In May, SEC Chief Accountant Paul Munter, quoted here, cautioned his conference audience about the potential for audit committee overload. “More demands are being put on audit committees, sometimes on topics outside their core responsibility,” he said. “Audit committees need to be continually vigilant that they have enough time to focus on their core mission—protecting investors—and don’t let other topics cloud that out.” While the AC’s primary responsibilities are generally thought to be oversight of financial reporting, including the audit of a company’s financial statements and internal control over financial reporting, these days, the AC often becomes the default committee of choice for oversight of other emerging risks, such as cybersecurity and even ESG. With ACs now perhaps the “kitchen sink of the board,” are its members stretched too thin to carry out fundamental responsibilities? Are members being asked to operate outside of their core skillsets? What is the impact? These concerns appear to have prompted the panel at last week’s meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee discussing AC workload and transparency.
In December 2019, as part of its strategy of enhancing transparency and accessibility through proactive stakeholder engagement, the PCAOB launched an effort to engage with audit committees, conducting conversations with almost 400 audit committee chairs focused on audit committee perspectives on topics such as audit quality assessment and improvement and auditor communications. (See this PubCo post.) As noted by PCAOB Chair William Duhnke in this PCAOB webinar for audit committees, the PCAOB prioritized this engagement, viewing informed and engaged audit committees as “force multipliers.” The PCAOB continued this outreach to audit committee chairs during 2020, contacting the audit committee chairs of most of the U.S. public companies that had audits inspected by the PCAOB during 2020. The PCAOB spoke with almost 300 audit committee chairs and discussed the results in this new report. The discussions involved Covid-19, communications by the auditor with the audit committee, new auditing and accounting standards and emerging technologies. As part of their discussions with the PCAOB, the chairs identified a number of practices in connection with each topic that they viewed as particularly effective—advice that could be useful to other audit committees.
In December 2019, as part of its strategy of enhancing transparency and accessibility through proactive stakeholder engagement, the PCAOB conducted conversations with almost 400 audit committee chairs, focused on audit committee perspectives on topics such as audit quality assessment and improvement and auditor communications, and reported on those conversations. (See this PubCo post.) As noted by PCAOB Chair William Duhnke in this PCAOB webinar for audit committees, the PCAOB prioritized this engagement, viewing informed and engaged audit committees as “force multipliers.” In addition, he noted, the PCAOB had heard criticism early in the process that the PCAOB did not play well with others and was not receptive to feedback—the conversations also represented an effort to address that problem. The PCAOB has continued this same outreach to audit committee chairs during 2020, focused this time on the unprecedented challenges created by COVID-19 and its effect on the chairs’ oversight of financial reporting and the audit. The responses regarding the impact of the pandemic varied widely, depending on the industry and company. The chairs identified a number of new or increased risks, including cybersecurity, employee safety and mental health, going concern, accounting estimates, impairments, international operations and accounting implications of the CARES Act. The PCAOB’s recent report summarizes two of the common themes the PCAOB regularly heard from audit committee chairs across industries and highlights some of the helpful questions and considerations that the chairs identified.
Is EBITDAC a thing? Yes, according to the FT. This article describes the use of a new non-GAAP metric: “earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, amortisation—and coronavirus.” Applying the new metric, a few companies have actually added back profits they contend they would have earned but for the mandatory lockdowns resulting from COVID-19. Hmmm. While, according to the article, the add-back has “bemused some observers,” it does raise the question: how should companies employ non-GAAP financial measures (NGFMs) in the context of COVID-19? How should audit committees conduct oversight of the use of NGFMs that have been adjusted for coronavirus-related effects? Auditors weigh in.
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!
The PCAOB has just released a new resource for audit committees about critical audit matters, designed to “inform audit committees as they engage with their auditors on the new CAM requirements.” The new auditing standard for the auditor’s report (AS 3101), which requires CAM disclosure, will be effective for audits of large accelerated filers for fiscal years ending on or after June 30, 2019. For audits of all other companies to which they apply (e.g., not EGCs), CAM requirements will be effective for fiscal years ending on or after December 15, 2020. The resource document provides information about CAM basics, as well as PCAOB staff guidance through responses to FAQs and, importantly, questions audit committees could consider asking their auditors. At the same time, the PCAOB also issued a new resource about CAMs for investors.
To fulfill their oversight responsibilities, audit committees typically evaluate the outside auditor at least annually to determine, in part, whether the auditor should be engaged for the subsequent fiscal year. The Center for Audit Quality has just published a new updated External Auditor Assessment Tool, which is “designed to assist audit committees in carrying out their responsibilities of appointing, overseeing, and determining compensation for the external auditor.” Beyond oversight, the CAQ observes that a “[r]obust, two-way dialogue that includes providing constructive feedback to the external auditor may improve audit quality and enhance the relationship between the audit committee and the external auditor.” Like many other helpful CAQ tools, this tool provides a number of sample questions to help audit committees satisfy their oversight obligations with regard to the outside auditor. (The discussion below includes only a sampling of the CAQ’s questions provided in the Assessment Tool.) The CAQ also provides a sample form that can be used to solicit input about the outside auditor from company personnel who have had substantial contact with the auditor.
PCAOB to engage in “proactive communications” with audit committees; sample questions for audit committees
In this PCAOB staff inspection brief, issued at the end of last week, the PCAOB discusses its new strategic plan, which includes conducting “an ongoing dialogue” with audit committee chairs when their companies’ audits are subject to PCAOB inspection. The purpose is to provide the committees with “further insight” into the PCAOB process, including the inspections, and to obtain the views of committee chairs. The brief also outlines what audit committees should expect from the PCAOB’s 2019 inspections and provides a number of sample questions that audit committees may want to consider asking their auditors with regard to current inspection issues. The PCAOB expects to publish additional updates for audit committees regarding observations and findings.
The Center for Audit Quality has issued a new guide for audit committees related to non-GAAP financial measures. Based on information gained from a series of roundtables held in 2017, Non-GAAP Measures: A Roadmap for Audit Committees identifies common themes and key considerations for audit committees, including leading practices to help assess whether a company’s non-GAAP measures present “high-quality non-GAAP measures.” And what exactly is a “high-quality non-GAAP measure”? According to the CAQ, a non-GAAP measure is high-quality if it provides a “balanced representation of the company’s performance.”