On November 30, European Union markets commissioner Michel Barnier released the biggest turkey of the Thanksgiving holiday.
His “final” proposal to re-engineer the structure and business model of the large accounting firms (here) is much revised from the draft leaked in September, resembling the original no more than does turkey hash its original hormone-injected source – “fowl” though they both are.
But the Big Four firms should only be so effective as to deserve such finger-pointing. Contrasted with lobbying experts Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Big Tobacco or the National Rifle Association, who have all the political access that unlimited money can buy, the poor accounting profession has been consistently rolled over – without a real legislative success since passage of the American securities laws in 1933 and 1934.
A neutral observer could only be offended by the tendentious tone of Barnier’s unsupported assertions, of which an abbreviated sample (emphasis added):
- “The lack of regular tendering of audit services and periodic rotation of audit firms has deprived audit of its key ethos: professional skepticism.”
- “(T)he prohibition of the provision of non-audit services in general would effectively address the need to reinforce independence and professional skepticism.”
- “(T)he introduction of mandatory audit firm rotation would contribute to higher quality audits.”
- “The appointment of more than one statutory auditor … would … contribute to increasing audit quality.”
A full list of the howlers in Barnier’s proposed regulation defies reasonable length limits here. But for a partial catalog:
- No single client could sustainably represent more than 15% of a firm’s total annual fees (Art. 9) – a limitation with nasty if unanticipated potential consequences for the ability of smaller firms to ramp up their competitive scale at the upper end of the client size range.
- The broad prohibition of Article 10 on non-audit services to clients – the full range from expert services to valuation, technology consulting and legal and brokerage – would extend to network members and to client parents and foreign subsidiaries – thus clashing with permissible scope-of-services in the entire non-European world.
- The further obligation of the large firms to hive off all their non-audit capabilities (Art. 10, § 5) would apply to their non-EU networks’ operations within the EU, thus forcing any ex-EU company to incur the cost and disruption of dividing its otherwise-permitted non-audit service engagements between a Big Four firm and another, unrelated niche provider.
- The requirement that statutory auditors provide their own annual financial reports would oblige those to be audited themselves, at both the firm and network level (Art. 26.2 and 26.3(d)).
- Not only would rotation be mandatory under Article 33 – every six years (extended to 9 years for optional joint audits). But invitations-to-tender would be required from at least two non-incumbent choices (Art. 32.2), of which one must be such a small firm that it could derive not more than 15% of its audit fees from large companies, as defined (Art. 32.3(a)).
Therein lies a recipe for paralysis for large-company audit committees. Audit competence is built on both scale and industry expertise – so the small-firm ceiling would assure that an invitee to tender would lack the size and breadth of experience to provide adequate service, while outreach to two other Big Four firms would clash against the global-level disqualifications of networks serving a client’s ex-EU needs.
- “Contingency plans” are to be required from the large firms to address life-threatening events (Art. 43) – as if there could be disruption avoidance from the impact of a “black swan” litigation or law enforcement sanction.
That’s because, unlike a corporation’s ability to continue in supervised on-going operation as debtor-in-possession, the private accounting partnerships have no retention hold on their partners or staff, whose rapid departure – proved in the case of Arthur Andersen in 2002 – would make Barnier’s “orderly failure” an oxymoron beyond his irony-deficient comprehension.
- The revised requirements of a re-designed audit report (Art. 21) would include 23 sub-sections, adding such new information as the length of audit tenure (§ e), the extent of direct balance sheet verification (§ h), the details of materiality (§ j), and the identity of each member of the audit team (§ q).
Potentially useful and worthy of debate, some of these may be -- yet quoting § 22.4, “the audit report shall not be longer than four pages or 10,000 characters (without spaces).”
This one is a real pip – in a different league from Barnier’s quest to impose mandatory rotation. Because it is routine that a large-company audit team has a headcount above 100 members, Barnier’s four-page limit would be exceeded by a list of personnel all by itself!
What explains Barnier’s inability to grasp the complexities of the matrix of relationships among financial statement users, auditors and users? Perhaps it’s a simple matter of provincial bias, and lack of vision flowing down to reach its own level.
Else it’s the basic principle taught in nursery schools:
Give a toddler a hammer to play with, and expect breakage in the toy room.
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