Understanding Your Continuing Disclosure Responsibilities

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Type: 
Best Practice
Background: 

Governments or governmental entities issuing bonds generally have an obligation to meet specific continuing disclosure standards set forth in continuing disclosure agreements (CDAs, also called continuing disclosure certificates or undertakings).  Issuers enter into CDAs at the time of bond issuance to enable their underwriters to comply with Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Rule 15c2-12. This rule, which is under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, sets forth certain obligations of (i) underwriters to receive, review and disseminate official statements prepared by issuers of most primary offerings of municipal securities, (ii) underwriters to obtain CDAs from issuers and other obligated persons to provide material event disclosures and annual financial information on a continuing basis, and (iii) broker-dealers to have access to such continuing disclosure in order to make recommendations of municipal securities in the secondary market.1

When bonds are issued, the issuer commits (via the CDA) to provide certain annual financial information and material event notices to the public. In accordance with SEC Rule 15c2-12, those filings must be made electronically at the Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) portal.

The SEC’s Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation (MCDC) initiative in 2014, along with other recent federal regulatory actions, have highlighted the importance of maintaining a reliable system to adequately manage continuing disclosure.

Issuers may choose to provide periodic voluntary financial information to investors in addition to fulfilling the specific SEC Rule 15c2-12 responsibilities undertaken in their CDA. It is important to note that issuers should disseminate any financial information to the market as a whole and not give any one investor certain information that is not readily available to all investors.  Issuers should also be aware that any information determined to be “communicating to the market” can be subject to regulatory scrutiny.

In addition to filing information via EMMA, a government may choose to post its annual financial information and other financial reports and information on the investor section of its web site. 

Recommendation: 

GFOA recommends that finance officers responsible for their government’s debt management program adopt a thorough continuing disclosure policy and adhere to the following best practices.  Issuers should determine how to apply best practices in the manner that is relevant and most practical for their entity. Incorporating robust disclosure practices and demonstrating a solid disclosure track record will benefit an issuer by encouraging regulatory compliance and by enhancing credibility among investors, credit rating agencies and the public, thereby resulting in optimal bond issuance results.Issuers should consider the following elements in creating policies and practices related to required continuing disclosure responsibilities:

1. Issuers should have a clear understanding of their specific reporting responsibilities as defined in the bond’s CDA. If the issuer has determined that financial information is material and must be included in its official statement, its CDA must require that the information be updated annually.  Issuers should work with their bond counsel, underwriter and municipal advisor to determine the appropriate information and detail to be included in a CDA, and should be aware of the events that must be disclosed. Prior to execution, CDAs should be discussed with the issuer’s bond counsel, underwriter and financial advisor to ensure a full understanding of issuer obligations.

2. Governments should develop continuing disclosure procedures that:

    • identify the information that is obligated to be submitted in an annual filing;
    • disclose the dates on which filings are to be made;
    • list the required reporting events as stated by the SEC and your CDA;
    • ensure accuracy and timeliness of reported information; and
    • identify the person who is designated to be responsible for making the filings.

3. Issuer representatives responsible for filing continuing disclosure should carefully review and understand the specific requirements in the CDA for each individual bond issue.  For some governments, filing the complete Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) on EMMA may fulfill annual financial information obligations. Issuers should carefully compare information in their CAFR to information required by a CDA to ensure full compliance.  If a government has agreed in the CDA to furnish information that is outside the scope of its CAFR, that information may be included as a supplement to the CAFR when filing with EMMA.  Some governments – especially those with multiple types of bond issues – may choose to prepare a supplemental annual disclosure document that provides the specific information identified in a CDA (in addition to filing the CAFR).

4. As recommended in the GFOA’s Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting program, a government should complete its audited annual financial information within six months of the end of its fiscal year. Upon its completion, the CAFR should immediately be submitted to EMMA.

5. EMMA allows an option for governments to indicate if they make their filing of annual financial information within 120 or 150 days of the end of the year; however, governments might need a longer timeline to ensure compliance. Governments should only select the EMMA-provided timing options if those dates are consistent with the specific maximum timing commitment in the CDA. The GFOA supports use of required timing commitments within a government’s CDA that are reasonable to achieve, which in many cases may be longer than 120 or 150 days. Identifying unreasonably short timelines can be very difficult to meet, and failure to adhere to such a timeframe would result in violation of the CDA.

6. Event notices should be filed for events specifically identified in accordance with SEC Rule 15c2-12:

    • For bonds issued after December 1, 2010, the SEC requires issuers to file event notices within 10 business days of the event.
    • For bonds issued before December 1, 2010, the rule states that governments should file event notices in a “timely manner.” However, governments are encouraged to adopt a policy to submit all event notices within 10 business days of the event to prevent any confusion regarding timeliness.

    7. Issuers may be expected to include language in their Official Statements for new bond issues regarding any material non-compliance with continuing disclosure requirements within the past five years.  Issuers should consult carefully with bond counsel and their municipal advisor regarding appropriate language to include in this primary disclosure, which is heavily subject to regulatory scrutiny.

    Governments, in consultation with internal and external counsel, may wish to submit other financial information to EMMA (and post it on their websites) that goes beyond the minimum requirements in the CDA.  Issuers who choose to disclose information above and beyond the minimum requirements in a CDA should consider the following:

    1. Types of additional information to be disclosed may include annual budgets, financial plans, financial materials sent to governing bodies for council or board meetings, monthly financial summaries, investment information, and economic and revenue forecasts. Governments are encouraged to place this additional or interim financial information on the investor section of their websites, including use of a feature within EMMA that allows governments to post a link directly to their website so that investors and the public can directly access the information.

    2. Issuers may want to provide additional information to investors about other debt-related agreements.  Rating agencies and investors may expect these disclosures to be publicly communicated, and issuers are advised of the benefits of providing this additional voluntary disclosure. These disclosures should provide information that will enable investors to make judgments about the volatility and risk exposure of agreements that may include financial risks that should be disclosed and quantified. Examples of agreements for which voluntary disclosure is recommended include:

      • Direct placements, loans, lines of credit or other credit arrangements with private lenders or commercial banks.  Example of the type of information to be disclosed include an interest rate or debt service schedule, legal security pledge, legal covenants, call options and other key terms.
      • Letters of credit issued in connection with variable rate debt issuance;
      • Interest rate swaps entered into in connection with debt issuance;
      • Investment agreements for bond proceeds, including reserve funds, particularly where such investments may be pledged or anticipated bond security; and
      • Insurance sureties used to fund reserve fund requirements.

      Any sensitive information (such as bank accounts and wire information) should be redacted from documents prior to posting.

      3. Legal and regulatory implications of voluntary postings remain uncertain.  Issuers should consult with bond counsel and their municipal advisor to determine the best strategy to support the market benefits of additional communication without harming the issuer’s ability to meet regulatory expectations.

      Upon implementation of a formal set of continuing disclosure policies and procedures, issuers should also take steps to ensure standards are being diligently followed.  Continuing disclosure policies and practices should be periodically reviewed to ensure consistency with market and regulatory expectations.

      Committee: 
      Governmental Debt Management
      Notes: 
      1. MSRB Glossary of Terms, www.msrb.org    
      Approved by GFOA's Executive Board: 
      September 2015