For those readers who remember a time when a do-it-yourselfer could actually perform a tune-up on a car, you'll also recall that the second time you did it was light years easier than the first. And in subsequent trials, the earlier fumbling with timing lights and ignition points waned considerably.But in full disclosure, I repeatedly confused the order of the spark plug covers, making that initial test start all that much more interesting. If you can picture a greasy, oil-slicked pipe organ misfiring, you sort of get my drift.

But that was then and this is now.

Today, an accreditation in IT service and repair would be of more use than a traditional socket wrench, given that most cars have more chips than Frito-Lay.

But my brief and mostly successful attempts as a shade tree mechanic serve as a lead-in to the topic du jour, the costs and efforts associated with Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. Like a tune-up (although inarguably more time-consuming and complex), audit costs connected with SOX compliance for both large and small public issuers have apparently waned - particularly those associated with the three least-favorite numerals of SEC filers: 4-0-4.

While the regulatory arena has recently been peppered with words like "rollback" and "exceptions," when it comes to continued Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, a recent report unveiled that corporate auditing costs for SOX 404 compliance dropped last year. The study, conducted by CRA International and sponsored by the Big Four, found that the average 404 costs for some 58 companies in the Fortune 1000 dropped 44 percent last year, to $4.8 million.

And while common sense would tell you that mammoth companies, due to sheer scale, would benefit more from any cost savings, the data spelled some good news for the smaller folks - the most vocal and visible demographic among proponents of a SOX rollback. The study found that the decrease in costs was smaller for the 66 public companies surveyed with market capitalization between $75 million and $700 million. But still, SOX 404 costs for those on this level did drop 31 percent, to $860,000, in 2005.

For the first time in a three-year series of such reports, the CRA study broke out total audit fees into two components: a Section 404 component on audit internal control over financial reporting, and a non-404 component on the financial statement audit. The change, CRA explained, was to help clarify the relationship between total issuer costs related to Section 404 total audit fees.

The study attributed the cost savings to overcoming an initial learning curve. CRA also mentioned that in addition to lower audit costs, there was also a dip in required documentation and less of a need for additional staff.

The report came just weeks before the SEC was to consider a proposal from one of its advisory panels that recommends rolling back the internal controls provisions for filers that have a market cap of less than $780 million.

Now, whether smaller companies should be exempted from the law is fodder for a future column - or more likely, a series of columns. But like the tune-up of a past generation, the arduous 404 process has been ratcheted down in terms of time and costs.

Now can someone can tell me whether a yellow light flashing on my dashboard means I'm out of wiper fluid, or that I just lost my transmission?

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