Audit firms should ditch sales culture

UK watchdog flags up concerns.

I have no problem with audit firms providing some consulting services to audit clients provided it does not impair an auditor’s independence but there’s one thing that grates me about the audit profession. It’s when firms use audit as a lead-in to sell more lucrative consulting services. What is icing to this distasteful cake is when audit staff are praised for their role in winning consulting work.

This month, a UK watchdog responsible for checking the quality of audit firms released inspection reports of a few larger firms, flagging concerns PKF and Mazars had been praising and/or rewarding audit staff that successfully sold ‘non-audit’ or consulting services to audit clients. There reports apply to inspections carried out in 2010.

In the PKF report, the AIU warned the firm should: "Ensure credit is not sought or given in appraisals for success in selling non-audit services to audited entities."

In the Mazars report, it was recommended the firm: "Ensure that staff and partner remuneration and evaluation decisions do not reflect success in selling non-audit services to audit clients… [and] there is greater focus on audit quality indicators in appraisals for audit partners and staff."

To single out Mazars and PKF based on one inspection report is unfair. Rumours about auditors up-selling consulting have been rife for many years. Consulting is more lucrative and less labour intensive than audit, and firms all over the world, particularly the Big Four – PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG – are beefing up their consulting arms like never before.

The problem with firms providing too much consulting to audit clients is the fear that they become reliant on that revenue and it will affects an auditor’s ability to exercise professional judgement. There’s also the argument that auditor’s might feel uncomfortable auditing a colleague’s consulting or tax work.

Although most consulting services are prohibited to audit clients, firms are still earning a significant amount of revenue from this practice. In 2011, PwC UK earned £363m from non-audit services to audit clients, which is about 40 per cent of the fees it earns from audit, while Deloitte made £185m, which is 36 per cent of its audit revenue.

The independence of auditors is a big issue for the accounting profession because, rightly or wrongly, questions are being raised as to why auditors gave a clean bill of health to banks such as Lehman Brothers just before they collapsed.

The EC has proposed radical reforms that could force the largest accounting firms in Europe to break up their audit businesses from advisory and tax. If such a proposal were to pass into law, it could threaten the existence of the four major brands – PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG – although intensive lobbying from the ‘Big Four’ should derail this idea.

Nevertheless, auditors of all sizes could make their lives a whole lot easier if they ditched the sales culture and focussed on ensuring their clients accounts are in check, rather than worrying about their own.

Arvind Hickman is the editor of the International Accounting Bulletin.

Photograph: Getty Images

Arvind Hickman is the editor of the International Accounting Bulletin.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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