There’s a bit of a tiff going on over at my former place of employment as a result of the cover story in the latest issue of CFO Magazine on the recent fall in auditor’s fees.
Some critics seem to fear that the phenomenon will be encouraged by a new benchmarking tool the website unveiled on April 1.
For a fee of $1,200, the tool allows companies to compare the fees that their peers pay for auditors. The process should be both quicker and more comprehensive than the requests for proposals now put out by many companies trying to figure out what they should be paying.
Accounting mavens David Albrecht and Lynn Turner, however, seem to worry that such an exercise will lead to the further commoditization of audits, and so to lower quality financial reporting, even though there’s no evidence the increased fees we saw in the wake of the Sarbanes Oxley Act did anything to improve its quality. Lehman Brothers, anyone?
Yet after the article appeared, Turner sent around comments on his list serve saying it contained several “factual inaccuracies” and that “a firm cannot do the same amount of work with these lower fees without seeing a huge reduction in profits.”
One problem here, it seems to me, is that we’re talking about an oligopoly, which invariably skews the normal effects of supply and demand. Albrecht concedes that the industry is an oligopoly but doesn’t make a cogent point about the significance of that. And he misses the other complication, which is that SarBox not only required auditors to review a company’s internal financial controls as well as its financial results, but also prevented auditors from offering audits as loss leaders for their more profitable consulting services. Now auditors can’t offer both services to the same clients. So audits have to stand on their own two feet.
Turner gets this point, though he confuses the chronology of the regulatory events involved. And he seems to suggest the article is flawed in the conclusion it draws about it, without saying how.
Here’s the point. If, in fact, the extra work SarBox required inflated auditors’ profits, why shouldn’t CFOs be able to make sure they’re getting what they pay for?
And the apparent assumption that benchmarking will inevitably lead companies to push for lower fees seems a bit shaky to me. As CFO.com’s editorial director Tim Reason points out, the process may instead merely keep auditors on their toes. Are Albrecht and Turner arguing that opacity is necessary for the public good, so auditors can pad their fees with impunity? Sorry, but that just doesn’t compute.
In an email to me this morning, Tim wrote: “We think finance executives and audit committees will benefit from having an independent, trusted editorial source provide them with a quick way to benchmark their fees-and make sure they are neither too high nor too low.”
Too low? Sure. You get what you pay for.
Tim also points out that there are no advertisers or sponsors for the tool. “It is a pure editorial offering being made directly to our readers, giving them information they’ve been asking us for years.”
Now there’s a radical idea.