Tag Archive: governance reform

Current Efforts Toward Corporate Disclosure Reform

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The discussion surrounding corporate disclosure reform has consistently centered on the issue of how to provide sufficient levels of information to investors and other readers without overburdening those responsible for preparing the disclosures. On July 29, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness (CCMC) hosted an event addressing corporate disclosure reform. A variety of issues involving disclosure reform were discussed in panels featuring general counsels from leading companies, former officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the current head of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, and other stakeholders.

Corporate disclosure reform has also been a recurring topic of discussion among the delegates of NACD’s advisory council meetings. Delegates are committee chairs of Fortune 500 companies and, along with key stakeholders, they discuss the issues and challenges currently affecting the boardroom. In particular, NACD’s Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council has discussed this topic at length, and this issue featured prominently in the discussions at the June 2013, November 2013 and March 2014 meetings. In particular, the November meeting featured senior leaders from the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals to discuss their efforts to streamline disclosures, while the March meeting included analysts from Moody’s Analytics and Morgan Stanley to share how they use disclosures.

Many of the key takeaways from the CCMC’s July meeting have been echoed at NACD’s advisory council meetings. These include:

The “disclosure burden” is largely driven by a desire to reduce liability. The first CCMC panel focused on the perspectives of two former SEC commissioners: Roel Campos, who is currently a partner at Locke Lord; and Cynthia Glassman, now a senior research scholar at the Institute for Corporate Responsibility at the George Washington University School of Business. There was agreement that disclosures have become documents of litigation. The usefulness of many disclosures was called into question, and in fact, many of the disclosures found on today’s financial statements are not actually mandated. For example, while comment letters issued by SEC staff from the Division of Corporation Finance and the Division of Investment Management “do not constitute an official expression of the SEC’s views” and are “limited to the specific facts of the filing in question and do not apply to other filings,”[1] many companies include disclosures based on these comment letters, often aiming to reduce their company’s liability by accounting for every possible contingency.

What’s more, if one company is asked by the SEC to provide a particular disclosure, other companies may feel compelled to disclose the same information even though they may operate in different industries.

Nevertheless, elimination of unnecessary or outdated disclosures requires a lengthy review process. Without a champion for reform, disclosures can linger on financial statements in perpetuity. An advisory council delegate noted: “It’s possible to take the initiative and cut the 10-K down. But it’s a significant time commitment, so you need buy-in from the CEO, CFO, and audit committee.”

Technology provides promising solutions. It was also observed that many disclosures are mandated by laws and rules stemming from the 1930s to the 1980s, when corporate information was only accessible in a physical form. Today, company websites often provide more detailed, current information than the 10-K. One CCMC panelist suggested that the SEC should encourage companies to rely more on these websites for the disclosure of certain information, such as historical share prices.

CCMC panelists also discussed ways to take advantage of technology to redesign and standardize the financial statements themselves, which could make them searchable and allow investors to make comparisons over time or across companies more easily. One panelist suggested that disclosure transparency could be enhanced by creating a “digital executive summary” document. In this summary, new, newly relevant, and the most material disclosures could be grouped in one place with hyperlinks to more detailed information. A similar notion has been discussed at recent Audit Advisory Council meetings, as one delegate offered: “Perhaps we need a second document, aside from the 10-K, that provides a shorter, more meaningful narrative that’s focused on the material issues that investors are interested in.”

Disclosure reform involves multiple stakeholder groups. The second CCMC panel of the morning focused on balancing the disclosure needs of various stakeholders. The panel included the perspectives of several professionals whose work is heavily influenced by the disclosure regime. They included Julie Bell Lindsay, managing director and general counsel for capital markets and corporate reporting, Citigroup Inc.; Chris Holmes, national director of SEC regulatory matters, Ernst & Young; Flora Perez, vice president and deputy general counsel, Ryder System Inc.; and Ann Yerger, executive director, Council of Institutional Investors.

From the investors’ perspective, it was noted that because investors are voracious consumers of information, they will rarely say “no” if offered more information.

