Tag Archives: SEC

Why RSN’s Conflict Minerals Report Scores Went Down

Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) published their Mining the Disclosures 2017 report.  Although RSN states that the same KPIs from last year were used, there are some important changes.

First, 206 companies were assessed rather than 202 the prior year.  That is quite minor, but we point it out anyway.

Of far more importance is the change in RSN’s scoring approach.  The score for essentially every company went down, some significantly.  A few scores did increase.  RSN noted:

In the 2017 rating, 85% of the sample group is in the three lowest categories (Adequate, Minimal, and Weak), while in 2016, it was only 64% of the sample group… dramatic score changes occur regarding the capacity of companies to identify and manage their risks

What happened to drive scores down, when many companies used the same format and content as the previous year that provided higher scores?  The answer is somewhat buried in the report – indeed it is the final paragraph of the report (excluding the End Notes and advertisements).  So to help folks, here it is:

After four years of reporting, RSN is increasing its expectations of the quality of companies’ disclosures. Therefore for 2017, the document/ location expectation, where information for each indicator is to be found, is being strictly enforced. Similarly, some indicators like the response verification, the in-scope determination, and others, are being weighted with higher expectations. Last, RSN is being meticulous with KPI score determinations to stay aligned with the proactive and improvement-based due diligence process. This rigorous approach likely contributed to the general decrease in the majority of companies’ and industries’ 2017 scores.

In other words, although the indicators stayed the same year-over-year, the weightings did not.  As RSN’s expectations for improvements increase, scores for companies focused on compliance decrease.

On one hand, there is some logic in the idea of increasing performance over time.  However, it makes year-over-year apples-to-apples comparisons impossible, especially since RSN’s scoring methodology has changed each year of the report.  And it doesn’t take into account that many companies view SEC filings only as regulatory compliance documents and limit narrative to the compliance “script.”  As we have said for years, the CMR is not really the place to tell your story – save that for your website of CSR report.

Conflict Minerals 2017 Reality Check

As 2017 winds down, interest and activity related to the annual SEC conflict minerals filings is heating up. Here is a short reality check for what you should be thinking and doing.

To begin with, Dodd-Frank Section 1502 and the SEC rules requiring the Form SD/Conflict Minerals Report are still in place and remain in effect as of today. Although SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar issued a statement of non-enforcement earlier this year, that does not change the fact that the legal obligation to file remains intact. Legislation to eliminate Section 1502 was passed by Congress but has not yet been approved by the Senate or sent to the President for signature. Issuers should continue their conflict minerals RCOI, due diligence and Form SD filing preparation activities.

Issuers may still choose to use specific determination wording, or use none at all. However, should an issuer elect to use the words “DRC Conflict Free” to describe one or more product, an Independent Private Sector Audit (IPSA) must be performed by a qualified non-CPA or CPA audit firm. In researching the CY2016 SEC filings, Development International found nine issuers that classified at least one product as “DRC Conflict Free” in their Conflict Minerals Reports (CMR) but did not file an IPSA. We do not recommend that as a filing approach.

In general, issuers should be following the same path and procedures as last year – nothing has changed from a practical filing perspective, including the content requirements for the Form SD and CMR. By now, the following should be underway or completed at a minimum:

  • Previously identified program improvements
  • Overall program reviews, if desired. We continue to see interest in, and are conducting, program reviews
  • Product screening
  • Supplier screening/identification

There continue to be differing views on the timing for supplier outreach activities. Some issuers elect to request supplier CMRTs before the end of the calendar year; some wait until the calendar year is over. Suppliers may not necessarily have their own assessments, due diligence and CMRTs completed early, and delays are common.

There is also a lingering difference of opinion about including smelter/refiner lists in the CMR. We strongly believe it is a requirement to include the list in the filing.

Confusion remains about the Country of Origin as well. The countries listed in the CFSI audited smelter/refiner lists are the countries where the smelters are located. That is NOT the country where “the rocks come out of the ground”, which is what is meant by the country of origin. An often overlooked element of due diligence is ensuring that countries of origin provided by suppliers are plausible countries of origin, meaning they have known ore reserves or active mining. Several countries that are not plausible were listed in CY2016 CMRs.

