Competition commission has put the cat among the pigeons

Musical chairs for the audit market?

When the relationships between auditors and some listed companies can be measured in decades, with some spanning more than a century, the idea that companies should be forced to retender for audit services as often as every seven years is a bold suggestion indeed.

But this is what the UK’s Competition Commission (CC) has – albeit provisionally and with much further consultation to come before a final statement in the Autumn – suggested this morning, in what the CC’s audit group chair Laura Carstensen admits represents “some quite radical suggestions”.

The issue Carstensen’s group originally set out to address was the perception that extended relationships between businesses and their auditors breed a kind of familiarity that prevents shareholders’ interests from being protected when auditors run the rule over corporate accounts.

It stands to reason, after all, that an auditor with a longstanding rapport with the management of a business might be inclined to audit financial statements in a way more beneficial to the interests of that management team than to its shareholders.

To shake up this supposedly cosy state of affairs, the CC has proposed mandatory retendering and rotation of audit firms. This, in addition to the prohibition of "Big Four only" clauses in loan documentation, which restrict lending to companies audited by PwC, Ernst & Young, KPMG and Deloitte, and measures to increase engagement between auditors and shareholders.

On paper, mandatory rotation certainly looks like it would protect shareholder interests and increase competition, with smaller firms gaining audit market share from the Big Four, which currently take the lion’s share.

In practice, the concept invokes serious practical considerations that many, especially among the Big Four, think could be counterproductive to the quality of audit services.

First and foremost, mandatory rotation has cost implications to both auditors, who spend time and money on pitches to prospective clients, and those being audited. There are also setting-up costs for auditors and companies in new audit engagements.

Audit rotation after short periods also poses a threat to audit quality, particularly as engagements come to an end. Auditor rotation on a seven year basis is arguably ill-suited to large, complicated financial institutions whose inner workings require a long period for audit teams to understand.

In any case, audit firms already rotate engagement partners with clients to ensure independence, so it is not as if the profession has done nothing to address the issue of over-familiarity.  

But then again, this is exactly what consultation periods are for, and the CC itself acknowledges both the range of possible approaches to the rotation and retendering issue, seeking views on rotation periods of seven, ten and 14 years, and the fact that further recommendations would be contingent on responses to the current proposals.

Carstensen, speaking to me for International Accounting Bulletin this morning, said there is “evidence there is a price benefit to tendering, but we have to weigh up the costs and benefits – we want to know how we can find a point of equilibrium where the benefits are captured, but in such a way that it is not unduly costly or burdensome.”

There is plenty of time to find this point of equilibrium. This morning’s release only represents a summary of provisional findings, and the full text won’t be available until next week, with final recommendations to come in August at the earliest.

Nevertheless, they certainly represent a more aggressive stance to shaking up the market than many in the audit market had expected, and are likely to prompt a broader change in attitudes beyond the UK.

For some time the EU has been rumbling through its own debate on audit reform, and after making some fairly conservative recommendations towards the end of last year, has been widely regarded as waiting on what comes out of the CC before making further statements. Certainly, the CC’s suggestions on mandatory rotation are unambiguously more hard line than anything that has come out of Brussels.

Carstensen told me she expected today’s comments and future findings from the commission to have a definite impact on the continuing EU debate. “Brussels has a lot of respect for our process as very rigorous and very evidence based, and I would expect parties there to be very interested in what we conclude, and the basis on which we reach it.”

In this context, one wonders if the decision to start the rotation discussion at a benchmark of five to seven years was a move designed to bring more impassioned debate to a discussion that some perceived as having become quite flat. Whatever the intention, it has certainly had that effect.  

Links:

http://www.internationalaccountingbulletin.com/news/cc-audit-chairman-comments-on-radical-suggestions/

http://www.internationalaccountingbulletin.com/news/cc-provisional-findings-split-the-profession/

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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The Land Registry sale puts a quick buck before common sense

Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, property scandals would be much harder to uncover.

Britain’s family silver is all but gone. Sale after sale since the 1970s has stripped the cupboards bare: our only assets remaining are those either deemed to be worth next to nothing, or significantly contribute to the Treasury’s coffers.

A perfect example of the latter is the Land Registry, which ensures we’re able to seamlessly buy and sell property.

This week we learned that London’s St Georges Wharf tower is both underoccupied and largely owned offshore  - an embodiment of the UK’s current housing crisis. Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, this sort of scandal would be much harder to uncover.

On top of its vital public function, it makes the Treasury money: a not-insignificant £36.7m profit in 2014/15.

And yet the government is trying to push through the sale of this valuable asset, closing a consultation on its proposal this week.

As recently as 2014 its sale was blocked by then business secretary Vince Cable. But this time Sajid Javid’s support for private markets means any opposition must come from elsewhere.

And luckily it has: a petition has gathered over 300,000 signatures online and a number of organisations have come out publically against the sale. Voices from the Competition and Markets Authority to the Law Society, as well as unions, We Own It, and my organisation the New Economics Foundation are all united.

What’s united us? A strong and clear case that the sale of the Land Registry makes no sense.

It makes a steady profit and has large cash reserves. It has a dedicated workforce that are modernising the organisation and becoming more efficient, cutting fees by 50 per cent while still delivering a healthy profit. It’s already made efforts to make more data publically available and digitize the physical titles.

Selling it would make a quick buck. But our latest report for We Own It showed that the government would be losing money in just 25 years, based on professional valuations and analysis of past profitability.

And this privatisation is different to past ones, such as British Airways or Telecoms giants BT and Cable and Wireless. Using the Land Registry is not like using a normal service: you can’t choose which Land Registry to use, you use the one and only and pay the list price every time that any title to a property is transacted.

So the Land Registry is a natural monopoly and, as goes the Competition and Market Authority’s main argument, these kinds of services should be publically owned. Handing a monopoly over to a private company in search of profit risks harming consumers – the new owners may simply charge a higher price for the service, or in this case put the data, the Land Registry’s most valuable asset, behind a paywall.

The Law Society says that the Land Registry plays a central role in ensuring property rights in England and Wales, and so we need to ensure that it maintains its integrity and is free from any conflict of interest.

Recent surveys have shown that levels of satisfaction with the service are extremely high. But many of the professional bodies representing those who rely on it, such as the Law Society and estate agents, are extremely sceptical as to whether this trust could be maintained if the institution is sold off.

A sale would be symbolic of the ideological nature of the proposal. Looked at from every angle the sale makes no sense – unless you believe that the state shouldn’t own anything. Seen through this prism and the eyes of those in the Treasury, all the Land Registry amounts to is £1bn that could be used to help close the £72bn deficit before the next election.

In reality it’s worth so much more. It should stay free, open and publically owned.

Duncan McCann is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation