Tag Archives: securities law

The New Going Concern Disclosures – An Example

By: George M. Wilson & Carol A. Stacey

Sears, a storied retailer with a rich history, provides a perhaps not unexpected example of the new going concern disclosures in their recently filed 10-K. In their financial statements on page 66 of the 10-K you will find these disclosures:

Our historical operating results indicate substantial doubt exists related to the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern. We believe that the actions discussed above are probable of occurring and mitigating the substantial doubt raised by our historical operating results and satisfying our estimated liquidity needs 12 months from the issuance of the financial statements. However, we cannot predict, with certainty, the outcome of our actions to generate liquidity, including the availability of additional debt financing, or whether such actions would generate the expected liquidity as currently planned. In addition, the PPPFA contains certain limitations on our ability to sell assets, which could impact our ability to complete asset sale transactions or our ability to use proceeds from those transactions to fund our operations. Therefore, the planned actions take into account the applicable restrictions under the PPPFA.

If we continue to experience operating losses, and we are not able to generate additional liquidity through the mechanisms described above or through some combination of other actions, while not expected, we may not be able to access additional funds under our amended Domestic Credit Agreement and we might need to secure additional sources of funds, which may or may not be available to us. Additionally, a failure to generate additional liquidity could negatively impact our access to inventory or services that are important to the operation of our business. Moreover, if the borrowing base (as calculated pursuant to the indenture) falls below the principal amount of the notes plus the principal amount of any other indebtedness for borrowed money that is secured by liens on the collateral for the notes on the last day of any two consecutive quarters, it could trigger an obligation to repurchase notes in an amount equal to such deficiency.

This, as the bolded sentence above illustrates, is an example of the situation where there is substantial doubt about the ability of Sears to continue as a going concern, but the substantial doubt is mitigated by the company’s plans. The new reporting requirement for going concern disclosures has a two path approach. The first is:

If, after considering management’s plans, substantial doubt about an entity’s ability to continue as a going concern is alleviated as a result of consideration of management’s plans, an entity shall disclose in the notes to financial statements information that enables users of the financial statements to understand all of the following (or refer to similar information disclosed elsewhere in the notes):

  • Principal conditions or events that raised substantial doubt about the entity’s ability to continue as a going concern (before consideration of management’s plans)
  • Management’s evaluation of the significance of those conditions or events in relation to the entity’s ability to meet its obligations
  • Management’s plans that alleviated substantial doubt about the entity’s ability to continue as a going concern.

The second disclosure path is:

If, after considering management’s plans, substantial doubt about an entity’s ability to continue as a going concern is not alleviated, the entity shall include a statement in the notes to financial statements indicating that there is substantial doubt about the entity’s ability to continue as a going concern within one year after the date that the financial statements are issued. Additionally, the entity shall disclose information that enables users of the financial statements to understand all of the following:

  • Principal conditions or events that raise substantial doubt about the entity’s ability to continue as a going concern
  • Management’s evaluation of the significance of those conditions or events in relation to the entity’s ability to meet its obligations
  • Management’s plans that are intended to mitigate the conditions or events that raise substantial doubt about the entity’s ability to continue as a going concern.

Sears provides us an interesting example and the delicate dance of the wording in their disclosure sheds light on how challenging this new requirement can be for companies.

And, to close the loop, here is the opinion paragraph from the auditor of Sear’s financial statements:

In our opinion, the consolidated financial statements referred to above present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of Sears Holdings Corporation and subsidiaries as of January 28, 2017 and January 30, 2016, and the results of their operations and their cash flows for each of the three fiscal years in the period ended January 28, 2017, in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.

