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CECL: Understand the audit requirements and prepare for what's to come

05.06.20

Read this if you are a CFO, CEO, COO, or CLO at a financial institution.

The preparation of financial statements by financial institutions involves a number of accounting estimates, some of which can be quite complex. As these estimates are often a significant focus of audits of those financial statements, financial institution personnel affected by the audit process might benefit from a discussion of the rules auditors need to follow when auditing estimates.

Accounting estimates

Across all industries, there are financial statement items that require a degree of estimation because they cannot be measured precisely. These amounts, called accounting estimates, are determined using a wide array of information available to management. In using such information to arrive at the estimates, a degree of estimation uncertainty exists, which has a direct effect on the risks of material misstatement of the resulting accounting estimates. For financial institutions, common examples of accounting estimates include the allowance for loan losses, valuation of investment securities, allocation of the purchase price in a bank or branch acquisition, and depreciation and amortization of premises and equipment, in addition to intangibles and goodwill. 

For entities other than public companies, the auditing rules are established by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ Auditing Standards Board (ASB). Under these requirements a financial statement auditor has a responsibility to assess the risks of material misstatement for accounting estimates by obtaining an understanding of the following items: 

  • The requirements of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) relevant to accounting estimates, including related disclosures. 
  • How management identifies those transactions, events, and conditions that may give rise to the need for accounting estimates to be recognized or disclosed in the financial statements. In obtaining this understanding, the auditor should make inquiries of management about changes in circumstances that may give rise to new, or the need to revise existing, accounting estimates. 
  • How management makes the accounting estimates and the data on which they are based. 

This final item—determining how management has calculated the accounting estimate in question—includes the following specific aspects for the auditor to address:

  • the method(s), including, when applicable, the model, used in making the accounting estimate; 
  • relevant controls; 
  • whether management has used a specialist; 
  • the assumptions underlying the accounting estimates; 
  • whether there has been or ought to have been a change from the prior period in the method(s) or assumption(s) for making the accounting estimates, and if so, why; and 
  • if so, how management has assessed the effects of estimation uncertainty. 

Professional skepticism

When analyzing management’s assessment of the effects of estimation uncertainty, the auditor needs to apply professional skepticism to the accounting estimate by considering whether management considered alternative assumptions, and, if a range of assumptions was reasonable, how they determined the amount chosen was the most appropriate. If estimation uncertainty is determined to be high, this is one indicator to the auditor that estimation uncertainty may pose a significant risk of material misstatement. An identified significant risk requires the auditor to perform a test of controls and/or details during the audit; in other words, analytical procedures and testing performed in previous audits will not suffice. 

CECL considerations

For audits of financial institutions, including those that have implemented the FASB CECL standard as well as those still using the incurred loss method, the allowance for loan losses will likely be deemed a significant risk due to its materiality, estimation uncertainty, complexity, and sensitivity from a user’s perspective.   

Additional factors the auditor needs to consider include whether management performed a sensitivity analysis as part of its consideration of estimation uncertainty as described above, and whether management performed a lookback analysis to evaluate the previous process used. Auditors of accounting estimates are required to do at least a high-level lookback analysis to gain an understanding of any differences between previous estimates and actual results, and to assess the reliability of management’s process. 

Auditing estimate procedures

Procedures for auditing estimates include an evaluation of subsequent events, tests of management’s methodology, tests of controls, and, in some instances, preparation of an independent estimate by the auditor. Tests of management’s method and tests of controls, including auditing the design and implementation of controls, are the most practical and likely procedures to apply to audits of the allowance for loan losses at financial institutions, both under the current guidance and following adoption of the current expected credit loss (CECL) method under Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) Accounting Standards Update No. 2016-13, Financial Instruments – Credit Losses (Topic 326): Measurement of Credit Losses on Financial Instruments. As FASB has not prescribed a specific model, auditors must be prepared to tailor their procedures to address the facts and circumstances in place at each respective financial institution. 

In addition to auditing management’s estimate, auditors have the responsibility to audit related disclosures, including information about management’s methods and the model used, assumptions used in developing the estimate, and any other disclosures required by GAAP or necessary for a fair presentation of the financial statements. Throughout the audit process, auditors need to continue to exercise professional skepticism to consider what could have gone wrong during management’s process and to assess indicators of management bias, if any. 

For public companies, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) specifies auditors must evaluate both evidence that corroborates and evidence that contradicts management’s financial statement assertions in order to avoid confirmation bias. When considering the assessment of risks, as risk increases, the level of evidence obtained by the auditor should increase. As with audits of private companies, the auditor needs to consider whether the data is accurate, complete, and sufficiently precise and detailed to be used as audit evidence.

