The sustainability information in CSR reports is not, from our perspective, “investment-grade;” that is, it is not necessarily material, not industry specific, not comparable, and not auditable.
Business news headlines on any given day highlight the importance of sustainability issues such as resource scarcity, climate change, population growth, globalization, and transformative technologies. In today’s world, management of these and other sustainability risks and opportunities influences corporate success. Thus, understandably, investors are increasingly requesting information on how companies are managing these factors.
A concept release from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on disclosure effectiveness includes a lengthy discussion of sustainability disclosure. In the release, the SEC states that it is “interested in receiving feedback on the importance of sustainability and public policy matters to informed investment and voting decisions.” We hope that the SEC’s request for input on sustainability issues signals an understanding that the information investors consider “material”—much like the world around it—is changing. As a result, corporate disclosures should also evolve to provide investors with the information they need to make informed investment and voting decisions.
Sustainability issues are increasingly important to a company’s financial condition and operating performance, and thus merit the attention of its board. At more than 55 percent of S&P 500 companies, the board oversees sustainability, according to the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute. Such boards are to be applauded for taking a more holistic view of risk oversight, and for getting out in front of global challenges.
This shift in focus by investors and the business community is driven by a growing recognition that sustainability issues are business issues, not only born of social or political concerns. One recent study found that when companies focus their efforts on managing material sustainability factors—namely, those critically linked to their core business—they outperform their peers with significantly higher return on sales, sales growth, return on assets, and return on equity. They also show significantly improved risk-adjusted shareholder returns.
Clearly, the board plays a key role in developing a company’s capacity to create long-term value and in safeguarding its assets. In this regard, a board’s careful consideration of information on material sustainability factors would help it to fulfill its oversight responsibilities, by assisting it in understanding, prioritizing, and monitoring business-related risks and opportunities.
For example, a board should regularly consider how its company measures, manages, and reports its material sustainability risks. A pharmaceuticals company might consider how it is addressing a $431 billion counterfeit drug market, where mitigation strategies in an increasingly complex, global supply chain could stem or reverse the loss of consumer confidence and company revenues, and prevent up to 100,000 deaths each year (see Roger Bate’s 2012 book Phake: The Deadly World of Falsified and Substandard Medicines). The plunging stock price and loss of goodwill suffered by Chipotle Mexican Grill after outbreaks of E. coli and norovirus at its restaurants demonstrate the way in which a failure to manage sustainability risk factors can seriously damage a company’s reputation and shareholder value.
Moreover, sustainability issues not only raise risks, but also present opportunities that can and should be taken into account by the board as it considers development and implementation of the company’s strategic goals.
Sustainability issues may have a material impact on a company’s ability to achieve such goals. For automakers, a strategy that incorporates fuel-efficient technologies and alternative fuels can help the company capitalize on legal and consumer trends regarding fuel economy and emissions in a market where car ownership is projected to triple by 2050.
Sustainability issues directly affect a company’s financial condition and operating performance. Therefore, it is not surprising that investors are increasingly demanding more effective and useful sustainability information. Many companies have made efforts to meet this demand through disclosures in corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, by responding to questionnaires, or otherwise engaging with investors. The sustainability information in CSR reports is not, from our perspective, “investment-grade;” that is, it is not necessarily material, not industry specific, not comparable, and not auditable. To that point, a 2015 PwC study found that 82 percent of investors said they are dissatisfied with how risks and opportunities are identified and quantified in financial terms; 74 percent of the investors polled said they are dissatisfied with the comparability of sustainability reporting between companies in the same industry.
What the markets have lacked, until now, are standards that can guide companies in disclosing material sustainability information in a format that is decision-useful. These standards must be industry specific. Sustainability issues affect financial performance differently depending on the topic and the industry. Therefore, investors need guidance on which sustainability issues are material to which industries, and they need industry-specific metrics by which to evaluate and compare the performance of reporting companies.
The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was created to address this market inefficiency. The mission of SASB is to develop and disseminate industry standards for sustainability disclosure that help public corporations provide material, decision-useful information to investors via MD&A and other relevant sections of SEC filings such as the Form 10-K and 20-F. SASB’s standards are formulated with broad market participation and draw upon metrics already used by the corporate community. They will continue to evolve, as our world, and thus material sustainability issues, change.
Investors want to place their funds in entities that have good prospects for the future. To do so, they evaluate the information that is material to a company’s prospects. Not all that information rests in the financial statements that reflect a company’s current financial condition. We believe that, in today’s world, risks and opportunities not yet reflected in a company’s financial statements influence its success. And, the information that is “material” to investors—much like the world around it—has changed.
To help companies disclose material sustainability information, the capital markets need standards for disclosure of sustainability information that are created by the market, specific to industry, and compatible with U.S. securities law.
The management and disclosure of sustainability issues merits the attention of directors. The public comment period for the SEC’s disclosure effectiveness concept release runs through July 21. This is an important opportunity for publicly held companies and their directors to be heard on these critical issues, and to stress the importance of a market standard that serves investors while not overburdening issuers.
