Over the years, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas has featured miles of technology and millions of people—2.75 million square feet for 3,900 booths and nearly 185,000 attendees in 2018 alone.
Under those tents are innovations that will disrupt markets and your companies. The question is, which ones?
Not every innovation is disruptive, and not every market is vulnerable. According to a recent blog by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen, written shortly before the most recent CES event in January, “disruptive innovation,” a term Christensen coined in 1995, is “the process by which products and services, often less expensive and less sophisticated, move upmarket until they displace established competitors.”
Displacement is no fun; it generally means downsizing and can mean demise. So directors naturally want their companies to disrupt, rather than be disrupted. That’s why NACD launched the NACD CES Experience in partnership with Grant Thornton. Participants enjoyed a director-curated tour and program that explored the technology trends of greatest relevance to business, helping attendees see implications for their own companies.
General trends highlighted on the tour included the impact of artificial intelligence, machine learning, chip and processing technologies, and sensor technologies on human-machine interface. The small group of directors also witnessed new technologies in voice input and response, image and vision interactions, biometrics, digital assistants, computational photography, shoppable images, virtual environments, and biometric trackers.
NACD inaugurated a similar annual event last July, the NACD Technology Symposium, where directors toured businesses in Silicon Valley, interacting with innovators there. And in April 2018, NACD will host a Global Cyber Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. NACD, working with others, has been providing cyber-risk oversight guidance for directors since the year 2000, most recently with the NACD Director’s Handbook on Cyber-Risk Oversight, 2017 edition. Also our Emerging Issues resource center has a segment on the impact of technology change.
Such programs, encouraging focus amid complexity and change, are models for what board leadership is all about: focused oversight. Based on my own board service, and on my decades of dialogue with directors, I believe that identifying and prioritizing issues for oversight is the single most important value that boards bring to organizations. It’s opposite of the “shiny thing” syndrome, in which our attention darts to whatever is new and interesting.
In a video interview with several directors at the opening day of CES, NACD Chief Programming Officer Erin Essenmacher asked why they came. Lianne Pelletier, whose views on CES were recently featured in the Wall Street Journal, focused on infrastructure, a key topic at Expeditors International, where she serves as a director. John Hotta, a director at First Washington Robotics, focused on the accessibility of platforms like Amazon’s Alexa. Maureen Conners, on the board of Fashion Incubator San Francisco, said that directors should bring the top “three to five” issues to the attention of their CEO to ask for a report on strategic implications.
In short, all the directors interviewed said that they wanted broader horizons but would continue to focus straight ahead.
Innovation and disruption are now commonplace in strategy discussions between the board and C-suite. Even innovations outside of a company’s own mission are changing everything from customer expectations to business operations. While the board’s agenda has evolved to include discussion of issues such as emerging technologies and workforce disruption, corporate directors must still contend with evergreen oversight tasks. Directors are feeling stretched, and reasonably so.
NACD’s Master Class board leadership forum convened more than 50 directors recently in Miami, Florida, to sharpen their focus on several pressing board oversight matters. The event highlighted lessons in effective board leadership and explored emerging disruptions that affect strategy and long-term value creation in today’s dynamic business environment. The discussions at Master Class revealed the following takeaways:
Review the outlook on the economy. The U.S. is on track to have its second-longest economic recovery, and it may even become the longest on record, according to Constance Hunter, chief economist at KPMG LLP. Unemployment is at an all-time low, and wages are slowly beginning to rise. Barring any global economic shocks, this could signal that the American economy is likely nearing peak growth. Hunter also reminded directors that though all signs point to stable economic growth this year, an economic downturn in the coming years is still possible.
Pay attention to increased complexity. From social and demographic changes to technological disruption, companies are facing increasingly complex challenges. Addressing these issues will require the board to keep up with today’s dynamic business environment. Being on a board is no longer simply about compliance or risk oversight. Fundamental conversations about company strategy and business models need to become regular topics of discussion. The board needs to ask hard questions of its executive team around the company’s data strategy, whether this team has the requisite set of skills to execute on strategy broadly, and how well the management team understands the competitive landscape and challenges specific to their industry.
Approach technology as an enabler of strategy. Board discussions about technology should focus on the current—or potential—application for the company. Directors should, therefore, approach such dialogues within the context of company strategy. The board should ensure that management understands and meaningfully engages with the company’s technology systems and the staff who use those systems, and assesses how the company invests in technology as an enabler of the broader strategy.
