Reflections on New Companies Bill Auditor Rotation Clauses

The New Companies Bill 2011, tabled at the Parliament proposes a few clauses on auditor rotation. According to the new provisions, an auditor will be appointed in the first annual general meeting for a five-year term. Thereafter, the auditor will be changed as per the members’ decisions.

An additional clause for listed companies states that the same individual auditor cannot be appointed for a term exceeding five consecutive years. Secondly, an audit firm cannot be re-appointed for more than two five-year terms. For re-appointment purposes for the individual auditor or audit firm, there has to be a gap of five years. Moreover, for appointment or re-appointment purposes, there should be no common partners between the new firm and old audit firm.

Another interesting clause is that members can resolve to ask the audit firm to rotate the audit partner and team every year.

These clauses will ensure that auditors rotate every five years in the listed companies. As investor confidence is based on independent reporting of the auditors, the thought behind these clauses is that rotation of auditors will ensure independent reporting. The move is good, as economic growth is dependent on investor confidence in financial reporting. These clauses were incorporated in the draft after the Satyam fiasco. However, rotation isn’t a silver bullet that will resolve all auditor independence issues. A few concerns about the clauses are listed below:

1. Appointment of auditors for listed multinational companies.

Similar auditor rotation provision do not exist in other countries. In US, PCAOB recently held discussions on auditor rotation and independence. The general opinion of US auditors was that rotation does not ensure independence and comes with a huge financial cost. Hence, the question comes up whether multinational companies will be open to having different auditors in India, than in their headquarters. For large organizations, consolidation of accounts from different locations is a huge task, and with different auditors the information flow and audit practices may differ. Hence, the head office auditor may find it difficult to rely on the work of a local auditor.

Multinational companies are generally comfortable with big four, hence the audit will continue to rotate between big four. Very few Indian companies have the skill set and bandwidth to audit large multinationals. Therefore, this clause will put some practical challenges for multinational listed companies.

2. Audit firms’ partnerships

Indian audit firms scenario is unique in a way, as Institute of Chartered Accountants of India prohibits foreign audit firms to practice in their own name. Pricewaterhouse is the only one allowed, since it entered the market before these guidelines were passed. Others, for instance, Ernst & Young Indian member firm is S.R.Batliboi and company, and all audits are performed in Indian firm’s name, though partnerships are common. The provision of not having common partners applies in this scenario, as some audit firms are auditing under multiple names. PWC audits under the names of PW and Lovelock & Lewis.

The challenge in this clause is that audit partners move among the group companies. Some firms have organized the partnerships in a way to avoid common partnerships, however work under the same management. It will be a difficult task for companies to identify linkages between various audit firm partnerships. The onus should ideally rest with the audit firm to ensure that there are no common partners.

Another interesting aspect is  audit partners movement among big 4 and other companies. If an audit firm is pursuing an appointment, they now will have to be careful that another firms audit partner is not recruited in their partnership at the same time. This might again result in some fancy footwork to avoid the loss of a client.

3. Independence of the retiring auditor

According to the provisions, audit firm will mandatory be changed after two consecutive five-year terms. In simple words, ten years is maximum period an audit firm can audit a client on a single stretch. Hence, the audit firm knows that it is going to lose the audit client, however, the option to provide non-audit related services opens up. Law prohibits auditors from providing the following services to audit clients:

(a) accounting and book-keeping services;
(b) internal audit;
(c) design and implementation of any financial information system;
(d) actuarial services;
(e) investment advisory services;
(f) investment banking services;
(g) rendering of outsourced financial services;
(h) management services; and
(i) any other kind of services as may be prescribed

These services generally are more lucrative than the audit fees earned. Hence, a retiring auditor may wish to keep good client relationships to obtain future assignments. In such a scenario, one has to view rotation benefit skeptically, as the audit firm may not maintain independent reporting  as desired. Rotation of auditors in such a case may just result in adherence to legal requirement instead of contributing to auditor independence. As such, old Indian business houses have 2-3 audit firms that they use interchangeably in various subsidiaries for audit and other services. The work would just get shared among them.

4. Selection of new audit firm

As mentioned earlier, selecting a new audit firm will be difficult for large organizations. Reason being, besides big four there are just a handful of Indian audit firms who have the capability of conducting audits of multinational organizations. A few of these would already be providing some consulting services to the audit client, hence would not be eligible for appointment as auditors. If the potential of earning from consulting services is more, they might not drop those assignments in favor of audit.

Next aspect is that the provisions have additional clauses for barring a person from becoming an auditor. These relate to the usual clauses of individual, partner or his relative not having in holding or subsidiary companies – securities, directorships, loans, business relationships, managerial positions, or any other conflict of interest.

These clauses result in audit firms and client doing a lot of leg work to ensure that all legal requirements are met. All these aspects limit the choice of selection of new auditor to 3-4 audit firms. Since the audit business is going to circulate among the same set of audit firms, it is doubtful that mere auditor rotation would result in better financial reporting.

Closing thoughts

Auditor independence is a complex subject as it forms the bedrock of investor confidence in financial reporting.  Auditor rotation is a good step to ensure that auditors do not lose their professional skepticism and independence by doing the same audit for decades. However, additional quality monitoring procedures of audit firms and review procedures of financial reports need to be built in the regulatory system in India. India lacks a few aspects of US and other developed countries in this matter, however, that is a discussion for another post. On a positive note, the rotation clauses give an opportunity for medium-sized Indian audit firms to build skill sets to pitch in for business of large organizations.

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