If your company’s retirement plan has 100 or more eligible participants at the beginning of the plan year, you’ll generally need to have it audited by a qualified independent accountant each year.
A plan audit typically includes reviewing plan documents to verify they comply with IRS and Department of Labor rules, examining employee contributions to ensure money was remitted timely, confirming distributions and rollovers were paid out correctly, sampling specific participant’s transactions for plan compliance, and determining the accuracy of the information reported.
Keeping track of plan-related documents throughout the year—and for smaller companies experiencing steady growth, monitoring the number of active participants— are the simplest ways to prepare for an audit.
In the first half of 2021, there was a surge in financial restatements. The reason relates to guidance issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission, requiring special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) to report warrants as liabilities. SPACs are shell corporations that are listed on a stock exchange with the purpose of acquiring a private company, thereby making it public without going through the traditional IPO process. Historically, SPACs that offer warrants (which allow investors buy shares at a set price in the future) have reported those instruments as equity.
In this situation, most SPAC investors understood that these restatements were related to a financial reporting technicality that applied to the sector at large, rather than problems with a particular company or transaction. But some restatements aren’t so innocuous.
Close-up on restatements
The Financial Accounting Standards Board defines a restatement as a revision of a previously issued financial statement to correct an error. Whether they’re publicly traded or privately held, businesses may reissue their financial statements for several “mundane” reasons. Like the recent situation with SPACs, managers might have misinterpreted the accounting standards, or they simply may have made minor mistakes and need to correct them.
Leading causes for restatements include:
Recognition errors (for example, when accounting for leases or reporting compensation expense from backdated stock options),
Income statement and balance sheet misclassifications (for instance, a company may need to shift cash flows between investing, financing and operating on the statement of cash flows),
Mistakes reporting equity transactions (such as improper accounting for business combinations and convertible securities),
Valuation errors related to common stock issuances,
Preferred stock errors, and
The complex rules related to acquisitions, investments, revenue recognition and tax accounting.
Reasons to restate results
Often, restatements happen when the company’s financial statements are subjected to a higher level of scrutiny. For example, restatements may occur when a private company converts from compiled financial statements to audited financial statements, decides to file for an initial public offering — or merges with a SPAC. Restatements also may be needed when the owner brings in additional internal (or external) accounting expertise, such as a new controller or audit firm.
In some cases, a financial restatement also can be a sign of incompetence, weak internal controls — or even fraud. Such restatements may signal problems that require corrective actions.
We can help
The restatement process can be time consuming and costly. Regular communication with interested parties — including lenders and investors — can help businesses overcome the negative stigma associated with restatements. Management also needs to reassure stakeholders that the company is in sound financial shape to ensure their continued support.
We can help accounting personnel understand the evolving accounting and tax rules to minimize the risk of restatement. Our staff can also help them effectively manage the restatement process and take corrective actions to minimize the risk of restatement going forward.
Auditors typically deliver financial statements to calendar-year businesses in the spring. A useful tool that accompanies the annual report is the management letter. It may provide suggestions — based on industry best practices — on how to fortify internal control systems, streamline operations and reduce expenses.
Managers generally appreciate the suggestions found in management letters. But, realistically, they may not have time to implement those suggestions, because they’re focusing on daily business operations. Don’t let this happen at your company!
A management letter may address a broad range of topics, including segregation of duties, account reconciliations, physical asset security, credit policies, employee performance, safety, Internet use and expense reduction. In general, the write-up for each deficiency includes the following elements:
Observation. The auditor describes the condition, identifies the cause (if possible) and explains why it needs improvement.
Impact. This section quantifies the problem’s potential monetary effects and identifies any qualitative effects, such as decreased employee morale or delayed financial reporting.
Recommendation. Here, the auditor suggests a solution or lists alternative approaches if the appropriate course of action is unclear.
Some letters present deficiencies in order of significance or the potential for cost reduction. Others organize comments based on functional area or location.
What elements are required?
AICPA standards specifically require auditors to communicate two types of internal control deficiencies to management in writing:
1. Material weaknesses. These are defined as “a deficiency, or combination of deficiencies, in internal control, such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of the organization’s financial statements will not be prevented or detected and corrected on a timely basis.”
2. Significant deficiencies. These are “less severe than a material weakness, yet important enough to merit attention by those charged with governance.”
Operating inefficiencies and other deficiencies in internal control systems aren’t necessarily required to be communicated in writing. However, most auditors include these less significant items in their management letters to inform their clients about risks and opportunities to improve operations.
Have you improved over time?
When you review last year’s management letter, consider comparing it to the letters you received for 2019 (and earlier). Often, the same items recur year after year. Comparing consecutive management letters can help track the results over time. But, be aware: Certain issues may autocorrect — or worsen — based on factors outside of management’s control, such as changes in technology or external market conditions. If you’re unsure how to implement a particular suggestion from your management letter, reach out to your audit team for more information.
