Why, Oh Why, Is It Always Segments?

By: George M. Wilson & Carol A. Stacey

If you have been involved with SEC reporting for more than say, five minutes, you have heard about or discussed with someone the SEC’s focus on operating segments. Segment related disclosures are included in several Form 10-K Items, including:

Item 1 – Description of the business,

Item 2 – Properties,

Item 7 – MD&A, and of course

Item 8 – Financial Statements.

Almost every SEC conference or workshop addresses the importance of segment disclosures.

The latest segment “message” from the SEC is in the November 7, 2016 Accounting and Auditing Enforcement Release dealing with PowerSecure.

It is the same familiar message we heard in the Sony case in 1998 and the PACCAR case in 2013. When companies avoid making proper GAAP disclosures for operating segments to try and bury problems in one part of a business with profits from another part of their business, trouble will result.

In the “classic” Sony case the company used profits from its music business to mask problems in its movie business. This case also has a great known trend disclosure problem and becomes an almost scary “double trouble” example. To escalate this case to “triple trouble” the SEC also made it clear that Sony’s assignment of MD&A to the IR manager was not appropriate by naming that person in the case and forcing Sony to reassign this responsibility to the CFO. With all that was going on with Sony the SEC went so far as to require the company to engage its auditors to “examine” MD&A. Surprisingly, under the attest standards, auditors can issue a full opinion report on MD&A!

In the PACCAR case problems in new truck sales were hidden with profits from truck parts sales. This SEC Complaint includes a very detailed summary of the operating segment disclosure requirements, discussing in detail how PACCAR’s management viewed the business and how, in the SEC’s judgement, PACCAR was not following the GAAP requirements. It includes this language:

“However, in reporting its truck and parts results as a single segment, PACCAR did not provide investors with the same insight into the Company as PACCAR’s executives.”

This story line repeats in PowerSecure. For the periods in question PowerSecure reported one segment when that was not how management actually viewed the business:

“PowerSecure also misapplied ASC 280 by concluding that its CODM – who was determined to be the Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”) – did not regularly review operating results below the consolidated level to make decisions about resource allocations and to assess performance. This was inconsistent with the way in which the CEO regularly received, reviewed, and reported on the results of the business and how the company was structured. On a monthly basis, the CEO received financial results that reflected a measure of profitability on a more disaggregated level than the consolidated entity. Further, on a quarterly basis, the CEO met with each business unit some of the business unit leaders had business unit level budgets and forecasts and received incentive compensation based, at least in part, upon the results of their business unit.“

The message is clear, don’t use segments to try and hide problems! As a last reminder, don’t forget that these disclosure requirements may go to an even lower level than operating segments in MD&A. Regulation S-K Item 303 makes this clear:

“Where in the registrant’s judgment a discussion of segment information or of other subdivisions of the registrant’s business would be appropriate to an understanding of such business, the discussion shall focus on each relevant, reportable segment or other subdivision of the business and on the registrant as a whole.”

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

 

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