Guyanese accountants are this weekend hosting their counterparts from the region in the annual conference of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of the Caribbean (ICAC). This is the region’s umbrella body bringing together accountants of the English-speaking Caribbean. According to the ICAC website its membership is currently made up of seven members and four affiliates. The members are the national institutes of the territories of the region each of which operates under domestic statute.
The conference comes at another of those times when circumstances force the profession and/or the state to confront issues affecting the public interest. Sometimes the profession is affected indirectly rather than directly. One such example was in 1862 when the UK Parliament quickly reversed the 1856 Companies Act which had all but abandoned the mandatory accounting and auditing requirements of the 1844 Companies Act, encouraging a form of laissez-faire accountability. But the most dramatic and direct example of reform within recent memory was the Enron debacle which was quickly followed by a series of corporate failures forcing the US to pass the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002. Failure was not restricted to the companies involved, but affected one of the pillars of the auditing profession – the prestigious Arthur Andersen which gave up its licences after being found guilty of criminal charges relating to the firm’s handling of the audit of Enron. The firm won something of a Pyrrhic victory when the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the verdict, but by then the firm’s demise had been sealed.
Blurring profit and professionalism
Only a few years preceding the Enron failure, Arthur Levitt, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of the US had said of the profession: “The audit profession has a long and distinguished history of guarding the integrity of our companies’ financial statements. They must live up to their history… I fear that the audit process, long rooted in independence and professionalism, may be diminished in the name of these increasingly lucrative and commercial opportunities.”
In other words accounting and auditing had become a business and the profession was in danger of individual accountants and firms putting profit and personal interest before the profession. The challenge for the society and the profession is how to balance the pursuit for profits with the objectives of the profession to set and maintain the highest standards of professionalism, to attain the highest levels of performance and generally to ensure that the public is convinced that the hallmark of the profession – independence and integrity – remains intact.
A market economy requires that there be credibility in information and information systems that are fed to shareholders and the public. And that persons who are certified by the accounting bodies to offer professional accounting and auditing services possess the highest standards of technical competence, experience and expertise and performance. Such issues must be ever present in the minds of those with responsibility for the proper functioning of our society.
Top of the chain
The region’s laws give to the accounting profession major and valuable roles to perform in the proper functioning of the economies of the countries. In Guyana these include the Companies Act, which assigns to the accounting profession the power to set and oversee the application of accounting standards and invests it with the sole authority to carry out the audits of locally incorporated or external companies registered to carry on business in Guyana. The Corporation Tax Act requires all companies to support their tax returns with financial statements audited by members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Guyana. The Securities Industry Act and the Financial Institutions Act all assign or delegate to the profession specific roles with regard to compliance with internal controls.
Under the principles of corporate governance the accounting profession in the role of internal auditors is regarded as one of the pillars of sound corporate governance, and in many jurisdictions the Audit Committee is one of the standing committees of the board with defined powers, rights, obligations and reporting responsibilities.
Increasingly too, accountants because of their facility with figures have risen up the corporate ladder and many of the region’s CEOs are either accountants or are MBAs majoring in finance or accounting. By law they sit at the top of the accounting pyramid. In practice they can be both the players and scorers adding to the challenge of meaningful regulation. Those are immense privileges that are sadly not always matched by commensurate responsibilities.
Making accountants more accountable
Enron and its ‘side-kicks,’ Tyco International, Adelphia, Peregrine Systems and WorldCom may have been perceived by the regional profession as a US problem, and it seems that the region saw itself as a witness to a fascinating spectacle, but no more. Now, faced with Stanford and Clico is the profession in the region right to ignore the possibility that these major disasters which continue to have ripple-down effects on households are as much governance and regulatory failures as they are accounting failures? Hopefully the accountants meeting at the Conference Centre would find time to address this critical issue.
The US tried its best in the face of resistance from the profession to make the profession more accountable, and following the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, self-regulated peer reviews at accounting firms were replaced by independent inspections conducted by the Public Company Accounting and Oversight Board. But that applies only to the US.
Here in the Caribbean, characterised by the smallness of our economies and countries and the nature and size of business units, it is no surprise that the accounting profession is dominated by sole practitioners or partnerships of no more than a handful of persons. There is limited scope for second reviews, peer reviews and quality control or in-house capability to deal with complex technical or ethical issues. And with only four major accounting firms in the world – down from eight a couple of decades ago – real choice even for the big companies is seriously limited for purchasers of audit services. Yet self-regulation is regarded as sacrosanct.
All national legislation provides for a self-regulated profession in which the accountants make or adopt their own technical, professional and ethical rules and oversee and discipline – or fail to discipline – individual members and firms where their conduct has brought the accounting profession into disrepute. It is perhaps no surprise then that one of the objectives of the ICAC is the preservation of the self-regulatory nature of the profession. The profession forgets at its peril that in many cases the failures surface soon after the auditors for those companies have given them a clean bill of health.
It would seem that the Caribbean Institute has abandoned one of its founding objectives, and that is the creation of a standard regional accounting examination, administered initially by one of the international accounting bodies. At the time that decision was taken there was considerably greater disparity in corporate and tax legislation and relevant textbooks were unavailable. Such restrictions have been reduced.
There has been much by way of reform if not harmonization in corporate law and our countries, with the exception of The Bahamas are all signatories to what is popularly referred to as the Caricom Double Taxation Treaty. There is now an excellent text by Dr Claude Denbow on taxation in the Commonwealth, and the region’s law schools have a considerable amount of material on corporate law.
As new legislation is enacted in the region to give effect to the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, as the profession is held to be part of the fight against money-laundering, and as our professionals if not our artisans move freely around the Caribbean, the dream of a Caribbean professional accounting qualification that begins with a degree programme from our regional universities should be revived.
The region’s lawyers and doctors have done it. There seems no reason for accountants to hold on to the coat-tails of international accounting bodies principally from the UK to shape our accounting education in the second decade of the 21st century.
Ethics and insurance
Accountants have a duty not only to act ethically, but also competently. Shareholders, investors, tax authorities and other users of the financial statements rely heavily on the yearly financial statements of a company, as they can use this information to make informed decisions about investment and taxation – two issues of major public importance.
The journals of the major accounting bodies reflect an alarming increase in the number of complaints lodged against accountants and auditors. That must be a fraction of the actual incidence of this phenomenon. The public is largely unaware of the finer points of professional ethics, and accountants are loathe to report on their colleagues since they may be as equally culpable. And even if a complaint is lodged, the rules for addressing it are too often unclear and allow for such complaint to be heard only by accountants.
The danger is that self-investigation can become self-protection.
Finally our accountants ought to place on their agenda another problem facing the public in the region, and that is that the bulk of the professional accounting practitioners have no professional indemnity insurance. The regional or national bodies do not require it and the insurance industry is hesitant to offer it. So the client who receives sub-standard advice or shoddy work from his accountant is often left with practically no recourse but to end the relationship. That is no remedy.
Hopefully even as the Caribbean accountants enjoy Guyana’s hospitality and grapple with arcane concepts of IFRSs, the financial crisis and modernising corporate legislation, they will reflect on their overriding duty to the public and the need to restore public confidence in the profession.