The Big Four are well known: Deloitte, Ernst and Young, KPMG and PWC. They act as auditors for 90% of the UK’s stock-market listed companies. They have a very close relationship with the companies that they audit and because of this have faced criticism of not warning of the financial crisis. A further accusation is that the relationship between auditors and managers has become blurred.
In some sense, there is a problem of divorce of ownership from control. The companies that are audited by the Big Four have shareholders who are interested in profits and their dividends. But they employ managers who are responsible for the day-to-day running of the business. However, there are concerns that the auditors have become more concerned with meeting the interests of the managers and not of the shareholders. It has been suggested that the company’s management tend to ‘present their accounts in the most favourable light, whereas shareholder interests can be quite different.’ Laura Carstensen, the chair of the Audit Investigation Group said:
It is clear that there is significant dissatisfaction amongst some institutional investors with the relevance and extent of reporting in audited financial reports … management may have incentives to present their accounts in the most favourable light, whereas shareholder interests can be quite different.
The Big Four have been criticised for limiting competition in the industry. The Competition Commission has said that companies typically stay with the same auditing firm and this acts to limit competition. One suggestion to encourage competition is to enforce rotation of Auditors. However, the Big Four have said that the market remains competitive, ‘healthy and robust’ and that any enforcement as noted above would not be in the public interest. Other, smaller auditing companies have praised the preliminary report of the Competition Commission. One firm said:
No one solution will achieve market correction, but rather a combination of tendering requirements, encouragement of transparency and dialogue between auditors, companies and investors, and reform of outdated exclusionary practices should provide a backdrop for a healthier FTSE 350 audit market.
The report is not yet final, but the future of the Big Four is somewhat uncertain, especially with the European Commission’s desire to break them up. The following articles look at this industry.
Big Four accountants reject claims over high prices and poor competition The Guardian, Josephine Moulds and David Feeney (22/2/13)
Competition Commission raps Big Four accountants BBC News (22/2/13)
Big Four’s rivals welcome audit shake-up Financial Times, Adam Jones (22/2/13)
UK’s “Big Four” accountants under fire from watchdog Reuters, Huw Jones (22/2/13)
Big Four chastised by Competition Commission The Telegraph, Helia Ebrahimi (22/2/13)
The uncompetitive culture of auditing’s big four remains undented The Guardian, Prem Sikka (23/2/13)
Big Four accountants ‘in closed club on audits’ Independent, Mark Leftly (23/2/13)
- What is the role of the Competition Commission?
- Explain with other examples the problem of the divorce of ownership from control. How might the interest of shareholders and managers differ? Can they ever be aligned?
- Is market share a good measure of the competitiveness of an industry?
- What are the benefits of competition?
- Why has the regulator suggested that the Big Four are limiting competition?
- What solutions have been proposed by the Competition Commission? Explain how they are likely to stimulate competition in this market.
With the fall of communism in eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, many hailed this as the victory of capitalism.
Even China, which is still governed by the Chinese Communist Party, has embraced the market and accepted growing levels of private ownership of capital. It is only one or two countries, such as North Korea and Cuba, that could be described as communist in the way the term was used to describe the centrally planned economies of eastern Europe before 1990.
But whilst market capitalism seemed to have emerged as the superior system in the 1990s, may are now questioning whether the market capitalism we have today is fit for the 21st century. Today much of the world’s capital in the hands of big business, with financial institutions holding a large proportion of shares in such companies. And the gap between rich and poor is ever widening
The market system of today, is very different from that of 100 years ago. In fact, as John Kay agues in his article “Let’s talk about the market economy” below, it would be wrong to describe it as ‘capitalism’ in the sense the term was used in the debates of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nonetheless, the term is still used and generally refers to the market system we now have. And it is a market system that many see as failing and unfit for purpose. It is a system that coincided with the bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s, the credit crunch of 2007–9 and the recession of 2008/9, now seeming to return as a double-dip recession
With the political and business leaders of the world meeting at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland on 25–29 January 2012, a central theme of the forum has been the future of capitalism and whether it’s fit for the 21st century.
Is there a fairer and more compassionate capitalism that can be fostered? This has been a stated objective of all three political parties in the UK recently. Can we avoid another crisis of capitalism as seen in the late 2000s and which still continues today? What is the role of government in regulating the market system? Does the whole capitalist system need restructuring?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to talk about capitalism. The following webcasts and articles do just that.