An added consideration under PCAOB rules is that the auditor is typically opining on the institution’s internal controls as well as its financial statements. This may restrict the results of control testing performed by parties independent of the function being tested from being used as audit evidence from a financial statement audit perspective. For financial institutions, this is often the case with independent loan review, since the loan review is considered part of the institution’s internal control upon which the auditor is opining. 

Supporting evidence

As with the incurred loss method, PCAOB auditing standards will require the auditor consider how much evidence is necessary to support the allowance for loan losses under CECL. All significant components of management’s allowance for loan losses estimate, including qualitative factors, will need to be supported by institution-specific data. If such data is unavailable (for example, because the institution introduces a new type of loan offering), the FASB standard indicates appropriate peer data may be acceptable. In such cases, management and the auditor may need to understand the controls in place at the vendor providing the peer data to determine its reliability. You may provide this information in the form of System and Organization Controls (commonly know as SOC1) reports of the vendor’s system.  

Recently, the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board revised its auditing rules for estimates, with a goal of enhancing guidance regarding application of the basic audit risk model in the context of auditing estimates. The revised rules require that auditors must separately assess inherent and control risk when obtaining an understanding of controls, identifying and assessing risks, and designing and performing further audit procedures. The ASB seeks convergence of rules both internationally and domestically, and has therefore proposed changes to its requirements for auditing estimates to align with the IAASB revised rules. The ASB’s proposal on these changes indicated they would be effective beginning with audits of fiscal year ending December 31, 2022; the final effective date will be determined in conjunction with its issuance of the final rules.

The best CECL approach 

The best approach to take? Management should discuss planned changes to estimate the process with your auditors to get their perspective on best practices under CECL. Key areas to review in the discussion include documenting the decision-making process, key players involved, and the resulting review and approval process (especially for changes to methods or assumptions). Always retain copies of your final documentation for auditor review. If you would like more information, or have a specific question about your situation, please contact the team. We’re here to help. 

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BerryDunn experts and consultants

Leah is a Senior Auditor in BerryDunn’s Financial Services Group and is involved in audit and accounting engagements for financial service providers and employee benefit plans. Leah helps financial service provider clients with a variety of issues including implementing new or complex accounting standards, best practice guidance, and financial statement reporting.

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Leah Clair

Read this if you paid wages for qualified sick and family leave in 2021.

The IRS has issued guidance to employers on year-end reporting for sick and family leave wages that were paid in 2021 to eligible employees under recent federal legislation.

IRS Notice 2021-53, issued on September 7, 2021, provides that employers must report “qualified leave wages” either on a 2021 Form W-2 or on a separate statement, including:

  • Qualified leave wages paid from January 1, 2021 through March 31, 2021 (Q1) under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), as amended by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA).
  • Qualified leave wages paid from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021 (Q2 and Q3) under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA).

The notice also explains how employees who are also self-employed should report such paid leave. This guidance builds on IRS Notice 2020-54, issued in July 2020, which explained the reporting requirements for 2020 qualified leave wages.

Employers should work with their IT department and/or payroll service provider as soon as possible to review the payroll system, earnings codes configuration and W-2 mapping to ensure that these paid leave wages are captured timely and accurately for year-end W-2 reporting.

FFCRA and ARPA tax credits background

In March 2020, the FFCRA imposed a federal mandate requiring eligible employers to provide paid sick and family leave from April 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020, up to specified limits, to employees unable to work due to certain COVID-related circumstances. The FFCRA provided fully refundable tax credits to cover the cost of the mandatory leave.

In December 2020, the CAA extended the FFCRA tax credits through March 31, 2021, for paid leave that would have met the FFCRA requirements (except that the leave was optional, not mandatory). The ARPA further extended the credits for paid leave through September 30, 2021, if the leave would have met the FFCRA requirements.

In addition to employer tax credits, under the CAA, a self-employed individual may claim refundable qualified sick and family leave equivalent credits if the individual was unable to work during Q1 due to certain COVID-related circumstances. The ARPA extended the availability of the credits for self-employed individuals through September 30, 2021. However, an eligible self-employed individual may have to reduce the qualified leave equivalent credits by some (or all) of the qualified leave wages the individual received as an employee from an employer.

Reporting requirements to claim the refundable tax credits

Eligible employers who claim the refundable tax credits under the FFCRA or ARPA must separately report qualified sick and family leave wages to their employees. Employers who forgo claiming such credits are not subject to the reporting requirements.

