Hermitage Capital Management, an international investment firm owned by HSBC London, is suing PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), the biggest among the big four accounting firms (Andersen, the fifth, is being cannibalized by its competitors).
Hermitage also demands to have PwC's license suspended in Russia. All this fuss over allegedly shoddy audits of Gazprom, the Russian energy behemoth with over $20 billion in annual sales and the world's largest reserves of natural gas. Hermitage runs a $600 million Russia fund which is invested in the shares of the allegedly misaudited giant.
The accusations are serious. According to infuriated Hermitage, PwC falsified and distorted the 2000-1 audits by misrepresenting the sale of Gazprom's subsidiary, Purgaz, to Itera, a conveniently obscure entity. Other loss spinning transactions were also creatively tackled. Stoitransgaz - partly owned by former Gazprom managers and their relatives - landed more than $1 billion in lucrative Gazprom contracts.
These shenanigans resulted in billions of dollars of losses and a depressed share price. AFP quotes William Browder, Hermitage's disgruntled CEO, as saying: "This is Russia's Enron". PwC threatened to counter-sue Hermitage over its "completely unfounded" allegations.
But Browder's charges are supported by Boris Fyodorov, a former Russian minister of finance and a current Gazprom independent director. Fyodorov manages his own investment boutique, United Financial Group. Browder is a former Solomon Brothers investment banker. Other investment banks and brokerage firms - foreign and Russian - are supportive of his allegations. They won't and can't be fobbed.
Fyodorov speculates that PwC turned a blind eye to many of Gazprom's shadier deals in order to keep the account. Gazprom shareholders will decide in June whether to retain it as an auditor or not. Browder is initiating a class action lawsuit in New York of Gazprom ADR holders against PwC.
Even Russia's president concurs. A year ago, he muttered ominously about "enormous amounts of misspent money (in Gazprom)". He replaced Rem Vyakhirev, the oligarch that ran Gazprom, with his own protégé. Russia owns 38 percent of the company.
Gazprom is just the latest in an inordinately long stream of companies with dubious methods. Avto VAZ bled itself white - under PwC's nose - shipping cars to dealers, without guarantees or advance payments. The penumbral dealers then vanished without a trace. Avto VAZ wrote off more than $1 billion in "uncollected bills" by late 1995. PwC did make a mild comment in the 1997 audit. But the first real warning appeared only three years later in the audit for the year 2000.
Andrei Sharonov, deputy minister in the federal Ministry of Economics said, in an interview he granted "Business Week" last February: "Auditors have been working on behalf of management rather than shareholders." In a series of outlandish ads, published in Russian business dailies in late February, senior partners in the PwC Moscow office made this incredible statement: "(Audit) does not represent a review of each transaction, or a qualitative assessment of a company's performance."
The New York Times quotes a former employee of Ernst&Young in Moscow as saying: "A big client is god. You do what they want and tell you to do. You can play straight-laced and try to be upright and protect your reputation with minor clients, but you can't do it with the big guys. If you lose that account, no matter how justified you are, that's the end of a career."
PwC should know. When it mentioned suspicious heavily discounted sales of oil to Rosneft in a 1998 audit report, its client, Purneftegaz, replaced it with Arthur Andersen. The dubious deals dutifully vanished from the audit reports, though they continue apace. Andersen claims such transactions do not require disclosure under Russian law.
How times change! Throughout the 1990's, Russia and its nascent private sector were subjected to self-righteous harangues from visiting Big Five accountants. The hectoring targeted the lack of good governance among Russia's corporations and public administration alike. Hordes of pampered speakers and consultants espoused transparent accounting, minority shareholders' rights, management accessibility and accountability and other noble goals.
That was before Enron. The tables have turned. The Big Five - from disintegrating Andersen to KPMG - are being chastised and fined for negligent practices, flagrant conflicts of interests, misrepresentation, questionable ethics and worse. Their worldwide clout, moral authority, and professional standing have been considerably dented.
America's GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Practices) - once considered the undisputable benchmark of rectitude and disclosure - are now thought in need of urgent revision. The American issuer of accounting standards - FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) - is widely perceived to be an incestuous arrangement between the clubby members of a rapacious and unscrupulous profession. Many American scholars even suggest to adopt the hitherto much-derided alternative - the International Accounting Standards (IAS) recently implemented through much of central and eastern Europe.
