Slowdown pushes Big Four accounting firms back to consulting

As their traditional accounting work slows down, the Big Four audit firms push deeper into the business of telling clients how to manage.

Big 4

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The past couple of years haven’t been kind to Australia’s Big Four. With the economy in a slow-growth phase, corporate clients are spending less and mergers and acquisitions activity is lackadaisical. Sensing the Big Four’s vulnerability, more mid-tier firms are targeting their clients. Add to that the impact of technology, outsourcing and the downward pricing pressure created by standardisation of accounting rules and the numbers tell the story. In 2012/13, each of the Big Four reported similar revenue drops. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) revenue came in at $1.47 billion, down 0.6 per cent; Ernst & Young reported a 0.5 per cent slippage in revenue to $1.112 billion; KPMG’s figures were $1.111 billion, a fall of 0.6 per cent; and Deloitte reported a 0.7 per cent drop in revenue to $1.092 billion.

To compensate for the lacklustre performance of traditional income streams, the Big Four are on the acquisition trail. And they have focused on high-margin consulting, where business has been growing. With the exception of Deloitte, it’s a change of direction for these firms, which sold off their consulting arms around the time of the 2002 passage of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act in the US.

In December 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers acquired consulting giant Booz & Company for a reported US$250 million-plus, giving it entry to a market occupied by companies like McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and Accenture.

Deloitte has bought a number of consulting firms, including Michael Porter’s company Monitor Group, energy consultants Altos Management Partners and AJM Petroleum Consultants, performance management advisory firm Jackson Browne, Australian economics consultancy Access Economics, business analytics firm Oco and sustainability specialists ClearCarbon Consulting and DOMANI Sustainability Consulting.

Deloitte and PwC have also built their private client practice, high-premium work, focusing on large private companies and high net worth individuals. In February, KPMG spent an undisclosed sum to acquire leading Australian social media intelligence company SR7. KPMG has also beefed up its innovation team, promoting partner Mark Shepherd to national managing partner of brand and innovation.

Dr Natalia Nikolova, a senior management lecturer at the University of Technology (UTS), Sydney, believes these acquisitions will make all the difference for the Big Four and ensure they thrive.

“Consulting these days is over 35 per cent of their total revenue, so the growth in consulting is compensating for the decline in some of the other businesses like auditing and mergers and acquisitions,’’ says Dr Nikolova.

In the process, she says, it helps to build their international business brand, something the mid-tier firms will never have. “Because the Big Four are such large companies,” explains Dr Nikolova, “they can offer these one-stop shops for clients.

That means clients can get a whole range of different services from the same company. And with their international presence, the Big Four are the only ones who can provide these services to the large clients who are also international clients.

“I think they will pretty much remain the main companies to provide accounting, auditing and tax consulting to the large international companies in the world – and there are plenty of those.”

But the push into consulting raises questions about the future of traditional services. Former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt told Bloomberg that audit activities have to be questioned as accounting firms become more committed to consulting.

And history sounds a warning, too. The Big Four are only the ‘Four’ because of Arthur Andersen’s indictment for obstruction of justice as part of the 2001 Enron scandal. Accused of chasing Enron consulting fees while waving through the energy firm’s fraud-riddled accounts, Arthur Andersen disintegrated.

Dr George Beaton, from Melbourne-based Beaton Research + Consulting, believes the Big Four will leave audit behind within 10 years.

“Audit will be split off from these behemoths in the not-too-distant future,” says Beaton. “They will all be separated into a different ownership, removing the conflict of interest question.

“That scenario would explain some of this drive for diversification and acquisition. Come the day that the audit separation axe falls and the two are separated, then that firm with the portfolio of non-audit assets will be in the box seat.”

He says this would also be good for auditors. “True audit independence is a differentiator, and there should be a price premium attached to that. This would arrest the decline in audit fees,” he says.

The accounting firms, however, say they have no intention of spinning off their audit practices and have developed strategies to deal with the problem.

KPMG Australia CEO Gary Wingrove agrees with UTS’s Dr Nikolova that strength lies in being a “one-stop shop”.

“We are absolutely committed to be one firm, a multidisciplinary firm that provides an offering across audit, tax, advisory and private enterprise,” says Wingrove, adding, “that doesn’t mean we can’t be completely independent in our audit practice. We don’t see it as mutually exclusive.”

KPMG’s consulting business – which takes in management consulting and risk consulting – is now generating 49 per cent of KPMG’s revenues, and Wingrove happily projects it will top 50 per cent within three years.

“That doesn’t worry us as long as we have our fair market share in each of our other areas,” he says.

Peter van Dongen, the national managing partner of PwC Australia’s assurance practice, says the Big Four’s resilience lies in size and scale, which includes audit and tax. There can be no spin-off. “The beauty of a professional services firm like ours is there is a portfolio of businesses,” says van Dongen. “There is no doubt there will be years when corporate Australia needs assistance in strategy and execution where they turn to us for consulting. There will be other times when we have tax reform and in those environments, corporate Australia would turn to us. When M&A activity is up, our deals practice would do well. When corporate Australia is doing it tough, our insolvency practice might do well, and when there is regulatory change, the assurance practice would have good years as well.”

Mike Wright, who heads Ernst & Young’s assurance practice, says another strategy the Big Four are using to counteract reduced business is to expand the scope of traditional services such as tax and assurance, something that can only be done by a large firm. “Assurance is a lot more than financial statement audit now,” says Wright. “It can be fraud investigation work, climate change, sustainability reporting, occupational health and safety, accounting consulting work and assurance over broader topics.”

He sees the downturn in revenue as cyclical, not structural. M&A, he says, will bounce back, but the firm will have a broader offering “to help us navigate the peaks and troughs in the transaction market”. That’s M&A. The question remains whether commoditised offerings like audit will be lucrative enough to justify the firms holding on to them.

Leon Gettler
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