Archive for the ‘Arthur Anderson’ Tag

The Cultural Dependence of Corporate Governance

In September 2011, the Corporate Secretaries International Association (CSIA) hosted an international corporate governance conference in Shanghai, jointly with the Shanghai Stock Exchange.  CSIA represents over 100,000 governance practitioners worldwide through its 14 company secretarial member organizations. Speakers and panellists from Africa, Australia, mainland China, Hong Kong SAR, India, the UK and the US plus delegates from the 14 CSIA member countries discussed the cultural dependence of corporate governance.  For more information on CSIA see

The conference considered whether corporate governance principles and practices around the world were converging.  Would a set of world-wide, generally-accepted corporate governance principles eventually emerge?  Or was differentiation between corporate governance practices inevitable because of fundamental differences in country cultures?  

Speaking at the conference the writer of this blog suggested that:

“A decade or so ago, it was widely thought that corporate governance practices around the world would gradually converge on the United States model.   After all, the US Securities and Exchange Commission had existed since 1934, sound corporate regulation and reporting practices had evolved, and American governance practices were being promulgated globally by institutional investors.  But that was before the collapse of Enron, Arthur Andersen, the sub-prime financial catastrophe, and the ongoing global economic crisis.  A decade ago it was also believed that the world would converge with US practices because the world needed access to American capital. That is no longer the case. So the convergence or differentiation question remains unanswered. 

Forces for convergence

“Consider first some forces that are leading corporate governance practices around the world to convergence.

Corporate governance codes of good practice around the world have a striking similarity, which is not surprising given the way they influence each other.  Though different in detail, all emphasise corporate transparency, accountability, reporting, and the independence of the governing body from management, and many now include strategic risk assessment and corporate social responsibility.  The codes published by international bodies, such as the World Bank, the Commonwealth of Nations, and OECD, clearly encourage convergence.  The corporate governance policies and practices of major corporations operating around the world also influence convergence.

Securities regulations for the world’s listed companies are certainly converging.  The International Organisation of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), which now has the bulk of the world’s securities regulatory bodies in membership, encourages convergence.  For example, its members have agreed to exchange information on unusual trades, thus making the activities of global insider trading more hazardous. 

International accounting standards are also leading towards convergence.  The International Accounting Standards Committee (IASC) and the International Auditing Practices Committee (IPAC) have close links with IOSCO and are further forces working towards international harmonization and standardization of financial reporting and auditing standards.   US General Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), though some way from harmonization, are clearly moving in that direction.

In 2007, The US Securities and Exchange Commission announced that US companies could adopt international accounting standards in lieu of US GAAPs.   However, American accountants and regulators are accustomed to a rule-based regime and international standards are principles-based requiring judgement rather than adherence to prescriptive regulations.

Global concentration of audit for major companies in just four firms, since the demise of Arthur Andersen, encourages convergence.  Major corporations in most countries, wanting to have the name of one of the four principal firms on their audit reports, are then inevitably locked into that firm’s world-wide audit, risk analysis and other governance practices.

Globalisation of companies is also, obviously, a force for convergence. Firms that are truly global in strategic outlook, with world-wide production, service provision, added-value chain, markets and customers, which call on international sources of finance, whose investors are located around the world, are moving towards common governance practices. 

Raising capital on overseas stock exchanges, also encourages convergence as listing companies are required to conform to the listing rules of that market. Although the governance requirements of stock exchanges around the world differ in detail, they are moving towards internationally accepted norms through IOSCO.

International institutional investors, such as CalPers, have explicitly demanded various corporate governance practices if they are to invest in a specific country or company. Institutional investors with an international portfolio have been an important force for convergence.  Of course, as developing and transitional countries grow, generate and plough back their own funds, the call for inward investment will decline, along with the influence of the overseas institutions.

Private equity funding is changing the investment scene.  Owners of significant private companies may decide not to list in the first place. Major investors in public companies may find an incentive to privatise. Overall the existence of private equity funds challenges boards of listed companies by sharpening the market for corporate control. 

Cross-border mergers of stock markets could also have an impact on country-centric investment dealing and could influence corporate governance expectations; as could the development of electronic trading in stocks by promoting international securities trading.

Research publications, international conferences and professional journals can also be significant contributors to the convergence of corporate governance thinking and practice.            

Forces for differentiation

“However, despite all these forces pushing towards convergence, consider others which, if not direct factors for divergence, at least cause differentiation between countries, jurisdictions and financial markets.

Legal differences in company law, contract law and bankruptcy law between jurisdictions affect corporate governance practices.  Differences between the case law traditions of the US, UK and Commonwealth countries and the codified law of Continental Europe, Japan, Latin America and China distinguish corporate governance outcomes.

