August 18, 2022

High & Low Finance: Troubled Audit Opinions

On the other is an investment research firm using the name Muddy Waters Research. It says the company, the Sino-Forest Corporation, is a fraud, and that its shares are worthless.

As this is written, there is no definitive answer as to who is right. But the initial reaction of the markets seemed to be that they had more trust in the short-seller — a company whose Web site gives no address — than in the auditor’s opinion.

The shares, traded in Toronto, lost more than 70 percent of their value in two days, shaving $3 billion off its valuation. Bond prices also plunged. Prices had to fall sharply before speculators could be found who were willing to bet that the financial statements really did, in the boilerplate words of the auditor’s letter, “present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of Sino-Forest Corporation.”

If there was a fraud, there is no doubt that Ernst Young will be sued, and there is even less doubt that it will deny responsibility. After all, its letter did make clear that management was responsible for the internal controls needed to assure the statements are “free from material misstatement, whether due to fraud or error.”

To the auditing industry, the fact that investors tend to blame auditors when frauds go undetected reflects unrealistic expectations, not bad work by the auditors. The rules say auditors are supposed to have a “healthy degree of skepticism,” but not to detect all frauds.

“There is a significant expectations gap between what various stakeholders believe auditors do or should do in detecting fraud, and what audit networks are actually capable of doing, at the prices that companies or investors are willing to pay for audits,” stated a position paper issued in 2006 by the chief executives of the six largest audit networks.

Note that last part. They suggested that if investors were really worried about fraud, they should consider paying more for a “forensic audit” that would have a better — but not guaranteed — chance of spotting fraud. Don’t like our work? Pay us more.

There is no doubt that some companies are easier to audit than others, and that Sino-Forest falls on the harder side. While it has headquarters in Toronto and Hong Kong, its operations are — or at least are claimed to be — spread out over much of China. The company says it manages nearly two million acres in forest plantations across China. Muddy Waters says that is a lie, and that its actual operations are much smaller.

Investors trying to decide whether to believe the Muddy Waters report, with its detailed assertion that the company’s claims are contradicted by Chinese records, would love to know just what Ernst did to check. What records did it inspect? Which tree plantations did it visit? Who did the work? Was it people from Ernst’s Toronto office, which signed the report, or people from a Chinese affiliate? How many auditors did the work, over what period of time?

Ernst’s audit opinion does not say, which is no surprise. Virtually every audit opinion in the world says almost the same thing, with no details about the company being audited. Auditors are paid millions of dollars to produce a report that no one thinks is worth reading.

On June 21, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which regulates auditors in the United States, plans to ask for public comments on whether to require auditors to do more and say more.

One idea the board is expected to consider is requiring auditors to disclose more about what they did, and did not, do. Ideally, auditors would point to things that they could not audit. There are a lot of them now, and sometimes they are crucial.

“The foundation” of the Sino-Forest fraud, stated the Muddy Waters report, “is its convoluted structure whereby it runs much of its revenues through ‘authorized intermediaries.’ ” Those organizations supposedly process tax payments owed to China on wood production, the report said, thereby assuring the company “leaves its auditors far less of a paper trail.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=191ec91a3a4a997458e143fb2aaff817

Speak Your Mind