Capitalism has a foundational dependence on auditors -- outside entities who evaluate companies' claims about their financial state so that investors, suppliers and customers can understand whether to trust the companies with their money and business -- but those auditors are paid by the companies they're supposed to be keeping honest, and to make matters worse, 40 years of lax antitrust enforcement has allowed the auditing industry to contract to a four gigantic firms that openly practice fraud and abet corruption, with no real consequences.
There've been numerous recent examples of how the Big Four accounting firms have allowed grifters to hollow out the world's largest corporations. The most egregious was Carillion, a giant contractor that had largely replaced the British government in providing vital services to large swathes of the country while sucking up billions in taxpayer money. The company had systematically defrauded the public about the state of its finances, with every one of the Big Four accounting firms signing off on its books, something that came to light in 2018 when the company collapsed in spectacular bankruptcy, leaving the people who depended on its services high and dry. To make things worse, the same accounting companies that participated in its fraud then billed Her Majesty's Government millions more to oversee Carillion's winddown.
KPMG is easily the most-scandal haunted company of the Big Four, a latter-day Arthur Anderson & Co. The company has been embroiled in scandal after scandal including instances in which they bribed government regulators to steal state documents so that KPMG could anticipate which of its audit-reports would be inspected by government officials and go back and unfuck the numbers they had frauded into those books. Then, incredibly, KMPG admitted that it knew that its own senior staff routinely cheated on their annual ethics examinations.
Now, the Project on Government Oversight has published a long, detailed story about KPMG's criminal conspiracy to recruit employees of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board -- the government agency that oversees the Big Four -- specifically targeting those employees who were in charge of investigating KPMG's conduct and then pressuring them to hand over secret government documents that showed which of KPMG's audit reports would come under government scrutiny, again so that the company could unfuck those books and hide the evidence of their criminal conspiracies.
The testimony reveals how ex-govies conspired with their former co-workers to set up a pipeline for ongoing access to internal government documents while dangling the promise of high-paid work at KPMG as a reward for their service, and how the top execs at KPMG leaned on them to do more of the same. One government employee -- a former FBI agent named Cynthia Holder -- used her expertise to set up communications channels that would be resistant to law-enforcement investigations.
It's easy to be cynical about this, treating it as just another part of the great Age of the Grifter, but Big Four accountancy fraud is fundamental to the functioning of markets. It's impossible to know how the economy is doing when the firms that measure company performance can't be trusted -- it's as if NOAA had to depend on a cartel of thermometer and barometer manufacturers who were known to deliberately make instruments that lied about the weather.
The closest analogy here is what happened with AIG during the 2008 crisis: AIG was the insurer that investigated and rated all the weird, complex derivative bonds that the big banks were issuing -- and AIG also depended on those banks to pay its bills. AIG gave its seal of approval to trillions of dollars' worth of garbage paper that pension funds, national governments and individual investors bought, trusting AIG's ratings. The entire pump-and-dump scheme that destroyed the world's economy and destabilized dozens of countries, leading to Brexit and the Trump election, was only possible because AIG was engaged in systematic, long-term fraud.
If anything, the Big Four accounting firms' audit reports are even more fundamental to the economy, and we've known for years that they can't be trusted. And yet we keep on relying on them, because the sector is so concentrated that they're the only game in town -- as though NOAA kept on buying thermometers that they knew didn't work because no one else was manufacturing thermometers.
Both the Lehman collapse and the Anderson collapse were so traumatic that governments and regulators have lost their taste for issuing the corporate death-penalty. Yet if there was ever a firm that was in want of a firing-squad, it's KPMG.
“This was confidential information that had been stolen from the PCAOB, and rather than report it back, we were deciding to take action to do things to improve, potentially manipulate the PCAOB's inspection results,” Sweet said.
As part of the effort, Sweet recalled proposing changes to audit records.
The review of one audit uncovered “very significant audit deficiencies,” prompting KPMG to change the conclusion of its audit, Sweet said. By preemptively flagging problems at that company, KPMG deterred the oversight board from inspecting that audit.
The covert program succeeded, Sweet said. Generally, inspections of the audits subject to the “stealth rereviews” showed “significant improvement,” Sweet said.
In a presentation KPMG prepared for a meeting with the PCAOB, the audit firm attributed the improvement to its internal quality control efforts. The results, the presentation said, had been “terrific.”
How Accountants Took Washington’s Revolving Door to a Criminal Extreme [David S. Hilzenrath/POGO]
(via Naked Capitalism)