Russia's Federal Commission for the Securities Market (FCSM) convened a conclave of Western and domestic auditing firms. The theme was how to spot and neutralize bad auditors. With barely concealed and gleeful schadenfreude, the Russians said that the Enron scandal undermined their confidence in Western accountants and the GAAP.
The Institute of Corporate Law and Corporate Governance (ICLG), having studied the statements of a few major Russian firms, concluded that there are indications of financial problems, "not mentioned by (mostly Western) auditors". They may have a point. Most of the banks that collapsed ignominiously in 1998 received glowing audits signed by Western auditors, often one of the Big Five.
The Russian Investor Protection Association (IPA) and Institute of Professional Auditors (IPAR) embarked on a survey of Russian investors, enterprises, auditors, and state officials - and what they think about the quality of the audit services they are getting.
Many Russian managers - as avaricious and venal as ever - now can justify hiring malleable and puny local auditors instead of big international or domestic ones. Surgutneftegaz - with $2 billion net profit last year and on-going dispute with its shareholders about dividends - wants to sack "Rosexperitza", a respectable Russian accountancy, and hire "Aval", a little known accounting outfit. Aval does not even make it to the list of 200 largest accounting firms in Russia, according to Renaissance Capital, an investment bank.
Other Russian managers are genuinely alarmed by the vertiginous decline in the reputation of the global accounting firms and by the inherent conflict of interest between consulting and audit jobs performed by the same entity. Sviazinvest, a holding and telecom company, hired Accenture on top of - some say instead of - Andersen Consulting.
A decade of achievements in fostering transparency, better corporate governance, and more realistic accounting in central and eastern Europe - may well evaporate in the wake of Enron and other scandals. The forces of reaction and corruption in these nether lands - greedy managers, venal bureaucrats, and anti-reformists - all seized the opportunity to reverse what was hitherto considered an irreversible trend towards Western standards. This, in turn, is likely to deter investors and retard the progress towards a more efficient market economy.
The Big Six accounting firms were among the first to establish a presence in Russia. Together with major league consultancies, such as Baker-McKinsey, they coached Russian entrepreneurs and managers in the ways of the West. They introduced investors to Russia when it was still considered a frontier land. They promoted Russian enterprises abroad and nursed the first, precarious, joint ventures between paranoid Russians and disdainful Westerners.
Companies like Ernst&Young are at the forefront of the fight to include independent directors in the boards of Russian firms, invariably stuffed with relatives and cronies. Together with IPA, Ernst&Young recently established the National Association of Independent Directors (NAID). It is intended to "assist Russian companies to increase their efficiency through introduction of best independent directors' practices."
But even these - often missionary - pioneers were blinded by the spoils of a "free for all", "winner takes all", and "might is right" environment. They geared the accounts of their clients - by minimizing their profits - towards tax avoidance and the abolition of dividends. Quoting unnamed former employees of the audit firms, "The New York Times" described how "... the auditors often chose to play by Russian rules, and in doing so sacrificed the transparency that investors were counting on them to ensure."
Accounting (in USA)
On May 31, 2005, the US Supreme Court overturned the conviction of accounting firm Arthur Anderson on charges related to its handling of the books of the now defunct energy concern, Enron. It was only the latest scene in a drama which unfolded at the height of the wave of corporate malfeasance in the USA.
David C. Jones is a part-time research fellow at the Center for Urban Development Studies of the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. He has been associated with the University since 1987 when he retired from the World Bank, where he served as financial adviser for water supply and urban development.
He had joined the World Bank, as a senior financial analyst, in 1970, after working as a technical assistance advisor for the British Government in East Africa. He began his career in British local government. He is a Chartered Public Finance Accountant and a Chartered Certified Accountant (UK). He is the author of "Municipal Accounting for Developing Countries" originally published by the World Bank and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (UK) in 1982.
Q: Accounting scandals seem to form the core of corporate malfeasance in the USA. Is there something wrong with the GAAP - or with American accountants?
A: Accounting is based on some fundamental principles. As I say at the beginning of my textbook, the accountant "records and interprets variations in financial position ... during any period of time, at the end of which he can balance net results (of past operations) against net resources (available for future operations)".
Accountancy includes the designing of financial records, the recording of financial information based on actual financial transactions (i.e., bookkeeping), the production of financial statements from the recorded information, giving advice on financial matters, and interpreting and using financial data to assist in making the best management decisions.
Simple as these principles may sound, they are, in practice, rather complicated to implement, to interpret and to practice. About 80% of the transactions require only about 20% of the effort because they are straightforward and obvious to a book-keeper, once the rules are learned.
