Tag Archive: financial disclosures

Surviving a Restatement: Ten Pitfalls to Avoid

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Bradley J. Bondi

In 2013, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) formed the Financial Reporting and Audit Task Force to detect fraudulent or improper financial reporting, and since then has brought more than 300 issuer reporting and disclosure cases. One area of focus is a company’s restatement of financial statements and company actions connected with the restatement.

The audit committee plays an important role in navigating a restatement—from investigating errors and their origins to overseeing the restatement process. A mishandled restatement can lead to a prolonged SEC investigation, increased exposure to liability in civil litigation, loss of confidence by lenders, and potential delisting by an exchange.

To survive a restatement, audit committees should avoid the following pitfalls.

  1. Engaging inexperienced counsel and advisors for investigation. A restatement is commonly precipitated or accompanied by an independent investigation overseen by the audit committee. Proper investigation of accounting errors is critically important, and inexperienced counsel could fumble the investigation—and restatement—from the beginning by incorrectly scoping the investigation, failing to obtain the relevant information, or losing credibility with regulators.Four qualities are essential for counsel tasked with conducting independent investigations into accounting errors.
    • First and foremost, counsel must be independent from management. Counsel must not have done prior work for the company or have any significant ties to the management.
    • Second, counsel should be experienced with conducting independent investigations for boards and board committees.
    • Third, counsel should understand accounting and disclosure issues, and have experience with the nuances of accounting investigations. Nonetheless, counsel should also be expected to engage experienced, outside forensic accountants to aid in the investigation.
    • Finally, counsel and their team must be respected by regulators and have a reputation of conducting appropriately thorough and complete investigations.
  2. Forming a special committee when the audit committee might suffice. While a special committee might be necessary in certain rare investigative circumstances, the board should avoid forming one if its audit committee is composed of independent and disinterested directors who are suited for the task. A special committee must be disbanded at some point (usually once the investigation is completed and before the restatement process begins), and the disbanding could become a complicated news item.In contrast, if the audit committee oversees the investigation, then, once the investigation is complete, the audit committee can pivot back to its normal role, which would include overseeing the actual restatement process. Investigations overseen by the audit committee also benefit from the positive relationship that the chair usually has with the company’s outside accounting firm.
  3. The run-away or open-ended investigation. Incorrectly scoped investigations can lead to burdensome legal fees, continued business disruptions, and inadequate investigatory results. Importantly, an independent investigation does not mean that counsel is independent of the client. The “client”—i.e., the audit committee—should discuss the scope and budget of the investigation with outside counsel and together tailor the investigation to the circumstances.
  4. Failing to keep auditors apprised of the investigation and errors found. Keeping auditors in the dark regarding the progress and results of the investigation could delay the restatement and result in the resignation of the auditor. The audit committee’s counsel should maintain a good relationship with the company’s auditors and keep them appropriately apprised of the investigation through periodic calls or meetings. If the auditor is conducting a shadow investigation, this dialogue will aid it in confirming that appropriate remedial measures occur (e.g., a restatement) and that the company’s professional practice group, risk, or forensic functions are informed.
  5. Indecisiveness and inability to reach conclusions. Indecisiveness can delay the investigative process, allow misconduct to persist unchecked, and create the damaging perception among investors, regulators, and the plaintiffs’ bar that the company’s problems extend beyond financial reporting. To minimize these effects and maximize potential cooperation credit, the audit committee, in conjunction with counsel, should reach conclusions concerning accounting errors as promptly as possible.
  6. Waiting too long to deal with wrongdoers. Once an investigation has made conclusions about individual conduct, any wrongdoers should be disciplined and, when necessary, removed from their position—either by terminating their employment or forcing their resignation. When determining cooperation credit, the SEC and Department of Justice (DOJ) will focus on whether the responsible individuals are still with the company, and, if so, whether they are still in the same positions. Removing wrongdoers clears the path for the audit committee to share investigation results with management so it can correct errors and implement remedial actions.
  7. Not self-reporting findings to the SEC. Whenever a restatement is made, the SEC will inquire whether the underlying accounting error was intentional. It also may inquire about the root cause of the error; how, when, and by whom it was discovered; the reporting periods impacted; how the error is being corrected; and the impact on the company’s financial control environment.The SEC expects a registrant to voluntarily share the results of its investigation. If the SEC learns of misconduct from a source other than the company, or if the company fails to make its investigative findings available to the SEC, the company could become ineligible for cooperation credit associated with self-reporting. The incentives in the SEC’s whistleblower bounty program provide additional motivation for companies to be proactive in promptly and thoroughly self-reporting.
  8. Audit committee micromanagement of the restatement. Management is ultimately responsible for financial reporting, and the audit committee must maintain its supervisory role and refrain from stepping into the role of management to correct errors. Once an accounting error has been identified, it must be assessed to determine whether the affected financial statements are materially misstated. Quantifying the errors is a critical step in determining materiality, and Staff Accounting Bulletin (SAB) 108 contains guidance.The audit committee counsel should assist management, as appropriate, in understanding the nature of the errors and how to correct them. This is also a good time for the audit committee to request that management re-evaluate the enterprise-wide risk assessment process and the design and effectiveness of internal controls over financial reporting.
  9. Failing to remediate. If accounting errors lead to a restatement, then the company may have deficiencies in internal controls. In addition, inadequate or ineffective internal controls often raise issues that should be investigated by the audit committee relating to the certifications by the CEO, CFO, and outside auditor. Failure to remediate gaps in internal controls and to address certification issues provides the opportunity for additional misconduct and could damage the company’s credibility with regulators. The SEC in particular will focus on what steps the company took upon learning of the misconduct or control weaknesses, whether the company took immediate corrective action, and what new and more effective internal controls or procedures the company plans to adopt to prevent a recurrence. When documenting remedial actions, the company should avoid characterizing them as other than what they are—improvements in internal control procedures. This neutral approach might help to mitigate potentially harmful collateral impacts in civil litigation.
  10. Creating an unnecessarily detailed SAB-99 materiality analysis. Shareholder class actions inevitably follow restatements. The audit committee should resist the impulse to create an unnecessarily detailed SAB-99 materiality analysis that will be discoverable in litigation against the company and could provide a roadmap for private plaintiffs. To the extent additional details regarding the materiality analysis are necessary, oral discussions with auditors are often sufficient.

