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Room for improvement at the Big 4…

Oh dear. It certainly wasn’t a great performance by the Big 4 when it came to their annual inspections by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) in the UK.

The quality of the audits performed had decreased and for KPMG in particular, according to the FRC “there has been an unacceptable deterioration in quality”.

The FRC is an independent body who check the quality of the audits undertaken by the 8 largest firms in the UK. Think of it as “auditing the auditors”.

They rate the quality of the audits undertaken using the following scale:

• Good (category 1)
• Limited improvements required (category 2A)
• Improvements required (category 2B)
• Significant improvements required (category 3)

Overall results from the most recent FRC inspections during 2017/18 show that 72% of audits required no more than limited improvements (compared to 78% in 2016/17). Or to put it another way, 28% of the audits reviewed required improvements (category 2B) or significant improvements (category 3).

For KPMG though things were particularly bad. When the FRC looked at their audits within the FTSE 350 (the largest 350 companies on the London stock exchange), they found that 50% required MORE than just limited improvements (compared to 35% in the previous year).

If you take a step back then this really isn’t very good is it. If you went to a restaurant where 50% of the meals served required more than limited improvements you’d be unlikely to go back to that restaurant again and I’m sure that restaurant wouldn’t be in business for much longer.

KPMG are going to face increased scrutiny by the FRC in the next round of inspections. 25% more KPMG audits will be examined over the 2018/19 cycle of work and the implementation of their Audit Quality Plan will be closely monitored.

So what went wrong?

The FRC noted that there were a number of factors. These included a failure to challenge management and show appropriate scepticism across their audits.

Stephen Haddrill, CEO of the FRC, said “At a time when public trust in business and in audit is in the spotlight, the Big 4 must improve the quality of their audits and do so quickly. They must address urgently several factors that are vital to audit, including the level of challenge and scepticism by auditors, in particular in their bank audits. We also expect improvements in group audits and in the audit of pension balances. Firms must strenuously renew their efforts to improve audit quality to meet the legitimate expectation of investors and other stakeholders.”

Whilst the level of quality found within the Big 4 audits fell, the performance of the mid tier companies improved. The FRC inspections on BDO, GT, Mazars and Moore Stephens showed general improvements in the quality of inspected audits.

The FRC’s Audit Quality Review is explained in more detail here and if you’re interested in reading the reports on the individual firms they can be found on the following links:

BDO LLP Public Report 2017/18 (PDF)

Deloitte LLP Public Report 2017/18 (PDF)

Ernst & Young LLP Public Report 2017/18 (PDF)

Grant Thornton LLP Public Report 2017/18 (PDF)

KPMG LLP Public Report 2017/18 (PDF)

Mazars LLP Public Report 2017/18 (PDF)

Moore Stephens LLP Public Report 2017/18 (PDF)

PwC LLP Public Reporting 2017/18 (PDF)

The Captain was sober, the First Mate was drunk. Was that true? Was that fair?

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I’ve been a qualified accountant for a fair few years now.

I had the pleasure of bumping into my first auditing lecturer last week. It was at a business mixer event and even though it was a long time since we last saw each other he really hadn’t changed that much.

We got talking and I reminded him of something that he told me that I’ve remembered ever since and to me is a great way of explaining what is meant by “True and Fair”. Those of you that have studied financial reporting papers will be aware of the importance of “True and Fair” in connection with financial statements.

In summary, financial statements should provide what is generally understood as a true and fair view of the reporting entity’s financial position, performance and changes in financial position.

I always remember my lecturer telling me the story of the ship’s captain that was having a problem with his first mate who was always drunk. In the end the captain wrote an official entry in the captains log saying “Today, the first mate was drunk.”

The first mate was upset about this and the next time he took charge of the ship when the captain was asleep, he wrote in the log that “Today, the captain was sober”. This of course implied that on other days the captain wasn’t sober as he was drunk.

Now, the statement “today, the captain was sober” was clearly true but I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not it was fair!

