Now that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has released an order approving the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board’s (PCAOB) new rules on the auditor’s report, what items should the audit committee and shareholders look for there?
The Auditor’s Report on an Audit of Financial Statements When the Auditor Expresses an Unqualified Opinion and Related Amendments to PCAOB Standards, released by the PCAOB June 1 and approved by the SEC October 23, contains five main changes, including one that requires careful reading between the lines.
As NACD summarized in a recent brief to its members, the new PCAOB standard will require auditors to:
Standardize the format of the auditor’s report, placing the auditor’s opinion in the first section of the auditor’s report, followed by the basis for the opinion. This change makes the auditor’s opinion easier to find in the auditor’s report.
Disclose the auditor’s tenure, stating when the audit firm began its current service to the company. This new requirement comes in lieu of limiting audit firm tenure through mandatory audit firm rotation, a concept NACD and others have rejected in the past.
State that the auditor is required to be “independent.” This requirement is intended to strengthen shareholder confidence in the auditor’s report, possibly as an offset to the tenure disclosure, if it reveals that the auditor has been serving the client for more than a quarter century, for example.
State that the financial statements are free from material misstatements “whether due to error or fraud.” This change aligns with other recent or pending regulations on error vs. fraud, such as the proposed executive pay clawbacks rule still pending under Dodd-Frank, which mandated disgorgement of performance-based pay after financial restatements even if restatements were due to error rather than to fraud.
Report on critical audit matters (CAMs), defined as “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.” A number of commenters said that the CAMs mandate is “redundant” with existing reports, which already reveal the required information. See for example NACD’s comment to the PCAOB or State Street’s comment.
The key letter in CAM is M, for material. For those who may wonder what may be “material” to the financial statements, join the club. The SEC has still never defined this term, leaving this job to the courts as they interpret federal securities laws.
The going definition of “material” is more than 40 years old. The SEC release cites TSC Industries v. Northway, Inc., 426 U.S. 438, 449 (1976), in which the U.S. Supreme Court states that a fact is material if there is “a substantial likelihood that the . . . fact would have been viewed by the reasonable investor as having significantly altered the ‘total mix’ of information made available.” In that same case, the Supreme Court said that determining materiality requires “delicate assessments of the inferences a ‘reasonable shareholder’ would draw from a given set of facts and the significance of those inferences to him . . .”
Such wisdom is not lost on the PCAOB and SEC. In its June 1 release, the PCAOB cites as CAMs the auditor’s evaluation of the company’s “goodwill impairment assessment” and, more broadly, the auditor’s assessment of the company’s “ability to continue as a going concern.” These two examples are material to financial statements. By contrast, the following two examples are not material to the financial statement: a loss contingency already discussed with the audit committee and “determined to be remote;” and a “potential illegal act.”
Audit committees need to ensure that their auditors are in a position to recognize critical audit matters, and to learn from those matters. But this does not mean looking for problems where there are none.
Significantly, SEC Chair Jay Clayton had this to say about the new standard:
“I would be disappointed if the new audit reporting standard, which has the potential to provide investors with meaningful incremental information, instead resulted in frivolous litigation costs, defensive, lawyer-driven auditor communications, or antagonistic auditor-audit committee relationships — with Main Street investors ending up in a worse position than they were before.
I therefore urge all involved in the implementation of the revised auditing standards, including the Commission and the PCAOB, to pay close attention to these issues going forward, including carefully reading the guidance provided in the approval order and the PCAOB’s adopting release.”
To Chairman Clayton’s point, the SEC makes this point in its approval order:
“As the [PCAOB] notes, in order to succeed, any claim based on these new statements would have to establish all of the elements of the relevant cause of action (e.g., when applicable, scienter, loss causation, and reliance). Moreover, as discussed above, CAMs could be used to defend as well as initiate litigation. …However, because of these risks and other concerns expressed by commenters, we expect the Board to monitor the Proposed Rules after implementation for any unintended consequences.“ (SEC approval order , pp. 32–33)
Shareholders and others should read between the lines of auditor’s report (appreciating the regulations behind it), but they should not expect auditors to “look under rocks” to find problems. That is the job of management, internal control, and the audit committee. The auditor’s job is to focus on the audit of the financial statements to ensure that they conform to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Given the complexity of GAAP, that is a big enough job as it is.
The CAM standard can’t be mastered overnight and won’t be required any time soon. Auditors of large accelerated filers will not be required to adopt CAM changes until audits of fiscal years ending on or after June 30, 2019—with audits of all remaining filers to adopt CAM changes for fiscal years ending on or after December 15, 2020.
By contrast, all the other changes will apply to audits of fiscal years ending on or after December 15, 2017. That mean, essentially that auditors must work on this immediately, since most companies they are working with right now have fiscal years ending December 31, 2017. (According to Audit Analytics, 71 percent of public companies have a fiscal year ending December 31.)
So now is the time to prepare for the changes! In its above-cited report on the new rule, NACD prepared questions for directors to ask, along with related resources.
Questions for Boards
For which fiscal year will our auditor first be required to report on CAMs?
What areas during the audit do we anticipate our auditor will find challenging, subjective, or complex—and how can we preemptively address those concerns?
How will the auditor’s insights in the newly expanded report affect our ongoing work as we prepare the audit committee report for the proxy and review risk disclosures in the annual report on Form 10-K?
Vanguard Group CEO William F. McNabb III just tipped the list. The world’s top three asset managers—Blackrock, Vanguard, and State Street Corp.—are now calling the companies that they invest in to adopt climate risk disclosure.
