Finance: Accountants dare to bare their souls

... but now that the big firms' profits are there for all to see, drawing comparisons remains as hard as ever, writes Roger Trapp
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The past week has seen a sea-change in accountancy firms' attitudes towards financial disclosure. Previously, just big-six outfit KPMG and the second tier's Stoy Hayward had dared to tell the world something about their inner finances. But thanks to the action of first Ernst & Young and then Pannell Kerr Forster a drip now looks like becoming a flood.

The likes of Price Waterhouse, Arthur Andersen and Coopers & Lybrand are still sticking to their rights - as partnerships - to not publish anything. But it looks - as PKF managing partner John Wosner said last week - as if in the not too distant future publishing will be the norm rather than an aberration.

How different things look from last January, when KPMG sought to seize the moral high ground by producing results for the whole organisation. Since then, its tactics have been somewhat curious. On the one hand, it says being able to point to its financial figures gives the firm some kind of competitive edge over its rivals; on the other, it appears to be trying to force them to fall into line by publishing surveys showing the degree of support for disclosure.

But if the idea is that the provision of full results by all the leading firms would enable some form of comparison to be made, the early evidence is somewhat to the contrary. The big firms may be increasingly becoming professionally managed, but they still have enough idiosyncrasies in such areas as the reward of partners to make direct comparisons difficult and misleading.

Nor do the differences end there. The attitudes to disclosure itself vary considerably between firms. Just look at the two that bared their souls last week. Mr Wosner, while admitting that he would have preferred to have been a professional in the 1920s, showed no enthusiasm for his announcement. Instead, it was a bowing to the inevitable and "a diversion from the real issues" - though he also accepted that in PKF's case good figures could help to demonstrate that at least one firm in the supposedly vulnerable middle tier was viable.

E&Y senior partner Nick Land, on the other hand, appeared to be revelling in being able to present his figures. With the aid of whizzy graphics, he nearly suggested that - since the firm was the result of a fairly recent merger - he was talking about a start-up. But then his spiel about the disclosure stemming from greater transparency within the organisation sounded like he was trying to make the organisation appear less like an old-fashioned accountancy firm than a software maker.

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