Relief For Persons Affected By The Coronavirus

by Laura Anthony, Esq. on April 03, 2020 in Uncategorized

Last week I published a blog summarizing the relief granted by the SEC for public companies and capital markets participants impacted by the coronavirus (Covid-19) (see HERE).  Just as Covid-19 rapidly evolves, so have the regulators response.  The SEC has now expanded the relief and issued guidance on public company disclosures related to Covid-19.

While we work to complete the usual filings while in quarantine, a new conversation is starting to develop at a rapid pace.  That is, the conversation of opportunity and the accelerating of a more technologically driven economy than ever before.  Businesses and service providers must stay nimble and ready to serve the ever changing needs of entrepreneurs and the capital markets – I know we are!

Extension in SEC Reporting Filing Deadlines

On March 25, 2020, the SEC extended its prior conditional relief order such that periodic filings that would have been due from between March 1 and July 1, 2020 can avail themselves of a 45 day extension.  The prior order only offered an extension for filings due between March 1 and April 30, 2020.

The extension is only available under certain conditions.  In order to qualify for the extension a company must file a current report (Form 8-K or 6-K) explaining why the relief is needed in the company’s particular circumstances and the estimated date the report will be filed.  In addition, the 8-K or 6-K should include a risk factor explaining the material impact of Covid-19 on its business.   The Form 8-K or 6-K must be filed by the later of March 16 or the original reporting deadline.

Although the SEC will likely give significant leeway to companies, the general fact that the coronavirus has an impact on the world is not enough.  In order to qualify for the relief a company must be directly impacted in their ability to complete and file disclosure reports on a timely basis.  For instance, disruptions to transportation, and limited access to facilities, support staff and advisors could all impact the ability of a company to meet its filing deadlines

The current report disclosing the need for the extension must also provide investors and the market place with insight regarding their assessment of, and plans for addressing, material risks to their business and operations resulting from the coronavirus to the fullest extent practicable to keep investors and markets informed of material developments.  In other words, if a company is so impacted by the coronavirus that they must seek an extension to its filing obligation, it must also inform investors, to the best of its knowledge and ability, what that impact is and how it is being addressed.

If the reason the report cannot be timely filed relates to a third parties inability to furnish an opinion, report or certification, the Form 8-K or 6-K should attach an exhibit statement signed by such third party specifying the reason they cannot provide the opinion, report or certification.

For purposes of eligibility to use Form S-3, a company relying on the exemptive order will be considered current and timely in its Exchange Act filing requirements if it was current and timely as of the first day of the relief period and it files any report due during the relief period within 45 days of the filing deadline for the report.  For more on S-3 eligibility, see HERE.

Likewise, for purposes of the Form S-8 eligibility requirements and the current public information eligibility requirements of Rule 144, a company relying on the exemptive order will be considered current in its Exchange Act filing requirements if it was current as of the first day of the relief period and it files any report due during the relief period within 45 days of the filing deadline for the report.

The extension actually changes the due date for the filing of the report.  Accordingly, a company would be able to file a 12b-25 on the 45th day to gain an additional 5 day extension for a Form 10-Q and 15 day extension for a Form 10-K.

Disclosures Regarding Covid-19 Impact

In an earlier press release the SEC reminded companies of the obligations to disclose information related to the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses.  SEC Chair Jay Clayton had stated “[W]e also remind all companies to provide investors with insight regarding their assessment of, and plans for addressing, material risks to their business and operations resulting from the coronavirus to the fullest extent practicable to keep investors and markets informed of material developments.  How companies plan and respond to the events as they unfold can be material to an investment decision, and I urge companies to work with their audit committees and auditors to ensure that their financial reporting, auditing and review processes are as robust as practicable in light of the circumstances in meeting the applicable requirements. Companies providing forward-looking information in an effort to keep investors informed about material developments, including known trends or uncertainties regarding coronavirus, can take steps to avail themselves of the safe harbor in Section 21E of the Exchange Act for forward-looking statements.”

The SEC Division of Corporation Finance has now issued Disclosure Guidance Topic No. 9 regarding the SEC’s current views on disclosures and the obligations that companies should consider with respect to Covid-19.  The overarching messaging is that a company must consider its Covid-19 impact in its disclosure documents and make necessary material disclosures using a principal’s based strategy.

Certainly the actual impact and risks are difficult to ascertain and may be unknown or dependent on third parties, but the SEC encourages material disclosure on what management expects the virus’ future impact will be, how management is responding to evolving events, and how it is planning for COVID-19-related uncertainties.  Examples of areas of reports that may be impacted and thus require disclosure include  management’s discussion and analysis, the business section, risk factors, legal proceedings, disclosure controls and procedures, internal control over financial reporting, and the financial statements.

Topic No. 9 suggests that management consider the following non-exclusive list in considering Covid-19 related disclosures:

