Fittingly, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) came into March like a lion. In addition to numerous SEC enforcement actions being filed this month, there were important developments with respect to the SEC’s enforcement and examination programs.  This notice briefly describes three of these SEC developments.

March 3:  SEC Division of Examinations Releases 2021 Examination Priorities

The SEC’s Division of Examinations (formerly the Division of Compliance and Examinations) released its 2021 Examination Priorities.  The Division publishes examination priorities annually to provide insights into its current approach to conducting examinations of registered broker-dealers and investment advisers and to highlight the areas it believes present potential risks to investors and market integrity.

Some of the key SEC examination priorities identified in the release are:

  • Compliance with Regulation Best Interest and whether registered investment advisers have fulfilled their fiduciary duties of care and loyalty.
  • Whether firm business continuity and disaster recovery plans are accounting for the growing risks associated with climate change.
  • Adequacy of the compliance programs of registered investment advisers.
  • Compliance with anti-money laundering requirements.
  • Firm exposure to LIBOR and firm preparations for the discontinuation of LIBOR.


Continue Reading SEC Roars Into March With Significant Enforcement Developments

I was quoted in an article published by The Wall Street Journal examining how companies are reporting the financial impact of COVID-19 in disclosures. Regulating bodies have warned they will be closely monitoring disclosures this year to ensure companies are not misleading investors about the true positive and negative financial effects of the pandemic.

According

Bass, Berry & Sims attorneys Kevin Douglas, Eric Knox and Sehrish Siddiqui were co-presenters alongside Stephanie Bignon, Assistant General Counsel, Delta Air Lines and Priya Galante, Vice President, Assistant General Counsel & Assistant Secretary, AutoZone at the Society for Corporate Governance’s Southeastern Chapter webinar earlier this month.

This program, titled, “Preparing for the Upcoming Proxy

Following up on our prior blog post regarding 2020 first quarter COVID-19 adjustments in connection with the presentation of non-GAAP financial measures, we surveyed 102 S&P 500 companies who presented Adjusted EBITDA in their earnings release filed from October 1, 2020, to December 31, 2020.

We focused on Adjusted EBITDA in this survey (recognizing that such measure is utilized more frequently in some industries than others) because such measure is commonly utilized by public companies to measure their operational performance and frequently includes adjustments for items that are believed not to reflect the ongoing operational performance of the company.  While we limited our survey to S&P 500 companies that presented Adjusted EBITDA, we believe that the survey results have relevance for companies that present other types of non-GAAP performance measures that are adjusted for special items or items outside of the ordinary course of business.

Survey Results

Of the surveyed companies, 16 companies, or approximately 16%, included an adjustment in their calculation of Adjusted EBITDA related in some form to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 84% did not. The companies that included a COVID-19 adjustment in their Adjusted EBITDA calculation span across various industries, including, but not limited to, oil & gas, real estate, telecom services, lodging/hotel, and medical/scientific instruments.
Continue Reading Adjusting for COVID-19 in Non-GAAP Financial Measures: A Survey of 2020 Fourth Quarter Disclosure Practices

I was recently featured on the Deep Dive with Dave podcast hosted by Dave Lynn from TheCorporateCounsel.net. Dave and I discussed the following questions:

  • Has the SEC staff been commenting on disclosures about COVID-19 in public filings?
  • What areas of comment has the Staff raised regarding COVID-19?
  • What approach has the Staff taken with respect

In a prelude of things to come for public companies, on December 4 the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sued restaurant operator The Cheesecake Factory Incorporated for making misleading disclosures regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its financial conditions and operations. After issuing warnings and guidance to public companies since the early stages of the pandemic, this is the SEC’s first time charging a public company for misleading disclosures relating to the pandemic.

Allegations Against The Cheesecake Factory

The allegations against The Cheesecake Factory are straight forward. Early in the pandemic, The Cheesecake Factory disclosed in SEC filings that its restaurants were “operating sustainably.” The SEC alleged this disclosure contradicted internal company documents, which showed that due to the pandemic the company was losing approximately $6 million in cash per week, was projected to run out of cash in 16 weeks, and had notified its landlords that it would not pay rent in April.

The inadequacy of The Cheesecake Factory’s SEC filings was further confirmed according to the SEC when the company later shared the undisclosed financial information with potential private equity investors and lenders in connection with an effort to seek additional liquidity.


