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Key themes emerge from SEC Investor Roundtable

On June 30, 2020, Jay Clayton, SEC chair, and Bill Hinman, Director of Corporation Finance, hosted an investor roundtable seeking input from investors on how to improve disclosures during this period of COVID-19.  The participants included Gary Cohn, Former Director of the National Economic Council; Glenn Hutchins, Chairman of North Island; Tracy Maitland, President and CIO of Advent Capital; and Barbara Novick, Vice Chairman and Co-Founder of BlackRock.

The discussion was wide-ranging, but several themes emerged:

  • While swift government action from the Federal Reserve and the CARES Act appears to have helped stabilize the economy and markets, investors expressed concern that the macro-economic picture remains very uncertain, particularly as certain government programs expire.
  • Investors want to see greater transparency as to how the company expects to perform in the near term, including with respect to such matters as cash flow, working capital and covenant compliance as well as key assumptions. For example, is the company’s ability to restore production dependent on schools reopening so that parents can return to work?  Or does the company’s supply chain depend on European travel being restored?
  • Glenn Hutchins noted that fewer than 10% of the S&P 500 have maintained earnings guidance. As a result, investors seek greater insight into the range of potential outcomes and the ability of companies to manage through different scenarios as well as a greater understanding if companies have “tools for adaptability” and an ability to adjust to changes in an uncertain environment. He cited the joint statement

U.S. Companies Assess Ripple Impact of COVID-19 on their Business and Incentive Plan Metrics

As we near the end of second quarter 2020, companies are evaluating the ripple effect COVID-19 has had and will likely continue to have on their businesses as a result of worker layoffs, shelter-in-place orders, employee health and safety matters, supply chain and counterparty risk issues and decreased product demand, among other things.

One key area of focus for many companies and compensation committees will be assessing the impact of COVID-19 on incentive plan performance award targets, many of which were set in February before the pandemic hit the United States and may now be unattainable. Most companies will want to keep their executive and management teams striving for potentially new and adjusted goals that the new environment requires. How to go about reflecting and rewarding key employees for performance around these changes becomes challenging when awards for the performance period have already been granted.

Some companies have viewed their performance awards as long-term in nature and have maintained existing performance targets in spite of changed circumstances. Others see a need for changes. The approaches will depend on each company’s particular compensation philosophy and structure, the amounts and types of awards that have been granted, the extent and manner in which the business and existing targets have been affected, and other motivating criteria at issue.

On approach that companies have considered in connection with their annual awards is to adjust the performance targets based on currently available information so as to reflect changing expectations. This approach is relatively straightforward. A

Frustrations Emerge Over Lack of Clear ESG Disclosure Standards Among Patchwork of Providers

Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be sharpening some investors’ focus on ESG (Environmental, Social or Governance) matters, as evidenced by the SEC Investor Advisory Committee’s recent recommendation that the SEC mandate disclosure of “material, decision-useful, ESG factors” as relevant to each company.

The desire for more clarity around ESG disclosure is understandable.  More than a dozen non-profit and for-profit ESG data providers have emerged in this complex, booming market, according to a May 28, 2020 webinar of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and the Society for Corporate Governance.  The data providers generally fall into four distinct groups:  (1) providers who publish guidance for voluntary ESG disclosure, often with company feedback; (2) providers who request data from companies using questionnaires and then based on the answers issue reports or ESG ratings; (3) providers who compile publicly available ESG data about companies and issue ESG ratings based only on that publicly available information; and (4) providers who create assessments of companies based on public and/or private information to sell to investors.

Under the current patchwork, a public company can be the subject of an ESG assessment without knowledge that it occurred or an opportunity to give input or correct misperceptions, particularly in situations where the company has very limited ESG disclosures because ESG issues were not deemed material and not required to be disclosed under SEC rules.  For public companies trying to navigate the maze of ESG issues and disclosures, frustration can easily emerge.  The different ESG assessment

New PPP Loan Forgiveness and Loan Review Interim Final Rules: SBA May Review Any PPP Loan, Regardless of Size, Concerning Forgiveness, Use of Proceeds and Eligibility

The SBA released a set of interim final rules to provide additional guidance and clarity to borrowers and lenders both for loan forgiveness and for SBA loan review procedures under the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”).  The loan forgiveness interim final rule supplements the guidance provided by the actual PPP loan forgiveness application previously published by the SBA, providing timing information and allocating responsibilities as between the lender and the borrower.  The SBA loan review procedures interim final rule sheds little additional light on what borrowers should expect, but does provide additional guidance for lenders with respect to their role in the review process.

