Lex 2010-03-16

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was supposed to safeguard the US from another Enron-style accounting scandal. But the examiner’s report into Lehman Brothers’ failure has shed light on a new one. The parallels between the two bankruptcies are striking. First are the chief executives who claim ignorance of material measures. Second is the use of ugly, reality-cloaking off-balance sheet transactions. The resultant “repo 105/108” transactions, which in Lehman’s final three quarters increased by almost one-third to $50bn, massaged the bank’s period-end balance sheets and reduced its reported leverage.

But this type of financial window dressing is neither exclusive to Lehman nor, prima facie, illegal. It appears audit requirements were followed, and the technicalities of the dubious transactions rubberstamped by London law firm Linklaters before the accounts were signed off. So in spite of refusals by William Schlich, Ernst & Young’s lead audit partner for Lehman, to answer some of the examiner’s more pointed questions, the Big 4 audit group should make it through the scandal intact – albeit with a heavily dented reputation.

Investors, though, will be left shaking their heads once again. The spirit of the rules has been side-stepped and their confidence in the profession will be shaken. Although E&Y knew both the extent and consequences of Lehman’s addiction to repo transactions, accounting rules didn’t necessarily require it to disclose any concerns.

Fixing the problem requires wholesale change. Currently, auditors are paid by the company they inspect. This is like a home-buyer relying on an inspection report commissioned by the seller. A better system might be for auditors to be employed directly by the securities regulator who would then negotiate fees with the client. This would remove the pressure for auditors to side with a client when difficult issues arise. It would also remove any doubt over whether auditors are truly independent.

Lex专栏:如何避免安然式丑闻重现?
英国《金融时报》 Lex专栏 2010-03-16

人们本指望《萨班斯-奥克斯利法》(Sarbanes-Oxley act)能防止美国出现第二个安然(Enron)式的会计丑闻。但有关雷曼兄弟(Lehman Brothers)倒闭事件的调查报告还是暴露出了一起新的丑闻。两起破产案之间有明显的相似之处。首先是公司首席执行官声称对于具体操作毫不知情。其次是使用了一些丑陋的、旨在掩盖事实的表外交易。在雷曼最后三个季度,由此产生的“回购105/108”(Repo 105/108)等交易额增长了近三分之一,总额达500亿美元,从而篡改了该行的期间末资产负债表,并缩小了其报告的杠杆率。

但这种财务上“粉饰门面”的做法并非雷曼所独有,而且从表面上看也并不违法。这些交易看上去均符合审计要求,而在账户注销前,伦敦的年利达律师事务所(Linklaters)就对这些可疑交易的技术细节出具了法律意见。因此,尽管安永主审雷曼的合伙人威廉•施利希(William Schlich)拒绝回答调查员一些更为尖锐的问题,但四大审计师事务所应该能度过丑闻,全身而退——尽管名誉将严重受损。

不过,投资者将又一次摇头。规则精神遭到了践踏,投资者对于审计业的信心将受到动摇。尽管安永对于雷曼沉迷于回购交易的程度和后果心知肚明,但会计准则并不必然要求它公开任何相关忧虑。

要想解决问题,必须进行彻底改革。目前,审计师的收费来自他们所审查的公司。这就好比一位买房者信赖一份由卖房人委托出具的检验报告。审计师直接受雇于证券监管部门、再由监管部门与客户商定费用,或许是一种更好的机制。这样,一旦出现难题,审计师就不会面临不得不与客户站在一边的压力。这还会打消人们对于审计师独立性的所有疑虑。

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