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In a U.S. publicly traded company, an audit committee is an operating committee of the Board of Directors charged with oversight of financial reporting and disclosure. Committee members are drawn from members of the company's board of directors, with a Chairperson selected from among the committee members. A qualifying (cf. paragraph "Composition" below) audit committee is required for a U.S. publicly traded company to be listed on a stock exchange. Audit committees are typically empowered to acquire the consulting resources and expertise deemed necessary to perform their responsibilities.
The role of audit committees continues to evolve as a result of the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Many audit committees also have oversight of regulatory compliance and risk management activities.
Not for profit entities may also have an audit committee.
Usually, membership of the Committee is subject to the maximum number of 6 persons.
Boards of Directors and their committees rely on management to run the daily operations of the business. The Board's role is better described as oversight or monitoring, rather than execution. Responsibilities of the audit committee typically include:
The duties of an audit committee are typically described in a committee charter, often available on the entity's website.
Audit committees typically review financial reports quarterly and annually in publicly traded companies. In addition, members will often discuss complex accounting estimates and judgments made by management and the implementation of new accounting principles or regulations. Audit committees interact regularly with senior financial management such as the CFO and Controller and are in a position to comment on the capabilities of these managers. Should significant problems with accounting practices or personnel be identified or alleged, a special investigation may be directed by the audit committee, using outside consulting resources as deemed necessary.
External auditors are also required to report to the committee on a variety of matters, such as their views on management's selection of accounting principles, accounting adjustments arising from their audits, any disagreement or difficulties encountered in working with management, and any identified fraud or illegal acts.
Audit committees typically approve selection of the external auditor. The external auditor (also called a public accounting firm) reviews the entity's financial statements quarterly and issues an opinion on the accuracy of the entity's annual financial statements. Changing an external auditor typically also requires audit committee approval. Audit committees also help ensure the external auditor is independent, meaning no conflicts of interest exist that might interfere with the auditor's ability to issue its opinion on the financial statements.
Audit committees discuss litigation or regulatory compliance risks with management, generally via briefings or reports from the General Counsel, the top lawyer in the entity. Larger corporations may also have a Chief Compliance Officer or Ethics Officer that report incidents or risks related to the entity's code of conduct.
Internal control includes the policies and practices used to control the operations, accounting, and regulatory compliance of the entity. Management and both the internal auditing function and external auditors provide reporting to the audit committee regarding the effectiveness and efficiency of internal control.
Organizations have a variety of functions that perform activities to understand and address risks that threaten the achievement of the organization's objectives. The policies and practices used by the entity to identify, prioritize, and respond to the risks (or opportunities) are typically discussed with the audit committee. Having such a discussion is required for listing on the New York stock exchange. Many organizations are developing their practices towards a goal of a risk-based management approach called Enterprise risk management. Audit committee involvement in non-financial risk topics varies significantly by entity. Dr. Ram Charan has argued for risk management early warning systems at the corporate board level.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 increased audit committees’ responsibilities and authority. It raised membership requirements and committee composition to include more independent directors. Companies were required to disclose whether or not a financial expert is on the Committee. Further, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the stock exchanges proposed new regulations and rules to strengthen audit committees.
Below are a few key milestones in the evolution of audit committees:
Audit committees typically use a full year agenda to ensure coverage of the various topics they are required to address. The agenda for each meeting, which is typically quarterly or more often, is then adjusted as necessary. Establishing the agenda is a collaborative effort between the Board, senior management, legal counsel, and both the internal and external auditors. It is important that the committee have its own perspective on what key issues it should address and these should be reflected in the agenda.
"The work of the audit committee can only be valuable if sufficient time is allotted on the board agenda for the audit committee to present the results of its work. The audit committee should also feel that the board is taking appropriate action on its report."
Many audit committee chairpersons conduct interim calls with key members of management between quarterly meetings. Key contacts may include the CEO, CFO, Chief Auditor, and external audit partner. Many boards also schedule dinners prior to formal meetings that allow informal interaction with management. Some companies also require their boards to spend a certain amount of time learning their operations beyond board meeting attendance.
These are formally scheduled private meetings between the audit committee and key members of management or the external auditor. These meetings typically are unstructured and provide the opportunity for the committee to obtain the feedback of these managers in private. A key question audit committee members ask in such sessions is: "Is there anything you would like to bring to our attention?"
Audit committees should complete a self-evaluation annually to identify improvement opportunities. This involves comparing the committee's performance versus its charter, any formal guidelines and rules, and against best practices. Such a review is confidential and may or may not include evaluations of particular members.
In a 2011 study, the Council of Europe concluded that: “The Benchmarking results from a sample of 15 international organisations in Europe show that 11 have an audit committee (of which the name may vary from Audit Committee, Advisory Committee on Audits, Audit Advisory Board, Audit Progress Committee, Finance and Audit Committee, Independent Advisory Oversight Committee, Independent Audit Advisory Committee of Experts) and in seven, the Audit committee plays a role in the selection of the External Auditor".
A 2009 study on 23 international organisations showed that 10 had an Audit Committee and 3 considered having one in future, with 8 reporting to the Governing Body level and 2 reporting to DG/Executive Director level. The sizes of all Audit Committees were between 3 and 9 members, with 5 committees having a mix of external expert members and internal members.
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