US federal laws and regulations, as well as the rules of self-regulatory organizations, impose numerous yearly reporting and compliance obligations on private equity firms. While these obligations include many routine and ongoing obligations, new and emerging regulatory developments also impact private equity firms’ compliance operations. This post provides a round-up of certain annual or periodic investment advisory compliance-related requirements that apply to many private equity firms. In addition, this post highlights material regulatory developments in 2014 as well as a number of expectations regarding areas of regulatory focus for 2015.
Posts Tagged ‘Latham’
Director tenure continues to gain attention in corporate governance as term limits become a cause célèbre. Proponents argue directors should no longer qualify as independent after 10 years of service, even though no law, rule or regulation prescribes a maximum term for directors.
We believe director term limits would be misguided and counterproductive. Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) has increased its focus on the issue. ISS’ governance rating system, QuickScore, views tenure of more than nine years as an “excessive” length that potentially compromises director independence. ISS’ more moderate proxy voting guidelines, while opposing proposals for director term limits and mandatory retirement ages, indicates that ISS will “scrutinize” boards whose average tenure exceeds 15 years.
After a year of “first ever” actions targeting private equity, fund managers should be vigilant, even about seemingly small issues.
In reviewing the results of SEC Enforcement’s fiscal year that ended on September 30, the agency congratulated itself on its comprehensive approach to enforcement and its “first-ever” cases. Private equity fund managers should consider a number of important takeaways.
The SEC Continues to Pursue a Broken Windows/Zero Tolerance Approach
Although the Enforcement Division announced a record number of enforcement actions, and the largest aggregate financial recovery, 2014, unlike in years past, did not include a headline-grabbing case such as Enron, Worldcom or Madoff. More recently, the agency has chosen to emphasize its pursuit of smaller cases as a way of improving compliance in the industry. SEC Chair Mary Jo White and Enforcement Director Andrew Ceresney have each touted the agency’s “broken windows” approach to enforcement. A “broken windows” strategy means that the SEC will pursue even the smallest violations on the theory that publicly pursuing smaller matters will reduce the prevalence of larger violations. Ceresney has described “broken windows” as a zero tolerance policy. This past year illustrated the agency’s commitment to applying enforcement sanctions to what some might consider “foot fault” incidents. For example, in September 2014, the SEC announced a package of three dozen cases involving a failure to promptly file Section 13D and Section 13G reports, as well as Forms 3 and 4. Many of the filers charged were just days or weeks late in disclosing their positions. In announcing the cases, Ceresney emphasized that inadvertence was not a defense to late filings.
Increasingly, some activist hedge funds are looking to sell their stock positions back to target companies. How should the board respond to hushmail?
The Rise and Fall of Greenmail
During the heyday of takeovers in the 1980s, so-called corporate raiders would often amass a sizable stock position in a target company, and then threaten or commence a hostile offer for the company. In some cases, the bidder would then approach the target and offer to drop the hostile bid if the target bought back its stock at a significant premium to current market prices. Since target companies had fewer available takeover defenses at that time to fend off opportunistic hostile offers and other abusive takeover transactions, the company might agree to repurchase the shares in order to entice the bidder to withdraw. This practice was referred to as “greenmail,” and some corporate raiders found greenmail easier, and more profitable, than the hostile takeover itself.
In wake of ethics opinion, lawyers in New York—if not elsewhere—must think hard before considering whether to participate in the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Award Program.
A recent SEC whistleblower award of $14 million may offer a persuasive incentive for lawyers to blow the whistle on a client’s perceived wrongdoing. However, a subsequent ethics opinion from the Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York County Lawyers’ Association will give lawyers pause. As the SEC whistleblower award program gains momentum, New York lawyers may be well-advised to wait for the courts to determine whether the SEC’s rules can pre-empt state rules of professional conduct.
This is a primer on attorneys as award-seeking SEC whistleblowers. It digests the relevant law and explains how it applies in real situations. That law includes the SEC attorney conduct and whistleblower award rules and each state’s ethics rules applicable to attorney disclosure. Fully assessing a particular situation will often require referring to the relevant rules for each state that might come into play for a particular lawyer in a particular situation. We therefore include information about choice of law and a chart summarizing the relevant rules in each of 51 US jurisdictions.
