Peek-a-boo, I See You

Attention public companies: The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, affectionately known as “peek-a-boo,” is watching you ever so closely…and wants to see even more of you.

That was the underlying message delivered by PCAOB Board member Greg Jonas as he addressed the recent second annual University of California-Irvine’s Audit Committee Summit, sponsored in part by PondelWilkinson.

“Regulators’ role is to be sure that investors hear the good, the bad and the ugly,” Jonas said. “Our challenge is to be useful and not just get in the way.”

Jonas spoke about the PCAOB’s “concept” issued in July, seeking public comment on 28 potential audit quality indicators to help identify insights into how high quality audits are achieved.

Jim Schnurr, Chief Accountant for the Securities and Exchange Commission, who is responsible for establishing and enforcing accounting and auditing policy and served as the event’s keynote speaker, interpreted the PCAOB’s project as a determining factor of whether additional public company disclosures should be made, particularly regarding greater oversight of management.

“The audit committee is in an excellent position to gain insight into management controls,” said Schnurr. “Avoidance of boilerplate reporting and minimizing the risk of litigation should be high on the directors’ agendas.”

Schnurr offered additional tips for audit committee members that should resonate with management:

  • Focus on effective disclosure
  • Increase the use of hyperlinks in communications
  • Periodically re-evaluate the relevance of disclosure items
  • Use solid judgment about what is not being disclosed
  • Be certain that audit committee members have the bandwidth to properly fill their roles

Two expert panel discussions followed Schnurr’s and Jonas’s addresses. Panelist Bala Iyer, audit committee chair at QLogic, offered a number of suggestions, focusing heavily on three: asking tough questions; trusting management; and taking the time to thoroughly understand the business.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which created the PCAOB, requires that auditors of U.S. public companies be subject to external, independent oversight for the first time in history. The Board has no authority over public companies, but its work can have deep implications. Here’s looking atchya.

– Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Access, Tenure, Pay

The 2015 proxy season is underway, and following our exhaustive annual Google search for trends, it is clear that three major issues are leading the way on this year’s ballots: corporate access; board tenure/composition; and once again, executive pay.

Regarding corporate access, everyone seems to be talking about New York City Controller Scott Stringer’s filing of proxy access proposals at 75 companies, all at once, whose shares are owned by the New York City Pension Funds. Stringer’s proposals, as with most on this subject, request that companies adopt bylaws giving shareholders who own at least 3 percent of a company for three or more years the right to list their director candidates, representing up to 25 percent of the board. Some call for 5 percent ownership. There are some interesting pros and cons of letting shareholders have their way so easily, explained well in a Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/corpgov/.

On the board composition/tenure issue, just how long can a board member serve and still be an independent advocate of the shareholders? Investors are concerned that long-serving directors may not be really independent and engaged. They may have made too many friends on the board and among the management teams. Institutional Investor Services (ISS), www.issgovernance.com, the leading proxy advisory firm, says nine years should be about it. Other aspects of this subject that are gaining steam include board diversity, with the term “board refreshment” becoming quite in vogue.

Lastly, always a bugaboo, the subject of executive compensation again seems to be receiving heightened attention. Aligning pay with performance is nothing new and always good, and boards seem to be doing a pretty good job of it. Even though the votes are non-binding, “yes” or a “no” votes that do not pass by large margins can signal shareholder discontent. Many companies see major swings in their say-on-pay votes from one year to the next. Read more at www.corporatesecretary.com.

- Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

For Public Companies, It’s Always Something

It seems like every day there is a new article or hypothesis about corporate boards and governance.  Diversity…Say on Pay…Proxy Access…Tenure.  You name it, it’s been debated.

A new Ernst and Young study takes on the topic of board member skills, or more specifically providing more disclosure to investors about the skills and experience of board members.  According to Ernst and Young, “Investors increasingly seek confirmation that boards have the skill sets and expertise needed to provide strategic counsel and oversee key risks facing the company, including environmental and social risks.”  Of the 50 institutional investors interviewed, more than three-quarters do not believe companies do enough to explain why they have the right people in the boardroom.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a thorough approach to selecting directors is more important than lower mandatory retirement ages for board members.  It only makes sense that investors be more concerned about what each director can bring to the table (pun intended) than how old that director is or how long they have been serving.  Although, these issues are also hot buttons for today’s boards.

