In December 2019, as part of its strategy of enhancing transparency and accessibility through proactive stakeholder engagement, the PCAOB launched an effort to engage with audit committees, conducting conversations with almost 400 audit committee chairs focused on audit committee perspectives on topics such as audit quality assessment and improvement and auditor communications. (See this PubCo post.) As noted by PCAOB Chair William Duhnke in this PCAOB webinar for audit committees, the PCAOB prioritized this engagement, viewing informed and engaged audit committees as “force multipliers.” The PCAOB continued this outreach to audit committee chairs during 2020, contacting the audit committee chairs of most of the U.S. public companies that had audits inspected by the PCAOB during 2020. The PCAOB spoke with almost 300 audit committee chairs and discussed the results in this new report. The discussions involved Covid-19, communications by the auditor with the audit committee, new auditing and accounting standards and emerging technologies. As part of their discussions with the PCAOB, the chairs identified a number of practices in connection with each topic that they viewed as particularly effective—advice that could be useful to other audit committees.
Remember the clawback provision of SOX 304? That provision provides a reimbursement remedy against CEOs and CFOs when the issuer has restated its financial statements as a result of misconduct. Although the provision was enacted in 2002, it wasn’t until 2007 that an executive was successfully hit with a clawback claim (and a big one it was—the executive returned approximately $600 million in cash and options). And since then, SOX 304 hasn’t gotten all that much of a workout. As reflected in this Order, the SEC has just brought settled charges against the former CEO and CFO of WageWorks Inc., alleging that they made false and misleading statements and omissions, including to the company’s outside audit firm, that led to improper revenue recognition and ultimately resulted in a financial restatement. The settlements with both former executives included reimbursement of incentive-based compensation under SOX 304.
Let’s just say that the SEC’s Investor Advocate, Rick Fleming, was none too pleased with the work of the SEC this year. Although, in his Annual Report on Activities, he complimented the SEC for its prompt and flexible response to COVID-19, that’s about where the accolades stopped. For the most part, Fleming found the SEC’s rulemaking agenda “disappointing.” While cloaked in language about modernization and streamlining, he lamented, the rulemakings that were adopted were too deregulatory in nature, with the effect of diminishing investor protections. But issues that definitely called for modernization—such as the antiquated proxy plumbing system—despite all good intentions, were not addressed, nor did the SEC establish a “coherent framework” for ESG disclosure. And the SEC “also selectively abandoned its deregulatory posture by erecting higher barriers for shareholders’ exercise of independent oversight over the management of public companies” through the use of shareholder proposals and by imposing regulation on proxy advisory firms. That regulation could allow management to interfere in the advice investors pay to receive from proxy advisory firms and was widely opposed by investors. What’s your bet that he’ll be a lot happier next year?
In this new Bulletin, consultant Protiviti identifies key issues for the 2021 audit committee agenda and—no surprise—at least half reflect the impact of COVID-19. The agenda includes four topics related to enterprise, process and technology risks and four related to financial reporting, with a reminder regarding ESG. Also available is an audit committee self-assessment questionnaire. The topics suggested for the audit committee agenda are summarized below.
SEC Chair directs staff to consolidate rulemaking in light of the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act
On December 18, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act was signed into law. The HFCAA, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, amends SOX to prohibit trading on U.S. exchanges of public reporting companies audited by registered public accounting firms that the PCAOB has been unable to inspect for three sequential years. The HFCAA also requires substantial action by the SEC to implement it. As I noted in my previous post about the bill (see this PubCo post), it was unclear how the bill would affect or interact with the proposal on this same topic that the SEC staff have been working on, which had been expected this month (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). Now, SEC Chair Jay Clayton has issued a statement clarifying the situation.
Happy holidays everyone! Happy 2021!
The SEC has just filed a complaint against Sequential Brands Group, Inc., a brand management company, for failing to take timely and appropriate goodwill impairment charges as required by GAAP and the federal securities laws, despite “clear evidence of goodwill impairment” (according to the press release). As a result, the SEC alleges, the company “materially understated its operating expenses and net loss and materially overstated its income from operations, goodwill, and total assets” in its SEC filings, turning “a net loss into income” for financial statement purposes.