Standards in legal processes, too, can differ.   Some countries have weak judicial systems. Their courts may have limited powers and be unreliable.  Not all judiciaries are independent of the legislature.  The state and political activities can be involved in jurisprudence. In some countries bringing a company law case can be difficult and, even with a favourable judgement, obtaining satisfaction may be well nigh impossible.                

Stock market differences in market capitalisation, liquidity, and markets for corporate control affect governance practices.  Obviously, financial markets vary significantly in their scale and sophistication, affecting their governance influence.

Ownership structures also vary between countries, with some countries having predominantly family-based firms, others have blocks of external investors who may act together, whilst some adopt complex networked, leveraged chains, or pyramid structures.

History, culture and ethnic groupings have produced different board structures and governance practices. Contrasts between corporate governance in Japan with her keiretsu, Continental European countries, with the two-tier board structures and worker co-determination, and the family domination of overseas Chinese, even in listed companies in countries throughout the Far East, emphasise such differences.  Views differ on ownership rights and the basis of shareholder power.

The concept of the company was Western, rooted in the notion of shareholder democracy, the stewardship of directors, and trust – the belief that directors recognise a fiduciary duty to their company.  But today’s corporate structures have outgrown that simple notion.  The corporate concept is now rooted in law, and the legitimacy of the corporate entity rests on regulation and litigation. The Western world has created the most expensive and litigious corporate regulatory regime the world has yet seen.  This is not the only approach; and certainly not necessarily the best.  The Asian reliance on relationships and trust in governing the enterprise may be closer to the original concept.   There is a need to rethink the underlying idea of the corporation, contingent with the reality of power that can (or could) be wielded.  Such a concept would need to be built on a pluralistic, rather than an ethnocentric, foundation if it is to be applicable to the corporate groups and strategic alliance networks that are now emerging as the basis of the business world of  the future. 

Around the world, the Anglo-Saxon model is far from the norm. A truly global model of corporate governance would need to recognise alternative concepts including:

  • the networks of influence in the Japanese keiretsu
  • the governance of state-owned enterprises in China, where the China Securities and Regulatory Commission (CSRC) and the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) can override economic objectives, acting in the interests of the people, the party, and the state, to influence strategies, determine prices, and appoint chief executives
  • the partnership between labour and capital in Germany’s co-determination rules
  • the financially-leveraged chains of corporate ownership in Italy, Hong Kong and elsewhere
  • the power of investment block-holders in some European countries
  • the traditional powers of family-owned and state-owned companies in Brazil
  • the domination of spheres of listed companies in Sweden, through successive generations of a family, preserved in power by dual-class shares
  • the paternalistic familial leadership in companies created throughout Southeast Asia by successive Diaspora from mainland China
  • the governance power of the dominant families in the South Korean chaebol, and
  • the need to overcome the paralysis of corruption from shop floor, through boardroom, to government officials in the BRIC and other nations.

The forces for convergence in corporate governance are strong. At a high level of abstraction some fundamental concepts have already emerged, including the need to separate governance from management, the importance of accountability to legitimate stakeholders, and the responsibility to recognize strategic risk. These could be more widely promulgated and adopted. But a global convergence of corporate governance systems at any greater depth would need a convergence of cultures and that seems a long way away.

Bob Tricker




Where were the auditors?

– in which Bob Tricker explains why he resigned from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and suggests a provocative future for auditors*

In the ongoing crisis facing financial institutions around the world, plenty of questions are being asked: why did the independent directors not act, did they even understand the risks in the business models being pursued; did the regulators fail; were the credit agencies at fault; are the risks of securitisation still properly understood; did short-term performance bonuses encourage greed and excessive risk taking?

But a crucial question remains: where were the auditors? Audit reports reassured readers about these companies’ accounts even though, as we now know, the underlying strategic model was suspect and the businesses exposed to massive risk, even the possibility of trading when insolvent.

In the original 19th century model of the joint-stock company, the state permitted incorporation of limited-liability entities provided certain safeguards were met to protect society. Auditors, appointed from amongst the investors, reported to these shareholder-owners that the directors of their company had faithfully recorded the company’s financial situation.

Then the accounting profession emerged. Small firms at first but, as companies grew in scale and complexity, they grew larger. Mergers enabled them to grow further. By the end of the twentieth century the world’s major listed companies were audited by just five vast, international accounting firms.

However, in essence the auditors’ duty has not changed since the founding years. It is still to report that the information given by the directors to the shareholders reasonably reflects the truth. But the relationship of the auditors to the companies they audit has changed. As scale and complexity increased, the role of the auditors properly became more professional. Inevitably, their relationships with the directors of their client companies grew closer. Although in many jurisdictions the shareholders still voted on a resolution to appoint the auditors, it was the board of directors who really made the decisions. And although nominally the auditors reported to the shareholders of the company, their detailed reports went to the directors.

