September 23, 2020

So What If the SEC Swallowed the PCAOB?

Skepticism is called for in reaction to the budget proposal to roll up the U.S. audit regulator, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, into the Securities and Exchange Commission, its statutory overseer.

Do not mistake this reluctance to join the anxieties voiced by the usual suspects—among them former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt and former PCAOB chairman Jim Doty (see the Financial TimesGoing Concern, and the Wall Street Journal)—as resistance to effective regulation of the capital markets.

Rather it’s that for years, neither agency has shown any real concern for the auditors or their statutory obligation to support the delivery by U.S. public companies of financial information free of material error. This latest step would only further constrain the function of an entity disfavored from the start of the Trump administration.

SEC chairman Jay Clayton, wheelman for regulatory shrinkage, is moving to ease the auditor independence rules and to reduce the disclosure obligations for smaller public companies. He purged and replaced all five members of the PCAOB and, at the first opportunity, forced out incumbent member Kathleen Hamm in favor of ex-SEC and Treasury staffer Rebekah Goshorn Jurata.

Never in its history has the PCAOB punched even its own light weight. Nor has the case been persuasively made that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, rushed into effect in 2002, has operated with effectiveness. Claims of improved audit quality, freely expressed by those with self-interest (e.g., herehere, and here), are never compared to what might have existed, if post-Enron politicians had not panicked into the frantic mode of ‘‘don’t just stand there. …’’

And evidence is to the contrary. The PCAOB had no visible effect during the 2007-2008 crisis, when cascades of companies with clean audit opinions fell into failure, take-over, or government bail-out. Nor does it inspire confidence that outbreaks of predictably doubtful behavior continue apace—recent examples include MattelUnder Armour, and the unattractive prospect of charges involving EY’s engagement by Sealed Air Corp., which threatens to be a reprise of the criminal scheming at KPMG to steal inspection information from the PCAOB.

The PCAOB lacked credibility from its birth—well before the current push for its demise:

  • Under its founding legislation, its inspections take place in the dark, with results only emerging so old as to be stale.
  • It remains conspicuously excluded from operations in China, despite continuous over-selling of progress just around the corner.
  • It dealt at a glacial pace with such small-bore projects as mandatory auditor rotation and the naming of lead audit partners.
  • Even its recent catch-up convergence with the global standards on extended audit reporting of ‘‘critical audit matters’’ trails experiences in other countries that have yet to demonstrate serious investor attention or value.

Currently, the departure of essentially all senior staff has hollowed out its core of experience and expertise, while the poverty of its plans and initiatives was reflected in a ‘‘strategic plan’’ of vacuous cliches.

As for the PCAOB’s fundamental mission, while the divergence expands between the content of historical financial statements and the decisions of investors, the agency’s emphasis on internal controls reporting has reduced the work of audit staff to a morale-sapping exercise in box-ticking—budget-driven and oriented to satisfying the intrusion of the government’s own inspectors.

An academic colleague recently tweeted that the KPMG/PCAOB debacle was caused by the effectiveness of PCAOB inspections, positing that if they were meaningless, there would have been no reason to steal the inspections list.

He had it wrong. Evasion and avoidance of law-making and regulation are not caused by their effectiveness or desirability, but only by the presence and effect of their malign burden. Prohibition in the 1920s and 1960s Vietnam-era conscription stand as examples.

To paraphrase baseball sage Yogi Berra’s dispirited take on the unwillingness of fans to subject themselves to the dystopia of the old Candlestick Park, ‘‘if the audit regulators don’t want to protect investors, you can’t stop them.’’

Effective government regulation, oversight, and enforcement of the operation of U.S. capital markets have been core policy aspirations for nearly 90 years. Restoration of optimism may make it so again, when—and if—public priorities become re-ordered as part of an eventual process to restore confidence in the nation’s gatekeepers.

For the moment, however, ill-motivated as may be the enthusiasm of this White House to kill off the PCAOB, the 18-year failure to justify its existence makes its proposed disappearance of too little consequence to matter.

[Ed. note: This article was originally published on Re:Balance on March 12. It has been re-published with permission.]

Jim Peterson is a 19-year veteran of Arthur Andersen’s internal legal group. He has been writing about the accounting firms and the Big Audit model since 2002, on his blog, Re:Balance, and in his two books, “Count Down: The Past, Present and Uncertain Future of the Big Four Accounting Firms” (2d ed. 2017) and, just released this May, “DOA: Can Big Audit Survive the UK Regulators?”

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