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.
In December, the PCAOB posted a report on the results of its 2019 conversations with almost 400 audit committee chairs, focused on audit committee perspectives on audit quality assessment and improvement, auditor communications, new auditing and accounting standards, and technology and innovation. Valuably, the report identifies practices—not necessarily endorsed by the PCAOB—that the committee chairs found to be most effective for improving audit quality across these categories. The report also includes a few PCAOB staff responses to FAQs raised during the conversations.
Yesterday, SEC Chair Jay Clayton, SEC Chief Accountant Sagar Teotia and Corp Fin Director William Hinman posted a “Statement on Role of Audit Committees in Financial Reporting and Key Reminders Regarding Oversight Responsibilities.” As the year draws to a close, given the vital role of audit committees in the financial reporting system, the Statement is intended to provide “observations and reminders on a number of potential areas of focus for audit committees. Issuers and independent auditors also should be mindful of these considerations with an eye toward ensuring that audit committees have the resources and support they need to fulfill their obligations.”
Happy New Year Everyone!
Recently, SEC Chief Accountant Sagar Teotia hinted at possible forthcoming changes to the auditor independence rules, remarking that, in connection with the recent changes related to lending relationships, the SEC “also received comments on other aspects of auditor independence rules. In conjunction with that feedback, the Chairman directed the staff to formulate recommendations to the Commission for possible additional changes to the auditor independence rules for potential rulemaking.” However, the nature of the potential changes remained something of a mystery. The proposal to amend the auditor independence rules has now been released. According to the press release issued today, the proposal is intended to modernize aspects of the independence rules to minimize the potential for “relationships and services that would not pose threats to an auditor’s objectivity and impartiality [to] trigger non-substantive rule breaches or potentially time consuming audit committee review of non-substantive matters.” It is important 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 its 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 be a menu item on the audit committee’s plate. The comment period will be open for 60 days.
When a company’s CFO serves on another company’s board, does it help or hurt the financial reporting of the CFO’s company? It’s easy to imagine that the time commitment associated with outside board service would be a distraction from the CFO’s primary job and ultimately impair the CFO’s performance—especially since, as reported in CFO.com, a majority of finance chiefs on outside boards are appointed to the time-consuming audit committee. But, according to an academic study, “CFO Outside Directorship and Financial Misstatements,” just published in Accounting Horizons, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Accounting Association (link is to a version on SSRN), that’s not the case. In fact, the study demonstrated that outside board service can actually enhance the quality of the financial reporting of the CFO’s company.
Does appointment of a former partner of the client’s audit firm to the client’s audit committee impair audit quality?
Studies of former partners of audit firms that have assumed management positions at audit clients have raised concerns, at least pre-SOX, about potentially lower audit quality, perhaps reflecting hesitation by the audit firm to “challenge aggressive accounting decisions” made by former partners of their firms. But what happens when a former partner joins the audit client’s audit committee? Does the former partner feel pressured not to question the audit firm’s decisions or lose objectivity about the quality of the work of the audit firm? Does the audit firm feel pressured to accept the company’s more aggressive accounting decisions when a former partner sits on the audit committee? In this study, published in Auditing: a Journal of Practice & Theory, a group of academics looked at that question. Their conclusion was that affiliated former partners on audit committees actually led to improved audit processes and outcomes. Why? Applying psychology’s “social identity theory,” the authors posit that the former partners continued to identify with their former firms, but instead of losing their objectivity, the former audit partners “use their knowledge of, and identification with, the audit firm to improve the audit process and the communication between the two parties,” leading to improvement in audit quality.
Yikes! What is going on at the PCAOB? You may recall that, back in 2018, former staffers at the PCAOB and former partners of KPMG were charged by the SEC in connection with “their participation in a scheme to misappropriate and use confidential information relating to the PCAOB’s planned inspections of KPMG.” You know, that case where the former PCAOB staffers were accused of leaking to KPMG the plans for PCAOB inspections of KPMG—“literally stealing the exam.” (See this PubCo post.) The same scheme led the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the SDNY to file criminal charges against the former staffers, and some have actually been sentenced to prison. But that’s not even the half of it.