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Audit in the 21st century

Audit in the 21st century

As companies continuously transform in an era of speedy technological advancement, the impact it has on the audit profession is momentous.

Auditors need to respond by focusing on the relevance of audits – to challenge and add value for the sake of the public interest.

Numerous corporate scandals and economic crises of the last two decades have spurred many structural reforms within the audit market. The European Union (EU), in particular, has taken a bold stride by introducing new regulation to clarify the role of auditors,
safeguard their independance, foster a more dynamic market, and improve the oversight of audits performed in the EU. Regulators and international standard setting bodies are taking on a greater role by anticipating vulnerabilities and introducing standards to prevent future meltdowns.

In our yearbook 2015, we shqred our own beliefs on the role of audit and its value for the business community and for society as a whole (1). This year, in order to foster open debate on the state of today’s audit, but also to understand the evolutions that will impact the way auditors will do their job in the future, we asked three experts for their insights.

Here is what Eddy Wymeersch, Chairman of the Public Interest Oversight Body (PIOB) (2),
Pablo Perez, Senior Advisor on Accounting, Auditing and Disclosure at the Financial
Stability Board (FSB)(3), and Joe Perry, Member of the Secretariat of the FSB, have to say
about the present and future of our profession (4).

Q. More often than not, regulation is viewed as a burden by the private sector. From your perspective, do you think that this is the case for the audit market?

PABLO PEREZ:

With the clarification that the FSB is notan accounting or audit standard
setter, we view regulation as a matter of incentives. It’s about
striking the right balance between preserving the public good on one
hand, and respecting private choice on the other. Regulation should
not dictate entrepreneurship: it is the management’s responsibility
to make decisions on business strategy. The regulators’ responsibility
is to preserve the public interest. Sometimes striking a balance
between different objectives can be difficult. It really depends, however,
on how incentives are developed.

For audit firms, such incentives could relate to firmly basing their reputation
on technical expertise and preserving their independence, which improves
audit quality and serves the general interest through enhanced investor
confidence. In general, I think auditors understand they are in fact
providing a public good.

EDDY WYMEERSCH:

I think the question should be considered differently. Most of the profession
recognises that standards are guidelines for auditors worldwide. A point that
is rarely mentioned is that standards enable auditors around the world to
speak the same language. For instance, if auditors talk about independence,
they should know what it really means; and if there is a doubt, they can always
refer to the standards. Also, standards create a universal foundation that can
be applied anywhere. Each country can then choose to further build upon those
standards. Moreover, it allows auditors to be active in different jurisdictions
as the same baseline standards will apply.

Therefore, when adopting international standards, it is important
to maintain a level of flexibility, as these standards are meant to be applied
across numerous countries that have different systems. When standards or
regulation are considered as a burden, it is often related to complexity and
precision. That is the issue that often instigates complaints.

Q. Businesses are facing challenges as a result of globalisation, technological development, and generational change. Taking this into account, do you believe that auditors are looking at the issues that truly matter? And what will be the issues that will matter in tomorrow’s world?

PP:

Indeed, the world is changing at a rapid pace. With advances in technology,
the way audits are conducted will no doubt change, especially
with the growing use of big data and artificial intelligence, which
will greatly enhance tracking and analysis capabilities and likely
make techniques such as sampling less relevant. This will particularly
affect audit tasks often performed by junior staff –such as year-end
inventory. For instance, some audit firms are using drones to more
accurately determine the size or volume of inventories in the
manufacturing, retail and natural resources industries.
However, it is essential to keep in mind that the main goal for
auditors will remain the same. Technology will not change the key
audit matters in tomorrow’s world, and being able to determine whether
financial statements fairly and accurately depict the financial position
will still be the ultimate goal.

The introduction of technology may change the way auditors
work, but will not change their fundamental purpose.

EW:

From my understanding, the audit activity will change from what is today very
burdensome verification tasks. The basic, tedious parts of the audit
will be performed by computers. Does this mean that the role of auditors will
become superfluous? Absolutely not. It’s rather the opposite! Auditors will
be more engaged in the judgmental process, in ensuring the critical eye, the
decision-making, the documentation of decisions, and the presentation
of these decisions to the market.

This is much more difficult, yet at the same time much more valuable and
intellectually rewarding. As for the numerous new issues that will be
important for auditors tomorrow, the threat of cyberattacks will need to be
integrated in the risk assessment part of the auditors’ work. There are more
and more cyberattacks today, and auditors will need to check whether
the existing procedures, programmes and mechanisms put in place by the
audited entity are sufficient. And if any doubts arise, they should point out to
the management that additional steps should be taken to make sure that the
management improves cybersecurity.

