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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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.