Big 4 Bombshell: “We Didn’t Fail Banks Because They Were Getting A Bailout”

Leaders of the four largest global accounting firms – Ian Powell, chairman of PwC UK, John Connolly, Senior Partner and Chief Executive of Deloitte’s UK firm and Global MD of its international firm, John Griffith-Jones, Chairman of KPMG’s Europe, Middle East and Africa region and Chairman of KPMG UK, and Scott Halliday, UK & Ireland Managing Partner for Ernst & Young – appeared before the UK’s House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee yesterday to discuss competition and their role in the financial crisis.

The discussion moved past the topic of competition when the same old recommendations were raised and the same old excuses for the status quo were given.

Reuters, November 23, 2010: The House of Lords committee was taking evidence on concentration in the auditing market and the role of auditors.

Nearly all the world’s blue chip companies are audited by the Big Four, creating concerns among policymakers of growing systemic risks, particularly if one of them fails.

“I don’t see that is on the horizon at all,” Connolly said.

The European Union’s executive European Commission has also opened a public consultation into ways to boost competition in the sector, such as by having smaller firms working jointly with one of the Big Four so there is a “substitute on the bench.”

“Having a single auditor results in the best communication with the board and with management and results in the highest quality audit,” said Scott Halliday, an E&Y managing partner.

The Lord’s Committee was more interested in questioning the auditors about the issue of “going concern” opinions and, in particular, why there were none for the banks that failed, were bailed out, or were nationalized.

The answer the Lord’s received was, in one word, “Astonishing!”

Accountancy Age, November 23, 2010: Debate focused on the use of “going concern” guidance, issued by auditors if they believe a company will survive the next year. Auditors said they did not change their going concern guidance because they were told the government would bail out the banks.

“Going concern [means] that a business can pay its debts as they fall due. You meant something thing quite different, you meant that the government would dip into its pockets and give the company money and then it can pay it debts and you gave an unqualified report on that basis,” Lipsey said.

Lord Lawson said there was a “threat to solvency” for UK banks which was not reflected in the auditors’ reports.

“I find that absolutely astonishing, absolutely astonishing. It seems to me that you are saying that you noticed they were on very thin ice but you were completely relaxed about it because you knew there would be support, in other words, the taxpayer would support them,” he said.

The leadership of the Big 4 audit firms in the UK has admitted that they did not issue “going concern” opinions because they were told by government officials, confidentially, that the banks would be bailed out.

The Herald of Scotland, November 24, 2010: John Connolly, chief executive of Deloitte auditor to Royal Bank of Scotland, said the UK’s big four accountancy firms initiated “detailed discussions” with then City minister Lord Paul Myners in late 2008 soon after the collapse of Lehman Brothers prompted money markets to gum up.

Ian Powell, chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, said there had been talks the previous year.

Debate centred on whether the banks’ accounts could be signed off as “going concerns”. All banks got a clean bill of health even though they ended up needing vast amounts of taxpayer support.

Mr. Connolly said: “In the circumstances we were in, it was recognised that the banks would only be ‘going concerns’ if there was support forthcoming.”

“The consequences of reaching the conclusion that a bank was actually going to go belly up were huge.”  John Connolly, Deloitte

He said that the firms held meetings in December 2008 and January 2009 with Lord Myners, a former director of NatWest who was appointed Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury in October 2008.

I’ve asked the question many times why there were no “going concern” opinions for the banks and other institutions that were bailed out, failed or essentially nationalized here in the US.  I’ve never received a good answer until now.  In fact, I had the impression the auditors were not there.  There has been no mention of their presence or their role in any accounts of the crisis.  There has been no similar admission that meetings in took place between the auditors and the Federal Reserve or the Treasury leading to Lehman’s failure and afterwards. No one has asked them.

How could I been so naive?

If it happened in the UK, why not in the US?

Does Andrew Ross Sorkin have any notes about this that didn’t make it to his book?

Will Ted Kaufman call the auditors to account now that he is Chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel?

Is there still time to call the four US leaders to testify in front of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission?

What is the recourse for shareholders and other stakeholders who lost everything if the government was the one who prevented them from hearing any warning?