Aulana Peters was an SEC Commissioner from 1984-1988. Elisse Walter was the 30th chair of the SEC. Peters and Walter serve on the SASB board of Directors.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has renewed its focus on “gatekeepers,” a term SEC Chair Mary Jo White uses to describe “the attorneys, accountants, auditors, fund directors, and other board members and professionals who play a critical role in the securities industry and share the responsibility with regulators to protect investors.” Chair White views directors as the “most important” of the gatekeepers and has singled out audit committee members as playing “an extraordinarily important role in creating a culture of compliance through their oversight of financial reporting.” Under her leadership, White has put directors on notice that regulators are “pursuing those who should be serving as the neighborhood watch, but who fail to do their jobs.”
The SEC has brought several cases against directors since the beginning of White’s leadership, and more are likely to come. In September, the SEC brought securities fraud charges against Stephen Pence in connection with his role as chairman of the board of General Employment Enterprises. The SEC alleges in its complaint that Pence materially misled auditors and investors about a side business relationship that created a conflict of interest and led to misuse of company funds.
Last year, the SEC brought a controversial enforcement action against the audit committee chair for AgFeed Industries Inc. for his alleged failure to appropriately investigate and disclose accounting fraud by executives in the company’s China offices. In another case, the SEC disciplined the audit committee chair of L&L Energy for violating Section 13(a) of the Exchange Act and Rules 12b-20 and 13a-1 by signing annual and quarterly reports that she knew falsely certified compliance with Sarbanes Oxley’s requirement to retain an active CFO.
According to White, some have worried that the concentration on gatekeepers “may drive away those who would otherwise serve in these roles, for fear of being second-guessed or blamed for every issue that arises.” To this she responded: first, being a director “is not for the uninitiated or the faint of heart”; second, the SEC “will not be looking to charge a gatekeeper that did her job by asking the hard questions, demanding answers, looking for red flags, and raising her hand.” Which is to say, the heightened scrutiny of directors will remain an SEC enforcement priority.
SEC rhetoric about the boardroom and recent enforcement actions may seem disconcerting at first glance. To date, however, the enforcement actions have alleged significant wrongdoing such as intentional deception of auditors and glaring conflicts of interest. While these types of conduct are a substantial departure from normal governance, the SEC’s actions do illustrate the agency’s increased willingness to investigate the conduct of directors.
Directors can minimize their risk of scrutiny by observing the following guidance.
Understand the business and your role. Directors should educate themselves about the business and their evolving gatekeeper obligations at the outset of their service and throughout their tenure.
Evaluate channels of communication. Directors should regularly evaluate the substance and frequency of management’s communication with the board. Direct channels of communications from key individuals, such as the general counsel, chief compliance officer, and head of internal audit, can promote timely escalation and disclosure of potential problems.
Assess internal controls and control functions. Effective internal controls are essential and expected. In evaluating those controls, audit committee members must have open and robust dialogue with internal and external auditors that include discussion about the controls themselves and those responsible for them. Control functions, and the controller function itself, must remain independent from business lines.
Act promptly on red flags. The lesson from the SEC’s enforcement action against AgFeed directors is clear: directors must promptly investigate red flags and take decisive actions if misconduct is identified. But identifying red flags is challenging, and performance is judged in hindsight. To minimize their own liability while protecting shareholders, directors should not hesitate to consult their own counsel when faced with a potential red flag.
Bradley J. Bondi is a partner in the litigation practice group of Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP, and is a leader of its securities enforcement and regulatory practices.
The release asserts that current disclosure rules may not mandate enough disclosures about activities of audit committees in the reports they make in annual proxy statements and explores possible disclosure mandates in several areas—most of them pertaining to the external auditor. The areas outlined are as follows:
Audit Committee’s Oversight of the Auditor
Audit Committee’s Process for Appointing or Retaining the Auditor
Qualifications of the Audit Firm and Certain Members of the Engagement Team Selected by the Audit Committee
Location of Audit Committee Disclosures in Commission Filings
Smaller Reporting Companies and Emerging Growth Companies
In addition to these areas, the SEC asks for comment on the possible need for disclosures on accounting and financial reporting process or internal audits and invites comment on the scope of audit committee work.
Throughout the 55-page release, the SEC asks questions—74 in all—seeking the views of interested parties, such as audit committee members and investors, on what disclosures would be valuable. All but two of these questions pertain to oversight of the independent auditor.
2. What exactly is a concept release?
A concept release is an early indication that an agency is thinking about a matter and may issue new rules or standards on it. Any agency may issue a concept release. This current SEC concept release is the only one issued so far in 2015, and it is the first SEC concept release issued since 2011. (There were no SEC concept releases at all from 2012–2014.) While there are no recent studies showing the correlation between concept releases and rulemaking, we can assume that new rulemaking may follow. In this sense, concept releases are not the same as interpretive releases, which interpret new laws or court decisions, or policy statements, which clarify the SEC’s positions on particular matters.
