Big Four play audit musical chairs

IS IT ME, or are there signs of change at the top of the audit market? As someone who regularly scans the papers for chopping and changing among the Big Four and their largest competitors, it is relatively rare to see one of the top dogs losing an audit to a peer.

So this morning when I saw Aviva had ditched Ernst & Young for PwC, I counted myself lucky, in the way I imagine a bird enthusiast would do on seeing a flash of unusual plumage in a local park. Imagine my excitement (if possible) at later finding both PwC and Deloitte had lost and won major clients, all in the same day.

Although E&Y shed high profile company Aviva, they managed to wheedle Aegis Group away from Deloitte, which had been the brand management specialist’s auditor since 2004. Deloitte may not have been too cut up, as it nabbed Canadian Pacific’s audit from PwC, while PwC could comfort itself with the star prize of insurance giant Aviva’s audit.

True, these changes still keep high profile audits firmly within the Big Four family, but they may be significant nonetheless. Since the financial crisis turned the spotlight on auditors, investors and shareholders have been uncomfortable with the evidence of auditor-client relations stretching back decades, and audit committees have felt themselves under pressure to justify tendering decisions.

It is hard to say what impact this has had. In some cases, the audit may have been put out to tender, potentially resulting in no change, but at least reminding management that there are other firms in the sea. It could be that such speculative tenders led to surprise bargains from rivals eager to steal a march on one another, pushing companies to switch auditor even if they hadn’t planned to. And in some cases, management may have felt under pressure to make a clean break from the perceived lack of independent audit, actively seeking an alternative to a long-standing audit provider.

It will be interesting to see whether such chopping and changing is well received further down the audit market. Grant Thornton and BDO didn’t get a look in, it’s true, but mid-tier firms must nevertheless be pleased to see dusty old ties being broken and a new measure of dynamism entering the market. With no changes it would be impossible for non-Big Four firms to win larger tenders; perhaps these small shake-ups will reverberate, creating enough momentum to propel firms into the stratosphere of FTSE-listed clientele.

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