Qualified leave wages paid in 2021 under the FFCRA and ARPA must be reported in Box 1 of the employee’s 2021 Form W-2. Qualified leave wages that are Social Security wages or Medicare wages must be included in boxes 3 and 5, respectively. To the extent the qualified leave wages are compensation subject to the Railroad Retirement Tax Act (RRTA), they must also be included in box 14 under the appropriate RRTA reporting labels.

In addition, employers must report to the employee the following types and amounts of wages that were paid, with each amount separately reported either in box 14 of the 2021 Form W-2 or on a separate statement:

  • The total amount of qualified sick leave wages paid for reasons described in paragraphs (1), (2), or (3) of Section 5102(a) of the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA)1  with respect to leave provided to employees during the period beginning on January 1, 2021, through March 31, 2021. The following, or similar language, must be used to label this amount: “Sick leave wages subject to the $511 per day limit paid for leave taken after December 31, 2020, and before April 1, 2021.”
  • The total amount of qualified sick leave wages paid for reasons described in paragraphs (4), (5), or (6) of Section 5102(a) of the EPSLA with respect to leave provided to employees during the period beginning on January 1, 2021, through March 31, 2021. The following, or similar language, must be used to label this amount: “Sick leave wages subject to the $200 per day limit paid for leave taken after December 31, 2020, and before April 1, 2021.”
  • The total amount of qualified family leave wages paid to the employee under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA) with respect to leave provided to employees during the period beginning on January 1, 2021, through March 31, 2021. The following, or similar language, must be used to label this amount: “Emergency family leave wages paid for leave taken after December 31, 2020, and before April 1, 2021.”
  • The total amount of qualified sick leave wages paid for reasons described in paragraphs (1), (2), or (3) of Section 5102(a) of the EPSLA with respect to leave provided to employees during the period beginning on April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. The following, or similar language, must be used to label this amount: “Sick leave wages subject to the $511 per day limit paid for leave taken after March 31, 2021, and before October 1, 2021.”
  • The total amount of qualified sick leave wages paid for reasons described in paragraphs (4), (5), and (6) of Section 5102(a) of the EPSLA with respect to leave provided to employees during the period beginning on April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. The following, or similar language, must be used to label this amount: “Sick leave wages subject to the $200 per day limit paid for leave taken after March 31, 2021, and before October 1, 2021.”
  • The total amount of qualified family leave wages paid to the employee under the EFMLEA with respect to leave provided to employees during the period beginning on April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. The following, or similar language, must be used to label this amount: Emergency family leave wages paid for leave taken after March 31, 2021, and before October 1, 2021.”

If an employer chooses to provide a separate statement and the employee receives a paper 2021 Form W-2, then the statement must be included with the Form W-2 sent to the employee. If the employee receives an electronic 2021 Form W-2, then the statement must be provided in the same manner and at the same time as the Form W-2.

In addition to the above required information, the notice also suggests that employers provide additional information about qualified sick and family leave wages that explains that these wages may limit the amount of the qualified sick leave equivalent or qualified family leave equivalent credits to which the employee may be entitled with respect to any self-employment income.

For more information

If you have more questions, or have a specific question about your particular situation, please call us. We’re here to help.

 1Employees are eligible for qualified sick leave under EPSLA if the employee:

  • Was subject to a federal, state or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19;
  • Had been advised by a health-care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19;
  • Experienced symptoms of COVID-19 and was seeking a medical diagnosis;
  • Was caring for an individual who was subject to a quarantine order related to COVID-19, or had been advised by a health-care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19;
  • Was caring for a son or daughter of such employee, if the school or place of care of the son or daughter had been closed, or the child-care provider of such son or daughter was unavailable, due to COVID-19; or
  • Was experiencing any other substantially similar condition specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Article
IRS guidance to employers: Year-end reporting requirements for qualified sick and family leave wages

Read this if you are a community bank.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) recently issued its second quarter 2021 Quarterly Banking Profile. The report provides financial information based on Call Reports filed by 4,951 FDIC-insured commercial banks and savings institutions. The report also contains a section specific to community bank performance. In second quarter 2021, this section included the financial information of 4,490 FDIC-insured community banks. BerryDunn’s key takeaways from the community bank section of the report are as follows:

