Does appointment of a former partner of the client’s audit firm to the client’s audit committee impair audit quality?
Studies of former partners of audit firms that have assumed management positions at audit clients have raised concerns, at least pre-SOX, about potentially lower audit quality, perhaps reflecting hesitation by the audit firm to “challenge aggressive accounting decisions” made by former partners of their firms. But what happens when a former partner joins the audit client’s audit committee? Does the former partner feel pressured not to question the audit firm’s decisions or lose objectivity about the quality of the work of the audit firm? Does the audit firm feel pressured to accept the company’s more aggressive accounting decisions when a former partner sits on the audit committee? In this study, published in Auditing: a Journal of Practice & Theory, a group of academics looked at that question. Their conclusion was that affiliated former partners on audit committees actually led to improved audit processes and outcomes. Why? Applying psychology’s “social identity theory,” the authors posit that the former partners continued to identify with their former firms, but instead of losing their objectivity, the former audit partners “use their knowledge of, and identification with, the audit firm to improve the audit process and the communication between the two parties,” leading to improvement in audit quality.
Yikes! What is going on at the PCAOB? You may recall that, back in 2018, former staffers at the PCAOB and former partners of KPMG were charged by the SEC in connection with “their participation in a scheme to misappropriate and use confidential information relating to the PCAOB’s planned inspections of KPMG.” You know, that case where the former PCAOB staffers were accused of leaking to KPMG the plans for PCAOB inspections of KPMG—“literally stealing the exam.” (See this PubCo post.) The same scheme led the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the SDNY to file criminal charges against the former staffers, and some have actually been sentenced to prison. But that’s not even the half of it.
At the end of September, the SEC announced that it had filed a complaint in federal court charging pharma Mylan N.V. with failing to timely disclose in its financial statements the “reasonably possible” material losses arising out of a DOJ civil investigation. The DOJ had investigated whether, by misclassifying its biggest product, the EpiPen, as a “generic,” Mylan had overcharged Medicaid by hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the complaint, although the investigation continued for two years, Mylan also failed to accrue for the “probable and reasonably estimable” material losses, as required under GAAP, until the announcement of a $465 million settlement with DOJ. In addition, some of Mylan’s other allegedly misleading disclosure flowed from its omission to discuss the claims. The SEC alleged that Mylan’s risk factor was misleading because it framed the government’s misclassification claim as a hypothetical possibility, when, in fact, the claim had already been made. As a consequence of these failures, the SEC alleged, Mylan’s SEC filings were false and misleading in violation of the Securities Act and Exchange Act. Mylan agreed to pay $30 million to settle the SEC’s charges. While the SEC complaint makes the matter sound straightforward, in practice, deciding whether, when and what to disclose or accrue for a loss contingency can often be a challenging exercise.
In this report, Critical Audit Matters: Public company adaptation to enhanced auditor reporting, Intelligize examines data from a survey, conducted by SourceMediaResearch/Accounting Today, of 171 compliance specialists at public companies to examine “how public company compliance officials are adapting their own corporate disclosure and processes to comply with this new regime.” Among the issues considered were the impact of “dry runs,” changes to company disclosures and changes in internal controls. The report includes a 25-page appendix with examples of CAMs, organized by subject matter, which should prove to be valuable reading for those about to embark on the project. Interestingly, the report stressed the importance of lining up the investor relations team to consider how best to communicate the company’s message about CAMs.
Last week, the SEC announced settled charges against PwC and one of its audit partners for violations of the auditor independence rules. As described in the Order, the violations included “performing prohibited non-audit services during an audit engagement, including exercising decision-making authority in the design and implementation of software relating to an audit client’s financial reporting, and engaging in management functions.” PwC was also charged with “improper professional conduct” in connection with 19 engagements by failing to comply with PCAOB rules requiring an auditor to “describe in writing to the audit committee the scope of work, discuss with the audit committee the potential effects of the work on independence, and document the substance of the independence discussion.” According to the Order, the failure to properly advise these audit committees prevented them from examining whether the non-audit services affected PwC’s independence. Notably, because it issued an audit report stating that it was independent when it was not, PwC was also charged with having caused its audit client to violate the Exchange Act by filing with the SEC an annual report that contained materially false or misleading information and that failed to include financial statements audited by an independent public accountant, as required. The SEC concluded that these violations reflected “breakdowns in [PwC’s] system of quality control to provide reasonable assurance that PwC maintained independence.” In addition to requiring PwC to pay disgorgement and penalties, the SEC censured PwC. For companies, it is important to keep in mind that the consequences of violations of the auditor independence rules apply not just to the audit firm, but also to the audit client. An independence violation may cause the audit client to violate the Exchange Act, as in this case, and/or lead the auditor to withdraw its audit report, requiring the audit client to have a re-audit by another audit firm. Audit committees need to be on the alert for the possibility of auditor independence violations and be vigilant regarding the performance of non-audit services.
You may recall that, for a while now, the SEC has been actively warning about risks associated with the LIBOR phase-out, which is expected to occur in 2021. LIBOR, the London Interbank Offered Rate, is a widely used reference rate calculated based on estimates submitted by banks of their own borrowing costs. In 2012, the revelation of LIBOR rigging scandals made clear that the benchmark was susceptible to manipulation, and British regulators decided to phase it out. SEC Chair Jay Clayton has advised that, according to the Fed, “in the cash and derivatives markets, there are approximately $200 trillion in notional transactions referencing U.S. Dollar LIBOR and… more than $35 trillion will not mature by the end of 2021.” In July, the SEC staff published a Statement that “encourages market participants to proactively manage their transition away from LIBOR.” (See this PubCo post.) However, the substantial uncertainties and challenges associated with implementing the transition have led to delays and triggered a high level of anxiety among companies faced with addressing the issue. (See this PubCo post.) As reported in Bloomberg BNA, to ease the strain of the transition, FASB has jumped in with some proposed temporary financial reporting relief.
The SEC’s Office of Chief Accountant has updated its FAQs regarding auditor independence. The new and revised questions relate to the general standard for independence, prohibited non-audit services, partner rotation, definitions and miscellaneous other independence issues. It is important to keep in mind that violations of the auditor independence rules can have serious consequences not only for the audit firm, but also for the audit client. For example, an independence violation may cause the auditor to withdraw its audit report, requiring the audit client to have a re-audit by another audit firm. As a result, in most cases, inquiry into the topic of auditor independence should be another menu item on the audit committee’s plate.