In part one of our discussion, we discussed audit firm failure and why the business model is not sustainable in the current form. We will now look at questions about what the aftermath of a Big 4 firm failure could look like and what some various paths could be:
Why isn’t a “Big 3” audit firm situation sustainable?
Jim Peterson: The industry has gone from 8 firms to 6, to 5, to now 4. We’ve reached a tipping point where if one more firm fails, the rest of them will get out of the business. The firms have all but admitted that the business model will not survive another failure.
Francine McKenna: The failure of a firm will also have global repercussion in various countries that are dominated by that firm (e.g. PwC in the UK). The remaining firms simply do not have the resources to pick up where the dominating firm left off.
Is government intervention a possibility and is it a reasonable solution?
FM: Personally, I’m in favor of at least a portion of public company audits being performed by the federal government, especially those public companies with a substantial investment by the U.S. Government. I wrote in a post from January 2009, “Let’s tear down the walls and rethink how we should protect the investor, who in many cases is now the taxpayer.” We should get rid of the for-profit audit firms’ involvement in the nationalized entities, except perhaps indirectly as contractors paid by the government but not controlling the client relationship. Those receiving government bailout funds could be “audited” by a team drafted from all able bodied audit and accounting professionals. I call it the National Service Corp for Accountability and Transparency™.”
JP: This is a possible scenario that may be imposed upon the world if proactive solutions are not formulated. Unfortunately, this will be imposed directly upon the U.S. Taxpayer. The product will have virtually no value and the efficiency and trust that would result could be likened it to any other service provided by the Federal Government.
You have both said that “no one would miss the auditors’ opinion.” When did the auditors’ report become such a commodity and is there any way for it to recapture any value?
JP: The auditor’s report as known and essentially unchanged since the 1930’s — an obsolete document. It has been a long time since someone asked sophisticated financial statement users, “What do you want?” and “What are you willing to pay for?” New ideas for assurance services are needed that will allow firms to provide a valuable product without submitting themselves to such huge liability.
FM: A completely different approach is needed, in my opinion, to protect shareholders and investors in public companies than the current product, especially when the shareholder/investor is the taxpayer as has occurred in the recent investments in AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citigroup, GM, etc”
There are very few sophisticated investors – hedge funds, other large public companies, private equity or sophisticated creditors – who do not perform their own due diligence, using publicly available information or additional access prior to a merger or acquisition. They would be considered irresponsible if they only used the basic financial statements, assuming only the auditors opinion and required footnotes, as a basis for major investment decisons. So why do we expect the retail investor, the employee with their retirement savings in the company stock or a vendor or customer to count on the audited financial statements as the last word? Audited financial statements have certainly not provided any “assurance” that companies would not go bankrupt, that banks were solvent, that global financial institutions would not need hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to remain viable.
In the wake of the Andersen collapse, what hasn’t the leadership of large firms, primarily Big 4, done to mitigate risk to their firms?
JP: The leadership at the top has a lot at stake financially. They are focused on short-term integrity. The young partners will inherit this problem. The current leadership lacks both the vision to come up with solutions and the fortitude to make the decisions.
FM: I agree. The model needs re-invention. Most professionals that see the problems wake-up and get out or are forced out and their careers and lives are better for it. They don’t have to deal with the problem anymore. People that remain do so because they lose any idea of what else to do. They develop “Stockholm Syndrome” and some eventually become the leaders of these firms.
In an email, Jim Peterson wrote to us, “there is no silver bullet” that will fix this problem. It will take a “a holistic approach and an opportunity for “blank page” re-engineering can hope to address the relationship among all these elements.”
The idea of a wiping the slate clean and starting completely over is difficult for anyone to get his or her head around. Explaining the situation to a multi-billion dollar industry that has been doing “business as usual” for decades is even harder.
But what is clear is that the situation must change in order for the profession to become relevant and valuable again. Eventually, whether by way of the current litigation or other unforeseen events, the failure of the audit firm business model is unavoidable. With some many people calling the profession into question now again, the best thing that young leaders can do is start thinking about solutions now. The profession must re-invent itself in order to serve stakeholders as intended.