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Global auditors feel the heat, may face tighter scrutiny

Global auditors feel the heat, may face tighter scrutiny
The move is expected to give a fillip to Indian audit firms and designed to fill the gaps the big four have allegedly misused, including with the help of their huge network and financial muscles, a top regulatory official said.

Global auditing firms may come under greater scrutiny for any wrong-doing as regulators mull ways to make them more accountable, with the role of such auditors -- especially the Big Four -- coming under the lens in various corporate misdoings. The move is expected to give a fillip to Indian audit firms and designed to fill the gaps the big four have allegedly misused, including with the help of their huge network and financial muscles, a top regulatory official said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also talked of the need for Indian audit firms growing to join the ranks of global giants. A big area of concern pertains to the big guns seeking to wash off their hands whenever their names crop up in any accounting wrong-doing while their delaying tactics in the name of jurisdiction have also been noticed, the official said.

"They generally delay probe by appeals and jurisdiction related challenges at various forums and once there is a substantial time lapse, they tend to settle the probe by arguing the time-bar clauses," he said asking not to be named without identifying the global audit companies as several such cases are under probe.

While the existing legal framework provides for stringent provisions for auditing activities, there is no specific system in place when it comes to overseas audit firms. There have been various instances where the role of global auditing firms, including PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), was in the regulatory crosshairs for alleged lapses.

Markets regulator Sebi has been probing the role of PwC for alleged negligence and lapses in a nearly decade-old corporate fraud case involving Satyam Computer Services.

Sources said the corporate affairs ministry as well as regulators, including Sebi, are looking at the possibility of having stricter norms for overseas audit companies operating in the country. Preliminary discussions have taken off and various aspects will be looked at in detail before any decision is made in this regard, they added.

"Besides stricter norms, the government has to play an important role and take measures to create such an environment in our country so that big business houses start engaging Indian CA firms," chartered accountant (CA) Vijay Kumar Gupta, Central Council Member, ICAI, observed.

He is of the view that in the recent past, the government machinery has become more active in this direction. "The government should also realise why such type of misreporting is happening at regular intervals. Not only because of outer layer attraction, but compulsions from various quarters, there is concentration of work with Big Four CA firms," he noted.

Gupta feels that Indian firms are much better in terms of audit quality as they depend more on personal analytical skills, physical involvement and updated knowledge of laws in practical terms rather than chiefly doing system-driven techno-based audit functions as done by the Big Four in India.

Many foreign audit firms, including the top four, have good presence in the country, but through their associates and by way of limited liability partnerships. PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG are generally referred to as the Big Four.

Sebi is investigating the role of the auditing firm that worked for Satyam between 2000 and 2008 and which has been under the scanner for allegedly concealing the scam that came to light in January 2009 when the company's founder B Ramalinga Raju himself admitted to fudging the books.

Price Waterhouse firms are also learnt to have sought settlement of the case through the consent mechanism. In this regard, queries sent to PwC did not elicit any immediate response.

In the Satyam case, chartered accountants' apex body ICAI took action against some members. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) regulates the profession of chartered accountants and mostly these people act as auditors.

While discussions on having tighter regulations for foreign audit firms are going on, the ministry is already examining the recommendations of the three-member expert panel on various issues related to audit firms amid concerns over certain practices circumventing regulations.

The expert panel, headed by Teri Chairman Ashok Chawla, had submitted its report in March this year. The committee examined various issues pertaining to audit firms, including possible adverse impact from restrictive shareholder agreements.

Back in September 2016, the ministry had set up the panel following representation from several domestic audit companies about the negative impact on them on account of various practices that lead to circumvention of regulations.
Among others, the panel looked at whether joint audit could be introduced in cases where there are restrictive covenants and other specified cases where there is a multinational audit firm as the auditor.

The Business Standard, New Delhi, 11th September 2017

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