I don’t know very much about the federal budget process, but I do know that any budget proposed by the White House – regardless of its occupant – isn’t worth spending time on, and that by the time the budget is passed, it often looks
As securities lawyers know, disclosure is generally regarded as the best disinfectant. However, in a recent enforcement action, the SEC determined that disclosure is not always enough. Specifically, when it comes to internal controls over financial reporting, or ICFR, companies need to actually fix the problems they disclose.
In the action, the SEC cited…
Lest you think that the SEC’s focus on the use of non-GAAP financial metrics is so, well, 2018, think again. On December 26, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order against a company based entirely on the company’s use of non-GAAP metrics without giving “equal or greater prominence [to] the most directly comparable financial measure or measures calculated and presented in accordance with GAAP…”, as required by Item 10(e)(1)(i)(A) of Regulation S-K.
According to the SEC order, the company in question – ADT, the security company based in Boca Raton, Florida – issued earnings releases for fiscal 2017 and the first quarter of fiscal 2018 that prominently included such non-GAAP metrics as adjusted EBITDA, adjusted net income, and free cash flow before special items, without giving equal or greater prominence to the comparable GAAP data. For example, the order states:…
Some of you may remember Christopher Cox, who served as SEC Chair from 2005 to early 2009, when he was succeeded by Mary Schapiro. His name doesn’t come up often, perhaps because his legacy was a weakened Commission tarnished by, among other things, the financial crisis and the Madoff scandal.
While Chairman Cox may not have been responsible for either of those debacles, he did leave another unpleasant legacy – XBRL. He was among the biggest cheerleaders for XBRL, claiming that it would enable investors to compare companies within and across industries and would perform various other miracles. Suffice it to say it hasn’t done that. Aside from the fact that it’s time-consuming, it has failed to provide the benefits of comparability. As a client recently said,
“[E]ven if two companies use the same taxonomy/tagging for Cost of Sales, they probably are not consistent in the underlying details that go into Cost of Sales. One company might classify certain components as G&A instead. There are many other examples. Consistency is very important for one company’s reporting from period to period, however comparisons of competitors’ financials will always be approximations at best.”
Earlier this month, after seven years of threats, the PCAOB adopted rules to drastically change the standard auditor’s report. In adopting the rules, the PCAOB noted that the standard auditor’s report had largely remained unchanged since the 1940s. I believe there was good reason for this: the current auditor’s report works well (or at least well enough). It is simple and, therefore, easy to interpret. Either a company receives an unqualified opinion or it doesn’t. The current report is generally referred to as a pass/fail model. But, the simple and straightforward approach is about to change.
Enter the CAMs
The PCAOB has introduced a new acronym for us to learn, CAM, which stands for Critical Audit Matter. Under the new rules, a CAM is any matter communicated or required to be communicated to the audit committee that: (i) relates to material accounts or disclosures that are material to the financial statements and (ii) involves especially challenging, subjective, or complex auditor judgment. Each and every CAM, as determined by an issuer’s auditor, will then be identified and described in the audit report and the auditor will explain how the CAMs were addressed in the audit. Simple enough, right? Don’t worry, if you are confused – the rules contain a flow chart!
The whole idea behind the CAMs concept is that it is designed to reduce the information asymmetry that exists between investors and auditors. The PCAOB is concerned that investors are unable to adequately assess the risk that underlies the estimates and judgments made by management in preparing the financial statements. That’s probably a fair assessment, but changing the auditor’s report won’t address information asymmetry. And here’s why:
First, critical audit matters are already identified in the MD&A and the financial statements. The PCAOB claims that the auditor should not be limited to discussing the estimates that management discloses. While that may be a good point, most sophisticated users of financial statements should be able to identify the significant estimates an issuer would make. Generally, these estimates are consistent from company to company based on their industry. Is it a revelation that a commercial bank’s most significant estimate is its allowance for loan losses? Or that the valuation of inventory would be important to an issuer with a large inventory balance (especially if the inventory can quickly become obsolete)?
Second, the PCAOB notes that if there aren’t any identified CAMs then the auditor will need to state that fact. What’s the likelihood that any of the larger accounting firms will go on record to state that there was very little judgment used in compiling a set of financial statements? I think the likelihood is next to zero. Also, what is the likelihood that each auditor will craft a custom disclosure each year …
Over the years, the PCAOB has developed a reputation for pursuing zombie proposals – proposals that appear to be dead due to widespread opposition and even congressional action. Remember mandatory auditor rotation? It practically took a stake through the heart to kill that one off, and I’m informed that even after it was presumed to be long gone some PCAOB spokespersons were telling European regulators that it might yet be adopted.
Well, here we go again. The latest zombie proposal (OK, reproposal) would modify the standard audit report in a number of respects, the most significant of which would be to require disclosure of “critical audit matters”. The headline of the PCAOB’s announcement of the reproposal says that it would “enhance” the auditor’s report; not clarify, just “enhance”. And, as is customary whenever the PCAOB proposes to change the fundamental nature of the audit report, the proposal starts out by sayng that’s not the intention at all: “The reproposal would retain the pass/fail model of the existing auditor’s report,” it says. It seems to me to lead to the opposite result – the introduction of critical audit matter (“CAM”) disclosure could easily lead to qualitative audit reports; one CAM would be viewed as a “high pass”, two would be ranked as a medium pass, and so on, possibly even resulting in numerical “grades” based upon the number of CAMs in the audit report. And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that any audit firm would ever issue a clean – i.e., CAM-free – opinion. I just can’t envision that happening, ever.
