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Shared Responsibility in Audits

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November 2, 2009

Taking responsibility for audits has turned out to be an increasingly thorny issue.

The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board has drawn mostly negative comments with its proposal to require the engagement partner with final responsibility for an audit to sign off on it (see Audit Firm Regulation: No Autographs). Currently only the firm as a whole signs off on an audit for a public company.

At an auditing conference held by the New York State Society of CPAs’ Foundation for Accounting Education on Monday, PCAOB Deputy Chief Auditor Greg Scates told the audience that the barrage of negative comments is prompting the PCAOB to reconsider the whole idea (see PCAOB May Scrap Auditor Sign-off Proposal). But that’s not the only place where individual vs. shared responsibility for audits has been drawing attention.

At the same conference, Scates’s talk was preceded by Harold Monk Jr., chairman of the AICPA’s Auditing Standards Board and an audit partner at the firm of Davis, Monk & Co., in Gainesville, Fla. Monk discussed the efforts at converging U.S. and international standards on auditing, which is running in parallel with efforts to clarify and simplify auditing standards, and converge U.S. and international accounting standards.

However, one sticking point in the auditing standards convergence effort has been individual vs. group audits.

“In the international standards, there has to be one auditor that takes full responsibility for an audit,” he said. “In the U.S., there is the ability to share responsibility. The board debated this and decided that sharing responsibility was appropriate in the U.S. environment.”

One of the major backers of shared responsibility was the Government Accountability Office, he noted. “They said it would be very difficult for them to accomplish their tasks if they could not have shared responsibilities since they utilize the work of contract auditors to such a great extent,” said Monk.

No doubt the litigious environment in the U.S. is another factor behind the reluctance of individual audit partners to take full responsibility for an audit. With standards changing so rapidly and lawsuits multiplying against audit firms in the wake of the financial crisis, keeping up with new requirements is no easy feat. In some ways it’s also more reassuring to investors to know that a major firm is standing behind an audit, rather than a lone partner who may or may not be there when a company’s financial statements turn out to be questionable.

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