Bradley J. Bondi is a partner with Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP. He advises financial institutions and global corporations, boards of directors, audit committees, and officers and directors of publicly-held companies in significant corporate and securities matters, with particular emphasis on internal investigations and enforcement challenges, including those related to restatements. Michael D. Wheatley, a litigation associate at Cahill, assisted with this article.

Jonathan T. Marks, CPA, CFE, a managing director with Navigant Consulting, Inc. in its global disputes and investigations practice, and Michael Pesce, an associate director with Navigant, contributed to this article.

Current Efforts Toward Corporate Disclosure Reform

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The discussion surrounding corporate disclosure reform has consistently centered on the issue of how to provide sufficient levels of information to investors and other readers without overburdening those responsible for preparing the disclosures. On July 29, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness (CCMC) hosted an event addressing corporate disclosure reform. A variety of issues involving disclosure reform were discussed in panels featuring general counsels from leading companies, former officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the current head of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, and other stakeholders.

Corporate disclosure reform has also been a recurring topic of discussion among the delegates of NACD’s advisory council meetings. Delegates are committee chairs of Fortune 500 companies and, along with key stakeholders, they discuss the issues and challenges currently affecting the boardroom. In particular, NACD’s Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council has discussed this topic at length, and this issue featured prominently in the discussions at the June 2013, November 2013 and March 2014 meetings. In particular, the November meeting featured senior leaders from the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals to discuss their efforts to streamline disclosures, while the March meeting included analysts from Moody’s Analytics and Morgan Stanley to share how they use disclosures.

Many of the key takeaways from the CCMC’s July meeting have been echoed at NACD’s advisory council meetings. These include:

The “disclosure burden” is largely driven by a desire to reduce liability. The first CCMC panel focused on the perspectives of two former SEC commissioners: Roel Campos, who is currently a partner at Locke Lord; and Cynthia Glassman, now a senior research scholar at the Institute for Corporate Responsibility at the George Washington University School of Business. There was agreement that disclosures have become documents of litigation. The usefulness of many disclosures was called into question, and in fact, many of the disclosures found on today’s financial statements are not actually mandated. For example, while comment letters issued by SEC staff from the Division of Corporation Finance and the Division of Investment Management “do not constitute an official expression of the SEC’s views” and are “limited to the specific facts of the filing in question and do not apply to other filings,”[1] many companies include disclosures based on these comment letters, often aiming to reduce their company’s liability by accounting for every possible contingency.

