Sustainability reports look beyond the numbers

 

In recent years, environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues have become a hot topic. Many companies voluntarily include so-called “sustainability disclosures” about these issues in their financial statements. But should the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) make these disclosures mandatory and more consistent?

Identifying ESG issues

The term “sustainability” refers to anything that helps your company sustain itself — its people, its profits — into the future. A variety of nonfinancial issues fall under the ESG umbrella, including:

  • Pollution and carbon emissions,
  • Union relations,
  • Political spending,
  • Tax strategies,
  • Employee training and education programs,
  • Diversity practices,
  • Health and safety matters, and
  • Human rights policies.

There’s often a link between ESG issues and financial performance. For example, regulatory violations can lead to fines, remedial costs and reputational damage. And the sale of toxic or unsafe products can result in product liability lawsuits, recalls and boycotts.

On the flipside, identifying and successfully navigating ESG issues can add value by building trust with stakeholders, providing improved access to capital and lower borrowing costs, and enhancing loyalty with customers and employees. Tracking sustainability also helps companies identify ways to reduce their energy consumption, streamline their supply chains, eliminate waste and operate more efficiently.

Studying the costs of mandatory disclosures

Currently, most sustainability disclosures are made voluntarily. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) does require companies to describe the effects of climate change under Release No. 33-9106, Commission Guidance Regarding Disclosure Related to Climate Change. Unfortunately, these disclosures have been criticized by investors for being too general and not useful.

Recently, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — an independent, nonpartisan U.S. government watchdog agency — to study the costs of requiring public companies to make ESG disclosures. His letter to the GAO references a 2015 survey, which found that 73% of institutional investors take ESG issues into consideration when they’re evaluating investment or voting decisions and managing investment risks.

Specifically, Warner asked the GAO to:

  • Analyze the effect of revising U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) to account for ESG issues,
  • Evaluate the extent to which 1) companies address ESG issues in their disclosures, and 2) investors seek ESG disclosures and why,
  • Identify possible regulatory and nonregulatory actions that could improve and standardize ESG disclosures, and
  • Compare U.S. and foreign ESG disclosure regimes.

A major downside to today’s disclosures is inconsistency. Warner would like the GAO to explore ways to help investors “understand the likelihood of ESG risks and cut through boilerplate disclosure.”

Not everyone wants the GAO to proceed with the study, however. Some business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, believe the SEC should focus on providing material information to investors and not cater to what they call “special interest groups.”

Sustainability audits

It’s uncertain whether ESG disclosures will become mandatory, but many companies already share information about green business practices, diversity programs, fraud prevention policies and other ESG issues. These disclosures can help add long-term value and improve relationships with stakeholders. Contact us for help preparing or auditing an independent, integrated sustainability report for 2018.

© 2018

Keep it SIMPLE: A tax-advantaged retirement plan solution for small businesses

 

If your small business doesn’t offer its employees a retirement plan, you may want to consider a SIMPLE IRA. Offering a retirement plan can provide your business with valuable tax deductions and help you attract and retain employees. For a variety of reasons, a SIMPLE IRA can be a particularly appealing option for small businesses. The deadline for setting one up for this year is October 1, 2018.

The basics

SIMPLE stands for “savings incentive match plan for employees.” As the name implies, these plans are simple to set up and administer. Unlike 401(k) plans, SIMPLE IRAs don’t require annual filings or discrimination testing.

SIMPLE IRAs are available to businesses with 100 or fewer employees. Employers must contribute and employees have the option to contribute. The contributions are pretax, and accounts can grow tax-deferred like a traditional IRA or 401(k) plan, with distributions taxed when taken in retirement.

As the employer, you can choose from two contribution options:

1. Make a “nonelective” contribution equal to 2% of compensation for all eligible employees. You must make the contribution regardless of whether the employee contributes. This applies to compensation up to the annual limit of $275,000 for 2018 (annually adjusted for inflation).

2. Match employee contributions up to 3% of compensation. Here, you contribute only if the employee contributes. This isn’t subject to the annual compensation limit.

Employees are immediately 100% vested in all SIMPLE IRA contributions.

Employee contribution limits

Any employee who has compensation of at least $5,000 in any prior two years, and is reasonably expected to earn $5,000 in the current year, can elect to have a percentage of compensation put into a SIMPLE IRA.

SIMPLE IRAs offer greater income deferral opportunities than ordinary IRAs, but lower limits than 401(k)s. An employee may contribute up to $12,500 to a SIMPLE IRA in 2018. Employees age 50 or older can also make a catch-up contribution of up to $3,000. This compares to $5,500 and $1,000, respectively, for ordinary IRAs, and to $18,500 and $6,000 for 401(k)s. (Some or all of these limits may increase for 2019 under annual cost-of-living adjustments.)

You’ve got options

A SIMPLE IRA might be a good choice for your small business, but it isn’t the only option. The more-complex 401(k) plan we’ve already mentioned is one alternative. Some others are a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) and a defined-benefit pension plan. These two plans don’t allow employee contributions and have other pluses and minuses. Contact us to learn more about a SIMPLE IRA or to hear about other retirement plan alternatives for your business.