  • There was a $1.9 billion increase in quarterly net income from a year prior despite continued net interest margin (NIM) compression. This increase was mainly due to higher net interest income and lower provision expenses. Net interest income had increased $1.4 billion due to 1) lower interest expense, 2) higher commercial and industrial (C&I) loan interest income, and 3) loan fees earned through the payoff and forgiveness of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Provision expense decreased $2.3 billion from second quarter 2020. However, it remained positive at $46.1 million. For non-community banks, provision expense was negative $10.8 billion for second quarter 2021.
  • Quarterly NIM declined 26 basis points from second quarter 2020 to 3.25%. The average yield on earning assets fell 57 basis points to 3.57% while the average funding cost fell 31 basis points to 0.32%. Both of which are record lows.
  • Net operating revenue (net interest income plus non-interest income) increased by $1.6 billion from second quarter 2020, a 6.5% increase. This increase is attributable to higher revenue from service charges on deposit accounts (increased $134.8 million, or 23.5%, during the year ending second quarter 2021) and an increase in “all other noninterest income,” including, but not limited to, bankcard and credit card interchange fees, income and fees from wire transfers, and income and fees from automated teller machines (up $203.6 million, or 9.3%, during the year ending second quarter 2021).
  • Non-interest expense increased 7.8% from second quarter 2020. This increase was mainly attributable to salary and benefit expenses, which saw an increase of $688.2 million (7.8%). That being said, average assets per employee increased 8.4% from second quarter 2020. Non-interest expense as a percentage of average assets declined 18 basis points from second quarter 2020.
  • Noncurrent loan balances (loans 90 days or more past due or in nonaccrual status) declined by $894.6 million, or 7.1%, from first quarter 2021. The noncurrent rate improved 5 basis points to 0.68% from first quarter 2021.
  • The coverage ratio (allowance for loan and lease losses as a percentage of loans that are 90 days or more past due or in nonaccrual status) increased 39.8 percentage points year-over-year to 191.7%, a record high, due to declines in noncurrent loans. This ratio is well above the financial crisis average of 64.5%. The coverage ratio for community banks is 15.4 percentage points above the coverage ratio for non-community banks.
  • Eighty-eight community banks had adopted current expected credit loss (CECL) accounting as of second quarter. Community bank CECL adopters reported negative provision expense of $208.3 million in the second quarter compared to positive $254.5 million for community banks that have not yet adopted CECL.
  • Net charge-offs declined 8 basis points from second quarter 2020 to 0.05%. The net charge-off rate for consumer loans declined most among major loan categories, having decreased 51 basis points.
  • Trends in loans and leases showed a slight decrease from first quarter 2021, decreasing by 0.5%. This decrease was mainly seen in the C&I loan category, which was driven by a $38.3 billion decrease in PPP loan balances. The decrease in PPP loans was driven by the payoff and forgiveness of such loans. Despite the decrease in loans quarter-over-quarter, total loans and leases increased by $5.7 billion (0.3%) from second quarter 2020. The majority of growth was seen in commercial real estate portfolios (up $61.7 billion, or 8.9%), which helped to offset the decline in C&I, agricultural production, and 1-4 family mortgage loans during the year.
  • Two-thirds of community banks reported an increase in deposit volume during the second quarter. Growth in deposits above the insurance limit, $250,000, increased by $47.8 billion, or 4.7%, while alternative funding sources, such as brokered deposits, declined by $3.8 billion, or 6.7%, from first quarter 2021. 
  • The average community bank leverage ratio (CBLR) for the 1,789 banks that elected to use the CBLR framework was 11%.
  • The number of community banks declined by 38 to 4,490 from first quarter 2021. This change includes two new community banks, 12 banks transitioning from community to non-community banks, one bank transitioning from non-community to community bank, 27 community bank mergers or consolidations, and two community bank self-liquidations.

Second quarter 2021 was another strong quarter for community banks, as evidenced by the increase in year-over-year quarterly net income of 28.7% ($1.9 billion). However, tightening NIMs will force community banks to find creative ways to increase their NIM, grow their earning asset bases, or find ways to continue to increase non-interest income to maintain current net income levels. Some community banks have already started dedicating more time to non-traditional income streams, as evidenced by a 4.3% year-over-year increase in quarterly non-interest income. The importance of the efficiency ratio (non-interest expense as a percentage of total revenue) is also magnified as community banks attempt to manage their non-interest expenses in light of declining NIMs. Banks appear to be strongly focusing on non-interest expense management, as seen by the 18 basis point decline from second quarter 2020 in non-interest expense as a percentage of average assets, although inflated balance sheets may have something to do with the decrease in the percentage.

