Category: Accounting and Auditing

SEC staff speaks up on LIBOR transition

Last week, the SEC staff issued a new statement on the LIBOR transition. LIBOR, the London Interbank Offered Rate, is a widely used reference rate calculated based on estimates submitted by banks of their own borrowing costs. LIBOR has been used extensively as a benchmark reference for short-term interest rates for various commercial and financial contracts—including interest rate swaps and other derivatives, as well as floating rate mortgages and corporate debt. In 2012, the revelation of the LIBOR rigging scandals made clear that the benchmark was susceptible to manipulation, and British regulators decided to phase it out at the end of 2021. The staff statement addresses a wide variety of issues for various market participants, but central for many public companies is the discussion of applicable disclosure obligations with respect to the transition away from LIBOR.

SEC charges company and finance executives with raiding the cookie jar

Just in time for the holidays—cookie jars full of…revenue adjustments! In this complaint, the SEC charged American Renal Associates Holdings, Inc., a national provider of dialysis services, and three of its finance executives with securities fraud and other misconduct. According to the SEC, the alleged fraudulent scheme involved a “series of revenue adjustments to make it appear that ARA had beat, met, or come close to meeting various predetermined financial metrics, when in fact its financial performance was materially worse.” After receiving an inquiry from the SEC, ARA conducted an internal investigation that led the company to restate its financials, which, according to the SEC, showed that the company had overstated its net income by over 30% for 2017 and by more than 200% for the first three quarters of 2018.  The revenue adjustments in the cookie jar, the SEC charged, were one of the key ingredients used in this alleged effort to cook the company’s books.

SEC adopts final amendments under the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act

In December 2020, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, 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.) According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[w]e have a basic bargain in our securities regime, which came out of Congress on a bipartisan basis under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. If you want to issue public securities in the U.S., the firms that audit your books have to be subject to inspection by the [PCAOB]….This final rule furthers the mandate that Congress laid out and gets to the heart of the SEC’s mission to protect investors….The Commission and the PCAOB will continue to work together to ensure that the auditors of foreign companies accessing U.S. capital markets play by our rules. We hope foreign governments will, working with the PCAOB, take action to make that possible.” Last week, the SEC adopted final amendments to implement the HFCAA. The amendments will be effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

SEC staff issues SAB No. 120 regarding “spring-loaded” awards to executives

Yesterday, the staff of the SEC’s Office of the Chief Accountant and Corp Fin released Staff Accounting Bulletin No. 120, which provides guidance about proper recognition and disclosure of compensation cost for “spring-loaded” awards made to executives.  According to the SEC press release, “[s]pring-loaded awards are share-based compensation arrangements where a company grants stock options or other awards shortly before it announces market-moving information such as an earnings release with better-than-expected results or the disclosure of a significant transaction.” When these grants are not routine, according to the staff, they “merit particular scrutiny.” Notably, the staff advises that, in measuring compensation actually paid to executives, companies “must consider the impact that the material nonpublic information will have upon release. In other words, companies should not grant spring-loaded awards under any mistaken belief that they do not have to reflect any of the additional value conveyed to the recipients from the anticipated announcement of material information when recognizing compensation cost for the awards.”

More SPAC restatements on the way?

It’s been weeks since the SEC last took SPACs to task!  According to Bloomberg, the SEC is now requiring many SPACs to “Big R” restate their financial statements because they tripped over the classification of certain shares they offered to investors.  Auditors with whom Bloomberg spoke said that the latest SPAC accounting snafu relates to incorrect categorization of Class A shares—which are typically redeemable—as “permanent equity instead of temporary equity.”  One auditor described the issue as “pervasive[:] everyone’s dealing with it because everyone did it wrong.”

Is your audit committee climate literate?

According to audit firm Deloitte, “[i]nformative climate reporting requires a complex transformation of reporting processes, of data collection, education of the finance function, and in many cases, of the audit committee itself. Yet, despite the urgency and magnitude of the task, many boards are hesitating in the face of inconsistent standards, fragmented global standard-setting, and myriad expectations from investors.”  Just how prepared are companies, their boards and especially their audit committees to deal with climate risk and climate reporting?  That’s the big question that Deloitte asked 353 audit committee members globally (56% of whom were chairs) in September 2021. The answer? Not so much. According to Deloitte’s new report, 42% of respondents indicated that their company’s “climate response is not as swift and robust as they would like” and almost half “do not believe that they are well-equipped to fulfil their climate regulatory responsibilities.”  Deloitte called the responses “sobering.”

