(Roughly) Daily

“A firm’s income statement may be likened to a bikini- what it reveals is interesting but what it conceals is vital”*…

 

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A recent (Roughly) Daily noted (by way of a quote from James Surowiecki) that “the challenge for capitalism is that the things that breed trust also breed the environment for fraud.”  A painful recent example was, the failure of credit ratings agencies honestly to assess the risk of derivatives being traded against home mortgages, which contributed mightily to the crash that occasioned The Great Recession.

But, as Richard Brooks argues, there’s a bigger and more pervasive problem still lurking:  accountancy used to be boring – and safe.  Today it’s neither.  Have the ‘big four’ firms become too cosy with the system they’re supposed to be keeping in check?  Are we in for Enron all over again, only this time on the financial system-wide basis?

The demise of sound accounting became a critical cause of the early 21st-century financial crisis. Auditing limited companies, made mandatory in Britain around a hundred years earlier, was intended as a check on the so-called “principal/agent problem” inherent in the corporate form of business. As Adam Smith once pointed out, “managers of other people’s money” could not be trusted to be as prudent with it as they were with their own. When late-20th-century bankers began gambling with eye-watering amounts of other people’s money, good accounting became more important than ever. But the bean counters now had more commercial priorities and – with limited liability of their own – less fear for the consequences of failure. “Negligence and profusion,” as Smith foretold, duly ensued.

After the fall of Lehman Brothers brought economies to their knees in 2008, it was apparent that Ernst & Young’s audits of that bank had been all but worthless. Similar failures on the other side of the Atlantic proved that balance sheets everywhere were full of dross signed off as gold. The chairman of HBOS, arguably Britain’s most dubious lender of the boom years, explained to a subsequent parliamentary enquiry: “I met alone with the auditors – the two main partners – at least once a year, and, in our meeting, they could air anything that they found difficult. Although we had interesting discussions – they were very helpful about the business – there were never any issues raised.”

This insouciance typified the state auditing had reached. Subsequent investigations showed that rank-and-file auditors at KPMG had indeed questioned how much the bank was setting aside for losses. But such unhelpful matters were not something for the senior partners to bother about when their firm was pocketing handsome consulting income – £45m on top of its £56m audit fees over about seven years – and the junior bean counters’ concerns were not followed up by their superiors.

Half a century earlier, economist JK Galbraith had ended his landmark history of the 1929 Great Crash by warning of the reluctance of “men of business” to speak up “if it means disturbance of orderly business and convenience in the present”. (In this, he thought, “at least equally with communism, lies the threat to capitalism”.) Galbraith could have been prophesying accountancy a few decades later, now led by men of business rather than watchdogs of business…

A chilling, but important report: “The financial scandal no one is talking about.”

* Burton G. Malkiel

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As we count beans, we might recall that it was on this date in 1873 that Samuel Clemens (the author known as Mark Twain) received a U.S. patent, his second, for a self-pasting scrapbook (No. 140,245).  His creation used a dried adhesive on its pages so that users need only moisten a page in order to attach pictures.

In 1871, Clemens had scored his first patent, for “an Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments”–an adjustable strap that could be used to tighten shirts at the waist that was later used on women’s corsets, and is considered by many to be the precursor of the adjustable bra strap.  He earned his third patent in 1875 for a history trivia game,“Mark Twain’s Memory-Builder Game.”

 source

 

Written by LW

June 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

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