Balans nr 5 2006

Gästkrönikör: Dealing with the unpredictable

The last few years have seen a huge amount of fuss made about the introduction of International financial reporting standards (IFRS). This time last year Londonbased stock market equity analysts were obsessed with finding out how IFRS would impact the reported numbers. Of course, the hype outstripped the reality by some way but at least everyone associated with corporate reporting knew it was happening.

In contrast to the emphasis on International accounting standards (IAS), the introduction of international standards on auditing (ISA) has been low-key to the point of non-existent.

So why has the shift to a common set of internationally accepted auditing standards left the accountancy and auditing profession so unmoved? Here in the UK it is hard to find anyone who can summon up any enthusiasm whatsoever. No doubt we are all suffering from standard change fatigue. Moving so far on accounting standards has left US unable to contemplate a similar big switch for auditing.

Partly of course, accountants summon up enthusiasm when there are fees involved. And many accountancy firms have done rather nicely thank you out of helping their clients switch onto IFRS. The clients needed to report their figures under the new regime and they didn’t want to be seen to have made a huge mess. So they were prepared to pay whatever it took. The switch to ISA will also cost accountancy firm money which clients will ultimately pay for but it is a lot harder to spell out the benefit to the client so the accountancy PR machine has not gone into overdrive.

The UK has its own particular problems. We may not appear so all the time but we are actually quite enthusiastic internationalists. We like adopting international regulation especially in financial services because we see it as a way of competing in a global market which is vital for US. But we tend to adopt these standards in our own way. In December 2004 the UK Auditing Practices Board (APB) issued International Standards on Auditing (UK and Ireland) to apply to audits of financial statements for accounting periods on or after 15 December 2004. These are the ISA:s as issued by IAASB supplemented, where necessary, by standards and guidance from the UK auditing standards previously in issue.

In other words, gold-plating or ISA-plus. There has been a huge row between the UK government and UK business över ’gold-plating’ of regulation from Europe. Business leaders say politicians and civil servants are taking European regulation and adding their own rules thus knotting British business in red tape and uncompetitive compared with other countries. The APB is doing just that which means we’re adopting ISA:s ... and some.

The question that UK auditors and finance directors want to know is will it make any difference? There are grumbles that ISA:s insist on a lot of system documentation which takes time and therefore money but which could lead to better quality audits. Apart from that it is too early to tell, although one or two interesting snippets are emerging. A financial controller who works for a quoted UK publishing Company said his Company was getting excited about the part of ISA 240 The Auditor’s Responsibility to Consider Fraud and Error, where auditors are told to ”Incorporate an element of unpredictability in the selection of the nature, timing and extent of audit procedure.” According to my financial controller friend this element of unpredictability was a new one on him and he was intrigued to know what surprises his audit team (who were due in the week after I spoke with him) may throw at him.

As an ex-auditor myself, I though it sounded a good idea – it is a great excuse when you’re audit planning is non-existent or has gone wrong. Or when you ask the client a particularly stupid question which you immediately regret, you can just blame the need to be unpredictable.

Peter Williams is a Chartered Accountant and a freelance writer in Great Britain.