EY confirm the women were real

Some of you may have heard of the website Ashley Madison.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Ashley Madison, it’s a website where married people can register to meet other married people without their respective husband or wife knowing and then have an affair.

In fact, some of you may be registered members of the site (this does raise the question that if you are a registered member of Ashley Madison and are reading this business blog then at the moment you are finding business stories more interesting than having an affair so well done on that).

Ignoring the rights or wrongs of a website facilitating affairs, Ashley Madison has had an up and down ride over recent years.

Back in 2015, they were hacked. As a result the personal details of their users were leaked and there were a lot of users. When I say “a lot”, there were 32 million users.

The situation got worse for Ashley Madison though.

As well as their systems being hacked and details of who had signed up being leaked, it turned out that the vast majority of users were men and of the women who had signed up a significant proportion were Bots (i.e. a piece of software) or prostitutes.

All in all, not great selling points when trying to encourage new members.

In an attempt to build up trust (if trust is a relevant word for people looking for affairs that is…), Ashley Madison commissioned Ernst & Young to cast an eye over the membership data and see if it stood up to scrutiny.

There were some interesting results including the fact that 15,542 new members signed up each day in 2017 (that’s nearly half a million new users per month).

There were also more active women on the site than men. Globally, the ratio of active males to active females was 1 to 1.13 but there were variations on a regional basis ranging from Australia where the male to female ratio was 1 to 0.78 and Columbia where the ratio was 1 to 2.39.

Ernst & Young also reported that “The Client had used Bot programs to generate message activity with paying customers in prior years. The Bot programs were decommissioned in 2015 and our procedures related to calendar 2017 found no evidence that the use of Bot programs previously operated had been reinstated.”

So, in theory the registrations are human and there’s no danger of falling in love with a bot.

The full Ernst & Young report can be found at www.ashleymadison.com/2017report but I would be careful as if you’re viewing this on a computer at home and your husband or wife finds you’ve been visiting ashleymadison.com then there could be some difficult questions to answer.

Then again, if you start typing in the website and your web browser recognises it from a previous visit to that site then maybe…

Nicely said Mr Musk

We’ve all been there haven’t we? Long boring meetings that don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Maybe you’ve tried to give the impression of being interested in what was being said but in reality the meeting wasn’t relevant for you and your mind was wandering to other more interesting things.

Well, if you’re not a great lover of excessive meetings then you are not alone. In fact, you share the thoughts of an incredibly successful and admired business person. Namely, Elon Musk.

Mr Musk’s current business interests include Tesla and SpaceX.

In the past he founded x.com which later became PayPal. Paypal was subsequently bought by eBay for $1.5 billion.

He currently has a net worth in excess of $20 billion.

But what does he think about meetings?

In an email to his staff that was leaked to the electrek website there were a few productivity recommendations:

In the words of Mr Musk, these include:

– Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.

– Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved.

– Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.

– Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software or processes at Tesla. In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla.

– Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the “chain of command”. Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere.

– A major source of issues is poor communication between depts. The way to solve this is allow free flow of information between all levels. If, in order to get something done between depts, an individual contributor has to talk to their manager, who talks to a director, who talks to a VP, who talks to another VP, who talks to a director, who talks to a manager, who talks to someone doing the actual work, then super dumb things will happen. It must be ok for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen.

– In general, always pick common sense as your guide. If following a “company rule” is obviously ridiculous in a particular situation, such that it would make for a great Dilbert cartoon, then the rule should change.

Nicely said Mr Musk.

How much do Big 4 partners get paid?

KPMG UK released their results last month for their most recent accounting period and they showed a fall of 10% in pay for the KPMG partners when compared to the previous year.

Although the firm’s revenue rose by 5% to £2.2 billion, it’s profit fell to £301 million.

The firm wrote off a number of technology investments.

KPMG, like the rest of the Big 4, have invested heavily in technology companies in an attempt to stay at the forefront of technology.