SEC brings settled charges against GE for disclosure violations and inadequate accounting and disclosure controls
Right on the heels of the SEC’s action against Cheesecake Factory for misleading public statements regarding its financial performance (see this PubCo post) comes this settled action against General Electric Company—also for misleading public statements about its financial performance. In this action, the SEC alleged that GE failed to provide material information that would have allowed investors to understand how it was generating profits and cash flow in two key segments, power and insurance, the quality of those earnings and the underlying risks. And, as challenges in these segments were later disclosed, the company’s stock price fell almost 75%. As reported in the WSJ, the SEC and DOJ were “investigating GE’s accounting for about two years after the company disclosed large write-downs tied to its insurance business and its power business. The SEC had warned GE in September that it was preparing civil charges, and GE said it had set aside $100 million to resolve the matter.” That reserve turned out to be somewhat optimistic—a bit like some of GE’s insurance reserves—as the final civil penalty was actually $200 million. It’s worth noting here that, as stated in GE’s 8-K regarding the settlement, in its Order, the SEC “makes no allegation that prior period financial statements were misstated. This settlement does not require corrections or restatements of GE’s previously reported financial statements, and GE stands behind its financial reporting.” That is, in the end, the charges were not about funny accounting—even though some might question certain of the judgments—they were about the disclosures about the accounting, the controls over the accounting and the controls over the disclosures.
House passes Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act; bill now sent to President for signature (updated)
For over a decade, the PCAOB has been unable to fulfill its SOX mandate to inspect audit firms in “Non-Cooperating Jurisdictions,” including China. To address this issue, in May, the Senate passed, by unanimous consent, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland. The bill would amend SOX to prohibit trading on U.S. exchanges of public reporting companies audited by registered public accounting firms that the PCAOB has been unable to inspect for three sequential years. Yesterday, the House also passed the bill, with the result that it is now headed to the President for signature. [Update: This bill was signed into law on December 18.] How this bill will affect or interact with the expected proposal on this topic from the SEC (see this PubCo post) remains to be seen.
[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect the contents of the adopting release.]
By a vote of three to two, the SEC has adopted new amendments to simplify, modernize and enhance Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations and the other financial disclosure requirements of Regulation S-K. The amendments were adopted largely as proposed in January, with some modifications intended to address comments received. Once again, like other recent rulemakings, these amendments tilt toward a more principles-based, company-specific approach, highlighting the importance of materiality and trend disclosures. MD&A discussions have long been the subject of criticism as too mechanical, with companies sometimes chided for just “doing the math” without more. A new provision describes the objectives of MD&A with the goal of encouraging a more thoughtful, less rote MD&A and allowing investors a better view of the company from management’s perspective. In some cases, the amendments eliminate prescriptive requirements in favor of more general disclosures that are integrated into the primary discussions. And some of the proposed changes are fairly dramatic—such as eliminating selected financial data and the Table of Contractual Obligations, and streamlining the requirement to disclose Supplementary Financial Information. Companies may also find the new explicit mandate to discuss critical accounting estimates to be a challenge. Whether the changes result in more nuanced, analytical disclosure remains to be seen. The amendments will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
Included at the end of this post is a version of the SEC’s table of changes.
Yesterday, Corp Fin posted CF Disclosure Guidance: Topic No. 10, Disclosure Considerations for China-Based Issuers, which provides guidance regarding disclosure considerations for companies based in or with the majority of their operations in the People’s Republic of China (China-based Issuers). You might recall that, in August, the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, which includes Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell, SEC Chair Jay Clayton and CFTC Chair Heath P. Tarbert, issued a Report on Protecting United States Investors from Significant Risks from Chinese Companies, which made a number of recommendations, among them that regulators should require enhanced and prominent issuer disclosures of the risks of investing in China-based Issuers and should issue interpretive guidance to clarify these disclosure requirements and increase awareness of the risks of investing in these companies. (See this PubCo post.) This guidance appears designed to implement that recommendation. The clear implication of the guidance is that China-based Issuers need to consider beefing up their risk factor and related disclosures; in outlining risks and posing questions to consider, the guidance provides a great starting point.