PwC in the UK have just released their results. So how much did each partner make?

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PricewaterhouseCoopers is a great company. It’s one of the top companies in the world and it’s also a truly global company. The latest reported figures show over 160,000 PwC people working around the world including 8,500 partners.

On Monday PwC released their UK results for the year ended June 2010.

So, how did they do?

First of all the good news. Their turnover in the UK rose 4% to £2.33 billion.

Their profit before tax in the UK however fell 3% to £665 million.

This fall in profit was put down to some significant investment during the year including recruiting 1,750 staff, appointing 57 new partners and moving into a new environmentally friendly office in London (incidentally, there’s a previous blog entry on the proximity of a PwC office to a Ernst & Young office here).

As maybe a positive sign on their view as to which direction the economy is heading they also stated that they were planning on creating 800 new jobs in the UK over the next year as well as continuing with their significant graduate recruitment by taking on 1,200 new graduate level joiners.

Now onto the exciting bit that I’m sure lots of people are interested in and that is what is the average payout for each of the 820 PwC UK partners?

Although it was down by 2% on the previous year it was still a healthy average figure of £759,000 per partner.

PwC’s UK chairman, Ian Powell, was reported as receiving £3.6 million.

Forget the sunshine, the beaches and the fantastic food – if you live in Australia sell your house and move to America…

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Asset valuation is a tricky business.  It is, however, a skill that accountants are often commissioned to use.  It’s also a useful one to have when making personal decisions, such as whether to buy a home or not.

Some people would argue that a major driver of the current economic slump in many countries is the collapse of house prices.

In a number of countries, house price bubbles were enormous.  There are lots of motivations for buying a home; principally as a place to live, a store of value for the future; certainty come retirement (when the mortgage is paid off so housing costs drop only to be maintenance).

Another motive has been speculation.  In my opinion, speculation in house prices is a bad thing, since it drives up house prices.  This means that new houses are not affordable for the young.  The more that house prices go up, the greater the transfer of wealth from the economically active young to the less economically active old.

Unsustainably high house prices cause uncertainty in an economy and when a crash eventually happens, it can cause people to be locked into homes with loans greater than the value of the asset (negative equity).  As well as a source of human misery, negative equity reduces labour mobility, which is bad for the economy as whole.

The Economist newspaper tracks house prices in different countries, using a method based on rental yields.  The assumption here is that rental markets react more readily to underlying supply and demand conditions.  If one had $500,000 to invest, would one use it to buy a house which could then be rented out, or buy other investments such as bonds?  If the rental yield (rent / initial value x 100) is less than the yield on bonds, then the house price is overvalued.  It’s a simple enough methodology that can give some revealing results.

A couple of years ago, this analysis suggested that UK property prices were 35% overvalued.  A crash followed.  There have been property crashes and recession in many countries where speculation is a big motive to buy property.  The alarming thing is that a recent analysis (Economist 10 July, page 75) revealed that properties are under and overvalued in certain countries:

UK: 33.8% overvalued (following a hard-to-explain recovery in house prices)
USA: 6.5% undervalued
Spain: 50.4% overvalued
Australia: 61.1% overvalued
Germany: 14.5% undervalued
Ireland: 15.7% overvalued.

This may be poor news indeed for the economy of countries with very overvalued property.  With these sorts of valuations, mortgages may become unaffordable the moment that interest rates rise to above the rock bottom levels we have at the moment.  This could release very big downward forces in the economy and dampen out any economic recovery.

On the plus side, the USA looks to have reacted quickly, albeit brutally, to the changed economic circumstances and it might be a good time to sell your home in Australia (cash out your investment while it’s arguably overvalued) and buy somewhere in America.  If you can get a visa.  Oh, and a mortgage!

How can you make a salary of £26,000 stretch to buying a horse riding business, a holiday home, luxury holidays and a Range Rover costing £45,000?

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It seems that not all accountants are 100% honest.

Whilst the vast majority of accountants are  trustworthy there were two court cases in the UK this week that resulted in jail sentences for accountants.

Gary Gordon, who previously worked for the Big 4 firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, stole £45,000 from his employer UK Mission Enterprises. He rather unimaginatively simple diverted the cash into his own accounts.

He apparently had a gambling habit and didn’t appreciate the amount of money that he had stolen. He’s been jailed for 16 months.

£45,000 however pales into insignificance when compared with £1.3 million which was the amount that Tracey Laws stole from her employer Inchcape Limited.

Inchcape Limited is the parent company of a number of motor trading companies in the UK and for nearly 10 years Laws wrote 75 fraudulent cheques totaling £750,000 to her own horse riding school (which she had set up with money that she had already been stolen from her employers). She had also fraudulently transferred over £500,000 to her husband’s decorating company.

Despite having a maximum annual salary of £26,000 during her time with Inchcape she managed to buy a horse riding school, a holiday home, luxury holidays and a brand new Range Rover.