Furthermore, much uncertainty still exists. For instance, although significant charge-offs have not yet materialized, the financial picture for many borrowers remains uncertain. And, payment deferrals have made some credit quality indicators, such as past due status, less reliable. Payment deferrals for many borrowers are coming to a halt. So, the true financial picture of these borrowers may start to come into focus. The ability of community banks to maintain relationships with their borrowers and remain apprised of the results of their borrowers’ operations has never been more important. This monitoring will become increasingly important as we transition into a post-pandemic economy. For seasonal borrowers, current indications, such as the most recent results from the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book, show that economic activity was relatively strong over the summer of 2021. However, supply chain pressures and labor shortages could put a damper on the uptick in economic activity for these borrowers, making a successful transition into the “off-season” months that much more important. 

Also, as offices start to open, employers will start to reassess their office needs. Many employers have either created or revised remote working policies due to changing employee behavior. If remote working schedules persist, whether it be full-time or hybrid, the demand for office space may decline, causing instability for commercial real estate borrowers. Recent inflation concerns have also created uncertainty surrounding future Federal Reserve monetary policy. If an increase in the federal funds target rate is used to combat inflation, community banks could see their NIMs in another transitory stage.

As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out to BerryDunn’s Financial Services team if you have any questions.

Article
FDIC Issues its Second Quarter 2021 Quarterly Banking Profile

Read this if you are responsible for meeting your broker-dealer’s annual report filing requirement under Securities Exchange Act (SEA) Section 15.

In February, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approved a 30-day extension for eligible broker-dealers to file their annual reports, effective immediately. Firms that meet the criteria should consider taking advantage of the filing extension. Here are a few details and tips to help broker-dealers understand more about the 30‑day extension.

SEA Section 15 filing extension background

Normally, each broker-dealer registered under Securities Exchange Act (SEA) Section 15 must file annual reports—including financial and compliance or exemption reports, along with those prepared by an independent accountant—no more than 60 days after the broker-dealer’s fiscal year ends. But in light of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) requested that the SEC allow broker-dealers an extra 30 days to file their annual reports. The extension, FINRA argued, would allow broker-dealers more time to obtain audit services.

Criteria for broker-dealers eligible for the extension

To qualify for a filing extension of 30 calendar days, a broker-dealer must meet the following criteria:

  1. Was in compliance with 15c3-1 (Net Capital) as of its most recent fiscal year end and had total capital and allowable subordinated liabilities of less than $50 million,
  2. Is permitted to file an exemption report as part of its most recent fiscal year-end annual reports,
  3. Submits written notification to FINRA and the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) of its intent to rely on this order on an ongoing basis for as long as it meets the conditions of the order, and
  4. Files the annual report electronically with the SEC using an appropriate process.

The extension does not apply to just this year alone. It is understood to be in effect on an ongoing basis.

How to notify FINRA of your intent to take advantage of the extension

Broker-dealers that meet the aforementioned conditions are required to notify FINRA of their intent to take advantage of the extension. FINRA advises eligible broker-dealers to send an email to their Risk Monitoring Analyst with a message structured according to the following template:

“My firm wishes to have an additional 30 calendar days for filing its annual report on an ongoing basis for as long as my firm meets the conditions set forth in the SEC Order of February 12, 2021, regarding additional time for filing annual reports under SEA Rule 17a-5.”

How to file electronically

In addition to notifying FINRA, those looking to benefit from the extension are required to file electronically. There are multiple ways to do so, but the most user-friendly and efficient avenue to electronic filing is through the SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) system.

Using the EDGAR system, broker-dealers must upload only two attachments maximum. The EDGAR system offers two options for electronic filing:

  1. The broker-dealer could attach one document containing all the annual reports as a public document; or
  2. The broker-dealer could attach two documents to its submission: (1) a public document containing the statement of financial condition, the notes to the statement of financial condition and the accountant’s report which covers the statement of financial condition, and (2) a non-public document containing all the components of the annual reports.

Implications for annual filings

An upcoming filing deadline is a stressful event, especially for broker-dealers contending with the upheaval of the past 18 months. Fortunately, FINRA has advocated on their behalf, and the SEC has complied by offering a 30-day filing extension.

The extension provides broker-dealers excess time to review documents and schedule a session with their auditor. Auditors will likely appreciate the extension as well, as it allows them to serve their various clients over a longer period of time, alleviating some of the pressure traditionally associated with filing season.

For these reasons and more, broker-dealers who qualify are encouraged to take the steps required to benefit from this grace period. If you have questions or would like more information, please contact our broker-dealer consulting team. We're here to help.