As we tweeted earlier this week, there are more than 100 proxy access proposals thus far in 2015, up from just 17 last year, signaling that institutional investors want to be part of the process for selecting who will be guiding the companies they own.  Fourteen corporations are taking a more proactive approaching by voluntarily agreeing to give investors the ability to nominate their own directors.

It will likely be some time before corporate America turns over the board selection process, but in the meantime, we continue to believe that disclosure and transparency in governance for listed companies are the best way to build and maintain credibility and goodwill.

– Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

SEC Enforces Insider Transaction Rules As Boards Authorize Buybacks at Brisk Pace

 

1903 stock certificate of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1903 stock certificate of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Insider buying or selling of shares is one of the most emotional and telltale communications messages a public company can send.

Last week, the SEhanded out charges against 28 officers, directors and major shareholders for violating federal securities laws requiring the prompt reporting of information about transactions in company stock.  In addition, six publicly traded companies were charged for contributing to filing failures by insiders or failing to report their insiders’ filing delinquencies.
 
Curiously, the SEC did not say whether or not those transactions were on the buy or sell side. But this is important stuff and a subject that many investors hold sacrosanct.
 
Some funds immediately sell if they see insiders are selling for anything other than “personal” reasons, such as sending a child to college. And other investors immediately buy when they see insiders buy, believing those insiders must know something positive about the future. The same usually holds true when companies initiate buyback programs.
 
A news release issued by the SEC September 10 said information about insider buying and selling gives investors an “opportunity to evaluate whether the holdings and transactions of company insiders could be indicative of the company’s future prospects.”
 
Granted, it is important to look at much more than insider transactions when evaluating a stock’s viability. But as Peter Lynch, who is still regarded as one of the greatest and smartest investors of all time, has said on numerous occasions: “Insiders may sell their shares for any number of reasons, but they buy for only one—they think the price will rise.”
 
So while it is not necessary in this blog to name names of those violators, as the SEC’s press release did (in case you want to know), 33 of the 34 individuals and companies cited agreed to settle the charges and pay financial penalties totaling $2.6 million.
 
“Using quantitative analytics, we identified individuals and companies with especially high rates of filing deficiencies, and we are bringing these actions together to send a clear message about the importance of these filing provisions,” said Andrew J. Ceresney, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, in the news release.
 
There are usually no such communications issues when public company boards authorize buyback programs. Making a public announcement, usually via news release, is often one of the key reasons such programs are launched—to make a statement that one’s stock is undervalued and we’re not going to take it anymore.
 
In fact, according to an analysis by Barclays PLC as reported in the Wall Street Journal September 16, companies are buying back their own shares these days at the fastest pace since the financial meltdown, and companies with the largest buyback programs have outperformed the broader market by 20 percent.
 
Barclays’ head of U.S. equities strategy, Jonathan Glionna, as reported in the same article, said that among the reasons why companies do stock buybacks, “one is that it seems to work; it makes stocks go up.”

– Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

 

PW Participates in IR Certification Exam

First it was the CPA certification for accountants, instituted in 1917.

 

Then in 1963 came the CFA credential, administered by the CFA Institute, for finance and investment professionals, particularly in the fields of investment management and financial analysis of stocks, bonds and their derivative assets.

 

One year later, in 1964, the Public Relations Society of America, www.prsa.org, launched the APR designation as a way to recognize PR practitioners who have mastered the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to develop and deliver strategic communications.

 

Soon, investor relations professionals, courtesy of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI), www.niri.org, will have a test of their own. The designation has yet to be named, but development of the Body of Knowledge (BOK) is now underway, and the inaugural exam is scheduled for mid-2015.

 

The BOK is the basis for most certification exams, including the CFA. It forms the base of teachings, skills, and research in a given function, along with details on the essential competencies required of a practitioner based on a set number of years of experience.

 

It is with great honor that I am serving as an advisor to the NIRI committee preparing the first BOK for the investor relations profession.  I will be working directly with editor Ted Allen and a distinguished group of 25 investor relations professionals from throughout the nation who will write the definitive book—one that will represent every element of the requisite knowledge that will be tested in the IR certification exam.

 

It’s a big project and a tall order, especially for a profession whose practitioners require a wide range of knowledge, spanning disciplines that include finance, accounting, capital markets, news media, disclosure regulations, public relations practices and virtually all aspects of communications.

