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Thursday, 7 May 2015

Auditors' self-overestimation

Yesterday, I read an article in the weekly Dutch CPA news alert in which someone expresses his surprise in the fact that a CFO is only interested in getting the CPA's signature A.S.A.P. To my surprise, his surprise was even adequate for a promotion at Nyenrode Business University.

The article proposes to increase the role of the shareholder in the selection and the appointment of an auditor. In principle, I agree with this recommendation. However, shareholders in public companies have a limited interested in its wellbeing (e.g., excessive board remuneration). Shareholders in public companies do not act like owners but as investors. Hence, such recommendations fail.

I have been in audit from 1982 up to and including 1994. I loved the audit profession as I actually learned a lot. However, its lack of realisation with respect to its perceived added value is worrisome. Let's label this "auditors' self-overestimation" for the purpose of this blog.

I have been in senior finance management since 1997, including roles as Finance Director and CFO. My change from senior audit manager into various roles within the Finance domain was one of the biggest deceptions of my life. I finally realised how little I had known of my clients. My prior audit recommendations to senior Finance management suddenly felt embarrassing.

I am not alone in this. This deception is shared by other audit colleagues who entered the Finance domain. This deception is related to the immense gap between the Audit and the Finance domain. Auditors assume that Finance is like mathematics. However, the Finance domain is more like crowd psychology, expectation management or - perhaps even more appropriate - stakeholder management.

Auditors used to be trusted advisors to senior company management and within some family businesses this may still be the case. Somehow I assume that the decline of the perceived added value by auditors is related to the rise of shareholder value since the 1980s. The role of auditor - especially within public companies - changed from trusted advisor to (preferred) supplier.

In my view, auditors are professionals similar to police detectives. Only a few auditors have business acumen. Consequently, their solution was using the Price of their audit services as their USP rather than differentiate in Product, Place or Promotion. The (international) nickname of my previous employer thus became Half Price Waterhouse. Other audit firms got similar nicknames.

After decades, we now see the consequences of using Price as a marketing tool. Audit budgets went down, hourly rates went up and consequently budgeted audit hours got halved or worse. Creating added value to senior company management became sheer impossible. Laventhol and Horwath (L&H) was the seventh largest American public accounting firm when it went bankrupt in November 1990 (source). Additional regulation (e.g., Sarbanes Oxley) came as a blessing to audit firms.

Today's lack of added value of audit services to senior company management should not come as a surprise. Yet it does and that is worrisome. In my view, auditors still overestimate their own role. Perhaps this is necessary to continue to hire the "best and brightest". Once the magic is gone then what is left ??