Tag Archives: ICFR

A Control Environment and History Follow-Up

By: George M. Wilson & Carol A. Stacey

 

This famous quote has been in our thoughts over the last several months:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana, the poet and essayist, wrote these famous words in his book The Life of Reason. Many other people including Winston Churchill have thoughtfully incorporated this fundamental principle of life in speeches and remarks.

Another favorite variation of the idea comes from Mark Twain:
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The lesson here is that if we learn history we can hopefully avoid making the same or similar mistakes in the future. As we discussed a couple of posts back, recent public company news shows that many organizations have not been learning from the past.

 

One person who can help us learn about history we do not want to repeat is Cynthia Cooper. She was the WorldCom head of internal audit who built and lead the team that worked almost “under cover” to find the largest fraud ever discovered. This was a tone at the top fraud, involving the CEO, CFO and CAO. Her book is a sometimes-chilling story of how bad tone at the top results in fraud.

 

Sharron Watkins is another person who can help us learn how to not repeat history. She was the Enron Vice President, a direct report to Andy Fastow, who blew the whistle about Enron’s accounting irregularities. And we all know perhaps too much about that fraud which was even the subject of a book and related movie “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”.

 

Corporate ethics will never be easy, but as history and current events show, it does matter. If leadership of an organization sends the message that making money is the most important thing an organization does, if it sends the message that if you don’t make money you will be fired, if it sends the message that other values can be sacrificed if you make money, the ultimate result is inevitable. In countless frauds over centuries, from Ivar Kreuger, the match king in the early 1900s, to Equity Funding in the 1970s, to Madoff, to Enron, to the companies we are talking about today, this lesson has been proven time and time again.

 

These stories can help us learn and avoid the mistakes others have made. They can be the focus of training and learning. They can be the foundation for building awareness and support for these issues in organizations large and small.

 

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Tone at the Top, History and COSO

By: George M. Wilson & Carol A. Stacey

 

First, a quick warning before you read this post. One of the authors of this post spent nine years teaching at a university which had one of the few undergraduate business programs in the country with a required course in business ethics. This post is perhaps a bit preachy!

We have seen some distressing examples in the news lately of organizations acting unethically. If you were around during the early 2000s these events evoke a strong feeling of déjà vu. The similarities in the “tone at the top” of the organizations in the news today compared to the tone at the top in the companies involved in the pre-SOX waves of fraud (such as WorldCom and Enron) is eerie!

In all of these frauds, the roots of unethical conduct which harmed shareholders were at the top of the organizations.

History, as it always seems to do, is repeating itself. Eventually defective tone at the top will always result in trouble and distress for the organization and investors. (Yes, that was one of the preachy parts!)

All this makes it seem like a great time to review a key element in the foundations of internal control, the control environment. Here is an excerpt from the Executive Summary of the 2013 COSO Framework:

 

“Control Environment

The control environment is the set of standards, processes, and structures that provide the basis for carrying out internal control across the organization. The board of directors and senior management establish the tone at the top regarding the importance of internal control including expected standards of conduct. Management reinforces expectations at the various levels of the organization. The control environment comprises the integrity and ethical values of the organization; the parameters enabling the board of directors to carry out its governance oversight responsibilities; the organizational structure and assignment of authority and responsibility; the process for attracting, developing, and retaining competent individuals; and the rigor around performance measures, incentives, and rewards to drive accountability for performance. The resulting control environment has a pervasive impact on the overall system of internal control. “

Building an effective control environment starts at the top of an organization with the executive leadership, board and Audit Committee. If the people in these roles place financial performance before integrity, if their attitude is about accomplishing objectives at whatever the cost, that is poison in the control environment.

Understanding, assessing and evaluating tone at the top and the other elements of the control environment is not easy.

In a telecom company where the message from the CEO is to make the numbers at any cost is there any surprise that the end result is one of the largest financial reporting frauds ever? Or that the fraud was carefully crafted to avoid detection by the auditors? And, when the perpetrators of the fraud are the leaders of the organization, who have the power to punish anyone who might call out the tone at the top issues, is it any wonder that it is easy for them to conceal the corruption in the control environment? Is it any surprise that the courageous internal auditors who eventually called out the fraud actually had to conduct their investigation in secret and at times wondered if they should be afraid for their lives?

