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  • SEC Chairman Cites Fishy Letters in Support of Policy Change

    SEC Chairman Cites Fishy Letters in Support of Policy Change

    (Bloomberg) -- When Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton handed a policy win to corporate executives this month, he pointed to a surprising source of support: a mailbag full of encouragement from ordinary Americans.To hear Clayton tell it, these folks are really focused on the intricacies of the corporate shareholder-voting process. “Some of the letters that struck me the most,” he said at a commission meeting in Washington, “came from long-term Main Street investors, including an Army veteran and a Marine veteran, a police officer, a retired teacher, a public servant, a single mom, a couple of retirees who saved for retirement.” Each bolstered Clayton’s case for limiting the power of dissenting shareholders.But a close look at the seven letters Clayton highlighted, and about two dozen others submitted to the SEC by supposedly regular people, shows they are the product of a misleading -- and laughably clumsy -- public relations campaign by corporate interests.That retired teacher? Pauline Yee said she never wrote a letter, although the signature was hers. Those military vets? It turns out they’re the brother and cousin of the chairman of 60 Plus Association, a Virginia-based advocacy group paid by corporate supporters of the SEC initiative. That single mom? Data embedded in the electronically submitted letter says someone at 60 Plus wrote it. That retired couple? Their son-in-law runs 60 Plus.“I never wrote a letter,” said one of the retirees, Vytautas Alksninis, reached by phone at his home in Connecticut. “What’s this all about?”Then there’s the public servant Clayton mentioned. Marie Reed’s letter has sharp words for proxy advisers, firms that counsel fund companies on how to vote at shareholder meetings. But when reached by phone in California, the retired state worker said she wasn’t familiar with the term. She said the letter originated with a public-affairs firm that contacted her out of the blue.“They wrote it, and I allowed them to use my name after I read it,” she said. “I didn’t go digging into all of this.”The SEC declined to comment on any irregularities with the letters. In a Tuesday interview, Clayton sidestepped a question about how the agency ensures comment letters are genuine. He did emphasize that the regulator’s potential revamp of shareholder voting rules are proposals, adding that there will be ample time for people on both sides to weigh in before any changes are finalized.“We welcome input in all ways,” Clayton said in the interview with Bloomberg Television’s David Westin. “On this issue, where there are a lot of different views and a lot of different interests, we encourage people to come in and talk to us, send us their comments.”Unusual ErrorEven a casual reading of the letters shows something amiss. Four of the seven bear the same unusual error -- an out-of-context phrase inserted into the SEC’s mailing address. The same mistake turns up in at least 20 other letters submitted by supposedly ordinary Americans in support of the change. It’s an inadvertent digital fingerprint revealing the scope of the campaign.At issue is the proxy process, the rules for how corporations conduct shareholder votes, such as when directors stand for re-election at annual meetings. Most of the time, management wins in a landslide. But shareholders occasionally revolt over excessive pay or mismanagement, or a small investor forces a vote on an issue that management doesn’t endorse.In recent years, more small shareholders have been proposing resolutions about social or environmental issues such as climate change. And investment managers that control large numbers of votes, such as BlackRock Inc., have begun prioritizing these topics as well, arguing that they’re relevant to the long-term sustainability of business models. That’s an unwelcome change for some corporate boards, especially in the fossil-fuel industry.Last year, the National Association of Manufacturers helped form the Main Street Investors Coalition to oppose what it calls the “politicization” of the investment process and to argue that fund managers and boards should focus on maximizing profits. One of its priorities is changing shareholder voting rules.Although the coalition has other members, NAM provided most of its initial funding, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement who spoke on condition of anonymity. The manufacturers’ association represents corporate giants such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp.NAM said in a statement that it didn’t fund 60 Plus or direct any advocacy efforts on the SEC issue. Chevron wouldn’t comment on the coalition but acknowledged in a statement that it sometimes works with trade associations to “help inform their understanding of issues.” Exxon Mobil said it had no immediate comment.Public CommentsLast year, Clayton signaled he was considering changes to the rules and issued a call for public comments. Letters poured in. Most were from investment firms, corporations, trade groups and other interested parties that openly identified themselves. Many fund managers wrote to say some of the changes under consideration would be counterproductive.The National Association of Manufacturers, Exxon Mobil and Chevron all called for new limits on shareholders’ proposals. So did