Risk Management and the Board of Directors—An Update for 2014

Martin Lipton is a founding partner of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, specializing in mergers and acquisitions and matters affecting corporate policy and strategy. This post is based on a Wachtell Lipton memorandum by Mr. Lipton, Daniel A. Neff, Andrew R. Brownstein, Steven A. Rosenblum, and Adam O. Emmerich.

Introduction

Overview

Corporate risk taking and the monitoring of risks have remained front and center in the minds of boards of directors, legislators and the media, fueled by the powerful mix of continuing worldwide financial instability; ever-increasing regulation; anger and resentment at the alleged power of business and financial executives and boards, including particularly as to compensation during a time of economic uncertainty, retrenchment, contraction, and changing dynamics between U.S., European and emerging market economies; and consistent media attention to corporations and economies in crisis. The reputational damage to boards of companies that fail to properly manage risk is a major threat, and Institutional Shareholder Services now includes specific reference to risk oversight as part of its criteria for choosing when to recommend withhold votes in uncontested director elections. This focus on the board’s role in risk management has also led to increased public and governmental scrutiny of compensation arrangements and their relationship to excessive risk taking and has brought added emphasis to the relationship between executive compensation and effective risk management. For the past few years, we have provided an annual overview of risk management and the board of directors. This overview highlights a number of issues that have remained critical over the years and provides an update to reflect emerging and recent developments.

As we have said before, the board cannot and should not be involved in actual day-to-day risk management. Directors should instead, through their risk oversight role, satisfy themselves that the risk management policies and procedures designed and implemented by the company’s senior executives and risk managers are consistent with the company’s strategy and risk appetite, that these policies and procedures are functioning as directed, and that necessary steps are taken to foster a culture of risk-aware and risk-adjusted decision making throughout the organization. The board should establish that the CEO and the senior executives are fully engaged in risk management and should also be aware of the type and magnitude of the company’s principal risks that underlie its risk oversight. Through its oversight role, the board can send a message to management and employees that comprehensive risk management is neither an impediment to the conduct of business nor a mere supplement to a firm’s overall compliance program, but is instead an integral component of strategy, culture and business operations. In addition, the roles and responsibilities of different board committees in overseeing specific categories of risk should be reviewed to ensure that, taken as a whole, the board’s oversight function is coordinated and comprehensive. In that regard, PricewaterhouseCoopers’s 2013 Annual Corporate Directors Survey reported that the number of directors who believe there is a clear allocation of risk oversight responsibilities among the board and its committees increased by over 17 percent from the prior year, but half of these directors suggested the clarity of the allocation of these responsibilities could still be improved.

A risk management issue that merits special attention in the coming year is cyber-security. Online security breaches, theft of proprietary or commercially sensitive information and damage to IT infrastructure can have a significant financial and reputational impact on companies. The prevalence of these risks has been exacerbated by developments in cloud computing, mobile technology and social media, among others. Despite the attention this issue has gained, a survey report issued last year by the Carnegie Mellon University CyLab suggested that boards “still are not undertaking key oversight activities related to cyber risks, such as reviewing budgets, security program assessments and top-level policies; assigning roles and responsibilities for privacy and security; and receiving regular reports on breaches and IT risks.” In addition, boards should be mindful of potentially enhanced disclosure requirements for cybersecurity risks. Last year, the SEC reviewed public company disclosures relating to cybersecurity risks and issued comment letters to approximately 50 companies, and in May, the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation highlighted this issue in a letter to the SEC urging expanded disclosure requirements for cybersecurity practices and risks.