Also, in our opinion, such financial statement schedule, when considered in relation to the basic consolidated financial statements taken as a whole, present fairly, in all material respects, the information set forth therein. Also, in our opinion, the Company maintained, in all material respects, effective internal control over financial reporting as of January 28, 2017, based on the criteria established in Internal Control – Integrated Framework (2013) issued by the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

Climate Change – An MD&A Heads-Up

In our One-Hour Briefing discussing MD&A Hot Topics on February 8, 2016 we included climate change disclosures as one of the SEC’s current focus areas. We reviewed the SEC’s climate change disclosure guidance in FR 82 along with current developments in this area, including example SEC comments. This is clearly a very challenging uncertainty to deal with for many companies.  You can find FR 82 at:

www.sec.gov/rules/interp/2010/33-9106.pdf

 

If you are in an industry that is faced with this disclosure issue, WilmarHale’s Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Practice is in the process of presenting an eight-week series into this and other challenges facing the energy sector. You can read their thoughts about climate change disclosures and find the other posts in their blog at:

www.wilmerhale.com/pages/publicationsandnewsdetail.aspx?NewsPubId=17179880687

 

First Annual Dealing with MD&A Hot Topics.  Link to our one hour briefing by using the link below:

http://www.pli.edu/Content/First_Annual_Dealing_with_MDA_Hot_Topics/_/N-1z10wp5Z4n?ID=280193

 

Hope this helps, and as always your thoughts and comments are welcome!

Form 10-K Tune-Up Tip Number Five for 2016

The next topic from our 2016 Form 10-K Tune-up One-Hour Briefing is SAB 74 disclosures. You can listen to the briefing on-demand with CPE and CLE credit available at:

www.pli.edu/Content/OnDemand/Second_Annual_Form_10_K_Tune_Up/_/N-4nZ1z116ku?fromsearch=false&ID=278540

 
To begin, what does SAB 74, which is Topic 11-M in the SAB Codification, actually require? You can read the whole SAB at:

www.sec.gov/interps/account/sabcodet11.htm#M

 
Here are a few highlights.

First, it is clear that this disclosure is not required for all new Accounting Standards Updates:
“The Commission addressed a similar issue and concluded that registrants should discuss the potential effects of adoption of recently issued accounting standards in registration statements and reports filed with the Commission. The staff believes that this disclosure guidance applies to all accounting standards which have been issued but not yet adopted by the registrant unless the impact on its financial position and results of operations is not expected to be material.”
This part of the SAB dovetails very nicely with an important part of the SEC’s Disclosure Effectiveness Initiative, which is to eliminate immaterial disclosures that potentially “clutter up” a report and potentially obscure material information.
Here are two examples to explore this issue.

CocaCola did not mention recently issued accounting standards in their 2014 Form 10-K MD&A. They apparently made the judgment that there was no material impact in the current year from new accounting standards. They did include SAB 74 disclosures in their financial statements in note 1. You can check it out at:
www.coca-colacompany.com/content/dam/journey/us/en/private/fileassets/pdf/2015/02/2014-annual-report-on-form-10-k.pdf

 
Intel treated this disclosure in exactly the same way, and you can find their 2014 10-K at:
www.intc.com/secfiling.cfm?filingID=50863-15-15

 
So, the first theme for SAB 74 is focus on material information.

 

 

The second point to think about with this disclosure is what do we need to say about new standards that we believe will be material.

The SAB contains four disclosure requirements:

 
1. “A brief description of the new standard, the date that adoption is required and the date that the registrant plans to adopt, if earlier.

 
2. A discussion of the methods of adoption allowed by the standard and the method expected to be utilized by the registrant, if determined.

 
3. A discussion of the impact that adoption of the standard is expected to have on the financial statements of the registrant, unless not known or reasonably estimable. In that case, a statement to that effect may be made.

 
4. Disclosure of the potential impact of other significant matters that the registrant believes might result from the adoption of the standard (such as technical violations of debt covenant agreements, planned or intended changes in business practices, etc.) is encouraged.”

 

 

As you consider these disclosures, the first thing that arises is that over time there will be a progression in the detail of the disclosure.

For example, most companies at this point in time will not know which method they will use to implement the new revenue recognition standard. But, as we go through next year, we will get closer to that decision. When the decision is made, the disclosure should be updated to inform investors about which method will be used. The same issue applies to quantifying the impact of a change.

