Will Auditors Influence How Executives Are Paid?
PCAOB proposals would have auditors reading the employment and compensation contracts of corporate leaders and, possibly, forcing changes to comp programs due to unacceptable risks of material restatement.
Unfortunately, the PCAOB is suggesting that auditors also evaluate whether the design of an executive-compensation program could itself lead to excessive risk taking. Here’s what one of the board members, Steven Harris, had to say about this matter:
“Equity-based compensation arrangements may also provide strong incentives for excessive risk-taking by executives. Studies have shown that these arrangements can position executive officers to benefit from the upside of high-risk investments, while largely insulating them from the downside risks. In addition, excessive risk taking generally is viewed as one of the contributing factors to the recent financial crisis. For example, ‘The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report’ concluded that ‘Executive and employee compensation systems at these institutions disproportionately rewarded short-term risk taking.’ The Board's proposals would require auditors to focus on the potential opportunities and motivations for executive officers to exaggerate gains, or minimize losses, and to consider any effect compensation incentives might have on the reliability of the financial statements.” (Emphasis added)
That type of statement raises the possibility that an auditor might view the structure of an executive-compensation program to be so problematic that, when coupled with other factors, the auditor may be unable to issue an unqualified opinion. This risk (i.e., not receiving an unqualified opinion on financial statements) could give the auditor significant influence over executive-compensation decisions.
What’s particularly interesting about the timing of the PCAOB release is that its focus on executive compensation is happening when shareholders now have a “say on pay” under Dodd-Frank and there is an increasing focus on “pay for performance.” As discussed in my January column, ISS, the leading shareholder advisory service, recently revamped its guidelines for making recommendations on executive compensation by focusing on total shareholder return (TSR) as compared with peer companies, and it’s reasonable to expect that issuers will start to use TSR performance goals. One can only imagine the reaction of compensation committees if their decisions to restructure executive pay in response to shareholders were to be second-guessed by auditors, particularly in light of the current lawsuits regarding failed say-on-pay votes.
The PCAOB is moving quickly on this change. While the proposed amendments require SEC approval, the PCAOB anticipates that these changes would be effective for audits of financial statements for companies with fiscal years beginning on or after December 15, 2012.