The Auditor’s Report: Reading Between New Lines
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?
- How will it shape our meeting with auditors, who themselves have extensive standards for their communications with audit committees?
- How might our company need to adjust our year-end reporting calendar in order to file the 10-K on time?
NACD Resources: See NACD’s commentary on this topic to the PCAOB in the Corporate Governance Standards Resource Center, and visit NACD’s Audit Committee Resource Center for a repository of content related to leading practices for the audit committee. Register for the KPMG webinar “What You Need to Know About the New Auditor Reporting Model” on Thursday, November 9, and review the Center for Audit Quality’s recent alert “The Auditor’s Report—New Requirements for 2017.”