Investors can be better served by more concise annual reports, and companies are advised to review the content and layout of publications to improve clarity and give material information greater prominence, according to the Financial Reporting Lab.
The Lab, set up by the UK’s Financial Reporting Council, conducted a review of recent annual reports published by 41 FTSE 350 companies. Based on this overview of current practice, the Lab issued Towards Clear & Concise Reporting, which provides guidance and suggestions on how to produce more relevant reports and accounts to enable investors to draw conclusions about the firm’s performance and prospects.
“Now is an ideal time for companies to think about how to take steps to make their next annual reports clearer and more concise,” Sue Harding, director of the Financial Reporting Lab, said in a news release.
The Lab encourages companies to review the content and layout of their annual reports to:
- Identify any sections that are no longer relevant to market conditions or reporting requirements and can be cut.
- Identify any immaterial disclosures or standing information that could be appropriately housed on the company website rather than in the report.
Committee terms of reference and five-year financial summaries are some sections that can sit on the company website.
- Consider whether the information provided meets users’ needs.
For example, information on the specific approaches to particular issues adopted by a committee during the year is of greater interest to investors than a description of process and policy.
Similarly, when considering which significant accounting policies to include in the document, companies should choose investor priorities such as when IFRS offers a choice of policy and any policies that are important or unique to the businesses operations, refer to distinct revenue streams, or whose application involved significant estimation or judgement.
Some of the companies reviewed send members a stand-alone strategic report with supplementary material instead of the full annual report. A number of these companies also provide complementary information such as Q&As and case studies to target the interests of a subset of shareholders more effectively.
- Consider layout and use cross-referencing and signposting to information held elsewhere to reduce duplication.
Suggested ways to aid conciseness include placing current and comparative data side by side, rather than in separate tables. Removing sections that repeat data from the table in narrative form was another strategy adopted by companies in the review. Elsewhere, statements from various members of the board should be used effectively to focus on distinct themes and avoid duplicating information found in other sections.
The report highlights the efforts made by two of the companies studied to provide clearer and more concise publications.
Significant growth in the business and new disclosure requirements prompted the Prudential financial services group to reconsider the content of its annual report. Priorities for the task included improving narrative explanation and linkages between sections.
In the first stage of the process, unnecessary duplication and information that was no longer relevant were removed from the 2012 edition. Though changes in regulation provided a challenge for the 2013 report, a further reduction in the page count was achieved. One of the contributing factors was using the group’s business model as a framework for discussion of strategy and segment performance. With regard to presentation, the format of the financial tables in the preliminary announcement and full financial statements in the annual report were aligned. Between 2011 and 2013, Prudential streamlined the annual report from 479 pages to 374.
Avoiding duplication and strengthening linkages between core sections were the priorities when BP made changes to its annual report, spurred on by the UK’s strategic report requirements. The petroleum company reduced the length of the report from 303 pages in 2012 to 288 pages in 2013.
BP produces a stand-alone strategic report for shareholders, and the review process sought to create a document that met the needs of both retail and institutional investors. To help keep the strategic report succinct, BP moved non-material information about the performance and position of the company to a separate “additional disclosures” section.
—Samantha White (email@example.com) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.