 

In an energy trading company where the CFO was behind hidden issues involving off-balance sheet arrangements that were not on the up-and-up, is it any wonder that the first person to really escalate the issue did so in an anonymous letter?

 

In a bank where not making sales goals resulted in your termination, is there any surprise when rules are bent? Is there any surprise when people are fired when they attempt to raise the issue to their managers?

 

As another example, check out this 10-K for Hertz which includes a major restatement. In the “Explanatory Note” at the beginning of the document you will find this language:

 

As of December 31, 2014, we did not maintain an effective control environment primarily attributable to the following identified material weaknesses:

Our investigation found that an inconsistent and sometimes inappropriate tone at the top was present under the then existing senior management that did not in certain instances result in adherence to accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America (“GAAP”) and Company accounting policies and procedures. In particular, our former Chief Executive Officer’s management style and temperament created a pressurized operating environment at the Company, where challenging targets were set and achieving those targets was a key performance expectation. There was in certain instances an inappropriate emphasis on meeting internal budgets, business plans, and current estimates. Our former Chief Executive Officer further encouraged employees to focus on potential business risks and opportunities, and on potential financial or operating performance gaps, as well as ways of ameliorating potential risks or gaps, including through accounting reviews. This resulted in an environment which in some instances may have led to inappropriate accounting decisions and the failure to disclose information critical to an effective review of transactions and accounting entries, such as certain changes in accounting methodologies, to the appropriate finance and accounting personnel or our Board, Audit Committee, or independent registered public accounting firm.

 

This is another example of a fraud with its roots in tone at the top.

When frauds escalate to a material level there is a reasonable likelihood that it started with a problem with tone at the top, with the control environment.

So, where does all this lead? Assessing tone at the top is not easy. And a poisoned control environment will do everything it can to protect itself. The leaders of an organization with a defective control environment will use the power they wield to keep others from exposing the problem. Perhaps more protections for whistleblowers are a good thing in this regard. Tools to measure ethical behavior in an organization are difficult to find, subjective and imprecise. Enron in fact had a model code of ethics, but having something on paper does not mean that people will live by the code of ethics. The one thing that is clear is that this continues to be a complex area and continues to be at the root of many financial reporting frauds. We all need to focus on this area and work to develop a better understanding and better tools to assess the control environment.

We all need to focus on tone at the top and ethical behavior. Yes, it is not easy to measure, it is not easy for an outsider to observe, but it is clearly crucial to effective ICFR!

 

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

 

 

Year-End Planning – More or Less Concluded – Keeping Up with SEC Focus Areas

By George M. Wilson & Carol A. Stacey

In recent weeks we have been posting about areas to deal with in advance of year-end. So far we have addressed:

Issues in the Statement of Cash Flows

Evaluating and Auditing ICFR

The New Item 16 Form 10-K Summary

Recently Issued Accounting Standards and a Few Example Comments

SAB 74/Topic 11-M – News from the SEC at the September EITF Meeting

Disclosure Effectiveness

Should You Consider Any Issues for OCA Consultation?

A Year End Planning Detail – No More Mailing the ARS to the SEC!

Three Years of Fun – Planning the “Big Three” New FASB Statement Transitions

 

As we are getting ever closer to year-end this is also a good time to proactively review areas where financial reporting problems frequently occur and take steps to assure we have all the “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed in these areas.

Unusually complex accounting issues, difficult estimates and sensitive disclosures all become the focus of SEC comments. This is not because the Staff thinks they are important in and of themselves, but rather because these are areas where the Staff frequently uncovers problems in the comment process. Clearly if we do not deal with them appropriately, they involve risk of restatement and amendment.

There are a variety of ways you can keep up with the CorpFin Staff’s frequent comment areas. Every year at our Annual Reporting Forums in November and December, our Conference for Mid-Size and Smaller Companies in September and our Mid-Year Programs in May and June current and former Staffers discuss the areas where they have concerns.

