The Future of Auditing

Last week, our contributing columnist Steven Mintz led off our three part series on audit quality by addressing the topic of mandatory audit rotation. This week, our columnist Sri Ramamoorti continues the conversation by discussing the Expectation Gap, the Information Gap, the need for non-GAAP measures, and the future of auditor education.

We acknowledge, and thank, The CPA Journal’s Editor In Chief Richard (Rick) Kravitz for permitting us to repurpose and reposition content that originally appeared in the February 2017 edition of his publication. The material appeared in an article entitled The Future of Auditing: A Roundtable Discussion; it is available online in its entirety.

Rick is a friend of the AAA Public Interest Section. He is a frequent presenter at our meetings and symposia, and is a contributing columnist to this blog as well.

Dr. Sridhar Ramamoorti, ACA, CPA/CITP/CFF/CGMA, CIA, CFE, CFSA, CGAP, CGFM, CRMA, CRP, MAFF, is an associate professor of accounting at the University of Dayton. Previously, he was an associate professor of accounting and director of the Corporate Governance Center at the Michael J. Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University. Dr. Ramamoorti was also a principal in the Professional Standards Group of Andersen Worldwide, Sarbanes-Oxley Advisor for Ernst & Young’s National Advisory Practices, a Corporate Governance partner with Grant Thornton, and was a principal leading the governance, risk and compliance (GRC) practice of Infogix, Inc. In December 2016, Dr. Ramamoorti completed a three-year term on the prestigious Standing Advisory Group of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB).

Why are we utilizing our blog in this manner? We are showcasing our perspectives in order to generate interest in our midyear meeting. If you would like to present your own work about accounting and the public interest, please keep in mind that the manuscript submission deadline is Monday, January 14, 2019.

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Sri, in our previous blog post, our colleague Steven Mintz suggested that mandatory auditor rotation may help address certain challenges that confront the audit profession. He cites KPMG’s 109 consecutive year audit relationship with GE as one that is ripe for rotation, in light of GE’s recent travails. What do you think?

You know, the medical profession’s lament applies to us, too—that the operation was successful, but the patient died. All we are able to assure as auditors are the standards and the processes that are the inputs to the audit. But we are unable to guarantee the outcome. Yet, the first thing that happens when there is the collapse of a company, perhaps because of poor governance or a terrible business model, is that the business failure is almost immediately equated with an audit failure. And we have to live out the consequences as a profession. I think this is also going to be part of the education of the public, that we can’t be held responsible for a mistake that is being really committed by company management and their governance.

Having said that, any century-old relationship between an audit firm and its client certainly raises questions about the lack of independence in appearance. The optics aren’t good, even if the client is growing and profitable.

But don’t users of financial statements expect auditors to be held responsible for such mistakes? And if there is an expectation gap, is there also an information gap?

On this issue of the expectations gap, as far back as 1988, the MacDonald Commission in Canada very systematically broke it down into three separate gaps. One was the standards gap, another was the performance gap, and the third was the communications gap. That’s one framework.

More recently, in 2012, the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board [IAASB] talked about the information gap. There is a lot more information than what appears in the financial statements, and hence, the recent pressure on the profession to look in some way or the other at these non-GAAP measures. They’re just proliferating, and it’s clear that there is much more that investors and other stakeholders are demanding to know. In a world that is awash with information, I think these demands have gotten only worse. Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize winner and a polymath, said, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Simon perceptively noted that many designers of information systems incorrectly represented the design problem as information scarcity rather than attention scarcity. We don’t have information scarcity; we have information abundance. Attention scarcity is the real issue.

He went on to say what was really needed were systems that excelled at filtering out unimportant or irrelevant information. This is going to be one of the future jobs of the auditing profession, to serve as that filter in such a way that we define relevance to our stakeholders. That really allows us to become trusted as a profession, because people don’t know what’s relevant and what’s not. We are really becoming the curators of information in terms of its underlying quality, its relevance, and providing that decision context in which stakeholders can maximally use that information. The recent proliferation of non-GAAP measures, potentially more relevant but perhaps less reliable, is highlighting this perspective. In a way, I am merely expanding on what the AICPA’s Elliott Committee concluded in its 1996 Report.

It sounds like you’re calling for the development of Integrated Reports that include both GAAP and non-GAAP measures. Are we adequately educating auditors to perform assurance activities on such reports? Or do we need to modify our education practices in creative ways?

I’ve always wondered why ours is probably the only discipline—I won’t say profession—in which the word “creative” is a bad word. Creative accounting is not a bad thing. After all, as Albert Einstein famously remarked, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

H. G. Wells maintained that it is nature’s inexorable imperative that you either adapt or perish. One may choose not to change, however, because survival is not mandatory. Given all the change that we’re seeing, if we remain in the status quo, we’re finished. We have to be grabbing at these opportunities to become more relevant in a fast-changing world.

In my opinion, we are facing a human capital crisis in the accounting profession. However, the problem is not with the young people who are entering the profession. They are actually very smart. There are these very advanced and sophisticated technologies that are really putting the lie to what used to be big problems. They can be solved, but you’ve got to be creative. And you need to master some of these new technologies.

For instance, let’s think about the classic problem of finding a needle in a haystack. Pretty difficult, isn’t it? And yet, some of our young professionals might suggest that we wave an industrial grade magnet over the stack, and the needle will simply jump up.

To me, the need for being creative is fulfilled by having a diversity of experience, curiosity, and the ability to learn continuously. These are the kind of people we’re looking for, and the profession should be able to attract them. The worst type of auditor we could have in today’s world is the gullible auditor. We want the skeptical auditors who will not accept answers at face value. They’re always going to dig deeper. We want to attract these kinds of insatiably curious kids into our profession.

I think it’s going to require a different skill set, a different kind of ability among young people. I’m not sure we want the types of students who did really well only in accounting, as in the olden days.

Are we, as a profession, up to this challenge?

We started by talking about the past, the present, and the future. And that progression, to me, gives us the opportunity to use hindsight to get insight, which hopefully will allow us to get foresight.

Sigmund Koch, a very famous and distinguished professor of psychology at New York University, in 1985 observed that the mark of maturity of a profession is its ability to do soul-searching. And so the fact that we are doing this kind of [discussion] is itself evidence that this is a profession that has that capacity, that is willing to look at itself critically. The profession is a prestigious one with a glorious history. You cannot have true accountability without proper accounting, so I have tremendous hope for the future.