Last week, Securities and Exchange Commissioner Daniel Gallagher took the unusual step of publishing a letter to the editor of the New York Times expressing his opposition to the SEC even considering companies’ disclosure of political spending. In his letter, the Commissioner vows “to fight to keep” the subject off the SEC’s agenda. As explained below, however, his letter fails to provide a substantive basis for his vehement opposition to transparency in corporate spending on politics.
Posts Tagged ‘Transparency’
As issues around cost transparency and best practices in equity-based compensation have evolved in recent years, ISS proposes updates to its Equity Plans policy in order to provide for a more nuanced consideration of equity plan proposals. As an alternative to applying a series of standalone tests (focused on cost and certain egregious practices) to determine when a proposal warrants an “Against” recommendation, the proposed approach will incorporate a model that takes into account multiple factors, both positive and negative, related to plan features and historical grant practices.
Feedback from clients and corporate issuers in recent years, beginning with the 2011-2012 ISS policy cycle, indicates strong support for the proposed approach, which incorporates the following key goals:
In my paper, Opacity in Financial Markets, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, I study the implications of opacity in financial markets for investor behavior, asset prices, and welfare. In the model, transparent funds (e.g., mutual funds) and opaque funds (e.g., hedge funds) trade transparent assets (e.g., plain-vanilla products) and opaque assets (e.g., structured products). Investors observe neither opaque funds’ portfolios nor opaque assets’ payoffs. Consistent with empirical observations, the model predicts an “opacity price premium”: opaque assets trade at a premium over transparent ones despite identical payoffs. This premium arises because fund managers bid up opaque assets’ prices, as opacity potentially allows them to collect higher fees by manipulating investor assessments of their funds’ future prospects. The premium accompanies endogenous market segmentation: transparent funds trade only transparent assets, and opaque funds trade only opaque assets. A novel insight is that opacity is self-feeding in financial markets: given the opacity price premium, financial engineers exploit it by supplying opaque assets (that is, they render transparent assets opaque deliberately), which in turn are a source of agency problems in portfolio delegation, resulting in the opacity price premium.
To demonstrate their effectiveness, corporate boards should increase transparency, provide an annual report of boardroom activities and take charge of their relations with shareholders.
With shareholders continuing to press for ever-deepening levels of engagement, companies must find a way to answer the most basic question of corporate governance: “How effective is the board of directors?” It is a question that can only be answered by the board itself, but it presents directors with a challenge as well as an opportunity. The challenge is to overcome the mindset, habits and perceived risks that have long kept boardroom activities under wraps. The opportunity, on the other hand, is to define governance and strategic issues from the board’s perspective, manage shareholder expectations, take the engagement initiative away from shareholders and reduce the likelihood of activism. Directors should give careful consideration to this opportunity. Over the long term, it will be far better for companies to control the process by which board transparency is achieved rather than waiting for yet again another set of governance reforms that could further erode the board’s authority.
Dozens of leading American corporations have embraced political transparency without the prodding of shareholder proposals. This is a new and important finding in the fourth annual CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability released by the Center for Political Accountability on September 24.
At the same time, the Index found that companies that have already adopted disclosure and accountability continue to strengthen their policies, making them more robust and comprehensive. All this is happening in the face of intense opposition by several of the leading business trade associations.
The 2014 proxy season saw significant growth in audit committee transparency. Continuing the trend of the past several years, an increased number of Fortune 100 companies are going beyond the minimum disclosures required.
These disclosures are also more robust—providing valuable perspectives on the activities of audit committees, including their oversight of external auditors.
The recent movement toward increased audit committee transparency has been encouraged by a variety of factors and entities. In addition to the ongoing disclosure effectiveness review by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) involving a holistic review of the US corporate disclosure regime, audit committee disclosures are receiving significant attention from a variety of stakeholders. These stakeholders include US and non-US regulators, investors, and policy organizations.
Anyone paying the slightest amount of attention recognizes that the U.S. political system is performing poorly. Washington is gripped by extreme partisanship, which prevents Congress from conducting even routine business, and cooperation between the executive and legislative branches is near historic lows. But as I argue in my new book, Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust, the problem with the nation’s politics is even deeper than the daily headlines suggest. There is limited transparency surrounding money and politics, and many institutions that in the past could counterbalance the power of the wealthy and other special interests have grown weak. It is difficult for financially strapped news organizations to provide quality coverage of government, and political parties have become heavily dependent on a relatively small number of wealthy and well-connected people for campaign contributions.
Earlier this week, the SEC adopted significant changes to Regulation AB, which governs the offering process and disclosure and periodic reporting requirements for public offerings of asset-backed securities, including residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS). The revisions to Regulation AB were a long time coming—they were first proposed in 2010 and have drawn several rounds of comments from industry participants. Issuers must comply with the new rules no later than one year after publication in the Federal Registrar (or two years in the case of the asset-level disclosure requirements described below). The new rules do not address “risk retention” by sponsors which is the subject of a separate rule-making process.
The Million-Comment-Letter Petition: The Rulemaking Petition on Disclosure of Political Spending Attracts More than 1,000,000 SEC Comment Letters
In July 2011, we co-chaired a committee of ten corporate and securities law experts that petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission to develop rules requiring public companies to disclose their political spending. We are delighted to announce that, as reflected in the SEC’s webpage for comments filed on our petition, the SEC has now received more than a million comment letters regarding the petition. To our knowledge, the petition has attracted far more comments than any other SEC rulemaking petition—or, indeed, than any other issue on which the Commission has accepted public comment—in the history of the SEC.
On June 25, 2014, the UK Government published the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill  which, among other things, proposes that all UK companies (other than publicly traded companies reporting under the Disclosure and Transparency Rules (DTR5)) be required to maintain a register of people who have significant control over the company. The Bill is part of the UK Government’s initiative to implement the G8 Action Plan to prevent the misuse of companies and legal arrangements agreed at the Lough Erne G8 Summit in June 2013, which we discussed in our client alert entitled “Through the Looking Glass: The Disclosure of Ultimate Ownership and the G8 Action Plan” (June 20, 2013).  In broad terms, the G8 Action Plan is designed to ensure the integrity of beneficial ownership and basic company information and the timely access to that information by law enforcement and tax authorities.