Here is the list from our most recent programs:

  • Segments
  • Statement of Cash Flows
  • Income Taxes
  • Consolidation
  • Business Combinations
  • Fair Value
  • Goodwill
  • Revenue Recognition
  • Non-GAAP Measures & Metrics
  • Internal Control over Financial Reporting

Beyond hearing from the Staff and those in the know, many organizations research comment letters and summarize the areas and frequency of comments within these areas.   You can find these summaries on the web pages for most of the national CPA firms. Here are links to some of them:

EY SEC Comments and Trends

Deloitte’s SEC Comment Letter Series

PWC’s SEC Comment Letter Trends

Other companies build databases of comments which can be researched by comment area, CorpFin Office and even by reviewer. Two companies who sell these kinds of tools are Audit Analytics and Intelligize. However, remember the Staff’s caution that their comments are fact-specific to each registrant and you should never cut and paste from another letter.

If you have any other good sources of information about these issues, please leave them in a comment to this post, and, as usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

 

 

 

A Very Picky Reminder – ICFR and Accounting Standard Implementation Reporting

By: George M. Wilson & Carol A. Stacey

SAB 74 (SAB Codification 11-M) disclosures surrounding the new revenue recognition, leasing and financial instrument impairment standards have been receiving a lot of attention lately, especially with the SEC Staff announcement about them at the September EITF meeting.

This is not the only reporting that a new accounting standard might involve. Since these new standards could have an impact on ICFR, this is a good time to remember the requirements to report material changes in ICFR. These requirements apply to both Item 9A in Form 10-K and Part I Item 4 in Form 10-Q. They begin with S-K Item 308(c):

(c) Changes in internal control over financial reporting. Disclose any change in the registrant’s internal control over financial reporting identified in connection with the evaluation required by paragraph (d) of §240.13a-15 or 240.15d-15 of this chapter that occurred during the registrant’s last fiscal quarter (the registrant’s fourth fiscal quarter in the case of an annual report) that has materially affected, or is reasonably likely to materially affect, the registrant’s internal control over financial reporting.

With changes to ICFR for revenue recognition for information about contracts and estimates, like stand-alone selling price and when control transfers, and changes to ICFR for capitalization of all leases, these new standards could require material changes to ICFR. Is this the type of change included in the S-K 308(c) disclosure requirement?

This is an excerpt from the ICFR C&DI’s, number 7, about SOX reporting which you can find here:

After the registrant’s first management report on internal control over financial reporting, pursuant to Item 308 of Regulations S-K or S-B, the registrant is required to identify and disclose any material changes in the registrant’s internal control over financial reporting in each quarterly and annual report. This would encompass disclosing a change (including an improvement) to internal control over financial reporting that was not necessarily in response to an identified material weakness (i.e. the implementation of a new information system) if it materially affected the registrant’s internal control over financial reporting. Materiality, as with all materiality judgments in this area, would be determined upon the basis of the impact on internal control over financial reporting and the materiality standard articulated in TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc. 426 U.S. 438 (1976) and Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988). This would also include disclosing a change to internal control over financial reporting related to a business combination for which the acquired entity that has been or will be excluded from an annual management report on internal control over financial reporting as contemplated in Question 3 above. As an alternative to ongoing disclosure for such changes in internal control over financial reporting, a registrant may choose to disclose all such changes to internal control over financial reporting in the annual report in which its assessment that encompasses the acquired business is included.

The SEC Regulations Committee of the CAQ has also discussed a particularly intricate issue in this transition. What if you change your ICFR this year, but the change is for future reporting when you begin to report under the new standard next year? This issue is still in play, as this excerpt from the minutes discusses:

  1. Changes in ICFR in preparation for the adoption of a new accounting standard

Item 308(c) of Regulation S-K requires disclosure of changes in internal control over financial reporting (“ICFR”) during the most recent quarter that have materially affected or are reasonably likely to materially affect the registrant’s ICFR. The Committee and the staff discussed how this requirement applies to changes in ICFR that are made in preparation for the adoption of a new accounting standard when those changes are in periods that precede the date of adoption and do not impact the preparation of the financial statements until the new standard is adopted.

