Sarbanes-Oxley compliance paid off big time for audit firms in the past five years, with median fees shooting up 345 percent, according to a study by the Corporate Library.

The research firm found that the total fees paid to auditors in fiscal 2006 reached $10.5 billion, compared to $6.4 billion in 2001. Naturally the Big Four firms are getting the lion's share of those fees, covering 95 percent of public corporations with market caps exceeding $750 million. But they are starting to see competition. The number of audit firms in the market increased from nine in 2001 to 22 in 2006.

Still, it's tough competition for the smaller firms. Many of them are expecting to see increased business as SOX rules on auditing internal controls come to cover smaller companies. And as private companies gradually embrace stricter auditing standards to please their backers, the SOX effect can push more business their way as well.

Even the SEC is allowing the auditing standards to become more cost-effective with its recent approval of Auditing Standard No. 5, or AS5. That could be a boon to not only small companies, but also to small CPA firms that are able to capitalize on risk-based audits.

While much of the business from the demise of Arthur Andersen went to the Big Four, small firms can still gain opportunities as companies decide to look beyond the obvious choices for their audit work.

Specializations like forensic accounting and fraud detection are giving more accounting firms the expertise to become corporate detectives who can delve through intricate financial statements and piece together weaknesses in the controls that companies have in place.

As more companies find themselves vulnerable to the vagaries of the financial and mortgage markets, they'll be turning to their accountants to assess their risks and exposures, and make sure their bets are covered. The audit field is expanding, while pushing up the fees accordingly.


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