Background: The observance of regulation has become a fundamental part of life for the conduct of business around the world. Governments and their duly appointed designates, acting in the interest of the collective public, have relied on regulation to moderate economic and social behaviour through the imposition and enforcement of rules. While it can be commonly accepted that such a prescriptive framework may be necessary for the achievement of desired economic and social outcomes, regulation does impose costs on society and on individual firms. These costs, which can include the costs for government departments to administer, the cost for firms to comply, and the multitude of indirect costs such as lost innovation and productivity or their interrelated opportunity costs, have received ample attention.
Accountants are key advisers to all businesses on all aspects of doing business, including regulation. As such, it is appropriate that ACCA has sponsored this study, which explores the regulatory issues facing SMEs and the critical role that accountants and other organisations play in helping SMEs be aware of, comply with and generally manage effectively the regulations that apply to their business.
ACCA has consistently argued for a balanced view to be taken on regulation, recognising that certain rules are necessary for the fair development of business and for employees’ rights. Yet at the same time, ACCA recognises that SMEs are likely to be disproportionately burdened by regulatory requirements and, as a consequence, it actively campaigns for fairness in regulation, recognising the issue as a significant factor in the success, productivity and growth of small businesses.
Overview: This study complements similar research commissioned by ACCA in the United Kingdom and Canada (Blackburn et al. 2006), with the aim of helping to provide a more international picture of the effects of regulation on adviceseeking by SMEs and how accountants can help SMEs meet their regulatory obligations.
The research commenced in November 2006 and was conducted over the Australian summer period 2006/7, among SMEs and accounting practices, as follows:
* telephone survey among 250 SMEs * postal survey among 130 accounting practitioner firms.
Key findings: The SME section of this study revealed the following points.
* Most SMEs (between 70% and 80%), agreed that the regulations under review were reasonable, however there were significantly high levels of concern regarding: * the number of regulations affecting their business (80%) * staying up to date with changing regulations (80%) * complexity of regulation or the ease of understanding regulations (77%) * inequity, or the cost of regulation in proportion to the business (66%) * duplication, or being required to provide the same information to more than one government department (55%). * External accountants were the most common source of advice, being used by 72% of SMEs; this was followed by federal government agencies, 62%; trade or industry bodies, 61%; and a lawyer or solicitor, 53%. * Highest levels of satisfaction with the advice provided were recorded for lawyers/solicitors (94%), banks (91%) and external accountants (90%). * Overall, 80% of SMEs who had used accountants rated their service as excellent or good. Thirty per cent gave accountants an excellent rating. * Accountants rated particularly well on the following attributes: * the potential for a long-term relationship with the business (81% excellent/good) * technical understanding of the regulatory requirements that apply to the business (79%) * ability to meet the needs of the business (77%) * understanding of the business of the SME and its operations (73%).
The survey of accounting practitioners produced the following information. * The results indicate that SME firms with fewer than 10 employees are the main source of revenue for the respondent accounting practitioners. * Virtually all accountants provide regulatory advice, primarily in the areas of taxation (particularly Goods and Services Tax, GST), and Do-It- Yourself (DIY) superannuation requirements. These services provided the accountants with their largest business growth in the two years before the time of the survey.
Seventy-nine per cent of accountants referred their SME clients to external professional advisers. Their comments indicate (see Appendix 4) that some accountants consider their role to be as convenors or advisers for their SME clients. Importantly, according to the accountants, SME firms with fewer than 10 employees did not update their knowledge of regulatory requirements; they relied on their accountant for the right advice. The main types of external adviser to whom accountants referred their SME clients were lawyers and financial planners.
* Accountants expressed their concern regarding the complexity and amount of regulations affecting their SME clients. * The accountants also stated that they would like to provide additional advice to their SME clients. Confidence intervals – SME survey: The survey sample size was 250 SMEs from the total of 1.2 million Australian SMEs. Any estimate of proportions agreeing or disagreeing with particular statements must be considered with respect to the margin of possible statistical error. Owing to the small sample size, generalising the results from this study to a wider population of SMEs may be constrained.
A 95% confidence interval of the sample mean for the following estimates based on a percentage agreement of 75% to a proposition with a sample size of 250 would be from 69.5% to 80.5%. The 95% confidence interval for estimates of any other value will diverge slightly in magnitude from the numbers given.
In general then we can be highly confident that the actual sample mean will be within approximately ± 5% of the figure given, with a survey of this size. Confidence intervals – acounting practitioner survey IBISWorld estimates reveal a figure of 9,222 accounting practices in Australia as at June 2006 (IBISWorld 2007). The sample size of 133 accounting practitioners gives a 95% confidence limit that the results reported from the mail-out survey are within the ± 5% confidence interval of the reported values.
Conclusions: This report describes the results of two parallel surveys undertaken on the impact of business regulation on small and medium-sized enterprises in Australia and on the perceptions of accounting firms about the ways in which the regulatory impact on the SME sector drove their business.
The survey of SMEs provides empirical support for many of the concerns raised with the Regulation Taskforce, which reported to the Australian government in 2006. Many businesses are concerned about the volume and complexity of government legislation as it applies to their business. They are concerned that they are unable to keep up with new legislation and that there is apparent duplication of reporting requirements across the various tiers of government.
The survey of accountants revealed that accounting firms derive a significant proportion of their revenue from SMEs. While the SMEs are concerned with regulatory changes, the accountants surveyed reported that the major growth areas in their businesses were in what could be seen as traditional accounting areas of tax and superannuation. Some SMEs sought advice on areas such as employment law, environmental regulation and health and safety but it appears that many accountants refer their clients to specialists in these areas. Recent changes to the laws regarding financial planning in Australia may lead to changes in the market for financial advice in Australia, with many accountants apparently regarding this as a key driver of future business opportunities.
The surveys were conducted using a similar instrument to similar surveys conducted in the UK and Canada and reported in Blackburn et al. (2006). Comparisons of the Australian survey results with those from the UK and Canada seem to support the perception that Australian business is not over-regulated, but the SME sector is concerned with the volume and complexity of regulation. This suggests that the SME sector wants to see improvements to Australia’s regulatory regime as a result of the work of the Regulation Taskforce undertaken in 2005/6. In its response to the work of the Taskforce the government agreed with 158 of the 178 specific recommendations of the Taskforce. This now needs to be followed through at all levels of government.
Accountants in all three countries understand their SME clients’ concerns with the burden of regulation and they are prepared to advise their clients where appropriate or refer them to specialist advisers. Most business growth for accountants has come from the taxation area. Very few accountants in the UK or Australia specialise in providing advice in the areas of environmental regulation or health and safety regulation.
International comparisons show that in all three countries accountants are generally highly regarded by SMEs for their professionalism and competence. The major area of client concern is the value for money offered by the accountant’s service. In an era of rapidly shifting professional and technical boundaries, accountants need to be more strongly attuned to levels of client satisfaction. Lawyers, financial planners and a plethora of specialist advisers operate in the business services market and if they have an opportunity to take business from accountants by competing on price they may well do so. This suggests a stronger role for professional accounting bodies in monitoring the broader business services market for opportunities and threats on behalf of their membership.
Reproduced with the specific permission of the copyright owner.
Field of Research
150199 Accounting, Auditing and Accountability not elsewhere classified