Regulators at the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board are wrestling with proposals to abandon the current "pass-fail" auditor reporting model for informing investors of the accuracy of corporate financial statements -- a move that could require independent accountants to provide considerably more information about the veracity of their clients' financial reports. But critics of the plan for requiring auditors to provide a more detailed discussion of their views of corporate financial statements are warning the PCAOB that such a shift in auditor reporting standards would create more confusion than enlightenment for most investors. Under the current ground rules, auditor reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission must include unqualified opinions "stating that the company's financial statements present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position, results of operations, and cash flows of the entity in conforming with GAAP." Some members of the PCAOB's Standing Advisory Group however, have warned the board that this approach effectively establishes a pass/fail system under which investors are provided with no information to distinguish between companies with borderline financial statements and those with highly accurate statements. "The problem with the current (pass-fail) model is that if you have a company that is trying to push the line as far as they can get away with, the auditor's report would provide that company with essentially the same rating as one that does an excellent job of providing high quality financial information," Consumer Federation of America Investor Protection Director Barbara Roper told the PCAOB. At the Feb. 16 SAG meeting, Roper argued that a change in the auditor reporting model to allow accountants "to provide more insight into the audit report" would make it more difficult for companies to do the bare minimum to achieve a GAAP "passing" grade. Other SAG members disagreed, warning that providing anything more that the auditor's pass-or-fail rating might confuse investors. "The investing public should be able to read a financial statement and pretty much get out of it what's good and what's bad," Dallas CPA Wanda Lorenz told the board. Providing more detailed - but potentially more ambiguous -- information about the auditor's opinion may not be helpful to the average investor, she maintained. Those views were echoed by SAG member Lynn Turner, managing director at proxy researcher Glass-Lewis, who told the board that "because of the level of sophistication of the average investor, you have to keep in simple." In voicing concerns about a shift to more detailed auditor disclosures, Turner - a former Securities and Exchange Commission Chief Accountant - urged the PCAOB to be sensitive to the needs of investors who already find financial reports difficult to understand. "You have to keep it simple," he said. "You have to tell them whether the numbers are right or not right...in simple language."
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