Groupon: You Must Have Fallen From The Sky

Groupon: You Must Have Fallen From The Sky

Last week was Groupon's big week, although not in a good way. What happened? Well, the premier source of daily deal dish got knocked down a few more pegs after announcing a revision to 4th quarter earnings and the announcement by management that there was a material weakness in internal controls over financial reporting that was causing their disclosure controls to be ineffective. Groupon went public just a few months ago, last November, and the annual report was the company's first filing as a public company.

Here's one of the few journalists who got the details right, Jonathan Weil of Bloomberg, explaining why, in this case, the news was especially bad:

Didn't Groupon know before its initial public offering that its controls were weak? A company spokesman, Paul Taaffe, declined to comment. Let's assume for the moment, though, that its executives did know. Even then, they wouldn't have had to tell investors beforehand.

That's because there is no requirement to disclose a control weakness in a company's IPO prospectus. Groupon would have had no obligation to disclose the problem until it filed its first quarterly or annual report as a public company - which is what it did. Sandbagging IPO investors in this manner is perfectly legal, it turns out.

The reason lies with a gaping hole in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which Congress passed in 2002 in response to the accounting scandals at Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc. That statute had two main sections related to companies' internal controls, which are the systems and processes that companies are supposed to have in place to ensure the information they report is accurate. Those provisions apply only to companies that are public already, not ones that have registered for IPOs.

One section, called 302, requires public companies' top executives to evaluate each quarter whether their disclosure controls and procedures are effective. The other section, known as 404, is better known. It requires public companies in their annual reports to include assessments by management and outside auditors about the effectiveness of their internal controls over financial reporting. Congress left it to the Securities and Exchange Commission to write the rules implementing those provisions.

Here's where it gets tricky. Groupon reported the weakness in its financial-reporting controls through a Section 302 disclosure, not a Section 404 report. In other words, the problem was serious enough that it amounted to a shortcoming in the company's overall disclosure controls.

Groupon won't have to comply with Section 404's requirements until its second annual report, due next year, under an exemption the SEC passed in 2006 for newly public companies. Likewise, Groupon's auditor, Ernst & Young LLP, to date has expressed no opinion on the company's internal controls in its audit reports.

From the moment Groupon announced the revision on March 30, there were two important facts that almost all major media financial journalists got wrong:

1) The announcement of lower revenue and lower income for the fourth quarter was a revision of an earnings release, not a restatement. Groupon never filed a 10Q so there was no SEC filing to restate. Fessing up to the right numbers in the annual report was the first time the company was bound to report those numbers and, at that time, they corrected previously announced earnings for the 4th Quarter.

2) Management made the assessment of the material weakness in internal controls over financial reporting that caused disclosure controls to be ineffective, not auditor Ernst & Young. Ernst & Young deserves no credit for the announcement, nor any blame, just yet, for the fact that the weaknesses had to be finally admitted. There is no transparency regarding the auditor's agreement or disagreement previously with Groupon, any public documentation of their discussions or any reason to believe Ernst & Young either encouraged or discouraged Groupon to get their act together sooner.

We just don't know.

What we do know is that Ernst & Young signed the fourth clean audit opinion when it signed the audit report included in Groupon's annual report. With the three audited financial statements included in the S-1, we can assume that control weaknesses Ernst & Young was aware of, if they were aware of any, were not serious enough in their opinion to qualify the audit opinion.

Read this article in its entirety at the re: The Auditors, a blog by Francine McKenna.

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