Did anyone really think that the endless chatter about saving the system of privately-provided audits for large global companies would come to anything?
If so, that fantasy was dispelled on June 3, in the closing minutes of the latest meeting of the U.S. Treasury’s Advisory Committee on the Auditing Profession – webcast here. In his summation, Co-Chairman Don Nicholaisen explicitly stated that, with an insubstantial exception, the Committee’s recommendations “do not address catastrophic risk” of the loss of the Big Four.
Why not? The Committee’s very mission is to “examine the sustainability of a strong and vibrant auditing profession” – here.
But if its members cannot face the potential for catastrophic failure of the Big Four, the Committee is serving no purpose. None of its other minutely examined but anodyne topics of inquiry – such as tweaking the standard for fraud detection or probing yet again the criteria for an accounting degree – will have any effect when another Big Four firm’s collapse takes down the entire business model.
Those durable enough for the entire webcast observed that the civility level of the dialog was frayed and degrading, even while the members spent the day largely talking past each other:
• Testimony from the Big Four and the insurance industry provided the count of death-threat litigations: 27 cases with damage exposures above $1 billion, of which 7 exceeded $10 billion – with the estimated total between $100 and $140 billion. The large firms cling to their tactically sound but politically tone-deaf refusal to offer comprehensive data on their own financial condition, but the litigation potential to overwhelm their partners’ limited capital is unrebutted.
• A committee member with a union background took the position that loss of another large accounting firm was an acceptable risk, asserting a risk comparison between an audit partner and a coal miner or a police officer. What he omitted was that while no single actor could threaten the entirety of the coal industry or the justice system, one more blown audit on the scale of an Enron or a WorldCom could end the deliverability of audits as known for 160 years.
• Former SEC chief accountant and persistent critic of the profession, Lynn Turner, showed his hostility to the option of liability protection with the ring of a jury argument: “Do you believe that an auditor found to have been aware of financial reporting problems but never reporting them to the public should be the subject of liability caps or some type of litigation reform protecting them?” Yet Turner’s position that “this is about regulating a federally mandated and authorized cartel,” involving a “too big to fail” condition where market forces no longer work, is perilously close to a concession of how bleak the future is.
• Committee member Gary Previts, historian of the profession and professor of accounting at Case Western University, put it in an academic’s genteel way: “I have often wondered if we aren’t trying to fix a business model … that is not subject to being fixed … if you started with a blank sheet of paper, whether we’d be organized the way we are today?”
The position that the Big Four must be left exposed to risks so dire that they could fail, clashes with the large firms’ showing of their inability to staunch the outflow of their limited resources in settlements of cases too large and dangerous to take to trial.
Further – so far as the availability of large company audits assumes the viability of the large audit firms themselves -- it is in conflict with the simultaneous view that the assurance function is so vital to investor interests that it must be preserved. Yet that is the very theme sounded in October 2007 by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in launching the Committee – that “a vibrant auditing profession is essential for a well-functioning financial reporting system (here).”
So what is needed is a different cliché.
It’s not that the Big Four are “too big to fail.” Life is no safer for the survivors since the 2002 demise of the Andersen firm. They can fail. And the Committee’s co-chairman has now admitted that nothing is on the table to save them.
Rather, despite the lip service paid to the importance of audits to the capital markets, the regulators and politicians are themselves “too weak to stop failure.”
Put another way, those sincerely believing in the importance of large-company assurance are avoiding an election between two unappealing choices: Either put every effort to assure that the Big Four are insulated from the very catastrophic risks that the critics insist they must remain exposed to, or start the process of designing the new audit model that must arise after the collapse of the Big Four under the abdication of the Treasury Committee and its counterparts.
In the loud clanging of the Committee’s cognitive dissonance is the tolling of its usefulness. Chairman Nicholaisen’s concession of futility in the face of catastrophic risk says as much.
So the most the Committee can do is declare its one achievement – the comprehensive laying out of mutually-defeating antagonistic positions – and spare further contribution to the global level of greenhouse gasses.