In April 2017, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC’s) Division of Corporate Finance announced it will not recommend enforcement action for companies that disclose, but do not further investigate usage of conflict minerals which may be from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Any company manufacturing or contracting to manufacture products using such minerals had previously been required to conduct extensive due diligence on its supply chain and make this diligence publicly known with a note that its products contained minerals which “have not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free.’” However, following a series of partial losses in court, the SEC appears to be backing off the rule—for now.
The Conflict Minerals Rule and Disclosure Requirements
A provision in the Dodd-Frank Act aims to cut off funding sources for armed rebel groups in the DRC and surrounding countries in central Africa. It requires companies manufacturing products containing certain minerals to conduct supply chain audits and disclose if those minerals were known to have originated in the DRC or adjoining countries. The SEC, as the enforcer of this provision, issued a rule requiring issuers of securities who filed reports with the SEC under Sections 13(a) or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and who manufactured or contracted to manufacture a product in which the defined conflict minerals were a necessary part, to file a separate special disclosure form, Form SD. Although these obligations were placed on manufacturing issuers, in practice, the diligence requirement was imposed on others in the supply chain because many manufacturers required their supply chain partners to certify origin of minerals and compliance with the rule.
When Form SD was first issued, items 101(a) and (b) required companies using conflict minerals to attempt to identify the country of origin of those minerals. If after conducting a “reasonable country of origin inquiry” the company determined that the country of origin was neither the DRC nor an adjacent country, it had to disclose this finding (and a description of the country of origin inquiry conducted) on its website as well as to the SEC. Per item 101(c) of Form SD, if a company’s minerals may have originated in either the DRC or its neighboring countries, the company was required to conduct additional, more extensive due diligence, and then file and publish a conflict minerals report. This report had to include a description of the company’s due diligence efforts, certified results of an independent private audit, and a list of planned changes as a result of the audit. In the report and on its website, companies also had to describe which products had “not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free,’” although for the first two years of enforcement they could use the label “DRC conflict undeterminable.”
The National Association for Manufacturers challenged these regulations on both procedural and constitutional grounds. After the district court granted the SEC summary judgment, the Association appealed to the DC Circuit of Appeals. Ultimately, the appeals court found that forcing companies to note whether or not their products are DRC conflict free was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The case was remanded to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which issued its final judgment in April 2017 and set aside the part of the rule that requires companies to add language that their products are “DRC conflict free” or “have not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free.’” Citing both the court decision and the unclear efficacy of the rule, SEC Chair Michael Piwowar reopened comments and the SEC stayed the compliance portions of the rule pending the conclusion of litigation. The SEC announced it would not pursue enforcement actions against companies who only complete Form SD items 101(a) and (b) and do not pursue more extensive diligence on sourcing or secure an independent audit. The SEC has taken the view that the purpose of item 101(c) of Form SD and the related conflict minerals reports was to determine the status of conflict minerals by requiring the “conflict free” or “not conflict free” labels, and that these measures and the requirements for more detailed due diligence are in need of re-evaluation and clarification given recent court rulings on this matter.
Although companies are not currently expected to conduct the extensive due diligence envisioned by item 101(c) of Form SD, they are still expected to conduct in good faith a reasonable country of origin inquiry and disclose this information to the SEC and the public. Companies and boards still need to ensure there are effective diligence programs in place that allow reasonable inquiry into supply chain partners and components, particularly if conflict minerals are necessary to any product the company manufactures. By statute, the SEC is required to issue a rule relating to due diligence for conflict minerals. Although the “conflict free” labeling requirement has been eliminated, the question remains whether conflict minerals reports, in their current form, are otherwise valid. The SEC is currently developing its future enforcement recommendations with respect to the rule.
In the interim, companies should continue to ensure effective supply chain diligence mechanisms are in place that allow them to confirm where components, particularly conflict minerals, are sourced. To the extent that auditing or diligence measures had already been put into place prior to the final judgment and SEC announcement, companies may want to continue to implement these measures given the lingering uncertainty about future application of the rule. Companies also have the ability to submit comments on the rule to the SEC and should make their views known to influence future enforcement on this issue.
At Baker & McKenzie, Joan Meyer is a partner and chairs the North America Compliance, Investigations & Government Enforcement Practice Group. Reagan Demas is a partner and Maria McMahon is a professional support lawyer in the North America Compliance, Investigations & Government Enforcement Practice Group in Washington, DC.
