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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.