It’s not just the Justice Department that’s looking into PPP loans—although there appears to be plenty of that going on—the SEC’s Division of Enforcement is also conducting an investigation into “Certain Paycheck Protection Program Loan Recipients” to determine whether there have been violations of the federal securities laws. To that end, Enforcement is conducting a “fact-finding inquiry,” requesting that certain PPP loan recipients produce a variety of documents. While the primary focus of DOJ prosecutors appears to be whether representations made in certifications to the SBA to obtain the PPP loans were fraudulent, the SEC is apparently looking at PPP loans and related company disclosures from a different angle.
Are the allegations in Hughes v. Hu an example of the SEC/PCAOB’s recent cautionary Statement on emerging market risks come to life? (See this PubCo post.) The case involves a Caremark claim against the audit committee and various executives of Kandi Technologies, a publicly traded Delaware company listed on the Nasdaq Global Select Market and based in an emerging market country. The complaint alleged that they consciously failed “to establish a board-level system of oversight for the Company’s financial statements and related-party transactions, choosing instead to rely blindly on management while devoting patently inadequate time to the necessary tasks.” You might recall that, in Marchand v. Barnhill (June 18, 2019), then-Chief Justice Strine, writing for the Delaware Supreme Court, started out his analysis with the recognition that “Caremark claims are difficult to plead and ultimately to prove out,” and constitute “possibly the most difficult theory in corporation law upon which a plaintiff might hope to win a judgment.” (See this PubCo post.) Although Caremark presented a high hurdle, the complaint in Marchand was able to clear that bar and survive a motion to dismiss. In the view of the Delaware Chancery Court, Hughes proved to be comparable—the Court denied two motions to dismiss, holding that the allegations in the complaint were sufficient to support “a reasonable pleading-stage inference of a bad faith failure of oversight by the named director defendants.” Is clearing the Caremark bar becoming a thing?
As you know, critical audit matters are defined for purposes of the auditor’s report as “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.” The standard for CAMs became effective for audits of large accelerated filers (LAFs) for fiscal years ended on or after June 30, 2019, and will be required for companies other than LAFs (excluding emerging growth companies) for fiscal years ending on or after December 15, 2020. CAM disclosure is strictly the province of the auditors and included in the auditor’s report. But what has been the role of audit committees? Audit Analytics has performed an analysis of companies in the S&P 1500 to see what, if anything, they have disclosed in their proxy statements about the part that audit committees have played in connection with CAM identification and disclosure.
In this new Statement, a number of SEC and PCAOB officials—SEC Chair Jay Clayton, PCAOB Chair William D. Duhnke III, SEC Chief Accountant Sagar Teotia, Corp Fin Director William Hinman and Investment Management Director Dalia Blass—discuss the risks and exposures of companies based, or with significant operations, in emerging markets, for both U.S. issuers and foreign private issuers. Although the SEC is committed to high-quality disclosure standards, its ability to enforce these standards in emerging markets is limited and is “significantly dependent on the actions of local authorities” and the constraints of “national policy considerations.” As a result, in many emerging markets, “there is substantially greater risk that disclosures will be incomplete or misleading and, in the event of investor harm, substantially less access to recourse, in comparison to U.S. domestic companies.” The Statement is summarized below. The message is that, notwithstanding similarity in form and appearance between disclosures from U.S. domestic companies and disclosures from or related to emerging markets, disclosures from emerging markets may well differ in scope and quality and companies need to provide appropriate risk disclosure in that regard.
Recently, both CFO Research and PwC conducted surveys of finance executives to elicit information about how they were navigating the economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, their responses indicated concerns regarding the effect on revenues of a compelled decline in economic activity—projections from The Conference Board indicate a sharp contraction in the U.S. economy in 2020 between 3.6% and 7.4%—as well as liquidity pressures. The results may provide some insights for purposes of disclosure and financial reporting. Remarkably, perhaps, there was a hint of optimism about a potential recovery (or were they just putting on happy faces)?