To learn more about strategy and risk, attend the 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit where you will have the opportunity to explore emerging risk issues with peers. A detailed agenda of NACD and Marsh & McLennan’s Board Committee Forum on strategy and risk, can be found here.
The sustainability information in CSR reports is not, from our perspective, “investment-grade;” that is, it is not necessarily material, not industry specific, not comparable, and not auditable.
Business news headlines on any given day highlight the importance of sustainability issues such as resource scarcity, climate change, population growth, globalization, and transformative technologies. In today’s world, management of these and other sustainability risks and opportunities influences corporate success. Thus, understandably, investors are increasingly requesting information on how companies are managing these factors.
A concept release from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on disclosure effectiveness includes a lengthy discussion of sustainability disclosure. In the release, the SEC states that it is “interested in receiving feedback on the importance of sustainability and public policy matters to informed investment and voting decisions.” We hope that the SEC’s request for input on sustainability issues signals an understanding that the information investors consider “material”—much like the world around it—is changing. As a result, corporate disclosures should also evolve to provide investors with the information they need to make informed investment and voting decisions.
Sustainability issues are increasingly important to a company’s financial condition and operating performance, and thus merit the attention of its board. At more than 55 percent of S&P 500 companies, the board oversees sustainability, according to the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute. Such boards are to be applauded for taking a more holistic view of risk oversight, and for getting out in front of global challenges.
This shift in focus by investors and the business community is driven by a growing recognition that sustainability issues are business issues, not only born of social or political concerns. One recent study found that when companies focus their efforts on managing material sustainability factors—namely, those critically linked to their core business—they outperform their peers with significantly higher return on sales, sales growth, return on assets, and return on equity. They also show significantly improved risk-adjusted shareholder returns.
Clearly, the board plays a key role in developing a company’s capacity to create long-term value and in safeguarding its assets. In this regard, a board’s careful consideration of information on material sustainability factors would help it to fulfill its oversight responsibilities, by assisting it in understanding, prioritizing, and monitoring business-related risks and opportunities.
For example, a board should regularly consider how its company measures, manages, and reports its material sustainability risks. A pharmaceuticals company might consider how it is addressing a $431 billion counterfeit drug market, where mitigation strategies in an increasingly complex, global supply chain could stem or reverse the loss of consumer confidence and company revenues, and prevent up to 100,000 deaths each year (see Roger Bate’s 2012 book Phake: The Deadly World of Falsified and Substandard Medicines). The plunging stock price and loss of goodwill suffered by Chipotle Mexican Grill after outbreaks of E. coli and norovirus at its restaurants demonstrate the way in which a failure to manage sustainability risk factors can seriously damage a company’s reputation and shareholder value.
Moreover, sustainability issues not only raise risks, but also present opportunities that can and should be taken into account by the board as it considers development and implementation of the company’s strategic goals.
Sustainability issues may have a material impact on a company’s ability to achieve such goals. For automakers, a strategy that incorporates fuel-efficient technologies and alternative fuels can help the company capitalize on legal and consumer trends regarding fuel economy and emissions in a market where car ownership is projected to triple by 2050.
Sustainability issues directly affect a company’s financial condition and operating performance. Therefore, it is not surprising that investors are increasingly demanding more effective and useful sustainability information. Many companies have made efforts to meet this demand through disclosures in corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, by responding to questionnaires, or otherwise engaging with investors. The sustainability information in CSR reports is not, from our perspective, “investment-grade;” that is, it is not necessarily material, not industry specific, not comparable, and not auditable. To that point, a 2015 PwC study found that 82 percent of investors said they are dissatisfied with how risks and opportunities are identified and quantified in financial terms; 74 percent of the investors polled said they are dissatisfied with the comparability of sustainability reporting between companies in the same industry.
What the markets have lacked, until now, are standards that can guide companies in disclosing material sustainability information in a format that is decision-useful. These standards must be industry specific. Sustainability issues affect financial performance differently depending on the topic and the industry. Therefore, investors need guidance on which sustainability issues are material to which industries, and they need industry-specific metrics by which to evaluate and compare the performance of reporting companies.
The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was created to address this market inefficiency. The mission of SASB is to develop and disseminate industry standards for sustainability disclosure that help public corporations provide material, decision-useful information to investors via MD&A and other relevant sections of SEC filings such as the Form 10-K and 20-F. SASB’s standards are formulated with broad market participation and draw upon metrics already used by the corporate community. They will continue to evolve, as our world, and thus material sustainability issues, change.