With respect to the SBA review process, the interim final rule makes clear that the SBA may choose to review any PPP loan, regardless of size, concerning not only forgiveness amounts and use of proceeds, but also eligibility in the first instance.  The SBA previously announced a safe harbor of sorts for any borrower of less than $2 million regarding the “necessity” certification.  The SBA included in its Frequently Asked Questions FAQ #46 that “[a]ny borrower that, together with its affiliates, received PPP loans with an original principal amount of less than $2 million will be deemed to have made the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request in good faith.”  No mention was made of this safe harbor, or the related statement in FAQ #46 that if a borrower repays a PPP loan after a determination by the SBA that

SBA Releases PPP Loan Forgiveness Application – Still Awaiting Promised Guidance and Regulations

The SBA and Treasury published the much anticipated PPP loan forgiveness application late last Friday evening.  The application itself provides more guidance than contained in the existing FAQs and regulations relating to use of PPP loan proceeds and eligibility for forgiveness and includes new certifications.  Absent from the form is any requirement to address the necessity of the loan or to report revenue levels, profitability or other evidence of the impact of the economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its press release announcing release of the form, Treasury and the SBA stated that the form and its instructions reflected measures designed to reduce compliance burdens and simplify the process for borrowers.  Those measures relate primarily to calculation of payroll costs and step-by-step instructions to calculate eligibility for loan forgiveness.  In addition, the form provides that eligible non-payroll costs (so long as not in excess of 25% of the total forgiveness amount) can include payments of interest on any business mortgage obligation (real or personal property) incurred before February 15, 2020; business rent or lease payments on leases in effect prior to February 15, 2020; and covered utility payments so long as for services that began before February 15, 2020.  For a more thorough discussion of the guidance provided by the application form, see our analysis here.

Interestingly, if the borrower and its affiliates received PPP loans in excess of $2 million, the borrower must “check the box”.  We assume this is to flag those

Temporary SEC rules ease Regulation Crowdfunding to address urgent COVID-19 capital needs

The Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) recently adopted temporary final rules to Regulation Crowdfunding to address companies’ urgent COVID-19 capital needs.  The temporary rules provide tailored, conditional relief to established smaller companies from certain Regulation Crowdfunding requirements relating to the timing of the offering and the availability of financial statements required to be included in issuers’ offering materials.  For example, the temporary rules provide an exemption from certain financial statement review requirements for issuers offering $250,000 or less in securities in reliance on Regulation Crowdfunding within a 12-month period.

The SEC included the following table summarizing the existing Regulation Crowdfunding and changes resulting from the temporary rules:

  Regulation Crowdfunding Temporary Rule Amendments Eligibility The offering exemption is not available to:

·       Non-U.S. issuers;

·       Issuers that are required to file reports under Section 13(a) or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934;

·       Investment companies;

·       Blank check companies;

·       Issuers that are disqualified under Regulation Crowdfunding’s

disqualification rules;

·       Issuers that have failed to

file the annual reports

required under Regulation Crowdfunding during the

two years immediately

preceding the filing of the offering statement In addition to the existing eligibility criteria, issuers wishing to rely on the temporary rule amendments must also meeting the following criteria:

·       The issuer cannot have been organized and cannot have been operating less than six  months prior to the

commencement of the offering; and

·       An issuer that has sold

securities in a Regulation

Crowdfunding offering in the past,

Virtual annual meeting glitches impact shareholder participation

Because of the rapid shift from in-person to virtual annual meetings mandated by COVID-19 health and safety concerns, many companies held first-time virtual-only meetings, with both management and shareholders exploring the process in real time.  Not surprising, reports of virtual meeting glitches soon began to emerge.

Twenty minutes into the virtual-only annual meeting of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, shareholder John Chevedden was presenting his shareholder proposal (to allow shareholders to vote on bylaw and charter amendments) when the microphone cut out.  Chevedden filed a shareholder alert with the SEC requesting that the polls be reopened so Goodyear shareholders can vote based on the full text of his proposal presentation.  So far, no word from Goodyear on Chevedden’s allegation that management cut off the microphone.

