U.K. Watchdog Calls for Audit Market Makeover

The Competition and Markets Authority stopped short of recommending the Big Four be broken up in response to a series of high-profile audit failures.
Matthew HellerApril 18, 2019

The U.K.’s competition watchdog has found “deep-seated problems” in the country’s audit market but stopped short of recommending the full, structural makeover of the Big Four accounting firms advocated by lawmakers.

PwC, KMPG, Deloitte, and EY sign off on the accounts of 97% of the U.K.’s 350 largest listed companies. They have been under scrutiny since the collapse of government contractor Carillion, which had been audited by KPMG for 19 years.

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A parliamentary committee has called for a “full structural breakup” of the Big Four, saying that it would be more effective than other options in “tackling conflicts of interest” and providing the “professional skepticism” needed to deliver high-quality audits.

But in a report released on Thursday, the Competition and Markets Authority recommended only “an operational split between the audit and non-audit practices of the biggest firms in the U.K.”

The retailer British Home Stores collapsed three years ago.

“The case [for a full separation] made by the Select Committee is strong, given the shortcomings of the current market,” the CMA said. But it also noted that the Big Four “are global firms carrying out global audits. Such a separation would have to be carried out internationally in order to be fully effective.”

According to Reuters, the CMA’s recommendations “are the most radical reform of auditing yet after the failure of previous attempts to loosen the grip held by the Big Four, who audit nearly all of Britain’s blue-chip companies.”.

“Auditors should focus exclusively on producing the most challenging and objective audits, rather than being influenced by their much larger consultancy businesses,” the CMA said.

Among the problems identified by the watchdog are companies selecting their auditors, the high concentration among the Big Four, and audits being carried out by firms whose main business is not audit.

Regulators found that PwC’s lead auditor of British Home Stores (BHS) spent two hours on the retailer’s 2014 audit and 31 hours on more lucrative non-audit work, leaving the bulk of auditing work to junior staffers.

The CMA said creating a separate status for audit practices “will increase the focus on audit quality, with a reduction in the distracting interest in non-audit work,” and “create transparency around audit practice.”