Posted on November 23, 2017 by
It is budget day and the nation’s accountants will be out in their droves, bless ’em. Whether it’s holding the hands of anxious clients or heading for a TV studio to explain George Osborne’s latest inheritance tax reforms, Britain’s beancounters will be energetically earning their corn.
In general, it’s rather good PR for them. There aren’t many grateful journalists who won’t have been saved on the day by a helpful accountant able to make them an instant expert on capital allowances or VAT exemptions.
It all helps to burnish the credentials of accountants as socially useful herbivores on the capitalist veldt. While bankers and brokers and regulators are first in the firing line when things go wrong, and usually can be found with telltale blood on their paws, accountants are regarded as more benign. They are, after all, the plodding functionaries who keep the whole complex system muddling along. Some of them are even known to understand it.
That’s the kind interpretation. Too kind, perhaps. Name any financial catastrophe, scandal or worse and nearly always there will be an accountant who has played an unfortunate role somewhere along the line. Sometimes it is orchestrating the fraud, sometimes merely turning a blind eye to it.
Take Greece. An accountant somewhere signed off on the fiddled national accounts that let Athens take its doomed step to join the euro in the first place back in 2001. Or the banking crisis. Accountants galore approved as “true and fair” figures from banks before 2008 that showed them as rock solid when they were anything but. They also devised the flawed accounting standards that led to the debacle. In any corporate disaster, from Enron to Tesco, there is an auditor somewhere who has legitimate questions to answer. An awful lot of duff company flotations got off the ground in the first place only thanks to a kindly accountant making favourable assumptions and convenient judgments to flatter the official accounts.
And then there is the running sore of tax evasion and aggressive avoidance. Whether it’s Amazon or Jimmy Carr attempting to sidestep the taxman, there is nearly always an imaginative accountant creating the artificial contrivance to make it happen.
Yet the remarkable thing is how few accountants are robustly held to account for their failings. There are 335,000 accountants and actuaries in Britain and Ireland, yet the numbers banned from practising each year are minuscule.
Down at the grassroots, various professional bodies make a stab of holding the petty sinners to account. Each month the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales gives a slap on the wrist to a dozen or so local beancounters for compliance boobs and so forth, but punishments rarely go beyond a public rebuke and a fine of a few thousand pounds.
In the higher echelons of the profession, the wheels of justice turn more slowly, if at all, while the vital deterrant value of the occasional high-profile scalp is virtually non-existent. In the past five years, the Financial Reporting Council, the profession’s chief policeman charged with looking at all cases where there is a public interest element, has suspended just eight people. That’s fewer than two suspensions a year, and even they are temporary. The longest has been for eight years.
This Friday an FRC tribunal goes through the pantomime of ruling on Mark Woodbridge, the former group financial accountant at Torex Retail, and whether he is fit and proper to belong to a professional body. To any outsider, it’s perfectly obvious he is not. He was jailed for three years and ten months in 2013 for fraud and false accounting, which left investors nursing losses of hundreds of millions of pounds.
But even the most black and white cases do not always go according to plan. The FRC last year humiliatingly dropped a parallel investigation into another Torex fraudster, Chistopher Moore, who had been jailed for 30 months, after it found “insufficient evidence of misconduct”.
Even when the FRC looks like drawing blood, the big accounting firms seem to escape at the last minute. The pursuit of Deloitte over the siphoning off of cash from MG Rover by the Phoenix Four ended with a whimper in April after the accounting firm succeeded in getting a £14 million fine for misconduct reduced to £3 million on appeal, while a three-year ban on its former partner Maghsoud Einollahi was watered down to a reprimand.
The stubborn reluctance to kick the worst apples out of the profession permanently looks questionable. The medical authorities have no compunction about striking off dangerous quacks indefinitely, yet dangerously dishonest or incompetent accountants have to have a second chance, it seems. The FRC won’t countenance lifetime bans.
That may be OK for minor offences, but accountants at the top of the tree are just too important and their privileges too great to allow them this luxury any more. Auditors who allow themselves to be pressured by clients into imprudent judgments can end up costing investors billions. Meanwhile, the going rate of annual pay for a Big Four accounting partner is between £800,000 and £3.5 million.
Bankers have realised — much too late — that there was a high cost to pay when they allowed standards to nosedive and failed to punish and ostracise those in their industry (it can no longer be dignified with the term profession) who breached them.
Accountants are in danger of making the same mistake.
Patrick Hosking is Financial Editor of The Times