two ordinary citizens who identified themselves as members of Main Street Investors. Other letters were ostensibly written by regular folks.But more than two dozen of them appear to have ties to 60 Plus, a member of the Main Street Investors Coalition. While the nonprofit group calls itself an advocate for senior citizens’ issues, it routinely takes money from corporations and advocates for their causes on issues as varied as sugar subsidies and Alabama utility commissioners.The group didn’t cast a wide net in recruiting letter-writers. Names included those of a woman who used to work at 60 Plus’s accounting firm; a former secretary at 60 Plus; and various friends and relatives of Saul Anuzis, the 60 Plus president. None mentioned a connection to the organization.One letter bore the name of Chad Connelly. In an email, Connelly acknowledged being friends with Anuzis but disavowed the letter. “Someone apparently used my name,” he wrote. “That’s not a letter I’ve ever even seen.”Even Scott Hogenson, a contractor for 60 Plus who has appeared in the press as its spokesman, submitted a comment. The letter gives his name as S. Alan Hogenson and doesn’t mention his relationship to the group. In an interview, Hogenson said he wrote the letter and stands by it.Anuzis, the 60 Plus president, acknowledged that his group recruited submitters, provided drafts and, in two cases, sent letters on members’ behalf. He also acknowledged getting money from members of the coalition. “We don’t get paid for specific projects,” he said in an interview. “We get contributions from members who are part of the coalition. We’re not getting paid for a specific letter.”Anuzis said the project aligns with 60 Plus’s policy goals and that no names were used without permission. Those who said they hadn’t agreed, such as his in-laws, were mistaken. “They are 80-some-years old,” he said. “This happened months ago. I’m sure it’s not top of their minds.”Clandestine AidTwo letters point to another source of clandestine aid for the coalition. Reed, the retired state worker from California whose letter was cited by Clayton, said the man who provided her with a letter worked at FSB Core Strategies, a California public-affairs shop, and said he was working on behalf of a group called Protect Our Pensions. Another SEC letter containing similar phrases, also cited by Clayton, came from a California sheriff who said in a 2017 interview that he was introduced to Protect Our Pensions by the same FSB staffer. An FSB executive didn’t respond to requests for comment.Protect Our Pensions, whose talking points align with those of the fossil-fuel industry, was the subject of a 2017 Bloomberg Businessweek article showing it was put together by corporate public-affairs employees and that some of its alleged members, including the retired firefighter identified as its founder, said they had nothing to do with it or couldn’t remember agreeing to join.Opponents of changes to the voting system stuffed the SEC’s mailbox too. The agency reported getting more than 18,000 identical form letters supporting the current rules. Those letters were obvious duplicates and are grouped together on the SEC’s comments page. Clayton’s speech didn’t mention them.In his Nov. 5 remarks, Clayton unveiled proposals along the lines of those pushed by Main Street Investors Coalition and its corporate backers that would shift power from investors to corporate boards. In addition to Clayton, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, the changes are backed by two Republicans on the five-member commission. For the changes to take effect, the SEC will have to vote again to finalize the rules after a 60-day public comment period.The SEC’s proposal would increase the amount of stock newer shareholders must own to get a proposal on the ballot, aligning with corporate claims that many resolutions are wastes of time and money. Under current rules, investors must have owned at least $2,000 of stock for a year before they can submit resolutions. The SEC’s proposal would raise that dollar threshold to $25,000 for shareholders of less than two years and $15,000 for shareholders of less than three years, while leaving the $2,000 threshold in place for longer-term holders.The proposal also would impose new restrictions on proxy-advisory firms, whose recommendations are often decisive on shareholder votes. Corporations complain that their advice is sometimes poorly reasoned or inscrutable. Clayton would require the firms to show their recommendations to companies before issuing them.Fund managers warn the measure may have a chilling effect on proxy advisers, because a corporation could threaten a lawsuit if a draft recommendation isn’t revised.Anuzis said he was glad to hear that Clayton had cited letters generated by his organization. “I’m extremely proud that we were very effective,” he said. “If four of our letters were quoted, that means we did a great job.”(Adds comment from Jay Clayton in the eighth and ninth paragraphs.)\--With assistance from Ben Bain.To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary R. Mider in New York at zmider1@bloomberg.net;Benjamin Elgin in San Francisco at belgin@bloomberg.netTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Robert Friedman at rfriedman5@bloomberg.net, John VoskuhlFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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  • Coca-Cola switches to recycled plastic for PET bottles in Sweden

