Category: Accounting and Auditing

Will climate disclosures translate into climate action?

In light of the billions that even the SEC’s economic analysis estimates would be spent complying with its proposed climate disclosure regulations (see this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post), will those disclosures catalyze real climate action?  In this recent EY Global Climate Risk Barometer, accounting firm EY analyzed why, notwithstanding the vast amounts spent on climate disclosures, they “are still not translating into practical strategies to accelerate decarbonization.” In fact, EY pointed out, “global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6% in 2021 to 36.3 billion tonnes [a metric unit of mass equal to 2,240 lbs], their highest-ever level, according to the International Energy Agency.” Will companies be able to “close the major disconnect between the disclosures they are making” and “their own transformation journeys”? Is integrating climate risk into the financial statements the key?  Is climate risk disclosure just a “box-ticking exercise” or, by enabling accountability, can climate disclosures help to accelerate “the decarbonization process”?

FASB issues proposed ASU on segment reporting

Last month, the FASB issued a proposed ASU on segment reporting. In its announcement, the FASB explained that investors find segment information to be critically important to understanding a company’s different business activities, as well as its overall performance and potential future cash flows. Although financial statements do provide information about segment revenue and a measure of profit or loss, not much information is disclosed about segment expenses.  According to FASB Chair Richard Jones, the “proposed ASU would represent the FASB’s most significant change to segment reporting since 1997….On the basis of our extensive stakeholder outreach, the proposed ASU would provide investors and other allocators of capital with valuable insights into significant segment expenses, expand segment disclosures reported in interim periods, and require disclosures for single-segment entities.”

SEC adopts final rules on compensation clawbacks in the event of financial restatements—“Big R” and “little r” [UPDATED]

[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect in greater detail the contents of the adopting release. For a discussion of the comments and criticisms of the SEC Commissioners at the open meeting at which the rules were adopted, see my earlier post.]

At an open meeting last week, the SEC adopted, by a vote of—surprise—3 to 2, rules to implement Section 954 of Dodd-Frank, the clawback provision. Clawback rules were initially proposed by the SEC back in 2015, but were relegated to the long-term agenda, until they suddenly reemerged on the SEC’s short-term agenda in 2021 (see this PubCo post) with a target date for a re-proposal of April 2022. Instead of a re-proposal, however, a year ago, the SEC simply posted a notice announcing that it was re-opening the comment period and posing a number of questions for public comment. (See this PubCo post.) One possible change suggested by the SEC’s questions was a potential expansion of the concept of “restatement” to include not only “reissuance,” or “Big R,” restatements (which involve a material error and an 8-K), but also “revision” or “little r” restatements. Then, in June of this year, DERA issued a new staff memorandum addressing in part the restatement question, which led the SEC to once again re-open the comment period. Finally, the SEC concluded that, after more than seven years, the proposal had marinated long enough. Time to serve it up. The new rules direct the national securities exchanges to establish listing standards requiring listed issuers to adopt and comply with a clawback policy and to provide disclosure about the policy and its implementation. The clawback policy must provide that, in the event the listed issuer is required to prepare an accounting restatement—including a “little r” restatement—the issuer must recover the incentive-based compensation that was erroneously paid to its current or former executive officers based on the misstated financial reporting measure. Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented, contending that, among other problems, the rule was too broad and too prescriptive. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the key word here is “erroneously,” that is, the rule requires recovery of compensation to which the officers were never entitled in the first place. In his statement at the meeting, Gensler indicated that he believes “that these rules will strengthen the transparency and quality of corporate financial statements, investor confidence in those statements, and the accountability of corporate executives to investors….Through today’s action and working with the exchanges, we have the opportunity to fulfill Dodd-Frank’s mandate and Congress’s intention to prevent executives from keeping compensation received based on misstated financials.”