Filers should also consider countries and entities that are sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) when reviewing countries of origin. Although this is not an issue related to conflict minerals, it is not a matter to be unresolved and reported in a legal filing.

When reviewing the smelter/refiner list from your suppliers, some form of due diligence is required for facilities that are not listed as a facility audited by CFSI or one of the programs with which CFSI has a mutual recognition agreement. Those facilities cannot be ignored simply because they are not on the list of audited smelters/refiners.

As in past years, we continue to support many companies with all aspects of their conflict minerals processes, filings and IPSAs. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.

No Indication of Conflict Minerals Cutbacks in SEC FY2018 Budget

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton presented the FY2018 budget for the Securities and Exchange Commission to Congress today.  The conflict minerals disclosure was not specifically mentioned but the budget did contain some interesting details:

  • More than half of the Commission’s total headcount is assigned to enforcement activities of various types.
  • The SEC has not launched any new research initiatives to gather feedback from investors on the usefulness of disclosures since FY2012.  Apparently, the actions of Michael Piwowar concerning the conflict minerals disclosure were not based on formal research from the SEC itself about investor views.
  • The number of filings reviewed by the Division of Corporation Finance for CY2017 was 4900, and is expected to remain the same for CY2018.  Sarbanes-Oxley requires the SEC to review company filings at least every three years, so perhaps there is some level of review by the SEC of conflict minerals disclosures, even if no enforcement actions have (or apparently will) resulted.

 

Conflict Minerals is Dead! Long Live Conflict Minerals!

The deadline for filing the CY2016 SEC conflict minerals disclosure has now passed, although there are likely to be a few late filers. It is too early to glean anything from the filings and at least three analyses will be conducted, including the Development International study, which is the most comprehensive of them. We all anxiously await these reports.

The future of the SEC disclosure requirement is murky and there is a chance that this may be the last year of mandated filing in the US. Many clients and others are asking us questions about the future of conflict minerals, and what the past results have been. These are our thoughts.

Looking forward, we do not know what is in store for the SEC rule. There are many moving parts politically and publically. We will know what happens when it happens. I’d like to think there will be adequate advance notice to those impacted, but even that is not assured.

But the review mirror tells a story too. While aspects of the rule’s impact are hotly debated, one thing is indisputable – it resulted in much greater visibility into material sourcing and other companies deep in supply chains. This has allowed some companies to reduce business risk by optimizing their supply chains – concentrating spending power or diversifying their supply base to manage potential disruptions. Companies identified that, unbeknownst to them, entities sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) may have been present in their supply chains. Supplier audits/screening improved in many cases.  Appropriate auditor qualifications in light of global reliance on audit results has also become a major question in the scheme of things.

Of course, the rule brought human rights abuses in the DRC and other countries out of the shadows and into the light of the public. But has the population of the DRC benefitted? Experts continue to argue both sides of the question. Without taking sides, earlier this year we attempted to evaluate one major criticism of the SEC rule – that it directly resulted in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs lost in the 3TG mining sector. The question we posed ourselves was what impact did the 2008 – 2010 global economic recession have on artisanal and small miner (ASM) job losses which are currently attributed only to Dodd-Frank Section 1502? Did the timing of 1502 coincidentally occur at a time when mining jobs were already in decline because of pre-existing macroeconomic conditions?

Our intent was to rely on existing literature rather than creating original research as this was an unfunded effort on our own part. After a few months, we ran into two insurmountable obstacles:

  • The existing DRC-specific literature we found does not acknowledge or give any consideration to potential impacts of the 2008 – 2010 global economic recession. Yet analyses from The World Bank, the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) demonstrate that global economic downturns play a major role in commodity prices and mining jobs worldwide, including ASM.
  • The DRC has a uniquely major informal economy which some literature indicated accounts for up to 80% of the country’s total economic activity annually. There is a significant gap in available information on DRC’s informal economy and what is available was sometimes inconsistent with other data on the same matter or irrelevant to our study.