© 2018

Is there a weak link in your supply chain?

 

In an increasingly global economy, keeping a close eye on your supply chain is imperative. Even if your company operates only locally or nationally, your suppliers could be affected by wider economic conditions and developments. So, make sure you’re regularly assessing where weak links in your supply chain may lie.

3 common risks

Every business faces a variety of risks. Three of the most common are:

1. Legal risks. Are any of your suppliers involved in legal conflicts that could adversely affect their ability to earn revenue or continue serving you?

2. Political risks. Are any suppliers located in a politically unstable region — even nationally? Could the outcome of a municipal, state or federal election adversely affect your industry’s supply chain?

3. Transportation risks. How reliant are your suppliers on a particular type of transportation? For example, what’s their backup plan if winter weather shuts down air routes for a few days? Or could wildfires or mudslides block trucking routes?

Potential fallout

The potential fallout from an unstable supply chain can be devastating. Obviously, first and foremost, you may be unable to timely procure the supplies you need to operate profitably.

Beyond that, high-risk supply chains can also affect your ability to obtain financing. Lenders may view risks as too high to justify your current debt or a new loan request. You could face higher interest rates or more stringent penalties to compensate for it.

Strategies to consider

Just as businesses face many supply chain risks, they can also avail themselves of a variety of coping strategies. For example, you might divide purchases equally among three suppliers — instead of just one — to diversify your supplier base. You might spread out suppliers geographically to mitigate the threat of a regional disaster.

Also consider strengthening protections against unforeseen events by adding to inventory buffers to hedge against short-term shortages. Take a hard look at your supplier contracts as well. You may be able to negotiate long-term deals to include upfront payment terms, exclusivity clauses and access to computerized just-in-time inventory systems to more accurately forecast demand and more closely integrate your operations with supply-chain partners.

Lasting success

You can have a very successful business, but if you can’t keep delivering your products and services to customers consistently, you’ll likely find success fleeting. A solid supply chain fortified against risk is a must. We can provide further information and other ideas.

© 2018

Do you qualify for the home office deduction?

 

Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer claim the home office deduction. If, however, you run a business from your home or are otherwise self-employed and use part of your home for business purposes, the home office deduction may still be available to you.

Home-related expenses

Homeowners know that they can claim itemized deductions for property tax and mortgage interest on their principal residences, subject to certain limits. Most other home-related expenses, such as utilities, insurance and repairs, aren’t deductible.

But if you use part of your home for business purposes, you may be entitled to deduct a portion of these expenses, as well as depreciation. Or you might be able to claim the simplified home office deduction of $5 per square foot, up to 300 square feet ($1,500).

Regular and exclusive use

You might qualify for the home office deduction if part of your home is used as your principal place of business “regularly and exclusively,” defined as follows:

1. Regular use. You use a specific area of your home for business on a regular basis. Incidental or occasional business use is not regular use.

2. Exclusive use. You use the specific area of your home only for business. It’s not necessary for the space to be physically partitioned off. But, you don’t meet the requirements if the area is used both for business and personal purposes, such as a home office that also serves as a guest bedroom.

Regular and exclusive business use of the space aren’t, however, the only criteria.

Principal place of business

Your home office will qualify as your principal place of business if you 1) use the space exclusively and regularly for administrative or management activities of your business, and 2) don’t have another fixed location where you conduct substantial administrative or management activities.

Examples of activities that are administrative or managerial in nature include:

  • Billing customers, clients or patients,
  • Keeping books and records,
  • Ordering supplies,
  • Setting up appointments, and
  • Forwarding orders or writing reports.

Meetings or storage

If your home isn’t your principal place of business, you may still be able to deduct home office expenses if you physically meet with patients, clients or customers on your premises. The use of your home must be substantial and integral to the business conducted.

Alternatively, you may be able to claim the home office deduction if you have a storage area in your home — or in a separate free-standing structure (such as a studio, workshop, garage or barn) — that’s used exclusively and regularly for your business.

Valuable tax-savings

The home office deduction can provide a valuable tax-saving opportunity for business owners and other self-employed taxpayers who work from home. If you’re not sure whether you qualify or if you have other questions, please contact us.

© 2018

Business deductions for meal, vehicle and travel expenses: Document, document, document

 

Meal, vehicle and travel expenses are common deductions for businesses. But if you don’t properly document these expenses, you could find your deductions denied by the IRS.

A critical requirement

Subject to various rules and limits, business meal (generally 50%), vehicle and travel expenses may be deductible, whether you pay for the expenses directly or reimburse employees for them. Deductibility depends on a variety of factors, but generally the expenses must be “ordinary and necessary” and directly related to the business.

Proper documentation, however, is one of the most critical requirements. And all too often, when the IRS scrutinizes these deductions, taxpayers don’t have the necessary documentation.

What you need to do

Following some simple steps can help ensure you have documentation that will pass muster with the IRS:

Keep receipts or similar documentation. You generally must have receipts, canceled checks or bills that show amounts and dates of business expenses. If you’re deducting vehicle expenses using the standard mileage rate (54.5 cents for 2018), log business miles driven.

