Posts Tagged ‘Dodd-Frank’

Uncle Sam as Shareholder and Regulator

February 1st, 2016 | By

The regulatory burden on U.S. public companies continues to increase and the government’s role has expanded from that of just regulator to, in some cases, shareholder. That might leave some directors wondering how far into the boardroom Uncle Sam can reach.

A panel of financial industry and government experts convened last fall to discuss the influence of the federal government when it acts as either a shareholder or a regulator. The Clearing House Association and the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance facilitated the discussion with a program called The Government as Regulator and/or Shareholder—The Impact on Director Duties, which  included the following speakers and panel members:

  • Rolin P. Bissell, partner, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor LLP
  • Amy Borrus, interim executive director, Council of Institutional Investors
  • Laban P. Jackson, Jr., director, JP Morgan Chase & Co.
  • Peter A. Langerman, CEO, Franklin Mutual Advisers, LLC
  • Giovanni P. Prezioso, partner, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP
  • Gregg L. Rozansky, managing director, The Clearing House Association
  • Mary Schapiro, former chair, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • Collins J. Seitz, Jr., justice, Supreme Court of Delaware

Charles M. Elson, director of the Weinberg Center and professor of finance, moderated the discussion.

The panel offered a wide range of perspectives, but a few common themes emerged that are applicable to directors across a variety of industries.  

Most panelists agreed that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act was a response proportional to the 2008 global financial crisis, but expressed frustration with certain government bailouts and the political motivations influencing them. Several panelists indicated they felt uneasy about the broad scale of intervention that the federal government made into the private sector to bail out failing companies. The panelists cited the example of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank’s $85 billion bailout of American International Group (AIG) to illustrate how far agencies reached—even in the face of the internal corruption at the company. AIG’s credit default swaps lost the company $30 billion and are often blamed as a major reason the company collapsed in 2008. Controversy swirled when in March 2009, publicly disclosed information revealed that after the bailout, employees of AIG’s financial services division were going to be paid $218 million in bonuses. A June 2010 report by the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP)—a five-member group created by Congress in 2008 to oversee the U.S. Treasury’s actions—concluded that the Federal Reserve Board’s close relations to powerful people on Wall Street influenced its decision to help AIG.

While the panelists were critical of the bailouts, they agreed that Dodd-Frank was a reasonable response to help prevent future failure of companies. Directors’ bandwidth, however, to address their corporation’s most important strategic matters, including emerging risks, may be limited by the need to spend time ensuring compliance with Dodd-Frank. Most agreed that they do not expect a lessening of regulations in the near future.

Panelists also agreed that the Delaware court system—one of the most powerful legal arbiters of U.S. corporate governance—is not designed to address scenarios in which the federal government acts as an investor. When the federal government intervenes by investing in a company to salvage it, the government becomes a shareholder with greater legal privileges than a traditional, human shareholder who might challenge corporate decisions in the Delaware courts. In the event that the government challenges a company in the federal court system, the federal government would be tried in legal institutions where the ultimate power of appeal is granted by its own founding documents. Challenges to federal sovereign immunity and the federal government as shareholder would be difficult, if not impossible, to navigate.

The line between the government as a stockholder and regulator could be blurred when the regulatory influence over the company is pervasive. This issue may be particularly acute for wholly owned subsidiaries of public companies when the government closely reviews company decision-making and expresses views on what is in the best interest of the subsidiary.

Relationships between regulators and directors—though once strained by mistrust after the financial crisis—are beginning to improve. A panelist observed that, in several global markets, relationships between regulators and directors have steadily normalized over the past year and a half, in contrast to more tense interactions of previous years. As global regulatory standards are established, markets recover and stabilize, and businesses and regulators deepen their understanding of each other.

Forming relationships with regulators should be a strategic priority for directors. Most panelists insisted that good relationships with representatives from regulatory agencies are essential. Boards should aim to keep a level of candor with regulatory contacts that could be helpful when pushing back against regulatory action and when directors have suggestions for upcoming regulations. Directors should also acknowledge that regulators have an important function to carry out in a high-pressure, multi-stakes market environment that is a challenge to navigate for regulators and companies alike. A “kicking and screaming” approach to relationships with regulators was frowned upon, as it is not productive and is insensitive to the fact that developing or implementing regulation is demanding and complex.

Directors seeking to strengthen their oversight of corporate compliance and ethics programs can access the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) publication Director Essentials: Strengthening Compliance and Ethics Oversight. The guide provides an overview of the board’s role in compliance oversight and offers practical insights about fulfilling regulatory expectations.

