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Evaluating the external auditors

June 14, 2015 6 comments

The Audit Committee Collaboration (six associations or firms, including the National Association of Corporate Directors and NYSE Governance Services) recently published External Auditor Assessment Tool: A Reference for Audit Committees Worldwide.

It’s a good product, useful for audit committees and those who advise them (especially CAEs, CFOs, and general counsel).

The tool includes an overview of the topic, a discussion of important areas to assess (with sample questions for each), and a sample questionnaire to ask management to complete.

However, the document does not talk about the critical need for the audit committee to exercise professional skepticism and ask penetrating questions to test the external audit team’s quality.

Given the publicized failures of the audit firms to detect serious issues (fortunately few, but still too many) – the latest being FIFA (see this in CFO.com) – and the deficiencies continually found by the PCAOB Examiners, audit committees must take this matter seriously.

Let me Illustrate with a story. Some years ago, I joined a global manufacturing company as the head of the internal audit function, with responsibility for the SOX program. I was the first to hold that position; previously, the internal audit function had been outsourced. Within a couple of months, I attended my first audit committee meeting. I informed them that there was an internal control issue that, if not addressed by year-end, might be considered a material weakness in the system of internal control over financial reporting. None of the corporate financial reporting team was a CPA! That included the CFO, the Corporate Controller, and the entire financial reporting team. I told that that, apart from the Asia-Pacific team in Singapore, the only CPAs on staff were me, the Treasurer, and a business unit controller. The deficiency was that, as a result, the financial reporting team relied heavily on the external auditors for technical accounting advice – and this was no longer permitted.

The chairman of the audit committee turned to the CFO, asked him if that was correct, and received an (unapologetic) affirmative. The chairman then turned to the audit partner, seated directly to his right, and asked if he knew about this. The partner also gave an unapologetic “yes” in reply.

The chairman then asked the CEO (incidentally, the former CFO whose policy it had been not to hire CPAs) to address the issue promptly, which it was.

However, the audit committee totally let the audit partner off the hook. The audit firm had never reported this as an issue to the audit committee, even though it had been in place for several years. The chairman did not ask the audit partner why, whether he agreed with my assessment of the issue, why the firm had not identified this as a material weakness or significant deficiency in prior years, or any other related question.

If you talk to those in management who work with the external audit team, the most frequent complaint is that the auditors don’t use judgment and common sense. They worry about the trivial rather than what is important and potentially material to the financial statements. In addition, they often are unreasonable and unwilling to work with management – going overboard to preserve the appearance of independence.

I addressed this in a prior post, when I said the audit committee should consider:

  • Whether the external auditor has adopted an appropriate attitude for working with the company, including management and the internal auditor
  • Whether the auditor has taken a top-down and risk-based approach that focuses on what matters and not on trivia, minimizing both cost and disruption, and
  • Whether issues are addressed with common sense rather than a desire to prove themselves

Does your audit committee perform an appropriate review and assessment of the external audit firm and their performance?

I welcome your comments.

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Cyber risk and the boardroom

June 5, 2015 7 comments

The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) has published a discussion between the leader of PwC’s Center for Board Governance, Mary Ann Cloyd, and an expert on cyber who formally served as a leader of the US Air Force’s cyber operations, Suzanne Vautrinot.

It’s an interesting read on a number of levels; I recommend it for board members, executives, information security professionals and auditors.

Here are some of the points in the discussion worth emphasizing:

“An R&D organization, a manufacturer, a retail company, a financial institution, and a critical utility would likely have different considerations regarding cyber risk. Certainly, some of the solutions and security technology can be the same, but it’s not a cookie-cutter approach. An informed risk assessment and management strategy must be part of the dialogue.”

“When we as board members are dealing with something that requires true core competency expertise—whether it’s mergers and acquisitions or banking and investments or cybersecurity—there are advisors and experts to turn to because it is their core competency. They can facilitate the discussion and provide background information, and enable the board to have a very robust, fulsome conversation about risks and actions.”

“The board needs to be comfortable having the conversation with management and the internal experts. They need to understand how cybersecurity risk affects business decisions and strategy. The board can then have a conversation with management saying, ‘OK, given this kind of risk, what are we willing to accept or do to try to mitigate it? Let’s have a conversation about how we do this currently in our corporation and why.’”