Track business purposes. Be sure to record the business purpose of each expense. This is especially important if on the surface an expense could appear to be a personal one. If the business purpose of an expense is clear from the surrounding circumstances, the IRS might not require a written explanation — but it’s probably better to err on the side of caution and document the business purpose anyway.

Require employees to comply. If you reimburse employees for expenses, make sure they provide you with proper documentation. Also be aware that the reimbursements will be treated as taxable compensation to the employee (and subject to income tax and FICA withholding) unless you make them via an “accountable plan.”

Don’t re-create expense logs at year end or when you receive an IRS deficiency notice. Take a moment to record the details in a log or diary at the time of the event or soon after. The IRS considers timely kept records more reliable, plus it’s easier to track expenses as you go than try to re-create a log later. For expense reimbursements, require employees to submit monthly expense reports (which is also generally a requirement for an accountable plan).

Addressing uncertainty

You’ve probably heard that, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, entertainment expenses are no longer deductible. There’s some debate as to whether this includes business meals with actual or prospective clients. Until there’s more certainty on that issue, it’s a good idea to document these expenses. That way you’ll have what you need to deduct them if Congress or the IRS provides clarification that these expenses are indeed still deductible.

For more information about what meal, vehicle and travel expenses are and aren’t deductible — and how to properly document deductible expenses — please contact us.

© 2018

Risky Business for Directors – How's your ERM?

Risky Business for DirectorsNot so many years ago, being elected to the Board of Directors of some companies essentially required you to act as a figurehead. Lunch in an expensive restaurant once a month, an annual retreat to a vacation resort to discuss corporate ‘strategy’ and a small stipend were all that was required in trade for the collective experience and informal leadership. That’s all changed with the increased exposure to liability now faced by corporate governance.  With the current state of our business environment, that exposure is greater this year than ever.

In an on-line article Executives Anticipate Rise in Fraud nearly two thirds of the executives polled anticipate an increase in fraud and misappropriation this year. In conjunction with auditors anticipating that nearly 25% of all firms may not be going concerns; the myriad of new regulatory requirements related to governance; and the corporate challenges fomented by a floundering economy this may not be a desirable year to be a Director. The current hot topic seems to be enterprise risk management.

While a long time focus of management, ERM has often been given little attention by the board. Recently, COSO published a document highlighting four critical areas that contribute to effective board oversight. It can be downloaded at www.coso.org.

As public company auditors and consultants we have observed the importance of an integrated approach to governance between the board and management. We regularly participate in joint meetings as frequently as allowed (we don’t charge for meetings with management and the board), for our own self-interest. Our best clients have the strongest most engaged boards. Boards of Directors are invaluable resources.  Take full advantage.

E & Y Calls for More Regulation (More Cost)

In a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco recently, EY CEO James Turley called for more regulation of audit firms.  His premise that audit quality has improved as a result of SOX and the PCAOB while ‘possibly’ accurate (and I’m not conceding that) is irrelevant.  Foremost I don’t believe that quality has improved for quality firms.   I can’t speak for EY.  Perhaps they are better for it.  The SEC and the  PCAOB for all intents and purposes  initially  adopted the accounting and internal control standards that were already promulgated by the profession.  Adding another layer of regulation sufficed only in adding additional cost to public companies.  And now Mr. Turley wants to expand that further.  Why?

Since my introduction to the profession in the 1970’s when we were attacked by Michigan Democratic Congressman John Dingell, we have fought for self regulation.  Obviously the SEC Practice Section of the AICPA (the forerunner to the Center for Audit Quality CAQ) failed miserably and here we are.  Based on his leadership, it appears the CAQ is on the same course.   One of the defining characteristics of any  profession is self regulation.  So we apparently have failed as a profession if you are to subscribe to Mr. Turley’s pleading or does he have another motive?

Economists define this propensity of larger firms ‘getting cozy’ with regulators in order to drive up costs and limit competition from smaller firms as ‘regulatory capture’.  Banks, drug companies, airlines – accounting firms?  Bigger isn’t better, but it certainly seems to be more expensive.

From my days as a young corporate bank officer for a mid-sized California bank in the early 1970’s, I recall having regulatory audits by Federal regulators, the State of California examiners, and the Federal Depositors Insurance Corporation (FDIC).  We also had our own internal audit department as did every other bank.  And as every other bank has had since then.  Total regulation.  It’s obviously worked well Mr. Turley.  In my professional lifetime a list of the most heavily regulated industries would include banks, airlines, railroads,  banks, banks, banks.   More regulation.  Yeah!  That’s the answer.

More recently we have two great examples of failures by  federal regulation in Madoff and Stanford.  I challenge you to name one economy with more regulation than we have had in the US that has been more successful.  Ever.  I can list dozens that failed with more regulation.

I disagree vehemently with Jim Turley.  Additional regulation if warranted should come from inside the profession – specifically the CAQ which Mr. Turley happens to be the sitting Chair of.  Do the job you signed on for with the CAQ Mr Turley.   That he wants to abdicate that responsibility is incredibly disturbing.  That he proposes to add additonal layers of cost – cost that he and his firm will derive revenue  directly from- is unconscionable.