ACCA - The global body for professional accountants
It is essential that the changes made add value and are not motivated by the need to be seen as 'doing something'
—Ian Welch, head of policy, ACCA

International inquiries into role of audit raise concerns

Ill-advised changes to audit which add costs to business for little benefit could result from the volume of official inquiries internationally into the role of audit in the financial crisis , warns ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants). 

ACCA, in a policy paper Audit under fire: a review of the post-financial crisis inquiries, addresses the issues which have been raised during investigations by the UK House of Lords, the European Commission and the US senate. In Singapore and elsewhere, regulators are also actively engaged in stakeholder consultations to assess how audit can be enhanced. The EC has promised legislative changes by the end of 2011.

Ian Welch, ACCA Head of Policy said: "Audit is under unprecedented scrutiny in the UK, Brussels and the US, following the global financial crisis. We have already had the European Commission promising that 'the status quo is not an option'. In this paper we examine the various proposals put forward in the course of these inquiries and set out some recommendations for positive reform. Audit plays a vital role in the global economy by instilling trust in company reporting and we believe it needs to be enhanced for the greater benefit of investors and business.

“But it is essential that the changes made add value and are not motivated by the need to be seen as 'doing something'. Any changes need to meet an appropriate public interest test. Some of the suggestions that have been mooted during the various inquiries, would be, we believe, ineffective and costly."  

Several recurring themes have emerged from the various inquiries including audit concentration, going concern issues, joint audits, mandatory audit rotation and the effect of International Financial Reporting Standards. ACCA is concerned that the political imperative for visible change may result in the wrong measures being adopted. ACCA believes some of the key issues include:  

Audit concentration: If competition concerns are to be addressed, policymakers need to take action on restrictive covenants and audit liability. Restrictive covenants are an anti-competitive tool, while current audit liability rules provide a powerful disincentive to any firm looking to challenge the ‘Big 4’.

Audit independence: Calls for bans on non-audit work are wide of the mark, as are calls for the mandatory rotation of firms; ACCA believes joint audits to be ineffective but are the lesser of two evils compared to rotation. Independent audit committees need a more powerful role and should provide a fuller disclosure on their choice of auditor.

Audit’s role: Audits should be enhanced to include perspectives on risk management, corporate governance, and testing the underlying assumptions in business models. There is an ‘expectations gap’ between what stakeholders think auditors are supposed to do and what auditors are actually asked to do. Expanding the role of audit would help narrow this gap.

Going concern: Reform of the ‘all or nothing’ approach to going concern should be supported, and a more graded approach adopted. The issue whereby any modification to a clean audit report becomes in itself a going concern problem needs addressing urgently.

Auditor-Regulator dialogue: Regulators and auditors need to collaborate with one another rather than work in silos. Mutual trust and understanding are important drivers of effective communication.

Small business: The audit of small and medium-sized enterprises needs to be adjusted to ensure audit remains relevant to those entities. An internationally-supported range of assurance services for small businesses is needed. But policymakers must stop linking audit with ‘red tape’- audit can help small businesses add value to their financial statements, helping to improve access to finance.

International Financial Reporting Standards: IFRS did not lead to a lessening of prudence or judgement in audit prior to or during the financial crisis; the system maintains a requirement that companies fairly present their position and performance. Criticisms on this issue are misplaced. 

Ian Welch concluded: “Policymakers and legislators have had every right to ask tough questions of auditors in the aftermath of the financial crisis. We believe enhancements to the role of audit can and should be made. But the changes which ultimately arrive as a result of all the inquiries need to bring real benefit and not be costly tinkering.”

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For further information, please contact:

Nick Cosgrove, ACCA Newsroom

+44 (0)20 7059 5989

+44 (0)7963 496144

nick.cosgrove@accaglobal.com

Helen Thompson, ACCA Newsroom

+44 (0)20 7059 5759

+44 (0)7725 498654

helen.thompson@accaglobal.com

Notes to Editors

  1. ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) is the global body for professional accountants. We aim to offer business-relevant, first-choice qualifications to people of application, ability and ambition around the world who seek a rewarding career in accountancy, finance and management. 
  2. We support our 147,000 members and 424,000 students in 170 countries, helping them to develop successful careers in accounting and business, with the skills required by employers. We work through a network of over 80 offices and centres and more than 8,500 Approved Employers worldwide, who provide high standards of employee learning and development. Through our public interest remit, we promote appropriate regulation of accounting and conduct relevant research to ensure accountancy continues to grow in reputation and influence. 
  3. Founded in 1904, ACCA has consistently held unique core values: opportunity, diversity, innovation, integrity and accountability. We believe that accountants bring value to economies in all stages of development and seek to develop capacity in the profession and encourage the adoption of global standards. Our values are aligned to the needs of employers in all sectors and we ensure that through our qualifications, we prepare accountants for business. We seek to open up the profession to people of all backgrounds and remove artificial barriers, innovating our qualifications and delivery to meet the diverse needs of trainee professionals and their employers.