Updated accounting rules for long-term leases took effect in 2019 for public companies. Now, after several deferrals by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), private companies and private not-for-profit entities must follow suit, starting in fiscal year 2022. The updated guidance requires these organizations to report — for the first time — the full magnitude of their long-term lease obligations on the balance sheet. Here are the details.
In 2019, the FASB deferred Accounting Standards Update (ASU) No. 2016-02, Leases (Topic 842), to 2021 for private entities. Then, in 2020, the FASB granted another extension to the effective date of the updated leases standard for private firms, because of disruptions to normal business operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, the changes for private entities will apply to annual reporting periods beginning after December 15, 2021, and to interim periods within fiscal years beginning after December 15, 2022. Early adoption is also permitted.
Most private organizations have welcomed these deferrals. Implementing the requisite changes to your organization’s accounting practices and systems can be time-consuming and costly, depending on its size, as well as the nature and volume of its leasing arrangements.
The accounting rules that currently apply to private entities require them to record lease obligations on their balance sheets only if the arrangements are considered financing transactions. Few arrangements are recorded, because accounting rules give lessees leeway to arrange the agreements in a way that they can be treated as simple rentals for financial reporting purposes. If an obligation isn’t recorded on a balance sheet, it makes a business look like it is less leveraged than it really is.
The updated guidance calls for major changes to current accounting practices for leases with terms of a year or longer. In a nutshell, ASU 2016-02 requires lessees to recognize on their balance sheets the assets and liabilities associated with all long-term rentals of machines, equipment, vehicles and real estate. The updated guidance also requires additional disclosures about the amount, timing and uncertainty of cash flows related to leases.
Most existing arrangements that currently are reported as leases will continue to be reported as leases under the updated guidance. In addition, the new definition is expected to encompass many more types of arrangements that aren’t reported as leases under current practice. Some of these arrangements may not be readily apparent, for example, if they’re embedded in service contracts or contracts with third-party manufacturers.
You can’t afford to wait until year end to adopt the updated guidance for long-term leases. Many public companies found that the implementation process took significantly more time and effort than they initially expected. Contact us to help evaluate which of your contracts must be reported as lease obligations under the new rules.
Businesses rely on internal controls to help ensure the accuracy and integrity of their financial statements, as well as prevent fraud, waste and abuse. Given their importance, internal controls are a key area of focus for internal and external auditors.
Many auditors use detailed internal control questionnaires to help evaluate the internal control environment — and ensure a comprehensive assessment. Although some audit teams still use paper-based questionnaires, many now prefer an electronic format. Here’s an overview of the types of questions that may be included and how the questionnaire may be used during an audit.
The contents of internal control questionnaires vary from one audit firm to the next. They also may be customized for a particular industry or business. Most include general questions pertaining to the company’s mission, control environment and compliance situation. There also may be sections dedicated to mission-critical or fraud-prone elements of the company’s operations, such as:
Property, plant and equipment,
Intellectual property (such as patents, copyrights and customer lists),
Related party transactions, and
Questionnaires usually don’t take long to complete, because most questions are closed-ended, requiring only yes-or-no answers. For example, a question might ask: Is a physical inventory count conducted annually? However, there also may be space for open-ended responses. For instance, a question might ask for a list of controls that limit physical access to the company’s inventory.
Internal control questionnaires are generally administered using one the following three approaches:
1. Completion by company personnel. Here, management completes the questionnaire independently. The audit team might request the company’s organization chart to ensure that the appropriate individuals are selected to participate. Auditors also might conduct preliminary interviews to confirm their selections before assigning the questionnaire.
2. Completion by the auditor based on inquiry. Under this approach, the auditor meets with company personnel to discuss a particular element of the internal control environment. Then the auditor completes the relevant section of the questionnaire and asks the people who were interviewed to review and validate the responses.
3. Completion by the auditor after testing. Here, the auditor completes the questionnaire after observing and testing the internal control environment. Once auditors complete the questionnaire, they typically ask management to review and validate the responses.
The purpose of the internal control questionnaire is to help the audit team assess your company’s internal control system. Coupled with the audit team’s training, expertise and analysis, the questionnaire can help produce accurate, insightful audit reports. The insight gained from the questionnaire also can add value to your business by revealing holes in the control system that may need to be patched to prevent fraud, waste and abuse. Contact us for more information.
For 2020, the IRS audit numbers dropped, continuing a downward trend. The Service concluded nearly 510,000 audits resulting in taxpayers paying an additional $12.9 billion in taxes, with a focus on those who didn’t file and those with certain abusive transactions. Last year’s audit count is down from 2019 figures, where 771,000 audits were wrapped up, resulting in an additional $17 billion in tax revenue. These recent numbers reflect another downward trend at the IRS—staff size. In 2020, the Service had nearly 76,000 full-time equivalent positions, down from over 90,000 in 2010.
