When big drops coalesce, does this herald the start of a deluge? The little drops would like to know

A plan by Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse to merge to create the world's largest professional services firm caught everybody on the hop. Other companies, such as Deloitte Touche, are now under the spotlight; if the merger goes through, which firm will be the next in line for a link-up?
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The merger plan announced last week was both surprising and inevitable. Surprising, because - despite one news organisation in the US getting wind of the proposal (and, apparently, being persuaded that it had been badly informed) - nothing leaked out until the morning of the announcement. Inevitable, because whenever accountants gather with their counterparts at other firms, or with those who report on their comings and goings, the talk always turns to who's next for merger.

Creating this behemoth, assuming that it clears all the hurdles in its way, would appear to do little to halt that trend. Indeed, since the merger will lift Price Waterhouse some way above Deloitte Touche in the league tables, it is widely assumed that a key effect of the proposals is that Deloitte Touche must be next in line for a link-up.

But the next steps may not be so clean-cut. Some observers point to the recent problems Andersen Worldwide has had in choosing a new chief executive - resulting, it is said, from differences of opinion between the Arthur Andersen accounting firm and the consulting arm that has driven much of its spectacular growth - and float the possibility of Andersen Consulting joining with one of the other top accountancy-based firms. Indeed, rumours had reached some in PW that their firm was the one.

Whatever else happens - and many stress that Coopers and PW have publicised their intentions at an early stage in proceedings that could yet end in failure - the news has certainly put the opposition in a stir. Other Big Six firms have issued statements pointing out their own strengths and emphasising their commitment to seeing through their current strategies for satisfying clients. But they are also admitting that they will be spending the coming weeks carefully studying the implications. Early this week it was being quipped that the airlines were the early beneficiaries of the deal, with senior partners in the various firms scurrying off around the world for meetings with their colleagues.

There seems little doubt that the coming weeks will see quite a few changes in personnel at the top firms. All the recruitment consultancy surveys are indicating that we are in the middle of as buoyant a market for accountants as anybody can remember, so any senior manager or partner in one of the two engaged firms who feels that their prospects look a little less bright than before could well be persuaded to make a move. Equally, rival firms are likely to seek to add their own little bit of mischief to the episode by attempting to lure some of the brighter stars. One senior partner said as much when he suggested that "everybody will be dusting off their files".

There is also likely to be some activity on the regulatory front. Both Ian Brindle and Peter Smith, respectively heads of PW and Coopers in the UK, declare themselves optimistic in this regard, though both are aware that certain bodies - particularly those in the United States, Japan and Europe - will be interested in the competition aspects of the Big Six being reduced by one.

Though competition experts point out that the regulators will not roll into action until they have a "done deal" to consider, rival firms and even a few clients are not wasting any time in pushing forward what they consider to be some of the issues. Finance directors have been quoted as saying they were worried about the cost implications of one firm having half of the FTSE 100 as audit clients, while rival firms are clearly concerned about what the new organisation's new economies of scale may do to their ability to charge what they feel they need to.

Though few involved with the merger will lose sleep over reports that Austin Mitchell, the distinctly non-Blairite Labour MP and long-time scourge of the accountancy profession, will be urging the UK government to launch its own investigation, they may be more troubled by the interest of the European Commission. It has investigated competition among the Big Six in the past (and found sufficient levels for the time being). But the Commission has been slow to be persuaded of the virtues in the proposed tie-ups in the airline industry, while observers point out that individual regulators have voiced concern about the Big Six shrinking - to the point where they would countenance such a reduction only if one of the firms were "in distress" and therefore a problem for its large number of international clients.

But it is not just external pressures that the merger faces. The executives of Coopers and PW have the not-to-be-underestimated job of persuading a significant majority of the partners that this is the way forward for them. The official line is that both firms have lacked the resources to grow as fast as they would like, but if that is true it is hard to see why merging will help. If one firm had people sitting about twiddling their thumbs, then maybe; otherwise, this seems like a recipe for power struggles of the "my project needs people more than yours" variety.

The sheer number of partners involved - a staggering 8,500, compared with Andersen's 2,800-odd, and, according to another professional, much more than makes a credible partnership - in itself makes the task monumental. But inevitably there will be factions. And though the few people "in the know" in each firm will have taken soundings in each department before making last Thursday's announcement, divisions develop only once there is something to which to react.

Leave aside for the moment the fact that both sides have had less than ideal merger histories. PW has had two previous attempts, while Coopers' UK arm has found Deloitte difficult to digest. But the fact remains that the drive for this deal does not appear to be coming from the UK accounting side of operations.

Rather, much is being made of the fact that the two firms are fifth and sixth in the US, while the language used in the announcement statements is just the sort of thing we have come to expect from corporations - "brand leveraging", "global reach" and the rest. In short, management consulting speak. With "change management" in vogue, the two firms' armies of consultants have the perfect opportunity to prove their worth to their audit colleagues.