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Saturday, 28 May 2011

Get to know the auditors


There's a price to pay for taking audit quality for granted.

A LOT is being said about the audit profession these days. After all, why should the auditors be out of the line of sight in the frenzy of finger-pointing in the wake of the global financial crisis?

It's easy to assign blame on hindsight, but nevertheless, when large and seemingly invulnerable businesses have collapsed or have come close to oblivion as a result of large-scale mismanagement and fraud, it's safe to conclude that a lot of regulators and professionals have surely dropped the ball.

They have missed the warning signs and have failed to raise the alarm. There's no doubt that the auditors belong in this group.

In a consultation paper released last October, the European Commission (EC) observes: “While the role played (in the financial crisis) by banks, hedge funds, rating agencies, supervisors or central banks has been questioned and analysed in depth in many instances, limited attention has been given so far to how the audit function could be enhanced in order to contribute to increased financial stability.”

This so-called Green Paper, titled Audit Policy: Lessons from the Crisis, solicited responses to questions that were designed to help the EC figure out how to improve the European audit market. However, many of the issues raised are applicable in most other parts of the world.

Then, in January this year, the New York-based International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB) came out with a thought piece called Audit Quality: An IAASB Perspective. This publication too sees a connection between the financial crisis and the auditors.

“The turbulent events of the global financial crisis have highlighted the critical importance of credible, high-quality financial reporting. They have also demonstrated the importance of considering the role of audit quality in the broader context of quality financial reporting.

Achieving quality financial reporting depends on the integrity of each of the links in the financial reporting supply chain,” wrote IAASB chairman Professor Arnold Schilder.

“As one of those links, the external audit plays a major role in supporting the quality of financial reporting around the world, whether in the context of the capital markets, the public sector or the private or non-public sector. It is an important part of the regulatory and supervisory infrastructure, and thus an activity of significant public interest.”

Naturally, the enforcement agencies sometimes have a more severe view on how the auditors have contributed to the crisis. Last December, the New York attorney general sued Ernst & Young, the longtime auditors of Lehman Brothers, whose application for bankruptcy protection in September 2008 is considered one of the triggers of the crisis. The lawsuit alleged that the Ernst & Young helped Lehman Brothers engage in a “massive accounting fraud”.

Another Big Four firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), also had to endure the harsh glare of publicity recently in the aftermath of a large corporation's downfall. In this case, the company is India's Satyam Computer Services, whose chairman confessed that the IT service provider's accounts had been falsified.
Last month, the United States' Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) announced a settled disciplinary order against five PricewaterhouseCoopers International firms based in India. Two of those firms were slapped with a US$1.5mil penalty.

This is in addition to a US$6mil penalty imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) against the five firms. The combined $7.5mil penalty imposed in this matter is the largest that the SEC and PCAOB have assessed against any registered foreign accounting firm.

On May 16, the IAASB issued a consultation paper titled Enhancing the Value of Auditor Reporting: Exploring Options for Change. “The purpose of this international consultation is to determine whether there are common views among key users of audited financial statements and other parties to the financial reporting process about the usefulness of auditor reporting, and to explore possible options to enhance the quality, relevance and value of auditor reporting,” the board explains.

Clearly, now is as good a time as any to have discussions on the importance of the work of auditors. The question is, are Malaysian investors participating in this dialogue? Going by how shareholders are generally passive about the appointment of auditors of listed companies, the answer can only be no.

For that matter, when was the last time we hear minority shareholders openly and vigorously questioning the management and board's choice of auditors? It's standard for an AGM agenda to include the re-appointment of the auditors and the authorisation of the directors to fix the auditors' remuneration. Year in and year out, the shareholders at the AGM will dutifully pass such resolutions on the assumption that the directors and the auditors are doing what they're supposed to be doing when it comes to ensuring audit quality.
The average minority shareholder of a listed company probably doesn't even know which firm audits the company. There's this dangerous perception that all auditors are more or less the same, and that it's not up to the investors to demand for audit quality.

There are several questions that shareholders (and investors, in general) should be asking about the auditors and their selection by the management.

How were the auditors picked, and how did the board satisfy itself that it had found the best firm for the job? Who is the partner of the firm who will oversee the audit and how is he qualified to handle that role? Do the audit fees reflect the extent of work required? Bear in mind that in audit, a bargain is not always a good thing. If the same firm has been the auditors for a long time, is there a need to consider a change? How do the auditors ensure independence?

Yes, these are rather dull and procedural areas, but isn't it better to tackle these questions now than after the breakdown of a company?

Executive editor Errol Oh has said this before and he'll say it again many people don't understand what is it that auditors really do.