 
The fourth disclosure, the potential impact on other significant matters, points out that when such a situation exists, this information may not be appropriate to disclose in the financial statements, but would be disclosed in MD&A.

This means that this disclosure should not always be exactly the same in the financial statements and MD&A.
As a brief PS, we have blogged about this topic before and suggested some wording for SAB 74 disclosures about the new revenue recognition standard. You can read that post at:
seciblog.pli.edu/?p=171

 

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

Comment of the Week – The Mystery of Market Risk Disclosures

Market Risk Disclosures are one area that many participants in our workshops seem to shy away from. This Item is one of the less well understood disclosures in Forms 10-K and 10-Q. The mechanics of writing the disclosure are, well, at best, mysterious.

With all the volatility in exchange rates, oil prices and other markets in the current environment these disclosures will likely become more important for many companies this year end. Because of this, we thought “going to go back to the basics” of this disclosure would be helpful in many companies’ year end process. So, this post includes a review of the objective of the disclosure and some tips to navigate the requirements in S-K Item 305 as you prepare the disclosure.

Since this is a comment of the week post, there are also some comments at the end of the post. If you are already comfortable with what market risk disclosures are about and how they work, you can skip to the end!

Objective of the Disclosure

To prepare these disclosures well it is crucial to understand their objective, what they are supposed to tell a reader. To understand this objective the first step is to understand what kind of risk the term “Market Risk” means. Market risk is a term that can be interpreted in a number of different ways ranging from the market for a particular product to market driven rates such as interest rates or commodity prices.

Deep in the body of Regulation S-K – Item 305, likely one of the most challenging reads in all of Regulation S-K, you find these instructions:

Instructions to paragraph 305(b): 1. For purposes of disclosure under paragraph 305(b), primary market risk exposures means:

  1. The following categories of market risk: interest rate risk, foreign currency exchange rate risk, commodity price risk, and other relevant market rate or price risks (e.g., equity price risk); and
  2. Within each of these categories, the particular markets that present the primary risk of loss to the registrant. For example, if a registrant has a material exposure to foreign currency exchange rate risk and, within this category of market risk, is most vulnerable to changes in dollar/yen, dollar/pound, and dollar/peso exchange rates, the registrant should disclose those exposures. Similarly, if a registrant has a material exposure to interest rate risk and, within this category of market risk, is most vulnerable to changes in short-term U.S. prime interest rates, it should disclose the existence of that exposure.

To paraphrase, these disclosures are not about the “market” for a product like computers or smartphones. They are about the risks a company faces from market driven prices like interest rates or commodity prices. So, while the market for smart phones could affect a company, the Market Risk Disclosures are about issues like how a change in interest rates could affect a company if the company has significant investments or borrowings.

And that brings us to the next step in understanding the objective of these disclosures. Once we know what sort of market risk we need to describe, what should we say about it?

In S-K Item 305(a)(1)(ii)(A) you will find this language:

“sensitivity analysis disclosure that expresses the potential loss in future earnings, fair values, or cash flows of market risk sensitive instruments resulting from one or more selected hypothetical changes in interest rates”

In other words, this disclosure is designed to help a reader assess how much a change in a market driven price, such as an interest rate or a commodity price, would affect the business.

Conceptually what this disclosure is about is fairly easy to understand. However, the application of S-K Item 305 is complex. It requires both qualitative and quantitative information   Our review here is fairly brief. S-K Item 305 has a maze of detailed rules. If you will be drafting or reviewing the disclosure you should refer to the actual S-K language. Also, the comments below illustrate several of the complexities in this rule.

Qualitative Disclosures

The logical place to start drafting is with qualitative disclosures. Knowing what a company’s market risks are is necessary before quantitative information will make sense to a reader. Unfortunately, in Item 305, the qualitative disclosures are sort of hard to find, as they are not the first thing listed. You can find them in paragraph (b), which says:

(b) Qualitative information about market risk.