Article
Eligible broker-dealers: Take advantage of SEC's 30-day filing extension

Read this if you are a plan sponsor of employee benefit plans.

This article is the ninth in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. You can read the previous articles here

Employee benefit plan loan basics 

If your plan’s adoption agreement is set up to allow loans, participants can borrow against their account balance. Some participants may find this an attractive option as the interest they pay on the loan is returned to their retirement account as opposed to other loans where the interest is paid to the lender. 

Additionally, while interest is charged at the market rate, it may be lower than other options available to the participant, such as a credit card or other unsecured debt. Unlike hardship distributions, there are no restrictions on the circumstances under which a participant may take a loan. A potential downside is that if the borrower defaults on the loan or ends their employment and cannot repay the loan in full, it converts from a loan to a deemed distribution, potentially incurring taxes and penalties.

If a participant decides that an employee benefit plan loan is their best option, they will apply for the loan through your plan administrator. Loans are limited in both size and quantity. Participants may take loans up to 50% of their vested account balance with a maximum loan of $50,000. The provisions of a plan determine how many loans an employee may have at once; however, the combined loan balances cannot exceed 50% of the employee’s vested balance or $50,000. Furthermore, the $50,000 loan maximum must also consider payments made on loans within the previous 12 months.

Repayment of employee benefit plan loans

Repayment of employee benefit plan loans may be done through after tax payroll contributions, making it a relatively easy process for the participant. If a plan sponsor elects to provide this repayment option, they must ensure that repayments are remitted to the plan in a timely manner, just as they must with other employee funded contributions. The term of the loan is typically limited to five years and must be repaid in at least quarterly installments. However, a loan can be extended to as long as thirty years if specified within the plan’s loan policy. If the loan term is for longer than five years, the loan proceeds must be used to purchase a primary residence.

Like any source of debt, there are pros and cons to taking out an employee benefit plan loan, and it remains an important option for participants to understand. The benefits include the ease of applying for such a loan and loan interest that is then added to the participant’s retirement account balance. Potential pitfalls include lost earnings during the loan period and the risk of the loan becoming a deemed distribution if the participant is unable to repay within the allotted time. 

If you would like more information, or have specific questions about your specific situation, please contact our Employee Benefits Audit team.

Article
Retirement plan loans: A brief review

Read this if you are at a financial institution that uses FedLine® Solutions.

In response to an evolving security threat landscape, the Federal Reserve Bank has implemented a Security and Resiliency Assurance Program (“Assurance Program”). Financial institutions that use FedLine® Solutions will need to take action before year-end to comply with Assurance Program requirements. Here’s what you need to know.

Required assessment to be completed annually

Financial institutions are already required to implement, maintain, and assess technical and procedural security controls to safeguard their FedLine® connections. Starting in 2021, financial institutions must conduct an assessment of their compliance with the Federal Reserve Bank's FedLine® security requirements and submit an attestation that they have completed the assessment. The deadline for submitting the first attestation is December 31, 2021. Moving forward, this assessment and attestation must be completed annually.

This assessment can be performed internally by an independent internal department/function such as an internal audit or compliance department. The Federal Reserve Bank may, in its discretion, require the assessment be conducted or reviewed by an independent third party. End User Authorization Contacts (EUAC) for each organization were sent an Assurance Program kick-off packet with requirements and instructions in January 2021 to assist with the process. 

Immediate action 

Evaluate the requirements for your financial institution’s Assurance Program assessment as soon as possible. Planning for the 2021 assessment should be well underway. If you would like to discuss the Assurance Program requirements or you’ve been notified that your financial institution needs an independent third party review, contact us today.

Article
The Federal Reserve's FedLine® Solutions Security and Resiliency Assurance Program

Read this if you have a blended workforce with both in-office employees and remote workers.

It is hard to believe it has been nearly a year and a half since we started our remote work journey. At the time, many thought the move to working remotely would be short term. Then, a couple of weeks turned into a month, a month into another month, another month into a year and, some employers are now finally considering re-opening their offices.

Back in April 2020, we provided some internal control challenges, and potential solutions, faced by working in a remote environment. These challenges included exercising appropriate tone at the top, maintaining appropriate segregation of duties, and ensuring timely review, amongst others. Although these challenges still exist, there are new considerations to address as we transition into (hopefully) a post-pandemic world.

