ATTORNEY: Joshua B. Silverman
Pomerantz Monitor January/February 2016
Investors rely on auditors to insure the integrity of corporate financial statements, but have little insight into the individual auditors themselves. That is about to change. A new rule adopted by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) will soon provide investors with much more transparency into the audit partners conducting the audit, and whether the audit firm outsourced substantial audit work.
Currently, auditors hide behind a mask of anonymity. They sign the opinion letters that go into SEC filings under the firm name only. But as recent PCAOB inspection reports confirm, even “big four” auditors produce shoddy audits with alarmingly high frequency. In its most recent inspection, the PCAOB found that KPMG was deficient in 54% of inspected audits. The remaining “big four” were only modestly better: EY 36%, PwC 29%, Deloitte 21%.
According to PCAOB chair James Doty, many of those bad audits were produced by particular engagement partners. In a recent statement, he explained that “PCAOB inspections have revealed that, even within a single firm, and notwithstanding firm-wide or network-wide quality control systems, the quality of individual audit engagements varies. There are numerous factors required to achieve a high quality audit, but the role of the engagement partner in promoting quality, or allowing it to be compromised, is of singular importance to the ultimate reliability of the audit.”
SEC enforcement actions confirm that some engagement partners are repeat offenders. For example, a recent action against Grant Thornton shows that the same partner, Melissa Koeppel, overlooked at least three major accounting frauds in public companies: headphone-manufacturer Koss, Assisted Living Concepts (ALC), and Broadwind. In its 2008 inspection of Grant Thornton, the SEC highlighted deficiencies in one of Ms. Koeppel’s audits. By the third quarter of 2010, Ms. Koeppel’s public company audit clients had restated financials four times, and Ms. Koeppel was on an internal monitoring list at Grant Thornton for partners with negative quality indicators. Her track record was so bad that Grant Thornton switched most of her audits to other engagement partners, but it kept her on the 2010 audit of ALC. Those financial statements had to be restated due to accounting irregularities that were brought to Ms. Koeppel’s attention by subordinates, but were ignored.
Investors will soon get a new tool to help identify bad auditors like Ms. Koeppel. A recently-adopted PCAOB rule will require audit firms to file forms indicating the name of the engagement partner. The rule also requires identification of other firms that assisted in the audit, and the extent of their participation.
While the rule is an improvement, it was watered down under heavy pressure from accounting industry lobbyists. The original proposal called for the engagement partner to be identified directly in SEC filings, either in the audit opinion itself or by the issuer. The current rule places the information in a separate form, so investors will have to look in multiple places to find information about the audit. But this additional hurdle is minor. Over time, it may not pose any problem at all, as financial information providers like Bloomberg and Reuters begin to link audit engagement partner track record information into their profiles of corporate issuers.