Sustainability Reporting After the Paris Climate Accord

It’s fair to say that President Trump’s June 1 announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord has been widely reported. It’s also fair to say that the announcement triggered a host of passionate reactions, positive and negative, around the world. Within corporate America, a number of high-profile corporations (for example, Apple, Disney, Facebook, General Electric, Google, Salesforce, Tesla and Twitter) pledged to continue their efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adhere to the spirit of the accord. This leads one to wonder whether withdrawal from the Paris climate accord might, per the law of unintended consequences, actually increase investor emphasis on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the number of companies that voluntarily report their sustainability initiatives. It’s an intriguing possibility. Momentum for sustainability reporting has been building for years. In fact, the vast majority of S&P 500 companies now publish some type of sustainability or CSR report, and disclosures have begun to appear in SEC filings, particularly proxy statements. Mid-size and smaller companies, lacking the resources of their larger brethren, have been slower to do so, though some have begun and others are giving it serious consideration. Increased pressure from institutional investors, employees and other stakeholders, now coupled with widespread concern over withdrawal from the accord, could tip the reporting balance, especially for companies in sustainability-sensitive industries or companies that otherwise want to send a certain message. One challenge for all companies is to make sense out of the CSR reporting landscape. First of all, the terminology itself—sustainability, CSR, environmental, social and governance (ESG), and triple bottom line, to name a few—is confusingly ambiguous...

Introducing a Fresh Perspective on Governance, Risk and Compliance

With the fifth anniversary of Doug’s Note fast approaching (and more than 250 posts and 250,000 reads in the rearview mirror), it seemed like a good time to consider where to go from here. Where, as it turns out, was to create a companion blog devoted to governance, risk and compliance, which are among the hottest issues in corporate America these days. Parker Poe’s GRC Blog reflects the joint contributions of our GRC team, co-led by Jane Lewis-Raymond, former chief compliance officer and general counsel of a large public company, and by me. Together, we provide more than 50 years of experience counseling public and private companies of all shapes and sizes on compliance program design, risk assessment, enterprise risk management, crisis management, remediation and training. Essential to the blog’s success are the contributions of our larger GRC team, which consists of attorneys whose practices focus on such key areas of corporate compliance as: Anti-Bribery & Anti-Corruption Antitrust & Consumer Protection Criminal & Regulatory White Collar Compliance Crisis Management Cybersecurity & Data Privacy Employment Environmental Government Contracting & False Claims Act Compliance Immigration SEC Reporting & Compliance Tax Trade Compliance Our GRC Blog includes insights on such matters as creating a compliance culture, ensuring compliance with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and the DOJ’s program evaluation guidance, the interplay of compliance professionals, executive management and boards of directors, balancing GRC goals against the realities of budget and personnel constraints, and a whole lot more. Recent posts include, for example: Take-aways from the recent global ransomware attack (click here), The board of directors’ role in compliance programs (click here) , Where...

Brexit’s Impact on the U.S. Capital Markets

You may have heard by now that the U.K. plans to leave the European Union at some point in the next few years. Since the British voted back on June 23, 2016, there has been no shortage of learned analysis/rank speculation about Brexit’s future impact on the U.K. and EU economies and financial markets. Opinions range from dire to blasé, with reality likely to fall (as it is wont) somewhere in the middle. One surprising consequence, however, may be Brexit’s impact on U.S. capital markets. In a recent Heard on the Street column in The Wall Street Journal, Paul J. Davies theorizes from London that post-Brexit EU companies may have no choice but to tap the U.S. capital markets to make up for less convenient access to U.K. investors. It’s an intriguing, and believable, hypothesis. Mr. Davies notes that much of the capital used to fund business expansion comes from savings, mostly in the form of pension funds, insurance companies and investment funds. He cites statistics provided by the Financial Stability Board, Investment Company Institute, European Central Bank and OECD showing that eurozone savings total less than 150% of its total GDP, as compared to more than 250% of GDP in the U.K. and 240% of GDP in the U.S. He notes further that there currently is no single set of capital markets laws and standards within the EU, making it hard to raise capital simultaneously in several eurozone countries. Therefore, frequent or large eurozone issuers often turn to the U.K.’s massive capital markets. Post-Brexit, that may not be feasible. As a result, Mr. Davies says, EU companies may...

Thwarting Shareholder Activism Through Engagement

As the 2017 proxy season draws to a close for most companies, it is obvious that shareholder activism remains alive and well, though the actual number of public activist campaigns appears to have tapered off slightly as compared to recent years. Activism takes many forms, ranging from takeover proxy battles to proxy access proposals to single-issue social welfare proposals. Particularly noteworthy is an apparent trend among institutional investors to target small and mid-size companies, perhaps believing (perhaps correctly) that these companies are ill-prepared to resist their forays. Companies have a wide array of defensive techniques at their disposal, depending on the nature of the activist’s approach, one of which is effective shareholder engagement. The good news is that more and more institutions are welcoming, and even encouraging, engagement with their portfolio companies. And while small and mid-size companies still sometimes struggle to get the attention of major institutions, this has become less problematic now that shareholder engagement is standard practice in corporate America. Although many of the governance benefits of shareholder engagement are widely known, often overlooked is its ability to thwart shareholder activism. Better communication between the company and its major shareholders reduces misunderstandings about management’s strategy or the reasons behind its latest moves. Misunderstandings, in turn, may lead to activism, or a willingness to side with activists. Strong relationships with traditionally non-activist institutional shareholders (by far the larger percentage) have the ability to actually deter activist behavior before it even happens, or to nip it before it gains too much momentum. For example, many activist shareholders own a relatively small percentage of the target company, particularly as compared...

Compliance Program Oversight—The Board’s Overlooked Role

It’s long been axiomatic that an effective compliance program cannot exist without a strong ethics and compliance culture, which in turn requires the proper “tone from the top.” Yet, when most companies think “top,” they think C-suite. After all, tone starts with the CEO, right? And the C-suite is where you find many CCOs, or the executive to whom the CCO directly reports. Also, that’s where decisions are made about staffing the compliance function, allocating funds to implement the program and the host of other operational matters that determine whether the program is robust, minimalistic or non-existent. Often overlooked, however, is the crucial role of the board of directors. Most directors have a general understanding that their fiduciary duties include compliance oversight. After all, it’s been more than 20 years since the Delaware Court of Chancery held in its famous Caremark decision that directors could, in certain circumstances, be determined to have breached their fiduciary duty and, therefore, be liable for company losses due to compliance program failures. Later, the Delaware Supreme Court in Stone v. Ritter held that a director’s failure to implement and oversee aspects of a compliance program could constitute an unindemnifiable breach of the duty of loyalty. But how well do boards really understand their compliance program obligations? And to what extent do many boards devote time and effort to ensuring that their performance would pass muster under the microscope of hindsight when (not if) a compliance breach occurs? Is it enough for them to know that someone in the company has been given the title of CCO? Is it enough to allocate 30 minutes...