“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Rarely has this well-worn phrase had a more fitting home that when MPs call for the the big four accounting firms to be broken up. It came from my friend, who once worked at one of them. They have some stories from their time there that would make your hair stand on end.
Show me an ugly corporate scandal and likely as not I’ll show you an auditor that charged handsome fees for doing a dismal job. In some cases that’s a very charitable interpretation about what went on.
It was one of those scandals, the collapse of Enron in 2001 with all its dodgy off-balance-sheet vehicles, that created the big four. It used to be a big five you see, before the energy trader’s scams helped bring down Andersen.
Watchdogs shudder at the thought of that happening again, not least because we’d be left with a big three, with power even more concentrated than now. But the demise of BHS, and then Carillion, and the decidedly unflattering light cast on the jobs their auditors did, or rather didn't do, has made the current situation look untenable.
In response, the Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Committee has published a report that says enough is enough.
E&Y, PwC, KPMG and Deloitte have for too long operated as a cosy club with an effective monopoly. Nearly all of Britain’s top 350 companies uses one or other of them. They also pay through the nose for a vast range of consultancy services, which creates a clear conflict of interest for the accountants that provide them.
To address this, the committee wants the Competition and Markets Authority to bite the bullet and force a formal break up.
And, well, hear hear.
In some ways the debate around the big four reminds me of those ice cream vans that trawled the streets of Glasgow in the 1980s flogging hard drugs alongside lollipops.
Those lollipops were the least important and lucrative bit of the business, but they sure as hell mattered for show.
If firms of auditors were prevented from trawling the corporate streets selling consultancy work, so the theory goes, then they might be more inclined to ask difficult questions and make a fuss when they don’t like the answers they’re getting. The lollipops would count for something.
But here’s the problem: All sorts of people will now start talking about how much the UK’s big multinational businesses need big multinational accounting firms to audit their accounts and provide them with the help and advice they need with paying their CEOs more and the taxman less. Only they have requisite skills and experience, you see?
They’ll say that now is not the time to do anything radical because the chaps are working jolly hard at sorting things out (a top accountant was sent to the BBC to say just that this morning).
They’ll also say that it would be terribly complicated to force a split of just the UK arms of firms that operate as multinational networks. And have you thought about this? And this? And This?
The word “impractical” will be bandied about a lot.
Senior figures from the big four, whose reach extends deep into government, will take time out from advising ministers and their civil servants (which also pays good money) to whisper in their ears.
"Minister, do you really want to do something this courageous with all this Brexit stuff going on? Far better to stick to the less radical proposals tabled by the Competition and Markets Authority last year. We’ll agree to 'operationally' split our audit arms, and accept the oversight of a tougher regulator. Sure, if you want us to get some smaller firms in to help audit the big boys as well as us, we’ll do that because it won’t change anything much and it’d be nice to have someone around to fetch us some fresh coffee when we need it."
"Oh, and you know that annual dinner your constituency holds? Well how about we sponsor it."
Breaking up the big four? The arguments are compelling. But they’ve been that way for years and people have been talking about it for years, ever since Enron in fact.
They talked about it after the financial crisis too. Remember how HBOS had its accounts signed off six months before it went pop courtesy of racking up huge losses that no one apparently noticed. They’ll go on talking about it. Taking and talking and talking.
But when it comes to action? Now is never the time.
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