The focus on risk management is a top governance priority of institutional investors. A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey report issued in 2013 indicated that risk management was the issue most frequently cited by investors as either the most important issue or a very important issue for boards, ranking above strategic planning, executive compensation and succession planning. In exceptional circumstances, this scrutiny can translate into shareholder campaigns and adverse voting recommendations from ISS. ISS will recommend voting “against” or “withhold” in director elections, even in uncontested elections, when the company has experienced certain extraordinary circumstances, including material failures of risk oversight. In 2012, ISS clarified that such failures of risk oversight will include, among other things, bribery, large or serial fines or sanctions from regulatory bodies and significant adverse legal judgments or settlements. As a case in point, in connection with the ongoing FCPA investigation at Wal-Mart, ISS recommended voting against the chairman, CEO and audit committee chair “due to the board’s failure to adequately communicate material risk factors to shareholders, and to reassure shareholders that the board was exercising proper oversight and stewardship and would hold executives accountable if appropriate.”

Tone at the Top and Corporate Culture

The board and relevant committees should work with management to promote and actively cultivate a corporate culture and environment that understands and implements enterprise-wide risk management. Comprehensive risk management should not be viewed as a specialized corporate function, but instead should be treated as an integral component that affects how the company measures and rewards its success. Running a company is an exercise in managing risk in exchange for potential returns, and there can be danger in excessive risk aversion, just as there is danger in excessive risk-taking. But the assessment of risk, the accurate calculation of risk versus reward, and the prudent mitigation of risk should be incorporated into all business decision-making. In setting the appropriate “tone at the top,” transparency, consistency and communication are key: the board’s vision for the corporation, including its commitment to risk oversight, ethics and intolerance of compliance failures, should be communicated effectively throughout the organization. Risk management policies and procedures and codes of conduct and ethics should be incorporated into the company’s strategy and business operations, with appropriate supplementary training programs for employees and regular compliance assessments.

The Risk Oversight Function of the Board of Directors

A board’s risk oversight responsibilities derive primarily from state law fiduciary duties, federal and state laws and regulations, stock exchange listing requirements, and certain established (and evolving) best practices, both domestic and worldwide:

Fiduciary Duties

The Delaware courts have taken the lead in formulating the national legal standards for directors’ duties for risk management. The Delaware courts have developed the basic rule under the Caremark line of cases that directors can only be liable for a failure of board oversight where there is “sustained or systemic failure of the board to exercise oversight—such as an utter failure to attempt to assure a reasonable information and reporting system exists,” noting that this is a “demanding test.” In re Caremark International Inc. Derivative Litigation, 698 A.2d 959, 971 (Del. Ch. 1996). Delaware Court of Chancery decisions since Caremark have expanded upon that holding, while reaffirming its fundamental standard. The plaintiffs in In re Citigroup Inc. Shareholder Derivative Litigation, decided in 2009, alleged that the defendant directors of Citigroup had breached their fiduciary duties by not properly monitoring and managing the business risks that Citigroup faced from subprime mortgage securities, and by ignoring alleged “red flags” that consisted primarily of press reports and events indicating worsening conditions in the subprime and credit markets. The court dismissed these claims, reaffirming the “extremely high burden” plaintiffs face in bringing a claim for personal director liability for a failure to monitor business risk and that a “sustained or systemic failure” to exercise oversight is needed to establish the lack of good faith that is a necessary condition to liability.

More recently, in Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. Shareholder Litigation, decided in October 2011, the court dismissed claims against directors of Goldman Sachs based on allegations that they failed to properly oversee the company’s alleged excessive risk taking in the sub-prime mortgage securities market and caused reputational damage to the company by hedging risks in a manner that conflicted with the interests of its clients. Chief among the plaintiffs’ allegations was that Goldman Sachs’ compensation structure, as overseen by the board of directors, incentivized management to take on ever riskier investments with benefits that inured to management but with the risks of those actions falling to the shareholders. In dismissing the plaintiffs’ Caremark claims, the court reiterated that, in the absence of “red flags,” the manner in which a company evaluates the risks involved with a given business decision is protected by the business judgment rule and will not be second-guessed by judges.

