Commentary: standing up to the big five firms

The root of the problems facing the profession is pure and simple greed
James Mendelssohn

The Enron saga rumbles on, and will continue to rumble on for many years to come. And as time passes, emotions diminish, the issues fade and, if we are not very careful, life goes on as before … until the next major accounting scandal breaks.

The media blitz currently being conducted by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in the wake of Enron, with the aim of reminding business what sound professionals CPAs are, is just one example of the misguided way that at least one part of the world accounting profession is reacting to the current crisis that it is facing.

To many in the profession, and particularly those in the US, the AICPA's action is nothing short of an outrage. Enron is just the latest in a series of scandals perpetrated by the Big Five. Most of the global accounting bodies and national institutes are controlled by the Big Five. And it is precisely these Big Five dominated bodies that are using the funds of their members, the vast majority of which are smaller firms operating within tight professional and ethical parameters, to wage this mass media campaign.

To add insult to injury - and far more worryingly for the long-term survival of an independent profession - many of the PR campaigns currently being waged seem content to paper over the cracks rather than tackle the root of the problems facing the profession.

The Holy Grail of growth

But what is the root of these problems? Is it an issue of inadequate regulation, falling technical standards or increasingly sophisticated and demanding clients? Or is it something far more basic? Many are now slowly but surely coming to the conclusion that the root problem is nothing more than pure and simple greed.

In too many cases, audit fees are dwarfed by other sources of revenue from major clients. And with an expectation of year-on-year growth within the large firms both in terms of gross revenues and partner earnings, together with a hire and fire culture to ensure that no underperforming partner is allowed to stand in the way of the Holy Grail of growth, only a fool would be surprised that auditors increasingly seem to be turning a blind eye to precisely the sort of practices that the shareholders appoint them to uncover.

National institutes and other professional bodies should provide the checks and balances to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained. But with the majority of such bodies dominated by partners from Big Five firms, the conflict of interest scenario is simply played out with a different backdrop. If it is not audit integrity being undermined by the pressure to sell consultancy services, it is those running professional institutes being compromised in what they do by an overriding loyalty to their primary employer.

According to one comment recently from the US, 'by pandering to the interests of the Big Five, the AICPA is succeeding solely in demonstrating how dominated it is by these firms and how out of touch it has become with the average accounting practitioner'.

'Violations of the cardinal rule of independence are becoming increasingly common, yet are seldom treated by the AICPA and others as anything more serious than a parking offence. Most accounting firms feel they have nothing in common with the Big Five other than the fact that they are unfortunate enough to belong to the same professional society.'

It has been interesting over recent months to observe the creation of the Forum of Firms, an International Federation of Accountants initiative that resulted - at least in part - from criticism of the Big Five firms following the Asian crisis of the late 1990s. IFAC believes that through the establishment of the Forum, 'IFAC's effectiveness as the international representative body for the accounting and audit profession will be enhanced. Commitment to the obligations of membership of the Forum will raise the standards of the international practice of auditing in the interest of users of the profession's services.'

There is little doubt in the minds of many that moves to establish the Forum were a last ditch attempt by the profession to avoid external regulation. And looking at the membership of the Forum - and the voting structure within it - there is perhaps little surprise that the Big Five firms are perceived by some as being not only judge and jury - but also the law-makers too.

Last chance saloon?

Last ditch attempt or not, plans for the establishment of the Forum continue to move forward despite recent developments. How many more chances will the profession get? How many more chances does the profession deserve? Regrettably, these may only be academic questions. Who in their right mind would want to take on the regulation of the accountancy profession today?

But if the profession cannot get its own house in order, and potential external regulators are unwilling or unable to do so effectively, the one group that still has real influence comprises clients.

Of course, conflicts of interest and indeed greed can, on occasions, be all too apparent in client businesses as well. But in an era of growing recognition of the importance of sound corporate governance, the appointment and control of audit firms are subjects that shareholders and directors ignore at their peril.

Many clients are voting with their feet in the aftermath of Enron. Some, because of their size, may feel that they have no option but to move from one Big Five firm to another. Others, though, are reevaluating the criteria by which their advisers should be judged.

We welcome that change.

James Mendelssohn is chief executive of MacIntyre Sträter International

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