One of the most challenging disclosures we discuss in our workshops is the required forward-looking MD&A requirement to disclose “known trends”. (As a heads-up, this post contains some pretty long comments, but they raise some very important issues!)
This forward-looking information requirement is rooted in the overall objective of MD&A as articulated in FR 72. The relevant section of the release states that part of the objective of MD&A is:
“to provide information about the quality of, and potential variability of, a company’s earnings and cash flow, so that investors can ascertain the likelihood that past performance is indicative of future performance” (emphasis added)
And, of course, this is done “through the eyes of management”.
You can find the whole release at:
From this objective it is clear that if management knows about something that means past performance is not going to be predictive of future performance and the information is material, it should be disclosed in MD&A. This is made clear in S-K Item 303(a) (3) (ii):
“Describe any known trends or uncertainties that have had or that the registrant reasonably expects will have a material favorable or unfavorable impact on net sales or revenues or income from continuing operations. (emphasis added)
The SEC is watchful for companies that surprise the markets with disclosure of bad news, potentially driving down their stock price, where the companies have not said anything about the bad news issue in previous filings.
In many cases the Staff’s presumption is that the bad news did not surprise management, and that in fact they knew about the problem well before they disclosed it to investors. In that situation, management likely failed to meet the disclosure requirements in MD&A and S-K Item 303(a) (3) (ii) specifically.
In our workshops we discuss some of the classic enforcement actions where this has happened, including the “groundbreaking” cases against Caterpillar and Sony. The staff continues to search for problems in this area, and frequently starts with the comment letter process.
Here are example comments that were written to a grocery store chain that had decided to exit one of its “banners”. In this industry a “banner” is a brand name for the supermarket chain. Notice the subtle interaction of these comments from the initial letter:
- We note that you announced the sale and/or closure of all of your (name omitted) stores in May 2014. We further note that in the related press release, filed as Exhibit 99.2 to your March 29, 2014 Form 10-Q, your Chief Executive Officer stated, “The economic downturn over the last few years, coupled with an increased competitive footprint in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Market, has made it difficult for (the company) to keep the (name omitted) banner competitive.” We further note that the disclosures regarding negative factors impacting your business within this Form 10-K appear to broadly apply to your business and do not specifically refer to the (name omitted) banner. Please tell us how you determined additional disclosures were not required in this Form 10-K as it relates to your (name omitted) banner. In your response, specifically explain how you considered whether these stores were disproportionately impacted by any of the negative factors described in your disclosures, either in the periods of historical financial statements included in this Form 10-K or in your analysis of trends and uncertainties that you reasonably expected would have a material impact on your future results. If the decision to sell this banner was influenced by worse than expected results for this banner during the first quarter of 2014, then also apply this comment to your MD&A disclosures within your March 29, 2014 Form 10-Q. (emphasis added)
The first comment above puts the trend disclosure on the table. This next comment goes a bit further, clearly articulating the “does the past predicts the future?” requirement:
- We note your disclosures under the heading “Goodwill Impairment Charge.” Please tell us, and disclose in future filings, why your fair value declined such that you recorded this impairment charge. We remind you that one of the principle objectives of MD&A is to provide your investors with enough insight into the underlying factors that drove your historical results [so] that they can assess the likelihood that past results are indicative of future results. We also remind you of your obligation to describe known trends and uncertainties that have had or you reasonably expect will have a material impact on your results. (emphasis added)
The following comment directly quotes S-K 303(a)(3)(ii), asking some very challenging questions:
- We note you recorded $280.0 million of pretax goodwill impairment charges in the quarter ended September 27, 2014. Please tell us what consideration you gave to updating your goodwill critical accounting estimate disclosures in your September 27, 2014 Form 10-Q. In this regard, you refer your investors to the critical accounting estimates on goodwill contained in your annual report. Given the charge you recorded in the most recent quarter it would appear the assumptions used to assess goodwill for impairment have significantly changed. Further, you now have two reporting units as opposed to one reporting unit at December 28, 2013. Please advise. Additionally, given the significance of the impairment charges and the material amount of goodwill remaining on your balance sheet, please show us what critical accounting estimate disclosures you anticipate making in your upcoming Form 10-K filing. Please ensure your disclosures provide investors with sufficient information to assess the material implications of uncertainties associated with the methods, assumptions and estimates underlying this critical accounting estimate. Refer to Item 303(a)(3)(ii) of Regulation S- K, which requires a description of a known uncertainty and Section V of SEC Release No. 33-8350. (emphasis added)
After the company’s responses to the above comments, the staff wrote this follow-on comment in the second round of comments. Note the depth of the analysis asked for in the comment and the depth of the SEC’s review into material that was not even included in a 10-K or 10-Q!
We have read your November 2014 “Company’s Investor Presentation” and note the strong growth in the Chicago Market with the ChicagoBanner’s format. Further, you highlight several differences between your Wisconsin and Illinois markets. For example, on slide five you point out the Chicago market has “2x the productivity of your Wisconsin stores.” The information presented on slide six indicates that your ChicagoBanner’s banner is a “highly differentiated food shopping experience.” You further indicate on slide seven the ChicagoBanner’s banner has 1) two times the average Wisconsin retail sales volume, 2) lower EBITDA margin and higher gross profit dollars, and 3) strong store-level ROIC. We also note on slide sixteen that ChicagoBanner’s represents a significant growth opportunity for the Company. It also appears from the disclosures in your filings and your response to our comments that your Wisconsin and Illinois markets were behaving differently during 2013 and 2014, leading you to “[shift] focus to stabilizing [your] Wisconsin market” in contrast to “growing [your] ChicagoBanner’s banner.” We further note a general trend of highly differentiated grocery stores having higher profit margins than value-oriented grocery stores. Based on this information, we continue to believe that your Wisconsin and Illinois markets likely have different current or future trends in per-store revenue and per-store profitability, and that the mix of stores between these two markets will therefore impact your consolidated results. Please explain to us in significantly more detail why the apparent differences between these types of stores were not addressed in your most recent Form 10-Q, either as part of your analysis of results of operations or as part of your discussion of trends and uncertainties, and also tell us how these matters will be addressed in your upcoming Form 10-K.
So, the moral of this story, if you know of something that is reasonably likely to have a material impact on future results, don’t keep it secret! Even if you hope it will not be a problem, these MD&A requirements need to be carefully reviewed to determine when to share the information with investors!
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!