The Role of the Independent Auditor in Financial Reporting

Question: The SEC allows FASB to set U.S. GAAP. Does the SEC physically visit each company that issues securities to the public to ensure that periodic financial statements properly follow the rules and guidelines of U.S. GAAP?

Answer: A detailed examination of the financial statements produced by thousands of publicly traded companies around the world would require a massive work force with an enormous cost. Therefore, this very essential role in the financial reporting process has been left by the SEC to auditing (also known as public accounting) firms that operate both inside and outside the United States. Before submitting their statements to the SEC and then to the public, reporting companies such as IBM and Wells Fargo must hire one of these independent auditing organizations to

perform an audit (examination) of the financial statements,

report on whether sufficient supporting evidence was gathered to enable the auditor to provide reasonable assurance that the statements are presented fairly because they contain no material misstatements according to U.S. GAAP.

This written report by the company’s independent auditor is then attached to the financial statements for all to see. The report is essential to the integrity of the reporting process. It provides the auditor’s expert opinion as to whether decision makers should feel safe in relying on the financial information to make their decisions. The report is a legal requirement for statements provided to the SEC. Even many companies that are not affected by the rules of the SEC have their statements audited by an independent firm to enhance credibility. For example, a convenience store seeking a bank loan could pay for an audit in hopes of increasing the chances that the application will be approved (or because bank officials have required the audit for the bank’s own protection).

Not surprisingly, companies that have audits are able to get loans at lower interest rates than comparable organizations that do not have their financial statements subjected to examination (Blackwell, et. al., 1998). The audit serves to reduce the lender’s risk of loss. Thus, a lower interest rate is needed to convince banks and other institutions to provide financial resources.

In the United States, independent auditing firms can only be operated by individuals who have been formally recognized by a state government as Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). Such firms range in size from massive (KPMG employs over 135,000 individuals working in 140 countries and generated annual revenues of approximately $22.7 billion for the year ended September 30, 20082) to organizations comprised of just one or two people.

Obviously, for the financial statements of the biggest clients (the ExxonMobils and Wal-Marts of the world), only a public accounting firm of significant size could effectively perform an audit engagement. Consequently, four firms (known collectively as the Big Four) are truly huge global organizations:

v  Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu

v  Ernst & Young


v  PricewaterhouseCoopers

However, thousands of smaller independent CPA firms exist providing numerous services, such as audit, tax planning and preparation, and advisory work for a wide range of clients. Ernst & Young indicates on its Web site that the following services are provided to its clients with each explained in detail: advisory, assurance, tax, transactions, strategic growth markets, and specialty services.

Question: FASB creates U.S. GAAP, the official standards for the preparation of financial statements. What group sets the examination and reporting rules to be followed by independent auditors? Their work is not in accordance with accounting principles. Instead, they are seeking to determine whether U.S. GAAP was applied properly. These auditing firms clearly provide a vital service by adding credibility to reported financial information. How do independent auditors know what actions should be taken in assessing the data reported by a company such as Xerox or Bank of America?

Answer: When an audit is performed on the financial statements of any organization that issues securities to the U.S. public, the examination and subsequent reporting is regulated by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). The PCAOB was brought into existence by the U.S. Congress through the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a measure passed in response to a number of massive accounting scandals, including Enron and WorldCom. Members of Congress apparently felt that the auditing profession had failed to provide adequate protection for the decision makers who were relying on published financial information. Consequently, the federal government became more involved. The PCAOB was established under the oversight and enforcement authority of the SEC. It holds wide-ranging powers that include the creation of official guidelines for the performance of a proper audit. Its mission is stated as follows: “The PCAOB is a private-sector, nonprofit corporation, created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, to oversee the auditors of public companies in order to protect the interests of investors and further the public interest in the preparation of informative, fair, and independent audit reports.”3

If an audit is performed on financial statements that are produced by an organization that does not issue securities to the public, the PCAOB holds no authority. For such smaller engagements, the Auditing Standards Board (ASB) officially sets the rules for an appropriate audit. The ASB is a technical committee within the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), a national professional organization of CPAs.

A local convenience store, as mentioned previously, or a medical practice or law firm might choose to have an audit on its financial statements. These audits fall under the guidelines provided by the ASB rather than the PCAOB because the organizations do not issue publicly traded securities. Thus, the rules for performing an audit on a large public company can differ somewhat from those applied to a smaller private one.

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