Overall, these cases reflect that it is difficult to show a breach of fiduciary duty for failure to exercise oversight and that the board is not required to undertake extraordinary efforts to uncover non-compliance within the company, provided a monitoring system is in place. Nonetheless, while it is true that the Delaware Supreme Court has not indicated a willingness, to date, to alter the strong protection afforded to directors under the business judgment rule which underpins Caremark and its progeny, boards should keep in mind that cases involving particularly egregious facts and circumstances and substantial shareholder losses could lead to a stricter standard, particularly at the trial court level. Companies should adhere to reasonable and prudent practices and should not structure their risk management policies around the minimum requirements needed to satisfy the business judgment rule.

Federal Laws and Regulations

Dodd-Frank. The Dodd-Frank Act created new federally mandated risk management procedures principally for financial institutions. Dodd-Frank requires bank holding companies with total assets of $10 billion or more, and certain other non-bank financial companies as well, to have a separate risk committee which includes at least one risk management expert with experience managing risk of large companies.

Securities and Exchange Commission. In 2010, the SEC added requirements for proxy statement discussion of a company’s board leadership structure and role in risk oversight. Companies are required to disclose in their annual reports the extent of the board’s role in risk oversight, such as how the board administers its oversight function, the effect that risk oversight has on the board’s process (e.g., whether the persons who oversee risk management report directly to the board as whole, to a committee, such as the audit committee, or to one of the other standing committees of the board) and whether and how the board, or board committee, monitors risk.

The SEC proxy rules also require a company to discuss the extent that risks arising from a company’s compensation policies are reasonably likely to have a “material adverse effect” on the company. A company must further discuss how its compensation policies and practices, including that of its non-executive officers, relate to risk management and risk-taking incentives.

Industry-Specific Guidance and General Best Practices Manuals

Various industry-specific regulators and private organizations publish suggested best practices for board oversight of risk management. Examples include reports by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD)—Blue Ribbon Commission on Risk Governance and the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO). The 2009 NACD report provides guidance on and principles for the board’s risk oversight activities, the relationship between strategy and risk, and the board’s role in relation to particular categories of risk. These principles include understanding key drivers of success and risks in the company’s strategy, crafting the right relationship between the board and its standing committees as to risk oversight, establishing and providing appropriate resources to support risk management systems, monitoring potential risks in the company’s culture and incentive systems and developing an effective risk dialogue with management.

COSO published an internationally recognized enterprise risk management framework in 2004. The COSO approach presents eight interrelated components of risk management: the internal environment (the tone of the organization), setting objectives, event identification, risk assessment, risk response, control activities, information and communications, and monitoring. A COSO 2009 enterprise risk management release recommends concrete steps for boards, such as understanding a company’s risk philosophy and concurring with its risk appetite, reviewing a company’s risk portfolio against that appetite, and knowing the extent to which management has established effective enterprise risk management and is appropriately responding in the face of risk. In its 2010 progress report, COSO recommends that the board focus, at least annually, on whether developments in a company’s business or the overall business environment have “resulted in changes in the critical assumptions and inherent risks underlying the organization’s strategy.” By understanding and emphasizing the relationship between critical assumptions underlying business strategy and risk management, the board can strengthen its risk oversight role.

Also in January 2014, The Conference Board Governance Center published a report, Risk Oversight: Evolving Expectations for Boards, that contains useful recommendations for board driven risk governance.

Recommendations for Improving Risk Oversight

Risk management should be tailored to the specific company, but in general an effective risk management system will (1) adequately identify the material risks that the company faces in a timely manner; (2) implement appropriate risk management strategies that are responsive to the company’s risk profile, business strategies, specific material risk exposures and risk tolerance thresholds; (3) integrate consideration of risk and risk management into business decision-making throughout the company; and (4) adequately transmit necessary information with respect to material risks to senior executives and, as appropriate, to the board or relevant committees.