Q. There is a growing perception that statutory audits are becoming a commodity in today’s world. Is this a fair description of the reality? What should constitute the added value of audits for companies and for the public good?

PP:

I would not talk about a full, outright commoditisation. However, this is
a common concern for regulators, as they see an increasing trend in
relinquishing some of the main roles that the audit profession was meant
to fulfil. For instance, there is pressure on the managers of audited companies
to release financial statements sooner – and ahead of peers – especially in
certain sectors, such as financials.

That may in turn press to unduly accelerating audits, but auditors must remember
their responsibility is towards the board of directors and the audit committee,
not management; they must follow the facts and report any material
concerns. Related to this, there is an increasing use of the materiality
excuse, especially when auditors become aware of something that might
be considered capable of rocking the boat. It is the auditors’ responsibility
to determine whether identified red flags are material, and whether they
should be further investigated and reported. Crunching the numbers will
not suffice. Auditors will have to take into account the qualitative aspect to determine whether those red flags are material.

Also, we observe there is an increasing reliance on management’s
assumptions, and this has been flagged consistently. It is one of the main
duties of the auditor to contest those assumptions and apply professional
scepticism. That is precisely where the auditor adds the most value. Once
again, audit should not boil down to merely crunching numbers and
determining technical compliance with the accounting standards.

Clean reports provide trust on a company’s financial
position, so professional scepticism is a must in determining whether
management assumptions are realistic and whether financial statements fairly
represent the business.

EW:

I agree that there is a growing perception that audit will become a commodity. Some
parts of audit, the parts that can be automated, can become a commodity,
but the rest will certainly not. The role of auditors will be upgraded to a much
higher level. Indeed, technology will change the audit function and
process, but we will need more and more experts. Valuation issues
especially under the new accounting standards, will require deep
expertise. Scepticism cannot easily be captured in a computer algorithm.
Some judgments will require legal assistance. And increasingly
auditors will have to assess business judgments. It is in the public interest
that these new functions are well framed.

Q. The audit profession is facing pressure to decrease the cost of audits while expecting to ensure greater quality financial reporting to favour fair and transparent financial markets. How can we achieve these two objectives? What would your recommendations be?

PP:

I would not refer directly to costs; the audit industry is not precisely a predatory
environment characterised by fierce competition. Rather, I think we have
to bear in mind that the business model of audit firms is changing, and
the contribution of non-audit services to their overall revenues is increasing.
This may be changing the balance of power within audit firms, and
putting pressure on audit engagement partners to be more efficient. But
even if these ancillary services are more lucrative, they may be
considered to affect the independence of an audit firm, and thus also impact
its reputation and hence the firm’s franchise value. Again, this puts
pressure on firms to focus on their basic assurance goal.

EW:

I can tell you that in one of the standard setting boards I attended, I drew
attention to this point. I think the fees are clearly insufficient, I don’t
know how this will evolve in the new landscape where you have
more automation. However, with the fees decreasing, the best people
in the audit firms might go to the non-audit services part of the firm
because there is more money to be made and, as a consequence,
there is a fear that the audit could increasingly be in the hands
of those who are not necessarily the most motivated.

To address audit fees, we need to strengthen
the procedure by which the auditors are hired. This is a governance
issue: the auditors need to be hired by the full board on the proposal
of the audit committee at a correct price with a clearly defined scope
and mandate. This procedure should not be managed by the company’s
human resources, as I was once told! There have been instances
when companies have laid off their auditors for lack of quality, which
was a response to the audited company’s unwillingness to pay
suitable fees. We could compare it to purchasing insurance: if you pay
a cheap premium, you are likely to receive cheap coverage.

Q. Europe has taken a bold step with the EU Audit Reform. Do you think that this regulation will improve the way audits are performed in the EU?

PP:

I think it is clearly a significant step forward. However, mandatory
rotation might create an environment of musical chairs
where the biggest firms swap audit mandates amongst themselves.
In this sense, there seem to be concerns around the retendering
of audit engagements, with firms having created specific departments
to deal with the related procedures.

The ideal scenario would be to see this leading to significant
improvement in the quality of audits and an eventual increase
in the number of players within the audit sector.
Again, I think that we need to focus on the basics: audit quality and
auditor independence. Audit firms must never forget they are serving
the public good. They should be continuously reminded that their
client is not management but the audit committee and the board.
Broad changes in the business model of audit firms also need
to be addressed, while being aware of the key focus on challenging assumptions, following on leads, and gathering the evidence needed to determine materialmisstatements.