Cloyd: What you just described doesn’t sound unique to cybersecurity. It’s like other business risks that you’re assessing, evaluating, and dealing with. It’s another part of the risk appetite discussion. Vautrinot: Correct. The only thing that’s different is the expertise you bring in, and the conversation you have may involve slightly different technology.”

Cloyd: Cybersecurity is like other risks, so don’t be intimidated by it. Just put on your director hat and oversee this as you do other major risks. Vautrinot: And demand that the answers be provided in a way that you understand. Continue to ask questions until you understand, because sometimes the words or the jargon get in the way.”

“Cybersecurity is a business issue, it’s not just a technology issue.”

This was a fairly long conversation as these things go, but time and other limitations probably affected the discussion – and limited the ability to probe the topic in greater depth.

For example, there are some more points that I would emphasize to boards:

  • It is impossible to eliminate cyber-related risk. The goal should be to understand what the risk is at any point and obtain assurance that management (a) knows what the risk is, (b) considers it as part of decision-making, including its potential effect on new initiatives, (c) has established at what point the risk becomes acceptable, because investing more has diminishing returns, (d) has reason to believe its ability to prevent/detect cyber breaches is at the right level, considering the risk and the cost of additional measures (and is taking corrective actions when it is not at the desired level), (e) has a process to respond promptly and appropriately in the event of a breach, (f) has tested that capability, and (g) has a process in place to communicate to the board the information the board needs, when it needs it, to provide effective oversight.
  • Cyber risk should not be managed separately from enterprise or business risk. Cyber may be only one of several sources of risk to a new initiative, and the total risk to that initiative needs to be understood.
  • Cyber-related risk should be assessed and evaluated based on its effect on the business, not based on some calculated value for the information asset.
  • The board can never have, or maintain, the level of sophisticated knowledge required to assess cyber risk itself. It needs to ask questions and probe management’s responses until it has confidence that management has the ability to address cyber risk.

I welcome your comments and observations on the article and my points, above.

Lessons Learned from the Transition to COSO 2013

May 3, 2015 5 comments

Protiviti has shared with us a useful Top 10 Lessons Learned from Implementing COSO 2013.

I especially like this section:

It is presumed that everyone understands that a top-down, risk-based approach remains applicable to Section 404 compliance, and the transition to the 2013 updated Framework does not affect this. While we don’t list this as a lesson, we could have, because some companies either forgot or neglected to apply this approach when setting the scope and objectives for using the Framework. As a result, they went overboard with their controls documentation and testing. We can’t stress enough that the COSO 2013 Framework did not change the essence of, and the need for, a top-down, risk-based approach in complying with SOX Section 404.

The report has a number of excellent pieces of advice. However, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have points of disagreement.

The first is on mapping. It is NOT necessary to map all your controls to the principles. If we take principle 10, for example, it states “The organization selects and develops control activities that contribute to the mitigation of risks to the achievement of objectives to acceptable levels”. Rather than map all your control activities to this principle (or to principle 11, which is the same – just for IT general controls), the organization needs to identify the control(s) it relies on for its assessment that the principles are present and functioning[1]. For principles 10 and 11, that will be the SOX scoping exercise. For the principle on fraud, the control that should be identified is the fraud risk assessment, not every control relied on to detect or prevent fraud.

Then there is the assertion that indirect controls are the same as entity-level controls. COSO (both 1992 and 2013) tell us, correctly, that activities in each of its components may operate at any level within the organization. For example, let’s say that an account analysis is prepared by Corporate Finance as part of the period-end close. This entity-level control may operate with sufficient precision to be relied upon to detect a material error or omission in that account. But the entity-level control is a direct control, not an indirect control. (A direct control can be relied upon to prevent or detect an error. An indirect control is one that serves to increase or decrease the likelihood that other, direct, controls will function effectively. Hiring, integrity, oversight by the board – these are indirect controls where a defect would increase the likelihood that affected direct controls would fail.)