Continue Reading SEC Files First Charges for Inadequate Public Company COVID-19 Disclosures

On November 17, in response to a formal rulemaking petition that garnered support from nearly 100 public companies, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a final rule amending Regulation S-T and the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval system (EDGAR) Filer Manual to permit the use of electronic signatures when electronically filing documents with the SEC. The amendments will be effective upon publication in the Federal Register, though the SEC indicated in its November 20 Statement that it will not take enforcement action against issuers who elect to comply with the amendments before their effectiveness so long as signatories comply with the new requirements.

Amended Rule 302(b) and Other Amendments

Rule 302(b) of Regulation S-T, as amended, will permit a signatory to an electronic filing to electronically sign the document, provided that the signatory follows certain procedures and the electronic signature meets certain requirements specified in the EDGAR Filer Manual. Under those requirements, the electronic signing process must, at a minimum do the following:

  • Require the signatory to present a physical, logical, or digital credential that authenticates the signatory’s individual identity.
  • Reasonably provide for non-repudiation of the signature.
  • Provide that the signature be attached, affixed, or otherwise logically associated with the signature page or document being signed.
  • Include a timestamp to record the date and time of the signature.


Continue Reading SEC Adopts Rules Permitting Use of Electronic Signatures and Provides Further COVID-19 Relief

This is a continuation of our series addressing steps companies can take to protect themselves during government enforcement actions related to COVID-19. For more information, see our previous articles addressing corporate best practices and the health care industry.

COVID-19 has affected the financial conditions and operations of all public companies, most in a negative way but some in very positive ways. Regardless of the impact, all public companies must consider the anticipated scrutiny they will receive from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the possible risk they face from SEC Enforcement if they do not proceed with caution. While the rules and landscape may continue to evolve, it seems apparent at this point that SEC scrutiny related to COVID-19 is most relevant in the following ways.

1. SEC Enforcement’s role in monitoring relief funding. In a prior article, we discussed steps health care companies can take to protect themselves against government investigations related to COVID-19. But all companies that received relief funding must be careful.


Continue Reading How Public Companies Can Protect Against SEC Scrutiny Related to COVID-19

Subscribers to our blog know that we monitor EDGAR for new SEC comment letters and enjoy bringing attention to the more interesting ones.  In today’s blog post, we bring you three new SEC comment letter exchanges.

  • In the first, the SEC asks the registrant for more information related to a COVID-19-related adjustment in its non-GAAP financial measure.
  • The second involves the SEC questioning, and eventually disagreeing with, the registrant’s materiality analysis under Staff Accounting Bulletin No. 99 (SAB 99).
  • The third letter involves an offering document produced by South Korea.

SEC Staff Wants More Information about a COVID-19 Adjustment in Non-GAAP Net Income

We’ve previously blogged about COVID-19-related adjustments in connection with the presentation of non-GAAP financial measures, including the difficulty that some public companies may have in reasonably quantifying the extent to which incremental expenses were driven by the COVID-19 pandemic as opposed to other factors.
Continue Reading Recent SEC Comment Letters of Interest Regarding COVID-19 Adjustments, SAB 99 and South Korea

Following up on our prior blog post regarding first quarter COVID-19 risk factor disclosure considerations and our prior blog post regarding second quarter COVID-19 risk factor disclosure considerations, we surveyed the risk factor disclosures of 75 calendar year-end NYSE- and Nasdaq-listed companies included in Quarterly Reports on Form 10-Q (Form 10-Qs) filed for the first and second quarters of 2020.

Risk Factor Survey Results

Of the companies surveyed, we found that 96%, or 72 of the companies surveyed, included standalone risk factors related to COVID-19 (the average number of COVID-19 risk factors was approximately 1.16). None of the companies surveyed included an additional standalone COVID-19 risk factor in the second quarter Form 10-Q that was not in the first quarter Form 10-Q.  Approximately 63%, or 47 of the companies surveyed, updated their COVID-19 risk factor disclosure from their first quarter 2020 Form 10-Q in their second quarter 2020 Form 10-Q.

The three companies that did not include a standalone COVID-19 risk factor disclosure during their first or second quarter 2020 Form 10-Q did include language indicating that COVID-19 could exacerbate or heighten the risk factors that were previously included in their 2019 Annual Report on Form 10-K. A small portion of the companies we surveyed repeated the risk factor disclosure from their first quarter Form 10-Q verbatim in their second quarter Form 10-Q. However, most of the companies that did not update their first quarter Form 10-Q COVID-19 risk factor disclosure in their second quarter Form 10-Q incorporated their first quarter Form 10-Q risk factor disclosure by reference.


Continue Reading Updated Risk Factors in Response to COVID-19