Balance Sheet: For auditors, is this the way the world ends?
International Herald Tribune Monday, August 20, 2007 by Jim Peterson
In his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot bleakly chants that the world ends “not with a bang but a whimper.” For large-company auditors and the fragile world of privately provided financial statement assurance, an ominous whimper was just heard in a courthouse in Miami.
In June, a jury of six citizens of Dade County, Florida, found that the Seidman accounting firm had been grossly negligent in the audit of its client E.S. Bankest, a Miami financial institution whose owners included the plaintiff, Banco Espírito Santo, which is based in Portugal.
On Monday, after one additional hour of deliberation, the jury imposed damages of $170 million on Seidman in favor of Banco Espírito Santo, adding the crowning touch of an extra $351 million in punitive damages on Tuesday.
Those are numbers well beyond the capability of the partners of Seidman, which reported total revenue of $589 million for the 2007 financial year. And Seidman won’t be helped by its membership in a global network, BDO International, which – with about 30,000 employees and a combined revenue in 2006 of $3.9 billion – ranks a distant fifth behind the Big Four global accounting networks: PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young and KPMG, in order of size. The Seidman firm has, perhaps quixotically, announced plans for appeal, but it faces a battle that’s not so much uphill as up a cliff, and its future is, at best, mortgaged to that outcome.
Seidman could not possibly have wanted a trial over its Bankest audits. The plaintiffs claimed at trial that the audits failed to prevent or detect that Bankest, ostensibly a factoring company, was funneling funds diverted to its own principals – of whom the main players are either in or going to prison.
For Seidman, going to trial must have been an agonizing option of last resort, chosen only because it was unable to settle the case within bearable limits otherwise. Which is not surprising. Auditors have faced a formidable challenge defending themselves against claims they did not catch the bad guys, however pure their intent and skillful their efforts.
Juries have seldom been willing to look beyond the melodrama of seriously felonious executives. And in this America that increasingly elevates victim compensation to a social priority, Seidman’s defense that it was competent but compromised by aggravated conditions was predictably unavailing.
Even more ominously, the Bankest verdict, which leaves Seidman and BDO teetering like a house of cards, casts doubt on the entire future of both the large global accounting networks and the one-page audit reports they deliver on consolidated corporate financial statements.
Since the disintegration of Arthur Andersen in 2002, the volume of commentary on the fragility of the audit reporting model has multiplied among the research groups and regulator-sponsored commissions.