The passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act 10 years ago dramatically improved corporate governance in U.S. companies, restoring investor confidence in U.S. capital markets in the wake of headline-making accounting blowups (Enron, WorldCom, et al). SOX instituted rules on the composition of audit committees, established the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) to provide independent oversight of audit firms and spelled out civil and criminal penalties for CEOs and CFOs. But when SOX is mentioned, most people immediately think of Section 404 (internal controls over financial reporting), which continues to take heavy criticism—not always deservedly.
Initially, implementation of SOX 404 was difficult, cumbersome and expensive. Companies had to formalize their system of internal controls over financial reporting and invest resources in designing, documenting and testing the effectiveness of controls, even in areas that would not reasonably give rise to a misstatement of financial results. Over time, though, the rules were revised and both managers and auditors learned how to apply judgment to principals-based regulations and develop supportable positions. Companies incorporated internal controls into their normal workflow and created cost-effective programs to improve the integrity of their financial reporting. A November 2009 study published by Audit Analytics found that the rate of financial restatements was 46 percent higher for companies that did not comply with all of the SOX internal control provisions than for companies that did.
Some companies comply with the letter of the law, but do not embrace the spirit of SOX 404, viewing it as a check-the-box exercise. They use lower standards of evidence (for example, inquiry only rather than re-performance), and their SOX testing is neither meaningful nor insightful. That means their results are not informative. This approach would not pass muster under an independent audit, and since all but the smallest public companies (those with less than a $75 million public float) have been subject to audit attestation, most public companies have ended up with meaningful SOX results.
Now, recent developments are sending conflicting messages about the direction of SOX rules.
The JOBS Act granted a five-year exemption from SOX audit attestation for newly public companies with less than $1 billion in revenue—a huge swing in the direction of more leniency.
In the other direction, PCAOB reviews of Big Four audit firms have led auditors to ask for more robust documentation of internal controls and more thorough testing of the data used to support the effectiveness of controls. And COSO, which publishes the most widely used framework for designing and assessing internal controls, has issued an exposure draft of an updated internal control framework intended to address changing technology and globalization, as well as to provide greater clarity on designing and maintaining an effective system of internal controls. Given that the draft runs to more than 500 pages, reviewing, revising and implementing the guidance from the new framework is no small undertaking.
So where are we headed? My fear is that we are taking a big step backward. By exempting some companies from SOX audit attestation, we turn a blind eye to ineffective internal controls and erode investor confidence in financial statements. At the same time, the updated COSO framework and requirements for more robust SOX documentation seem to be pushing nonexempt companies back to the difficult, cumbersome and expensive path, without any increase in financial statement integrity. Neither of these directions is in the best interest of companies or investors.