ATTORNEY: BRENDA SZYDLO
POMERANTZ MONITOR: MAY/JUNE 2019
After the stock market crash in October 1929 that led to the Great Depression, public confidence in the markets was at an all-time low. The Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 were designed to restore confidence in public markets by providing investors with more reliable information.
On March 20, 2019, without an open meeting, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) voted to trim certain disclosure requirements for public companies. The only dissenting Commissioner was Robert Jackson. According to the SEC’s March 20, 2019 press release, “[t]he amendments are intended to improve the readability and navigability of company disclosures, and to discourage repetition and disclosure of immaterial information.”
The final amendments are consistent with the SEC’s mandate under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (“FAST”) Act. In 2015, Congress mandated the SEC to review Regulation S-K, the rules that describe what public companies must report in public disclosures, and to streamline where possible. The amendments are also based on recommendations in the SEC staff’s FAST Act Report as well as an overall review of the SEC’s disclosure rules. The amendments span a number of topics; the more significant amendments are discussed below.
Elimination of Confidential Treatment Request Process
Specifically, the amendments provide that in regulatory filings, public companies can redact confidential information in material contracts and certain other exhibits without submitting a confidential treatment request. Regulation S-K has been amended to provide that a public company can make this decision on its own, as long as the information is not material and would likely cause competitive harm to the company if publicly disclosed. While issuers will surely find this amendment to be one of the most welcome changes in the new rules, investors will clearly be left with less information, which is troubling.
Commissioner Jackson is also troubled by the new rule. In a March 26, 2019 public statement on the final rules, Commissioner Jackson stated:
The rule . . . removes our Staff’s role as gatekeepers when companies redact information from disclosures – despite evidence that redactions already deprive investors of important information.
Historically, we’ve required firms to work with our Staff when sensitive information is redacted from exhibits to registration statements. There are often good reasons for our Staff to permit redactions. But recent research shows that redactions already include information that insiders or the market deem material – showing how important careful review of these requests can be for investors.
Today’s rule removes both the requirement that firms seek Staff review before redacting their filings and the requirement that companies give our Staff the materials they intend to redact. The release doesn’t grapple with the effects of that decision for the marketplace. But one thing is clear: in a world where redactions already rob the market of information investors need, firms will now feel more free to redact as they wish. And investors, without the assurance that redactions have been reviewed by our Staff, will face more uncertainty.
Only Two-Year Discussion Needed in Management’s Discussion and Analysis
The SEC also amended the rules to provide that public companies may disclose less information in the Management Discussion and Analysis (“MD&A”) section of their filings. MD&As, which are the opinions of management, provide an overview of how the company performed in prior periods, its current financial condition, and projected results. This is one of the most closely reviewed parts of a company’s financial statements. Historically, in an annual report on Form 10-K or Form 20-F, a public company was required to address the three-year period covered by the financial statements included in the filing. In the final amendments as adopted, where companies provide financial statements covering three years in the filing, companies will generally be able to exclude discussion of the earliest of three years in the MD&A if they have already included the discussion in a prior filing.
Description of Property Holdings
Prior to amendment, the rules provided that public companies must disclose the location and general character of the principal plants, mines and other materially important physical properties of the registrant and its subsidiaries. Because the rule created ambiguity and elicited information that may not have been consistently material, the rules were amended to provide that public companies are required to disclose information about their physical properties only to the extent that it is material to the companies.
Two-Year Look-Back for Material Contracts
Prior to amendment, the rules required companies to file every contract not made in the ordinary course of business if the contract is material and (i) to be performed after the filing of the registration statement or report, or (ii) was entered into not more than two years before the filing. The amended rules limit the application of the two-year look-back requirement for material contracts only to newly reporting registrants.
The SEC Abandons a Proposed Amendment Regarding Legal Entity Identifiers
The SEC also decided not to adopt a proposed amendment that would have required companies to include legal entity identifiers (“LEIs”) of the registrant and each subsidiary listed in financial transactions. The LEI is a 20-digit, alphanumeric code that identifies legal entities participating in financial transactions. Given the increasingly complex organizational structures of companies, LEIs provide a precise standard for identifying legal entities responsible for risk-taking. Commissioner Jackson was troubled that this proposed amendment was abandoned. He was particularly concerned that “the financial crisis taught regulators that firms’ complex structures made it impossible to identify the corporate entities responsible for risk taking,” and that the Commission majority had provided “little evidence or reasoning” for eliminating that requirement. He concluded that, overall, the proposed new rules would “rob the market of information investors need to price decisions.”
Pomerantz echoes Commissioner Jackson’s concerns that abandoning a proposed amendment regarding LEIs and trimming certain disclosure rules for public companies rob the market of information investors need to price decisions.