Auditing Your Auditor

After nearly a decade of turmoil, companies have gained the advantage in negotiating with their auditors.

When telecommunications provider IDT decided to switch auditors from Ernst & Young to Grant Thornton in early 2008, the “driving force was to save money,” says CFO Bill Pereira. It worked. Part of a companywide effort to reduce corporate overhead, the move cut IDT’s $4.3 million audit bill almost in half. Although initially “we were fearful of leaving the Big Four,” says Pereira, “in retrospect, we are really happy with the decision.”

In fact, the switch went so smoothly that IDT declined to announce the renewal of Grant Thornton’s contract in its most recent proxy — because IDT was open to switching again. “We knew there had been changes in the market and we wanted to evaluate where fees stood,” says Pereira. “We didn’t just make the automatic assumption that we’d stick with Grant Thornton. We felt it was our responsibility to do our homework.” (IDT eventually did renew with Grant Thornton — and cut its bill by nearly another million dollars, to $1.42 million last year.)

Welcome to the new auditor-client relationship. In the wake of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, audit fees soared, auditors dumped risky clients by the hundreds, and “value-added” services all but vanished under the weight of new independence rules. Today, the reverse is true. Audit fees have been dropping across the board since 2007. In 2004, more than a third of auditor changes were the result of audit firms walking away from clients. Last year, 82% of auditor changes were because companies fired their auditors (among the Big Four, the number was 90%). And companies aren’t just negotiating lower fees; they are also demanding more value — read “services” — covering everything from corporate-board education to competitive intelligence.

No More Sticker Shock

In 2000, the Securities and Exchange Commission required that companies begin disclosing all payments made to their auditors. Prompted by the 1998 merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers Lybrand, the rule was intended to shine a light on potential independence problems created by nonaudit work. But it also seemed likely that, in a normal market, such transparency would affect the price of audits.

Alas, the ensuing decade proved anything but normal. That Big Six merger was followed quickly by dramatic audit failures that culminated in the Enron and WorldCom debacles, the implosion of Arthur Andersen, and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and its infamous Section 404, creating the most turbulent era in the history of auditing. “From 2000 to 2007, there was one shock after another, so there really wasn’t normal pricing during that period,” observes associate professor Scott Whisenant of the University of Houston, who studies audit fees.

Fees charged by audit firms dropped as a % of client revenue in 2008.

It is still a bitter irony for finance executives that Sarbox — much of it aimed squarely at Arthur Andersen’s failings as auditor to Enron and WorldCom — turned into a bonanza for surviving audit firms. Between 2004 and 2006, internal-control audits created intense auditor shortages, which rippled through the market, affecting companies not even required to comply with Section 404. The supply-versus-demand dilemma combined with new auditing requirements and auditor risk aversion drove costs skyward during those years.

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