The consultancy group PwC was hit recently with a £7.5m fine over a string of errors while auditing the engineering company Babcock’s accounts, including creating a false record of documents for a sensitive government contract.
In one case, there was no evidence that PwC’s audit team had actually bothered to review a 30-year-contract worth up to £3bn, and in another, the team (none of whom spoke French) had failed to check a €640m (£570m) contract written entirely in French. There was no evidence PwC tried to translate the documents to confirm the terms of the deal. PwC’s auditors were also found to have “created a false record” of the audit evidence they had actually gathered in relation to a sensitive government contract.
Yet profit per partner for PWC last year was £920K Are audit partners in the big firms really worth best part of a million a year? They are not entrepreneurs who have built a business, or indeed CEOs running a major organisation. And it’s not just PWC – KPMG was fined £14.4 million last year for its failings in the audit of Carillion, the construction firm that went bust in 2017. Second-tier firm Grant Thornton messed up over the Patisserie Valerie audit, after the firm collapsed because of alleged internal fraud in 2019.
Meanwhile in the US, Ernst & Young LLP (EY) EY got a massive $100 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and agreed to various measures to address ethical issues. The firm was charged for “cheating by its audit professionals on exams required to obtain and maintain Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licenses, and for withholding evidence of this misconduct from the SEC’s Enforcement Division during the Division’s investigation of the matter.”
What is wrong with auditors? You would think in a well-functioning market, firms that behaved like this would fail and be replaced by better players. But this is an oligopoly, and the barriers to entry are huge, and perhaps insurmountable. Ironically, the more rules and governance imposed by governments on auditors, then the harder it is for new market entrants to break in – we haven’t seen a significant new player really during my entire working life. The “switching costs” are high for clients too, and the big firms build very close relationships with senior corporate executives which helps to reduce the chance of competition.
The end result is that clients are paying too much, and often not getting good work in return. Although professional procurement involvement in buying these services has increased somewhat in recent years, frankly that does not seem to have had much impact.
Close to home for me, the Surrey Heath Council accounts for 2019/20 are still in draft form and have not been signed off by the auditor, BDO. In an election leaflet pushed through our door the other day, the ruling Conservatives say this – “FACT: Our accounts are ready but our auditors BDO continue to miss deadlines (including for Lib Dem councils). We are working hard to find new auditors and increase transparency”.
At least the draft accounts report is available for public inspection, which reveals that the author does not know how to use apostrophes (“the Council has managed to deliver substantial saving’s on interest payable …)
But if this delay is down to the auditors, surely this is gross incompetence and mismanagement from BDO? Is this not worthy of a wider barring of the firm from public sector work? Or (I know this is hard to believe), might a political party be publishing misleading information? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question – but seriously, if auditors are incapable of getting a council’s accounts signed off three years after the end of the year in question, then they shouldn’t be doing this sort of work at all.