Tuesday, March 1, 2016

SEC Comment Letter from Hell -- Segments

Always thought this was one of the worst comments to receive from the SEC, questioning segment reporting. This was a comment by the SEC to Verizon. See the comment below, and Verizon's full (20 page!) response letter here. The SEC was not quite done with them  and Verizon had to respond to a follow-up letter here and (ouch) a third time here.

Note 14. Segment Information

You disclose that you have operations in two reportable segments, Wireless and Wireline. We note on page 8 that you organize your Wireline service and product offerings by the primary customers targeted. In addition we note the remarks in your earnings calls of the impact on operating results of the FIOS platform. To help us understand how you applied the guidance in FASB ASC 280 in identifying your operating segments, please provide us with the following information:

Provide your organization chart which identifies the positions, roles, or functions that report directly to your chief operating decision maker (“CODM”) and senior management team;
Tell us the title and describe the role of your CODM and each of the individuals who report to the CODM;
Identify for us each of the operating segments you have determined in accordance with FASB ASC 280;
Identify and describe the role of each of your segment managers;
Tell us how often the CODM meets with his/her direct reports, the financial information the CODM reviews to prepare for those meetings, the financial information discussed in those meetings, and who attends those meetings;
Describe the information regularly provided to the CODM and tell us how frequently it is prepared;
Describe the information regularly provided to the Board of Directors and tell us how frequently it is prepared;
Describe the information about Wireline’s product and service offerings that are provided to the CODM, tell us whether there are managers accountable for the product and service offerings, and if so, tell us who they are accountable to;
Explain how budgets are prepared, who approves the budget at each step of the process, the level of detail discussed at each step, and the level at which the CODM makes changes to the budget;
Describe the level of detail communicated to the CODM when actual results differ from budgets and who is involved in meetings with the CODM to discuss budget-to-actual variances; and,
Describe the basis for determining the compensation of the individuals that report to the CODM.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Your Next Activist Shareholder May Not Want More Money

Shareholders are driving changes in corporate policies and disclosures unthinkable a decade ago, on issues ranging from protecting rain forests to human rights. Even the threat of a proxy vote can be enough to bring company executives to the negotiating table.