Our hope is that with this primer close at hand, attorneys and companies will not only be equipped to spot issues and apply the law, but will also understand how limited the circumstances are that will allow a lawyer to disclose confidential information to the SEC without client consent and seek a monetary award. This is true even though the SEC has expanded the circumstances allowing disclosure beyond those recognized in many states.
We will end with steps companies can take to deal with risks related to attorneys who are actual or would-be whistleblowers.
As a public company executive officer or general counsel, how should you deal with a disgruntled employee who is or could be an award-seeking SEC whistleblower?
The short answer is, of course, very carefully. For the longer answer, read on.
The SEC’s Cultivation of Whistleblowers
Corporate managers and the SEC tend to have very different views of employees complaining of possible violations. Corporations frequently have painful experiences with troubled employees who see violations that don’t exist. Although the SEC has had similar internal experiences, when it comes to employees of public companies and financial institutions, the SEC is, in the first instance, inclined to believe the employee and not the company.
The Commission and its enforcement staff are unabashedly enthusiastic about rewarding and protecting individual whistleblowers. Congress did not impose the whistleblower award provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act on the Commission. The Commission asked for those provisions, because it believes that many companies are not adequately policed by themselves or their auditors or attorneys, and will not willingly self-report possible violations of the federal securities laws.
Starting in February 2013, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (the “Threat Reduction Act”) will impose new reporting requirements on U.S. domestic and foreign companies that are required to file reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) pursuant to Section 13(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”). In particular, Section 219 of the Threat Reduction Act added new Section 13(r) to the Exchange Act. Under Section 13(r), Annual Reports on Form 10-K, Annual Reports on Form 20-F and Quarterly Reports on Form 10-Q filed pursuant to Exchange Act Section 13(a) must include disclosure of contracts, transactions and “dealings” with Iranian and other entities. Section 13(r) is effective beginning with reports with a due date after February 6, 2013.
The Staff of the Division of Corporation Finance of the SEC (the “SEC Staff”) has provided helpful guidance on implementation of these new requirements in Exchange Act Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations Questions 147.01-147.07 (available at http://www.sec.gov/divisions/corpfin/guidance/exchangeactsections-interps.htm). However, many questions remain, and the following questions and answers represent the consensus views of the undersigned law firms.
None of the firms subscribing to this report intends thereby to give legal advice to any person. The undersigned firms recommend that counsel be consulted with respect to matters addressed in this report. The answers below may need to be modified based upon unique facts and circumstances.
In recent years, shareholders of US public companies have increasingly invited dialogue with management, sometimes even demanding personal interaction with directors. This trend is part of a new paradigm in the corporate governance realm. Historically, despite some management engagement with shareholders, companies have seen little in the way of direct dialogue between shareholders and members of the board of directors. For most public companies, governance strategies have seldom included systematic engagement with shareholders beyond quarterly earnings calls, investor conferences and traditional investor relations efforts.
That was then, this is now. More than ever before, institutional shareholders are aggressively exerting their influence in the name of holding companies and management accountable. Emboldened (or pressured) by recent events — high-profile corporate governance and executive compensation controversies, the financial collapse and public criticism of pay disparities — these shareholders increasingly seek to influence board-level decisionmaking, often deploying incendiary buzzwords such as “corporate mismanagement,” “excessive risk taking,” “pay-for-failure” and the like. All told, the new paradigm represents a significant shift for most public companies.
In this Commentary, we discuss:
- The current state of corporate governance and signposts along the way to the existing state of affairs
- How and when public companies can benefit from shareholder engagement
- The components of an effective shareholder engagement program
Every public company must decide whether and to what extent to give the market guidance about future operating results. Questions from the buy side will begin at the IPO road show and will likely continue on every quarterly earnings call and at investor meetings and conferences between earnings calls. The decision whether to give guidance and how much guidance to give is an intensely individual one. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in this area. The only universal truths are (1) a public company should have a policy on guidance and (2) the policy should be the subject of careful thought.
The purpose of this post is to provide an updated discussion of the issues that CEOs, CFOs and audit committee members should consider before formulating a guidance policy.