What’s more, if one company is asked by the SEC to provide a particular disclosure, other companies may feel compelled to disclose the same information even though they may operate in different industries.

Nevertheless, elimination of unnecessary or outdated disclosures requires a lengthy review process. Without a champion for reform, disclosures can linger on financial statements in perpetuity. An advisory council delegate noted: “It’s possible to take the initiative and cut the 10-K down. But it’s a significant time commitment, so you need buy-in from the CEO, CFO, and audit committee.”

Technology provides promising solutions. It was also observed that many disclosures are mandated by laws and rules stemming from the 1930s to the 1980s, when corporate information was only accessible in a physical form. Today, company websites often provide more detailed, current information than the 10-K. One CCMC panelist suggested that the SEC should encourage companies to rely more on these websites for the disclosure of certain information, such as historical share prices.

CCMC panelists also discussed ways to take advantage of technology to redesign and standardize the financial statements themselves, which could make them searchable and allow investors to make comparisons over time or across companies more easily. One panelist suggested that disclosure transparency could be enhanced by creating a “digital executive summary” document. In this summary, new, newly relevant, and the most material disclosures could be grouped in one place with hyperlinks to more detailed information. A similar notion has been discussed at recent Audit Advisory Council meetings, as one delegate offered: “Perhaps we need a second document, aside from the 10-K, that provides a shorter, more meaningful narrative that’s focused on the material issues that investors are interested in.”

Disclosure reform involves multiple stakeholder groups. The second CCMC panel of the morning focused on balancing the disclosure needs of various stakeholders. The panel included the perspectives of several professionals whose work is heavily influenced by the disclosure regime. They included Julie Bell Lindsay, managing director and general counsel for capital markets and corporate reporting, Citigroup Inc.; Chris Holmes, national director of SEC regulatory matters, Ernst & Young; Flora Perez, vice president and deputy general counsel, Ryder System Inc.; and Ann Yerger, executive director, Council of Institutional Investors.

From the investors’ perspective, it was noted that because investors are voracious consumers of information, they will rarely say “no” if offered more information.

Several corporate counsels noted initiatives at their companies that are designed to increase disclosure transparency, including efforts to work directly with investors to determine the information that was the most important to them. In fact, nearly half of the respondents to the 2013–2014 NACD Public Company Governance Survey indicated that a representative of the board had met with institutional investors in the past 12 months:

survey graphic

The SEC is currently developing solutions. The final panel of the morning featured Keith Higgins, director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, who provided his views regarding the state of the disclosure system and described how the division is currently conducting its disclosure reform initiatives. More details regarding the division’s plans to tackle disclosure reform can be found in this speech by Higgins to the American Bar Association in April.

Throughout the morning’s discussions, there were also points of disagreement, such as the relevance of specific disclosures. Each session, however, provided evidence that on all sides of the issue there are those making good-faith efforts to improve the system.

[1] http://www.sec.gov/answers/commentletters.htm.

How Can Companies Improve the Usefulness of Disclosures to the Investor Community?

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In March, the National Association of Corporate Directors, KPMG’s Audit Committee Institute, and Sidley Austin co-hosted the latest meeting of the Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council. Delegates were joined by analysts from Moody’s Analytics and Morgan Stanley, as well as leadership from Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). The group discussed how investors and ratings agencies use financial statements in their assessment of corporate performance, the audit committee’s role in helping to ensure the quality of the company’s financial disclosures, and ongoing FASB and PCAOB projects.

As detailed in the summary of proceedings, the discussion addressed several factors that can diminish the utility of financial disclosures, including high volume as a result of duplication, “boilerplate” disclosures, and the timing of releases. Dialogue yielded the following suggestions for how companies might improve the usefulness of disclosures to the investor community:

  • Expanded reporting at the business unit, segment, or geography level. “We want to see performance data at a more granular level in order to develop a view of the company’s future growth prospects.”
  • Providing data that shows trends over multiple years. “Understanding trends over 2, 3, 5 years tells a fuller story. One of my pet peeves is when a company’s MD&A includes comparative data only from the previous year. Investors want more context.”
  • Using more charts and visuals. “Visuals can deliver a wealth of information using very little real estate in the financial statement.”
  • Including more forward-looking disclosures. “Investors and rating agencies are trying to assess and project future valuations of the company. I’d be in favor of more safe harbors [in this area] if it would encourage companies to offer more forward-looking information.”

For the full day’s discussion and proposed council action items, click here to read the summary of proceedings.