SEC Chair directs staff to consolidate rulemaking in light of the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act
On December 18, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act was signed into law. The HFCAA, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, amends SOX to prohibit trading on U.S. exchanges of public reporting companies audited by registered public accounting firms that the PCAOB has been unable to inspect for three sequential years. The HFCAA also requires substantial action by the SEC to implement it. As I noted in my previous post about the bill (see this PubCo post), it was unclear how the bill would affect or interact with the proposal on this same topic that the SEC staff have been working on, which had been expected this month (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). Now, SEC Chair Jay Clayton has issued a statement clarifying the situation.
Happy holidays everyone! Happy 2021!
House passes Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act; bill now sent to President for signature (updated)
For over a decade, the PCAOB has been unable to fulfill its SOX mandate to inspect audit firms in “Non-Cooperating Jurisdictions,” including China. To address this issue, in May, the Senate passed, by unanimous consent, the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland. The bill would amend SOX to prohibit trading on U.S. exchanges of public reporting companies audited by registered public accounting firms that the PCAOB has been unable to inspect for three sequential years. Yesterday, the House also passed the bill, with the result that it is now headed to the President for signature. [Update: This bill was signed into law on December 18.] How this bill will affect or interact with the expected proposal on this topic from the SEC (see this PubCo post) remains to be seen.
In October 2017, the SEC approved the PCAOB’s proposed new auditing standard for the auditor’s report, which requires auditors to include a discussion of “critical audit matters,” know colloquially as “CAMs.” CAMs are “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.” Essentially, the concept is intended to capture the matters that kept the auditor up at night. As former Commissioner Kara Stein observed in her statement, the new “standard marks the first significant change to the auditor’s report in more than 70 years.” Changes related to CAMs became applicable to audits of large accelerated filers beginning with June 30, 2019 fiscal years and will apply to audits of all other companies to which the requirements apply for fiscal years ending on or after December 15, 2020. (See this PubCo post.) As a first step in analyzing the impact of CAM implementation before the requirement becomes more broadly applicable, the PCAOB undertook an interim analysis of the effect on key stakeholders in the audit process, including preparers (e.g., CFOs) at large accelerated filers, their audit firms, audit partners, audit committees and investors. That report is now available.
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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.
In May, the Senate passed the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, which would amend SOX to impose certain requirements on a public company that is audited by a registered public accounting firm with a branch or office located in a foreign jurisdiction that the PCAOB is “unable to inspect or investigate completely because of a position taken by an authority in the foreign jurisdiction.” And, as previously discussed, Nasdaq has also proposed rule changes aimed at addressing the same issue. (See this PubCo post.) A number of key players are speaking up to endorse these actions.
Nasdaq proposes new rules to address emerging market listings; Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act
Yesterday, the SEC formally announced its July 9 roundtable on emerging markets. In the announcement, the SEC observed that, “while the U.S. securities laws and regulations applicable to emerging market companies listed on U.S. exchanges are the same as (or comparable to) the laws and regulations applicable to U.S. public companies, the practical effects often are substantially different, based on the inability of U.S. regulators to inspect for compliance and enforce these rules and regulations.” In the meantime, Nasdaq appears to have taken the matter to the next level. Nasdaq’s three new proposals haven’t been posted by the SEC yet—so there may still be a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation before they see the light of day on the SEC’s website—but they are clearly designed to address these concerns about emerging market issuers, especially lack of accounting controls and transparency. Not to be outdone, the Senate yesterday passed a bill that could bar from listing on U.S. exchanges companies audited by firms that the PCAOB is prohibited by foreign authorities from inspecting.
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.
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.
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.
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.