LONDON (Reuters) - The Big Four accounting firms can invest in technology that will raise standards beyond what could be achieved by smaller rivals, the head of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) said on Tuesday, defending the top firms against UK calls to be broken up.
British lawmakers want the country’s competition watchdog to consider forcing PwC, EY, KPMG and Deloitte, the four accounting firms that check the books of most blue chip companies globally, to separate out their audit and consultancy operations.
This, the lawmakers said earlier this year, would provide a better focus on raising standards to ensure auditors flag company difficulties before collapses like at retailer BHS and outsourcer Carillion in Britain.
“Various people are providing this relatively easy answer to split up the firms, but we do not support it,” PwC global chairman Bob Moritz told Reuters.
PwC, which employs over 250,000 people, will have invested a billion dollars on “Cloud” computing by 2019, a huge sum that firms outside the Big Four would find hard to match.
Such advanced technology will mean harvesting far more data from a company to ensure accounts face tougher “checks and balances” to meet the criticisms over audit standards from policymakers, Moritz said.
Any intervention in the market must be “well thought out” given it would be watched closely by the rest of the world, he added.
Moritz was speaking as PwC announced record annual revenues of $41.3 billion for its year ended June 30, making it the second largest accounting firm in the world, behind Deloitte, whose latest annual revenues topped $43 billion.
Moritz said the focus was on PwC being a “balanced” firm: “I don’t want to be number one just for the sake of growth.”
PwC was hit by a record 6.5 million pound ($8.5 million) fine in June from Britain’s Financial Reporting Council after it failed to flag significant doubts over the future of BHS.
Moritz said PwC made mistakes and had taken responsibility for its actions, but authorities should not rush to carve up the sector because of them.
The industry has already met with Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to offer temporary, voluntary limits on how many big listed companies a Big Four accounting firm could audit in a bid to help smaller rivals expand.
The CMA has yet to respond.
“The challenge is whether or not the other firms have the skills, capability and staff to do those audits as well,” Moritz said.
“There is nothing abusive in the competition that’s happening,” he said, adding there was a need for the Big Four to have more “scalable and credible competitors”.
So far, attempts in Britain to persuade companies to “rotate” their accountant every decade have ended up creating a Big Four merry-go-round.
Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Mark Potter