The Big Four: enough is enough

Financial crises are endemic to capitalism, but the misbehavior of banks and bankers contributed significantly to the 2007-8 financial crash and the period of austerity that still continues. The big accountancy firms also, however, contributed to the 2007-8 crash with their failure as auditors to see it coming. Like the banks, they too have not been asked to contribute to the cost of clearing up the mess they helped create. That fell on the shoulders of working people, while the Big Four accountancy firms, KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deloitte & Touche and PriceWaterhouseCoopers have gone from strength to strength, tightening their monopoly of large company audits, and using this statutorily privileged position to leverage their consultancy services to the businesses they audit and then to government departments and public services, including the NHS. Now with the collapse of Carillion shortly after being given a clean bill of health by its auditor, KPMG, and with PriceWaterhouseCoopers benefitting from the collapse by being appointed manager of the liquidation, it’s time to say enough is enough.

In the best traditions of a Carry On film, the Big Four are advising governments on tax reforms while, as the Panama Papers revealed, they are advising their multinational clients on how to avoid taxes. According to Australian taxation expert George Rozvany, they are “the masterminds of multinational tax avoidance and the architects of tax schemes that cost governments and their taxpayers an estimated $1 trillion a year”. To make things worse, these huge firms don’t even publish their own accounts. They operate as partnerships and are exempt from having to do this. Absurd!

Once the solution might have been better regulation, but, as Professor Prem Sikka of Sheffield University has pointed out, their regulator, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), has been colonized by the Big Four and, while it is facing a “root and branch” review, don’t hold your breath. The professional accountancy bodies such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales are dwarfed by the Big Four and don’t have resources or inclination to tangle with them. There was some hope that the EU’s European Audit Regulation and Directive, which took six years to agree, might have helped, but the Carillion collapse destroyed its credibility. The Markets and Competition Authority (the former Office of Fair Trading) is at last, apparently, showing some interest, but these days it’s a ‘one golf club player’ its single remedy for market failure being more competition.

We are beyond the point of more regulation. The remedy needed now is to give the entire audit function to the government’s auditor, the National Audit Office, providing them with the resources to start the job before the huge fees for statutory audit roll in and they become self-financing. Then the government and public services must stop employing the Big Four and other large accountancy and consultancy firms as advisers. They have already made a big enough mess of public services. Finally, the Big Four and other accountancy firms must be made to publish accounts with at least as much detail disclosed as we require of companies.

Too radical even for a Corbyn led Labour government? Perhaps, but this is what it will now take to cut out what has become a cancer at the heart of our government, public services and what remains of our industry.

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Carillion and Marxist Economics

The collapse of Carillion is one of the largest insolvencies experienced in the UK and the biggest ever in the UK construction industry. It puts at risk the jobs of 19,000 employees and an unknown number of employees of its 30,000 subcontractors. In a classic example of the wisdom of hindsight, it will be investigated by the Financial Conduct Authority, who will ask how it happened, the Financial Reporting Council, who will enquire why the auditors, KPMG, failed to warn it would happen, and the Pension Regulator who will investigate how a pension deficit of at least £587m arose before it happened. What these watchdogs should be investigating, of course, is themselves –or rather, they should be investigated by someone else. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes who guards the guards? Parliament needs to face up to its responsibilities and the Parliamentary briefing paper here is a first step – but don’t hold your breath.

Labour’s call for a curtailment of subcontracting of public services and an end to PFI and privatisations is a welcome response to the collapse. It deserves support, but only addresses one aspect of the problem. The real cause of the collapse is capitalism itself, and events like this will continue to affect the lives of millions until the system is changed.

According to neo-classical economics – the only form of economics taught in our schools and universities  – the potential for businesses to fail is essential to ensure that they ‘innovate’. Furthermore, any government action to ameliorate the consequences of corporate failure will result in “moral hazard” – their jargon for the idea that, if businesses knew that governments would bail them out, they would take even bigger risks. The impact on workers is not considered relevant. We can all find other jobs following the collapse.

If economic theories were rejected, or at least modified, when they failed to explain the economy, neo-classical economics would not have survived the 2007 banking crisis. Where was the talk of stifling innovation and “moral hazard” then when the banks were bailed out? Neo-classical economics survived because capitalism survived, confirming that its real purpose is not to guide policy or explain the economy, it is to provide the intellectual basis and justification for capitalism. It remains intact today and still hugely influential amongst social democrats, greens and members of ‘the Labour Party.

Unlike neo-classical economics, Marxist economics has been, and continues to be, subject to rigorous testing and evaluation and this is how it is taught by, amongst others, the Communist University in South London (CUiSL). Teaching by “experts” is foregone and learning by debate and discussion is employed. Students are not seen as mere empty pots to be filled. Instead we learn from each other, always applying the principle “Question Everything”.

CUiSL holds its classes on the third Thursday of every month at 7.30 pm at Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD. The next class is on 15 February when we will be discussing Marx and Darwin and how their theories continue to interact. There are no fees and no indoctrination. You enrol simply by turning up. If neo-classical economics were taught in this way, we might have avoided the Carillion debacle.