(1) To the extent material, describe:

(i) The registrant’s primary market risk exposures;

(ii) How those exposures are managed. Such descriptions shall include, but not be limited to, a discussion of the objectives, general strategies, and instruments, if any, used to manage those exposures; and

(iii) Changes in either the registrant’s primary market risk exposures or how those exposures are managed, when compared to what was in effect during the most recently completed fiscal year and what is known or expected to be in effect in future reporting periods.

This qualitative information is really pretty simple; say what market driven prices such as interest rates, exchange rates, commodity prices or other types of prices affect the company; talk about how you manage them; and tell if they have changed. Note that the rules do not require that a company manage these risks, so if you don’t manage them, you should disclose that, along with the other information in (b) (10) above.  (Here is one place to review Item 305 in detail, as this disclosure needs to be broken down in pretty specific ways by type and source of risk.)

Quantitative Disclosures

The second part of this disclosure is quantitative, and is designed to help a reader understand how much a hypothetical change in market prices or rates could affect the business. Again, this is a very detailed requirement, but in essence starts with a choice among three alternatives:

Tabular Disclosure

S-K Item 305(a)(1)(i)(A)(1) describes a tabular presentation of information related to market risk sensitive instruments. This information includes fair values of the market risk sensitive instruments and contract terms sufficient to determine future cash flows from those instruments, categorized by expected maturity dates. In essence you are providing a reader with the input they could use to build a spreadsheet, make a price change assumption, and see how much the price change would affect the company’s income, cash flows or fair values.

Sensitivity Analysis

S-K Item 305(a)(1)(ii)(A) describes a sensitivity analysis disclosure that expresses the potential loss in future earnings, fair values, or cash flows of market risk sensitive instruments resulting from one or more selected hypothetical changes in interest rates, foreign currency exchange rates, commodity prices, and other relevant market rates or prices over a selected period of time. In essence, in this disclosure you build your own spreadsheet and assume a hypothetical change in rates or prices and compute the impact.

Value at Risk Analysis

S-K Item 305(a)(1) (iii)(A) describes value at risk disclosures that express the potential loss in future earnings, fair values, or cash flows of market risk sensitive instruments over a selected period of time, with a selected likelihood of occurrence, from changes in interest rates, foreign currency exchange rates, commodity prices, and other relevant market rates or prices. This is actually a complex econometric modeling process, and we won’t discuss it any further in this post. If your treasury or risk management group already uses this technique to assess risk it may well be a good disclosure option.

Again, this is very complex disclosure. You can choose one of the three alternatives for different risks, however you must disclose the most significant impact based on future earnings, fair values, and cash flows. Therefore, you must calculate the impact of a price change on income, cash flows and fair value to determine which has the greatest change, and thus is disclosed. Of course, If future earnings had the greatest impact last year, and this year the greatest impact is in fair value, then you would need to recast the prior year. These are only some of the judgments necessary to prepare this disclosure.
One last note, as you can see this disclosure is very forward looking, and is another reason the 1995 Private Securities Litigation Reform Act safe harbors are so important!
Example Comments

Last but not least, as this is a comment of the week post, here are some comments. Notice the focus on simple compliance with the S-K Item 305 disclosure requirements!

Foreign Currency Fluctuations, page 37

  1. We note from your disclosure on page 28 and in Note 26 that a substantial portion of your cash is held by foreign subsidiaries and 46% of your net sales to unaffiliated customers for fiscal 2014 were attributed to your foreign subsidiaries, respectively. We believe your market risk disclosures should be enhanced to provide a more robust discussion of the effects of foreign currency risk on your results of operations and financial condition. Additionally, your discussion of this market risk does not appear to comply with the guidance outlined in Item 305 of Regulation S-K. Please revise to expand your discussion of foreign currency risk to comply with one of the disclosure alternatives in Item 305(a) of Regulation S-K.

Quantitative and qualitative disclosure about market risk, page 70

  1. Please tell us how you considered the disclosures required by Item 305(a) of Regulation S-K with respect to your term loan.