Wake up to disruption. Large companies are beginning to wake up to the disruptive players in their industries. Many so-called startup “unicorns” are now backed by corporate venture capital arms, enabling established, large-scale companies to gain a competitive edge with smaller companies leading transformative ventures and creating disruptive technologies. There are more avenues than ever before for businesses of all sizes to engage with emerging technologies, from pilgrimages to Silicon Valley, or attendance at events such as the annual NACD Consumer Electronics Show Experience, to setting up corporate venture arms.
Think outside—or about—the box. The concept of Innovation dos not have to be limited to a firm’s research and development department. A company can innovate in every facet of its business, from financing to product packaging. One director attending Master Class shared how one of her companies modified its package design for products that customers opened to peer inside. By redesigning the packaging to include transparent plastic, customers were able to see these products through the packaging and, thereby, didn’t feel compelled to open it. This helped the company dramatically reduce the number of products that were spoiled from being opened.
Demand better risk reports. Directors need to push management to enhance the effectiveness of risk reports provided to the board. If risk reports received from management look like audit reports, the board may not be receiving the information it needs to effectively oversee risk. Management teams often present so much information that directors may find it difficult to discern which risks demand the most urgent attention. In fact, the 2017─2018 NACD Public Company Governance Survey reports that in the past 12 months, 79 percent of respondents say they communicated with management about the types of risk information that the board requires.
Communicate what investors want to know. Institutional investors want to know whether the board is capable of being not only the board of today, but that of tomorrow. In this regard, the proxy statement is often underutilized as a way of communicating the board’s strengths and skills that will help strengthen their oversight of the company in the years to come. If effectively used, this document can enrich board-shareholder dialogue. More information is available in the publication Investor Perspectives: Critical Issues for Board Focus in 2018.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (“Tax Act”) has sweeping ramifications. These range from mechanical compliance issues (e.g., revised withholding rates for employees) to strategic concerns that must ultimately be decided in the boardroom. For domestic corporations and foreign corporations with U.S. operations, one strategic imperative is a wholesale re-evaluation of the structure of a company’s operations. In this first of two articles, we identify four significant aspects of the Tax Act with which corporate directors should become familiar.
1. Mandatory “Transition Tax” on Deemed Repatriations of Deferred Foreign Earnings. Many corporations have deferred foreign earnings under Accounting Principles Board Opinion No. 23, recording no associated financial statement U.S. income tax liability based on the position that such earnings are indefinitely reinvested in foreign operations. The Tax Act terminates the deferral and imposes a tax liability on deferred earnings regardless of whether they are actually repatriated. The Transition Tax on this “deemed repatriation” is 15.5 percent on the portion of the earnings represented by cash and cash equivalents and 8 percent on the portion invested in non-cash assets. Although most of the provisions of the Tax Act take effect in 2018, the Transition Tax is due on a corporation’s 2017 tax return and will likely cause a charge to 2017 earnings. There is an election to pay the tax in installments over an eight-year period.
What Directors Should Do. Computing the Transition Tax can be extremely complex and requires data the corporation may not have collected in the ordinary course of its business. This is particularly the case where the corporation has acquired companies that earned foreign profits after 1986. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has issued guidance, including Staff Accounting Bulletin 118, to assist corporations in applying generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) to reflect the impact of the Tax Act where necessary information is not yet available. Directors, and in particular audit committee members, should ensure that the corporation devotes adequate resources to preparing a reasonably accurate computation of the Transition Tax in time to make their disclosures for the fiscal quarter or year ended December 31, 2017. Given the many open issues regarding the Transition Tax that may not be clarified by the filing date of the corporation’s tax return, corporations should enlist expert assistance to interpret the law and refine the company’s computation of the Transition Tax.
The deemed repatriation affords many corporations greater flexibility to utilize previously “trapped” cash (i.e., cash that was held by non-U.S. entities that could not be repatriated without being subject to U.S. tax). This cash might be used to fund acquisitions, capital expenditures, debt repayments, stock buybacks or dividends. Directors should ask management to focus on the corporation’s optimal capital allocation and to report to the board concerning available options.
