By Mark Maurer
Starbucks Corp. has agreed to provide additional disclosures on how it recognizes revenue after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission questioned some of its accounting practices.
The Seattle-based coffee chain is one of many U.S. companies adjusting to new accounting guidelines that came into effect at the start of last year for most public companies. The new rules aim to standardize how companies from different industries account for revenue from sales and services.
At least 208 companies received letters from the SEC about their revenue-recognition practices in 2018, according to regulatory filings and data compiled by consulting firm Audit Analytics Inc. That's up about 56% over the annual average during the previous two years. As of the end of June, 50 companies had received letters on the subject, down slightly from 53 during that period a year earlier.
"When there are issues around revenue recognition, the SEC takes it very seriously because it's an area that management can manipulate," said Derryck Coleman, research manager at Audit Analytics.
Representatives for the SEC declined to comment.
The SEC regularly sends comment letters to companies with questions about disclosures made in securities filings. The letters usually focus on accounting practices and can result in additional disclosures in future filings, revisions to previously filed disclosures or a simple response with extra details that help the SEC better understand a disclosure.
The SEC, in letters sent between May and August as a part of a routine review, questioned Starbucks management's approach to recognizing revenue in its quarterly earnings filing ended March 31. The regulator sought clarification on Starbucks' revenue-recognition policy. One question from the SEC was why the company believed it was appropriate to recognize pre-opening services, such as reviewing architectural plans and training employees, upon completion of the services. The regulator also asked Starbucks to explain the way it recognized Nestlé SA's $7 billion upfront payment in 2018 for the rights to sell Starbucks products.
A change in accounting for gift cards also made it harder for the SEC to discern the amount of deferred revenue allocated to the Nestlé deal.
"Starbucks' historic disclosure wasn't robust enough to relay the info that investors need to assess where the revenues are coming from," Mr. Coleman said.
Starbucks' responses on its approach led the regulator to ask the company to make additional disclosures in its forthcoming annual report for the fiscal year ended Sept. 29, which the company usually releases in November.
Starbucks, in a response to the SEC, said it would expand its disclosures to clarify the new revenue-recognition standard's impact on financial line items, including its income from breakage, which refers to gift-card balances that a company can claim once they think they're unlikely to be redeemed.
The back-and-forth between a company and the SEC stops once the regulator deems the matter resolved. The SEC judged the Starbucks matter resolved Aug. 8, according to a letter the regulator sent to the company. The letters are typically made public about 20 days after a matter is resolved.
"The SEC has made similar inquiries to companies across different industries, including the retail and quick-service restaurant sector," a Starbucks spokesman said, adding, "We do not expect further SEC dialogue on this matter."
The accounting shift in gift-card breakage inflated the year-over-year increase in gross margins at Starbucks' Americas division, a Cowen Inc. research report said in April. Cowen analysts wrote their "excitement has been tempered" from Starbucks' disclosure on what was driving the increase.
The SEC last wrote to Starbucks in 2015, seeking clarity on how it accounted for gift cards and loyalty points redeemed at licensed stores, records show.
The company's finance chief, Patrick Grismer, offered a weak outlook to shareholders last week for next fiscal year's earnings, warning that profit growth will slow in fiscal 2020 due to the loss of tax-related gains that won't be repeated.
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