Yesterday, prior to today's excitement regarding Satyam and PwC, PCAOB Chairman James Doty spoke at the The Council of Institutional Investors 2011 Spring Meeting and he had some interesting things to say about the audit profession, specifically that auditors don't always remember that "protecting investors" ≠ "client service":
Time and time again, we've seen services that might be valuable to management reduce the auditor's objectivity, and thus reduce the value of the audit to investors. While management may need the services, they just don't have to get them from the auditor.
Audit firms call this "client service," and it makes things terribly confusing. When the hard questions of supporting management's financial presentation arise, the engagement partner is often enlisted as an advocate to argue management's case to the technical experts in the national office of the audit firm. The mortgaging of audit objectivity can even begin at the outset of the relationship, with the pitch to get the client.
Consider the way these formulations of the audit engagement that we've uncovered through our inspections process might prejudice quality:
• "Simply stated we want management to view us as a trusted partner that can assist with the resolution of issues and structuring of transactions."
• We will "support the desired outcome where the audit team may be confronted with an issue that merits consultation with our National Office."
• Our audit decisions are "made by the global engagement partner with no second guessing or National Office reversals."
Huh. Doty doesn't name names but you could easily interpret those statements as one made by a client advocate, not a white knight for investors. He continues:
Or, to demonstrate how confusing the value proposition could be even to those auditors who try to articulate it:
• We will provide you "with the best, value-added audit service in the most cost effective and least disruptive manner by eliminating non-value added procedures."
(What is a "non-value added procedure"? Whose value do you think the claim refers to? If a procedure is valuable to investors but doesn't add value to management, will it be scrapped?)
In other words, "we promise that we won't be pests" and "value" will be a game-time decision. And finally:
Or, consider this as a possible audit engagement formula for misunderstanding down the road:
• We will deliver a "reduced footprint in the organization, lessening audit fatigue."
(What is "audit fatigue"? Does accommodating it add value to investors? How should investors feel about a "reduced footprint"?)
Yes, what is "audit fatigue"? Is that what happens to second and third-year senior associates every February/March? Or is this better articulated by "we know audits are annoying and our hope is that we won't annoy you too much."?
Taking this (the whole speech is worth a read) and everything else that happened today into account, it will be interesting to hear what Mr Doty has to say at tomorrow's hearing.