Until recently, I’ve firmly believed that the SEC’s use of the bully pulpit can be effective in getting companies to act – or refrain from acting – in a certain way. Speeches by Commissioners and members of the SEC Staff usually have an impact on corporate behavior. However, the use of non-GAAP financial information – or, more correctly, the improper use of such information – seems to persist despite jawboning, rulemaking and other attempts to stifle the practice.
Concerns about the (mis)use of non-GAAP information are not new. In fact, abuses in the late 1990s and early 2000s led the SEC to adopt Regulation G in 2003. It’s hard to believe that Reg G has been around for 13+ years, but at the same time it seems as though people have been ignoring it ever since it was adopted. Over the last few months, members of the SEC and its Staff have devoted a surprising amount of time to jawboning about the misuse of non-GAAP information; for example, the SEC’s Chief Accountant discussed these concerns in March 2016; the Deputy Chief Accountant spoke about the problem in early May 2016; and SEC Chair White raised the subject in a speech in December 2015. And yet, the problem seems to persist.
Over the past couple of months, the FASB has been busy. I wanted to point out one recent change and my thoughts on its impact.
FASB has “simplified” share-based compensation accounting. I will always have a special place in my heart for old FAS123 since it was on my CPA exam a couple of decades ago. Nevertheless, much has changed since then (APB No. 25 anyone?), including most recently:
- No more APIC pools. Currently, tax benefits in excess of compensation cost are recorded in equity (specifically, Additional Paid In Capital or APIC). The accumulation of excess benefits has been known as an APIC pool. Tax deficiencies decrease the APIC pool. Under the new accounting rules, excess benefits and deficiencies are recognized in the period in which they occur.
My Take – Expect more income tax expense volatility from period to period. If the changes impact tax expense significantly, we could see more non-GAAP financial measures develop. Just be careful of the renewed focus on non-GAAP financial measures from the SEC.
- No longer need to estimate forfeitures. GAAP currently requires you to estimate the number of awards that will be forfeited to calculate a more accurate amount of compensation cost each period. Under the new rules, you can continue to estimate or you can just reverse the compensation previously expensed when the forfeiture occurs. If you choose the new route, then you will have to hit retained earnings for the cumulative-effect adjustment incurred as a result of the change as of the beginning of the year the change is applied.
My Take – Again, there could be potentially more volatility if you elect to apply the new “actual” forfeiture approach. A good example of volatility would be if a company had a significant layoff of employees. The increase in forfeitures during the layoff period would significantly …
According to SEC Chair White, regulators are looking – and not happily – at companies’ increasing use of customized financial disclosures. In fact, her recent remarks suggest that additional regulation is not being ruled out to curb the use of such “bespoke” data.
For some of us it may seem like only yesterday – though it was actually in 2003 – that the SEC adopted Regulation G to address the then-growing concern that companies were developing odd ways of communicating financial information to make their numbers look better. In general, Reg G says that companies
- cannot make non-GAAP disclosures more prominent than GAAP disclosures;
- need to explain why they use non-GAAP disclosures; and
- must provide a reconciliation showing how each non-GAAP measure derives from the GAAP financial statements.
So far, so good. However, some companies give little more than lip service to these requirements. For example, it’s not unusual to see Item 2 addressed by a statement along the lines of “investors who follow the company use this measure to assess its performance.” And, more recently, companies seem to be developing more peculiar ways of showing performance, such as excluding the effects of some taxes but not others. This creativity may not be as arch as excluding recurring items or turning losses into gains, but it still makes regulators uneasy.
For those who think nothing ever gets done in Washington, last week must have been a challenge. From outward appearances, both the SEC and the PCAOB seem to be working overtime, possibly in order to ruin our holiday weekend or at least lay some guilt on us for not spending the weekend reading what they’ve put out.
First, on July 1 the SEC published rule proposals on the last of the so-called Dodd-Frank “four horsemen” (or, as the SEC Staffers called them, the “Gang of Four”) compensation and governance provisions – specifically, clawbacks. It’s too soon for even nerds like me to have gone over the proposed rules in any detail, but at first blush they disappoint in a few respects. Among other things, they appear to call for mandatory recoupment of performance-based compensation whenever the financials are restated, without regard to fault or misconduct; even a “mere” mistake will trigger the clawback. Moreover, neither the board, nor the audit committee, nor the compensation committee will have any discretion or any ability to consider mitigating circumstances. Last (for now), they do not seem to provide any exemptions or relief for small companies, emerging growth companies or the like. Interestingly, equity awards that are solely time-vested will not be considered performance-based compensation for purposes of the proposed rules. Of course, these are only proposed rules, and they will eventually take the form of exchange listing standards rather than SEC rules, but the basic approach is absolute and draconian, and it’s difficult to envision them changing very much.