  • How has Covid-19 impacted the financial condition and results of operations? How do you expect COVID-19 to impact your future operating results and near-and-long-term financial condition?  Do you expect that COVID-19 will impact future operations differently than how it affected the current period?
  • How has COVID-19 impacted your capital and financial resources, including your overall liquidity position and outlook? Consider if the cost of or access to capital and funding sources has changed and whether it is likely to change or continue to change.  Have sources and uses of cash been materially impacted?  Has the ability to continue to meet ongoing credit agreements changed or is it materially likely it will change? Disclosure should also be made as to the course of action a company has taken or proposes to take in light of the material impact on its financial resources.
  • How do you expect COVID-19 to affect assets on your balance sheet and your ability to timely account for those assets?  For example, will there be significant changes in judgments in determining the fair-value of assets measured in accordance with U.S GAAP or IFRS?
  • Do you anticipate any material impairments (e.g., with respect to goodwill, intangible assets, long-lived assets, right of use assets, investment securities), increases in allowances for credit losses, restructuring charges, other expenses, or changes in accounting judgments that have had or are reasonably likely to have a material impact on your financial statements?
  • Have COVID-19-related circumstances such as remote work arrangements adversely affected your ability to maintain operations, including financial reporting systems, internal control over financial reporting and disclosure controls and procedures?  If so, what changes in your controls have occurred during the current period that materially affect or are reasonably likely to materially affect your internal control over financial reporting?  What challenges do you anticipate in your ability to maintain these systems and controls?
  • Have you experienced challenges in implementing your business continuity plans or do you foresee requiring material expenditures to do so?
  • Do you expect COVID-19 to materially affect the demand for your products or services?
  • Do you anticipate a material adverse impact of COVID-19 on your supply chain or the methods used to distribute your products or services?
  • Will your operations be materially impacted by any constraints or other impacts on your human capital resources and productivity?
  • Are travel restrictions and border closures expected to have a material impact on your ability to operate and achieve your business goals?

Trading on Material Non-Public Information

The combined effects of the impact of the virus and extensions in the filing of periodic reports creates an increased threat of the trading on material nonpublic information (insider trading).  Like the prior issued exemptive order, Topic No. 9 reminds all companies of its obligations.  If a company is aware of risk related to the coronavirus it needs to refrain from engaging in securities transactions with the public (private and public offerings, buy-backs, etc.) and prevent directors and officers, and other corporate insiders who are aware of these matters, from initiating such transactions until investors have been appropriately informed about the risk.

Companies are reminded not to make selective disclosures and to take steps to ensure that information is publicly disseminated where accidental disclosure is made.  Depending on a company’s particular circumstances, it should consider whether it may need to revisit, refresh, or update previous disclosure to the extent that the information becomes materially inaccurate.  Where disclosures related to the coronavirus are forward looking, a company can avail itself of either the Exchange Act Section 21E or common law safe harbors (see HERE).

Reporting Earnings and Financial Results

Topic No. 9 encourages companies to proactively address financial reporting matters earlier than usual.  Many companies will rely on the available 45 day extension and will be grappling with the accounting complexities of the Covid-19 impact including short term dramatic changes in expenses and revenues.  The SEC suggests engaging needed experts and beginning an analysis of the potential impacts as quickly as possible to be prepared to meet filing deadlines, even with the extensions.

Many companies, although not obligated, choose to issue earnings releases (for more on earnings releases see HERE.  In addition to other considerations, the SEC reminds companies of their obligations under Item 10 of Regulation S-K and Regulation G related to the presentation of non-GAAP financial measures.   The SEC permits companies to present non-GAAP financial measures in their public disclosures subject to compliance with Regulation G and Item 10(e) of Regulation S-K. Regulation G and Item 10(e) require reconciliation to comparable GAAP numbers, the reasons for presenting the non-GAAP numbers, and govern the presentation format itself including requiring equal or greater prominence to the GAAP financial information.  For more on Item 10 and Regulation G see HERE.

Topic No. 9 specifically acknowledges that there may be instances where a GAAP financial measure is not available at the time of the earnings release because the measure may be impacted by a Covid-19 related adjustment that may require additional information and analysis to complete.  In these situations, the SEC would not object to companies reconciling a non-GAAP financial measure to preliminary GAAP results that either include provisional amount(s) based on a reasonable estimate, or a range of reasonably estimable GAAP results.  For example, if a company intends to disclose EBITDA on an earnings call, it could reconcile that measure to either its GAAP earnings, a reasonable estimate of its GAAP earnings that includes a provisional amount, or its reasonable estimate of a range of GAAP earnings.  In filings where GAAP financial statements are required, such as on Form 10-K or 10-Q, companies should reconcile to GAAP results and not include provisional amounts or a range of estimated results.

The SEC also cautions companies against using the Topic No. 9 guidance and current SEC flexibility to present non-GAAP financial measures or metrics for the sole purpose of presenting a more favorable view of the company.

Furnishing of Proxy and Information Statements

The SEC has also granted relief where a company is required to comply with Exchange Act Sections 14(a) or 14(c) requiring the furnishing of proxy or information statements to shareholders, and mail delivery is not possible.  The order relieves a company of the requirement to furnish the proxy or information statement where the security holder has a mailing address located in an area where mail delivery service has been suspended due to Covid-19 and the company has made a good faith effort to furnish the materials to the shareholder.

Virtual Annual Meetings

Although the SEC regulates the proxy process for annual meetings of public companies, it does not regulate the place and format of the meeting itself, which remains subject to state law.  Although Delaware provides a great deal of flexibility for companies to hold virtual meetings, many states do not.  New York has historically been one of the states that does not have easy provisions for virtual meetings.  Accordingly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued an executive order temporarily permitting New York corporations to hold virtual annual meetings.  Although California is also not totally virtual meeting friendly, it has not yet issued exemptive relief.

Relief for Registered Transfer Agents

The SEC has issued an order providing transfer agents and certain other persons with conditional relief from certain obligations under the federal securities laws for persons affected by Covid-19 for the period from March 15, 2020 to May 30, 2020.  The SEC recognizes that transfer agents may have difficultly communicated with or conducting business with shareholders and others effected by the virus.

The exemptive order would provide relief for certain activities such as processing securities transfers and updating shareholder lists.  The exemptive order does not relieve the obligation to ensure that securities and funds are adequately safeguarded.

To qualify for the relief, the requesting person but make a written request to the SEC including a description of the obligation they are unable to comply with and the specific reasons for non-compliance.