Year End Planning Topic 3 – The New Item 16 Form 10-K Summary (and Disclosure Philosophy!)

Everyone who works with SEC periodic reports knows that making changes to disclosure is not a simple process. Reporting involves so many stakeholders and so many approval points that without an early start it is almost impossible to make improvements (or even simple changes such as formatting!).

This post is about one possible change that will need some time for consideration, adding the new Item 16 summary. With this reminder hopefully you will have enough time to consider whether this optional item makes sense for you.

This kind of summary has always been permitted, or at least never prohibited. However, in the process of making periodic reports more about communication than compliance, the FAST Act required the SEC to formally put a summary into Form 10-K, hence new Item 16. You can read the text of Item 16 in this post.

Your Communication Philosophy

If you read a lot of Form 10-K’s (and what is more fun than that?) you will see a variety of communication styles. We discuss different communication styles or “philosophies” in our workshops. We encourage companies to articulate their “philosophy” of disclosure.

To simplify a bit, some companies adopt a very “compliance” based philosophy for disclosure. In this model companies disclose what the SEC requires to be disclosed and essentially nothing more. This can be done in a fairly mechanical fashion and is usually very simple and direct, if not almost terse.

At the other end of a disclosure spectrum some companies adopt a more “communications” based philosophy where they disclose more than the bare bones requirements in an effort to tell a more complete “story” of how their company operates.

A simple example of this difference can be found in Form 10-K Item 1. This is the description of the business and the required disclosures are in Regulation S-K Item 101. Nowhere in Item 101 is there any requirement to disclose a company’s business strategy. And many companies do not say anything about the strategic orientation of their business. And yet, many companies discuss their strategy at length. Check out the differences in these two companies:

Here is a very well done example for an SRC (Golden Enterprises) of the compliance approach. Golden makes snack foods and does a simple, direct presentation. (Also, best potato chips ever!)

Here is another well-done example of a company (Square) that uses a more communications oriented approach. Square is a payment processor and supports businesses in many ways.

To be clear, there is no right or wrong way in this discussion; we are talking about a judgment you need to make. So, why do some companies disclose more than the S-K requirement?   These companies are considering disclosure as more than a compliance process. They are using the reporting process as a communications tool.

If you are going to focus more on communication the SEC’s Interim Final Rule about a Form 10-K summary could be a new element in your communication strategy. Almost every business writer will suggest that an executive level overview for a long document is a good communication strategy.

FR 72 suggested this for MD&A way back in 2003:

Many companies’ MD&A could benefit from adding an introductory section or overview that would facilitate a reader’s understanding. As with all disclosure, what companies would appropriately include in an introduction or overview will depend on the circumstances of the particular company. As a general matter, an introduction or overview should include the most important matters on which a company’s executives focus in evaluating financial condition and operating performance and provide the context for the discussion and analysis of the financial statements. Therefore, an introduction or overview should not be a duplicative layer of disclosure that merely repeats the more detailed discussion and analysis that follows.

In recent remarks the SEC staff has said they are seeing more companies using their filings as communication documents and this trend certainly fits into the SEC’s disclosure effectiveness program.

So, as you get into your annual reporting process, be sure you articulate this overall strategy for disclosure, and if you think it appropriate, put consideration of the new Item 16 summary into your thought process.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

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