Item 7A. Quantitative and Qualitative Disclosure About Market Risk

Foreign Currency Risk, page 125

  1. Please tell us what consideration you gave to providing a sensitivity analysis for each currency (e.g., British Pounds and Euro) that may have an individually significant impact on future earnings.

Item 7A – Quantitative and Qualitative Disclosures About Market Risk, page 30

  1. We note your quantitative disclosure of interest rate risk associated with your investments in cash and cash equivalents and investment securities. We also note that your disclosure does not address market risk for other financial instruments such as the senior unsecured notes. Please revise to include qualitative and quantitative information about market risk in accordance with one of the three disclosure alternatives within Item 305 of Regulation S-K and that addresses the interest rate risk for the senior unsecured notes.

A Bit of SEC Trivia – Form 10

During our Workshops we discuss a lot of detailed information, some of which does not come up often in practice. With this in mind, we thought we would start a series of blog posts about some of these “trivia” topics.

The first trivia question is “What is Form 10 all about?”

Turns out Form 10 is a behind the scenes issue in a current news story. On November 1, 2015, HP officially completed the process of splitting itself up into two separate companies:

HP, Inc. (ticker HPQ) which has the legacy HP PC and printer businesses. This company describes itself with these words:

“Our vision is to create technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere — every person, every organization, and every community around the globe. This motivates us — inspires us — to do what we do. To make what we make. To invent, and to reinvent. To engineer experiences that amaze. We won’t stop pushing ahead, because you won’t stop pushing ahead. You’re reinventing how you work. How you play. How you live. With our technology, you’ll reinvent your world.” (From www.hp.com)

 Hewlett Packard Enterprise (ticker HPE) which has the HP services and corporate hardware businesses uses these words:

Hewlett Packard Enterprise is an industry leading technology company that enables customers to go further, faster. With the industry’s most comprehensive portfolio, spanning the cloud to the data center to workplace applications, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s technology and services help customers around the world make IT more efficient, more productive and more secure. (From www.hpe.com)

Behind this split is a myriad of fascinating business reasons, which will doubtless become business school cases in the future. What is fun about the transaction for SEC geeks is how it was accomplished in the public company reporting world. HPE was separated out from HP, essentially a “spin-off” transaction. There were a lot of legal steps in the process, but in essence there was no public offering of HPE stock, it was distributed to the existing HP shareholders.

After the spin-off both companies wanted to trade on the NYSE. For HP Inc. this was easy; this is the corporate entity that was already listed, so no big deal. But what about the newly created HPE?

There is no transaction here to register under the 1933 Act, as stock is not being offered or sold to the public; it is being directly distributed to the existing HP shareholders. So there is no S-1 or S-3 or S-4 to file.

This is where the Form 10 comes in. It is a company’s first, and probably only, 1934 Act registration statement, and is the way a company “registers” under the 1934 Act when it trips over the size tests in the 1934 Act, which HPE did when it distributed stock to more than 2,000 persons. As a result, HPE will start the corresponding periodic and current reporting requirements. So the only SEC filing that HPE had to make in connection with the distribution of its stock to the existing HP shareholders was a Form 10.

To simplify a bit, 1934 Act registration is required if a company has a class of equity security held by 2,000 or more persons or 500 persons who are not accredited investors and over $10 million in assets or if the company wants to list on a national security exchange. Of course HPE met the requirements, and so HPE filed a Form 10. (There is of course more complexity to the registration issue, so if you have to deal with it careful research is required!)

Form 10 is a lot like a Form 10-K and you can see HPE’s Form 10 at:

www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1645590/000119312515338732/0001193125-15-338732-index.htm

In this filing, the Form 10 itself is a shell, and you will find all the relevant information in Exhibit 99.1.

If you have any SEC trivia you would like us to explore, please let Carol or George know, and as always, your thoughts and comments are welcome and appreciated.

One last little trivia note – if you do a ticker search for HP, guess what company has this ticker? Helmerick and Payne, a contract oil and gas drilling company. Who would have guessed?

