Tag Archive: Proxy disclosures

FAQs on Two Recent Concept Releases on Audit Committee Matters

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1. On July 1, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a Concept Release on Possible Revisions to Audit Committee Disclosures. What does it say?

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 a comment 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.

Proxy Season Toolkit

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NACD Proxy Season Toolkit

As the 2015 proxy season gets underway, are you looking for the latest information on the priorities of major institutional investors? Are you interested in benchmarking your board’s approaches to proxy statement disclosures and other critical shareholder communications?

To help you prepare, we’ve bundled five of our most recent and most relevant publications into the NACD Proxy Season Toolkit, a one-stop shop for public company boards.

  1. Investor Perspectives: Critical Issues for Board Focus in 2015
  2. Sample Board Expertise Matrix
  3. Preparing the CD&A: Priority Considerations for Boards
  4. Pay for Performance and Supplemental Pay Definitions 
  5. Enhancing the Audit Committee Report: A Call to Action 

For more insights on the issues currently facing public company boards and key committees, visit NACD’s Board Leaders’ Briefing Center. And be on the lookout for our exclusive proxy season preview, written by ISS’ Patrick McGurn, in the next issue of NACD Directorship magazine.

NACD Insight and Analysis: Communicating for Long-Term Value

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This week, NACD bridged the gap between corporate directors and the investors they represent. In conjunction with Broadridge Financial Solutions, NACD hosted a Virtual Roundtable at the Newseum in Washington, DC, bringing together leaders from the investment community with directors to discuss the disclosures and communication strategies.

Hosted by NACD President and CEO Ken Daly, the Roundtable featured investment community representatives from T. Rowe Price, CalSTRS, and Vanguard Group, Inc. They engaged in dialogue with board members from Forrester Research, Broadridge Financial Solutions, Kimberly-Clark, Legg Mason, SmartPros Ltd., and Assure Holding Corporation. With the intent to inform directors on what investors are looking for in the proxy in the upcoming year, the Roundtable discussion covered compensation, committee reports, and director qualification disclosures.

The investment managers represented at the Roundtable do not take a “check-the-box” approach based on guidance from proxy advisory firms; instead, they choose to complete their own analysis. Notably, these active shareholders emphasized quality over quantity with respect to disclosures in the proxy statement. Simply an increase in the amount of disclosures from companies only makes it more difficult for investors to uncover the valuable information in the proxy. The participating investors further suggested companies should make an effort to provide quality disclosures regarding how executive compensation matches performance, and how incentives are linked to the business strategy, for example.

The participating investors also stressed the improvements that need to be made regarding the new director qualification disclosures resulting from the SEC Proxy Disclosure Enhancement rules. They felt many companies did not fully explain how each director’s skill sets contributed to the company’s business strategy.

Lastly, the investors offered advice to the boardroom on director succession. After directors have analyzed their board’s composition in light of the company’s strategy, they find a larger challenge in recruiting directors to fill the gaps in skill sets. As a solution, Anne Sheehan of CalSTRS suggested that directors should “think of their shareholders as stakeholders.” Long-term investors have the same interests as directors and might be able to offer potential candidates whose skills complement the company’s business strategy and build its long-term value.