What are auditors and audit committees doing to get ready for the impending disclosure of CAMs in audit reports ? You remember that, under AS 3101, the new auditing standard for the auditor’s report, auditors will be required (in 2019 for large accelerated filers and phased in for others) to include a discussion of “critical audit matters,” that is, “matters communicated or required to be communicated to the audit committee and that: (1) relate to accounts or disclosures that are material to the financial statements; and (2) involved especially challenging, subjective, or complex auditor judgment.” (See this PubCo post.) Essentially, the concept is intended to capture the matters that kept the auditor up at night, so long as they meet the standard’s criteria. The selection of and disclosure regarding CAMs will certainly present a challenge for both audit committees and auditors. This article from Compliance Week reports that, beyond that challenge, the prospect of CAM disclosure should precipitate a reassessment by audit committees and companies of related corporate disclosure to ensure that companies stay ahead of the curve.
Are there external factors that might lead companies to fail to protect the integrity of their financial statements, to put it euphemistically? Some recent articles in CFO.com discuss studies that posit various theories.
For those of you who have been waiting for those big changes to Dodd-Frank to materialize, don’t hold your breath; at least as far as the SEC is concerned, the vast majority of those rules are expected to remain in place. In case you missed it, SEC Chair Jay Clayton, speaking at the annual meeting of the WSJ’s CFO Network, said that “regulators are evaluating how postcrisis rules have performed in practice, and that he had concerns about some of the unintended side effects from some regulations. But any changes will be around the edges, keeping the core of postcrisis overhauls in place, he added. ‘I don’t think Dodd-Frank is changing a great deal, just to put a pin in it,’ he said.” And that tinkering may well be focused primarily on bank-related rules. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Congress may act, but so far it’s been all hat and no cattle. Case in point: the much ballyhooed Financial Choice Act of 2017, which passed the House, but went nowhere in the Senate. (See this PubCo post.)
Corp Fin has announced that it intends to begin to publicly release on EDGAR “bedbug” letters—letters issued by Corp Fin to advise the issuer that its registration statement or other offering document is so deficient that Corp Fin won’t even bother to review it until the filing is amended to repair the deficiencies. (This type of “bedbug” letter is not to be confused with the “poison pen” type of “bedbug” letter that is frequently submitted to the SEC by participants in proxy contests for the purpose of identifying errors, misleading statements and violations made in filings by their opponents. Why they are both called “bedbug” letters is above my pay grade.)
In remarks Monday before the Center for American Progress, SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson discussed his recent research on corporate stock buybacks, in the light of the substantial increase in buybacks following the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. His focus: to call on the SEC to update its buyback rules “to limit executives from using stock buybacks to cash out from America’s companies.” If executives are so convinced that “buybacks are best for the company, its workers, and its community,” Jackson suggested, “they should put their money where their mouth is.”
Besides shock and awe, did pay-ratio disclosure have any immediate practical consequences? Well, for one, if a company did business in Portland, Oregon, the answer could well be “yes.” You might remember that, at the end of 2016, the Portland City Council, piggybacking on the pay-ratio data that most public companies were required to begin disclosing this year, adopted a measure adding a 10% surcharge to the city’s existing business tax for each company that exceeded a 100-to-1 pay ratio and a 25% surcharge if the pay ratio exceeded 250 to 1. (See this PubCo post.) According to comp consultant Equilar, the median pay ratio for the Russell 3000 was 70:1 (see this PubCo post). So what were the consequences of the Portland surtax—in Portland and beyond?
In this analysis, compensation consultant Pay Governance looks at the factors affecting pay-ratio results and, in light of the feverish media coverage that insists on comparing ratios among companies, offers advice on dealing with that onslaught of comparisons. In their analysis, the authors conclude that pay-ratio results are more affected by median employee pay than by CEO pay. And, because median employee pay can be highly variable depending on the company’s industry, geographic location, international operations and business model, pay-ratio comparisons among companies are “fraught with technical and structural issues,” and “potentially problematic,” especially between the companies with the highest and lowest pay ratios. Of course, it was never the SEC’s intent that pay-ratio data be used for comparative purposes across companies; as the SEC made plain in the adopting release, “the final pay ratio rule should be designed to allow shareholders to better understand and assess a particular registrant’s compensation practices and pay ratio disclosures rather than to facilitate a comparison of this information from one registrant to another.” That caution notwithstanding, the issue continues to confront boards and comp committees, and the authors suggest ways that boards can navigate these shoals.