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US Securities and Corporate Governance

ESG

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Nasdaq amends its board diversity proposal

On Friday, Nasdaq submitted a revised proposal that addresses board diversity membership for listed companies.  As discussed in our prior alert, Nasdaq had originally called for public companies – over a two-to-four year phase-in period — to include two diverse directors on their boards and to disclose in a “diversity matrix” certain anonymous aggregate data regarding gender identity, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Based on comments, including criticism as discussed here, Nasdaq has modified the proposal in a variety of areas:

  • Smaller boards. Companies with five or fewer directors would only need to include one diverse director, instead of two.
  • Grace period for vacancies. A one-year grace period would be provided for companies that no longer meet the diversity objective as a result of a vacancy on the board.
  • Timing of disclosure. Diversity information would need to be made publicly available before annual shareholder meetings, to align with disclosures for other proxy-related governance matters.
  • Extra time for newly-listed companies. Newly-listed companies that become listed after the phase-in period for the new rules ends would have an additional two-year period after the phase-in period to fully meet the diversity objective.
  • Trigger date. The operative date for disclosure would be the later of (1) one calendar year from the date of SEC approval of the revised proposal or (2) the date the proxy statement is filed for a company’s annual meeting during the calendar year of such SEC approval date.
  • Location of disclosure. Companies could choose to disclose

Apple adds ESG bonus component to executive compensation program

In its recently filed proxy statement, Apple Inc. announced that beginning in 2021, the Compensation Committee will incorporate an environmental, social and governance modifier into the annual cash incentive program.  The Compensation Committee will use the modifier to determine whether to increase or decrease bonus payouts by up to 10% based on the Compensation Committee’s evaluation of executives’ performance with respect to “Apple Values” and other key community initiatives during 2021.

“This change is intended to further motivate Apple’s executive team to meet exceptionally high standards of values-driven leadership in addition to delivering strong financial results,” according to the proxy statement disclosure.

The proxy statement did not include specific ESG targets or initiatives for the modifier, although the introduction to the proxy statement listed the Apple Values shown below, noting they “reflect our commitment to leave the world better than we found it and to create powerful tools for others to do the same.”

Education

apple.com/education

For more than 40 years, Apple has worked alongside educators to inspire the next generation of learners. From primary through post-secondary school, teachers and students are using Apple products to express their creativity and to teach and learn the skills needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world. Through our Community Education Initiatives, such as ConnectED, our products, services, and support have reached learners of all ages in underserved communities that need them the most.

   

Environment

apple.com/environment

Apple has dedicated our resources and best thinking to considering the environment in everything

New Nasdaq Listing Proposal: Add Diverse Directors or Explain Why Not

Nasdaq yesterday announced a proposed new listing rule that would require all Nasdaq-listed companies to publicly disclose consistent, transparent board diversity statistics in a specified form of matrix.  In addition, the proposed rule would require Nasdaq-listed companies to have, or explain why they do not have, at least two diverse directors:  one woman and one person who self-identifies as either an underrepresented minority or LGBTQ.

Nasdaq believes its proposal would benefit investors and the public interest, citing in its SEC filing numerous empirical studies as support for its finding that diverse boards “are positively associated with improved corporate governance and financial performance.”  It also noted calls for diversity from institutional investors, corporate stakeholders and legislators.

If the rule is approved by the SEC, companies would be required to disclose board-level diversity statistics within one year of the SEC’s approval of the listing rule.  In addition:

  • All operating companies will be expected to have one diverse director within two years of the SEC’s approval of the listing rule (non-operating companies, such as asset-backed issuers, cooperatives, limited partnerships and investment management companies, as well as certain specified issuers of non-equity securities, would be exempt from the proposed rule).
  • Companies listed on the Nasdaq Global Select Market and Nasdaq Global Market will be expected to have a second diverse director within four years of the SEC’s approval.
  • Companies listed on the Nasdaq Capital Market will be expected to have a second diverse director within five years of the SEC’s

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

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

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

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