Specific types of actions that the appropriate committees may consider as part of their risk management oversight include the following:

  • review with management the company’s risk appetite and risk tolerance, the ways in which risk is measured on an aggregate, company-wide basis, the setting of aggregate and individual risk limits (quantitative and qualitative, as appropriate), the policies and procedures in place to hedge against or mitigate risks, and the actions to be taken if risk limits are exceeded;
  • review with management the categories of risk the company faces, including any risk concentrations and risk interrelationships, as well as the likelihood of occurrence, the potential impact of those risks and mitigating measures;
  • review with management the assumptions and analysis underpinning the determination of the company’s principal risks and whether adequate procedures are in place to ensure that new or materially changed risks are properly and promptly identified, understood and accounted for in the actions of the company;
  • review with committees and management the board’s expectations as to each group’s respective responsibilities for risk oversight and management of specific risks to ensure a shared understanding as to accountabilities and roles;
  • review the company’s executive compensation structure to ensure it is appropriate in light of the company’s articulated risk appetite and to ensure it is creating proper incentives in light of the risks the company faces;
  • review the risk policies and procedures adopted by management, including procedures for reporting matters to the board and appropriate committees and providing updates, in order to assess whether they are appropriate and comprehensive;
  • review management’s implementation of its risk policies and procedures, to assess whether they are being followed and are effective;
  • review with management the quality, type and format of risk-related information provided to directors;
  • review the steps taken by management to ensure adequate independence of the risk management function and the processes for resolution and escalation of differences that might arise between risk management and business functions;
  • review with management the design of the company’s risk management functions, as well as the qualifications and backgrounds of senior risk officers and the personnel policies applicable to risk management, to assess whether they are appropriate given the company’s size and scope of operations;
  • review with management the means by which the company’s risk management strategy is communicated to all appropriate groups within the company so that it is properly integrated into the company’s enterprise-wide business strategy;
  • review internal systems of formal and informal communication across divisions and control functions to encourage the prompt and coherent flow of risk-related information within and across business units and, as needed, the prompt escalation of information to management (and to the board or board committees as appropriate); and
  • review reports from management, independent auditors, internal auditors, legal counsel, regulators, stock analysts, and outside experts as considered appropriate regarding risks the company faces and the company’s risk management function.

In addition to considering the foregoing measures, the board may also want to focus on identifying external pressures that can push a company to take excessive risks and consider how best to address those pressures. In particular, companies have come under increasing pressure in recent years from hedge funds and activist shareholders to produce short-term results, often at the expense of longer-term goals. These demands may include steps that would increase the company’s risk profile, for example through increased leverage to repurchase shares or pay out special dividends, or spinoffs that leave the resulting companies with smaller capitalizations. While such actions may make sense for a specific company under a specific set of circumstances, the board should focus on the risk impact and be ready to resist pressures to take steps that the board determines are not in the company’s or shareholders’ best interest.

Situating the Risk Oversight Function

Most boards delegate oversight of risk management to the audit committee, which is consistent with the NYSE rule that requires the audit committee to discuss policies with respect to risk assessment and risk management. Financial companies covered by Dodd-Frank must have dedicated risk management committees. The appropriateness of a dedicated risk committee at other companies will depend on the industry and specific circumstances of the company. Boards should also bear in mind that different kinds of risks may be best suited to the expertise of different committees—an advantage that may outweigh any benefit from having a single committee specialize in risk management. To date, separate risk committees remain uncommon outside the financial industry. Regardless of the delegation of risk oversight to committees, the full board should satisfy itself that the activities of the various committees are coordinated and that the company has adequate risk management processes in place.

If the company keeps the primary risk oversight function in the audit committee and does not establish a separate risk committee or subcommittee, the audit committee should schedule time for periodic review of risk management outside the context of its role in reviewing financial statements and accounting compliance. While this may further burden the audit committee, it is important to allocate sufficient time and focus to the risk oversight role.

