A report commissioned by the Labour Party has advocated the break-up of the big four audit firms that dominate the audits of FTSE-350 firms. The report, co-authored by Prof. Prem Sikka et al, even goes so far as to suggest that their share of that market should be limited to 50% and that joint audits be promoted. In addition it argues that audit firms should be banned from doing non-audit work for the same company, and an independent body to appoint audit firms and agree their remuneration should be set up.
It also calls for the auditors to owe a duty of care to shareholders, not just the companies they audit, which would enable shareholders to pursue litigation over audit failings which they have great difficulty in doing at present. It is surely sensible to reinstate what was always assumed to be the case before the Caparo judgement.
These are revolutionary ideas indeed to try and tackle the problems we have seen in recent years and it seems to be now generally accepted by investors, if not the audit profession, that there have been too many major failings and the general standard is low. Even the Financial Report Council (FRC) seem to accept that view at a recent meeting with ShareSoc/UKSA.
But would breaking up the big four, effectively forcing some larger companies to use smaller audit firms improve the quality of audits? I rather doubt it. In my experience problems with smaller audit firms are just as common as in large ones – it’s just that the big companies and their audit failings get more publicity. Larger firms do have more expertise in certain areas and more international coverage. So there are good reasons to use them. But this report is certainly worth reading because if Mrs May continues to make a hash of Brexit and proves unable to stop dissension within her party we may see a Labour Government looking to implement these policies. See http://visar.csustan.edu/aaba/LabourPolicymaking-AuditingReformsDec2018.pdf. I may make more comments on the report after I have read the whole 167 pages.
Note that this issue of audit firm size came up at the Northern Venture Trust (NVT) Annual General Meeting which I attended today. This is a long-established Venture Capital Trust – it was their 23rd AGM, many of which I have attended. One shareholder voted against the reappointment of KPMG on the “show of hands” vote, and there were 1.2million votes against them on the proxy counts (versus 10.9 million “for”). It is unusual to see so many voted against such resolutions. When I asked the shareholder why he voted against I was told it was because he thought that a smaller audit firm might do better as VCTs are relatively smaller investment companies. However I pointed out that VCT legislation is very complex so it makes sense to use an audit form that is more knowledgeable in that regard.
The other possible reason for high proxy votes against the auditors is that Nigel Beer, who chairs the Audit Committee is a former partner in KPMG although he told me later that he had departed many years ago. Anyway I did raise this issue in the meeting and the fact that both Nigel Beer and Hugh Younger had just passed 9 years of time on their board. In addition, Tim Levett, who is Chairman of NVM, the fund manager, is on the board. So according to the UK Corporate Governance Code that’s three directors out of 6 who should be considered non-independent.
I urged the Chairman to look at “refreshing” the board although I did not doubt their experience and knowledge. It was also pointed out to me after the meeting that there are no women on the board. So effectively this is really a stale, male, pale board. However the Chairman said they do regularly review board structure and succession.
Other than that there were some interesting comments given by Tim Levett in his presentation. He said that due to the change in the VCT rules in 2016 they have changed from being a late stage investor to being an early stage one. In the last 3 years they have built a new portfolio of 22 early stage companies and are probably the most active generalist VCT manager other than Titan. NVM have opened a new office in Birmingham and built up the Reading office. There were also a number of new staff who were introduced at the meeting.
He also said that like all the top 10 VCTs, an awful lot of special dividends had been paid in the last three years. This was because of realisations and the VCT rules that prevented them from retaining cash. This has meant a reduction in the NAV of the trust but in future they will try and maintain that at the same time as maintaining a 5% dividend. Note: that historically it means that capital has been paid out in tax-free dividends that investors might have reinvested in the trust and hence collected a second round of up-front income tax relief. One can understand why the trust does not want to continue doing that as it may otherwise spark some attention from HMRC. I also prefer to see VCTs maintain their NAV as otherwise the trusts shrink in size which can create problems in due course as we have seen with other VCTs.
NVT are doing a new share issue in January which will of course improve their NAV and I was glad to hear that at least some of the directors will be taking up shares in the offer and adding to their already considerable holdings. That inspires some confidence that they can cope with the changes to the VCT rules that mean there will be more emphasis on investing in riskier early stage companies.
Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )