Top 50 – crushing regulation drives audit fee windfall

Tony Blair crashed, somewhat unexpectedly, into the governance debate last
month. With untypical acidity, he said that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act had sought to
remedy more than the recognised ‘defect’ of auditors being too close to
managers, with the upshot that it was costing businesses billions of dollars.

And the prime minister couldn’t resist a dig at the profession either. ‘There
is a delicious irony,’ he said, in that ‘Sarbanes-Oxley has provided a bonanza
for accountants and auditors, the very professions thought to be at fault in the
original scandals’.

His comments were, it has to be said, surprisingly insightful. In the wake of
Andersen’s collapse, the only way accountants could have been less popular was
by adding endowments to their range of services. But as the table shows, the
UK’s leading practices have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Last year, the Top 50 firms’ income from audit rose by an impressive 9% to
£2.42bn ­ accounting for 36% of the firms’ total, collective revenues. The next
highest is tax at £1.78bn ­ with the other, non-traditional, service lines still
some way behind.

Both total audit fee income and its share of the Top 50’s overall revenues
are up ­ albeit slightly ­ on last year, confirming the resurgence of a service
line that looked decidedly unfashionable a few years before.

Behind the headlines are some emerging trends. One is a decline in the amount
of money being spent by large companies with their auditor on non-audit
services. This has helped the larger mid-tier firms, who are picking up more
work from traditional Big Four clients whose auditors are conflicted out.

But the clients are still having to spend more. The annual audit fees survey,
produced by our sister title Financial Director earlier in the year, revealed
that FTSE100 companies spend about £100m a year on audit-related expenditure and
regulatory compliance ­ such as reviews of interims, SEC filings or regulated
industry matters. It’s just being spread about more.

Despite this, Ernst & Young clearly leads the way among the Big Four on
the rate of growth in its audit arm, where fees have risen by 16%, with Deloitte
not far behind.

Within the mid-tier, fast-growing (and fast-acquiring) Ford Campbell has an
80% rise in audit and accounting-related fees. Acquisitions helped push up
Bentley Jennison’s fee income from this service line by over a third. Hacker
Young posted 19% growth, an achievement all the more impressive as it appears to
have been organic.

But probably the real star appears to be RSM Robson Rhodes, with 16% organic
growth from audit and accounting-related services on an already sizeable base.

It seems as though the audit market has turned a corner. As recently as four
years ago, then SEC chief accountant Lyn Turner was warning firms not to see
audit as a loss-leader.

How times have changed. Perhaps now for the first time in over a decade it’s
an extremely profitable franchise too.

Related reading