Earlier this week, the Council of Institutional Investors (CII) sent to a letter to the SEC Investor Advisory Committee expressing concern about some virtual-only annual meetings early in the 2020 proxy season, citing anecdotal reports of problems including:

  • Shareholders struggling to log into meetings, in part due to control number snafus;
  • Inability to ask questions in some cases if the shareholder voted in advance by proxy;
  • Shareholders unable to ask questions during the meeting;
  • Possible cherry-picking of questions asked by shareholders and lack of transparency on questions asked by shareholders; and
  • Confusion on channels for shareholder participation, with shareholder proposal proponents required to use a different line than that used for general shareholders.

The CII urged public companies to mitigate the

U.S. Board oversight of “culture shock” as employees return to radically different workplaces

As states slowly move to reopen their economies, many returning employees will be shocked by the radical changes in their workplaces.  Collaborative spaces, ping pong tables and community break rooms, among other areas, will be transformed or closed for social distancing.  Employers will monitor and collect employee health information as never before.  Some employers already have announced they are exploring contact tracing and testing apps and wearable wristbands to alert employees if they are within six feet of each other or have come into close proximity with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Directors will play a crucial role in overseeing these pandemic-related corporate culture and privacy challenges, far beyond typical oversight of operations and finance.  Directors have duties of care and loyalty to make well-informed decisions and act in the best interest of company stockholders.  To fulfill those duties and protect themselves under the business judgement rule, directors should require management to provide appropriate and timely reports  so they can monitor and consider up-to-date information in order to provide strategic direction and oversight in the rapidly-changing COVID-19 environment.

While there is always tension and management sensitivity about possible board over-reach into day-to-day operations, management and directors may need to work together more closely than in the past so that directors are fully informed in order to monitor management’s real-time decisions to re-open while fulfilling their oversight duties.

Conflicts in workplace protocols are likely, as management and directors grapple to balance risks and uncertainties with employee and customer privacy

Updating U.S. Form 10-Q Risk Factors During the COVID-19 Pandemic – New Risks and Risks That Aren’t Just Hypothetical Anymore

As more companies prepare to file Form 10-Qs, they should give special attention to risk factors – particularly to consider whether new risks have emerged or hypothetical ones have become real.  The Form calls for disclosure of any material changes from risk factors included in the last 10-K.  However, the COVID-19 pandemic presents unique challenges to responding to other requirements as well, such as instructions to address “known trends and uncertainties” in MD&A or to provide “such further information . . . as may be necessary to make the required statements, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made not misleading” in Rule 12b-20.  Careful consideration of risk factors can help complete the picture for investors. Although companies need only disclose what is known or reasonably available, it can be challenging to comfortably determine what elements of the current state of affairs will, with hindsight, be viewed as both “known” and material to investors.

In order to prepare their disclosures, companies should

  • utilize appropriate disclosure controls and procedures, and seek input from relevant constituencies, including operating units, HR, IT, the law department and finance, to determine the scope and depth of impacts
  • if a designated individual or team is addressing the company’s COVID-response, be sure they are included
  • review each of the 10-K risk factors to evaluate which ones might need to be updated or supplemented or whether new ones should be added
  • confer with IR and senior management to assess the state of existing knowledge

SEC Approves Additional NYSE Continued Listing Compliance Relief

— New NYSE Relief Proposal Tracks SEC-Approved Nasdaq Temporary Rule

The SEC approved yet another temporary measure related to the continued listing rules of the New York Stock Exchange on April 21, 2020.  This time, the NYSE sought and received immediate effectiveness of a proposed rule change to assist listed companies who may fall out of compliance with the $50 million market capitalization and $1.00 price continued listing requirements by providing a tolling period through June 30, 2020.  The NYSE originally sought SEC approval to suspend these requirements until June 30, 2020, citing the unprecedented market declines resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but the proposal was rejected.

Companies that fail to maintain either of these NYSE continued listing standards are typically notified by the Exchange of their noncompliance and then must promptly issue a press release and file any required Form 8-K.  Listed companies have up to 18 months to regain compliance with the $50 million market capitalization requirement and up to 6 months to regain compliance with the $1.00 trading price standard under the existing rules.   Under the temporary rule, the Exchange will continue to notify listed companies of any noncompliance, companies will still be required to issue a press release and file the required Form 8-K, but the cure periods will be tolled until June 30, 2020, meaning that the 18-month or 6-month cure period will be calculated as beginning on July 1, 2020.

The Exchange still intends to attach a “.BC” indicator to those noncompliant

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