PracticeAccounting FirmsUS view: Mid tier firms making Capitol gains.

US view: Mid tier firms making Capitol gains.

Mid-tier firms in the UK are picking up new business that would typically go to the Big Four thanks to the US' Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

There is a slim chance that Paul Spyros Sarbanes, the United States senator for Maryland, could find the Canary Wharf offices of Littlejohn Frazer.

He is married to an English woman who hails from Brighton, and he studied at Oxford University (as well as, impressively, Princeton and Harvard).

So England is not such a foreign country for America’s longest serving senator. And if he did ever go to Canary Wharf, he is assured of a warm welcome.

Because, as one of the authors of the controversial Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the senator is seen as a major reason why new business is being picked up by the firm.

‘We are picking up some business from quite big entities which would never have used a non-Big Four auditor before,’ says Neil Coulson, a partner in Littlejohn Frazer’s financial services division. ‘People are opening their eyes up to the opportunities.’

These opportunities include auditing work from a US insurance company whose parent auditor in the US is a Big Four firm.

Coulson says this is not the only example: ‘There is a lot of potential there. People are not just extending contracts to existing auditors all the time.’

The potential seems best suited to firms such as Coulson’s.

A mid-tier firm with a turnover of around £100m and 150 staff, Littlejohn Frazer is the kind of firm that is best placed to scout for work under the new climate brought about by Sarbanes-Oxley.

Introduced to the US in July 2002, the Act was an attempt by Washington to restore investor confidence and underwrite the integrity of the financial services in a market whose confidence had been badly shaken by the scandals involving Enron and WorldCom.

As with most things done in the US, its reach extended far beyond its own boundaries and is now being felt over here, even though the UK does not have its own Sarbanes-Oxley.

‘Sarbanes-Oxley has become a very immediate thing,’ says Coulson. ‘We are seeing that coming through, particularly from those American clients trying to apply what they have learnt in the US on a global basis. We are seeing companies having to react to (Sarbanes-Oxley).’

The most obvious impact on the accountancy profession was the mandatory audit partner rotation put into place by the Act.

It also sharply put into focus the relationship between companies and their accountancy firms and non-audit services.

By bringing the Act into law, Sarbanes-Oxley formalised the long-held theoretical notions of corporate governance into something very real indeed.

It said to the City, the financial services industry, rating agencies and the public that not only was there a need to put various houses in order, but also that something would actually be done.

And many companies are undertaking this work themselves.

‘People want to make sure they are doing things in the right way. Is it right for auditors to be doing all kinds of work for you? I think it is at least overdue for people to become more open-minded.’

And much to the chagrin of some, the Act actually has teeth – and, even worse, these have been used to bite.

Most notably it was used to block the £14m compensation payment to a former boss of media group Vivendi Universal Jean Marie Messier.

But once the immediate media focus went, would there really be any point to Sarbanes-Oxley?

The answer seems to be yes, and it is working in ways not entirely predicted when it was introduced last year.

PricewaterhouseCoopers is one firm to feel its impact.

The firm’s chief executive Sam DiPiazza recently revealed that PWC has seen a large drop in the amount of US tax work it carries out.

Giving evidence to a Senate banking committee, he claimed that PwC had, in little more than 12 months, lost 20% of its tax work and further losses seemed inevitable.

‘Our tax practice has experienced a significant decrease in demand for these services from our SEC audit clients. There seems to be a continuing drumbeat that auditors which provide tax services to audit clients are not independent,’ he said.

Over at Deloitte, the impact has been felt as well.

Chief executive James Quigley said recently: ‘We may not like every last provision of Sarbanes-Oxley, but if it works, then it’s a success.’

However, he warned against further regulation which ‘would be a mistake’.

‘Now is not the time to complicate the environment,’ he said. Their own research also found that the new rules were having an impact.

Deloitte said a survey of 66 corporations shows that audit committees are meeting more often, with 39 companies saying their committees met more than six times a year since the Act was passed – up on the previous year – and that meetings were lasting longer.

It is the Big Four in particular that the focus of Sarbanes-Oxley most obviously falls on.

The biggest are the most obvious to be challenged under new rules that preach the gospel of financial transparency.

The relationship between some of the bigger accounting firms and some of their clients has long been the subject of muttering in some corners.

But it is not only the biggest companies that are feeling the pinch of Sarbanes-Oxley. The smaller firms are finding the extra requirements, particularly financial, of complying with the Act also difficult.

This is why this combination of factors could leave the mid-tier the most likely to benefit from the new changes.

‘It is a combination of things,’ says Coulson. ‘People are becoming more aware that it may not be appropriate to hand over work to their own auditors.’

He definitely feels the potential is there for more business to be picked up from the fall-out from Sarbanes-Oxley.

‘In some ways, it is driving the more cost effective to us from the larger firms,’ he says.

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