But - and it is a big but - the other 20% or so of transactions require 80% of the intellectual effort. These transactions are most likely to have major impacts on the profit and loss account and the balance sheet.
My colleagues and I, all qualified accountants, have heated discussion over something as simple as the definition of a debit or a credit. Debits can be records of either expenses or assets. The former counts against income in the statement of profit and loss. The latter is treated as a continuing resource in a balance sheet. It is sometimes gradually allocated (expensed) against income in subsequent years, sometimes not.
A fundamental problem with the financial reporting of WorldCom, for example, was that huge quantities of expenses were misallocated in the accounts as assets. Thus, by reducing expenditures, profit appeared to be increased. The effect of this on stock values and, thereby, on executive rewards are secondary and tertiary outcomes not caused directly by the accountancy.
Another example concerns interest on loans that may have been raised to finance capital investment, while a large asset is under construction, often for several years.
Some argue that the interest should be accounted for as part of the capital cost until the asset is operational. Others claim that because the interest is an expense, it should be charged against that year's profits. Yet, the current year's income includes none of the income generated by the new asset, so profit is under-stated. And what if a hydro-electric power station starts to operate three of its ten turbines while still under construction? How does one allocate what costs, as expenses or assets, in such cases?
Interestingly, the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) require that "interest during construction" be capitalized, that is included in the cost of the asset. The International Accounting Standards (IAS) prefer expensing but allow capitalization. From an economic viewpoint, both are wrong - or only partially right!
The accountancy profession should get together to establish common practices for comparing companies, limiting the scope for judgment. Accountants used to make the rules in the USA and elsewhere until the business community demanded input from other professionals, to provide a more "balanced" view.
This led to the establishment of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), with non-accountants as members. The GAAP has been tempered by political and business lobbying. Moreover, accounting rules for taxation purposes and applied to companies quoted on stock exchanges are not always consistent with the GAAP.
Accountants who do not follow the rules are disciplined. American accountants are among the best educated and best-trained in the world. Those who wish to be recognized as auditors of significant enterprises must be CPAs. Thus, they must have obtained at least a finance-related bachelor's degree and then have passed a five-part examination that is commonly set, nation-wide, by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). To practice publicly, they must be licensed by the state in which they live or practice. To remain a CPA, each must abide by the standards of conduct and ethics of the AICPA, including a requirement for continuing professional education.
Most other countries have comparable rules. Probably the closest comparisons to the USA are found in the UK and its former colonies.
Q: Can you briefly compare the advantages and disadvantages of the GAAP and the IAS?
A: It is asserted that the GAAP tend to be "rule-based" and the IAS are "principle-based." GAAP, because they are founded on the business environment of the USA are closely aligned to its laws and regulations. The IAS seek to prescribe how credible accounting practices can operate within a country's existing legal structure and prevailing business practices.
Alas, sometimes the IAS and the GAAP are in disagreement. The two rule-making bodies - FASB and IASB - are trying to cooperate to eliminate such differences.
The Inter-American Development Bank, having reviewed the situation in Latin America, concluded that most of the countries in that region - as well as Canada and the EU aspirants - are IAS-orientated. Still, the USA is by far the largest economy in the world, with significant political influence. It also has the world's most important financial markets.
Q: Can accounting cope with derivatives, off-shore entities, stock options - or is there a problem in the very effort to capture dynamics and uncertainties in terms of a static, numerical representation?
A: Most, if not all, of these matters can be handled by proper application of accounting principles and practices. Much has been made of expensing employee stock options, for instance. But an FASB proposal in the early nineties was watered down at the insistence of US company lobbyists and legislators.
How to value stock options and when to recognize them is not clear. A paper on the topic identified sixteen different valuation parameters. But accountants are accustomed to dealing with such practical matters.
Q: Can you describe the state of the art (i.e., recent trends) of municipal finance in the USA, Europe, Latin America (mainly Argentina and Brazil), and in emerging economies (e.g., central and eastern Europe)?
A: There are no standard practices for governmental accounting - whether national, federal, state, or local. The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) urged accountants to follow various practices. It subsequently settled mainly on accrual accounting standards.
Some countries - the UK, for local government, New Zealand for both central and local government - use full accrual at current value, which is beyond many private sector practices. This is being reviewed in the UK. The central government there is introducing "resource-based" accounting, approximating full accrual at current value.
The US Governmental Accounting Standards Board has recently recommended that US local governments produce dual financial reports, combining "commercially-based" practices with those emanating from the truly unique US "fund accounting" system.
