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A Vision Problem at Top Audit Firms

Do the CEOs of the top audit firms really want to use technologies such as XBRL to revolutionize financial reporting, or do they simply want to insulate their firms from liability?
David M. Katz, CFO.com | US
December 1, 2006

The story, at first, seemed startling. In early November, The Financial Times reported that the chief executives of the six biggest accounting firms were set to come out with a plan for a completely new model for reporting corporate financial information.

The Big Four-plus-Two's idea would be to replace ungainly quarterly and annual reporting with a "real-time" model that wouldn't rely so heavily on 10-Qs and 10-Ks, according to the newspaper. Besides timeliness, the model would have a second linchpin: the unveiling of a whole slew of nonfinancial data to complement the financials.

Coming hard on the heels of commissioner Christopher Cox's announcement of a $54 million outlay aimed at putting the Securities and Exchange Commission's EDGAR system into an XBRL format, a forward-looking stance on financial reporting by the top accounting execs seemed certain to boost the momentum for change considerably.

Sure enough, soon after the FT article, a report with the weighty title "Global Capital Markets and the Global Economy: A Vision from the CEOs of the International Audit Networks" came out under the bylines of Samuel DiPiazza, CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers; William Parrett, CEO of Deloitte; Mike Rake, chairman of KPMG; James Turley, chairman and CEO of Ernst & Young; David McDonnell, CEO of Grant Thornton; and Frans Samyn, chief executive of BDO.

But now there seemed to be less to the plan than met the eye. The "essay," as it's called, leads off with a set of proposed current and near-term solutions that seems more self-serving than visionary.

Most notably, the report argues for curbing auditing firms' liability and relaxing the rules governing auditors' scope of service. (The theme of legal and regulatory loosening was echoed on Thursday by the report by the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation, which called on Congress to look carefully at "the case for caps on liability or safe harbors to prevent the failure of another auditing firm" like Arthur Andersen.)

Such a beginning isn't likely to overcome the considerable inertia of CFOs toward the subjects of XBRL and more extensive reporting of their business operations. Many feel that the upfront costs and administrative burdens will continue to underwhelm finance chiefs' appetite for huge reporting innovations.

But at least one corporate executive, Bob Laux, Microsoft's director of technical accounting and reporting, thinks that once finance executives get past the initial burdens of complying with the internal-controls provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and AS2, the related audit rule, they'll be more open to new reporting models. (Microsoft, it should be noted, is one of about two dozen companies participating in an XBRL pilot program with the SEC, and has also included some XBRL plug-ins in recent versions of Excel.)

"Given the current focus on revising AS2 and the pending SEC guidance for companies, I believe that focus will continue in the short term. In the long term, I do believe corporate finance executives will express more and more interest in these subjects," Laux told CFO.com.

Indeed, the tone the audit chiefs strike in calling for the construction of a "new reporting model" over the long haul might catch the attention of some finance executives. The auditors, for one thing, envision a time when, aided by XBRL (eXtensible business reporting language), corporations will provide data in such a way as to make quarterly forecasts obsolete.

Ironically, "more frequently reported information may reverse some or much of the 'short-term-ism' about which corporate managers and others have long complained," they say. "Once investors have almost real-time access to financial and other information about companies, forecasting 'quarterly' profit numbers will no longer be relevant, while forecasts of daily or weekly profits will be pointless."

But XBRL — the authors hedge by adding "or perhaps other reporting related technologies" — won't be the only agent of change. Along with a streamlined way of presenting data will come a much richer menu of information content, including large amounts of nonfinancial corporate information.

Investors want financial reports "to contain more relevant information than just the financial statements and the footnotes explaining them," the auditors contend. The huge gaps between book and market value at many companies, for instance, strongly suggest that financials don't supply the information about intangible assets that investors increasingly seek, they say.

Although they don't refer to it directly, the audit chiefs were signing on to an agenda of what's called enhanced business reporting (EBR). Under EBR, companies would buttress their financial reporting with data about such things as repeat purchases, technological innovations, and employee turnover rates — thus providing a fuller picture of their operations than mere earnings reports can.


To be sure, finance executives might be wary about adding scads of data to reports that many already find brutally weighty. But they could also see EBR as subtracting information and effort rather than adding to them, says Richard Kilgust, a PwC partner who was involved in putting the auditors' vision statement together. For example, corporations could start picking and choosing the nonfinancial data they supply, "instead of having 40 pages of footnotes that not that many understand and that have a high cost of compliance" to supply, he says.

Much of the information provided would enable investors to compare companies within a given industry. For instance, the data given in an oil and gas company's income statement might not be nearly as relevant in gauging the company's true value as how much it spends for each unit of fuel it gets from the ground, says Kilgust.

The devil, however, will be in the details. While generally accepted accounting principles enforce a fair amount of uniformity in reporting such things as revenues, standardizing reports of nonfinancial items like customer satisfaction poses nearly insurmountable problems, says Christopher Whalen, a managing director at Institutional Risk Analytics. A measure like customer satisfaction is "entirely subjective," he notes. "Unless you have tight guidelines, it's not the kind of data point an analyst can use."

Similarly, big cell-phone companies are promoting their performance in terms of "fewest dropped calls." If an investor is given no information about how the company collects the data and defines the benchmark, "then it's just marketing," says Whalen.

For their part, EBR advocates are trying to answer such objections by tightening the focus on the data presented. Framers of the new reporting model are trying to get a small, set number of indicators — say five, for instance — that would apply consistently to the companies in a given industry, says Amy Pawlicki, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants's director of business reporting, assurance, and advisory services.

The standardization of nonfinancial measures will no doubt be on the agenda next year, when the audit firms will conduct a series of roundtables on business reporting. The sessions will be held "with key stakeholders in company reporting to hear what information they want public companies to produce and what auditor assurance they want on that information," according to the report.

Overall, the CEOs say, they "want this document to be the beginning, and not the end, of a dialogue about the future of business reporting." But to date, the reporting revolution lacks the allegiance of CFOs, a constituency it will need to get off square one. And it's not likely to pick up that crucial backing if it's led by groups as self-interested as the biggest audit firms.




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