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US Securities and Corporate Governance

COVID-19

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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

80% of U.S. S&P 500 Companies Fail to Provide Guidance in Last Three Months

As U.S. public companies prepare to kick off the Q2 2020 financial reporting season, a clear trend is emerging, with 80% of S&P 500 companies refusing to provide earnings guidance during the last three months, according to a recent Bloomberg article.  That translates to more than 400 companies who failed to provide guidance to investors, with nearly all stating that they lack visibility because of COVID-19, based on a recent Seeking Alpha report.

For those companies that have issued guidance, Factset.com recently reported that during Q2 2020, 27 S&P 500 companies issued negative EPS guidance and 22 S&P 500 companies issued positive EPS guidance. Only 49 S&P 500 companies issued EPS guidance for Q2, which was well below the 5-year average of 106 for a quarter.

While the numbers and percentages reported above differ slightly, the trend toward withholding guidance is clear and understandable in the current environment.  The health and economic effects of COVID-19 remain uncertain and depend on the duration of the crisis.  Absent a vaccine for the virus, companies – particularly those in the consumer discretionary sector – grapple with how to profitably run a business where social distancing and avoidance of large crowds are the new norms.

On the other hand, the conservative position of failing to provide guidance seems at odds with investors’ desire for greater transparency and more insight into the range of potential outcomes and the ability of companies to manage through different scenarios during this period of pandemic and

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

SEC extends temporary COVID-19 relief for some submissions

June 30, 2020

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In light of health, transportation and logistical issues raised by COVID-19, the SEC staff recently extended previously announced relief for several types of submissions.

  • Form 144 paper filings and certain forms (other than 144s) that are permitted to be filed in paper (such as annual or other reports by foreign private issuers on Form 6-K, Form 11-K and certain other specified forms) may be submitted via email in lieu of mailing or physical delivery if the complete Form 144 or other document is attached as a PDF sent to PaperForms144@sec.gov or CorporationFinancePaperForms@SEC.gov, respectively.
    • If a manual signature cannot be provided with the email, the SEC staff has announced that it will not recommend enforcement action if a typed signature is included instead and: (i) a manually signed page or other document acknowledging or otherwise adopting his or her signature in the filing is retained by the signatory and is provided upon request by the SEC staff; (ii) the signature page indicates the date and time when signed; and (iii) appropriate policies and procedures are established relating to this process.
    • Filers may continue to submit these documents to the SEC mailroom but there may be delays in processing.
  • The signature requirement for Edgar filings may create challenges for public companies and other filers to have such filings executed before the time of the electronic filing due to circumstances arising from COVID-19. While the SEC staff expects filers to comply with requirements to

COVID-19 Business Risk Management: Addressing Supply Chain Risks

As public companies continue to manage vulnerabilities attendant to the global pandemic and its widespread economic consequences, counter-party risk assessments and careful management of those risks can be critical.  We previously blogged about a series of ongoing posts from our restructuring and special situations team relating to general and customer counter-party risk management during this time.  Most recently, the team provided its assessment of managing supply chain risks.

Our special situations team explores the need for vigilance with respect to the health and resilience of a company’s supply chain, especially for critical suppliers and those for which replacements are limited or nonexistent.  The team discusses some of the insolvency law issues attendant to suppliers and supply agreements; it also provides several risk mitigation strategies to help ensure continuity of supply and reasonableness of ongoing counter-party terms and conditions.  The team recommends companies engage in a fulsome assessment of all suppliers; consider supply chain diversification; and establish contingency plans for any suppliers who seem at risk.   The importance of knowing a company’s leverage and using it appropriately is discussed, as are practical issues pertaining to supplier possession of a company’s inventory or equipment.

While a company cannot control all of what is happening to its customers and suppliers, it can be fully cognizant of its counter-party risk assessments and implement strategies where appropriate to mitigate those risks.  When it comes time to report results for the quarter and the year, companies who have taken the time to take

SEC Issues More COVID-19 Disclosure Guidance as Quarter End Approaches

On June 23, 2019, both the Division of Corporation Finance and the Office of the Chief Accountant issued additional statements to public companies and their stakeholders about the importance of “high-quality” financial reporting and the need for focused analysis and disclosures in the context of the principles-based disclosure system.

The Division of Corporation Finance issued CF Disclosure Guidance Topic No. 9A, a supplement to Topic No. 9 issued near the close of the first quarter of this year (see our prior blog post on Topic No. 9 here).  The new guidance states that the Division is monitoring how companies are addressing COVID-19 related disclosures and encourages public companies to provide meaningful disclosures of the current and expected impact of COVID-19 through the eyes of management.  The key topics covered by the guidance are the effects of the pandemic on a company’s operations, liquidity and capital resources; the short and long-term impact of any federal relief received under the CARES Act; and the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.

