LONDON Britain's anti-trust watchdog has delayed for a second time the findings of its probe into the grip exercised by the "Big Four" accounting firms on the audit market.
The keenly anticipated provisional findings are now due in mid-February, three months after the previous deadline of last November, which had already been extended once, the Competition Commission said on Tuesday.
KPMG KPMG.UL, PricewaterhouseCoopers PWC.UL, Deloitte DLTE.UL and Ernst & Young ERNY.UL are waiting to see if the Commission recommends ways of injecting more competition into the market for audits of Britain's top 350 companies.
Some Big Four officials say privately the Commission may be finding it difficult to come up with workable reforms despite pressure to act.
Politicians have criticized accounting firms for being too close to banking clients in particular, giving them clean bills of health just before taxpayers had to rescue several lenders in the financial crisis of 2007 through 2009.
The four, who check the books of nearly all the world's biggest companies, say there is enough competition and point to downward pressure on fees.
Yet smaller rivals are looking for regulatory intervention to make it economic for them to take on swathes of highly trained and costly accountants to audit the bigger companies.
Britain's Financial Reporting Council, which polices auditing, has already introduced a rule requiring companies to consider changing their accounting firm at least every 10 years and explain to investors if they choose not to.
The European Union has meanwhile proposed a draft law that would require mandatory switching or rotation of auditors after a set number of years.
The United States is also keeping an eye on reforms Britain and the EU may introduce and is already looking at the issue of auditor rotation.
(Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by David Holmes)