 

Canada and the UK currently have IR certification programs, and two U.S. universities—Fordham and the University of San Francisco—offer graduate degrees in investor relations.

 

While validation of competency through an exam or graduate degree may not guarantee practical success, we at PondelWilkinson are proud to have been asked to participate in this milestone endeavor for our industry.  I’ll keep you posted as the program develops, but please do not ask me for any answers to the exam—none of the BOK committee members will have access to it!

 

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

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Soft Intelligence and Social Media

Cyber security and cyber threats abound, information security policies are now owned at the highest levels of a company from the C-suite to the board, according to EY’s 2013 Global Information Security Survey “Under Cyber Attack.” While companies seek to protect intellectual property and disruption caused by hackers, one area, as it relates to intelligence gathering by investors, deserves further attention: the oversharing of personal information on social networks.Linked-In
 
Today, social media use by institutional investors stands at approximately 52%, according to a NIRI survey earlier this summer. What I am noticing more and more in my daily conversations with investors is that social media seems to be emerging as a tool to get an edge on impending news, particularly as it relates to the broadcasting of new LinkedIn connections.
 
While tracking Facebook “likes” on emerging brands as a proxy for potential revenue growth or monitoring hiring trends or personnel departures from company LinkedIn pages to gauge near term expenses might seem an obvious use of social media to impact investment decisions, what might not seem so important is the innocuous LinkedIn request.
 
Following a roadshow or investor conference, management might receive a request to “connect” from an institutional investor. If the request is accepted, consider what that might mean going forward if new connections are then broadcast to that investor; it may very well tip your hand on impending news.
 
A quick fix would be to turn off LinkedIn activity broadcasts by visiting the privacy settings of your account. Longer term, it’s wise to consider a companywide policy.
 
Matt Sheldon, msheldon@pondel.com

Social Securities

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent decision allowing public companies to announce information via social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter is a logical next step for a government agency that has been relatively non-committal about new information channels.

Most public companies think in terms of 10-Ks, 10-Qs, 8-Ks and the like when it comes to disclosure, in addition to issuing news releases on wire services, such as Business Wire, PRNewswire, GlobeNewswire and Marketwire. But times are-a-changin’, indeed. When an executive can speak directly to his or her audience on Facebook or Twitter, it seems superfluous to shell out thousands of dollars a year to issue news releases.

Tweeting a link to financial results is, in many ways, a lot easier (and certainly less expensive) than uploading an eight-page news release to a wire service. So what if tweeting financial results will not reach Yahoo! Finance, Google News and other websites that are fed by wire services. Consider how liberating it might feel to spoon feed your messages directly to audiences who care the most about your news.

Not so fast.

To think that social media are a perfectly benign and convenient way to disclose information is about as naïve as believing that Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un are BFF. Consider the fact that thousands upon thousands of fictitious identities are created on Facebook and Twitter on a weekly, if not daily basis. Now add to the mix that companies are issuing market-moving information on these very same networks, and soon the powder keg doubles, triples and quadruples in size.

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media and believe that a plurality of channels begets a more well-informed public. But the SEC doesn’t (likely) have the bandwidth to police the myriad shenanigans that social media have the ability to perpetuate.

And so my question is this: Is the SEC saying OK to social media to save face(book) on the fact that it did not initiate an enforcement action on Netflix CEO Reed Hastings? Or is it due time for the SEC to embrace social media for what they really are: new information channels that have the potential to breed a hornet’s nest of Reg FD infractions.

 

Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

Video: The Next New Thing in Earnings

 
We can’t stress enough the importance of video and its pervasive use in today’s media landscape.
 
Aside from the sharing benefits and vast potential online media pickup, video creates stronger bonds with key audiences.  It’s why we love movies so much.  There’s no other medium that produces the same visceral effect.
 
Publicly traded companies are starting to realize this trend.  Early adopters are using this medium to complement quarterly earnings, embedding video links in press releases as we did for our client (see above), Kirkland-based Market Leader, Inc. (Nasdaq: LEDR).  Done right, videos that accompany press releases of all kinds should be news driven versus corporate slick, delivering more authenticity that is designed for viral uptick.  Other companies that have used video for earnings include DellCitiBASF, and InterContinental Hotels.
 
