Tearing down the walls

The recent high court victory by Prince Jefri of Brunei will lead to changes in the way accountancy firms 'ring-fence' their departments. By Roger Trapp
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ON THE face of it, Prince Jefri looks an unlikely threat to the world's largest accounting firms. Sure, he is the younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei, but the view in the City and elsewhere was that he had fallen out with his brother so badly that he counted for little.

But that was before last week's High Court judgment, which sees the prince besting the mighty accounting firm KPMG. In finding for him, Mr Justice Pumpfrey has not only embarrassed the firm by suggesting that it faced a conflict of interest "between a former client and an accountant's interest in getting more work".

He has also blown open the whole notion of the "Chinese walls" by which for the past decade or so accountants and the increasingly widely spread investment banks have been able to act for clients where there are clear conflicts of interest. The theory is that teams operating in different parts of the same firm are ring-fenced and so do not know what the others are doing.

Not surprisingly, the concept has been widely ridiculed outside the circles of those attempting to use it to justify their working practices.

Several years ago, another leading international firm - Coopers & Lybrand, now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers - found itself in hot water over the same issue.

Two of its brightest insolvency stars were disciplined by their professional body after it was discovered that they took on sorting out the affairs of the collapsed Polly Peck empire even though the firm had given tax advice to Asil Nadir.

And at a time when these very same organisations are starting to make great play out of the extent to which they can share knowledge among themselves, the idea appears even more untenable.

It is perhaps notable that City solicitors tend - as Allen & Overy did in this case - to take a stricter view of conflicts of interest. But maybe it is easier for them in that, while the legal profession is facing the same sort of polarisation as accountancy, its results are not stark as they are in accounting.

International clients operating in London may all wish to take on Allen & Overy and its counterparts in the top five, but they still have the opportunity to choose from any number of firms just below that bracket as well as the growing numbers of US firms in London.

In accountancy on the other hand, the completion of the deal that saw the creation of PricewaterhouseCoopers has led to a huge gap between the top five and the others. Add to that the growing belief that only these firms now have the capability to do the really large international jobs and it is easy to see why Howard Davies and his colleagues at the Financial Services Authority were sufficiently worried by this consolidation to speak out.

They could foresee a situation where they would find it hard to appoint an accountancy firm to look into a banking or corporate collapse like those in the late Eighties because all the preferred candidates would have some connection with the problem organisation.

The Prince Jefri case is an indication that - even though the regulators have waved through the deals that have seen the Big Eight become the Big Five - those they claim to serve are unimpressed.

KPMG could, of course, win this case on the appeal that is to be heard shortly. But, in a sense, the die has been cast. The big firms are being scrutinised in every aspect of their activities. And with the Department of Trade and Industry also last week announcing that it has decided not to meddle with the law on joint and several liability, partners in these organisations are not going to be too relaxed.

After all, the Government's decision to allow them to become limited liability partnerships offers only partial relief from the potentially ruinous claims that will surely follow if the current economic uncertainty turns into a recession.

Not that there are no happy accountants out there. When second-tier practice Stoy Hayward man- aging partner Adrian Martin announced strong increases in fees and profits, he pointed out that the firm was getting calls from growing businesses that were becoming disillusioned with being advised by large firms, while Kidsons Impey - itself in the throes of a merger - says it is getting calls from bankers and others who are attracted by the fact that it is not likely to be "conflicted out" of any big transactions.

With the turbulence in emerging markets bound to be having an effect, it is possible that those in the firms bent on world domination are feeling that consolidation no longer looks as obvious a solution as it did.