Regulators are carrying out a sweeping investigation of conflicts of interest at the nation’s largest accounting firms, asking whether consulting and other nonaudit services they sell undermine their ability to conduct independent reviews of public companies’ financials, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Securities and Exchange Commission probe highlights the agency’s new focus on financial-market gatekeepers such as accountants, bankers and lawyers. These firms help companies raise capital and communicate with shareholders, but also have duties under federal investor-protection laws. Auditors are a shareholder’s first line of defense against sloppy or dodgy accounting.
The Big Four audit 66% of all public companies with a market capitalization over $75 million, according to Audit Analytics. All four have paid fines to the SEC since 2014 to settle prior regulatory investigations of audit independence violations.
On Feb. 3, 2022, the state of California finally produced its audited financial statements for its fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020. The filing, known as an annual comprehensive financial report, was over a year late and came with an unpleasant surprise in the form of a qualified audit opinion.
State and local governments are normally expected to produce financial statements within six-to-nine months of the fiscal year’s end. California has now missed the nine-month municipal bond market filing deadline for three consecutive years. And, with less than two months to the deadline for its fiscal year 2021 financial reports (for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2021), another late filing seems inevitable.
California’s financial reporting performance compares poorly with most other states. According to data from Truth in Accounting, the median U.S. state produced its 2020 annual comprehensive financial report 184 days after the end of its fiscal year. By contrast, California took 583 days, nearly 20 months, to file its annual comprehensive financial report for fiscal year 2020. For added perspective, it is worth noting that the Securities and Exchange Commission gives large corporations just 60 days to produce their audited financials.
Now The Inquirer and Spotlight PA have obtained new internal fund documents that shed light on that consequential mistake. The material traces the error to “data corruption” in just one month — April 2015 — over the near-decade-long period reviewed for the calculation.
The error was small. It falsely boosted the $64 billion PSERS fund’s performance by only about a third of a percentage point over a financial quarter. Even so, it was just enough to wrongly lift the fund’s financial returns over a key state-mandated hurdle used to gauge performance.
The documents reveal that a fund consultant, Aon, blamed the mistake on its clerical staff for inputting bad data. The material also shows that even though the fund hired a consultant, the ACA Compliance Group, to check the calculations, the consultant made only limited checks, and skipped over the month with the critical errors.
Author(s): Joseph N. DiStefano, Craig R. McCoy, Angela Couloumbis