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  • Medtronic (MDT) Tops Q2 Earnings and Revenue Estimates

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  • Bloomberg

    TikTok Is Aiming at a Bigger Audience Than U.S. Senators

    (Bloomberg Opinion) -- As U.S. political opposition hardens to TikTok, the globally popular video app from Beijing-based ByteDance Inc., some inside the company want to find ways to make the business appear to be less Chinese. That’s a smart move, aimed less at critics in Congress and more at two other East Coast power centers: Madison Avenue and Wall Street.TikTok delivers short, user-generated videos to international audiences. A Chinese version, called Douyin, looks and functions similarly but is focused on domestic users. The company has been reducing the amount of content from China that appears on the broader service, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. The idea is to give TikTok a more independent, internationally focused business. Talk of a rebrand comes amid a U.S. foreign-investment review and criticism over the user data that TikTok gathers. Prominent U.S. senators have accused the company of censoring content on behalf of the Chinese government and called for a national security review into its 2017 purchase of social-media company Musical.ly. While founded in Shanghai, Musical.ly had an office in California. It was merged into TikTok in 2018, a move that helped it gain more than 100 million app downloads in the U.S.One of the senators, Josh Hawley, tweeted after the WSJ report that TikTok “doesn’t need a rebrand, it needs to sever ties with China.” He’s currently the youngest senator, at 39 around a quarter-century older than Tik Tok’s core demographic. Yet he isn’t the target audience for ByteDance’s efforts.For TikTok to be a true success, it needs to appeal to the likes of Nike, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. Its advertising business is ready to take off because it has direct access to that all-powerful youth demographic. Yet big corporate names tend to be wary of risking their brands on a new content service. Allegations that TikTok is a tool for Chinese authoritarianism and censorship make it harder for ad execs to sell.Martin Sorrell, founder of the world’s largest advertising firm, WPP Plc, is among those who see big money to be made from TikTok, especially as an opportunity to reach teenagers, he told Bloomberg. Sorrell also believes ByteDance should “probably not” be subject to a review by the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which is chaired by the Commerce Department.With a valuation of $75 billion, ByteDance is the world’s most valuable startup and counts SoftBank Group Corp. and Sequoia Capital among its shareholders, according to CB Insights. For those investors to cash out, ByteDance will need to list on an international bourse — Hong Kong and New York are leading contenders.  ByteDance executives want to build up its international operations before considering an international public offering, Bloomberg wrote last month, after reports it plans an imminent Hong Kong listing. It has hired chiefs for its businesses in the U.S. and India and plans to expand in Australia and Europe. Doing so would help sell the idea that TikTok is not a Chinese content platform.That would simplify making TikTok a separate entity, which ByteDance could then list at a lower and more easily digested market valuation. It could also make it easier to keep the core business — including Douyin and news aggregator Toutiao — close to home, remaining under Beijing’s watchful eye.For such a spinoff to happen, TikTok has to be seen as a viable international company free from censorship and spying. It’s a business case as much as a political one.To contact the author of this story: Tim Culpan at tculpan1@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Patrick McDowell at pmcdowell10@bloomberg.netThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

  • Medtronic Earnings, Revenue Beat in Q2

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  • Exxon Says N.Y. Used Fraud Claims to Score Political Points

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    (Bloomberg) -- You’d expect most companies accused of a longstanding fraudulent scheme to be thrilled if the government dropped those claims against them. Not so for Exxon Mobil Corp. -- at least not today.The energy giant unleashed a torrent of criticism against New York Attorney General Letitia James in court filings Monday, more than a week after the state sought to drop two out of four claims on the last day of a civil trial that has yet to be decided by the judge. Exxon says the government couldn’t prove the fraud claims and only made them “to score headlines and political points.”New York had used the now-abandoned claims to allege Exxon intentionally misled investors for years about the company’s use of “proxy costs” to account for the risks of future climate-change regulations on its business, and that investors had relied on those false statements when buying Exxon stock.New York Supreme Court Justice Barry Ostrager, who oversaw 11 days of testimony that ended Nov. 7, should block the attempt to drop the two claims and instead rule in favor of Exxon for the entire case to finally “set the record straight” after four years of disparaging comments from the state, the company said in the filing.The attorney general “directly and repeatedly impugned the corporate reputation of Exxon Mobil and the personal reputations of its employees,” whose names were dragged “through the mud,” the company said. The state “cannot now erase these past four years because its fraud theory was completely debunked at trial,” Exxon said.New York’s remaining allegation is that Exxon violated the state’s Martin Act, an anti-fraud securities law, by issuing materially misleading statements about proxy costs. Under that narrower claim, the state doesn’t need to prove intent or show that investors actually relied on the information.Read More: Exxon Climate Plan Wasn’t Fake, Tillerson Says In N.Y. TrialJames’s office declined to comment on Exxon’s filing or explain why the state wanted to drop two fraud allegations.In the state’s post-trial court filing on Monday, the attorney general argued that even without the fraud claims there is sufficient evidence that Exxon misled investors for years by issuing confusing and contradictory information about its carbon metrics. New York claims Exxon said publicly it was using a conservative proxy cost to appease investors while a lower figure was frequently used to make internal decisions on projects like the oil sands in Alberta, Canada.Exxon contends that New York’s diminished case is a far cry from what the state has been saying publicly since New York began investigating in 2015 until the end of the trial. New York had claimed that Exxon’s proxy costs were a “longstanding fraudulent scheme” that was “sanctioned at the highest levels of the company,” court records show.Former Exxon Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson faced years of particularly harsh allegations by the state, which accused him of knowingly spearheading the scheme and trying to cover it up. On the witness stand, he denied the claim and said the case was unfair to the company.In its Monday filing, New York said Exxon’s alleged misstatements were repeated and persistent. But the government didn’t attempt to explain its decision to abandon the two fraud claims.“Climate change regulatory risk is a critical risk in the oil and gas industry, and as a consequence, Exxon’s misleading statements about its management of that risk are clearly material to investors,” the AG said.(Updates with James’s office declining to comment)To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Larson in New York at elarson4@bloomberg.netTo contact the editors responsible for this story: David Glovin at dglovin@bloomberg.net, Steve StrothFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

  • Top Analyst Reports for Alphabet, Amazon & Johnson & Johnson

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