Much of what auditors do is unobservable. Indeed, what goes on in an audit has been described as ‘secret audit business’. Audits in this context are of financial reports and those financial reports are the representations of the management of those companies, not the auditors. The audits of financial reports are of value in that they provide a competent and independent (of auditee management) attestation of the validity of those management representations. This attestation lowers the ‘information risk’ for the users of these financial reports. There has been a marked increase in activity to regulate matters relating to independence. The proposals outlined in CLERP 9 are one example of this. The requirements in the United States under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act are a further example.
Audit firms operate in a highly regulated yet highly competitive market. Evidence exists to suggest that audit firms are active competitors in respect of audit pricing and competency, including specialist industry expertise. Until recently, there has been little or no observable evidence that audit firms compete in respect of independence. The issues as they relate to audit independence are complex. One issue is that threats to independence are frequently subtle and difficult to observe and measure. Hence, controlling the decisions that relate to them cannot rely solely on regulation which itself inevitably relies on crude definitions and imprecise measures. Additionally, further regulation may not achieve the desired end without other processes being but in place in tandem.
This paper argues that:
1. auditors of certain classes of companies (in particular, those that are publicly traded) should be provided with incentives or requirements to have observable processes on independence 2. the means of observability should be in the form of an inspection and review process focussing on issues critical to the audit, such as independence 3. expert persons not having a current or past financial interest in the firm or in the commercial outcomes of the review should be used in the inspection and review process 4. the review process should have wide-ranging powers of inspection to examine the policies, processes, structures and ‘culture’ of audit firms 5. the report of the inspection and review should be made public, unedited and in full, and in a timely fashion. The primary objectives of this proposal are to (1) make more transparent to the market for information the characteristics of the audit firms and their process to ensure audit independence, and (2) provide a rigorous oversight of independence decision-making by persons who have no commercial interest in the outcome of the decision.