In December 2005, the first time the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board released a special report based on its audit inspections, the topic was internal controls over financial reporting.
After that, all hell broke loose. When the Securities and Exchange Commission learned about how inept and costly a job auditors were doing under AS2, the PCAOB’s internal-controls standard, the SEC pushed the accounting board to revise, and then replace, the rule.
The issue was — and continues to be — a huge flashpoint in the regulation of auditors. The SEC had been using the audit standard as a default guideline for its own enforcement of Sarbox 404, the internal-controls provision for corporations. When the commission found AS2 sorely lacking, it came out with its own proposed guidance and pushed the PCAOB to replace the auditing rule. The oversight board will decide whether to enact its resulting plan, AS5, after a public comment period closes on February 26.
Now the PCAOB has come up another report like the one that preceded the internal controls dust-up. On Jan. 22, when the board issued the 4010 report, as it’s called, the issue was fraud detection. What’s more, it plans to hold a February 22 panel discussion on forensic audits that will focus on fraud detection. Can a brouhaha about auditor failures in that area be far behind?
Certainly, many of the fraud report’s findings have raised eyebrows. The oversight board inspectors observed that auditors were taking some alarming shortcuts in their overall approach to detecting client finagling. The board’s inspectors also ripped auditors in specific areas, reporting failures in such areas as brainstorming fraud risks; responding when things seem risky; digging into financial misstatements; and detecting larcenous urges in management overrides of controls.
Senior financial executives should watch out for the ripple effect. If the PCAOB does go after auditors with a heavy hand, corporations could end up paying mightily. For instance, the PCAOB’s February 22 panel will ponder whether the board should mandate regular forensic audits every three or five years, say. That would add huge fees to companies’ current audit bills.
The panel will also discuss cheaper alternatives: requiring forensic audits on a random basis or having shareholders decide how much fraud detection they want to pay for. Not surprisingly, those proposed mandates stem from the executive suites of the six biggest accounting firms. The PCAOB cites a November 2006 report by the CEOs of the firms as the source of the ideas.
On the other hand, the first order of business for audit firms may be for them to clean up their own acts, some experts suggest. Indeed, the PCAOB wouldn’t have cited the failings it did in a 4010 report if the board thought they didn’t indicate major gaps in client fraud detection at some firms, Douglas Carmichael, who served as the PCAOB’s first chief accountant, told CFO.com recently. “It does indicate a serious problem,” he says.
Although a PCAOB spokesman said the board wouldn’t discuss the report, the actual document speaks volumes. Without naming names, the report describes auditors who are essentially asleep at the wheel when it comes to fraud detection. It reports for instance, “that auditors often document their consideration of fraud merely by checking of items on standard audit programs and checklists.”
Such a checklist approach is one of the main criticisms that the board — and the finance world at large — leveled at auditors’ compliance with AS2. Of course, in that case, the concern was that the checklists were indiscriminately applied, resulting in unnecessary audit procedures. In terms of the fraud audit, the PCAOB wants evidence that auditors actually performed the procedures they were signing off on.
Because board inspectors found no such evidence in the documentation provided by a number of large audit engagement teams, the PCAOB thinks that “there may not be sufficient involvement of senior members in supervising and reviewing the application of the provisions” of AU 316, the standard concerning fraud in financial statement audits.
In a similar vein, top auditors may be failing to press their underlings to provide enough evidence to support clean fraud opinions, according to Carmichael. He says he’s seen many times in which auditors should have recognized that they didn’t have enough evidence to substantiate their opinions but rendered them anyway.
The reason? Lead audit partners aren’t willing to do anything that might jeopardize their firms’ relationships with key clients, he said, adding that “firms are plenty willing to end the client relationship when the client isn’t important to them.”
The report also tears into public accountants who failed to expand their audit procedures when the fraud risks they’ve identified seemed more serious. In such cases, inspectors think, the auditors performed the required procedures “mechanically” and thus failed to change the audit plan to match the risk.
Some auditors also only skimmed the surface in searching for ill-advised management overrides of journal entries, say the authors of the PCAOB report, who note that the area is ripe with possibilities for fraud. “You can’t just look at journal entries. You have to look at the underlying documentation . . . to make sure they’re not bogus entries,” says George Victor, the partner in charge of quality control at Holtz Rubenstein Reminick LLP, a New York accounting firm.
To be able to unearth fraud stemming from late management entries to financial statements, auditors also need to be careful not to sign off on financials before chief executives do. “If the auditor doesn’t look at all the documentation at the point that management does the final statements, there could be a gap,” according to Victor.
Unlike the situation with AS2, the board isn’t suggesting a change in the fraud-detection rule itself. Instead, the report’s view is that “the problem is not the car, it’s the driver,” he says.
Indeed, the current fraud-detection rule “is very prescriptive of what auditors need to do,” according to Victor. In reading in the report about their failures, he adds, “you stand back and wonder, where was their head at?”