Evolution of the Audit Committee – Part Four

In three previous posts about audit committee evolution we explored:

A bit of history about how audit committee responsibilities have changed over time,

Situations where independence issues have resulted in enforcement involving      auditors and companies, and

How some issues, such as auditor independence, are not just matters for the auditor to monitor, but also may require audit committee involvement.

 

As history demonstrates, audit committees play a crucial role in oversight of the financial reporting process. An effective audit committee is a crucial part of assuring the reliability and reasonableness of financial information. Unfortunately, history also shows us that audit committees don’t always successfully fulfill their responsibilities.

Chair White expanded on these issues in a June 2014 speech to the Stanford University Rock Center for Corporate Governance Twentieth Annual Stanford Directors’ College. In that speech, after reviewing two enforcement cases which involved audit committee members she said:

I mention these cases because audit committees, in particular, have an extraordinarily important role in creating a culture of compliance through their oversight of financial reporting. As you know, under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, audit committees are required to establish procedures for handling complaints regarding accounting, internal controls, and auditing matters, as well as whistleblower tips concerning questionable accounting or auditing practices. Audit committees also play a critical role in the selection and oversight of the company’s auditors. These responsibilities are critical ones and we want to support you. Service as a director is not for the faint of heart, but nor should it be a role where you fear a game of “gotcha” is being played by the SEC.

Clearly Ms. White is emphasizing the responsibility audit committees have as gatekeepers in the financial reporting process.

(You can read the whole speech at: www.sec.gov/News/Speech/Detail/Speech/1370542148863 )

All of this leads us to the SEC’s July 1, 2015 Concept Release POSSIBLE REVISIONS TO AUDIT COMMITTEE DISCLOSURES”. Attempting to perhaps incentivize audit committees to perform effectively, and even more importantly shed light on audit committee performance to help investors and other stakeholders understand whether audit committees are effectively fulfilling their oversight responsibilities are not simple issues, and this concept release begins a significant discussion.

What sorts of disclosures does the concept release propose to deal with these issues? The principle areas of focus are:

Audit Committee’s Oversight of the Auditor

Audit Committee’s Process for Appointing or Retaining the Auditor

Qualifications of the Audit Firm and Certain Members of the Engagement Team Selected By the Audit

In the summary of the concept release the commission makes their objective clear, stating:

Some have expressed a view that the Commission’s disclosure rules for this area may not result in disclosures about audit committees and their activities that are sufficient to help investors understand and evaluate audit committee performance, which may in turn inform those investors’ investment or voting decisions.

The reporting of additional information by the audit committee with respect to its oversight of the auditor may provide useful information to investors as they evaluate the audit committee’s performance in connection with, among other things, their vote for or against directors who are members of the audit committee, the ratification of the auditor, or their investment decisions.

Here is a quick outline of the areas addressed in the Concept Release:

  1. Auditor Committee’s Oversight of the Auditor
  2. Additional Information Regarding the Communications Between the Audit Committee and the Auditor
  3. The Frequency with which the Audit Committee Met with the Auditor
  4. Review of and Discussion About the Auditor’s Internal Quality Review and Most Recent PCAOB Inspection Report
  5. Whether and How the Audit Committee Assesses, Promotes and Reinforces the Auditor’s Objectivity and Professional Skepticism
  6. Audit Committee’s Process for Appointing or Retaining the Auditor
  7. How the Audit Committee Assessed the Auditor, Including the Auditor’s Independence, Objectivity and Audit Quality, and the Audit Committee’s Rationale for Selecting or Retaining the Auditor
  8. If the Audit Committee Sought Requests for Proposal for the Independent Audit, the Process the Committee Undertook to Seek Such Proposals and the Factors They Considered in Selecting the Auditor
  9. The Board of Directors’ Policy, if any, for an Annual Shareholder Vote on the Selection of the Auditor, and the Audit Committee’s Consideration of the Voting Results in its Evaluation and Selection of the Audit Firm
  10. Qualifications of the Audit Firm and Certain Members of the Engagement Team Selected By the Audit Committee
  11. Disclosures of Certain Individuals on the Engagement Team
  12. Audit Committee Input in Selecting the Engagement Partner
  13. The Number of Years the Auditor has Audited the Company
  14. Other Firms Involved in the Audit