Webcasts and podcasts
Davos 2012 – TIME Davos Debate on Capitalism< World Economic Forum (25/01/12)
Can capitalism be ‘responsible’? BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (19/01/12)
Capitalism ‘nothing to do with responsibility’ BBC Newsnight, Eric Hobsbawm (19/01/12)
Are there alternatives to capitalism? BBC Newsnight, Danny Finkelstein, Tristram Hunt and Julie Meyer (19/01/12)
America Beyond Capitalism The Real News on YouTube, Gar Alperovitz (27/12/11)
The future of capitalism CNBC, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (12/11/09)
Capitalism Hits the Fan (excerpt) YouTube, Richard Wolff (2/1/12)
Panel Discussion “20 years after – Future of capitalism in CEE” Erste Group on YouTube, Andreas Treichl, Janusz Kulik, Jacques Chauvet, and media Adrian Sarbu (24/2/11)
The Future of Capitalism: Constructive Competition or Chaos? YouTube, Nathan Goetting, Tony Nelson, Craig Meurlin and Judd Bruce Bettinghaus (24/1/11)
Capitalism in Crisis Financial Times, Various videos (24/1/11)
Bill Gates: Capitalism a ‘phenomenal system’ BBC Today Programme, Bill Gates talks to Evan Davis (25/1/12)
Capitalism (See also) BBC The Bottom Line, Evan Davis and guests (28/1/12)
Meddle with the market at your peril Financial Times, Alan Greenspan (25/1/12)
The world’s hunger for public goods Financial Times, Martin Wolf (24/1/12)
When capitalism and corporate self-interest collide JohnKay.com, John Kay (25/1/12)
Let’s talk about the market economy JohnKay.com, John Kay (11/1/12)
A real market economy ensures that greed is good JohnKay.com, John Kay (18/1/12)
Seven ways to fix the system’s flaws Financial Times, Martin Wolf (22/1/12)
To the barricades, British defenders of open markets! The Economist, Bagehot’s Notebook (26/1/12)
Community reaction to doubts about capitalism in Davos CBC News (26/1/12)
Capitalism saw off USSR, now it needs to change or die The National (UAE), Frank Kane (26/1/12)
Words won’t change capitalism. So be daring and do something Observer, Will Hutton (22/1/12)
A political economy fit for purpose: what the UK could learn from Germany Our Kingdom, Alex Keynes (20/1/12)
Debate on State Capitalism The Economist (24/1/12)
- How has the nature of capitalism changed over recent decades?
- Can capitalism be made more ‘caring’ and, if so, how?
- What do you understand by the term a ‘fair allocation of resources’? Is capitalism fair? Can it be made fairer and, if so, what are the costs of making it so?
- Can greed ever be good?
- How does the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of capitalism differ from the European model?
- What do you understand by the term ‘crony capitalism’? Is crony capitalism on the increase?
- John Kay states that “Modern titans derive their authority and influence from their position in a hierarchy, not their ownership of capital.” Explain what this means and what its implications are for making capitalism meet social goals.
- In what ways can governments control markets? Have these instruments and their effectiveness changed in effectiveness over time?
- What are the costs and benefits to society of the increasing globalisation of capital?
- To what extent was the financial crisis and credit crunch the result of a flawed capitalist system and to what extent was it a failure of government intervention?
- Why is it important for the success of capitalism that companies should be allowed to fail? Consider whether this should also apply to banks. How is the concept of moral hazard relevant to your answer?
Kraft was seeking to take over Cadbury since September 2009, (see Cadbury: Chocolate all change and A Krafty approach to Cadbury). But the Cadbury board had rejected previous bids as being too low. The September bid, for example, was valued at £10.2bn. On 19 January 2010, however, after heated negotiations the board accepted the latest offer by Kraft valued at £11.5bn ($19bn).
But is the deal good news? Or will what is sweet for senior management and the financial institutions which brokered the deal be dark bitter news for the main stakeholders – consumers, workers and shareholders? The following articles explore the issues.
Cadbury battle ends with midnight handshake Financial Times, Lina Saigol (19/1/10)
Cadbury takeover: a crafty bit of business or an overpriced confection? Telegraph, Jonathan Sibun (20/1/10)
Cadbury’s sweet City deal leaves a bitter taste in Bournville Guardian, Heather Stewart and Nick Mathiason (19/1/10)
Thousands of Cadbury jobs under threat as Kraft swallows a British icon (including video) Times Online, Helen Nugent and Catherine Boyle (20/1/10)
Cadbury deal ‘the price of globalisation’ Financial Times, Jenny Wiggins and Jonathan Guthrie (19/1/10)
Cadbury sale ‘right thing to do’ FT video (19/1/10)
Bitterness as Kraft wins Cadbury Independent, Nick Clark (20/1/10)
The winners: Management duo in line for bumper pay packet from takeover deal Independent, Nick Clark (20/1/10)
Kraft came hunting in the only country that would sell – Britain Independent, James Moore (20/1/10)
Kraft’s takeover leaves a bitter taste in the mouth Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (19/1/10)
A sweet deal – or a takeover that is hard to swallow? Independent, Hamish McRae (20/1/10)
Cadbury: banks are the real winners BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (20/1/10)
Warren Buffett blasts Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury Guardian, Graeme Wearden (20/1/10)
Cadbury says job cuts inevitable after Kraft takeover (including videos) BBC News (19/1/10)
Cadbury and the open market theory: they’d better be right Guardian blog, Michael White (20/1/10)
The Business: Bonus season and the Cadbury takeover Guardian podcast, Aditya Chakrabortty
How did Quakers conquer the British sweet shop? BBC News Magazine, Peter Jackson (20/1/10)
Why Kraft must keep organic cacao farmers sweet Guardian blog, Craig Sams (20/1/10)
- What were the incentives for the Cadbury board to accept the proposed offer by Kraft?
- Do such incentives lead to the efficient operation of markets?
- Explain what is meant by ‘competition for corporate control’. To what extent is such competition in the interests of consumers?
- What economies or diseconomies of scale are likely to result from the takeover? What will determine the extent to which changes in costs are passed on to the consumer?
- How will the following stakeholders fare from the takeover, both in the short run and in the long run: (a) consumers; (b) workers; (c) shareholders?
- Examine Warren Buffet’s arguments for rejecting the deal.