In a recent open letter to corporate directors across the globe, McNabb explained that Vanguard, the $4.5 trillion mutual-fund management firm, expects businesses to embrace materiality-driven disclosures to shine more light on sustainability risks.
Summing up the challenge of climate risk, McNabb wrote that it’s the kind of risk that tests the strength of a board’s oversight and risk governance. That’s the crux of the challenge for directors. As investors ratchet up the pressure on companies to analyze their exposure to the impacts of a warming planet, they’re calling on boards to be knowledgeable about material climate risk and capable of preparing for its impacts and capitalizing on its opportunities.
As we heard in Karen Horn’s opening keynote of NACD’s 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit, directors can no longer ignore the inherent impact of these issues on the long-term value creation of the corporate world —ranging from climate risk, natural resource capital, and implications of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Board-level competence around climate change and other sustainability risks is the way forward. Through an understanding of what climate change means, why it matters to their business, and what their organizations are capable of changing, directors can successfully make climate risk part of their governance systems.
In a new report by Ceres called Lead from the Top, we outline ways that companies and boards can build up that competence.
But rather than settling with bringing on a director who is competent in sustainability, our report explains why companies must work to build an entire board that is competent to oversee these risks. By engaging thoughtfully on material sustainability risks as one cohesive body, this kind of board is able to ask the right questions of its management, support or challenge senior management as needed, and ultimately make informed and thoughtful decisions affecting corporate strategy and risk.
We identified three key principles that companies and boards can use as they work to build a sustainability-competent board:
1. Sustainability needs to be integrated into the director nomination process. Finding directors who can apply their knowledge about climate and other sustainability risk to relevant board deliberations is a good first step. Companies can get the right people on board by approaching this systematically as a part of the board nominations process, specifically identifying experience in material environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risks in the board skills matrix and by casting a wide net to consider candidates with diverse backgrounds and skills.
2. The whole board needs to be educated on sustainability issues that impact their company. For sustainability to become part of the fabric of board oversight and integrated into decision-making on strategy, risk, and compensation, all directors on the corporate board need to be well informed on material sustainability issues so they can lead thoughtful deliberations and make strategic decisions. Companies can do this through focused, ongoing training programs that bring in experts from outside the company and by educating the board on the connections between climate change and material impacts and the connections to risk and strategy. Embedding ESG into the existing board materials so it does not become one additional issue topic to vie for directors’ attention is essential. Sustainability managers embedded within companies can play a key role in driving this integration.
3. Boards should directly engage a diverse array of stakeholders, including investors, on sustainability issues impacting their company. With more investors paying attention to climate change and other sustainability issues, shareholders increasingly expect boards to engage directly with them on critical issues. One of the goals of McNabb’s letter was to nudge directors to engage directly with shareholders. Given this growing focus, material environmental and social factors should be made a part of any dialogue between directors and investors.
It all comes down to the bottom line. Risk and opportunity define business. Corporate boards will have a difficult time performing their fiduciary duty to the companies they lead and the shareholders that they represent without understanding the risks and opportunities created by climate change. Our report lays out practical steps directors can take as they consider how to make their board competent in addressing climate change and other environmental, social, and governance issues.
Veena Ramani is the program director of Capital Market Systems at Ceres. Ceres is a sustainability nonprofit organization working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy.
This past Friday, October 20, National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) staff packed up and readied itself for a big move. After five years on Pennsylvania Ave., NACD’s national office relocated across the Potomac River to Arlington, Virginia. NACD staff turned what could have been a stressful moving day into an opportunity to give back to the community that it works in through its first Day of Service.
Packaging food for delivery
Serving hot meals from a mobile food kitchen
President and CEO Peter Gleason championed NACD’s Day of Service as a way to involve staff in volunteer activity and to demonstrate that the organization is dedicated to supporting the lives of others. NACD spent time with several local nonprofit organizations, including:
Martha’s Table, an organization that seeks to provide healthy meal and food programs for children and their families. For over 37 years, Martha’s Table has worked to support children, families, and neighbors by making healthy food and quality learning more accessible.
DC Central Kitchen, whose mission is to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities. This organization provides culinary training for jobless adults and then hires them to prepare 3 million meals annually for homeless shelters, schools, and nonprofits.
Capital Area Food Bank, an organization working to solver hunger, chronic malnourishment, heart disease, and obesity. It provides 540,000 people in and around the nation’s Capital access to healthy food annually.
Food & Friends, whose vision is to provide meal delivery to people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses who have limited ability to provide nourishment for themselves. Their simple premise is that anyone can get sick and everyone can help.
Organizing food for a “market day” at an elementary school
One group of NACD volunteers reported back from Martha’s Table with this experience:
“Our crew of four baked about 230 muffins in one afternoon for our Day of Service assignment. Martha’s Table is a charity that has various aims, including introducing healthy eating to those who might not have access to traditional resources, such as those experiencing homelessness. Their mobile soup kitchen, McKenna’s Wagon, provides meals daily at various locations. The muffins we baked and packaged were destined to go on the truck Friday night as dessert for those that McKenna’s Wagon served. We had a lot of fun baking at Martha’s Table. We had a recipe for apple spice muffins and an aggressive timeline to meet! Everyone pitched in, bonded, and encouraged each other. It was a rewarding experience.”
Baking for a mobile soup kitchen
Do you know a deserving organization in the metropolitan Washington, DC area that could use volunteers in the future? Make your suggestion by leaving us a comment.