Several corporate counsels noted initiatives at their companies that are designed to increase disclosure transparency, including efforts to work directly with investors to determine the information that was the most important to them. In fact, nearly half of the respondents to the 2013–2014 NACD Public Company Governance Survey indicated that a representative of the board had met with institutional investors in the past 12 months:

survey graphic

The SEC is currently developing solutions. The final panel of the morning featured Keith Higgins, director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, who provided his views regarding the state of the disclosure system and described how the division is currently conducting its disclosure reform initiatives. More details regarding the division’s plans to tackle disclosure reform can be found in this speech by Higgins to the American Bar Association in April.

Throughout the morning’s discussions, there were also points of disagreement, such as the relevance of specific disclosures. Each session, however, provided evidence that on all sides of the issue there are those making good-faith efforts to improve the system.

[1] http://www.sec.gov/answers/commentletters.htm.

Proxy Access: The Ultimate Weapon

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On a recent conference call with our Board Advisory Services faculty, we invited Anne Sheehan, director of corporate governance for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), to provide her perspective on how CalSTRS plans to use the recent proxy access regulations.

For background, CalSTRS is the second largest public pension fund with over $134B under management. CalSTRS is a long-term shareowner and is considered a passive investor. Their mission is to act as the steward for California state teachers’ retirement funds—ensuring that California’s K-14 professors and teachers (kindergarten through community college) have sufficient funds available when they retire. Approximately half of CalSTRS’ portfolio is invested in equities across roughly 7,000 companies. Typically CalSTRS’ investment is around 0.5 percent of outstanding stock per company.

Anne’s comments were extremely important for directors of publicly traded companies, as CalSTRS leverages corporate governance practices to add value and minimize risk to their portfolio. CalSTRS looks to directors to oversee delivery of long-term growth and value for shareholders. It does not have a political agenda; it’s all about long-term value creation.

Aside from shareholder value creation, the goals of Anne’s team are focused on creating a dialogue with companies and boards. Importantly, the majority of CalSTRS requests are resolved through dialogue.

During our meeting last week, Anne provided a brief summary of recent proxy access rules—SEC Rule 14a-11 and amended SEC Rule 14a-8(i)(8)—and what they mean for directors. While many organizations have provided detailed descriptions of these rules, Anne emphasized the following four key points:

  1. Boards need to proactively engage in shareholder communications and dialogue. While boards need to be aware of shareholders concerns and desires, boards do not have to do as all shareholders request. Frequently shareholders perceptions are simply based on not knowing why.
  2. The new proxy access rules level the playing field.
  3. If a board and/or senior management disregards and/or avoids a shareholder’s request for information, proxy access is the tool of last resort.
  4. Proxy access is seen by large investors as the “ultimate weapon” to influence a board.

Net: If your board is looking for an independent, third party to help conduct a confidential and customized in-boardroom program on strategy, the current environment, or succession planning; or for assistance conducting CEO and/or director succession planning, or exchange-mandated board evaluations, NACD’s Board Advisory Services faculty of 100 percent current directors and leading governance experts is ready to help your board advance exemplary board leadership. NACD’s Board Advisory Services (BAS) team is poised to help boards perform as strategic assets for their shareholders and senior management.

Don’t wait until it’s too late; contact us at inboardroom@NACDonline.org or call 202-572-2101.

NACD Insight & Analysis for September 10, 2010

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As noted this week in national news headlines, the SEC has seen an uptick in fraud tips since the passing of the Dodd-Frank financial legislation. Previously, informants were rewarded with a maximum of 10 percent of sanctions. The new financial laws, however, raise this potential bounty to as much as 30 percent of the penalties paid to the SEC. The article notes that the new whistleblower reward program has the potential to create inefficiencies by inciting employees to report fraud directly to the government, rather than using the established channels within the organization.

To establish a healthy and productive corporate environment, directors must exemplify and encourage an ethical culture. According to the NACD Key Agreed Principles, “the tone of corporate culture is a key determinant of corporate success.” Governance practices that promote integrity and ethics are a feature of successful, sustainable organizations.

Signs* of a positive corporate culture include leaders who:

  • Provide employees access to information that is relevant to the strategic direction and performance of the company
  • Keep their promises and commitments
  • Make decisions openly
  • Accept responsibility for wrongdoing, and
  • Reward performance that supports transparency

*Findings from the Ethics Resource Center’s National Business Ethics Survey 2009, p. 22