We found only two sources referencing global 3TG price influence on prices paid to DRC ASMs.  Other data supported the position that a very large number of ASM miners in DRC move between multiple jobs based on income potential, so when ore prices were low in the past, miners moved to agriculture or other income sources. There was a meaningful amount of anecdotal information supporting the hypothesis that several factors other than Section 1502 (such as the DRC’s own taxation and mining policies) had a direct effect on DRC ASM job losses within the timeframe of interest, but we were not willing to rely on non-empirical information. We put down our pen (or mouse) and moved on to other things.

So the debate will continue.

There have been developments beyond just the SEC rule. The European Union adopted their own version of a conflict minerals due diligence rule that impacts a different class of companies and goes into effect in 2021. And the application of the OECD Due Diligence Framework is expanding into other materials (such as cobalt) and other geographies. At the moment, that appears to be just the beginning of that trend and that future is unknown as well.

In the end, what can be said about Section 1502 in consideration of it’s possible end? It all depends on your perspective, but it ain’t over till it’s over.  And it ain’t over.

SEC Conflict Minerals Filings Status – May 15, 2017

For those keeping track, we are two weeks away from the SEC conflict minerals disclosure filing deadline and here is where things stand:

  • The SEC has not issued any further guidance or statements on the disclosure, the rule or Acting Chair Piwowar’s suspension of enforcement.
  • Newly sworn-in permanent Chair Jay Clayton has not given any public indication about his views or possible actions on the disclosure, the rule or Acting Chair Piwowar’s suspension of enforcement.
  • We are not aware of any action related to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s request for an investigation into the Acting Chair’s authority to issue the enforcement suspension.
  • 60 filings have been submitted – 22 conflict minerals reports and 38 SD-only
  • We continue to see variability in issuers including smelter/refiner lists and countries of origin.  In addition, implausible countries of origin continue to be listed as well – France being the most common.
  • Two IPSAs have been filed, both conducted by the same non-CPA firm.  Elm completed two additional IPSAs not yet filed and we expect a handful of other IPSAs when all is said and done.

More Senate Criticism of Piwowar’s Suspension of Conflict Minerals Rule Enforcement

Yesterday, Senators Cory Booker, Richard Durbin, Sherrod Brown, Christopher Coons, Patrick Leahy and Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to Acting SEC Chair Michael Piwowar to “express our deep concern about your recent instruction to halt enforcement of key parts of the conflict minerals rule.”

The group accused the Acting Chair of side-stepping required rule-making processes:

Any steps to repeal or modify the requirements of the law require action by Congress. Any attempt to modify the rule requires a transparent, formal review and opportunity to comment by all stakeholders. An irregular, ad hoc process inviting comments on an Acting Chairman’s statement is no substitute for this process. As Acting Chairman you do not have the authority to halt enforcement.

In addition, the letter attacked the scope of the suspension compared to the more limited scope of the final NAM v. SEC decision on the First Amendment issue:

While your statement effectively suspends enforcement of all due diligence requirements under Section 1502, the court’s decision invalidated only one specific, severable component of the Conflict Minerals Rule. The inquiry and due diligence measures on source and chain of custody are separate and distinct, and they must each be enforced, In fact, when the National Association of Manufacturers requested a stay of the law, the court explicitly denied the request to affirm that the rest of the rule’s requirements were not severable from the requirement found to be unconstitutional.

In conclusion, the group asked the Acting Chair to “immediately to rescind your directive, and allow full enforcement of the conflict minerals law and rule.”

One interesting aspect of the letter is that two of the six signing Senators participated in the April 5, 2017 hearing on the conflict minerals rule held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy.  During the hearing, Senator Booker also read a statement from Senator Durbin into the record as well.

New GAO Report on Conflict Minerals Regulation – It Just Ain’t Right

GAO just released its latest annual report to Congress on the effectiveness of the conflict minerals regulation.  We’ll save you some effort and boil it down this way:

Essentially, the reporting year 2015 conflict minerals disclosures filed by May 31, 2016 were the same as those filed for reporting year 2014.  I doubt this is much of a surprise.

