Three years after Congress passed a strict corporate-accountability measure designed to make it harder to defraud investors about corporate...
WASHINGTON — Three years after Congress passed a strict corporate-accountability measure designed to make it harder to defraud investors about corporate financial health, companies are experiencing higher audit fees and increased turnover among financial executives.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act imposed new duties on corporate officials and subjected auditors to discipline from an independent panel. Analysts say the law has induced executives to pay more attention to financial data and prompted board members and accounting firms to take their work more seriously.
“Disclosure is more complete, more timely and more accurate, managers are more serious about their jobs, and boards are more active and questioning,” Harvey Goldschmid, a departing Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) member, said in an interview this week.
In recent months, business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have stepped up pressure on the SEC to ease some of the law’s requirements. Audit fees for the Fortune 1000 increased by an average of $2.3 million, or 66 percent, between 2003 and 2004, according to a study by professors at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
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That’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to investor advocates who said the price of audits declined precipitously in the 1990s as accounting firms slashed audit fees to compete for more lucrative consulting business. Higher fees also mean auditors are better vetting financial statements, they said.
The SEC has repeatedly extended the deadline for complying with parts of the law that require companies to vouch for the adequacy of their financial controls.
That provision generated intense friction among independent accountants, corporate officials and board members, who disagreed on how much work accountants had to perform to sign off on the controls.
It also helped to hasten the departure of many corporate finance chiefs, according to a March study by the recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates.
Between 2003 and 2004, the overall rate of turnover for chief financial officers in the Fortune 500 increased by 23 percent, the March study said.