Fewer taxpayers are itemizing deductions on their personal tax returns. Using data from 2019 federal tax returns, nearly 17 million returns claimed $637 billion in itemized deductions, while over 140 million returns took $2.4 billion of standardized deductions. This large disparity is primarily caused by the 2017 tax reform laws that hiked the standard deduction and pared down itemizations. Taxpayers with adjusted gross income (AGI) of $250,000 and above had the highest average itemized deductions amount—more than $75,000, while taxpayers with under $15,000 of AGI had the lowest—just over $22,000.
In December 2020, Congress passed the “No Surprises Act,” prohibiting most surprise out-of-network billing for plan years starting in 2022. But it excludes ground ambulance services. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, ambulances bring three million privately insured people to an emergency room each year. Local fire departments and governmental agencies provide nearly two-thirds (62%) of the rides. About half (51%) of emergency and 39% of non-emergency ambulance rides included an out-of-network charge that may put privately insured patients at risk for getting a surprise bill.
Analytical software tools will never fully replace auditors, but they can help auditors do their work more efficiently and effectively. Here’s an overview of how data analytics — such as outlier detection, regression analysis and semantic modeling — can enhance the audit process.
Auditors bring experience and professional skepticism
When it’s appropriate, instead of manually testing a representative data sample, auditors can use analytical software tools to compare an entire data population against selected criteria. This process quickly identifies anomalies hidden in large amounts of data that can be tagged for further examination by auditors during fieldwork. Analytical software tools can test various kinds of data, including accounting, internal communications and documents, and external benchmarking data.
If unusual transactions or trends are found, auditors will investigate them further using the following procedures:
Interviewing management about what happened and why,
Conducting external research online and from industry publications to independently understand what happened or to verify management’s explanation, and
Performing additional manual testing procedures to determine the nature of the anomaly or exception.
In addition, confirmations and representation letters from attorneys, customers and other external parties may corroborate what management says and external research reveals.
Audit findings may require action
Often, auditors conclude that irregularities have reasonable explanations. For instance, they may be due to an unexpected change in the company’s operations or external market conditions. If a change is expected to continue, it may alter the auditor’s expectations about the company’s operations going forward. Sometimes, a change discovered while auditing one part of the financials may affect audit procedures (including analytics) that will be performed on other accounts.
Alternatively, auditors may attribute some irregularities to inadvertent mistakes or intentional fraud schemes. Auditors usually communicate with the audit committee or the company’s owners as soon as possible if they discover any material errors or fraud. These irregularities might require adjustments to the financial statements. The company also might need to take action to mitigate financial losses and prevent the problem from recurring.
For example, the controller may need additional training on recent changes to the tax and accounting rules. Or management may need to implement additional internal control procedures to safeguard against dishonest behaviors. Or the owner may need to contact the company’s attorney and hire a forensic accountant to perform a formal fraud investigation.
Today, companies generate, process and store massive amounts of electronic data on their networks. Increasingly, auditors are using analytical tools on this data to conduct basic audit procedures, such as vouching transactions and comparing data to external benchmarks. This frees up auditors to focus their efforts on complex transactions, suspicious relationships and high-risk accounts. Contact us for more information about how our auditors use analytical software tools in the field.
During the pandemic, cash has been tight for many small businesses, which may make it hard to attract and retain skilled workers. In lieu of providing cash bonuses or annual raises, some companies may decide to give valued employees a share of their future profits. While corporations generally issue stock options, limited liability companies (LLCs) use a relatively new form of equity compensation called “profits interests” to incentivize workers. Here’s a summary of the accounting rules that are used to account for these transactions.
Types of awards
Under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), profits interest awards may be classified as:
Bonus arrangements, or
Classification is determined by the specific terms and features of the profits interest. In most cases, the fair value of the award must be recorded as an expense on the income statement. Profits interest can also result in the recognition of a liability on the balance sheet and require footnote disclosures.
Under GAAP, fair value is the price an entity would receive to sell an asset — or pay to transfer a liability — in a transaction that’s orderly, takes place between market participants and occurs at the acquisition date. If quoted market prices and other observable inputs aren’t available, unobservable inputs are used to estimate fair value.
One of the upsides to issuing profits interest awards is their flexibility. There’s no standard definition of a profits interest; the term “profits” can refer to whatever is agreed to by the LLC and the recipient of the award. In addition, profits interest units may be subject to various terms and conditions, such as:
Specific performance thresholds, and
An LLC may offer multiple types of profits interests, allowing it to customize awards for various purposes. The varieties of terms and conditions that can be incorporated into a profits interest requires the use of customized valuation techniques.