Key Insights From the Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council

August 1st, 2013 | By

On June 19, NACD and partners KPMG’s Audit Committee Institute (ACI) and Sidley Austin LLP co-hosted the most recent meeting of the Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council, bringing together audit committee chairs from major U.S. corporations, key regulators and standard setters from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), and Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), and other audit experts for an open dialogue on the key issues and challenges impacting the audit committee agenda.

As detailed in the summary of proceedings, the forum provided timely insights into a number of issues that are top of mind for audit committees. Key insights from the dialogue include:

  • As the PCAOB continues to focus on enhancing auditor independence, skepticism, and objectivity, audit committees are wrestling with how to make the best use of PCAOB inspection reports, with some questioning the timeliness and relevance of the reports and the use of the term “audit failure.”
  • Audit committees continue to discuss the potential value of more robust reporting from the audit committee and external auditors to provide greater insight into their work. Most delegates agreed that the auditor’s statement is the right area of focus.
  • Companies should be preparing for the impact of FASB’s “big four” convergence projects—revenue recognition, leases, financial instruments, and insurance contracts—with a particular focus on the lead time IT departments will need to implement systems changes.
  • Under new leadership, the SEC is refocusing on corporate accounting fraud and the quality of financial disclosures, while moving ahead with its already heavy rule-making agenda resulting from Dodd-Frank mandates and the JOBS Act.
  • The allocation of risk oversight duties among the audit committee, full board, and other board committees is receiving increased attention, as the risk environment becomes more complex and audit committees reassess their risk oversight responsibilities.
  • In their oversight role, directors serve in a part-time capacity, while management is full time, resulting in executives having a much deeper knowledge of the operational aspects and risks of the company. To overcome this inherent imbalance, directors should apply a “healthy” level of skepticism to the information and assumptions management provides.
  • The audit committee’s effectiveness hinges not only on having the right mix of skills and backgrounds, but also having a robust onboarding process and commitment to continuing director education.

For the full day’s discussion and proposed council action items, click here to read the summary of proceedings.

Boardroom Confidence Rebounds to Cautiously Optimistic

April 25th, 2013 | By

Since the financial crisis, uncertainty in regulatory activity has been the sole constant factor. Dodd-Frank, resulting activity from agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), and Federal Reserve, healthcare reform legislation, the JOBS Act, and now debates over the debt ceiling have kept those in the boardroom on their toes. Further, rarely have established economic indicators served as heralds of the market’s health—and this quarter proves no different. The metrics tell different stories: Executives think the economy is improving, but fewer mid-sized companies expect to increase capital spending. Consumer confidence fell nearly 10 points in March, but CEO confidence rose nearly 8 points in the first quarter. Similar to executives, directors are demonstrating optimism in the strength of the markets: the NACD Board Confidence Index (BCI) jumped almost 10 points in Q1 to an overall score of 61.

From one perspective, this improved confidence from both directors and executives may represent that business leaders have grown accustomed to the certainty of uncertainty. Despite insecurity caused by regulatory and geopolitical activity, the markets have shown slow but steady growth, which directors and executives seem more willing to bet on.

Looking at historical trends in director confidence, however, this first quarter jolt might not be much more than a blip. Consistently, the BCI score is most optimistic in the first quarter of the year. Throughout the rest of the year though, that optimism tends to dwindle and typically fails to reach that initial level. In 2011, Q1’s score of 64.9 lost more than one-quarter of its original value by Q3. In 2012, a similar trend occurred: the Q1 score of 60.6 dropped significantly, and each remaining quarter failed to regain such a level of confidence. In fact, in both 2011 and 2012 first quarter confidence was at least five points higher than the ensuing year’s average.

Interestingly, boardroom uncertainty may have manifested in a different metric—confidence in one’s own industry relative to the general economy. The first quarter of 2013 marks the first time that NACD’s BCI measure for overall board confidence in the market was substantially higher than the score for directors’ industries: 61 vs. 58, respectively. Since 2011, directors have scored their industry an average of 5.75 points higher than the overall index.

Although one could predict that this year will follow the observed trend of first quarter confidence dwindling through the rest of the year, several metrics show that boards may buck this trend. Setting it apart from prior first quarters, in Q1 2013, 36 percent more directors indicated their companies expected to expand their workforces in the next quarter. In comparison, those projecting to hire in Q1 2012 and Q1 2011 represented 14 percent and 16 percent declines from the previous quarters, respectively. Additionally, when asked about economic conditions in one year, directors responded with a relatively confident score of 65. The second quarter of 2013 will confirm whether this optimism is short or long term.