As you can see, the areas the SEC is considering for disclosure are significant and would represent a major change in how much of the audit committee’s work is in the sunshine of disclosure. Along this evolutionary path it is important to remember that a Concept Release is essentially a discussion document. If the SEC does pursue rulemaking, the content of a proposed rule will be based on input received in response to the concept release. The SEC is always responsive to substantive comments, so if a rule is eventually proposed, it will differ from the proposed rule based on comments from constituents. This means we are early on in this process, and we can provide input to the process.

As a concluding thought, if you do want to comment on the Concept Release, here is where to do that:

www.sec.gov/cgi-bin/ruling-comments#

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

 

Audit Committee Evolution – Part Two

In our post last week we began a series focusing on audit committees. We briefly reviewed the history of audit committee requirements over the past 20 years or so hoping that understanding the past will help us understand what the future might hold. The current discussion about audit committee roles and responsibilities flows from this history. This discussion also has roots in several auditor/client events that have happened over the last several years.

This post discusses some of those recent events, primarily SEC Enforcement cases and related matters as they relate to auditor independence. Hopefully this will help provide context and yield more insight into what the future may hold.

One of the major themes in the SEC’s “Possible Revisions to Audit Committee Disclosures” Concept Release is audit committee oversight of independent auditors. Independence is clearly an important aspect of this oversight. Historically independence has been the auditor’s responsibility. When the SEC and the PCAOB have promulgated independence rules they have been directed primarily to the auditor, not the company or the audit committee.

It may be that it is time for this attitude to evolve and change.

Recent SEC enforcement cases provide several examples where the dividing line between the auditor’s and the company’s responsibility for auditor independence has been very fuzzy. (To be clear, in these cases it would not appear that there were many overt bad-actors who set out to break the rules. So, as you read the examples, ponder who should be in place to know the rules and assure compliance?)

A First Example

Sometimes independence problems are very simple. One of these foundational issues is that the auditor may not assist management in the preparation of financial statements. In fact, Regulation S-X Rule 2.01 states:

(4) Non-audit services. An accountant is not independent if, at any point during the audit and professional engagement period, the accountant provides the following non-audit services to an audit client:

(i) Bookkeeping or other services related to the accounting records or financial statements of the audit client. Any service, unless it is reasonable to conclude that the results of these services will not be subject to audit procedures during an audit of the audit client’s financial statements, including:

(A) Maintaining or preparing the audit client’s accounting records;

(B) Preparing the audit client’s financial statements that are filed with the Commission or that form the basis of financial statements filed with the Commission; or

(C) Preparing or originating source data underlying the audit client’s financial statements.

The idea here is that the auditor cannot really “audit” something they have prepared. This seems relatively straightforward, but when broker-dealers were first required to have their audits performed using the standards of the PCAOB and became subject to the SEC’s auditing requirements, this requirement was overlooked in a number of cases. Eight of these cases resulted in enforcement against auditors for helping their clients prepare financial statements.

You can read the details of the cases in this press release:

www.sec.gov/News/PressRelease/Detail/PressRelease/1370543608588

Now, as we described above, independence has usually been the bailiwick of the auditor. But, when there is an independence problem the company bears a harsh cost also, possibly even a new audit of the same period(s) by an auditor who is in fact independent. In a time of change such as using the PCAOB’s standards for the first time, would it be unreasonable to expect that the audit committee would be knowledgeable about these standards and as part of their oversight of auditing matters ask if there were any issues concerning compliance with the new standards? Is it possible that a strong audit committee could help avoid these problems?

Really, the deeper issue here is that a strong audit committee needs to monitor the financial reporting and auditing environment for changes and assure that management deals with these changes. Easy examples in today’s world include cybersecurity and oil prices.