Need for improvement
Many private companies struggle with how to report profits interests. In recent years, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) has discussed ways to simplify the rules, including scaling back the disclosure requirements and providing a practical expedient to measure grant-date fair value of these awards. No changes have been made yet, however.
For more information
Accounting complexity has caused some private companies to shy away from profits interest arrangements. But they can be an effective tool for attracting and retaining workers under the right circumstances. Contact us for help reporting these transactions under existing GAAP or for an update on the latest developments from the FASB.
The use of audit analytics can help during the planning and review stages of the audit. But analytics can have an even bigger impact when these procedures are used to supplement substantive testing during fieldwork.
Definition of “analytics”
Auditors use analytical procedures to evaluate financial information by assessing relationships among financial and nonfinancial data. Examples of analytical tests include:
Reasonableness testing, and
Significant fluctuations or relationships that are materially inconsistent with other relevant information or that differ from expected values require additional investigation.
Auditors generally follow this four-step process when performing analytical procedures:
1. Form an independent expectation. The auditor develops an expectation of an account balance or financial relationship. Expectations are based on the auditor’s understanding of the company and its industry. Examples of data used to develop expectations include prior-period information (adjusted for expected changes), management’s budgets or forecasts, and ratios published in trade journals.
2. Identify differences between expected and reported amounts. The auditor must compare his or her expectation with the amount recorded in the company’s accounting system. Then, any difference is compared to the auditor’s threshold for analytical testing. If the difference is less than the threshold, the auditor generally accepts the recorded amount without further investigation and the analytical procedure is complete. If not, the auditor moves to the next step.
3. Investigate the reason. The auditor brainstorms all possible causes and then determines the most probable cause(s) for the discrepancy. Sometimes, the analytical test or the data itself is problematic, and the auditor needs to apply additional analytical procedures with more precise data. Other times, the discrepancy has a “plausible” explanation, usually related to unusual transactions or events, or accounting or business changes.
4. Evaluate differences. The auditor evaluates the likelihood of material misstatement and then determines the nature and extent of any additional auditing procedures. Plausible explanations require corroborating audit evidence.
For differences that are due to misstatement (rather than a plausible explanation), the auditor must decide whether the misstatement is material (individually or in the aggregate). Material misstatements typically require adjustments to the amounts reported and may also necessitate additional audit procedures to determine the scope of a misstatement.
A win-win for everyone
Done right, analytical procedures can help make your audit less time-consuming, less expensive and more effective at detecting errors and omissions. Analytics also may be easier to perform remotely than traditional, manual audit testing procedures — a major upside during the COVID-19 pandemic. To avoid surprises in the coming audit season, notify us about any major changes to your operations, accounting methods or market conditions that occurred during the reporting period.
The footnotes to your company’s financial statements give investors and lenders insight into account balances, accounting practices and potential risk factors — knowledge that’s vital to making well-informed business and investment decisions. Here are four important issues that you should cover in your footnote disclosures.
1. Unreported or contingent liabilities
A company’s balance sheet might not reflect all future obligations. Detailed footnotes may reveal, for example, a potentially damaging lawsuit, an IRS inquiry or an environmental claim.
Footnotes also spell out the details of loan terms, warranties, contingent liabilities and leases. Unscrupulous managers may attempt to downplay liabilities to avoid violating loan agreements or admitting financial problems to stakeholders.
2. Related-party transactions
Companies may employ friends and relatives — or give preferential treatment to, or receive it from, related parties. It’s important that footnotes disclose all related parties with whom the company and its management team conduct business.
For example, say, a dress boutique rents retail space from the owner’s uncle at below-market rents, saving roughly $120,000 each year. If the retailer doesn’t disclose that this favorable related-party deal exists, its lenders may mistakenly believe that the business is more profitable than it really is. When the owner’s uncle unexpectedly dies — and the owner’s cousin, who inherits the real estate, raises the rent — the retailer could fall on hard times and the stakeholders could be blindsided by the undisclosed related-party risk.
3. Accounting changes
Footnotes disclose the nature and justification for a change in accounting principle, as well as how that change affects the financial statements. Valid reasons exist to change an accounting method, such as a regulatory mandate. But dishonest managers also can use accounting changes in, say, depreciation or inventory reporting methods to manipulate financial results.
4. Significant events
Disclosures may forewarn stakeholders that a company recently lost a major customer or will be subject to stricter regulatory oversight in the coming year. Footnotes disclose significant events that could materially impact future earnings or impair business value. But dishonest managers may overlook or downplay significant events to preserve the company’s credit standing.
Too much, too little or just right?
In recent years, the Financial Accounting Standards Board has been eliminating and simplifying footnote disclosures. While disclosure “overload” can be burdensome, it’s important that companies don’t cut back too much. Transparency is key to effective corporate governance.