Unfortunately for KPMG, not all of their investments were successful. Bill Michael, the Chairman of KPMG, highlighted one investment that hadn’t done so well – KPMG had committed £3 million to Flexeye, a tech company that analyses large amounts of data and it hadn’t proved to be the wisest investment.

Whilst profits fell, it hasn’t all been bad news for KPMG as their audit practice grew by 10%.

Back to the average pay of the KPMG partners though and although their average pay fell by 10% I’m sure that the partners will still be able to afford to buy a sandwich for lunch.

The average pay for the KPMG partners was £519,000 each.

That’s not too bad is it?

But how does it compare with the average pay from the partners of the remaining Big 4.

The most recent reported results show the following average pay per partner:

Deloitte – £865,000

EY – £677,000

pwc – £652,000

It looks like Deloitte partners will be having the more expensive sandwiches for lunch.

Is this for real?

If you buy a Chelsea or Manchester United football shirt and it turns out to be a fake it can be annoying but if you buy medicines and they turn out to be fakes it could be a lot worse as it could kill you.

Illegal copies and fakes of products are one of the big problems facing businesses today (£300 billion is the estimated size of the global counterfeit market) but some scientists have recently developed what they believe could be a cheap solution to the problem.

The technology is currently being developed by a company called Quantum Base and in simple terms involves placing an extremely small microdot onto the product which gives off a unique light signature.

The microdot is really small and I do mean really small – it’s a tiny flake of atoms which is a thousandth of the width of a human hair. Not only will it be impossible for a human to see but it will be unique. The flake of atoms which will make up the microdot will be unique and cannot be cloned. They will be placed on the product at the production facilities and then the atomic structures will be recorded on a database.

The technique for preventing fake products is that when an individual buys a product such as medicine or designer clothes they can scan their phone over the label and an app on their phone will identify the light source from the atomic structure on the microdot and send it to the database to confirm whether or not it is on the database.

If it is on the database, it’s genuine. If it’s not, it’s fake.

An excellent way of identifying whether the product you are buying is real or fake.

As mentioned, the technology is still be developed and made ready for the market by Quantum Base but it looks very promising in terms of helping to eradicate the problem of fake products.

Remind me – what was I going to buy?

Do you wish you had a better memory? Perhaps you do but you can’t remember whether or not you do.

If this is the case then help may be at hand.

University researchers have recently suggested a simple technique which could improve your memory.

Dr Mark Moss from Northumbria University led a research study which found that students studying in a room with the smell of the herb rosemary (in the form of essential oils) achieved 5% to 7% better memory results than students undertaking similar studying in a room without the smell of rosemary.

Dr Moss reported that the sense of smell in humans is highly sensitive and sends messages to the brain which can set off reactions and responses.

In the case of rosemary, the smell could well result in a better memory.

This view isn’t new though as ancient Greek students used to wear garlands of rosemary in their exams and Ophelia, the young noblewoman in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet said “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”

So, in conclusion, the next time you are studying hard for an exam it may be an idea to buy some rosemary essential oils to help your memory.

That is of course, if you can remember to buy some in the first place…

(Details of some of the work done by Northumbria University can be found here).

KPMG fires unethical partners

Picture the scene – you’re the senior auditing partner of KPMG in America with more than 30 years of experience serving some of KPMG’s most prestigious clients. There are over 9,000 KPMG people in the US who look up to you as the boss.

You receive some leaked information about which of your audits the US audit watchdog is going to examine as part of their annual inspection of how well KPMG perform audits.

Do you:

(a) Disclose this unethical breach immediately, or

(b) Try to keep things quiet and make sure that the audit files of the audits selected are perfect?

Unfortunately for Scott Marcello, the (now ex) head of KPMG’s audit practice in America, he didn’t choose option (a).

The background to the issue is that every year the US audit regulator, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) selects a sample of audits to inspect and ensure they have been performed properly.