SEC adopts final rules on compensation clawbacks in the event of financial restatements—“Big R” and “little r”

You might remember back to 2015 when the SEC initially proposed rules to implement Section 954 of Dodd-Frank, the clawback provision. The SEC did not then consider adoption of the proposal in the ordinary course, instead relegating it to the long-term agenda, where it was never heard from again. Until, that is, the topic found a spot on the SEC’s short-term agenda in 2021 (see this PubCo post) with a target date for a re-proposal of April 2022. Instead of a re-proposal, however, a year ago, the SEC simply posted a notice announcing that it was re-opening the comment period and posing a number of questions for public comment.  (See this PubCo post.) One possible change suggested by the SEC’s questions was a potential expansion of the concept of “restatement” to include not only “reissuance,” or “Big R,” restatements (which involve a material error and an 8-K), but also “revision” or “little r” restatements. Then, in June of this year, DERA issued a new staff memorandum addressing in part the restatement question, which led the SEC to once again re-open the comment period.  Finally, the SEC has concluded that, after more than seven years, the proposal has marinated long enough. Time to serve it up. Accordingly, at an open meeting yesterday, the SEC adopted, by a vote of—surprise!—three to two, new rules that direct the national securities exchanges to establish listing standards requiring listed issuers to adopt and comply with a clawback policy and to provide disclosure about the policy and its implementation. The clawback policy must provide that, in the event the listed issuer is required to prepare an accounting restatement—including a “little r” restatement—the issuer must recover the incentive-based compensation that was erroneously paid to its current or former executive officers based on the misstated financial reporting measure. Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda dissented, contending that, among other problems, the rule was too broad and too prescriptive. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the key word here is “erroneously,” that is, the rule requires recovery of compensation to which the officers were never entitled in the first place. In his statement at the meeting, Gensler indicated that he believes “that these rules will strengthen the transparency and quality of corporate financial statements, investor confidence in those statements, and the accountability of corporate executives to investors….Through today’s action and working with the exchanges, we have the opportunity to fulfill Dodd-Frank’s mandate and Congress’s intention to prevent executives from keeping compensation received based on misstated financials.”

Are auditors falling down on the job of detecting fraud?

Paul Munter, the SEC’s Acting Chief Accountant, seems to think so. In this Statement, Munter expresses his concern that, in conducting audits, auditors are not adequately making use of the “fraud lens”—a focus on the consideration of fraud in the audit—in fulfilling their gatekeeper role. That is, auditors may not be adequately responding to fraud risks and red flags or otherwise exercising “professional skepticism.” It is critical, he said, that auditors evaluate whether the audit has surfaced information that may be indicative of fraud and “how fraud could be perpetrated or concealed by management.” Are auditors exhibiting a type of bias, focusing risk assessments on risks of error and essentially overlooking or minimizing risks of fraud?  In light of Munter’s statement, companies could well find that their auditors may be doubling down on their application of professional skepticism. What’s more, some of Munter’s recommendations may prove useful for companies in establishing their own ethics environments and conducting their own fraud risk assessments.

The FASB issues new ASU on supply chain financing arrangements

For several years, the SEC staff and advisory committees, credit rating agencies, investors, the Big Four accounting firms and other interested parties have been making noise about a popular financing technique called “supply chain financing.”  It can be a perfectly useful financing tool in the right hands—companies with healthy balance sheets.  But it can also disguise shaky credit situations and allow companies to go deeper into debt, often unbeknownst to investors and analysts, with sometimes disastrous ends. Moreover, there were no explicit GAAP disclosure requirements to provide transparency about a company’s use of supply chain financing. That may be why Bloomberg has referred to supply chain financing as “hidden debt.”  But that’s about to change. Last week, the FASB announced that it has issued a new Accounting Standards Update that enhances the transparency surrounding the use of supplier finance programs.  According to FASB Chair Richard Jones, the “FASB’s new ASU responds to requests from investors for greater transparency around a buyer’s use of supplier finance programs….It enhances transparency by requiring new disclosures intended to help them better consider the effect of these programs on a company’s working capital, liquidity, and cash flows over time.” The ASU will be effective for fiscal years beginning after December 15, 2022, including interim periods within those fiscal years, except for the amendment on rollforward information, which has a one-year delay.