Another example that helps us understand the difference is the hiring process (related to principle 4, in the Control Environment). The hiring process most often is at a lower level than the entity-level, often as deep as the activity level as that is where most hiring managers reside. Controls in the hiring process in this situation are activity level (or what I call ‘intermediate level’ controls, operating at a location or business unit rather than either the top or the bottom of the organization) and are indirect controls.

I could quibble with one or two more points, but I don’t want to detract from the report. I want, instead, to encourage you to read and discuss it.

What do you think?

What additional lessons have you learned?

[1] Full credit for this wording goes to the E&Y national office, who used it in a conversation I had with them about the firm’s training of its audit staff.

The most important sentence in COSO

April 25, 2015 13 comments

In my opinion, one sentence stands out, whether you are looking at the COSO Internal Control – Integrated Framework (2013 version) or the COSO Enterprise Risk Management – Integrated Framework.

That sentence is:

An effective system of internal control reduces, to an acceptable level, the risk of not achieving an objective relating to one, two, or all three categories.

The sentence is important because it emphasizes the fact that the purpose of controls is to address risk, and that you have ‘enough’ control when risk is at desired levels.

To me, this means that:

  1. Before you assess the effectiveness of internal control, you need to know your objective(s), because we are talking about risk to objectives – not risk out of context
  2. You need to know the risk to those objectives
  3. You need to know what is an acceptable level of risk for each objective, and
  4. You need to be able to assess whether the controls provide reasonable assurance that risk is at acceptable levels

You may ask “where is that sentence?”, because when consultants (and even COSO and IIA) make presentations on COSO 2013 and effective internal control, all you hear about are the principles and components.

In fact, anybody who reads COSO 2013 should have no difficulty finding this most important sentence. It’s in the section headed “Requirements for Effective Internal Control”.

This is how that section starts:

An effective system of internal control provides reasonable assurance regarding achievement of an entity’s objectives. Because internal control is relevant both to the entity and its subunits, an effective system of internal control may relate to a specific part of the organizational structure. An effective system of internal control reduces, to an acceptable level, the risk of not achieving an objective relating to one, two, or all three categories. It requires that:

  • Each of the five components of internal control and relevant principles are present and functioning
  • The five components are operating together in an integrated manner

There is no mention of satisfying the requirement that the “components and relevant principles are present and functioning” until after the reference to risk being at acceptable levels.

In fact, I believe – and I know of at least one prominent COSO leader agrees – that assessing the presence and functioning of the components and principles is secondary, provided to help with the assessment.

Let’s have a look at the very next paragraph in the section:

When a major deficiency exists with respect to the presence and functioning of a component or relevant principle or in terms of the components operating together, the organization cannot conclude that it has met the requirements for an effective system of internal control.

When you look at this with the (COSO) risk lens, this translates to the ability to assess internal control as effective, and the principles and components as present and functioning, as long as there is no deficiency in internal control that is rated as “major”.

How does COSO determine whether a deficiency is “major”? That can be found in the section, “Deficiencies in Internal Control”.

An internal control deficiency or combination of deficiencies that is severe enough to adversely affect the likelihood that the entity can achieve its objectives is referred to as a “major deficiency”.

Let’s translate this as well:

  1. If the likelihood of achieving objective(s) is “severe”, then the risk is outside acceptable levels.
  2. If the risk is outside acceptable levels, not only should the related component(s) or principle(s) not be assessed as present and functioning, but internal control is not considered effective.
  3. When it comes to SOX compliance, a “major deficiency” translates to a “material weakness”. The objective for SOX is to file financial statements with the SEC that are free of material error or omission. The acceptable level of risk is where the likelihood of a material error or omission is less than reasonably possible.
  4. That means that if the deficiency is less than “major” (or “material” for SOX purposes), then the related component(s) or principle(s) can be assessed as present and functioning – and internal control can be assessed as effective.

So, the only way to assess whether the principles and components are present and functioning is to determine whether the risk to objectives (after considering any related control deficiency) is at acceptable levels.

Do you see what I mean?

Risk is at the core. Assessing the presence and functioning of components or principles without first understanding what is an acceptable level of risk to objectives is misunderstanding COSO!

Why are so many blind to this most important sentence?