It wasn’t these mis-matched spending habits that caught her out though. Her crime was uncovered by accident when one of the motor trading companies was changing payment systems and two employees noticed a cheque made out to West Acres Stables (the stables owned by Laws).

These two observant individuals noticed that the handwriting looked very much like the handwriting of Tracey Laws. It turned out that it was her hand writing and the end result was that Laws was jailed for four years last week.

No doubt there are new internal controls in place at Inchcape and looking on the bright side for Laws she will at least save her annual accountancy membership fees going forward and she will also have her bed and breakfast supplied free of charge by Her Majesty’s Government for the next few years.

Auditors are good at lots of things but could we spot what’s happening to the bees?

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I often believe that society at large does not get best value for money from auditors.

That’s not to say that we deliver bad value for money.  Quite the contrary in fact; audit work does not attract especially high fees, has high costs of provision and very high insurance costs as a result of fairly high risk of litigation.

All of these factors conspire to mean that audit work is often not undertaken by smaller firms of accountants at all – the risk/ return profile is just not good enough.

Today, I noticed that the UK government had committed to spending up to £10 million for urgent research by eminent scientists into why the population of bees and other pollinating insects is rapidly falling.  Answers are needed soon – bees play an essential role in the food chain that we all depend on.

There are significant amounts of money spent on government research and enquiries. For example, the results of an enquiry into the “Bloody Sunday” killings were announced last week.  This enquiry had reportedly cost £100 million in fees, with a further £91 million in disbursements.  It had also taken fourteen years to reach its conclusions.

Now, I rather doubt that most auditors have the scientific skills necessary to determine the reason for bees’ decline, but I suspect that they do have the skills necessary to identify the key assertions by witnesses to the Bloody Sunday killings, obtain and evaluate sufficient, appropriate evidence and then reach a conclusion.

This process is often known by an alternative name of “auditing”.  Our skills are already used in forensic investigations.  I wonder why people don’t think to use us in other situations where establishing facts is so critical?

With our innate focus on VFM audit and the natural sense of urgency that comes from having to report on financial statements within a matter of months, I can’t help but wonder if auditors would have been able to do the job for less than £191 million and sooner than fourteen years.

IFRS 911: Accounting for environmental catastrophes? The BP oil spill illustrates a number of issues in IFRS. Here are just the first few we thought of..

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BP chief executive Tony Hayward was grilled yesterday by the US Congressional panel.

The failure of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform has been a catastrophe for lots of people. Stakeholders ranging from individual fishermen through to major shareholders have all been severely impacted.

Being natural accountants though, we couldn’t help but think how this would affect the accounts, given that it may well inspire some future exam questions.

The most obvious effect is the impairment of the well itself.  Only the hardware is currently recognised in assets, since the value of the reserves is too uncertain to be recognised as an asset.  Rigs cost vast amounts of money however and this is a significant impairment.

Similar drilling arrangements will also require major safety upgrades.  This would cause an impairment, but no provision, since BP could always simply close down a well.

Then there is goodwill.  BP grew to its vast size by organic growth and by acquisition.  This activity may well have been through an acquired subsidiary.  This is pretty solid external evidence of an impairment and so goodwill must be written off.  Lots of goodwill needs to be written off.

Fines are a near certainty.  The White House has been careful to ensure that the world knows that the $20 billion payment to a trust to settle damages is not a full and final settlement.  This means that an estimate of likely costs will need to be made and disclosed in a very transparent way.  BP and BP’s lawyers would probably prefer to avoid that transparency of how much they think this is going to cost them.

A number of years ago, IAS 10 was amended to require that only dividends that were legally required to be paid could be shown as liabilities.  Many people commented on how this was not true and fair, since it was unthinkable that large companies could ever change their minds about dividends that had already been proposed.  Well, BP changes that a little, given that they have agreed to skip this year’s dividend to shareholders, in response to huge pressure from wider stakeholders such as affected communities and the President of the United States.  It turns out that companies do sometimes change their minds about dividends before the cheques get sent out!

What about recoverability of insurance proceeds?  That one is simple; BP did not have insurance we believe.  Ouch.  Dare we breathe the words “going concern”?

Allegations about two of the Big 4 and “espionage”? Make sure you don’t do this in your exam…

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So the June ACCA exams are finally starting today. After all the hard work students all over the world are facing that unique mixture of excitement, fear and anticipation as they turn over their actual exam papers for the first time.

One thing that really goes without saying though is that when you’re sat in the exam hall you shouldn’t be looking at the person next to you and trying to see what they are writing.

Although exams aren’t being sat in these two particular buildings occupied by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young in London, there have been various allegations recently that the buildings are a little too close for comfort.

Three years ago PwC moved into an office next door to EY. At their closest point the buildings are approximately 10 metres apart. This has led to concerns that the rival companies could spy on each other.

PwC have apparently made the first move to reduce the threat of “espionage”. In order to prevent EY employees spying on them through the windows they have installed automatic blinds that close as soon as audio-visual equipment is turned on. The offices have also been designed so as to prevent any computer screens from being visible through the windows.