Leveraging video to communicate financial results can be quite daunting however, especially since these platforms are relatively new to investor audiences.   While the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations offers guidance on the use of social media for investment advisers, the bottom line boils down to best company judgment, and of course, input from counsel.
 
Professional investors are watching too.  According to a study, 58 percent of institutional investors and sell-side analysts in the U.S. and Europe believe new media will become more important in helping them make investment decisions.
 
There’s no doubt that using social media to communicate to investors remains a fairly prickly topic among CEOs and the investment community.  The reality is that more Fortune 500 companies are blogging, tweeting and utilizing new media platforms to communicate to key audiences in ways never before.  Moreover, engaging in video builds social capital, a valuable network that ultimately enhances reputation, and we believe shareholder value, too.

 

George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com
 
 

Is Aligning Executive Pay with Stock Performance A Good Thing?

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “CEO pay during 2011 was more firmly correlated to how well companies fared in the stock market, a change from 2010, when pay and performance were not directly related.”

New York Stock Exchange

The New York Stock Exchange, the world’s largest stock exchange by market capitalization (Photo credit: wikipedia.com)

 
Indeed, the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, which gave shareholders an advisory vote on executive-pay plans, caused many companies to alter how, and how much, they pay CEOs.  One would think this is good news to investors, who have long clamored for the interests of senior management to be aligned with shareholders.
 
However, Lynn A. Stout, a Cornell Law School professor and author of “The Shareholder Value Myth,” believes this has inadvertently empowered hedge funds that push for short term solutions. She notes that the average holding period of stock was eight years in 1960; today, it is four months.  Ms. Stout argues that the directive to “Maximize Shareholder Value” has led to an epidemic of accounting fraud, short term thinking by management and myopic trading strategies by investors.
 
Because of the pressure exerted by hedge funds to push stock prices higher, which often comes at the expense of the organization’s long term value, Ms. Stout advocates limiting the role of investors so that executives and boards of directors are freed up to think about customers and employees, allowing them to invest in the company’s future and act socially responsible.
 
Ms. Stout and corporate governance advocates appear to have diametrically opposed beliefs on how corporations are best managed.  Perhaps a blending of the two views is appropriate: empower shareholders to safeguard their investments by actively preventing manager conflicts of interest and self-dealing, and lock investors into their investments so they do not push for short-term strategies.

 

PondelWilkinson, investor@pondel.com
 
 

Rudyard Kipling and the SEC

Rudyard Kipling.jpg

Logging on to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s website this week to check on a client’s filing, I took a brief detour to peruse other parts of the site. 
 
You wouldn’t know by looking at the home page or by clicking on the news section that the market was gyrating and  people were panicked.  In fact, it seemed like business as usual.  And maybe that’s a good thing.
 
I looked at the bios of the five commissioners, including chair Mary Schapiro. They all have impressive backgrounds, but interestingly enough, none ever worked in a publicly traded company.  Hmmm.
 
Last Friday, the day investors were recovering from the previous day’s  512-point stock market drop, the SEC issued a press release announcing that Commissioner Kathleen L. Casey was stepping down, having completed her five-year term.  No mention of the market’s volatility. Other SEC news that day included the Commission’s insider trading charge against a public company board member and his son. Baseball great Doug DeCinces got the same kind of charge the day before.  That was really a bad day for Doug.
 
Again this  week, with unprecedented market gyrations, four unrelated SEC news releases have been issued:  an announcement of a meeting in China regarding audit oversight cooperation; broker fraud involving the sale of investments to a school district in the mid-west; insider trading prior to a Disney deal; and today’s announcement of a new whistleblowerprogram.
 
By the way, press releases aside, there’s other interesting information on the SEC’s website, from special studies, interesting complaints and even job postings.
 
The SEC has been around since 1934, formed during the peak years of the Great Depression, just after passage of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934–both of which were designed to restore investor confidence in our capital markets by providing investors and the markets with more reliable information and “clear rules of honest dealing.”
 
The Commission’s stated mission is “to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly and efficient markets and facilitate capital formation.”
 
The website states that “As more and more first-time investors turn to the markets to help secure their futures, pay for homes and send their children to college, our investor protection mission is more compelling than ever.”
 
The SEC’s steady, business-as-usual approach to news is refreshing and symbolic of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If,” which reminds us all to keep our heads while others are losing theirs.

 

– Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com