So far this year, environmental and social issues have accounted for 56% of shareholder proposals, representing a majority for the first time, according to accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP. That is up from about 40% in the previous two years, and means shareholders are increasingly voting on things like greenhouse-gas emissions, political spending and labor rights.
While such proposals usually don’t grab the same headlines as changes sought by activist investors, their proponents often are effective at persuading companies to meet them halfway.
The proposals are “really meant to get the attention of the corporate leadership,” said Thomas DiNapoli, the New York comptroller who oversees the $160.7 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund. “Profitability that is at a sustainable and responsible level is very, very important to us.”
Mr. DiNapoli filed about 65 resolutions this past year, and he often succeeds in getting companies to agree to his requests before they come to a vote.
Last week, he persuaded grocer Safeway Inc. to make products with palm oil produced in ways that don’t hurt rain forests. In February, in response to proposals from Mr. DiNapoli and others, AT&T Inc. published its first “transparency report” on requests from the National Security Agency and law-enforcement agencies for customer data and phone records.
In both cases, he withdrew his proposal after the companies agreed to make changes.
Resolutions calling on companies to report their political spending and lobbying efforts are the top two shareholder proposals this year, according to EY’s review of some 700 proposals. By contrast, last year’s proposals were dominated by traditional corporate-governance topics, such as eliminating staggered terms for directors and appointing independent board chairmen.
More surprising still are the results. Nearly 80% of companies in the S&P 500 index now disclose at least some information about their political-spending policies, according to the Center for Political Accountability, a practice virtually unheard of a decade ago. Some 53% now publish sustainability reports, according to the Governance and Accountability Institute, addressing such matters as their energy efficiency and labor standards.
And, about 22% have human-rights policies, according to the Conference Board, a private research group.
Among the reasons for this year’s surge in social and environmental proposals is the strong stock market, which has left shareholders little room for complaints about performance.
“You’re not seeing the same sort of push-back on executive compensation this year,” said Wendy Hambleton, national director of the Securities and Exchange Commission practice at accounting firm BDO USA LLP.
The shareholders who push for these proposals aren’t agitating for higher returns like activists Dan Loeb and Carl Icahn but rather are long-term investors at pension funds, unions and coalitions of socially conscious shareholders.
For example, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a labor union for public employees, has been pressuring dozens of companies to disclose their lobbying activity this year. Ceres, a nonprofit group that advocates sustainable business practices, is helping investors at many companies write environmental resolutions.
As investors win battles at some companies, they hope peer pressure will convince others to follow suit.
On Monday, Exxon Mobil Corp. issued its first carbon risk report, explaining whether changing emissions regulations might move it to abandon high-cost oil and gas reserves. Sustainability-focused investment firm Arjuna Capital had submitted a shareholder resolution seeking that information.
Exxon said it was “confident” that none of its hydrocarbon reserves would become “stranded.”
“This is helping set the standard for what companies should be disclosing,” said Danielle Fugere, president of As You Sow, a nonprofit group that worked with Arjuna on the resolution. The group is circulating the agreement as an example for other oil companies where it has similar proposals pending, including Consol Energy Inc.,  Hess Corp., Chevron Corp. and Anadarko Petroleum Corp.
Of course, environmental and social resolutions generally aren’t binding and many never make it to a vote. Companies often can exclude them on technicalities, and about 30% are withdrawn after their backers negotiate or reach deals with companies.
Typically, the environmental and social proposals that make it onto the ballot receive about 21% of shareholder votes, compared with 33% for shareholder proposals overall, according to EY.
But even failures can have an impact, especially if investors target an issue that resonates with a company’s customers. Activists often cite a 1999 vote to halt sales of wood from old-growth forests at Home Depot Inc. Around 12% of the home-improvement chain’s shareholders supported the proposal, but the retailer stopped selling that lumber.
A handful of these resolutions have garnered a majority of votes. Last year, at fertilizer maker CF Industries Inc., shareholder proposals calling on the company to disclose political contributions and publish a sustainability report each received more than 65% support.
CF Industries initially objected, saying the reports would be costly to produce and “an imprudent consumption of our resources.” But it began producing them after the shareholder votes.
CF spokesman Daniel Swenson said the engagement with shareholders has “resulted in valuable feedback” and contributed to the company’s decision making. He wouldn’t say how much the reports cost to produce.
Shareholder proposals on these issues are expected to gather steam as more companies agree to disclosures. Boston-based Walden Asset Management has submitted several political-spending disclosure proposals to companies this year on behalf of clients. According to Timothy Smith, a director at Walden:
“We’re getting to the point where companies are not just listening to a squeaky shareholder, but doing this because they believe it is a good thing to do for the company,” 

By Emily Chasan at the Wall Street Journal 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

FASB, IASB Can't Agree on Financial Instruments Accounting

YOU MIGHT have long suspected it, but now it's official: the IASB and the US Financial Accounting Standards Board have failed to develop a common financial instruments accounting standard. We have no convergence.

The reality about the lack of a single asset impairment model emerged during a 23 January IASB meeting. It leaves preparers playing piggy in the middle between the competing IFRS and US GAAP models.

Speaking at the meeting, Hans Hoogervorst, chairman of the IASB, said the two boards would meet later this year "once the two models are completely clear". Regulators, he explained, have the option of imposing "additional disclosures" in order to bridge the gap.

Hoogervorst, a former Dutch securities regulator and finance minister, added: "But we cannot let the preparers pay the price for the two boards not getting completely converged."

On 20 February there was worse to come. On the parallel effort to finalise the board's approach to classification and measurement, Hoogervorst was forced to concede: "What can we say? A lot of work has been done for nothing, it seems."

IASB member Patrick Finnegan was equally blunt in his assessment: "I would just observe the same thing. I joined this board with a full expectation that there were great aspirations for global convergence in three or four major areas. ... It is a terrible disappointment, in my opinion, for global investors.

"I'm not quite sure what more we can do if the two boards continue to work the problem ... but the FASB has decided not to continue with the current IFRS 9 proposed work plan that we developed, and unfortunately that's the way it is."

The board also voted to fix a new effective date for IFRS 9, Financial Instruments, of 1 January 2018. IASB members were reluctant to delay the standard, or make further changes to it, pending decisions on the linked insurance contracts literature.

Later that same meeting, staff reported that the FASB will almost certainly reject two central features of the IFRS 9 classification and measurement approach - the business model and the contractual cash flow assessments for amortised cost.

So how did it come to this? The IASB embarked on its project to replace IAS 39 in early 2009. It is possible to distill any number of motivations and drivers for the project: to respond to the financial crisis; to reduce complexity; to address the too-much too-late criticism of the IAS 39 incurred-loss impairment model.