Blended workforces

As we mentioned in that article, since people have now been forced to work in a remote environment, they will be more apt to continue to do so. For some employees, the perks of ditching that long commute outweighs the free coffee they receive in the office. Employers have a decision to make—do we allow our employees the option to continue to work from home or, do we require employees to work from the office, as was standard pre-pandemic? Now that employees have exhibited the ability to work from home efficiently and effectively, it may be difficult to move all employees back into the office. Requiring all employees to return to the office could result in employees seeking employment elsewhere, and the option to work remotely is a selling point for many recruiters. Furthermore, disallowing remote work could cause employees to feel distrusted or undervalued, possibly leading to less efficient and effective work.

However, remote work comes with many challenges. Although video chat has been instrumental in navigating the remote work environment, it still has limitations. Nothing can beat in-person conversations and the relationships they help build. Nearly every video chat has a purpose, and unfortunately, you can’t just “run” into somebody in a video chat as you can in the office. Building camaraderie and instilling your company’s culture is difficult in a remote environment. And, if your workforce is blended, with some working in the office while others work remotely, building culture may be even more difficult than if your entire workforce was remote. Employees in the office may be less apt to communicate with remote colleagues. If you have a task you wish to delegate, you may think of giving the assignment to someone in the office prior to thinking of your remote co-workers that may be just as able and willing to complete the assignment. It will be important to ensure all employees are provided with equal opportunities, no matter of where they work.

Remote work policy

Regardless of your company’s decision to allow employees to work remotely or not, we recommend developing a remote work policy addressing expected behaviors. When developing such a policy, consider:

  •  Will the policy’s provisions apply to the entire company or will there be different provisions by department? If the latter, consider what the implications may be on employee morale.
  • Will there be a minimum amount of days per week that must be spent in the office?
  • If employees are allowed to work remotely, do they need to work a set schedule or can the frequency, and which days they work remotely, change from week to week?
  • Who should the employee communicate their decision to? How will this information then be shared company-wide?
  • How do remote employees address document destruction? If they are handling sensitive and confidential documents, how should they dispose of these documents?
  • Similarly, what are the expectations for protecting sensitive and confidential information at home?
  • Are employees allowed to hook up company-provided equipment to personal devices, such as personal printers?
  • If an employee is customer/client facing, what are the expectations for dress code and backgrounds for video chat meetings?
  • What will staff development look like for individuals working remotely? Alternatively, what will their involvement look like in onboarding/developing new employees?
  • What are the expectations for meetings? Will all meetings be set up in a manner that accommodates in-person and remote attendees? Are there meetings where in-person attendance is mandatory?

The importance of these considerations will likely differ from company to company. Some of these considerations may be addressed in other, already existing policies.

Are your internal controls “blended workforce” ready?

If your company plans to allow employees to work remotely, you will need to assess if your internal controls make sense for both in-office and remote employees. Typically, internal controls are written in a manner irrespective of where the employee resides. However, there may be situations that require an internal control be re-worked to accommodate in-office and remote employees. For instance, do you have an internal control that references a specific report that can only be run in-office? If the control owner plans to transition to a hybrid work schedule, does the frequency of the internal control need to change to reflect the employee’s new schedule? Alternatively, does it make sense to transition this internal control to someone else that will be in the office more frequently?

Internal control accommodations

The transition to a remote environment was expeditious and many thought the remote environment would be over quickly. As a result, there may have been modifications to internal controls that were made out of necessity, although they were not ideal from an internal control standpoint. The rationale for these accommodations may have been the expectation that the remote environment would be short-lived. Although these accommodations may have made sense for a short amount of time, and posed little to no additional risk to your company, the longer these accommodations remained in effect, the greater the chance for unintended consequences. 

We recommend reviewing your internal controls and creating a log of any internal control accommodations that were made due to the pandemic. Some of these modifications may continue to make sense and, after operating under the new internal control for an extended period of time, may even be preferable to the previous internal control. However, for those modifications that do appear to have increased control risk, control owners should assess if the length of the pandemic could have resulted in inadequately designed internal controls. And, if so, what could the consequences of these poorly designed internal controls have been to the company?

Internal control vs. process

While reviewing your company’s internal controls, it will also be a good time to ensure your internal control descriptions actually describe an internal control rather than simply a process. Although having well-documented processes for your company’s various transaction cycles is important, a good internal control description should already incorporate the process within it. Think of your internal control descriptions as writing a story—the “process” provides background information on the characters and setting, while the “internal control” is the story’s plot.

For example: The Accounting Manager downloads the market values from the investment portfolio accounting system and enters the market values into the general ledger on a monthly basis. Once the journal entry is entered, the Accounting Manager provides the market value report and a copy of the journal entry to the Controller.