2. Reduction in Corporate Tax Rate from 35 Percent to 21 Percent. The default rate on corporate taxable income drops from 35 to 21 percent, although there are special lower rates for certain types of foreign earnings discussed below. This 40-percent reduction in the corporate tax rate will affect the value of a corporation’s deferred tax assets and liabilities. For example, all things being equal the value of a net operating loss carry-forward may drop by 40 percent. At the same time, however, the lower tax rate may increase after-tax earnings going forward for many corporations. There are many less obvious implications of the rate reduction, particularly in conjunction with other changes in the Tax Act.
What Directors Should Do. Directors should commission a study by the corporation’s tax department of potential changes in the corporation’s legal entity and operational structures to take full advantage of the rate reductions in combination with other relevant provisions of the Tax Act. Such a study will also be useful in completing the corporation’s tax accounting analysis of the impact of the Tax Act under GAAP and related disclosures in the corporation’s SEC filings.
3. Reform of Taxation of International Operations. The Tax Act radically changes the taxation of profits earned outside the United States.
First, it eliminates the deferral of U.S. tax on foreign earnings. Thus, U.S. income tax now will be imposed on most current earnings of foreign subsidiaries rather than being postponed until earnings are repatriated.
Second, as a limited exception, foreign profits amounting to a 10 percent return on certain investments in tangible assets are permanently exempt from U.S. tax.
Third, profits from intangible assets earned outside the U.S. can be taxed at a special rate of 10.5 percent to the extent those profits result from certain types of revenues. Profits earned by domestic corporations from certain foreign sales of property or services are eligible for a special tax rate of 13.125 percent. Both of these special rates are scheduled to increase after 2025, but to levels well below the general 21 percent corporate rate.
What Directors Should Do. Directors should request a thorough review of the corporation’s international footprint as part of the study described above. This review should consider the optimal location not only of the corporation’s operations, but its personnel, tangible assets and intangible assets. Unlike GAAP consolidation, tax reporting must generally be made on an entity-by-entity basis (although consolidation of affiliates within a single country is often allowed). As a result, the corporation’s legal entity structure and inter-company contracts must be carefully aligned with its commercial arrangements. Given evolving changes in the tax laws of other member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and particularly under the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative, structuring operations to accommodate both foreign tax laws and the new U.S. tax regime may be challenging. Finally, in evaluating any structure, directors should consider the prospects for future tax changes in reaction to the Tax Act in jurisdictions where the corporation operates.
4. Changes to Interest and Depreciation Deductions. The Tax Act gives with one proverbial hand—allowing immediate deduction of 100 percent of the acquisition cost for certain depreciable assets—and takes away with the other by limiting deductibility of net interest expense for many corporations. The “immediate expensing” provision applies only to tangible assets like plant and equipment and is phased down beginning in 2023. This new provision is more generous than prior “bonus depreciation” rules because it also applies to used assets, as well as new assets.
The interest expense rule limits certain corporations’ ability to currently deduct net business interest expense amounts exceeding 30 percent of certain thresholds. These thresholds are based on Earnings Before Income and Tax (EBIT) in years through 2021 and—less favorably—on Earnings Before Income, Tax, and Depreciation (EBITDA) after 2021. Disallowed interest deductions generally may be carried forward indefinitely. Interest expense on existing indebtedness is not grandfathered. Regulated public utilities are automatically exempt from these rules. Corporations in a broad spectrum of real property related businesses, farming businesses, and certain other agricultural businesses may elect to have these rules not apply.
What Directors Should Do. Directors should evaluate the impact of these two provisions on their corporation’s capital structure and its investment decisions. They should understand the implications of immediate deductibility of depreciable assets on acquisition structures. For example, acquiring stock may result in a lower internal rate of return than acquiring assets. Regarding the business interest limitations, directors should encourage management to determine whether the corporation is eligible to elect out of these rules and, if not, to explore alternatives to debt repayment, such as preferred equity instruments or other structures, that might mitigate the impact of these limitations.
Visit the NACD Board Leaders’ Blog again for the second installment in this series.
George M. Gerachis serves as head of Vinson & Elkins’ Tax and Executive Compensation and Benefits department. He represents corporate and individual clients in a wide range of tax planning and tax controversy matters. David C. Cole is a tax partner at Vinson & Elkins and represents corporations, partnerships, and high net worth individuals in a wide range of domestic and international tax matters. Thoughts expressed here are their own.