I have a theory: the presentations were all prepared based on the Exposure Draft. That document failed to reference the requirement that internal control be designed to bring risk within acceptable levels. (The defect was fixed after comments were received on the issue.)

Do you have a better theory?

Can you explain the blindness of so many to the most important sentence in the entire Framework?

Cybersecurity is broken

April 11, 2015 6 comments

At least, that is what one expert has to say in a provocative piece in SC magazine.

Here are some excerpts, but I recommend you read the short article.

The author, the CEO of a software vendor of cybersecurity products, starts with these points:

…user-driven technology has progressed so rapidly that it has significantly outpaced technology’s own ability to keep data protected from misuse and guarded from cyber vulnerabilities…….

A lack of reliable security is the price we’ve paid for this eruption of amazing new cloud-based services and keeping vital data out of the wrong hands is an uphill battle.

He then spells out a truth that we should all acknowledge:

Anyone who tells you that your data is secure today is lying to you. The state-of-the-art that is cybersecurity today is broken. There must be a better way. But don’t lose hope, there is.

The article then takes a new direction (at least for me):

CIOs today need to adopt an entirely new security philosophy – one that hinges on the fact that your files and information will be everywhere……..

If we can build a new security approach from the ground up based on the premise that data will escape, and are then able to secure everything no matter where it is, we end up debunking the concept of the “leak” entirely.

I do agree that the traditional, exclusive, focus on preventing an intrusion cannot continue. He says:

That’s why my biggest frustration coming out of the recent Sony and Anthem hacks is companies opting for reactive solutions to fortify firewalls and secure siloed tunnels of information. For example, there was a major uptick in company-wide email-deletion policies in the wake of the Sony attack. Now that’s just dumb. Those are band-aid strategies that fail to address the heart of the problem.

He continues to press his point:

Maintaining a level of security in a boundaryless world means security and policy follow exactly what you’re trying to protect in the first place — the data……

Usable security, where users can choose how they want to access, store and share data, can only be made possible by providing a seamless user experience, so security is integrated into the daily work of everyone. A great user experience is one major obstacle security vendors (and arguably, all enterprise services) have yet to conquer. If we can do it, we will move away from panic-inducing scare tactics used to encourage adoption, and instead empower users with a solution they actually like to secure data…..

In order to be a security company, enterprises need to rethink a few things. First, users have to be in control of their data at any given point in time and should be able to revoke access when they want by utilizing familiar technology. They should have complete peace of mind that their data truly stays theirs. Second, in a cloud and mobile world there are no real controlled end-points anymore, unless we want to take a step back into the stone ages. And third, the firewall model is broken and trying to extend the perimeter out simply doesn’t work anymore. It’s about protecting the information, wherever it is, and not about locking everything down where it’s hard to access, use and share for your employees and partners.

So he is presenting a new cybersecurity world where the security follows the data, using encryption and other methods.

I think that is something that every organization should consider – especially encryption.

But is it enough?

For a start, how secure is encryption in the face of the sophisticated attacker? Maybe it is reasonably secure now, but we cannot be sure it will remain secure. Consider how encryption was broken by researchers, with the story told in this 2013 article.

I think you need at least three levels of protection: prevention, encryption, and detection, followed by response.

We can no longer assume that the bad guys cannot get in, and I am reluctant to assume that my encryption will not be broken if they have time.

So, we need the ability to detect any intruders promptly – so we can shut them down and limit any damage.

Too few have sufficient detection in place. Just look how long hackers were inside JP Morgan, and then how long it took the company to expel them!

I welcome your views.

Going crazy with COSO 2013 for SOX

February 18, 2015 20 comments

For some reason, I only just saw a new PwC publication, Present and functioning: Fine-tuning your ICFR using the COSO update, dated November 2014.

PwC provided the project team for the COSO 2013 update of the Internal Controls – Integrated Framework, so their advice and insight should merit our attention.

The trouble is that it very easy to go overboard and do much more work than is necessary to update your SOX program for COSO 2013.

I fear that PwC may help people go crazy, rather than perform the few additional procedures necessary. I respect those who have said, rightly in my view, that if you were able to comply with the requirements of COSO 1992 (the original version) and either the SEC guidance (in their Interpretive Guidance) or PCAOB Standard Number 5, you should already be in compliance with COSO 2013.