As a postscript to this first example, the very first enforcement case brought by the PCAOB was over this very issue. It was “way back” in May of 2005. You can read the details at:

pcaobus.org/Enforcement/Decisions/Documents/05-24_Goldstein_and_Morris.pdf

 Second Example

The independence relationship can be very complex to track. Even firms with only a few professionals may not always be aware of all the business activities of all its professionals. For larger firms this can be a huge quality control and compliance challenge. In a recent enforcement a large firm was fined when its consulting affiliate maintained a business relationship with an individual who was a trustee and a board and audit committee member of three funds the firm audited.

Certainly there was a breakdown on the part of the firm in this case, but should the audit committees of the funds have been monitoring for such relationships? This is a complex issue, and the question should be addressed. As you will note in the press release linked below, the adequacy of the fund’s audit committee charter was called into question.

You can read the details of this case at:

www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2015-137.html

A Third Example

In this case an audit firm’s affiliate in Washington, DC provided lobbying services to companies that were also audit clients. Such advocacy services are always prohibited by the independence rules. And, again, the firm likely may have a quality control system issue to address tracking the myriad of business relationships in a large professional practice. But again the questions surrounding the client’s responsibility and the role of audit committees need to be addressed. It is not just the auditor who has a consequence in this situation. In a complex commercial world where business can happen so quickly, this issue is even more important.

You can read the details of this case at:

www.sec.gov/News/PressRelease/Detail/PressRelease/1370542298984

Concluding Thoughts

None of these cases are simple, and in each case the fact set behind the case makes it clear there were generally no overt bad-actors who were setting out to break rules. Which brings us back to the question, who is there to make sure that the rules are monitored and that companies comply? Is the audit committee part of that structure? We will see how the situation evolves!

As always, your thoughts and comments are appreciated!

 

 

 

conference pic

It’s Conference Time!

Our four Midyear SEC and FASB Forums are underway! This picture is from our Chicago Conference on May 28 and 29. In June the Forums will take place in New York and San Francisco. Check out the dates, agenda and speakers at:

http://www.pli.edu/Content/30th_Midyear_SEC_Reporting_FASB_Forum/_/N-1z12892Z4k?ID=231682

All the programs are chaired by Carol Stacey and bring you up to date with all important developments and current issues at the SEC, FASB and PCAOB.

IFRS – The SAGA Continues

As most accountants have heard, Jim Schnurr, the new Chief Accountant at the SEC has been speaking about the SEC possibly continuing to consider the use of IFRS by domestic companies.

At the AICPA’s annual SEC/PCAOB conference in Washington, DC on Monday he delivered his latest update on the status of IFRS, and you can read that speech at:

www.sec.gov/News/Speech/Detail/Speech/1370543609306#.VIcHnYupqrI

In his speech he said “When I arrived at the Commission two months ago, Chair White asked me to take a hard look at where the staff had been on the issue and make a recommendation to her as to the path forward.”

While he did not say anything definite, it is clear the IFRS is no longer on the back burner!

He also said “Based on the progress of our collective efforts, I am hopeful to be in a position in the coming months to commence discussions with the Chair and the Commissioners about the different alternatives for potential further incorporation of IFRS and the related issues/concerns of each alternative with the objective of reaching a recommendation on what, if any, further incorporation or use of IFRS by US registrants would be permitted or required. And, of course, any rulemaking proposal that the Commission decides to consider would be subject to the normal notice and comment process.”

In the Q&A session Mr Schnurr elaborated on some ideas to incorporate, perhaps electively, IFRS information (in adition to US GAAP financial statements) into US registrant’s filings that would be useful for investors when comparing US registrants using US GAAP and those using IFRS. The ideas run the gamut of including IFRS measures in Selected Financial Data, IFRS data in MD&A, non-GAAP measures calculated using IFRS, and full financial statements in IFRS. He asked for feedback on these areas and input on additional ideas to consider.

So, this will not be a speedy process……

As always, your comments and thoughts are welcome!