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23 Apr. 2018 | Comments (0)
On Governance is a series of guest blog posts from corporate governance thought leaders. The series, which is curated by the Governance Center research team, is meant to serve as a way to spark discussion on some of the most important corporate governance issues.
The following post was originally published at the Nasdaq Governance Clearinghouse on April 9, 2018.
The use of financial measures that do not conform to US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) has long been the subject of debate—even controversy. While it has ebbed and flowed over the years, this discussion is unlikely to disappear.
Consistent with its mission to convene and collaborate with stakeholders to advance the discussion of critical issues, the Center for Audit Quality (CAQ) held a series of 2017 roundtable discussions regarding the presentation and use of non-GAAP measures—and the opportunities to enhance trust and confidence in this information. Each roundtable was attended by approximately 20 to 25 individuals including audit committee members, management, investors, securities lawyers, and public company auditors. Because the presentation and use of non-GAAP measures can vary from industry to industry, each roundtable focused on a specific industry: pharmaceutical, real estate, and technology.
These events each began with a set of key questions, on which participants provided no shortage of insights. We have published a free, full report, Non-GAAP Measures: A Roadmap for Audit Committees, on the roundtables’ findings, as well as a companion video that provides additional context and real-life examples of how audit committees are thinking about non-GAAP measures.
Here, we provide some high-level key themes.
Why is GAAP so important?
No discussion of non-GAAP measures can take place without a discussion of GAAP itself. At the roundtables, participants made clear that they view the GAAP information as the “bedrock” or “starting point” for the financial information that companies present. GAAP, they said, provides a useful baseline that offers comparability from one company to the next.
If GAAP is the bedrock, why do companies present non-GAAP measures?
Participants were asked to share their views on what drives the presentation and use of non-GAAP measures. Several common themes emerged from the discussion.
- Demand from investment analysts: Participants shared that requests from investment analysts are often a primary reason company management chooses to present a non-GAAP measure. Investment analysts find that non-GAAP measures help them better understand the company’s underlying business performance or forecast the company’s long-term value in their proprietary models.
- Desire to tell the company’s story: Participants also acknowledged, however, that company management does not present non-GAAP measures solely for investment analysts. Rather, non-GAAP measures can be a tool to help tell a company’s story and provide users of the information with insight into how management evaluates company performance internally. In some cases, non-GAAP measures are also an input into how the company compensates employees for company performance.
What are top challenges related to non-GAAP measures?
Participants acknowledged that non-GAAP measures present challenges to certain stakeholders in the financial reporting supply chain.
- Investors are challenged by the lack of consistency in the calculation of non-GAAP measures from one company to the next. Such irregularity makes it difficult for non-GAAP measures to be compared across companies—even within the same industry. It also can be a challenge for end-users to know whether the performance reported by the press is a GAAP measure or a non-GAAP measure.
- Management representatives indicated that they spend a significant amount of time (1) discussing what information to include in or exclude from non-GAAP measures they present, and (2) making sure the information is presented fairly and disclosed transparently.
- Audit committees noted that their challenges related to non-GAAP measures tend to be an extension of management’s challenges. Audit committees want to understand the reason the company is presenting the measure, and the roles and responsibilities of those involved with the information, including company personnel (e.g., finance and internal audit) and the external auditor. Further, they want to know how the company’s non-GAAP measures compare with the information presented by peer companies.
To address challenges, should non-GAAP measures be standardized?
Not necessarily. Representatives from management at all of the roundtables indicated that standardization may limit their ability to tell their companies’ story.
The real estate industry makes use of a supplemental standardized non-GAAP measure: funds from operations (FFO). The FFO measure, which was defined by Nareit, is in widespread use and is recognized by the SEC. That said, in addition to reporting Nareit defined FFO, companies report various forms of FFO (e.g., adjusted FFO, normalized FFO, company FFO). So even within one industry that has agreed on a standardized non-GAAP measure, there are still variations on how it is reported.
Why is dialogue so important around non-GAAP measures?
Participants emphasized the significant judgment involved in determining how to treat a one-time transaction or event in non-GAAP measures, and they agreed that company management and audit committees strive to execute good judgment when making these decisions. To that end, many companies have enhanced the rigor of their presentation and disclosure of these metrics.
There was consensus among participants that audit committees can promote rigor related to non-GAAP measures by having a dialogue with company management as well as internal and external auditors. Among other things, this dialogue can help the audit committee to set clear expectations regarding the roles and responsibilities—relative to non-GAAP measures—of each member of the financial reporting supply chain.
What is the external auditor’s non-GAAP role?
In a nutshell, the external auditor’s opinions on the company’s financial statements and, when required, the effectiveness of the company’s internal control over financial reporting (ICFR) do not cover non-GAAP measures. Professional auditing standards indicate that the auditor should read non-GAAP measures presented in documents containing the financial statements (such as annual and quarterly reports) and consider whether non-GAAP measures or the manner of their presentation is materially inconsistent with information appearing in the financial statements or a material misstatement of fact.
Though external auditors do not audit non-GAAP measures as part of the financial statement or ICFR audits, audit committees and management may consider leveraging the external auditors as a resource when evaluating non-GAAP measures.
How can the audit committee enhance its non-GAAP role?
At the roundtables, there was wide recognition of the benefits of increased audit committee oversight and involvement with non-GAAP measures. The CAQ's full roundtable report offers audit committees insights on the way forward.
Also from the CAQ see Preparing for the Leases Accounting Standard: A Tool for Audit Committees. This tool is designed to help audit committees exercise their oversight responsibilities as companies implement the new lease accounting standard, which will begin to take effect in January 2019.
The views presented on the Governance Center Blog are not the official views of The Conference Board or the Governance Center and are not necessarily endorsed by all members, sponsors, advisors, contributors, staff members, or others associated with The Conference Board or the Governance Center.