The staff indicated that they are evaluating whether additional guidance is necessary for applying the requirements of Item 308(c) in connection with the transition to the new revenue standard.

So, as you begin implementing systems and processes for these new standards, don’t forget this part of the reporting!

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

Hot Topic Update – FASB’s Dramatic New Lease Accounting Standard

 

The FASB’s new lease accounting standard presents complex accounting, internal control, system and implementation challenges. Learn the conceptual underpinnings, overall structure and details of the standard as it applies to both lessees and lessors. Register now for our live half-day seminar November 30th in San Francisco or December 15th in New York City, Implementing the FASB’s New Lease Accounting Standard Workshop 2016. Discussion includes implementation steps and system and ICFR issues.

http://www.pli.edu/Content/Seminar/Implementing_the_FASB_s_New_Lease_Accounting/_/N-4kZ1z10l1v?fromsearch=false&ID=300755

Year-End Topic 6 – Should You Consider Any Issues for OCA Consultation?

As we approach year-end another issue to plan well in advance is whether or not you should ask OCA to pre-clear any extremely complex or subjective accounting decisions. This is a well-established process and when you are faced with a complex transaction, extremely subjective accounting determinations or an area where GAAP is not clearly established it makes sense to pre-clear the issue and avoid the possibility of restatement, amendment, or getting hung up in the CorpFin comment process. This is especially true when we know we will all be reviewed at least once every three years.

 

OCA’s process for consultation is outlined here. The process does need a significant amount of preparation and usually requires a few weeks to complete, sometimes more, so advance planning is important.   The document link above has a very detailed list of what needs to be included in your correspondence with OCA and what to expect from the process.

 

Since this is a consultation with the Office of the Chief Accountant, the answer you get will be definitive and cannot be over-ridden in the review process.

 

There is also a telephone consultation service you can use to consult with the CorpFin Chief Accountants office, a different process of course, but sometimes a good starting point. You can find out about this less formal process here.

 

Lastly, here is a recent list of frequent OCA consultation areas you can use to access whether your issues would benefit from this process:

 

Revenue Recognition, gross vs net etc.

Business combinations, who is the acquirer, business vs assets, contingent consideration

Financial assets, impairments valuation

Segments and aggregation

Consolidation VIE

Long lived assets, e.g. goodwill impairment

Taxes,

Leases

Pension

Debt vs equity

 

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

SEC Review News – No More “Tandy” Language

Have you ever wondered why the SEC puts this language at the end of every comment letter?

We urge all persons who are responsible for the accuracy and adequacy of the disclosure in the filing to be certain that the filing includes the information the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and all applicable Exchange Act rules require. Since the company and its management are in possession of all facts relating to a company’s disclosure, they are responsible for the accuracy and adequacy of the disclosures they have made.

In responding to our comments, please provide a written statement from the company acknowledging that:

  • the company is responsible for the adequacy and accuracy of the disclosure in the filing;
  • staff comments or changes to disclosure in response to staff comments do not foreclose the Commission from taking any action with respect to the filing; and
  • the company may not assert staff comments as a defense in any proceeding initiated by the Commission or any person under the federal securities laws of the United States.

The history of this language goes all the way back to the 70’s. Tandy was the first company to receive this language in a comment letter. The comment process had been asserted as a possible defense and the staff wanted to make it clear that this was not appropriate. It was in 2004, after a flood of FOIA requests to obtain comment letters, that the staff decided to make all comment letters and responses public. With that decision they decided to require “Tandy” language in all comment letter responses. You can read more in this 2004 release.

The Staff has now changed their position. Since this language has been around for so long they will no longer require it in each response. Instead, the staff will simply put this language in comment letters:

We remind you that the company and its management are responsible for the accuracy and adequacy of their disclosures, notwithstanding any review, comments, action or absence of action by the staff.

You can read the details here.

The change is effective immediately, so all comment letter responses after October 5, 2016 do not need the “Tandy” language.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

 

Year-End Planning Topic Number 5 – Disclosure Effectiveness

Our year-end conferences have begun with the presentation of our 12th Annual SEC Reporting & FASB Forum for Mid-sized & Smaller Companies in Las Vegas last week and will continue with our 32nd Annual SEC Reporting & FASB Forums in November and December.

