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.
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.
Climate risk disclosure “glaringly absent” in financial statements? Will regulators act to require more?
In one of the illustrative comments in Corp Fin’s just published sample comment letter on climate issues, Corp Fin asks companies to explain what consideration they may have given to providing in their SEC filings the same type of expansive climate-related disclosure that’s in their corporate social responsibility reports. One place in companies’ SEC filings where climate-related disclosure is “glaringly absent,” according to this report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, is in the financial statements. Although many companies face serious climate risk, and many have even made net-zero pledges, the report “found little evidence that companies or their auditors considered climate-related matters in the 2020 financial statements.” According to the lead author of the report, “[b]ased on the significant exposure these companies have to transition risks, and with many announcing emissions targets, we expected substantially more consideration of climate matters in the financials than we found. Without this information there is little way of knowing the extent of capital at risk, or if funds are being allocated to unsustainable businesses….” Financial statement disclosure was so deficient, the report concluded, investors were essentially “flying blind.”
Just how reliable are those carbon footprints that many large companies have been publishing in their sustainability reports? Even putting aside concerns about greenwashing, what about those nebulous Scope 3 GHG emissions? As we all know, the SEC is now is the midst of developing a proposal for mandatory climate-related disclosure. (See, e.g., this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The WSJ reports that “[o]ne problem facing regulators and companies: Some of the most important and widely used data is hard to both measure and verify.” According to an academic cited in the article, the “measurement, target-setting, and management of Scope 3 is a mess….There is a wide range of uncertainty in Scope 3 emissions measurement…to the point that numbers can be absurdly off.”
On Friday, the SEC announced settled charges against Kraft Heinz Company, its Chief Operating Officer and Chief Procurement Officer for “engaging in a long-running expense management scheme that resulted in the restatement of several years of financial reporting.” According to the SEC’s Order regarding the company and the COO, as well as the SEC’s complaint against the CPO, the company employed a number of expense management strategies that “misrepresented the true nature of transactions,” including recognizing unearned discounts from suppliers, maintaining false and misleading supplier contracts and engaging in other accounting misconduct, all of which resulted in accounting errors and misstatements. The misconduct, the SEC contended, was designed to allow the company to report sham cost savings consistent with the operational efficiencies it had touted would result from the 2015 merger of Kraft and Heinz, as well as to inflate EBITDA—a critical earnings measure for the market—and to achieve certain performance targets. And, once again, charges of failure to design and implement effective internal controls played a prominent role. After the SEC began its investigation, KHC restated its financials, reversing “$208 million in improperly-recognized cost savings arising out of nearly 300 transactions.” According to Anita B. Bandy, Associate Director of Enforcement, “Kraft and its former executives are charged with engaging in improper expense management practices that spanned many years and involved numerous misleading transactions, millions in bogus cost savings, and a pervasive breakdown in accounting controls. The violations harmed investors who ultimately bore the costs and burdens of a restatement and delayed financial reporting….Kraft and its former executives are being held accountable for placing the pursuit of cost savings above compliance with the law.” KHC agreed to pay a civil penalty of $62 million. Interestingly, this case comes on the heels of an earnings management case brought by the SEC against Healthcare Services Group, Inc. for alleged failures to properly accrue and disclose litigation loss contingencies.
Audit Analytics has just released a deep dive into the impact of COVID-19 on financial reporting and financial wellbeing. To assess the effect of the pandemic, the report looked at going-concern audit opinions, impairment charges, late filings and changes in the control environment, as well as restatements. Some of the results might be surprising. For example, the pandemic had a significant impact on impairment charges, but the number of going-concern qualifications in audit opinions? Not so much.
Yesterday, the SEC announced settled charges against Healthcare Services Group, Inc., a provider of housekeeping and other services to healthcare facilities, its CFO and its controller, for alleged failures to properly accrue and disclose litigation loss contingencies—accounting and disclosure violations that “enabled the company to report inflated quarterly [EPS] that met research analysts’ consensus estimates for multiple quarters.” This action is the result of SEC Enforcement’s “EPS Initiative, which uses risk-based data analytics to uncover potential accounting and disclosure violations caused by, among other things, earnings management practices.” Gurbir Grewal, the new Director of Enforcement, warned that the SEC will continue to leverage its “in-house data analytic capabilities to identify improper accounting and disclosure practices that mask volatility in financial performance, and continue to hold public companies and their executives accountable for their violations.” The company paid $6 million to settle the action. The SEC Order makes the matter of accruing for loss contingencies sound simple and straightforward, implying that the company’s behavior involved “big bath” accounting and other earnings management practices, and that may well be the case in this instance. However, in many cases, deciding whether, when and what to disclose or accrue for a loss contingency is not so clear cut and can often be a challenging exercise.
When the press publishes articles alleging that a slew of profitable businesses are, quite legally, not paying much—if anything—in income taxes, and politicians argue that companies are just not paying their fair share, it’s bound to raise a few hackles. Now, this article in Bloomberg reports that tax transparency has become one of the “under-the-radar” elements of ESG disclosure that’s “gaining traction.” According to the article, ESG-oriented investors “want large public companies to disclose where they shift their profits and how much they pay in taxes, and to cut back on aggressive tax planning.”
On Monday, in a keynote address before the Society for Corporate Governance 2021 National Conference, SEC Commissioner Allison Herren Lee discussed the challenges boards face in oversight of ESG matters, including “climate change, racial injustice, economic inequality, and numerous other issues that are fundamental to the success and sustainability of companies, financial markets, and our economy.” Shareholders, employees, customers and other stakeholders are now all looking to corporations to adopt policies that “support growth and address the environmental and social impacts these companies have.” Why is that? Because actions or inactions by our largest corporations can have a tremendous impact. According to Lee, a 2018 study showed that, of the top 100 revenue generators across the globe, only 29 were countries—the rest were corporations, that is, corporations “often operate on a level or higher economic footing than some of the largest governments in the world.”
On June 4, the SEC announced that it had “removed” William D. Duhnke III from the PCAOB and designated Duane M. DesParte to serve as Acting Chair. Duhnke had been serving as Chair since January 2018. In the press release, SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that the “PCAOB has an opportunity to live up to Congress’s vision in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act….I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners, Acting Chair DesParte, and the staff of the PCAOB to set it on a path to better protect investors by ensuring that public company audits are informative, accurate, and independent.” (See this PubCo post.) In response to a question about Duhnke’s removal at the WSJ’s CFO Network Summit earlier this month, Gensler said only that the PCAOB plays an integral role in the audit process and that he didn’t think that it was living up to its potential as a standard-setter or in its enforcement role. (See this PubCo post.) According to Bloomberg, Representative Patrick McHenry, the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, has said he’s opening an investigation into the firing of Duhnke. The WSJ is now reporting exclusively that the SEC is conducting an investigation into whether Duhnke “violated any rules in his handling of internal complaints” at the PCAOB.