Although a savvy reader may be able to identify where the internal control points are within this process, it could easily be modified to explicitly include discussion of the actual internal controls. The text in bold below represents modifications to the original:

The Accounting Manager downloads the market values from the investment portfolio accounting system and enters the market values into the general ledger on a monthly basis. Once the journal entry is entered, the Accounting Manager provides the market value report and a copy of the journal entry to the Controller via email. This email serves as documentation of preparation of the journal entry by the Accounting Manager. The Controller then reviews the market value report against the journal entry for accuracy. Once approved, the Controller posts the journal entry and replies to the email to indicate their review and approval. The Accounting Manager saves the email chain as auditable evidence.

The text additions in bold font help provide a complete story. A new employee could easily read this description and understand what they need to do, and how to appropriately document it. Most importantly, the internal control is both in-office and remote environment friendly.

Transitioning back to the office has resulted in a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Routine office norms, such as shaking hands and having a spontaneous meeting over a cup of coffee need to be relearned. Likewise, policies and internal controls need to be revisited to address the changing landscape. The more proactive your company can be, the better positioned it will be to accommodate its employees’ demands, while also maximizing the effectiveness of its internal controls. Please contact David Stone or Dan Vogt if any questions arise.

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May the "blended workforce be with you": Policy and internal control considerations for a new era

Read this if you are a plan sponsor of employee benefit plans.

This article is the eighth in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. You can read the previous articles here

The Department of Labor regulations regarding service provider fee disclosures clarify that plan fiduciaries are responsible for assessing the reasonableness of fees charged to plans in relation to services performed. 

Before a plan fiduciary is able to assess the reasonableness of plan fees, the fiduciary has to receive required fee disclosures from their covered service provider. A covered service provider is considered a party that enters into an agreement with a covered plan to provide certain services. The range of services provided generally include recordkeeping services, investment adviser services, accounting services, auditing services, actuarial services, appraisals, banking, consulting, legal services, third party administration services, or valuation services provided to the plan.

In general, the covered service providers are required to provide the plan fiduciary a disclosure of the following information:

  • All expected services and fees, and
  • All direct and indirect compensation
    • Direct compensation are fees paid to the service providers from the plan
    • Indirect compensation are fees paid to the service providers from sources other than the plan, the plan sponsor, the covered service provider, or an affiliate 

Once the service provider fee disclosures are received, the responsible plan fiduciary must assess the reasonableness of the fees in relation to the services provided. There are numerous ways a plan fiduciary can determine if the fees are reasonable. The following are some of the most common ways to determine if the plan expenses are reasonable:

  • Complete a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Information (RFI) process that compares at least two vendors.
  • Complete a plan “benchmarking” project. The responsible plan fiduciary can have an independent organization compare the fees charged to the plan to plans of similar size and characteristics. Failure to determine the reasonableness of the fees charged can result in a prohibited transaction. The responsible plan fiduciary should determine and document whether the fees are reasonable. Documentation should also include the steps taken to make this determination.

It is important to remember that failure to assess the reasonableness of the service provider fees can result in a prohibited transaction. Documentation of the assessment process, including steps taken to make a determination on fee reasonableness, is the best way to avoid having a prohibited transaction.

If you have any questions while assessing your service providers’ fees, please contact our Employee Benefits Audit team.
 

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Service provider fee disclosures: Understanding the process

Read this if you are a timber harvester, hauler, or timberland owner.

The USDA recently announced its Pandemic Assistance for Timber Harvesters and Haulers (PATHH) initiative to provide financial assistance to timber harvesting and hauling businesses as a result of the pandemic. Businesses may be eligible for up to $125,000 in financial assistance through this initiative. 

Who qualifies for the assistance?

To qualify for assistance under PATHH, the business must have experienced a loss of at least 10% of gross revenue from January, 1, 2020 through December 1, 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019. Also, individuals or legal entities must be a timber harvesting or timber hauling businesses where 50% or more of its revenue is derived from one of the following:

  • Cutting timber
  • Transporting timber
  • Processing wood on-site on the forest land

What is the timeline for applying for the assistance?

Timber harvesting or timber hauling businesses can apply for financial assistance through the USDA from July 22, 2021 through October 15, 2021

Visit the USDA website for more information on the program, requirements, and how to apply.
If you have any questions about your specific situation, please contact our Natural Resources team. We’re here to help. 

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Temporary USDA assistance program for timber harvesters and haulers