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Apr 20, 2022

How changing beneficial ownership reporting may impact activism

Alexandra Layfield and Rachel Solino look at the potential effects of the SEC’s proposed rule changes

The SEC in February proposed amendments to Regulation 13D-G to modernize beneficial ownership reporting requirements. Adoption of the amendments as proposed will accelerate the timing – and expand the scope – of knowledge of certain activist activities. The deadline for comments on the proposed rules was April 11 and final rules are expected to be released later this year.

The current reporting timeline creates an asymmetry of information between beneficial owners on the one hand and other stockholders and issuers on the other. The SEC proposal is seeking to eliminate this asymmetry and address other concerns surrounding current beneficial ownership reporting. The accelerated beneficial ownership reporting deadlines will result in greater transparency in stock ownership, allowing market participants to receive material information in a timely manner and potentially alleviating the market manipulation and abusive tactics used by some investors.

The shortened filing deadlines should benefit a company’s overall shareholder engagement activities. The investor relations team at a company will have a more accurate and up-to-date picture of its institutional investor base throughout the year, which should result in more timely outreach to such shareholders.

Investor accumulation of shares before disclosure

Although issuers will likely view the proposed rules as beneficial, many commentators have predicted a negative impact on shareholder activism. Under the current reporting requirements, certain activist investors may benefit by having both additional time to accumulate shares before disclosing such activities and potentially more flexibility in strategizing with other investors.

Many commentators have argued that the proposed shorter timeline for beneficial ownership reporting will negatively impact an activist shareholder’s ability to accumulate shares of an issuer at a potentially lower price than if market participants had more timely knowledge of such activity and intent. In many cases a company’s stock price is impacted once an investor files a Schedule 13D with clear activist intent. This can even occur in some cases once a Schedule 13G is filed by a known activist investor without current activist intent.

If the shorter reporting deadlines reduce such investors’ profit, it is expected that an investor’s incentive to accumulate stock in order to initiate change at a company will also be reduced. Activists instead may be encouraged to engage more with management. In other words, the shorter reporting period may deter short-term activists and encourage more long-term focused activism.

Timing of issuer response

The shorter reporting deadlines are also expected to result in management having earlier notice of any takeover attempt and to give a company the opportunity to react more quickly to any such attempt. There is potential for this to lead to increased use of low-threshold poison pills. But the SEC stated in the proposed rules release that it believes the risk of abundant reactionary low-threshold poison pills is overstated due to scrutiny of such poison pills from courts and academia, limitations imposed by state law and the unlikelihood that the beneficial ownership would trigger the low-threshold poison pills.

Companies that have low-threshold poison pills – such as one designed to protect a company’s net operating losses – may want to review them to confirm that the proposed rules would not be expected to have any impact. For example, such poison pills may link the definition of beneficial ownership to the SEC rules, including Schedule 13D and 13G filings.

'Group' reporting

Another proposed change expected to affect shareholder activism is the expanded definition of ‘group’ for the purposes of reporting under Schedule 13D. The current rules require an explicit agreement between two or more persons to establish a group for purposes of the beneficial ownership reporting thresholds.

Commentators believe that under the current rules, certain investors seeking change at a company may share the fact that they are accumulating shares of a company with other shareholders or activists, which can then act on this information before the general public is aware; in other words, before public disclosure in and market reaction to the Schedule 13D filing. This activity may result in near-term gains for the select few involved before uninformed shareholders can react.

Under the SEC’s proposed amended Rule 13d-5, persons who share information with another regarding an upcoming Schedule 13D filing are deemed to have formed a group within the meaning of Section 13(d)(3) regardless of whether an explicit agreement is in place, and such concerted action will trigger reporting requirements. This proposed change is expected to benefit companies and shareholders overall by preventing certain investors from acting in concert on information not known to a company and its other shareholders.

The full impact of the proposed rule changes on shareholder activism cannot be accurately predicted, but we believe that at a minimum, issuers will find it beneficial to have more regularly updated information on their institutional investor base for, among other things, their shareholder engagement efforts.

Alexandra Layfield is a partner in Jones Walker’s corporate practice group and co-leader of the firm’s corporate, securities and executive compensation team. Rachel Solino is an associate in the firm’s corporate practice group.