Commissioner Roisman talks cybersecurity

On Friday, in remarks before the L.A. County Bar Association, SEC Commissioner Elad Roisman addressed some of the challenges associated with cybersecurity and cyber breaches and similar events. In his presentation, Roisman considers cybersecurity in a variety of contexts, such as the exchanges, investment advisers and broker-dealers, but his discussion of cybersecurity in the context of public companies is of most interest here. Although the SEC has imposed some principles-based requirements and issued guidance about cybersecurity disclosure, Roisman believes that there is more in the way of guidance and even rulemaking that the SEC should consider “to ensure that companies understand [the SEC’s] expectations and investors get the benefit of increased disclosure and protections by companies.”

SEC Acting Chief Accountant urges scrutiny of auditor independence in current environment

This week, Acting Chief Accountant Paul Munter issued a statement regarding the importance of auditor independence—a concept that is “foundational to the credibility of the financial statements.”  The responsibility to monitor independence is a shared one: “[w]hile sourcing a high quality independent auditor is a key responsibility of the audit committee, compliance with auditor independence rules is a shared responsibility of the issuer, its audit committee, and the auditor.”  That has long been the case.  But what is happening in the current setting to prompt this statement?  It is the recent trend toward the use of “new and innovative transactions” to access the public markets, such as SPACs, together with the continued expansion by audit firms of business relationships with non-audit clients. That is, gatekeepers must be especially vigilant to prevent an audit firm from unwittingly losing its independence in the event of a transaction by an audit client with a non-audit client, a risk that is enhanced as audit firms engage in consulting relationships with more non-audit clients. This environment, Munter cautions, requires audit committees to be especially attentive in considering “the sufficiency of the auditor’s and the issuer’s monitoring processes, including those that address corporate changes or other events that potentially affect auditor independence.” And it requires audit firms to consider “the impact of business relationships and non-audit services on existing and prospective audit relationships.”  It is important for companies to keep in mind that violations of the auditor independence rules can have serious consequences not only for the audit firm, but also for the audit client. For example, an independence violation may cause the auditor to withdraw the firm’s audit report, requiring the audit client to have a re-audit by another audit firm. As a result, in most cases, inquiry into the topic of auditor independence should certainly be a recurring menu item on the audit committee’s plate.

SEC revisits 2015 Dodd-Frank clawback proposal—opens public comment period

It’s time to dig back into your mental archives for 2015.  That’s when the SEC, by a vote of three to two, initially proposed rules to implement Section 954 of Dodd-Frank, the clawback provision. But the proposal was relegated to the SEC’s long-term agenda and never heard from again.  Until, that is, the topic found a spot on the SEC’s short-term agenda this spring (see this PubCo post) with a target date for a re-proposal of April 2022.  The SEC had scheduled an open meeting for Wednesday to consider re-opening the comment period, but instead cancelled the meeting and, on Thursday, simply posted a notice.  Here is the original 2015 Proposing Release and here is the new fact sheet. SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that, with re-opening of the comment period, he believed “we have an opportunity to strengthen the transparency and quality of corporate financial statements as well as the accountability of corporate executives to their investors.” The questions posed by the SEC in the notice (discussed below) give us some insight into where the SEC may be headed with the proposal. It’s worth noting that one possible change suggested by the questions is a potential expansion of the concept of “restatement” to include not only “reissuance” restatements (which involve a material error and an 8-K), but also “revision” restatements (or some version thereof).  The public comment period will remain open for 30 days following publication of the release in the Federal Register.

Do companies time changes in accounting estimates to meet analyst forecasts?

In this new paper by a group of academics from the University of Richmond (and elsewhere), the authors explore whether companies might be timing when they record changes in their accounting estimates (CAEs) to meet earnings benchmarks.  Because accounting estimates are “by their nature forward-looking, often subjective and difficult to quantify with precision,” they would seem to offer an excellent “opportunity for management to misrepresent the firm’s financial performance.” CAEs, the authors suggest, may be used to meet or beat earnings benchmarks or, alternatively, to smooth earnings or take a “big bath” when the current period’s earnings are particularly low.  For purposes of the study, the authors assumed that “most CAEs are fully justified and reasonable, and the ‘manipulation’ stems primarily from their timing, not the nature or appropriateness of the CAEs themselves.”  The study concludes, particularly with respect to analyst forecast earnings, that companies do indeed “appear to time CAEs to meet earnings benchmarks or achieve other reporting objectives.”  It’s worth noting that the SEC has recently brought charges in a couple of cases involving earnings or expense management (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post), so violations resulting from earnings management practices appear to be a focus for Enforcement.