SEC Chief Accountant Sagar Teotia today issued a Statement on the Importance of High-Quality Financial Reporting in Light of the Significant Impacts of COVID-19, which stressed the importance of continuing to provide high-quality financial information for investors and other stakeholders in these uncertain times. In his statement, among other topics, Teotia addressed estimates and judgments as well as temporary relief provided under the CARES Act that allows banks and other financial institutions to suspend compliance with two provisions of GAAP, including CECL. Teotia emphasized that the Office of Chief Accountant is available for consultation and encouraged companies and others with questions as a result of COVID-19 to contact OCA.
Today, the staff of Corp Fin issued Disclosure Guidance Topic No. 9, which offers the staff’s views regarding disclosure considerations, trading on material inside information and reporting financial results in the context of COVID-19 and related uncertainties. The guidance includes a valuable series of questions designed to help companies assess, and to stimulate effective disclosure regarding, the impact of the coronavirus. As always these days, the guidance makes clear that it represents only the views of the staff, is not binding and has no legal force or effect.
SEC adopts carve-out from the auditor attestation requirement of SOX 404(b) for low-revenue companies
On March 12, the SEC voted (by a vote of three to one, with Commissioner Allison Lee dissenting) to approve amendments to the accelerated filer and large accelerated filer definitions to provide a narrow carve-out for companies that qualify as smaller reporting companies (SRCs) and reported less than $100 million in annual revenues in the most recent fiscal year for which audited financial statements were available. Most significantly, under the final amendments, companies qualifying for the carve-out will no longer be subject to the SOX 404(b) requirement to have an auditor attestation report on internal control over financial reporting (ICFR), a requirement that applies to accelerated and large accelerated filers. In adopting these amendments, the SEC said that the amendments will “more appropriately tailor the types of issuers that are included in the definitions, thereby reducing unnecessary burdens and compliance costs for certain smaller issuers while maintaining investor protections. The amendments are consistent with the Commission’s and Congress’s historical practice of providing scaled disclosure and other accommodations to reduce unnecessary burdens for new and smaller issuers.” The new rules will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On Monday, without an open meeting, the SEC voted, with a dissent from Commissioner Allison Lee, to adopt final amendments to Rules 3-10 and 3-16 of Reg S-X. Part of the SEC’s Disclosure Effectiveness Initiative, the amendments are designed to streamline and modernize the financial disclosure requirements applicable to registered debt offerings that involve guaranteed or collateralized securities, such as subsidiary guarantees. According to the press release, the “changes are intended to both improve the quality of disclosure and increase the likelihood that issuers will conduct debt offerings on a registered basis. The amended rules focus on the provision of material, relevant, and decision-useful information regarding guarantees and other credit enhancements, and eliminate prescriptive requirements that have imposed unnecessary burdens and incentivized issuers of securities with guarantees and other credit enhancements to offer and sell those securities on an unregistered basis.” According to the SEC, by improving disclosure and reducing the compliance burden, the final amendments may encourage issuers “to offer guaranteed or collateralized securities on a registered basis, thereby affording investors protection they may not be provided in offerings conducted on an unregistered basis.” The rules will apply to several categories of issuers, including foreign private issuers, smaller reporting companies and issuers offering securities pursuant to Reg A. The changes were originally proposed in July 2018. (See this PubCo post.) The amendments will become effective on January, 4, 2021, but voluntary compliance will be permitted in advance of the effective date.
In a public statement issued today, SEC Chair Jay Clayton, Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman, SEC Chief Accountant Sagar Teotia and PCAOB Chairman William D. Duhnke III provided guidance regarding the impact of the coronavirus on financial reporting and audit quality, as well as the potential availability of regulatory relief. The statement arose out of the recent continuing dialogue between these officials and the senior leaders of the largest U.S. audit firms regarding difficulties in connection with conducting audits in emerging markets.