The staff acknowledges that companies are making many operational changes as a result of the pandemic – from converting to telework to modifying supply chain and customer contracts, and now converting to the return to the workplace and business reopenings.  The guidance says that companies need to consider whether any or all of those changes “would be material to an investment or voting decision” and disclose accordingly.  The staff takes a similar tack with respect to the

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

Emergency Bylaws – Considerations in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

June 15, 2020

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Among the many previously hypothetical concerns for companies that became actualized, or threatened to become actualized, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was the prospect of multiple members of the board or senior management becoming incapacitated due to serious illness.

With an average age of S&P 500 directors hovering around 63 according to recent surveys, many public company directors fall within the higher risk age ranges for more severe COVID-19 complications. This heightens the concern that the board and/or its committees may not be able to comply with, among other things, the quorum requirements in the company’s bylaws or pursue action by unanimous written consent due to sustained periods where multiple directors are incapacitated.

Emergency Bylaws as Potential Remedy:

One potential way to address this concern is through the adoption of so-called “emergency bylaw” provisions.  State law will, of course, govern whether and what types of emergency bylaw provisions may be available.  Based on a recent review of S&P 500 company filings, approximately 22% of such companies have adopted emergency bylaw provisions in some form, and approximately 1% have adopted specific emergency bylaw provisions in the last 120 days, presumably in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Delaware law, specifically Section 110 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (the “DGCL”), allows for such emergency-related bylaw provisions. Section 110(a) of the DGCL has a distinct Cold War flavor, appropriate to the time it was adopted.  It provides that the board may adopt emergency bylaws, subject to repeal or change by

COVID-19 Business Risk Management: Addressing Counter-Party Risk

June 11, 2020

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As public companies continue to manage vulnerabilities attendant to the global pandemic and its widespread economic consequences, counter-party risk assessments and careful management of those risks can be critical.  In a series of ongoing posts to our Retail Law blog, our restructuring and special situations team provides a useful paradigm for analysis and action.  The points made in this series are equally applicable to companies in many other industries.

Our special situations team discusses the importance of getting the finance and legal functions of the business on the same page as the sourcing and sales functions.  As they point out, to be effective with mitigation, all parts of the business need to quickly align in terms of identifying the level of risk each counterparty poses to the business (and how that counterparty’s inability to pay or deliver goods/services will impact the overall business).  In doing so, companies will be better able to allocate scarce resources to counterparties that pose the greatest degree of near-term risk while carefully watching future performance through the same filtered lens.  To help think about the analysis, the team has created a Heat Grid for Triaging Counter-Party Risk that can serve as a one-page resource.

Companies should look both at their customers and their suppliers in assessing risk and addressing mitigation measures.  The point is to be intentional about better assessing particular customer or supplier risk, putting processes in place

U.S. – Significant Increase in Complaints Brings Potential for Increased SEC Whistleblowing Activity

Among the myriad quarantine pursuits undertaken by the work-from-home crowd, whistleblowing appears to be proving popular. Recent reports indicate that the SEC received more than 4,000 Tips, Complaints, and Referrals (“TCRs”) regarding possible corporate malfeasance between mid-March and mid-May.  As noted by Division of Enforcement Co-Director Steve Peikin in a recent speech, that represents an approximate 35% increase over the same period last year.  This surge in TCRs has resulted in the SEC initiating hundreds of new investigations of alleged misconduct in the contexts both of COVID-19 and many other traditional areas.  After already facing challenges from the coronavirus pandemic, many employers may be surprised by this new COVID-19 side-effect.

Under the SEC’s Whistleblower Program, individuals who report TCRs containing high-quality original information that results in financial relief exceeding $1 million may be eligible for monetary awards ranging from 10% to 30% of that relief.  Since the Program’s inception, tips have resulted in more than $2 billion in financial relief, and more than $500 million in related whistleblower awards.  These figures include the recent record award of nearly $50 million to a single whistleblower on June 4, 2020.  Some have attributed the surge in TCRs to a combination of increasingly rich award sums, potential TCR filers’ being emboldened by their remote work environments and/or harboring increasing frustration over their job or financial situations, and enmity by furloughed or terminated employees.

Regardless of its cause, the increase in TCRs means that issuers and regulated entities should evaluate their

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