SEC Solicits Comment On Earnings Releases And Quarterly Reports
On December 18, 2018, the SEC published a request for comment soliciting input on the nature, content, and timing of earnings releases and quarterly reports made by reporting companies. The comment period remains open for 90 days from publication. The request is not surprising as earnings releases and quarterly reports were included in the pre-rule stage in the Fall 2018 SEC semiannual regulatory agenda and plans for rulemaking.
The request for comment seek input on how the SEC can reduce burdens on publicly reporting companies associated with quarterly reports while maintaining disclosure effectiveness and investor protections. The SEC also seeks comment on how the existing reporting system, earnings releases and earnings guidance may foster an overly short-term focus by companies and market participants. In addition, the SEC is looking for input on how to make the reporting process less cumbersome to investors, such as by having to compare an earnings release and Form 10-Q for differences.
This has been a hot topic over the years, with President Trump publicly calling for an elimination of quarterly reporting. The April 2016 concept release and request for public comment on sweeping changes to certain business and financial disclosure requirements also requested comment on the subject. See my two-part blog on the S-K Concept Release HERE and HERE. The newest request for comment takes into consideration comments received in response to the 2016 release and drills down further on the quarterly reporting process.
The request for comment specifically addresses (i) the nature and timing of disclosures in quarterly reports, including when the disclosures overlap with voluntary earnings releases in Forms 8-K; (ii) how the SEC can make the process more efficient by eliminating duplication and how that can affect capital formation; (iii) whether the SEC should allow some or all reporting companies flexibility on the frequency of periodic reporting; and (iv) how the existing periodic reporting system may affect corporate decision making and may foster an inefficient outlook by focusing on short-term results.
Background on Form 10-Q
In addition to annual reports on Form 10-K and current reports on Form 8-K, companies subject to the periodic reporting requirements under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), other than foreign private issuers, must file quarterly reports on Form 10-Q, which include independent auditor-reviewed interim financial statements and other disclosure items. For more information on SEC reporting requirements, see HERE and related to foreign private issuers, see HERE. Foreign private issuers must file annual but not quarterly reports.
These quarterly reports, as well as other periodic reports, may be forward incorporated by reference into Securities Act of 1933 (“Securities Act”) registration statements such as Forms S-1 and S-3, reducing the need for duplication of this information through post effective updates. As an aside, the FAST Act, passed into law on December 4, 2015, amended Form S-1 to allow for forward incorporation by reference by smaller reporting companies (see HERE), which category of company has recently increased with the amended definition of a smaller reporting company (see HERE). Other categories of filers, including accelerated and large accelerated filers, were already allowed to forward incorporate by reference.
A Form 10-Q is subject to the anti-fraud provisions of Sections 10(b) and 18 of the Exchange Act and Rule 10(b)(5) and can be the source of liability to the company, affiliates and underwriters under Sections 11, 12 and 17 of the Securities Act, related to the offer and sales of securities offerings. Each of these provisions imposes liability on companies in certain instances for making any untrue statements of a material fact or omitting to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading. The difference in the Sections relate to whether the cause of action is private or can only be pursued by a regulator or governmental body, if private, who has a right to pursue the action (for example, Section 11 provides an action for any purchaser of securities, regardless of whether they bought directly from the company or secondarily in the aftermarket), the elements of proof (such as scienter or intent or loss causation), allowable damages, the standard of proof, etc..
Liability under certain of these provisions, such as Sections 11 and 12 of the Securities Act and Section 18 of the Exchange Act, attaches only to documents that are filed with the SEC or incorporated by reference into a Securities Act registration statement. A Form 10-Q is always deemed filed with the SEC.
However, the SEC allows certain information to be furnished as opposed to filed as long as the company specifically discloses that it is avowing itself of the ability to furnish and not file. For example, reports in a Form 8-K under Regulation FD and earnings press releases under Item 2.02 related to results of operations and financial condition are allowed to be furnished and not filed. Although liability under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 of the Exchange Act may attach to documents that are “furnished,” the standard of proof and elements to state a cause of action are different under these rules.
As mentioned above, foreign private issuers must file annual but not quarterly reports. However, a foreign private issuer has obligations to furnish certain information under a Form 6-K, including, for example, information it (i) makes or is required to make public pursuant to the law of the jurisdiction of its domicile or in which it is incorporated or organized, or (ii) files or is required to file with a stock exchange on which its securities are traded and which was made public by that exchange, or (iii) distributes or is required to distribute to its security holders. This information is subject to liability under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 of the Exchange Act and if incorporated into a registration statement, becomes filed in that registration statement, and subject to liability under Sections 11, 12 and 17 of the Securities Act.
As a result of these requirements, reports on Form 6-K often include quarterly reports or financial statements. For example, Canada, Hong Kong and Japan all require quarterly reporting. On the other hand, in 2013 the European Union (“EU”) amended its reporting requirements to eliminate the requirement to file quarterly reports altogether, which even prior to that time did not include financial statements. The EU found that quarterly reports were a burden for small and medium-sized companies, didn’t add to investor protection, encouraged a focus on short-term performance and discouraged long-term investments. Companies may still voluntarily file quarterly.
Many companies that file quarterly Form 10-Q’s also voluntarily issue quarterly financial results through earnings press releases, earnings calls and/or forward-looking earnings guidance. Other than through the anti-fraud rules, the presentation of non-GAAP financial measures (see HERE) and the requirement to file a Form 8-K, the SEC does not regulate these disclosures. Although when a company does issue earnings release information, it is generally duplicative to some information in the Form 10-Q, the Form 10-Q is more robust and includes XBRL interactive data. Disclosures in a Form 10-Q that are not in an earnings release also include full financial statements and notes to financial statements as opposed to summaries and a management discussion and analysis. Moreover, the financial statements in the Form 10-Q are reviewed by an independent auditor and the filing includes Sarbanes-Oxley certifications by the principal executive and financial officers. Contrarily, a Form 10-Q generally does not include expectations of future performance or forward-looking earnings guidance.
Request for Comments
In addition to the general request for comment on the issues and matters described above, the SEC drills down their requests into specific questions on the topic, such as why companies choose to issue earnings releases in addition to a Form 10-Q and what would be the impact on these releases if quarterly reports were not required. The SEC seeks information on the specific benefits of both earnings releases and Form 10-Q and standard market expectations and responses to both. Certainly, as a regulator the SEC understands the legal impact of “furnished vs. filed” and the various liability provisions, but their questions are more focused on the market players and investors uses of and needs for information as well as the burdens of providing same. The SEC also touches on XBRL, which has also been oft debated, especially for smaller reporting companies. The SEC lists 14 multifaceted in this area under the heading “Information Content Resulting from the Quarterly Reporting Process.”
The SEC requests comment on 3 additional multi-layered points related to the timing of the quarterly reporting process including vis-à-vis earnings releases. In particular, some companies issue an earnings release prior to the Form 10-Q while others wait until the same day or close thereafter. Earnings calls can be scheduled anywhere around the time of either filing or after. The SEC queries the reasons why and impacts of the timing.
The next area of questions relates to whether earnings releases should be the core quarterly disclosure, with 12 multi-layered queries. In this area it seems that the SEC is considering making an earnings release an optional alternative to a Form 10-Q by allowing the Form 10-Q to incorporate the earnings release by reference and/or only provide supplemental information in the Form 10-Q to the extent it was not included in the earnings release.
Finally, the SEC tackles the topic of reporting frequency, including considering semi-annual reporting with 17 in-depth, multifaceted questions for consideration.
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