Certainly the auditors are now more inside the room than outside.  I never take them for toadies, just standing in the corner waiting for their orders after the big boys talk, even though others have said I give them too much credit for being strategic.  Their complacence is calculated. They are much too tied into the work, and the millions in fees, that have been generated by the aftermath of the crisis. Are the millions in fees for supporting the Treasury and the Fed’s cleanup of the crisis their reward for going along? Is this the same acquiescence that doesn’t seem to bother their UK colleagues one bit?

Reuters: John Griffith-Jones, chairman of KPMG in Europe, said the banking industry is built on confidence and that full disclosure is absolutely fine in a stable environment.

“Come a crisis, the government of the day and Bank of England of the day may prefer the public not to know… to control events in those circumstances,” Griffith-Jones said.

And so the government has controlled information about the auditors’ role in the US.

No one knows whether similar meetings were held between audit leadership and the Federal Reserve Bank and US Treasury.   No one has asked them to testify before a Congressional Committee. When their presence in meetings at Goldman Sachs and AIG, for example, was exposed via emails and correspondence subpoenaed by Congressional investigators, the names were redacted at their request.

Contracts with the Treasury and the New York Federal Reserve Bank are similarly redacted.  We can’t trace whether the audit firm professionals working for the government now are the same ones working for their clients who failed.  We can’t check that those who looked the other way when balance sheets were manipulated and assets valued unrealistically are the same ones now advising how to optimize the value of those same assets for the taxpayer.  We are unable to verify if the same partners who failed us at the banks, at AIG, at Lehman, and at Bear Stearns are now managing their assets for the taxpayer.

You can listen to the Big 4 testimony before the House of Lords here.  There is much more to it and I will report on the rest at a later date. A full transcript will be available here by early next week.

Photo left to right: Scott Halliday (EY), Ian Powell (PwC), John Griffith-Jones (KPMG), John Connolly (Deloitte)

44 replies
  1. Independent Accountant
    Independent Accountant says:

    Welcome to the real world. I could have told you this. Do you believe say, Citigroup is “audited” by KPMG? Do you believe in the tooth fairy? Do you believe the PCAOB is unaware of what’s going on? You wrote that the Beckstead firm was “not ready for prime time”. Is PWC, KPMG, D&T or E&Y? The Big 87654 are full of craven bootlickers. That’s my bottom line.

  2. Norman Marks
    Norman Marks says:

    Francine, if the auditors knew that the government was going to support the banks and remedy their liquidity problem, and that this information was reliable (legally binding in some way), they were obliged to base their opinion on that. It would be reckless to issue a going concern opinion knowing that was false.

    If there is a fault, it is with the banks who failed to disclose material facts. It is also with the auditing standard-setters who allowed this to happen: reliance on material facts that were not disclosed.

    If the auditors had independently disclosed the bailout, that would have been contrary to standards and put them at risk.

  3. Francine
    Francine says:


    Lehman also never got a “going concern” opinion. EY did not put that nail in Lehman’s coffin because, as John Connolly said at the hearings, they knew the consequences. The auditors do not want to precipitate a failure and do not want to lose a client unnecessarily. So they will hang on as long as possible and continue a charade.

    EY will tell you they never audited 2008 but they allowed their report to be included in the 10Qs for the first two quarters of 2008 and were working on the audit until the ned. The auditors like to tell you, as they did in this video, that their role is to take a “snapshot” after the year has ended. They like to make you think they come in and give an opinion on the completed financial statements after doing some testing and talking to management. But in the largest companies an audit is a 24/7 continuous affair, with staff present almost all the time and audit partners present at monthly or at least quarterly audit committee meetings. They review the 10Q information and give negative assurance that they are not aware of anything that was left out. EY was on the job at Lehman all the time, every day, and intimately involved in the decisions made for each of their public financial disclosures.

  4. Francine
    Francine says:

    @Norman Marks

    Nowhere in this post am I saying that the banks should have all had “going concern” opinions, that is, an auditors’ opinion that there was some doubt the entity was a going concern. I am not as familiar with the auditing standards in the UK as I am in the US and it would take a look at each of the banks, the timing of their reporting , their particular condition and the timing of the information that the auditors received to say which if any deserved this.
    I’m just reporting that many others, including members of Parliament, wondered why none had received these opinions given how close their annual reports had been to their failure/bailout. And, so, I am as astonished as some Lord’s are that the reason is the government told the auditors not to change their opinions based on forthcoming bailouts. I am also questioning whether similar conversations took place in the US between auditors and Treasury/Fed. The auditors have been absent from any public testimony about the crisis and from any accounts of how it was resolved. An admission that there was a similar request from the Treasury and the Fed for forbearance on auditors “going concern ” opinions leading up to the decision of a solution would seem to me to be an important admission. We had the same situation here in the US with none of the banks’ financial statements for 2007 qualified or including a “going concern” warning. Lehman’s opinion was also clean up until the bitter end.

