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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

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, 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

Troubles Mount for Embattled Eastman Kodak

A proposed class action has been filed against Eastman Kodak alleging securities fraud in connection with certain events surrounding the government’s possible $765 million pharmaceutical development loan to Kodak.  The plaintiff seeks to represent a class of shareholders who may have purchased Kodak stock between July 27 – when early word of a possible government-Kodak initiative was released – and August 7 – when the company announced the formation of an independent committee of the board of directors to conduct an internal investigation of the events surrounding the possible government loan.

Between those dates, the company released a flurry of information, Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to the SEC seeking an SEC investigation, the U.S. government tweeted that the loan would be halted pending resolution of wrongdoing allegations and there was extraordinary stock activity.  During that time, Kodak stock rose as high as $60 per share, up from about $2 per share the prior week.

The troubles seem to stem from an advisory sent by Kodak to media outlets in Rochester, New York, Kodak’s hometown, on Monday, July 27.  According to media reports, local reporters tweeted information on July 27 about an initiative between Kodak and the U.S. government in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  Those were followed by posted news stories on the websites of the local ABC and CBS affiliates.  Some of those tweets and stories were deleted when Kodak reached out to advise them that the advisory information was only for “background” and not publication. 

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

ISS opens 2021 Annual Policy Survey, following call to voluntarily disclose ethnicity of directors, officers

Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) opened its 2021 Annual Policy Survey on July 29, 2020, to seek input from institutional investors, public companies, directors and others to begin development of ISS’ annual benchmark policies and assess potential policy changes for 2021 and beyond.  The survey will close on August 21, 2020, at 5 p.m. ET.

This year’s survey includes questions related to recently released ISS policy guidance on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including annual general meeting formats and stakeholder expectations regarding compensation and adjustments to incentives.  The survey also requests feedback on a global level related to climate change risk, sustainable development goals, auditors and audit committees, and racial and ethnic diversity on corporate boards. As in prior years, after analysis and consideration of the survey responses, among other inputs, ISS will open a public comment period in October for all interested market participants on the proposed changes to 2021 benchmark voting policies.

Earlier this month, ISS sent letters to multiple public companies asking them to voluntarily disclose “information on the self-identified race/ethnicity of each of the company’s directors and named executive officers (NEOs), to the extent that the company and the individual directors or NEOs are willing to provide this.”  The letter allows each director or officer to disclose up to three classifications from multiple categories, largely drawn from the OMB Standards for the Classification of Race and Ethnicity. Individuals may also provide supplemental information in free-text fields.

The letter states the request is driven by the

Repeating COVID-19 Risk Factor Updates in Your Second (and Third) Quarter 10-Qs

As previously noted, the SEC issued supplemental disclosure guidance near the end of the second quarter which, among other things, set forth dozens of questions for companies to consider as they assess and disclose the evolving impact of COVID-19 on their operations, liquidity and capital resources.

Many public companies with a December 31 fiscal year end included updated risk factors in their first quarter 10-Q filings, reflecting the uncertainties and adjusted risk profile in light of COVID-19.  Disclosure practices varied, with some companies including a small number of risk factors (or even a single risk factor) that updated previously disclosed risks in a global manner.  Other companies updated a small subset or suite of risk factors affected by COVID-19, and some may have updated all of their risk factor disclosure from the previous Form 10-K.

As companies assess their risk factor disclosure for the second (and third) quarters, it is important to consider that Item 1A of Part II of Form 10-Q requires disclosure of “any material changes from risk factors as previously disclosed in the registrant’s Form 10-K in response to Item 1A to Part 1 of Form 10-K.”  In other words, as a technical matter, companies don’t get the benefit in later quarters of relying on updates in previous 10-Q filings in the same fiscal year.  (Compare this requirement with, for example, the instruction to Part II, Item 1 as to Legal Proceedings, where disclosure in subsequent Form 10-Q filings in the same fiscal year are

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