Investors want to place their funds in entities that have good prospects for the future. To do so, they evaluate the information that is material to a company’s prospects. Not all that information rests in the financial statements that reflect a company’s current financial condition. We believe that, in today’s world, risks and opportunities not yet reflected in a company’s financial statements influence its success. And, the information that is “material” to investors—much like the world around it—has changed.
To help companies disclose material sustainability information, the capital markets need standards for disclosure of sustainability information that are created by the market, specific to industry, and compatible with U.S. securities law.
The management and disclosure of sustainability issues merits the attention of directors. The public comment period for the SEC’s disclosure effectiveness concept release runs through July 21. This is an important opportunity for publicly held companies and their directors to be heard on these critical issues, and to stress the importance of a market standard that serves investors while not overburdening issuers.
Aulana Peters was an SEC Commissioner from 1984-1988. Elisse Walter was the 30th chair of the SEC. Peters and Walter serve on the SASB board of Directors.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has renewed its focus on “gatekeepers,” a term SEC Chair Mary Jo White uses to describe “the attorneys, accountants, auditors, fund directors, and other board members and professionals who play a critical role in the securities industry and share the responsibility with regulators to protect investors.” Chair White views directors as the “most important” of the gatekeepers and has singled out audit committee members as playing “an extraordinarily important role in creating a culture of compliance through their oversight of financial reporting.” Under her leadership, White has put directors on notice that regulators are “pursuing those who should be serving as the neighborhood watch, but who fail to do their jobs.”
The SEC has brought several cases against directors since the beginning of White’s leadership, and more are likely to come. In September, the SEC brought securities fraud charges against Stephen Pence in connection with his role as chairman of the board of General Employment Enterprises. The SEC alleges in its complaint that Pence materially misled auditors and investors about a side business relationship that created a conflict of interest and led to misuse of company funds.
Last year, the SEC brought a controversial enforcement action against the audit committee chair for AgFeed Industries Inc. for his alleged failure to appropriately investigate and disclose accounting fraud by executives in the company’s China offices. In another case, the SEC disciplined the audit committee chair of L&L Energy for violating Section 13(a) of the Exchange Act and Rules 12b-20 and 13a-1 by signing annual and quarterly reports that she knew falsely certified compliance with Sarbanes Oxley’s requirement to retain an active CFO.
According to White, some have worried that the concentration on gatekeepers “may drive away those who would otherwise serve in these roles, for fear of being second-guessed or blamed for every issue that arises.” To this she responded: first, being a director “is not for the uninitiated or the faint of heart”; second, the SEC “will not be looking to charge a gatekeeper that did her job by asking the hard questions, demanding answers, looking for red flags, and raising her hand.” Which is to say, the heightened scrutiny of directors will remain an SEC enforcement priority.
SEC rhetoric about the boardroom and recent enforcement actions may seem disconcerting at first glance. To date, however, the enforcement actions have alleged significant wrongdoing such as intentional deception of auditors and glaring conflicts of interest. While these types of conduct are a substantial departure from normal governance, the SEC’s actions do illustrate the agency’s increased willingness to investigate the conduct of directors.
Directors can minimize their risk of scrutiny by observing the following guidance.
Understand the business and your role. Directors should educate themselves about the business and their evolving gatekeeper obligations at the outset of their service and throughout their tenure.
Evaluate channels of communication. Directors should regularly evaluate the substance and frequency of management’s communication with the board. Direct channels of communications from key individuals, such as the general counsel, chief compliance officer, and head of internal audit, can promote timely escalation and disclosure of potential problems.
Assess internal controls and control functions. Effective internal controls are essential and expected. In evaluating those controls, audit committee members must have open and robust dialogue with internal and external auditors that include discussion about the controls themselves and those responsible for them. Control functions, and the controller function itself, must remain independent from business lines.
Act promptly on red flags. The lesson from the SEC’s enforcement action against AgFeed directors is clear: directors must promptly investigate red flags and take decisive actions if misconduct is identified. But identifying red flags is challenging, and performance is judged in hindsight. To minimize their own liability while protecting shareholders, directors should not hesitate to consult their own counsel when faced with a potential red flag.
Bradley J. Bondi is a partner in the litigation practice group of Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP, and is a leader of its securities enforcement and regulatory practices.