The project began under the chairmanship of Sir David Tweedie, and glancing back at an official IASB project summary document from 2009, a fully-fledged classification and measurement, impairment and hedging model was supposed to be in place by the final quarter of 2010.

As is now plain to see, the board failed. In 2009, it issued the first completed phase of IFRS 9, which dealt with the classification and measurement of financial assets. It followed this in 2010 with a further module addressing financial liabilities and the fair value option.

In its 2013 iteration, the standard has acquired a new hedging model. This approach to hedging is something of a marmite experience. On the one hand, its supporters claim it will make hedge accounting available in more situations; its critics point to its complexity.

Also in 2013, the board put out proposals to add a new category - fair value through OCI [other comprehensive income] - to IFRS 9. Redeliberation of those proposals is now complete and the IASB has confirmed it will include the FVOCI category alongside fair value and amortised cost.

Since 2009, the standard has also featured a presentational option that allows entities to book gains and losses on fair value holdings of equity investments in OCI. And impairment? Well, the board published its first proposals in November 2009 and followed this with a so-called supplementary document in January 2011. The 2011 document marked the high-water mark of the convergence drive with the FASB.

From that point onwards, what was supposed to be a convergence effort degenerated into a religious war. If the pre-crisis years had been marked out by the clash of fair value and amortised cost, the new battle lines were between 12-months initial loan loss allowance and the FASB's preference for full lifetime expected losses on initial recognition.

And it was here that the convergence effort truly floundered. But as insurmountable though the technical challenges of two competing financial instruments models might appear, there is a much bigger issue: politics.

In recent weeks, the European Parliament has shown an increased willingness to challenge the IASB, even going so far as to propose linking funding for the IASB's activities to specific outcomes.

Separately, the G20 nations have urged the two boards to come up with a single financial instruments model. At some point in time, Hoogervorst is going to have a very awkward conversation with his political masters.

by Stephen Bouvier at Financial Director

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Experts Say Use Non-GAAP Measures Carefully

Normalized adjusted EBITDA less capex. Adjusted consolidated segment operating income. Adjusted EBITDA (as adjusted). Even enthusiasts of non-GAAP metrics have to admit that such measures often sound just a wee bit ridiculous.

Non-GAAP metrics, those not addressed in U.S. generally accepted accounting principles, are as controversial as ever. A small number of such measures, like EBITDA and free cash flow, have gained widespread acceptance in the investor community. But regulators often give companies flak for the way they use non-GAAP measures in public filings, press releases and other communications consumed by investors and analysts.

Groupon, the perpetrator of “adjusted consolidated segment operating income” (ASCOI), took heat from the Securities & Exchange Commission in 2012 because the metric excluded online marketing expenses, a critical part of the firm’s business model, from company performance. Groupon eventually dropped the metric from its initial public offering filing, but it absorbed further criticism for its post-IPO use of other non-GAAP measures.

Black Box, a telecommunications company, got some bad press in January 2013, when it included the metric “adjusted EBITDA (as adjusted)” in its quarterly earnings release. The metric subtracted from net income ordinary expenses such as a $2.7 million loss on a joint venture, creating EBITDA (as adjusted), then further excluded stock-based compensation expenses to create the final, rather silly-sounding redundancy. Black Box said the measure demonstrated its ability to service its debt. Others thought it made the company look like well, a black box.

A common opinion is simply that non-GAAP metrics are misleading to shareholders. “They may be perfectly understandable to accountants who know what that company is doing but confusing to others,” says Michele Amato, partner at accounting firm Friedman LLP. Indeed, the SEC has long subjected companies that use non-GAAP metrics to heightened scrutiny, and the chairman of the commission’s new accounting-fraud task force has vowed to keep up the pressure.

But companies that use these black-sheep metrics argue that they often depict financial performance more accurately than GAAP measures and afford investors a window to how management sees things.

Public companies are allowed to disclose non-GAAP metrics in their SEC filings, press releases and earnings calls, subject to certain rules. Under Regulation G, mandated by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, use of a non-GAAP financial measure must be accompanied by the most directly comparable GAAP measure and a reconciliation of the two metrics.

