In recent years, publicly traded retailers have experienced a significant uptick in interest from investors focused on Environmental, Social and Governance (“ESG”) issues. On April 23, 2018, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) released Field Assistance Bulletin 2018-01 (the “FAB”). The FAB applies to certain retirement plan fiduciaries who make investment and proxy voting decisions that derive from ESG concerns, and may impact investor behavior at public retailers.

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At the end of February, the SEC staff issued a No-Action Letter to Dunkin’ Brands Group, Inc., permitting the company to exclude a shareholder proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(5), often referred to as the economic relevance exception. This is the first no-action relief granted under the rule since the SEC issued Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14I (“SLB 14I”) on November 1, 2017, and it could have implications for other retailers seeking to exclude shareholder proposals under the rule in the future. Continue Reading SEC Staff Permits Exclusion of Shareholder Proposal Under Economic Relevance Exception

This was a breakout year for blockchain, the technology providing the platform for cryptocurrencies and the emerging market for initial coin offerings and token sales. With bitcoin capturing headlines because of its soaring price, blockchain’s impact is often misunderstood as narrowly affecting the financial sector. Hunton & Williams LLP’s corporate lawyers Scott H. Kimpel and Mayme Beth Donohue discuss with Law360 why “retail and consumer products companies can no longer afford to ignore blockchain as a passing trend.”

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The Initial Coin Offering (“ICO”) market exploded in 2017 with almost $4 billion of investments. Securities regulators in the United States have responded first with a series of public warnings and, more recently, by bringing enforcement actions against promoters of ICOs and other digital currency investments. We survey some of the recent regulatory developments in this rapidly evolving field. Continue Reading Securities Regulators Expand Oversight of ICO Market and Digital Currency

On December 11, 2017, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order against Munchee Inc. after finding that the company’s initial coin offering (“ICO”) constituted unregistered offers and sales of securities. Munchee sought to raise $15 million for its blockchain-based food review and social platform by selling digital tokens to users that could be used to buy and sell goods and services through an iPhone app. Munchee and others promoting the ICO told investors that the tokens could be expected to increase in value as the company implemented improvements to the app and said that the company would work to support a secondary market for the tokens.  Continue Reading Company Ends Initial Coin Offering after SEC Finds Securities Violations

On November 1, 2017, the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14I, which provides additional guidance for public companies (including retailers) seeking to exclude certain shareholder proposals from their proxy materials. Under this bulletin, the SEC staff now expects boards of directors to analyze shareholder proposals before companies make no-action requests to exclude such proposals from proxy materials under Rule 14a-8(i)(7) (the ordinary business exception) or Rule 14a-8(i)(5) (the economic relevance exception). Those no-action requests should include a discussion reflecting the board’s analysis and the specific processes it employed to reach a well-informed and well-reasoned conclusion. Additionally, new documentation is required of proponents for submissions of shareholder proposals by proxy, and the staff has provided further guidance on the use of images and graphs by proponents in shareholder proposals. Publicly held retailers regularly receive shareholder proposals involving each of these four issues, and the new bulletin suggests that companies may be more successful in excluding related proposals going forward if they comply with new requirements laid out in the bulletin.

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On September 21, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the staff of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance issued interpretive guidance to assist public companies with complying with the “pay ratio” rule and to address compliance concerns with respect to the rule’s flexible framework. According to the SEC press release, “[the] guidance on pay ratio…encourages companies to use the flexibility incorporated in our prior rulemaking to reduce costs of compliance.” The new guidance provides some accommodations that publicly traded retailers may find useful for the purpose of calculating and reporting the ratio.

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On September 8, 2017, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and the New York City Pension Funds announced the second phase of their Boardroom Accountability Project, which will focus on board diversity and composition. Stringer sent a letter to the nominating and governance committee chairs of 151 portfolio companies held by the New York City Pension Funds, requesting board engagement regarding the director refreshment process and disclosure of a director qualification matrix that identifies directors’ relevant skills and experience and their gender and race/ethnicity. The list of companies included several major retailers and consisted of companies that have adopted proxy access in response to shareholder proposals from the NYC Pension Funds and those where the NYC Pension Funds’ proxy access proposals received majority support in 2017.  Continue Reading New York City Comptroller Launches Boardroom Accountability Project 2.0

Development International, an NGO with affiliates around the world, recently published its third annual report (the “Report”) summarizing U.S. public company Conflict Minerals Reports (“CMRs”) filed on Form SD for reporting year 2016. Although the Report advances a very narrow reading of the recent D.C. Circuit case striking down part of the SEC conflict minerals rule, it otherwise provides a wealth of statistical information about the most recent round of Form SD filings. This information can be useful to retailers benchmarking their own Form SD reporting as well as the Form SD reporting of key suppliers. Continue Reading Conflict Minerals Reporting in 2017

Last month, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (“PCAOB”) adopted a series of new audit standards that will impact the audit reporting model for public companies, including publicly traded retailers. The standards must still receive final approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission, but assuming the SEC approves them, the new standards will make substantial changes to the form of the annual auditor’s report, most notably by requiring a new discussion of “critical audit matters.”

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