Be in no doubt that users of annual reports do really care about them, but they would like less boilerplate and the numbers to tally between front and back, says Jane Fuller
This article was first published in the June 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
If any company directors think that users of accounts don’t care about annual reports, they should have sat in on a meeting I attended recently with representatives of institutional and retail shareholders, and financial analysts. They do.
But while most of their needs for financial information are met in the ‘back half’ of the annual report, thanks to IFRS Standards, they are less happy with the mushrooming of pages in the ‘front half’ – or, more likely, the front two-thirds.
The sad thing is that companies are trying hard to satisfy all the audiences that they think – and that UK and EU regulators tell them – have to be served by a document designed to report to the owners of the business and, by natural extension, other capital providers such as lenders.
The result is a lot more verbiage than is necessary and a dilution of purpose. The annual report should tell us what the company set out to do during the year, whether or not it achieved it, and if it had to change tack.
This does not mean environmental, social and governance issues are irrelevant. On the contrary: an increasing number of investors are paying attention to them. But they do so in the context of risks that the company faces (reputational as well as operational), whether it is well run (having women at the top is an antidote to groupthink) and whether natural and intellectual assets have been enhanced or depleted.
They like numbers, even in these ‘non-financial’ areas. One discussant ruefully said he sometimes hunted in vain for a pound sign in a sea of text. A good, or rather bad, example lies in the so-far disappointing viability statements. Too often they lack quantifiable information about company-specific ‘what ifs?’
Numbers in the front half should tally with those in the back. Some cashflow statements start with a number that comes at you out of the blue, for instance. As for the gap between adjusted profits and the IFRS figures, the directors who notionally write the report should tell us upfront what has been counted out, and provide a full justification in the financial review. After all, the chief executive’s bonus is probably tied to the adjusted (often much higher) number.
Sections that are ripe for an editor’s red pen include those on governance and remuneration. On business models, adherence to the integrated reporting framework can help but too often results in either duplication or unnecessary complexity. Principal risks should be prioritised and shorn of all boilerplate language.
Clearly I could go on – and it is hoped that this group of users will indeed do so in meetings with finance directors and other corporate leaders.
Jane Fuller is a fellow of CFA UK and serves on the Audit and Assurance Council of the Financial Reporting Council
"Companies are trying hard to satisfy all audiences. The result is a lot more verbiage than necessary and a dilution of purpose"