According to page 2 of today’s UK Financial Times, a UK National Audit Office report shows over 6.5m people waited more than 10 minutes to get their calls answered by HMRC, adding £33m to customer’s phone bills and wasting £103m of their time last year.
This snippet of information triggered a few things that I wanted to say to you this morning. The first of these is, that, despite the fact that it is obviously pretty dire that people need to wait so long to get their calls answered by the service they are paying taxes to fund in the first place, at least in the UK there is a body which is concerened at the loss of time and places a value, in monetary terms, on that loss of time by the customer.
Anyone who has spent any time either in government offices, or even banks or supermarkets in this part of the world will probably confirm that the idea that the customer’s time is valuable and should be respected is a rather alien concept. Not so long ago it was an utterly alien concept, but even today it is still a concept which they find rather hard to grasp.
Not as bad as China, though, from what I heard and also saw. People being expected to queue all day outside the Chinese consulate for their visa and then at the very moment that the scheduled closing time of the office came the shutters come down like with Kiosk Keith and that was that. The spare time of the employees was utterly sacrosanct, that of the customer not at all. This of course shows an elitist mentality, which can be found in almost all state sector offices to one or another degree anywhere in the world. Expect it and try somehow to deal with it.
Much less acceptable is the wasting of the customer’s time in business. If the customer is paying then they have a right to have their matters expedited and people who keep people waiting ought either to invest in more infrastructure to avoid it or to wonder if they are in the right business. Continue reading “The Money Value of Time”→
CPA Trendlines have recently run a few articles highlighting a rather brisk upturn in the fees taken by audit firms in the States, and together with that an increase in salaries as well as movement in the market for hires in audit in that country.
Europe may or may not follow the trend in the USA – on the one hand we all went down together in 2007, so hopefully we will start to rise together also, but on the other hand Europe is author of some of its own problems. The Euro crisis is far from over, credit is still not flowing in the way people had become accustomed to in those halcyon pre 2007 days, and even where there is talk about green shoots of grass out on the Eastern European green fields, it seems to be a case of “two steppes forward, one steppe back”.
Europe has been discussing the Barnier proposals for audit reform which would have given more teeth to the profession as well as reduced the oligopolistic effect of the Big Four, who seem to be using their oligopoly so as to sour the market for the middle tier and thus cement their place as fairly unthreatened by competition from the mid-tier audit firms. In this, the smaller firms with low audit quality are their natural allies, and in places like Poland where the Big Four took effective control of the local audit chambers, the previous initiatives to force the small pensioner firms to either level up or get out of the market have been unravelled and tiny micro firms of auditors manned by geriatric owners still get to pronounce on the financial statements of even listed companies in exchange for fees which simply guarantee that they cannot possibly have done the work required to be able to make such pronouncements and back them up. Should they ever land in court they will probably not need to worry as they will be too old to get into trouble or endure sanctions for long. Even though this status quo means that governance is largely bogus, the Oversight boards don’t seem to care and the Companies themselves are not complaining, as they save money and also don’t need to put themselves to the trouble of a proper audit, where they might actually need to answer questions and furnish documents to an auditor following a proper audit plan. And behind all this is the Big Four, knowing that this state of affairs squeezes hardest on the mid tier, as the largest companies simply must use the Big Four, and they are fighting the mid-tier for the medium sized business since the recession started and every euro counts.
Before 2007, they tended to bother less with mid-tier clients as they themselves are aware that they are not really geared up to give them what they want, and that is what the mid-tier audit firms are designed for.
The Barnier proposals initially struck hard at the Big Four, and they responded by sending armies of lobbyists to Brussels and to national governments. As a reesult of this, the European Commission is already arguing over a watered-down version of Barnier, and there is the opposing threat that has appeared from nowhere of upping the audit thresholds again.
Now it seems crazy that exactly at a time when many European governments are going to be increasing tax burdens in order to fund their return to lower sovereign debts, and therefore the motivation for taxpaying companies to cheat will be intensified, governments at the same time are talking about reducing seriously the percentage of the economies which are subjected to proper audit.