The key is to be able to demonstrate that.

We need to remember these facts:

  1. Neither the SEC nor the PCAOB has updated regulatory guidance for management or the external auditor since the release of COSO 2013. That guidance, reinforced by the PCAOB October 2013 Staff Practice Report) mandates a top-down and risk-based approach. It requires a focus on the potential for a material error or omission in the financial statements filed with the SEC.
  2. COSO 2013 says that internal control is effective when it reduces the risk to the achievement of objectives to acceptable levels. For SOX, that means that there are no material weaknesses.
  3. COSO 2013 also says that a principle can be deemed present and functioning if there are no “major deficiencies” that represent a significant level of risk to the achievement of the objective – in other words, there are no material weaknesses due to a failure of elements relating to a principle.

Now let’s have a look at what PwC has to say.

“With the COSO’s 1992 Control Framework being superseded by the 2013 updated edition on December 15, 2014, now is the time for companies to use the updated framework to evaluate the effectiveness of their systems of internal control over financial reporting.”

I agree with this statement. This is a great opportunity to ensure an effective and efficient program is in place.

“The updated framework formalizes 17 principles that stipulate more granular evaluative criteria to help a company’s management assess the design and operating effectiveness of its ICFR.”

They forget to say that COSO informs us that internal control is effective if it reduces risk to the achievement of objectives to acceptable levels. They also forget to remind us that the SOX assessment must be top-down, risk-based, and focused on the potential for a material error or omission.

“We don’t believe that implementation of the 2013 framework affects management’s existing control activities…. assuming that a company’s control activities have been assessed as effective, reevaluating them according to the 2013 framework is not necessary.”

While there is an element of truth to this, organizations should not be assessing control activities in isolation – they should be assessing whether the combination of controls provides reasonable assurance that there are no material errors or omissions. Focusing on one component by itself is insufficient and, I believe, incorrect.

In addition, the selection of controls for reliance should always be re-evaluated as the business is likely to have changed, including materiality, significant accounts and locations, and so on.

“We believe the most immediate value of applying the 2013 framework lies in the opportunity it provides for taking a fresh look at indirect entity-level controls.”

Again, the SOX scoping should be focused on the combination of controls that provides reasonable assurance. In addition, some principles (such as the hiring and training of employees, or the provision of training and obtaining certification of employees in the code of conduct) are performed at the activity level. COSO tells us that activities in each of the COSO components may exist at any level of the organization. So, we need to recognize that indirect controls may operate at the entity (corporate) level, activity level, or any level in between (such as at the business unit or regional level).

Having said which, the principles do offer us a new opportunity to determine which of these indirect controls need to be included in scope because a failure would represent an unacceptable level of risk – because they raise to an unacceptable level the likelihood that one or more key direct control relied on to prevent or detect a material error or omission might fail.

But, it all has to be within the context that we are focusing the scope, and the SOX program as a whole, on the risk of a material error or omission!

“…fine-tune the design and related documentation of indirect ELCs [entity-level controls] through mapping them to principles.”

Many have misguided organizations, telling them to “map their controls to the principles”. The proper guidance is to “identify the controls you are relying on to provide reasonable assurance that the principles are present and functioning”. Again, we need to remember that the principles can be deemed present and functioning if a failure would not represent a material weakness.

It is correct to say that if you have indirect controls (at entity or another level) that are not required to provide that reasonable assurance, they do not need to be included in scope for SOX.

“…we have noted the following areas in which management’s assessment has indicated room for optimization or improvement in control documentation.”

I suspect that the issue is not limited to control documentation! There is always room for improvement and it is useful to see what PwC has identified.

“Leading companies are formalizing or clarifying and incorporating into their evaluations of ICFR certain indirect ELCs that support existing human resources policies. Such controls usually consist of approvals of new hires and employee transfers (including background checks and assessments of requisite skills and experience when appropriate), requirements for professional certifications and training (e.g., in new and complex accounting standards), succession planning and retention of competent employees, and periodic reviews of employee performance to assess requisite skill levels and conduct. Compensation programs aligned with expected performance, competencies, and behaviors are also important to support ICFR objectives.”

