion in the company’s employment practices;
  • The absence of terms limits and the failure to discuss their effect on the nomination of Blacks and minorities; and
  • The failure to consider diversity and inclusion goals in executive compensation decisions and the lack of disclosure of the company’s unlawful discriminatory hiring and pay practices.

The complaints typically cite disclosures in the corporate governance and CD&A sections of the proxy statement, but in some cases also focus on company responses to shareholder proposals that relate to diversity and employment practices.

The allegations of breaches of fiduciary duties focus on directors’ failure to oversee compliance with anti-discrimination laws, citing class action settlements and/or government investigations regarding gender or other discrimination, and failing to ensure the inclusion of diverse candidates as directors, citing board committee charters and proxy disclosures.  Some of the complaints also challenged director and/or executive compensation as excessive or unjust in light

SEC amends proxy rules to address proxy voting advisors and issues guidance for investment advisers on use of automated voting platforms

On Wednesday, the SEC adopted amendments to the proxy solicitation rules  relating to proxy voting advisors and issued new supplemental guidance relating to the proxy voting responsibilities of investment advisers when using automated voting.

We have prepared a client alert describing the amendments and guidance in more detail.  The following is a brief summary.

The proxy rule amendments effected three principal changes:

  • They codify the SEC’s previous interpretation that proxy voting advice produced by “proxy voting advice businesses” (PVABs or proxy advisory firms), such as ISS and Glass Lewis, generally constitutes a “solicitation” for purposes of Rule 14a-1(l) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
  • In order for PVABs to avoid the information and filing requirements of the proxy rules, PVABs must:
    • Disclose material conflicts of interest to their clients as well as any policies and procedures used to identify, and steps taken to address, any material conflicts.
    • Establish and publicly disclose policies and procedures reasonably designed to allow registrants that are the subject of the PVABs’ voting advice to be able to access that advice prior to or at the same time as the advice is disseminated to the advisory firms’ clients.
    • Adopt and publicly disclose policies and procedures reasonably designed to ensure the PVABs provide their clients with a mechanism by which they can reasonably be expected to become aware of any written responses by registrants to such voting advice, in a timely manner before the shareholder meeting or other action.
  • Third, the amended
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