  5. Penny Dreadful
    Penny Dreadful says:

    Lots of food for thought in this one. I understand the auditors’ position in normal circumstances – like anything else you have a type one and type two error when attaching a “going concern” qualification. Type 1, for this example, is allowing statements out the door that are questionable with no qualification and the company fails within a year. The shareholders, suppliers and perhaps debtholders take it one the chin. Clearly this happens, but for every time it does, I”ve seen ten shaky companies come back justifying the clean opinion. We are a conservative bunch and god knows we are not always right in our worries. Type 2 errors – giving a going concern when one may not be warranted – are in my view worse, as in many (how many?- I’d like to see the research) cases they guarantee the shareholders, suppliers and others will take the hit, and a potentially viable business, and all its employees to boot. A going concern opinion doesn’t protect any existing iinvestors – it crystallize and possibly exacerbates their losses. They can be, and sometimes are fatal to businesses. Now for new investors, suppliers, etc. during the period between a bad clean opinion and failure – I don’t disagree they have a legitimate complaint. We have courts to remedy that. I think there must and should be a bias towards a clean opinion when the circumstances are uncertain.

    The government support argument is interesting, as i’ve been involved in opinions where we had going concern issues that were resolved by a promise of financial support from a bank, owners or others sufficient to permit operations to continue for at least a year. This seems to be the case here. But my recollection is that this was always disclosed in some fashion. I’d like to understand why that was unecessary in the bank cases.

    Finally, I’m left with the question of whether the overall damage to the economy would have been better or worse or the same if the firms had slapped going concern qualifications on a bunch of banks in 2008 before the crisis hit. I honestly have no idea, but my suspicion is that it would have merely accelerated the crisi by a few months with no greater or lesser damage and my pockets just as empty following the bailouts which were political decisions so coming no matter what a few accountants think. No quantity of going concern paragraphs would have reinflated the real estate market or undid the bad business practices that put us in this position.

  6. Marie
    Marie says:

    I find this post quite irresponsible. You make baseless assertions that audit firms do some sort of continual going concern analysis and then continually report the results of this non-existent analysis to the board. Quite a sympathetic view of auditors, if you ask me. Have you ever worked on an actual audit engagement where such a “rolling” evaluation of going concern was done? I would bet not — because, as you know, the last thing an auditor wants to do is reach that conclusion. Having worked on my share of accountant liability cases, I certainly agree that auditors are loathe to issue a going concern opinion and will gladly float along with the assumption that their client is healthy until the the next yearend audit absolutely must be done. The idea that auditors are sleuths engaged in adversarial turning over rocks (and that mgmt would allow them unbridled access to internal financials in order to make such a non-existent running evaluation necessary) is ludicrous. “Turning a blind eye” — “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” — “blissful ignorance” — call it what you will but auditors have zero incentive to perform the ongoing review you discuss. What happens instead is that they avoid the whole question until they absolutely must opine. Auditors are rarely accused of intentional misrepresentation because there is such overwhelming incentive to simply not see what isn’t pleasant.

    Also, GM got a going concern opinion prior to its bailout. Why were they allowed to issue it?

    Final point, it seems so far off base to compare year end 2008 audits with year end 2007 audits that I’m surprised you’re advocating that. By November 2008, the year end audits were well underway and it can’t have been surprising to you to learn that auditors rightly considered the very strong possibility of a UK bailout. The situation was very different when 2007 financials were compiled and audited. To assume that at year end 2007, Paulson was whispering in auditors’ ears and saying, “We want to prop up these banks now so that we can give them a huge bailout later. It’s all planned out, don’t worry,” is just bizarre.