3. How does this SEC concept release fit into the SEC’s overall “disclosure effectiveness initiative”?
The release is aimed at improving audit committee disclosures in concert with the stated goal of the SEC’s ongoing disclosure effectiveness initiative, described in a recent NACD Directorship article. Under this initiative, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance is reviewing the disclosure requirements under Regulation S-K (regarding company disclosures generally) and Regulation S-X (regarding company disclosures in financial statements) to “facilitate timely, material disclosure by companies….” So far the SEC has focused on the forms 10-K (annual report), 10-Q (quarterly report), and 8-K (updates). Later phases of the project will cover the compensation and governance information in proxy statements.
If the SEC’s new concept release on audit committee disclosures leads to rules mandating additional disclosures that are not material to investors, it would operate against the goals of the initiative. As SEC Chair Mary Jo White said in her keynote speech at NACD’s fall conference two years ago, “[w]e must continuously consider whether information overload is occurring as rules proliferate and as we contemplate what should and should not be required to be disclosed going forward.”
4. Has NACD commented on the SEC’s concept release?
Yes. On Sept. 8, 2015, the NACD submitted a comment letter affirming the importance of improved disclosures. However, the letter also argues that the choice of what to disclose should be up to audit committees themselves because they are in the best position to describe how they are fulfilling those duties. The NACD letter cautions that information should only be included in a proxy statement (or any other disclosure for that matter) if it would be useful to investors.
In the letter, NACD proposes that audit committees take voluntary action by finding new ways of disclosing the broad scope of their work. NACD has also offered to convene a meeting between the SEC and audit committee leaders in order to accomplish this.
The NACD letter followed a more detailed comment submitted to the SEC on Aug. 3, 2015, by Dennis Beresford, a member of the NACD board of directors, an experienced director and audit committee leader, and the former chair of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB).
In his letter, Mr. Beresford states that the concept release focuses too heavily on the audit committee’s relationship with the auditor, which he says is important but should not dominate the committee’s work. He notes that of the 74 questions asked in the release, all but the last two focus on this topic.
Based on his experience, Mr. Beresford suggests that audit committee reports need to cover a wider range of topics, as suggested by the Audit Committee Collaboration, a group that includes NACD. In order of priority, these topics include:
Scope of duties (as referenced in the audit committee charter).
Committee composition (especially information on qualifications of the “audit committee financial expert”).
Oversight of financial reporting (highlighting how the committee is assessing the quality of financial reporting).
Oversight of independent audit (selection of the audit firm and lead engagement partner, and compensation, oversight, and evaluation of the audit firm). Mr. Beresford argues that the disclosure of the lead engagement partner’s name is unnecessary. [This is the subject of a separate Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) release on Rules to Require Disclosure of Certain Audit Participants on a New PCAOB Form.]
Risk assessment and risk management (which is often assigned to the audit committee).
Information technology (such as cybersecurity, which is also often assigned to the committee).
Internal audit (namely, internal audit plan review and results).
Legal and compliance (such as any discussions with legal counsel).
This list of possible topics for voluntary audit committee disclosures accords with NACD’s own publications on audit committee work. These subjects are frequently discussed in meetings of our Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council and in the webcasts and gatherings we produce with KPMG’s Audit Committee Institute.
Notably, Mr. Beresford warns against turning these subjects into mandatory “check-the-box” disclosures. Because audit committee reports are still in an early stage of development, he hopes “that the SEC allows them to continue to develop largely as ‘best practices’ without becoming overly prescriptive [emphasis added].” Regarding disclosure of the name of the lead engagement partner, he says that this should be left to the discretion of audit committees: “If they felt it would be useful to investors, they could include it in their reports in the proxy statement.”
5. Are there any other agency concept releases that audit committee members should know about?
Yes. On July 1, 2015, the PCAOB issued a concept release on Audit Quality Indicators (AQIs) with a comment deadline of Sept. 29, 2015. The release notes that “[t]aken together with qualitative context, the indicators may inform discussions among…audit committees and audit firms.”
NACD does not plan to comment on this release. However, we note that NACD member J. Michael Cook, chair of Comcast’s audit committee, together with Comcast’s executive vice president and chief accounting officer, Lawrence J. Salva, sent acomment letter advising the PCAOB of their views: “We encourage the PCAOB to be judicious with regard to the number of recommended AQIs, as we believe too many AQIs would lessen their impact. As you have previously noted, audit committees have many responsibilities and a limited amount of time, and as you are aware, audit quality requires more than measurable indicators; skepticism and independence are necessary to turn quantifiable indicators into real audit quality.”
6. What is the key takeaway from the SEC and PCAOB concept releases for audit committees?
The SEC and PCAOB are being proactive on the audit committee front. The SEC wants audit committees to say more about their activities in the proxy statement, and the PCAOB wants audit committees to use specific metrics to judge the quality of audits. Comments from the director community have pointed out the importance of ensuring that disclosures are material and that metrics are useful. In response to these two concept releases, audit committee leaders and members might consider taking two main actions:
Review disclosures and their metrics to ensure they are useful.
Reach out to the SEC and PCAOB to express views on these matters.
A Final Word
SEC and PCAOB regulators strive to strengthen the U.S. economy through enlightened rulemaking, but they cannot do it alone. They need to hear the voice of the director. NACD members can make a positive difference in this regard.