Judging by the views of the 200 FDs Accountancy Age spoke to this week, many of Symonds contemporaries believe decline has already set in.
A worrying 54% of those FDs believe the quality of audits in the UK has diminished. Only 30% believed this was not the case, with the remainder undecided.
‘The quality of audits has declined markedly over the last few years, with the time not taken to really understand the business or detailed levels of controls,’ said one FD. ‘In my opinion, too much reliance is placed on high-level reviews.’
Another said: ‘I believe that due to the time restraints many auditors have in completing an audit, certain areas of the business are overlooked.
Many companies fail to disclose information with the hope that it may never arise and the audit can be signed off.’
A handful questioned auditors’ independence, some alleged auditors ‘quoted low to get a foot in the door and get consultancy work’, while others were unhappy at the seniority of staff sent by the firms to carry out the work.
It is not a problem confined to the business world either. ‘In local government, I find that they overstretch themselves and the staff in places,’ said one.
Those who disagreed only gave faint praise. ‘Because of the pressure of Enron the quality has had to improve,’ said one FD, with another adding: ‘Quality is probably improving (if anything), but from a low starting point.’
Of course, FDs are not blameless. They have helped generate a culture where cost is (almost) everything and this has led to firms adjusting the resource they are prepared to devote to an individual audit client.
But the findings could not have come at a worse time. Claims that auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ersnt & Young failed to do enough to prevent problems at Transtec and Equitable Life may be disputed by the firms, but they are already hampering attempts to win governmental support for liability protection. Now FDs are casting doubts on audit quality.
Many have argued that without a liability cap another Andersen-style collapse would force the big firms to flee the audit market altogether.
Unless the tide of bad news ceases, it might come sooner than that.