Disclosure effectiveness is a theme that is already emerging from CorpFin at these conferences.

As we think about how we communicate with shareholders this is another year-end planning consideration. We have done a number of posts about disclosure effectiveness and how the SEC (and FASB) are working on projects to make disclosure more effective. This project has roots that go back a good way, and both the JOBS Act and the FAST Act have helped it build momentum.

You can find a nice review of the SEC’s Concept Releases and related proposals about disclosure effectiveness here. All this rule making will, of course, require time as the SEC requests comments and revises its proposals based on constituent feedback.

In the meantime, the Staff is sending a clear message to make disclosures more effective right now. At our recent conference, CorpFin reminded everyone that SEC reports are intended to be communication documents as well as compliance documents and suggested actions we can all take in the context of current rules to make communication more effective:

 

Streamline disclosures,

Eliminate outdated information,

Tailor disclosures, focusing on factors unique to the company,

Don’t use comment letters in a generic sense.

 

These ideas fit nicely with the Staff’s previously discussed ideas we have been discussing for quite a while:

 

Reduce repetition,

Focus disclosure,

Eliminate outdated and immaterial information.

 

All of this dovetails together with a speech by Keith Higgins that started the initiative in 2014. And, with this much mention by the Staff, clearly change is in the wind, and we all have an opportunity to get ahead of the change and make communication better.

 

Making changes to annual and quarterly report disclosure is never a simple process, as the number of stakeholders and reviewers make change very challenging. And, thinking about how best to meet the information needs of investors is never easy.

 

However, many companies are already making changes to disclosure. If you want to find examples, check out American Express and GE. Both have been very proactive in this arena.

 

Now is a good time to consider and search for opportunities to make current disclosure more effective!

 

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

SAB 74/Topic 11-M – News from the SEC at the September EITF Meeting

At the September 22, 2016 EITF meeting the SEC Staff made an important announcement about SAB Topic 11-M/SAB 74 disclosures about recently issued accounting standards.

We have done a number of posts about this disclosure, and you can review the basics here.

Because companies will be implementing three major new standards over the next few years the Staff:

Emphasized the importance of these disclosures because investors need to be aware of how much the new revenue recognition, leases and financial instrument impairment standards may or may not affect future results, and

Discussed what companies should do if they cannot yet quantify the impact of these changes.

In the Staff Announcement SEC Assistant Deputy Chief Accountant Jenifer Minke-Girard stated that if a company cannot yet estimate the impact of adopting these new standards then it should consider making incremental qualitative disclosures about the potential significance of adopting the new standards that would include:

 

The status of the company’s implementation process,

A description of any significant implementation matters that have not yet been addressed,

The effect of any accounting policies that the registrant expects to select upon adoption, and

How such policies may differ from current accounting policies.

While not saying that a specific time table was appropriate, Ms. Minke-Girard said it would be appropriate to include these disclosures in interim filings before the end of the calendar year and the timing of this announcement at the September EITF meeting was to provide time to make these disclosures in year-end filings.

 

As always, your thoughts and comments are appreciated!

 

How Prepared are you for SEC Annual Reporting Season or your next 10-Q?

It has been a very active time at the SEC, FASB and PCAOB. Have you stayed on top of recent developments, activities and proposals? For example, the Leases Standard is final and the FASB is awash in simplification and other projects. Register now for our upcoming live seminar and webcast, 32nd Annual SEC Reporting & FASB Forum being held November 14-15 in Dallas, December 12-13 in New York City and December 19-20 in San Francisco. Prepare for year-end and reporting season by attending this highly anticipated and popular annual seminar and hear a roundtable discussion of current events, including simplification overload, disclosure effectiveness, juggling Rev. Rec., Leases, CECL adoptions and more. Our expert faculty will also discuss the new CDIs on non-GAAP measures, the Regulation S-K Concept Release, frequent accounting and disclosure comments, Revenue Recognition and guidance on lease accounting, MD&A disclosure and much more.

http://www.pli.edu/Content/32nd_Annual_SEC_Reporting_FASB_Forum/_/N-1z11c8sZ4k?ID=262904