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.
“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Truer words were never spoken when it comes to the new pay ratio rule.
A key chapter in pay regulations closed August 5, 2015 when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued its final rule on the pay ratio disclosure mandated by the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. This final rule capped a two-year comment period intended to resolve many thorny issues around exactly when and how to calculate the two numbers involved in the ratio—namely median employee compensation/CEO compensation. (To see NACD’s comment letter, visit the NACD Resource Center on Corporate Governance Standards and click on our Comment on Pay Ratio.) The NACD comment letter, like some others, noted that the “annual total compensation” figure can be misleading, and suggested solving this problem by asking the SEC to permit the use of industry averages, to limit employees to full-time domestic employees, and to permit supplemental notes. In its final rule, the SEC did not make these changes but did address concerns about total annual pay by allowing companies to use any “consistently applied compensation measure” (CACM) to calculate median annual compensation for employees.
This concept of a CACM led to questions, however. So on October 18, 2016, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance addressed them by updating its C&DI for Regulation S-K, one of the 32 “Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations” (C&DIs) the staff maintains on its most complex regulations. Although the five questions raised are technical rather than strategic, and represent only a tiny fraction of the many issues raised by the final rule overall, they still merit board attention. Therefore, this blog presents, in simplified English, the five ratio-relevant Q&As in the newly updated C&DI (codified under Section 128 C) and provides a key question and a final “takeaway” for boards.
Summary of the SEC’s Five Questions and Answers
Summary of Question 1: If a company does not use annual total compensation to identify the median employee, how should it choose another consistently applied compensation measure (CACM) to do so?
Summary of Answer 1: SEC’s updated C&DI assures companies that a CACM can be any measure that “reasonably reflects the annual compensation of employees,” but asks that companies explain their rationale for the metric they choose. An appropriate CACM will depend on “particular facts and circumstances,” says the SEC. For example:
Total annual cash compensation can work as a CACM, unless the company has also made a wide distribution of annual equity awards for the same period.
Social Security taxes withheld would likely not be an appropriate CACM unless all employees earned less than the Social Security wage base.
Summary of Question 2: May a registrant exclusively use hourly or annual rates of pay as its CACM?
Summary of Answer 2: No. Although an hourly or annual pay rate may be a component used to determine an employee’s overall compensation, the use of the pay rate alone generally is not an appropriate CACM to identify the median employee.
Summary of Question 3: When a registrant uses a CACM to identify the median employee, what time period may it use?
Summary of Answer 3: The SEC’s answer to this question says that the company must select a date within three months of the end of its most recent fiscal year to determine the population of employees from which to identify the median employee. The CACM need not be contemporaneous. In fact, it can come from the prior fiscal year, as long as there has not been a material change in the registrant’s employee population or employee compensation arrangements—that is, a change that would “result in a significant change of its pay distribution to its workforce.”
Summary of Question 4: What about furloughed employees?
Summary of Answer 4:The SEC’s response clarifies that the final rule identifies four classes of employees: full-time, part-time, temporary, and seasonal. It does not define or even address furloughed employees, because a furlough could have different meanings for different employers. It is a matter “facts and circumstances” and provides additional guidance on the matter.
Summary of Question 5: What about independent contractors? Under what circumstances can their pay be included in the CACM for the employee?
Summary of Answer 5:The final rule had stated that “leased” workers are excluded from the definition of employees “as long as they are employed, and their compensation is determined, by an unaffiliated third party.” The SEC’s answer preserves this distinction, and gives some flexibility. In determining when a worker is an “employee,” the company “must consider the composition of its workforce and its overall employment and compensation practices.” So a company should include workers whose compensation it (or a subsidiary) determines “regardless of whether these workers would be considered ‘employees’ for tax or employment law purposes.”
Are you familiar enough with compensation patterns in your company to know whether a chosen CACM “reasonably reflects” the compensation in your company? If not, you may wish to meet with the officer responsible for employee pay below the executive level to get a better sense of this important issue.
Compensation committees have traditionally focused on executive compensation, leaving employee compensation to management. In the past few years, however, several factors have combined to broaden the committee’s purview, including concerns about pay disparity, and the new requirement to disclose compensation risk. Therefore, more compensation committees are overseeing enterprise-wide pay. For example, in its 2016 proxy statement, WPX Energy disclosed that in the past year “With the oversight of our Compensation Committee, we conducted a risk assessment of the Company’s human capital with a focus on enterprise-wide compensation programs.” (Emphasis added.)
The key word in all of these questions and answers is “reasonably.” It is exactly the right word for compensation committees to use as they oversee this disclosure, as well they should.
Alexandra R. Lajoux is chief knowledge officer emeritus at the National Association of Corporate Directors.
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.