UK regulators may be on the verge of doing something right, but doubts remain over how genuine their stated intentions are.
By Don Quijones, Spain, UK, & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.
Following a string of corporate scandals and collapses, the UK’s top accounting regulator, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), has called for an inquiry to explore the possibility of breaking the audit arms of the Big Four accounting firms — KPMG, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and Price WaterhouseCoopers — into separate pieces. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) should look into the possibility of “audit only” firms in a bid to enhance competition in the sector, said FRC chief executive Stephen Haddrill.
There’s a strong case to be made for taking such drastic action. Having extended their tentacles into just about every facet of business administration, from accountancy and auditing to legal and tax consultancy, while wiping out or gobbling up many of their smaller rivals, the Big Four firms have grown horrendously large and conflicted.
Time and again they have signed off on accounts that were demonstrably faulty and allowed the management of large companies all over the world, such as the UK’s Carillion, Spain’s Abengoa, Japan’s Olympus, and the UK’s two biggest banking failures, HBOS and RBS, to mask the true state of their financial health. In the case of Spain’s Abengoa, its auditor, Deloitte, was seemingly unable to detect blatant flaws in the company’s accounting that were flagged up a year earlier by a 17-year old student with only “basic secondary school knowledge of economics.”
Despite such embarrassing failures, the Big Four firms continue to cement their domination of the global auditing industry. In the UK, they audit 99 of the FTSE 100 companies and 97% of the FTSE 350, up from 95% five years ago, despite EU and UK reforms ostensibly aimed at tackling a lack of competition in the sector.
It’s a pattern that is replicated throughout advanced economies. In the US the Big Four audit 497 of the 500 S&P 500 companies. In the vast majority of EU Member States the combined market share of the Big Four audit firms for listed companies exceeds 90%. Their global annual revenues reached $134 billion in 2017.
In the UK even the fifth biggest accountancy firm, Grant Thornton, has decided to stop bidding for audit contracts from big companies after repeatedly coming second to the Big Four. The firm has put in tenders for a number of FTSE 350 audits but only won two since mandatory 10-year audit rotation came into force in June 2016. Since an audit pitch can cost up to £300,000, Grant Thornton has decided to move away from tendering for FTSE 350 audit work, at least until there is a “shift in the competitive landscape that would level the playing field.”
The problem is not just the size of the Big Four firms but also the colossal conflicts of interest they create by having their fingers in so many different pies. A case in point: when Spanish authorities tried to roll seven failed or failing Spanish saving banks into Bankia in late 2010, Deloitte was hired not just as Bankia’s auditor but also the consultant responsible for formulating its accounts, in complete contravention of the basic concept of auditor independence. In 2012, not long after its IPO, Bankia collapsed and was partially nationalized to bail it out.
There’s also a clear agency problem stemming from the fact that auditors (the agents) are appointed to companies and paid for their services by the managements they audit (the principals). This mechanism creates an inherent conflict of interest for auditors. In a recent FT article featuring reader suggestions on how to improve auditing practices one reader, Owen Wilson, proposed that audit firms should be engaged on behalf of the stock exchange rather then the companies listed on it.
Another FT reader, Robert Hodgkinson of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, argued that splitting up the Big Four would be easier said than done given they operate in the UK as part of huge global networks: “Splitting the firms in the UK would achieve little except making Britain a peculiarity — and the UK arms would have to ally with global networks to undertake multinational audits.”
This echoes my observation a few months ago: Due to their sheer size, influence and global reach, the Big Four are not just woefully compromised and conflicted, they may already have grown “too big to replace.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to cut them down to size.
The UK may be on the verge of doing just that, though doubts remain over how genuine the regulator’s stated intentions are. The FRC itself has shouldered much of the blame for the Carillion collapse and even faces its own government inquiry following accusations of being too soft on big accountancy firms — no surprise given it is colonized by said firms.
Yet while the UK government and regulators may be excessively beholden to financial interests in the City, every now and then meaningful reform does occasionally slip through — normally when public opinion is close to breaking point. For example, thanks to the Vickers Rule, passed in the wake of the financial crisis, by Jan 1, 2019 all major UK banks must ring fence their core banking business from their investment banking operations — a measure authorities in the EU refuse to even contemplate.
If, on the off chance, something similar were to occur here, resulting in much needed root-and-branch reform of the UK’s audit industry, then perhaps something positive may finally come from the recent corporate scandals and collapses. By Don Quijones.
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