Last week, a reporter interviewed me regarding conflict minerals.The reporter specifically asked whether I believed there would be more litigation on conflict minerals and whether the SEC's lack of enforcement would cause companies to stop doing due diligence. I am not sure which, if any, of my remarks will appear in print so I am posting some of my comments below:
I expect that if conflict minerals legislation survives, it will take a different form. The SEC asked for comments at the end of January, and I've read most of the comment letters. Many, including Trillium Asset Management, focus on the need to stay the course with the Rule, citing some success in making many mines conflict free. Others oppose the rule because of the expense. However, it appears that the costs haven't been as high as most people expected, and indeed many of the tech companies such as Apple and Intel have voiced support for the rule. It's likely that they have already operationalized the due diligence. The SEC has limits on what it can do, so I expect Congress to take action, unless there is an executive order from President Trump, which people have been expecting since February.
The Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa held a hearing on conflict minerals on April 5, and some of the witnesses and Senators talked about what hasn't worked with the rule. Although the situation has improved, the violence continues, most notably with the murder of a member of the UN Group of Experts just last week. Rick Goss from the Information Technology Council testified the while the Rule has had some benefits such as increased transparency and raising global awareness, there are also things that don't work. He discussed fact that the illicit trade in gold continues and criminal elements are still exploiting other resources. A number of his and other witness' proposed solutions were more holistic and geopolitical and went beyond the SEC's purview, and I think that's where the government should look when trying to address these issues. You may see a push toward a safe harbor, which came up in some of the comment letters, and which was a point of discussion during the Senate testimony. With a safe harbor, the issuer could rely on supplier certifications.
Lack of enforcement or less enforcement could cause more issuers to continue to do business or start doing business there because it will be less onerous. On the other hand, with with the EU's conflict mineral rules, which will come into play in 2021 and which covers the same minerals (but is not limited in geography) you may find that the big issuers decide to stay the course with due diligence.
I have been focusing my research on the consumer aspect of these name and shame laws. While there have been conflict-free campuses and conflict-free cities (and some of them sent letters to the SEC), I haven't seen solid evidence that shows that consumers are boycotting the companies that aren't doing the full due diligence that 1502 requires or rewarding those that do. Apple is a stand-out in conflict minerals compliance but they also happen to sell something that people really want.
Although firms like Trillium state that investors like the transparency, they are likely benefitting from an improved supply chain in general because companies that attempted to follow 1502 by necessity had to upgrade systems and supplier protocols.
So in sum, I think that the firms that are already doing what they are supposed to may continue to do so (or scale back just a little) and may tout these voluntary efforts in their CSR reports. Those who have been unable to determine the origin of their minerals won't likely do any more than they have to or may just source their minerals elsewhere.
If Congress keeps the rule, I recommend that the SEC:
1) limit reporting obligations to those companies that manufacture products;
2) add a de minimis exception to the Conflict Minerals Rule; and
3) include a safe harbor provision to allow issuers to rely upon defined contract provisions and supplier certifications.
Ideally, theTrump government should take the onus of the responsibility for solving this human rights crisis off the private sector and instead work with the Congolese government, other governments, and NGOs on holistic solutions, especially as it relates to the members of the armed forces, who are also involved in illegal mineral trade and human rights abuses.
Just today, the GAO issued a report on conflict minerals. Dodd-Frank requires an annual report on the effectiveness of the rule "in promoting peace and security in the DRC and adjoining countries." Of note, the report explained that:
After conducting due diligence, an estimated 39 percent of the companies reported in 2016 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 23 percent in 2015. Almost all of the companies that reported conducting due diligence in 2016 reported that they could not determine whether the conflict minerals financed or benefited armed groups, as in 2015 and 2014. (emphasis added).
The Trump Administration, some SEC commissioners, and many in Congress have already voiced their concerns about this legislation. I didn't have the benefit of the GAO report during my interview, but it will likely provide another nail in the coffin of the conflict minerals rule.