If you believe that any organization’s HR policies and practices provide the assurance you need that every single key control is performed by individuals with the appropriate experience, knowledge, training, and so on, I have a bridge to sell you!

While it is very important to have excellence in hiring, training, supervision, career development, promotion and so on, I do not believe that for SOX it is productive to spend much time on controls in this area.

I very much prefer to assess the capabilities and competence of each control owner as part of the evaluation of the design and operation of each individual key control.

“In many organizations, the evaluation of fraud risks related to financial reporting is integrated into the overall assessment of financial-reporting risks……… In identifying and evaluating those risks, management investigates incentives, pressures, opportunities, attitudes, and rationalizations that might exist throughout the company in different departments and among various personnel.”

The first statement is (I hope) true, although I personally perform a separate assessment of fraud risk (focused on the risk of a material error or omission due to fraud) and generally find that they are addressed by the controls already identified for mistakes.

PwC talks about ‘scenarios’, while I talk about ‘fraud schemes’. In each case, we are talking about ‘how’ the fraud would be committed – an essential step in understanding the true nature of the risk and the controls that would prevent or detect it, if material.

However, going crazy about the fraud triangle is not recommended. We should focus on how we can provide reasonable assurance that a material error or omission due to fraud might be prevented or detected, and remember that the number of people with the ability to commit such a fraud is limited. More than 80% of reported material frauds have been perpetrated by the CEO and CFO acting together, not individuals “throughout the company in different departments and among various personnel.” Rationalization, for example, is an intensely personal action and not something that can be detected by looking broadly at even a segment of the workforce.

“Companies taking a thoughtful approach in transitioning to the 2013 framework—rather than viewing it as a mere compliance exercise—are finding value in the identification of opportunities to strengthen their ICFR.”

We are back on solid ground.

The focus has to remain solidly grounded on identifying and then testing the design and operation of the controls relied upon to prevent or detect a material error or omission. A top-down and risk-based approach is mandated.

Going beyond this may have value in improving operations and the achievement of other (than SOX) business objectives.

But let’s not go crazy!

I welcome your comments and, especially, your experiences with COSO 2013 and your external auditors.

By the way, I think it is well past time for COSO to issue a statement or other guidance to set people straight on the COSO 2013 principles when it comes to SOX. They need to explain that the primary evaluation criterion for effective internal control is whether there is reasonable assurance that risk to the achievement of principles is at an acceptable level. Then they need to explain that the principles offer more granulated guidance that can be used in assessing that risk and whether it is acceptable, but assessing the principles without the context of risk is misunderstanding COSO 2013.

Do you agree?

 

The effective audit committee

November 22, 2014 6 comments

A short article in CGMA Magazine, Ingredients of an effective audit committee, caught my eye. I recommend reading it.

I think there are some key ingredients to an effective audit committee that are often overlooked. They include:

  1. The members have to read all the material for the audit committee meeting before the meeting. It’s amazing how often they don’t, which reduces the meeting to absorbing the material rather than a constructive discussion of its implications.
  2. The members have to be ready, willing, and able to constructively challenge all the other participants, including the external and internal auditors as well as financial, operating, and executive management. Too often, they are deferent to the external auditor (for reasons that escape me) and too anxious to be collegial to challenge senior management.
  3. They need a sufficient understanding of the business, its external context (including competitors and the regulatory environment), its strategies and objectives, risks to the achievement of its objectives, and the fundamentals of risk management and financial reporting, to ask the right questions. They don’t need to have a deep understanding if they are willing to use their common sense.
  4. They need to be willing to ask a silly question.
  5. They need to persevere until they get a common sense response.
  6. No board or committee of the board can be effective if they don’t receive the information they need when they need it. I am frustrated when I read surveys that say they don’t receive the information they need – they should be demanding it and accepting no excuses when management is slow to respond.
  7. Audit committee members will not be effective if they are only present and functioning at quarterly meetings. They need to be monitoring and asking questions far more often, as they see or suspect changes that might affect the organization and their oversight responsibilities.

What do you think?

I welcome your comments.