The Concept Release on auditor independence and mandatory rotation, issued by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board on August 16, sought comments. Believing that those who presume to offer commentary should include potential solutions along with their griping, I put forward these thoughts:
Which is that in a specific case, if the PCAOB can sustain its proof that long audit tenure was causally related to its definition of “audit failure,” it could include rotation in its toolkit of post-inspection sanctions.
Since the PCAOB looks annually at a sampling of engagements for each of the large audit firms, and claims to target its inspections on the basis of perceived engagement risk and exposure, the agency’s experience base should bring to light cases – if any – where audit quality might be affected by length of tenure.
In which case, rotation could be proposed, and if necessary, imposed.
The sanction would not be an enforcement reach, if a credible case were made – the agency could act on its own statutory authority or in coordination with the powers of the SEC. (See the SEC’s imposition of a government-appointed monitor on KPMG as part of the 2005 resolution of the criminal investigation of its tax-shelter practice, or the six-month bar on new SEC clients imposed on Ernst & Young in 2004 for its impaired independence arising out of business relationships with its audit client PeopleSoft.)
Due process and negotiations would sort out the appropriate cases to require rotation. Many cases of financial statement failure – contrasted with the Concept Release’s definition of “audit failure” as involving alleged deficiencies in audit work alone – result in termination of the auditor/client engagement in any event, and would fall out. Other inspection cases would involve causal facts unrelated to tenure – such as personnel competence or supervision – making rotation a doubtful remedy. And since real sanctions would presumably only be applied in a publicly transparent environment, the PCAOB would achieve the disclosure it professes to desire (here) -- along with the obligation to establish the credibility of its findings.
Rotation if proposed as a sanction would allow the incumbent auditor to be heard and argue its case – or perhaps even to settle with an agreement to stand down. It would also open the record to possible resistance by a non-US regulator, in the especially challenging cross-border cases involving global companies (here) – as well as to the fact-based airing of issues of impracticality or constrained choices of successors.
(By the way, a free-market evaluation of possible limits on alternative auditor choice could be made through the sanction of mandatory re-tender -- as opposed to the perhaps harsher remedy of outright rotation.)
The principle of “first, do no harm” was cited by PCAOB member Lewis Ferguson in his statement on the Concept Release. Case-by-case use of rotation as a sanction would satisfy the corollary: anticipate unintended consequences whenever possible, and do minimal harm in any event.
Selective required rotation would also address an emerging issue in the effectiveness of policy choices – a topic treated in my MBA-level course in Risk Management.
Namely, examples are increasingly discovered that where instances of non-compliance are serious – but rare and tightly clustered -- the deployment of a broad, sweeping enforcement program is likely to be both wasteful of scarce resources and ineffectual in achieving the desired goal.
- With the progress in control of automobile exhaust emissions, it is massively wasteful in administrative costs and car-owner time to require on-site tests for late model cars. The miniscule percentage of vehicles that generate most of the pollution can instead be detected by inexpensive, portable drive-by testing, with immediate ticketing and impoundment.
- The billions in costs and inconvenience inflicted on airline passengers by security programs, accomplishing only inconvenience and embarrassing privacy intrusions, have negligible anti-terrorist effect, compared with the highly sophisticated results of effective data-tracking and suspect profiling.
- And among the population of urban homeless, the great bulk of the cost of scarce resources for shelter, law enforcement and emergency medical care is consumed by a tiny fraction – who are more effectively addressed through individual identification and tailored attention.
Mandated rotation in those rare cases where tenure length might demonstrably be an issue presents a similar environment. Audit failures being real, but also rare, across the entire time-line of auditor tenure, there has not even been a proper study, much less a showing, that length of tenure is a causal factor.
So enforcement sanctions, including rotation, should be conserved and only deployed accordingly.
To summarize: individualized mandatory auditor/client rotation could be used as an appropriate case-by-case sanction – if but only if the PCAOB can persuasively show a basis.
Or as Messrs. Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado nearly put it in 1885:
“An object all sublime
“They shall achieve in time --
“To let the punishment fit the crime.”
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