It makes no sense, but it seems that they don’t appreciate at all the value of the audit system. They are aware of the failures when they occur and concern themselves with the 1% of audits that have gone astray and ignore and legislate in an adverse way for the 99% of audits that have not gone astray. As a result the markets for audit firms have been skewed and more pressure on our prices occured and more and more pressure on time available for audits, which in turn doesn’t do much to improve auditors’ chances to spot abuses and irregularities.
So we hope that the situation will be on the mend in Europe as well, but the politicians need to wise up in order for this to happen. They need to understand that an audit profession that is choking to death in this continent is not in anybody’s interests, and least of all in their own.
For businesses which have never been audited but which are growing up quickly to meet the audit thresholds in a year or two, you may wish to consider having your first audit done while it is still voluntary to do so, and the results, if less positive than expected, can at least be kept private.
Once your business has exceeded the audit thresholds (very typically in Europe this means for a private company about 50 employees, 5 million Euros turnover and 2.5 million Euros of gross assets, and it means 2 out of those three conditions – we just stated actually the Polish ones verbatim, (with the proviso that they also state a set PLN amount to avoid subjectivity for businesses that are on the cusp), but most countries are not far off that – even the Czech Republic which really needs much smaller thresholds)
Clearly this doesn’t apply at all to public limited companies, ie. the “S.A.”, “a.s.”, UK plc or German AG style companies which must be audited regardless of size – in some jurisdictions even if they are dormant – but for private limited liability companies most jurisdictions have size criteria like the ones just given – for Slovakia about 60% of the sizes given, so please note that this is divergent from the Czech ones, which are far too high for that country and result in proportionally fewer audits, which is a bad thing for corporate governance in that country.
While you are under the limits audit is voluntary. And you can have an unofficial audit whereby the audit comes and does for you all the normal work he would do if officially appointed, but it is only pro-forma. “Pro-forma” is Latin for something like the idea of “as if” so the auditor will work and report as if they had been properly appointed, but it is really a dry run for you. You do not appoint them as statutory auditors in the minuted general meeting, you do not have to file the report as the audit was voluntary, and you get all the benefit of the audit without the risk, and on top of all of that, I can get you these pro-forma audits for only 75% of the cost of a statutory audit, because the Firms we associate with want to promote good voluntary governance practice in the economy.
If you wait for your first audit until it is an obligatory one because you’ve outgrown the size criteria – and as we come out of the recession that will happen to some of you next year hopefully sooner than you dare hope for now – then if the auditor finds something wrong then the report of the auditor could be “modified” – I’ll do a separate article on what sorts of “modifications” exist and what they mean in accountancy speak, but it’s not good if you get one.
It will not help if you need a loan, and it will probably trigger a lot of interest on the part of the tax inspector. But you’ll have to publish it anyway, if there isn’t time to do the remedial work a good auditor should outline to you in time for your statutory deadline.
Now auditors get cajoled, encouraged in a friendly way or even outright threatened by desparate managers and owners to overlook things or change to an opinion that doesn’t match the facts, and there is nothing that can be done in those circumstances. Auditors are not generally anywhere near as afraid of their client as they are of their regulator, but more than that we are educated throughout our professional lives to be independent in our outlook, and so the only way to get out of some modified opinions is to do the remedial work the auditor recommends or make the adjustments that they recommend.
There’s no point in changing to another auditor you think will be more pliable – they must write to the old auditor and ask if there are any reasons why they cannot act. The best thing to do, if you are not sure how well your company will stand up to an audit is to have your first one a year or so before you need to. Then if the audit shows up a lot to be desired, you have a whole year to put it right and nobody will ever know because auditors are bound by confidentiality – it isn’t us who even publish our reports, it’s the responsibility of the client. The report is given to its addressee, which is always the shareholder, and some other corporate governance boards if they are in existence.
So it’s well worth thinking about, especially if your business has been growing fast and maybe has outgrown its systems.