Companies go out of business all the time, but big companies should be an exception. They have responsibilities to the communities where they operate. They employ lots of people and perform economically essential tasks. So they need to be resilient and have the capacity to adapt.
So what part does a financial audit play in keeping such a corporate ship afloat? It’s a question the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), run by former Tory MP and Treasury select committee chair Andrew Tyrie, attempted to answer last week in a report that asked how greater competition might improve audit quality.
It is a question that ministers have asked Sir Donald Brydon, a City grandee who is currently chair of the London Stock Exchange, to address in his forthcoming review of the “quality and effectiveness of audit”. This followed an initial recommendation for a revamped audit watchdog by Sir John Kingman, a former Treasury official who is now chairman of Legal & General.
Clearly, after the collapse of Carillion last year, parliament sees a thorough annual audit of a firm’s financial accounts as important in keeping a business seaworthy.
Unfortunately, most auditors approach their work as if checking a piece of machinery, albeit one with more moving parts. Audits work like a health check by a private doctor who knows that their patient might well cover up symptoms of what will later become a life-threatening condition – either out of embarrassment or, more importantly, to limit the costs of treatment.
An executive may want to cover up mistakes or wrongdoing for the same reason. The “doctor” needs to ask some probing questions before declaring the patient fit.
The CMA has considered the topic in line with its remit, which focused on the structure of the audit market. It has demanded only limited reforms. One is that companies commission two audit firms to check their books if one of the firms they use is a member of the Big Four – KPMG, PwC, Deloitte or EY.
This move should, according to Tyrie, empower smaller firms of auditors to gain a bigger foothold in the market and therefore provide a greater challenge to the big four. He argues that with competition comes greater quality.
Tyrie also wants audit departments within the larger accountancy firms to adopt Chinese walls to prevent their work being used as a calling card for more lucrative consultancy contracts.
Timid is the best description of these proposals, because only a separate audit industry, cut free from tax and management consultancy work, can ever be truly independent. Beefing up smaller firms is something the government needs to be actively involved in facilitating, because expecting auditors to treat the idea of joint working with anything other than disdain is naive.
So the CMA’s efforts amount to little more than the kind of window-dressing the audit industry has managed to maintain ever since Arthur Andersen perished following the collapse of Enron in 2002.
From that point onwards, auditors have repeatedly told ministers that imposing too many rules will only lead to another accountancy firm dying under the weight of unjustified compensation claims (Arthur Andersen was cleared of wrongdoing by the US courts).
Should we expect any better from Brydon, given that his report will be from the perspective of shareholders and shareholder representatives, with only Alison Hopkinson, the chief operating officer of Oxfam, to represent the interests of wider society? Not really.
Only a more fundamental shake-up will prevent managements from sinking companies, like they did at Carillion. Business minister Greg Clark should take note.
The gold standard for policing
The price of gold has been going down in recent weeks and is currently at its lowest level since the turn of the year. And that means Asian families may be able to sleep a little easier this weekend.
Why? Because research presented to the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society says burglars believe there is a higher likelihood of finding gold – normally in the form of jewellery – in Asian homes, and increase their larcenous behaviour when the price of the precious metal is high.
Researchers Nils Braakmann, Arnaud Chevalier and Tanya Wilson used the link between gold and burglary rates to test whether criminals are economically rational. In 1968, the late Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker wrote that individuals would turn to crime only if the expected proceeds, once adjusted for the risk of getting caught, outweighed the returns from living within the law.
If Becker’s theory is correct, districts with a high proportion of Asian households should see an increase in the burglary rate when the gold price goes up, because that changes the supposed risk-reward equation for potential burglars.
And this was supported by the evidence from England and Wales. The researchers drilled down into neighbourhood-level crime data and found that an increase in the gold price by £100 an ounce led to a 1% increase in burglaries, with a greater share of Asian households affected. In neighbourhoods with the highest share of Asian households, the number almost tripled.
There were, of course, two sides to the original Becker thesis: expected returns and the risk of getting caught. When the gold price is rising, the police should step up visible patrols in districts with a high proportion of Asian households, because that would act as a deterrent to would-be burglars.
Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Fiat-Tesla deal leaves both of them under a cloud
The end of the age of the internal combustion engine looms – and unexpectedly soon too, as carbon limits and the prospect of outright bans put big carmakers on alert that they need to change rapidly.
The accelerating transition has caught out some manufacturers. According to analysis by Jato Dynamics, based on 2018 data, only Tesla and Smart – out of 50 major manufacturers – will currently avoid steep European commission penalties planned for carmakers whose vehicles emit more than an average 95g of carbon dioxide per kilometre.
The penalties come into force from 2021, but some of the most polluting carmakers selling in Europe are now fighting to avoid the fines. And rather than upgrading to cleaner technology, they are instead seizing on legal loopholes.
Under the EU rules, carmakers can pool emissions across brands. But they can also buddy up with other manufacturers to make “open pools”. Japan’s Toyota has teamed up with Mazda, which it part-owns, but Fiat Chrysler has paired with Tesla.
Fiat is understood to be paying hundreds of millions of euros to average its emissions alongside Tesla’s zero-emission cars, thus dodging hefty fines. Fiat insists it is committed to reducing emissions but is entitled to “optimise the options for compliance that the regulations offer”.
It is a grubby deal on both sides. Tesla founder Elon Musk proclaims that he wants to “accelerate the advent of sustainable transport”, and a ticking counter on Tesla’s website says its vehicles have so far saved 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. Those green ambitions appear to have disappeared when faced with a pile of cash.
The compromises of putting a monetary price on pollution are often uneasy and sometimes necessary, but Fiat’s approach leaves a noxious taste: economically wasteful, unfair on competitors investing in greener factories, and against the spirit of environmental protection.