Everything in Moderation

For her part, Amato says there’s a place for non-GAAP metrics:
 “A very significant variance between GAAP and non-GAAP metrics that management uses as a baseline for internal financial analysis might be of some use,” 
There is nothing wrong with using a non-GAAP metric to provide an additional perspective about something very germane to the company’s performance, like its valuation, credit standing or working-capital management, that can’t be communicated well through GAAP metrics alone, says Robert Rostan, CFO and principal at financial training firm Training the Street.

Original article by Marielle Segarra ad CFO.com

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Is the Smartest MD&A the One With the Most Jargon?

“Plain English Works” in MD&A Statements

Those who prepare MDAs don’t have to prove how smart they are by using financial jargon, suggests the SEC’s ex-corporate finance director.

Excessive financial jargon in documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission often clouds intended messages, said speakers at an American Institute of Certified Public Accountants conference this week.

The sentiment particularly applies to the Management’s Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) section of quarterly and annual reports and other registration statements, where companies generally discuss their business, uncertainties, and market trends.
“Everyone likes to prove they’re the smartest person in the room because they understand the jargon,” said Brian Lane, partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and former SEC director of the division of corporate finance. “Plain English works.”
The best MD&As have “more tables and less jargon,” Lane opined. Tables, he noted, are easier to understand than mounds of text. In the text, companies often include too many comparisons going back several years, which is often unnecessary and even confusing, he said. It’s better to show simple comparisons between this year and last year in both the text and tables, and include information on other years just in tables.

Making sure MD&As are as readable and informative as possible may ward off or lessen the impact of SEC inquiries, Lane added. One key to doing that: in all areas of focus within the section, answer the question “why?” he said.

Actually, having more tables in financial reports is a widening theme. The Financial Accounting Standards Board made a push in that direction this past summer, requesting comments on a proposal calling for nonfinancial companies to disclose expected cash-flow obligations in a table segregated by time of expected maturity.

For one, Katherine Gill-Charest, controller and chief accounting officer at Viacom, should be prepared if the proposal is approved. She already is including more than the usual amount of detailed information in the company’s MD&A statements. To facilitate that, she holds “working meetings” with members of Viacom’s disclosure committee a couple of times a year, instead of having just one formal meeting at reporting time to head off any questions that might arise from the SEC. She also meets with the CFOs of Viacom’s divisions to be aware of pertinent issues in preparing MD&As.

For example, the SEC repeatedly has asked for information on how Viacom plans to fund its $10 billion share-repurchase program. Other questions come when an SEC official hears of a trend during an earnings call that is not included in the MD&A.

Lane supported that use of a firm’s disclosure committee. A good item to discuss with that committee, for example, is “cash runway,” a measure of how long a company’s cash on hand will last, he said. A hoard of $300 million in cash is not actually that much if the company is burning through it at $90 million a quarter.
Knowing what questions the SEC may have raised with competitors is important, too.
 “If I know a peer of mine has gotten reviewed, we will always take a look at the SEC’s comments,” said Gill-Charest, noting that she treats any correspondence between a competitor and the SEC as if it were her own document.
That made sense to Lane:
“You do need to see what competitors and peers are disclosing, because the SEC is going to look at you in that same lens,” he said.
One area where some companies could ease up is their heavy use of forward-looking disclosure statements.
“Projections are not required in [the] MD&A,” said Lane. “You [just] have to talk about known uncertainties and how they could impact the future.”
By Kathy Hoffelder  at CFO.com

Thursday, March 20, 2014

FASB vs IASB: Split on Lease Accounting

The US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) failed to reach a consensus for new lease accounting guidance Wednesday but vowed to continue working together in pursuit of consistency.

During two days of meetings at FASB’s headquarters in Norwalk, Conn., the boards failed to reach common answers on key areas of lessee and lessor accounting. In particular, the IASB favored a single approach for lessees for recognition of all leases, while FASB voted for a dual-recognition approach for lessees, depending on the type of lease.

The boards issued a joint statement saying they had agreed on areas such as lease term and short-term leases. The boards also pledged to continue working together on the standard.

“While differences remain, most notably in their preferred approaches to expense recognition, the boards are committed to working together to minimize these differences and to creating greater transparency around lease transactions for the benefit of investors worldwide,” the boards said.
The boards are attempting to create a converged standard that would eliminate a hidden liability for lessees by bringing leases onto corporate balance sheets. But they have struggled to agree on how to do it.

No consensus for lessee accounting

IASB members this week expressed a preference for lessees to account for all leases as the purchase of a right-of-use asset on a financed basis. In this “Type A” approach, a lessee would recognize amortization of the right-of-use asset separately from the interest on the lease liability for all leases.