But what caught our attention is this little twist: GAO is critical of the fact that “an estimated 55 percent of the companies in 2016 reported that they could not definitively confirm the source of the conflict minerals in their products.”  Yet nowhere in the report is there mention that the SEC, under the May 2014 Statement from then-Director of Corporate Finance Keith Higgins, allows companies to file without including a product determination statement.  Due to the legal uncertainty surrounding the rule at the time of the filings reviewed in the report (which was not resolved until earlier this month), many filers chose to submit disclosures without the definitive language GAO is seeking.

But GAO does acknowledge that companies “had taken actions to improve their data collection processes, such as gathering missing information about their supply chains and implementing new technologies to facilitate the data collection process” and that “the process for collecting data on conflict mineral supply chains had become more routine and standardized.”

GAO’s report may be accurate insofar as the literal text of the CMRs, but statements about filers’ inability to determine necessary sourcing information are not so accurate.  While filers may have chosen not to provide specific product determination language in their CMRs, Conflict Minerals Reporting Templates (CMRTs) both from suppliers and provided to customers paint a more accurate picture of a company’s status.

It wasn’t in GAO’s scope to review CMRTs, although the statutory mandate for the annual study doesn’t appear to limit the GAO to SEC filings.  Perhaps next year – assuming there will be a next year for the SEC conflict minerals disclosures – GAO could expand their efforts for a more accurate picture.

BREAKING: Senator Warren Seeks Investigation into Acting SEC Chairman Piwowar’s Authority to Reconsider Conflict Minerals Rule

Someone please pass the dramamine…

Just when you think the political turbulence on the conflict minerals rule is over, we fly right into another storm.

Yesterday, Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with Senators Sherrod Brown, Robert Menendez and Brian Schatz, submitted a pointed letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission Inspector General Carl Hoecker asking for an investigation into recent actions taken by Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Acting Chairman Michael Piwowar.  One of the actions Senator Warren wants reviewed is the January 31, 2017 statement from the Acting Chairman directing the staff to reconsider the conflict minerals rule.

Key excerpts from her letter are below.

Commissioner Piwowar evidently required reconsideration of the guidance on this congressionally mandated rule- which concerns disclosures about conflict minerals originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo and adjoining countries – based exclusively on stories he heard while “visiting Africa last year.” Commissioner Piwowar claims to have “heard first-hand from the people affected by this misguided rule,” and asserts that the rule is putting mining operators out of business while potentially undermining U.S. national security interests.

Commissioner Piwowar has long disliked this required rule, calling it “yet another situation where politically-connected special interests are using shareholder resources to push their own agenda.” But Commissioner Piwowar’s personal distaste for a congressional mandate is not sufficient grounds to attempt to weaken a final rule that has been approved by the SEC. We are also concerned that Commissioner Piwowar appears to have directed the agency staff to undertake this review before consulting with his only fellow Commissioner and seeking her approval.

At his confirmation hearing, SEC Chair-nominee Jay Clayton testified that he … had no specific plans to revisit any Dodd-Frank- mandated rules.

Commissioner Piwowar has “exert[ed] unusual authority for an acting agency chair,”  We ask that you conduct an investigation into each of these decisions to determine whether they are legally permissible…  we ask you specifically investigate the following: …

Did Commissioner Piwowar provide a valid substantive justification for these changes?

Did Commissioner Piwowar provide adequate public notice and comment periods, and did he follow all required SEC guidelines and rules for taking action, including the SEC’s quorum requirements?

Is Commissioner Piwowar carrying out these actions at his own initiative, or has he consulted with, or received direction from, anyone within or outside the Administration?

We will continue to monitor this situation – and will stock up on dramamine.  We’ll try to get enough to share.

The No-Fluff Latest “Must Read” on Conflict Minerals Filings for 2016

The conflict minerals disclosure is still required for calendar year 2016. No Executive Order has been issued, nor has SEC eliminated or modified the rule. Acting Chairman Michael Piwowar did direct the Staff to “to reconsider whether the 2014 guidance on the conflict minerals rule is still appropriate and whether any additional relief is appropriate” but no action has been taken as yet.  Any action that may be taken would most likely follow standard rule making procedures (proposal publication, public comment, Commission adoption of final rule).  Given the timing typically required for the entire process, it is highly unlikely that a rule change will occur before the end of calendar year 2017.

