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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.