A former employee of the PCAOB had joined KPMG. A friend of his who was still working at the PCAOB tipped him off about which audits would be selected for inspection this year.

The confidential information was then passed up the KPMG hierarchy until it reached Mr Marcello.

We can only guess what Mr Marcello and 4 other KPMG partners were planning on doing with the leaked information but one thing was for sure and that was they didn’t disclose the leak.

Whilst the 5 partners clearly weren’t very ethical, KPMG as an organisation acted quickly once they found out about it.

The 5 partners were fired and Lynne Doughtie, the chairwoman and chief executive of KPMG was quoted as saying “KPMG has zero tolerance for such unethical behaviour. Quality and integrity are the cornerstone of all we do and that includes operating with the utmost respect and regard for the regulatory process. We are taking additional steps to ensure that such a situation should not happen again”.

The PCOAB publish the results of their inspections and the previous results of the KPMG inspections perhaps give a reason for why Mr Marcello was keen for any help, whether it was ethical or unethical.

In 2014 and 2015, KPMG had more deficiencies in their audits than any of the other Big 4 in America.

38% of their inspected audits in 2015 were found to be deficient whilst in 2014, 54% were found to be deficient.

Not the brightest fraudster

There are clever frauds and there are not so clever frauds.

Both are morally wrong but this gentleman’s attempt at fraud clearly showed that he wasn’t the brightest individual. It’s also resulted in him receiving an 8 year jail sentence.

Mohammed Shareef from Harrow in the UK ran a number of ice-cream shops and thought that an easy way to fraudulently obtain money was via his VAT affairs.

If somebody is registered for VAT they have to charge VAT on their sales but they can offset any VAT on eligible expenses. If the VAT on their sales is greater than the VAT on their purchases, they pay the balance to the tax authorities. If VAT on their sales is less than the VAT on their purchases, they can reclaim the excess VAT suffered from the tax authorities.

This is where Mr Shareef’s grand plan originated.

His plan was to submit false VAT repayment claims and to do so he needed some false VAT expenses.

Mr Shareef’s plan went to his head though as instead of small amounts, he submitted false VAT repayment claims amounting to £1,669,463 over a number of years.

These claims came to the attention of the authorities and they investigated the expenses. They found that Mr Shareef clearly didn’t have the greatest criminal mind in history.

Ignoring the shops he actually owned, he instead submitted invoices for shops that didn’t even exist.

He also claimed he had no knowledge of certain documents but they were all found on his computer and investigators proved he was the author of the documents.

He also created fake bank statements but these statements were obviously fake as they had spelling errors in them. He also had fake 2012 statements where he had mistakenly put transactions in with a date of 2011.

He was found guilty of cheating the public revenue and sentenced to 8 years in jail.

How do you feel?

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that people get sick. In the winter months especially, there can be a lot of cold and flu bugs going around.

But what percentage of working hours do you think are lost to sickness?

The ONS (Office of National statistics) in the UK has just released details of the number of sick days in 2016. The number of hours lost to sickness as a percentage of working hours was 1.9% or to put it another way, about 137 million working days were lost due to illness in the UK last year.

This may sound a lot but of the number of sick days taken has fallen over the last few years. Last year the average number of sick days per worker was 4.3 whereas when records began in 1993 it was 7.2 days per worker.

It looks like the fall in sick days could be down to a number of factors.

The economic downturn in the late 2000’s arguably caused people to “struggle on” through an illness rather than risk losing their job. Companies are also more flexible nowadays when it comes to letting people work from home. If someone isn’t feeling 100%, a lot of employers will let them work from home and even if they are not up to full speed at least they will be doing some work.

The details also show that there’s a difference between the public sector and the private sector. The percentage absenteeism in the public sector is 2.9% compared to 1.7% in the private sector.

The most common reasons for missing work last year included minor illnesses such as colds (25%), musculoskeletal problems such as back ache (22%), mental health problems including stress and depression (11.5%), stomach upsets (6.6%) and headaches and migraines (3.4%).