Avoid a next crisis: you could have told us

So PricewaterhouseCoopers chairman Ian Powell is urging accountants to help
prevent future financial crises and PwC is generously contemplating sharing its
outlook on systemic risks with the world.

That is the kind of risk at the very base of the present chaos. Regretfully,
the profession is too late this crisis around. So it focuses on helping avoid a
next crisis. Optimistically assuming that in the process we, and/or our audit
business model will survive the present one.

At the risk of sounding ungrateful for this excellent, if belated, proposal,
we had better ask ourselves where the heck the profession was with its systemic
observations to prevent the present one from happening. I can’t think of a
profession closer to the coalface – to sense the tectonic shift dramatically
affecting our communal fortunes, than accountancy.

In 1995 I became controller of the Worldbank. Like 2007, the sky seemed the
limit. Five years later and Enron/ saw the sky cave in.

I peppered my speeches and papers with the assertion that we have to
understand the systemics of our professional ‘big picture’ environment. The
paper I co-authored in 2005, ‘A shorthand survival kit for accountants and
auditors in a turbo derivative world’, sets the scene of the root causes of the
crisis to come.

Neither the individual accountant or the financial industry and standard
setter appreciated that ‘I don’t know’ is a prudential reporting option.

Up until, and including, our respectable financial market oversight bodies,
sharing in the same
anal denial about their ‘don’t knows’, albeit at a much higher level. All my
sources to help me unite were courtesy of the profession and financial market

PwC has now concluded that it can beat this cold-water fear in bringing out
in the open uncomfortable systemic truths ­ after the crisis is over, if ever.

Any such early warnings system should be channelled through the institutes
first; so as to better guarantee a free flow of potentially very sensitive,
economic and financial circuit-breaking information.

This gives firms the freedom to ‘whistleblow’ whatever they wish on those
threatening systemics.
The profession can’t ignore its potential in identifying systemic weaknesses. It
will have to assume its public responsibilities that go with it.

Jules Muis was the first director general of the EC’s
internal audit service , and before that was VP and controller of the World

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