Inevitably, a close relationship developed between the auditors and the staff of their client, particularly in the finance department. Issues that arose during the audit – questions about asset valuations, capital or revenue decisions, risk assessment or management control, for example – were resolved without the board even being aware of them. So audit committees were introduced, first in the US and then, following the Cadbury Report, in the UK. Sub-committees of the main board, these audit committees relied on independent outside directors to provide a bridge between company and auditor, avoiding too close a relationship between executive directors and audit staff, and ensuring that the directors were fully aware of audit issues.

Following the Enron debacle, the listing rules of most stock exchanges demanded audit committees composed entirely of independent directors, the rotation of audit managing partners, the prohibition of consultancy work for their audit clients, and a cooling-off period before audit staff could join the finance department of a client. The rotation of audit firms, though called for by some, was not demanded.

But I believe the issues go deeper. The real question is whether audit and accountancy is a profession or a business. Do the auditors offer a service to management or are they part of society’s regulatory function?

In the 1950s I was articled to a professional audit practice, which provided service for a fee. The number of partners was small. The phrase corporate governance had yet to be coined. In those days the accounting profession consisted mainly of relatively small firms. Of course, our partners were keen to be successful. In their community they were respected and well to do; but they were not rich. Neither would they compromise their principles. They would not sign an audit report, stating that the client’s account’s showed a true and fair view, unless the partner was personally convinced that they did. Better to lose a client than your integrity. This was a profession, after all. The audit process demanded absolute objectivity of thought and independence from the client.

How different at the beginning of the 21st century. The five major accounting firms had become vast, international and concentrated. They are major businesses, offering products and solutions, with market share and profit performance as watchwords. Partners were judged by fee generation and growth. Then in 2002 one of the five, Arthur Andersen, collapsed, brought down by the Enron catastrophe in the United States. Then there were four.

Partners’ expectations have been influenced by the remuneration levels of their ‘fat cat’ clients. But auditing is not astro-physics. True, the work demands detailed, intense and up-to-date work, but it is not actually difficult. Admittedly, too, these days the risks of litigation and forced resignation are higher. But the real challenge lies in determining standards and living up to them, as it always did.

When I began my accounting career in England, the Institute of Chartered Accountants was at the head of a self-regulating profession. Today, as the Arthur Anderson saga has shown, the market place, not the profession, regulates. Indeed, I believe that auditing has ceased to be a profession: it has become a business. So after nearly fifty years as a Chartered Accountant, including service as a member of its governing Council, I decided that the profession I had joined no longer existed and resigned my Fellowship.

Of course the business world has changed. Nostalgia has no place in strategic thinking. There is no going back to the profession of half a century ago. But I suspect that, unless auditing rediscovers what it means to be a profession and returns to its roots, state regulation of the audit process will have to be imposed to protect creditors, investors and the wider community.

Serious questions have to be asked about the auditors’ position. Who are their real clients: the directors or the shareholders? The de jure response that the client is the company and that somehow this means the body of shareholders will no longer wash. The de facto reality is that the client is the board, backed up by the board’s audit sub-committee. Is this satisfactory under current circumstances? What are the alternatives?

Consider some options:
1. Open the audit market with the second tier firms playing an increasing role in the audit of major listed companies. There has been slight movement in opening the market for audit. But financial markets like the assurance they think they get from an audit opinion signed by one of the big four firms. Predictably, the partners of the firms in this global oligopoly do not favour this solution.

2. Increase regulation introducing further rules to regulate auditors’ activities. This has been the approach adopted in many countries, with the Sarbannes Oxley Act (SOX) in the US, and tighter regulations and stock exchanges’ listing rules elsewhere. But SOX has proved far more demanding, expensive, and bureaucratic than expected; and less effective, as we see from its failure to identify the exposure underlying the financial institutions that have collapsed.

3. Face reality, require auditors to be appointed by and report to the state. It is the state that permits companies to incorporate, and the state that is responsible for protecting the interests of investors, creditors and other stakeholders. That is why we have regulators. A start could be made by introducing this requirement in those companies that have just been massively funded by the state. Surely, the auditors of companies that have been bailed out should not report solely to the directors. He who pays the piper…

The regulatory organisational structures already exist to manage such a relationship. The regulators, working with the shareholders in general meeting, would appoint, re-appoint, or if necessary replace the auditors, agree their fees and receive their reports. The company would, as now, bear the costs.

In this way cosy relationships between directors and auditors would be avoided. If they reported to the regulator rather than the directors, the auditors would have to develop a new mind set. Moreover, shareholders would now have a direct line to their auditors and the board’s audit committee.

Eventually, such an arrangement could be applied to all listed companies. Shareholders would benefit. Investors would know that their auditors worked for them, just as in the 19th century model.

Bob Tricker
* This is a personal view and the ideas are not necessarily shared by my fellow blogger Professor Chris Mallin nor the Oxford University Press.