In part one of our discussion, we discussed audit firm failure and why the business model is not sustainable in the current form. We will now look at questions about what the aftermath of a Big 4 firm failure could look like and what some various paths could be:
Why isn't a "Big 3" audit firm situation sustainable?
Jim Peterson: The industry has gone from 8 firms to 6, to 5, to now 4. We've reached a tipping point where if one more firm fails, the rest of them will get out of the business. The firms have all but admitted that the business model will not survive another failure.
Francine McKenna: The failure of a firm will also have global repercussion in various countries that are dominated by that firm (e.g. PwC in the UK). The remaining firms simply do not have the resources to pick up where the dominating firm left off.
Is government intervention a possibility and is it a reasonable solution?
FM: Personally, I'm in favor of at least a portion of public company audits being performed by the federal government, especially those public companies with a substantial investment by the U.S. Government. I wrote in a post from January 2009, "Let's tear down the walls and rethink how we should protect the investor, who in many cases is now the taxpayer." We should get rid of the for-profit audit firms' involvement in the nationalized entities, except perhaps indirectly as contractors paid by the government but not controlling the client relationship. Those receiving government bailout funds could be "audited" by a team drafted from all able bodied audit and accounting professionals. I call it the National Service Corp for Accountability and Transparency™."
JP: This is a possible scenario that may be imposed upon the world if proactive solutions are not formulated. Unfortunately, this will be imposed directly upon the U.S. Taxpayer. The product will have virtually no value and the efficiency and trust that would result could be likened it to any other service provided by the Federal Government.
You have both said that "no one would miss the auditors' opinion." When did the auditors' report become such a commodity and is there any way for it to recapture any value?
JP: The auditor's report as known and essentially unchanged since the 1930's -- an obsolete document. It has been a long time since someone asked sophisticated financial statement users, "What do you want?" and "What are you willing to pay for?" New ideas for assurance services are needed that will allow firms to provide a valuable product without submitting themselves to such huge liability.
FM: A completely different approach is needed, in my opinion, to protect shareholders and investors in public companies than the current product, especially when the shareholder/investor is the taxpayer as has occurred in the recent investments in AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citigroup, GM, etc."
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