VMware charged with failure to disclose “backlog management practices”

Last week, the SEC brought a settled action against VMware, a provider of cloud-storage software and services, alleging that it misled shareholders by failing to disclose material information about its “managed pipeline” of orders in quarterly and annual Exchange Act reports, on earnings calls and in earnings releases during its 2019 and 2020 fiscal years.   According to the press release, the company used its “backlog management practices” to “push revenue into future quarters by delaying product deliveries to customers, concealing the company’s slowing performance relative to its projections.”  Interestingly, the charges in the SEC’s Order were not about funny accounting or even that favorite Enforcement standby, failure to maintain and comply with adequate disclosure controls and procedures. As VMware noted in a statement, the “SEC’s findings do not include any findings that the Company failed to comply with generally accepted accounting principles.”  Rather, the charges were about the disclosures about the accounting. “Although VMware publicly disclosed that its backlog was ‘managed based upon multiple considerations,’” the SEC said, “it did not reveal to investors that it used the backlog to manage the timing of the company’s revenue recognition.” VMware was ordered to cease and desist and pay a civil penalty of $8 million.  According to an Associate Director in the Division of Enforcement, “by making misleading statements about order management practices, VMware deprived investors of important information about its financial performance….Such conduct is incompatible with an issuer’s disclosure obligations under the federal securities laws.” 

Is the stand-off with Chinese regulators regarding inspection of auditors over?

For well over a decade, the PCAOB has been unable to fulfill its SOX mandate to inspect audit firms in “Non-Cooperating Jurisdictions,” or “NCJs,” including China. To address this issue, in December 2020, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, was signed into law. The HFCAA amended SOX to prohibit trading on U.S. exchanges of public reporting companies audited by audit firms located in foreign jurisdictions that the PCAOB has been unable to inspect for three sequential years. (See this PubCo post.) The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported that, as of March 31, 2022, Chinese companies listed on the three largest U.S. exchanges had a total market capitalization of $1.4 trillion. As a result, the trading prohibitions of the HFCAA could have a substantial impact.   Years of negotiation to resolve the deadlock over audit inspections notwithstanding, China and Hong Kong have still not permitted PCAOB inspections, largely because of purported security concerns. (Interestingly, the WSJ reported that, in a “departure from what officials have said previously, the Chinese stock regulator said on Friday that audit working papers generally do not contain state secrets, individual privacy, companies’ vast user data or other sensitive information.”) In May, in remarks to the International Council of Securities Associations, YJ Fischer, Director of the SEC’s Office of International Affairs, indicated that, although there had been progress, “significant issues remain[ed],” and reaching an agreement would be only “a first step.”  In other words, there was still “a long way to go.” On Friday, however, the PCAOB took that first step by signing a Statement of Protocol with the China Securities Regulatory Commission and the Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China governing inspections and investigations of audit firms based in China and Hong Kong.  According to a statement from SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the “agreement marks the first time we have received such detailed and specific commitments from China that they would allow PCAOB inspections and investigations meeting U.S. standards.”

What do the public comments on the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal tell us?

In this July report, Responses to the SEC’s Climate Proposal, KPMG discusses various themes and observations that it gleaned from its review of comment letters on the SEC’s 510-page comprehensive and stunningly detailed climate disclosure proposal issued in March.  As you probably recall, the proposal was designed to require disclosure of “consistent, comparable, and reliable—and therefore decision-useful—information to investors to enable them to make informed judgments about the impact of climate-related risks on current and potential investments.”  KPMG found that the sentiment about climate standard-setting as a general concept was favorable, with 29% of those commenting very supportive and 50% supportive of the concept. Only 21% had a negative response—12% very unsupportive and 9% generally unsupportive.  But that positive attitude toward the general concept did not necessarily translate to support for the specific proposal from the SEC.

Cooley Alert: Tax Implications of the Inflation Reduction Act

Earlier this week, the President signed into law the historic Inflation Reduction Act.  Along with important provisions regarding climate and healthcare, the IRA contains several significant tax provisions, including a 15% alternative minimum tax for corporations and a 1% excise tax on corporate stock buybacks. Want more information?  Read this Cooley Alert, Tax Implications of the Inflation Reduction Act, from our terrific Cooley Tax Department.