For years we’ve been hearing how blockchain and AI will transform accounting, and this recent article from MIT Sloan School of Management (aka MIT Sloan) about the five forces remaking accounting gives them both the obligatory nod. But we’re not here to talk about blockchain. We’re here to talk about ESG. After a brief introductory […]
In the first part of our conversation with Michael Krzus, co-author of One Report, Integrated Reporting for a Sustainable Strategy, we discussed the nature of integrated reporting, how it will change corporate reporting as it is commonly known and some of the benefits to both stakeholders and companies.
The second part of our discussion looks at how small and midsize entities will benefit from integrated reporting, the feedback received from clients, and what the future holds.
Going Concern: Do you see a point in time when companies sults for sustainability issues on a reoccurring basis similar to quarterly earnings reporting?
Michael Krzus: I know enough about this to be dangerous, so I’ll give you that caveat, but I am aware of the somewhat recent EPA rule making that is going to require companies to report emissions and things of that nature. There are some limitations, but there will be more frequent reporting for U.S. domiciled companies. I think some of it will depend on the technology available. I don’t know what it takes for a coal-fired electric plant to account for CO2 emissions. So I’m not really in a good position to tell you that in five years whether that will evolve into more regular reporting or not.
GC: What kind of companies will be able to utilize integrate reporting? Can any size company embrace it or will it start with the largest players and work its way down?
MK: As a practical matter, it will have to be large, public traded companies, particularly the global players. On the other hand, I think small and mid-cap companies, especially private ones, have as much or more skin in the game and a lot more upside than the big guys. And that’s because of the complexity of information and the complexity of accounting standards. If you’re Microsoft, you’ve got a lot of issues that can be addressed by your large accounting department but if you’re a $400 million manufacturer of widgets, you don’t have those kind of resources. But you do want to tell stakeholders your story clearly and succinctly. I think the idea of the integrated report gives them the opportunity to do that.
Additionally, in the last couple of years, I’ve developed a good working relationship with the Society of Investment Professionals in Germany and one of the things that group has done is build example reports of what an integrated report could look like for a small or mid-cap sized company. If you think about it from the German perspective, much of their market base is small and medium sized companies and analysts there are very interested in the benefits that an integrated reporting can provide. So, there’s a lot upside for companies that fall outside the Fortune 500.
GC: Do you see a point in time where banks start requesting more non-financial information (i.e. ESG information) in order to qualify for lending?
MK: The short answer is “Yes.” To me, sustainability really has to do with long term viability of an entity. I don’t think a company can be viable for the long term without understanding and managing their environmental, social and governance risks because those three risk types specifically translate to reputation.
To some degree a lender will have to start considering non-financial factors. The price of admission is opening your heart and soul, as a company, to the banker. A banker can ask all kinds of question whether its about CO2 emissions or manufacturing location in Thailand that may cause child labor problems because you’re running a sweat shop.
To parallel that, I recently attended a conference of institutional investors. I found it interesting that a group of people that wanted to know more about integrated reporting were private equity folks. These private equity people are in the same boat as the bankers. If they are going to make an investment, they will open up everything. It’s not just about getting the 10-K, it’s about understanding everything from financial projections and processes to social and environmental risks in China. So, the markets in general, not just bankers, but also private equity and traditional sources of capital have become more and more interested in a broad set of non-financial information.
GC: What has been the experience with clients?
MK: Clients have assisted us by presenting challenging questions to help us think more clearly about the situation. For example, some people have argued that we don’t need integrated reporting because the markets are efficient and already have all the information they need. I would argue that, even without the events of the last couple of years, markets aren’t efficient and don’t have all the information they need because we have so many firms employing armies of analysts, all of who are looking for that shred of information that will give their company an edge. There’s always something that the analysts don’t have.
Another argument is whether or not the integrated report somehow diminishes the corporate responsibility report. My response to that is that by not integrating the two types of reports, companies avoid an audit of non-financial information. In general, the companies that have an integrated report do have some assurance over the non-financial information; it’s not necessarily subject to the same standards as auditing standards but there is some kind of assurance. So I think some kind of audit over the information – and over time perhaps controls and processes – will elevate the quality of the reporting. So good questions from very sharp people like “Have you guys thought about this?” forces us to engage in some dialogue of our own so we do have a coherent responses.
GC: How does IFRS fit into integrated reporting?
MK: I’m one of those people who think that there should be one global set of accounting standards. To speculate just a little bit, I could envision a world that might have IFRS that govern the financial statements and perhaps an international non-financial reporting standard, because at some point we’re going to have to address that. I think the larger question of IFRS is to first, how do we develop a global standard of non-financial information? And secondly, can we develop some sort of benchmark for auditors? So, I remain optimistic that U.S. will eventually adopt IFRS and would hope in the next few years there would be some kind of move to adopt international standards for non-financial information.
GC: What’s next?
MK: There are a couple of major conferences coming up this year where integrated reporting will be a topic in several sessions. We use various conferences to spread the word and build some momentum behind the idea. The Harvard Business School and the Harvard University Center of the Environment are co-sponsoring an event on integrated reporting later this year. Two newspapers in Japan are hosting an event in November and the Prince of Wales Accounting for Sustainability has an annual event in December that hosts roundtables on various topics.
On the Accounting for Sustainability website, there are a number of press releases including a PDF on a governmental collaboration that calls for the establishing an international integrated reporting committee. I can tell you that the Accounting for Sustainability Group has the resources and, frankly, the brand name that could call for the IASB or some other group to undertake the idea of a global framework for reporting non-financial information. I could see us having this conversation a year from now and I’d be very disappointed if there was not some kind of formal announcement from an international integrated reporting committee.
So I’m cautiously optimistic about the future. The timing for this is right and integrated reporting is important when you believe in the concept of inter-generational responsibility. This is the only planet we’ve got and we should every intent to leave it in as good as condition as we found it.
But as a hard-headed capitalist I also think integrated reporting makes sense because you don’t want to invest in company that will go bust. A company simply cannot be viable for the long-term unless they are considering ESG issues.