SEC Sanctions Firm, Executives For Misleading Projections
The Commission has long encouraged firms and their executives to furnish forward looking information to investors and the markets. The MD&A section of company filings, for example, focuses in part on putting the investor in the seat of the executive with forward information. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act contains a safe harbor for certain projections. These provisions recognize the fact that executives routinely use projections when managing the firm. When furnishing projections to investors, however, it is critical that they have a sound basis. When that basis is lacking, or the foundation facts suggest the projection is materially inaccurate, it can result in violation of the federal securities laws as in In the Matter of Ribbon Communications, Inc., Adm. Proc. File No. 83791 (August 7, 2018).
Ribbon Communications, formed in October 2017, is a holding company for the combination of GENBRAND LLC and Sonus Networks, Inc. The firm’s shares are traded on NASDAQ. Sonus provides products and services for Cloud communications. Respondent Mark Greenquist was the CFO of Sonus. Respondent Michael Swade was the senior vice president of sales, Americas at Sonus.
The Order centers on a revenue estimate for Q1 2015 made on January 8, 2015 and reiterated on February 18, 2015. On January 8, Sonus issued a press release quoting Mr. Greenquist as stating that he was “comfortable” with the consensus analysts revenue estimate for the first quarter of $74 million. The statement reaffirmed guidance given in December 2014.
At the time the estimate was given, the CFO was aware of information which undermined the projection. First, to achieve it revenue guidance for Q4 2014 Sonus “pulled forward” deals initially projected to close in 2015. Over 38% of the product revenue for the last quarter of 2014 was from deals that had been projected to close in 2015 but were “pulled forward” into the end of the year. By doing this Mr. Greenquist recognized that the firm was creating a risk that it would not have sufficient deals closing in the first quarter of 2015 to meet its revenue projection – that is, by “pulling forward” deals to meet one revenue target it would undercut the ability of the firm to meet the next target.
Second, and equally problematic, was the low backlog of deals. The backlog for the first quarter of 2015 was much lower than it had been for similar periods in earlier years. By November 2014 Sonus’ Vice President of Global Operations drafted a plan to achieve the Q1 2015 revenue target. The plan called for increasing the back log in the first quarter of 2015 significantly by “overdriving” bookings in the last quarter of 2014. This would permit the revenue to be recognized in the first quarter of 2015. Not only did the plan fail, the backlog for Q1 2015 decreased. Absent the planned increase from “overdriving” bookings, revenue for Q1 2015 would more reasonably be projected at $66 million rather than the announced $74 million.
Finally, the sale force forecasts did not support the first quarter 2015 projection. Generally the firm used a tracking tool to follow potential sales opportunities. The sales force populated the tool. Historically the firm relied on the revenue the sales force classified as “committed pipeline” meaning it will be booked, rather than that in two other classifications for transactions that were less sure to close. In early January there was a gap between those deals booked and those needed to make the projected revenue target. Mr. Greenquist chose not to rely on the data in the tracking tool. He was, nonetheless, concerned over the data and the ability of the firm to meet guidance. Concluding that he was “in a box,” the executive reaffirmed the guidance of $74 million despite the contrary data.
Prior to the February 18th statement on Q1 2015 guidance Sonus held its Global Sales Conference. During the Conference Mr. Swade directed that the team building exercise be canceled. Rather, the sale force was directed to figure out how the gap for committed pipeline deals to those needed to make guidance would be closed. Internal e-mails confirm that the sales force was instructed to improperly reclassify enough deals for the first quarter to close the gap. Millions of dollars worth of deals were reclassified. On February 18, 2015 during the firm’s fourth quarter and full year 2014 financial results conference call Mr. Greenquist provided Sonus’ formal guidance for Q1 2015, reaffirming the $74 million projection.
By March 24, 2015 the firm was forced to issue a press release correcting guidance in the wake of sale force updates to the revenue number. Guidance was revised down to a range of $47 to $50 million. The share price dropped over 33%. Ultimately the firm reported revenue of $50.1 million for the first quarter.
The Order alleges violations of Securities Act section 17(a)(2) and Exchange Act section 13(a). To resolve the proceedings each Respondent consented to the entry of a cease and desist order based on the sections cited in the Order. In addition, Ribbon agreed to pay a penalty of $1.9 million while Mr. Greenquist will pay $30,000 and Mr. Swade $40,000.