FASB members preferred a dual-recognition approach for lessees that would use a Type A interest-and-amortization method for leases classified as capital leases under existing guidance, and a “Type B” single, straight-line lease expense for operating leases.

But there may still be a chance for convergence on this issue. FASB Chairman Russell Golden asked the FASB staff to work with the IASB staff to conduct research that would help the boards understand the effects of a possible exception that would permit preparers not to apply the proposed standard’s requirements to leases of small, nonspecialized assets.

The IASB voted for the so-called small-ticket exception, while FASB voted against it. Golden asked for the staff research in hopes that a better understanding of the exception could lead to convergence, which could cause the boards to agree on a preferred method of expense recognition.

FASB member Tom Linsmeier said he would be more inclined to consider the Type A-only approach for lessees if the boards abandon the small-ticket exception.

Sticking point for lessor accounting

On lessor accounting, meanwhile, the boards agreed to keep standards similar to current guidance but couldn’t agree on one important detail. They agreed that lessors should classify their leases as Type A or Type B based on whether the lease is effectively a financing or a sale rather than an operating lease.

But the IASB preferred to make that determination by assessing whether the lessor transfers substantially all the risks and rewards incidental to ownership of the underlying asset.

FASB preferred to make the leases guidance consistent with the requirements for a sale in the soon-to-be-issued revenue recognition standard. FASB’s approach would preclude recognition of selling profit and revenue at lease commencement for any Type A lease that does not transfer control of the underlying asset to the lessee.

The core principle of the new revenue recognition standard will be that revenue should be recognized to depict a transfer of promised goods or services to the customer.

Despite the disagreement on lessor accounting, some IASB members said they could accept the FASB approach, with IASB Chairman Hans Hoogervorst holding a “swing vote” that Golden suggested could move the lessor accounting decision to a converged answer in the future.

Before the boards parted, Golden thanked IASB members and said the boards ought to work together on the definition of a lease, disclosures, and other aspects of the leases proposal.
“We will continue to work together to improve accounting in this area, to continue to meet our objective,” Golden said, “and I hope to continue to minimize any differences.”
The boards have been working since 2006 to come to agreement on a leases standard. Their second exposure draft on the topic, issued in 2013, caused many preparers and some investors to question the benefits of the information—and the costs—the proposal would have generated.

By Ken Tysiac at JofA

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

IFRS To Run Out of Money?

The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation’s role in governing global accounting rules is under threat after European politicians said they were questioning whether the authority was “best suited” to the position.

The London-based authority, responsible for setting standards in 100 countries, has been severely criticised by MEPs for poor governance structures, a lack of transparency and its “close links to the accounting industry”.

Last week the European Parliament approved a new £50m five-year funding programme for the IFRS’s standard setting arm, the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).

However, MEPs attached a series of conditions to the deal and warned if they are not met, the funding could be stopped in a year’s time.

Sharon Bowles, chairman of the influential European economic affairs committee and a Liberal Democrat MEP, said: “Questions have been raised by the European Parliament about the governance structures and lack of transparency of these bodies, as well as their close links to the accounting industry.
"The release of these EU funding streams will therefore only be forthcoming upon sufficient reform to prevent conflicts of interest, which will bring about much-needed trust and scrutiny on how these highly influential public bodies operate.”
Syed Kamall, a Tory MEP for London, who has raised concerns about the IFRS rules, said: “I am not convinced that it was right for the EU to outsource standard-setting to what is, in effect, a private sector body funded by public money.”

A spokesman for the IFRS Foundation said:
 “The foundation takes seriously any such concerns and has already begun planning its constitutionally-required five-year review of its structure and effectiveness, to be undertaken during 2014, and we welcome any proposals to improve aspects of our work.”

The MEPs’ concerns about the IFRS Foundation’s governance were raised after The Telegraph first highlighted errors in the authority’s filings at Companies House in February. However, the politicians are also concerned IFRS accounting standards are seriously flawed.

Last year a group of British investors wrote to Michel Barnier, the EU’s internal markets commissioner, warning him that the accounting rules were harming shareholders and destabilising the economy. They argued that the IFRS rules, introduced in the UK in 2005, had allowed companies, and banks in particular, to hide the build-up of risks on their balance sheets.

The European Commission has said it will launch a review of the IFRS rules.

By Louise Armitstead, the Telegraph