EY were reported to be evaluating their options in response.

Whatever the outcome of this is, all of us here at ExP would like to wish you the very best in your exams and sincerely hope that you don’t feel the need to try to spy on your neighbour in the exam! GOOD LUCK.

Liverpool FC: You’ll never walk alone; or You’re never a going concern?

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Liverpool FC are in the news at the moment with their manager Rafael Benitez leaving by mutual consent last night. Liverpool are one of the most famous football clubs in the world. Last month they released their accounts for the year to 30 July 2009.

Their financial results weren’t very impressive with their accounts showing the biggest loss in their history (£55 million) as well as significant loans (£250 million).

Their auditors, KPMG, stated that Liverpool are now “dependent on short-term [bank loan] facility extensions” and “this fact indicates the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt upon [Liverpool’s] ability to continue as a going concern”.

Most of you will know that going concern is a fundamental accounting assumption.  In the normal run of things, the financial statements make no mention of it.  Similarly, the audit opinion makes no specific mention of going concern, except in unusual circumstances.

Ignoring the specific issues involving Liverpool, going concern generally presents a tricky problem for the auditor.  If an auditor mentions going concern as a specific worry, it is likely that the company will fail.  The act of mentioning it could become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Some would argue that there’s a significant divergence between what auditors actually say and what readers hear.

Looking at the three ways of reporting on going concern under ISA 705:

Situation 1: The company appears likely to be a going concern.

What auditors say: Nothing.

What auditors mean: The company appears to be a going concern, but there are no guarantees.

What investors hear?: All is well. Invest with no fear of possible insolvency.  Go forth and be merry.

Situation 2: Additional disclosures about elevated uncertainty about going concern.

What auditors say: The financial statements give a true and fair view, but we emphasise the disclosures by the directors about the elevated going concern risk in note x…

What auditors mean: The company’s continuing existence depends on the outcome of this external event.  It could go one way or the other, but it’s impossible to say which.  Take caution.

What investors hear?: The company is in serious trouble.  Run away.  If you are a depositor in a bank, get all your money out right now before it’s too late.

This difference in what we say and what people hear means that this option is hard to use.

Situation 3: The company is not a going concern

What auditors say: Either an adverse opinion (if the accounts aren’t prepared on a break up basis) or unqualified opinion with emphasis of matter (if they’re produced on a break up basis).

What auditors mean: The company is probably not a going concern.  It might be in the process of an orderly winding down in order to return money to investors.  Take extreme caution in investing, as there’s a very short time to recover your investment.

What investors hear?: RUN FOR THE HILLS! If you have already invested money in this company’s bonds or shares, you’ve lost it; make your peace with your grief and move on.

So in effect, mentioning going concern could be the kiss of death for many companies.

Could there be a better system to use? The international market for bonds for example has long had a well understood and much more subtle system, using gradings such as the Standard and Poor’s grading system of grading risk of default on bonds from AAA rating (virtually no risk) to BBB (becoming speculative) to D (virtually dead).

In the current high risk, post recessionary environment, might it be better for to adopt a similar system for going concern and thus the company’s shares as well as bonds?  The directors could present a separate report on going concern and assign their own S&P style grading, which the auditor could then perform a review engagement upon under ISRE 2400, giving investors explicit but limited assurance on the directors’ classification. By doing that, the spectrum of risk that going concern represents could be more accurately reflected in the financial statements.

Going back to Liverpool, there’s a view that some football clubs are too big to go out of business and I’m sure that most Liverpool supporters believe they will still be cheering on their team for many years to come and the subject of “Going Concern” isn’t top of their agenda.

The “little black dress” is a fashion icon but when you’re sitting your exams don’t forget to…

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The “little black dress” is an evening dress that is simple, classic and fashionable. Its origins date back to the 1920s with fashion historians claiming that the first design of the little black dress was made by the designer Coco Chanel back in the 1920s.

The design has been worn by numerous women over the years. The most famous “little black dress” was arguably the one worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

This is all very interesting but what has it got to do with a blog for finance students and in particular what has it got to do with the ACCA exams that are taking place next month?

Well, if I’m honest it actually has very little to do with the exams as I can’t imagine there will be a lot of people wearing little black dresses to the exams! What should be happening though is that everyone should be attending the exams with a “little black pen”.

The June 2010 ACCA exams will for the first time see all the papers marked using scanning technology. The scripts will be completed as normal by students but instead of the scripts then being physically sent to the markers they will instead be scanned and then marked by markers “on screen”.

It is important therefore that you use a black ballpoint pen in your exams. If you use other colour pens, pencils, fountain pens or highlighter pens then these are unlikely to be picked up by the scanning technology and as a result the marker may not be able to see your answer.

Put simply, it doesn’t matter how good your answer is but if it is not picked up by the scanning technology then you may well find that you miss out on passing the exam.

In summary, forget about wearing a “little black dress” to the exam but don’t forget your “little black pen”.