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requirements, encouragement of transparency and dialogue between auditors, companies and investors, and reform of outdated exclusionary practices should provide a backdrop for a healthier FTSE 350 audit market.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.