Risk management issues may arise in the context of the work of other committees, and the decision-making in those committees should take into account the company’s overall risk management system. Specialized committees may be tasked with specific areas of risk exposure. Banks, for instance, often maintain credit or finance committees, while energy companies may have public policy committees largely devoted to environmental and safety issues. Where different board committees are responsible for overseeing specific risks, the work of these committees should be coordinated in a coherent manner both horizontally and vertically so that the entire board can be satisfied as to the adequacy of the risk oversight function and the company’s overall risk exposures are understood, including with respect to risk interrelationships.

The board should formally undertake an annual review of the company’s risk management system, including a review of board- and committee-level risk oversight policies and procedures, a presentation of “best practices” to the extent relevant, tailored to focus on the industry or regulatory arena in which the company operates, and a review of other relevant issues such as those listed above. To this end, it may be appropriate for boards and committees to engage outside consultants to assist them in both the review of the company’s risk management systems and also assist them in understanding and analyzing business-specific risks. But because risk, by its very nature, is subject to constant and unexpected change, boards should keep in mind that annual reviews do not replace the need to regularly assess and reassess their own operations and processes, learn from past mistakes, and seek to ensure that current practices enable the board to address specific major issues whenever they may arise. Where a major or new risk comes to fruition, management should thoroughly investigate and report back to the full board or the relevant committees as appropriate.

Lines of Communication and Information Flow

The ability of the board or a committee to perform its oversight role is, to a large extent, dependent upon the relationship and the flow of information between the directors, senior management, and the risk managers in the company. If directors do not believe they are receiving sufficient information—including information regarding the external and internal risk environment, the specific material risk exposures affecting the company, how these risks are assessed and prioritized, risk response strategies, implementation of risk management procedures and infrastructure, and the strengths and weaknesses of the overall system—they should be proactive in asking for more. Directors should work with management to understand and agree on the type, format and frequency of risk information required by the board. High-quality, timely and credible information provides the foundation for effective responses and decision-making by the board.

Any committee charged with risk oversight should hold sessions in which it meets directly with key executives primarily responsible for risk management, just as an audit committee meets regularly with the company’s internal auditors and liaises with senior management in connection with CEO and CFO certifications for each Form 10-Q and Form 10-K. In addition, senior risk managers and senior executives should understand they are empowered to inform the board or committee of extraordinary risk issues and developments that need the immediate attention of the board outside of the regular reporting procedures. In light of the Caremark standards discussed above, the board should feel comfortable that “red flags” or “yellow flags” are being reported to it so that they may be investigated if appropriate.

Legal Compliance Programs

Senior management should provide the board or committee with an appropriate review of the company’s legal compliance programs and how they are designed to address the company’s risk profile and detect and prevent wrongdoing. While compliance programs will need to be tailored to the specific company’s needs, there are a number of principles to consider in reviewing a program. As noted earlier, there should be a strong “tone at the top” from the board and senior management emphasizing that non-compliance will not be tolerated. The compliance program should be designed by persons with relevant expertise and will typically include interactive training as well as written materials. Compliance policies should be reviewed periodically in order to assess their effectiveness and to make any necessary changes. There should be consistency in enforcing stated policies through appropriate disciplinary measures. Finally, there should be clear reporting systems in place both at the employee level and at the management level so that employees understand when and to whom they should report suspected violations and so that management understands the board’s or committee’s informational needs for its oversight purposes. A company may choose to appoint a chief compliance officer and/or constitute a compliance committee to administer the compliance program, including facilitating employee education and issuing periodic reminders. If there is a specific area of compliance that is critical to the company’s business, the company may consider developing a separate compliance apparatus devoted to that area.

Anticipating Future Risks

The company’s risk management structure should include an ongoing effort to assess and analyze the most likely areas of future risk for the company, including how the contours and interrelationships of existing risks may change and how the company’s processes for anticipating future risks are developed. Anticipating future risks is a key element of avoiding or mitigating those risks before they escalate into crises. In reviewing risk management, the board or relevant committees should ask the company’s executives to discuss the most likely sources of material future risks and how the company is addressing any significant potential vulnerability.

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