The use of specific product determination wording it still voluntary. The 2014 SEC Guidance remains in effect.

An IPSA is required only when a company voluntarily chooses to use the product determination wording of “DRC Conflict Free” or “Not DRC Conflict Free”. The 2014 SEC Guidance remains in effect.  We expect the number of IPSAs to rise slightly for the 2016 filing.

Companies continue to confuse the smelter/refiner location country with the country of origin.  Quite simply, the country of origin is where the rocks come out of the ground; the smelter/refiner location country is  where those rocks are processed.  These are  frequently different countries.

Companies also continue to report countries of origin that are not plausible sources of production or reserves (e.g., Hong Kong and UAE).  A plausibility review of all countries should be conducted before submitting the Conflict Minerals Report (CMR) to the SEC.  We have developed a comprehensive list of plausible countries of origin from a range of sources including USGS, Department of State and experts in each of the metals trade.  This is used as part of our smelter/refiner verification services.  Contact us if you would like more information.

Six high-risk smelters/refiners are frequently identified by suppliers.    Three of these are related to US-sanctioned entities (Fidelity Printers, Sudan Gold Refinery and Central Bank of DPRK), not conflict minerals.  Issuers need to determine how they will address these within their conflict minerals disclosure, if at all.

The EU conflict minerals regulation has been finalized and differs from the US regulation in that it applies to companies with more than 500 employees, importers of 3TG, contains applicability thresholds and goes into effect in 2021.

Just over 12,000 comments were submitted to the SEC in response to Acting Chairman Piwowar’s request for comments. More than 11,700 of those comments were form letters and just over half of the remaining 300 were submitted by concerned citizens. Approximately 130 comments were submitted by company representatives, industry groups, Congolese society, NGOs and investors. In our view, opinion reflected in the 130 was split relatively evenly for and against the rule. We noted that several of the comments against the rule cited erroneous and outdated information, specifically concerning costs of rule implementation.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy is holding a public hearing on April 5 titled A Progress Report on Conflict Minerals.  Yes we will be there.

The US State Department announced they are “seeking input from stakeholders to inform recommendations of how best to support responsible sourcing of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold.”

Some DC pundits believe that, in the aftermath of the Trump administration and Republican Party failure to succeed on healthcare, Democrats are emboldened to resist efforts to revamp Dodd-Frank. Perhaps, similar to what Mark Twain once wrote, “reports of its death are greatly exaggerated”.

New Comments to SEC Show Ongoing Misunderstanding, Excess Spending for Conflict Minerals Rule

The new public comment period initiated by SEC Acting Chairman Michael Piwowar is now closed and we have reviewed almost all the submittals.  What is surprising is that there still seems to be significant misunderstanding or interpretations of the rule, and some issuers are spending far more than is likely necessary.  The following comments and estimates that caught our attention:

  • Two industry groups cite a company spending $10 million in initial implementation costs and $3 million in ongoing costs (most likely the same company).  We were shocked to see those numbers.  No client of ours, nor any of the many Fortune 500 we have direct or indirect contact with, has expended that much in relation to the Rule.  
  • One company is cited as needing 7 months to survey 300 suppliers.  If that is indeed current information, there are most likely program implementation approaches available that the company is unaware of, or has chosen not to pursue.
  • Another commenter privately disclosed their cost and associated scope of their efforts to us in an email dialogue.  Based on our understanding, that company is expending approximately 90% more effort than needed.  They have received poor guidance on the rule or made a voluntary decision to go down that path.
  • There are multiple references to an estimate of an IPSA costing $250,000 – $350,000 and taking six months.  This estimate appears to reflect the original proposed rule rather than the IPSA objectives and scope of the final rule and the subsequent guidance.  During the proposed rule phase, little guidance was available on the IPSA and the auditing community anticipated full supply chain audits, or audits that confirmed product determinations. The final rule made it abundantly clear that the actual IPSA objectives/scope are far narrower.  

If you think you are spending more than is necessary for your conflict minerals program, give us a call.  We can probably find ways to reduce your effort and costs.