  7. Francine
    Francine says:


    A couple of points in response:

    In the largest banks and other industrial companies the auditor’s presence is continuous. You may not have seen this but at the partner level conversations there are ongoing activities and they are present at most, if not all, audit committee meetings. They are also involved in reviewing 10Qs. That’s each quarter. If you were to read the AIG audit committee minutes and correspondence – much of which is now available through the FCIC or the New York Times – you would see mention of ongoing conversations and analysis by auditors throughout 2007 and 2008, for example. That can also be seen in public information now abvailable about Lehman. That is why the case for EY’s responsiblity for 2008 10Qs is so strong. That and the fact that their report is published in the 2008 10Qs with the firm signature on it. That is the case in some of the other banks as well.

    Your comments about the reluctance of auditors to issue a going concern opinion is well known and I have noted it often in other posts. It’s such a serious issue that the PCAOB issued guidance about it. They also saw this tool not used for the reasons you mention and more. Basically, the auditors do not want to precipitate a liquidity crisis when there is already insolvency, for example by issuing an opinion that wil breach loan covenants and other agreements that would restrict borrowing ability. Loans get called. Lines of credit get cut off.

    GM did get a going concern opinion, right before declaring bankruptcy. It was such a long time coming that the market ignored it. I have linked to these news reports in several posts. GM also went through a very special kind of bankruptcy and therefore did not lose many of the privileges based on this as others would. GM is definitely a special case. And it’s not a bank. (Except for GMAC, which is another story altogether.)

    Finally, I do not recall discussing 2008 audits versus 2007 audits. 2008 annual reports, I agree, was too late. 2007 annual reports were not. 1Q 2008 when 2007 annual reports were being prepared was not. The rest of 2008 and 10Qs were not. A going concern opinion can be issued at any time by auditors but most often comes at 10k and occasionally at 10Q where it can be buried in a Friday night announcement. There are many studies on this subject. If you write me privately I can send you them. The point is, the auditors wait, as you said, until the last minute in most cases, when it is the final nail in a coffin and few companies recover from it. But some do. And in any case, the shareholders deserve much better warning, much sooner, in my opinion that there are serious problems. The standard is pretty clear about the timeline and the circumstances. I would direct you to read this post for further explanation.

  8. Eliot
    Eliot says:

    Hi Francine

    Thanks for this, very illuminating. I’ve only just come across your blog – I had never previously considered role of the auditors in the current financial situation.

    I have three questions that spring to mind, I dont work in finance so apologies if these questions seem a little dim.

    1) Had any of the big four decided that they were not willing to come down on the opinion of “going concern” what other options did they have (from a technical perspective)? And what do you expect (in retrospect) would the political impact of them doing so have been?

    2) How does one (be that an organisation, or at an individual level a partner) go about tendering for audit work? How do audit firms generally win work?

    3) It seems that “competition” to win auditing contracts is a bit backwards. It seems logical to me that a potential client you would offer the audit work to the firm least likely to give them trouble? What institution are in place to make sure auditing (as a profession) doesn’t become a self-supporting old boys club?

  9. annonymous auditor 31
    annonymous auditor 31 says:

    @ francine and Norman Marks.

    I think Norman is heading in the right direction.

    In the Uk there is a statutory requirement for an audit, so we perform audits for many many subsidiaries. In certain cases the ability of these subsidiaries to continue as a going concern is dependent on parental support. So as auditors we get a ‘letter of support’ from the parent, perform procedures to confirm that the parent has the ability and intent to suport, and of course obtain representation from management.

    Oh – and we ensure one more thing. The subsidiary discloses right there in Note 1 that the going concern basis is appropriate because the parent company has confirmed that sufficient support will be made available.

    If Deloitte signed off the RBS accounts because they knew the Uk govt would act as a back stop this should have been disclosed. In my mind the Deloitte audit report is deficient due to the fact that certain disclosures were ommitted which would have made clear how the entity was going to continue as a going concern.

  10. Anon E Mouse
    Anon E Mouse says:

    “Auditors make the appropriate sounds when they see the size of the cheque.” – Tiny Rowland

    I suppose they did’nt notice all the SIV’s (Maiden lane etc ) that were specifically designed to shrink the ‘apparent’ size of the banks balance sheets thereby allowing Banks to hold less shareholders capital in statutory VaR reserves and massively boosting the ‘profitability’ of banks when in fact many of these ‘off-balance sheet’ entities were little more than unconsolidated subsidiaries either ? The accounting ‘profession’ similarly mute on these issues.

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