Business Standard

Opening doors to foreign auditors

The prospect is already disturbing the uneasy truce between local firms and the global accounting networks operating out of India

Sudipto Dey 

A turf battle is brewing between Indian audit companies and those owned by global audit and accounting networks, as the government pushes for opening up of accounting services. Small and mid-size chartered accountancy (CA) entities feel the most threatened by this move. Questions are being raised on issues around reciprocity, visa restrictions and non-recognition of Indian audit certificates in other jurisdictions. CAs working with international audit agencies say the move will improve India's bargaining position in global markets on export of services. It started with a note sent earlier this month by the Union ministry of corporate affairs to The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), regulatory body for auditing professionals. The ministry sought the institute's views on allowing foreign auditors to practice directly in the country, and to use their own brand name while attesting financial statements. Currently, global audit companies operate in the country through a network of Indian-owned and managed firms. By law, only Indian auditors are allowed to sign on financial statements, and these companies or individuals have to be registered with ICAI. Allowing foreign audit agencies to directly offer services in the market would also entail amendments in the Chartered Accountants Act, 1949, said experts. ICAI has for now sought to allay the worries of some of its members by the asking government for more time to prepare its response. "We have formed a group of Central Council members to formulate a response on the issue of regulation of foreign firms," ICAI president M Devaraja Reddy told Business Standard. The group is expected to give its report by mid-September. "The report will be considered by the Council at its next meeting," Reddy added. Executives at ICAI say the regulator faces a tricky situation - its membership is dominated by small and medium-size CA companies. These are suspicious at any move to ease the regulations for foreign auditors, as an extension of their turf battle with global auditors. By sector estimates, small and medium-size Indian companies account for 60 per cent of the Rs 4,000-crore audit market in India.

However, the aggressive push by global audit firms in recent years, and the mandatory rotation of auditors, as mandated by the Companies Act of 2013, has led to changes in the market dynamics. In the new law, all listed companies and certain classes of unlisted ones would have to rotate their auditors after these complete a term of 10 years. Many large Indian business groups that had been serviced by their local auditors for years are now forced to go for new ones. "Some of these groups are likely to gravitate to multinational audit firms," said the head of a Bengaluru-based Indian CA agency. Many of the latter feel they are going to lose when audit rotation becomes mandatory from April 2017. "If one looks at the top 100 NSE-listed companies, around half of them already have one of the Big Four (global CA giants) as their auditor," says another professional. The growing clout of global audit agencies is making some Indian ones ask the regulator for a more level-playing field. Some have even called for making it mandatory for Indian companies to hire both an Indian and a foreign audit firm. Many members cite the instance of China that has made it mandatory for companies to hire local firms. A 2011 report by ICAI had taken an adverse view of how global audit agencies operated out of this country, and had sought appropriate action by the government, including withdrawal of any permission to practise in India. However, there was no follow-up of the report and its recommendations in government circles. Executives in global audit firms say the opening of audit services would allow Indian ones to tap opportunities abroad. "Indian professionals have done well globally whenever any sector was opened," noted the head of an audit company. However, question marks remain around reciprocity of such services, and their regulation under current Indian law. "The top 10 global audit firms already have operations in India. How will giving them direct access improve the quality of audit?" asks the head of a mid-size Indian CA company. Questions are also being raised on whether foreign auditors would be allowed to represent their clients in tax tribunals. "If foreign lawyers are not allowed to practise Indian law, can the government take a different position when it comes to CAs?" asked the head of another Indian CA company. If the government does not clarify its stand on the issue of opening of auditing services, the turf battle between Indian and foreign auditors will accentuate.

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First Published: Sun, August 28 2016. 21:35 IST
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