And in the end, being able to provide an opinion
as to whether financial statements are a fair depiction of the financial
position of the audited company.

EW:

The EU has adopted a regulation which is directly applicable in EU
Member states at a higher level of proficiency. What I mean is that
the regulation is stricter than the international standards and quite
different. For example, audit firm rotation has not been introduced
in international audit standards, mostly because many countries,
and particularly the United States, view this model as too disruptive.
The EU has adopted a much more stringent view regarding the audit
profession and that is what you find in the new regulation. The United
States have a different point of view, and it is important to consider
that in practice liability for auditors is much stricter in the US than
in Europe. That is the reason why American auditors are afraid of having
generally formulated standards. They want to do box-ticking,
and they tend to believe this will protect them against liability.
This of course influences the development of international
standards. I don’t know if the EU will apply international standards on audit
(ISAs). In the legislation, there is a provision saying that the EU
could adopt these international standards provided that are
subject to sufficient public interest oversight, maybe referring to the
PIOB’s oversight activity. I understand that the EU is
not, at present, willing to do that because they believe that
the international standards are too lax. The United States is now
looking more closely to what the EU is doing. But keep in mind
that the American administration and essentially the PCAOB (5) do not
have the same manoeuvring room as EU institutions.
You know that Congress in the United States has imposed a
certain number of very strict no-go zones, and rotation is one of them.

Q. Climate change is an immediate concern, and world governments have made an important stride in engaging the international community to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Will auditors play a role in this engagement? If so, in what sense?

JOE PERRY:

Our work on this issue is ongoing. In April 2015 the G20 asked the
FSB to consider risks related to climate change and, in response,
the FSB proposed the creation of an industry-led task force,
chaired by Michael Bloomberg, to develop recommendations on
climate-related financial disclosures.

Appropriate disclosures are a prerequisite for financial firms not
only to manage and price climate risks but also, if they wish, to take
lending, investment or insurance underwriting decisions based on
their view of transition scenarios.

The Task Force on Climaterelated Financial Disclosures
(TCFD) was launched in January 2016, with the aim of developing
a set of recommendations for consistent, comparable, reliable,
clear and efficient climate-related disclosures by companies.
These recommendations will apply broadly to financial and
non-financial firms.

The TCFD published a set of recommendations for
consultation in December 2016. The recommendations focus
on disclosure of how a firm’s governance, risk management
and strategy are impacted by climate change together with disclosure
of risk metrics. The final report will be presented to G20 Leaders
ahead of their Summit in July 2017.

PP:

The Task Force believes that publication of
climate-related financial information
in mainstream financial filings will
help ensure that appropriate controls
govern the production and disclosure
of the required information.

EW:

I see that quite a lot of companies already
have environmental reports.
What is the content of that and how
solid is it? I cannot say for sure.
However, I do believe that over time
auditors will have to consider such
issues as well. The question then will
be about how they will move into this
field? I think that most of the time they
will not be able to do it themselves.
Instead they will have to seek the help
of environmental experts who can
make the necessary judgment. That is
what they often do in other fields.

Audit firms must never forget they are serving the public good. They should be continuously reminded that their client is not management but the audit committee and the board.

Mazars’ point of view: These insights illustrate the true significance of the audit market reform movement in which Europe is playing a prominent role. This reform recognises the value added by auditors in the service of the public interest and as such makes audit committees and auditors more aware of their responsibilities. We believe that the rapid evolution of technology, combined with these regulatory changes, will make audit a better performing and more attractive profession, thereby creating a new dynamic and sustainable business model for the industry.

(1) ‘The Audit Manifesto’, in Creating Shared Value – Mazars Group Yearbook 2015, pp. 16-17. http://www.mazars.com/The-audit-manifesto
(2) The Public Interest Oversight Board (PIOB) is an international body that oversees the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) and seeks to improve the quality and public interest focus of the IFAC standards in the areas of audit, education, and ethics. http://www.ipiob.org/
(3) The Financial Stability Board (FSB) is an international body that monitors and makes recommendations about the global financial system. It was established after the 2009 G20 London summit. The Board includes all G20 major economies and the European Commission. It is based in Basel, Switzerland. http://www.fsb.org/
The views expressed by the interviewees are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the FSB and its members.
(4) These interviews were conducted separately.
(5) The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) is a private-sector, non?profit corporation created by the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 to oversee the audits of public companies and other issuers in order to protect the interests of investors and further the public interest in the preparation of informative, accurate and independent audit reports. https://pcaobus.org

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