In my book I recognized that fixed assets are being funded less and less entirely by debt, private sector accounting practices increasingly intrude into the public sector, and costs of services must be much more carefully assessed.
Q: Are we likely to witness municipal Enrons and World.com's?
A: We already have! Remember the financial downfall and restructuring of New York City in the seventies. Other state and local governments have had serious defaults in USA and elsewhere. Shortcomings of their accounting, politicians choosing to ignore predictive budgeting, borrowing used to cover operating expenditures - similar to WorldCom. In the case of the New York City debacle, operating expenditures were treated as capital expenditures to balance the operating budget.
More recently, I testified to the US Congress about Washington DC, where the City Council ran up a huge accumulated operating deficit, of c. $700 million. It then sought Congressional approval to cover this deficit by borrowing.
Even more recently, the State of Virginia decided to abolish the property tax on domestic vehicles. This left a huge gap in the following year's current budget. The governor proposed to use a deceptive accounting device and to set up a separate - and, thus not subject to a referendum - "revenue" bond-issuing entity (shades of Enron's "Special Purpose Entities"). The bonds were then to be serviced by expected annual receipts from the negotiated tobacco settlement, at that time not even finalized. This crazy and illegal plan was abandoned.
The fact that both accounting and financial reporting for local governments are very often in slightly modified cash-based formats adds to the confusion. But these formats could be built on. Indeed, in the very tight budgetary situations facing virtually every local government, it is essential that cash management on a day-to-day basis be given high priority.
Still, the system can be misleading. It produces extremely scant information on costs - the use of resources - compared with expenditures (i.e., cash-flows). More seriously, cash accounting allows indiscriminate allocation of funds between capital and recurrent purposes, thus permitting no useful assessment of annual or other periodic financial performance.
A cash-based system cannot engender a credible balance sheet. It produces meaningless and incoherent information on assets and liabilities and the ownership, or trusteeship, of separate (or separable) funds. It is not a sound system of budgetary control. When year-end unpaid invoices are held over, it creates a false impression of operating within approved budgetary limits. Thus, local government units can run serious budgetary deficits that are hidden from public view merely by not paying their bills on time and in full! A cash accounting system will not reveal this.
Still, moving to an accrual system should be done slowly and cautiously. Private sector experience, in former Soviet countries, of changing to accrual accounting was administratively traumatic. Their public sector systems may not easily survive any major tinkering, let alone an - eventually inevitable - full overhaul. Skills, tools, and access to proper professional knowledge are required before this is attempted.
Q: Can you compare municipal and corporate accounting and financing practices as far as governance and control are concerned?
A: In corporate accounting practice, the notional owners and managers are the shareholders. In practice, through the use of proxies and other devices, the real control is normally in the hands of a board of directors. Actual day to day control reverts to the company chairmen, president, chief executive or chief operating officer. The chief financial officer is often - though not necessarily - an accountant and he or she oversees qualified accountants.
The company's accountants must produce the annual and other financial statements. It is not the responsibility of the auditors whose obligation is to report to the shareholders on the credibility and legality of the financial statements. The shareholders may appoint an audit committee to review the audit reports on their behalf. The audit is carried out by Certified Public Accountants with recognized accounting credentials. Both the qualified accountants in the audit firm and those in the corporation are subject to professional discipline of their accounting institutions and of the law.
In local government accounting practice, the public trustees and managers are normally a locally elected council. Often, the detailed control over financial management is in the hands of a finance committee or finance commission, usually comprised only of elected members.
Traditionally, only the elected council may take major financial decisions, such as approving a budget, levying taxes and borrowing. Actual day to day control of a local government may be by an executive mayor, or by an elected or appointed chief executive. There normally is a chief financial officer, often - though not necessarily - an accountant in charge of other qualified accountants.
It is the responsibility of the accountants of the local government to produce the annual and other financial statements. It is not the responsibility of the auditors whose obligation is to report to the local elected council on the credibility and legality of the financial statements. The council may appoint an audit committee to review the audit reports on their behalf, or they may ask the finance committee to do this.
However, it is quite common, in many countries, for local government financial statements to be audited by properly authorized public officials. Auditors should be qualified, independent, experienced, and competent. Audits should be regular and comprehensive. It is unclear whether or not public official auditors always fulfill these conditions.
In the United Kingdom, for example, there is a Local Government Audit Commission which employs qualified accountants either on its own staff or from hired accountancy firms. Thus, it clearly follows high standards.