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The Case for Individual Audit Partner Accountability

Posted by on Monday, November 25, 2019 in Articles, Volume 72, Volume 72, Number 6.

Colleen Honigsberg | 72 Vand. L. Rev. 1871 (2019) |

Despite repeated regulatory interventions, accounting failures continue to persist in companies around the world. In this Article, I explain why regulatory oversight, private enforcement, and firm-level reputational sanctions are unlikely to induce accountants to take optimal levels of care when auditing corporate financials. Instead, our best chance for improving audit quality lies in establishing a market for individual audit partners’ brands—a market that can hold individual auditors responsible for their mistakes.

The Article begins by identifying four key benefits to this approach. First, forcing auditors to be publicly associated with any audit failures occurring on their watch will induce them to increase their effort in order to avoid the stigma of failure. Second, now that a significant portion—frequently more than half—of audit hours are performed overseas, holding a single individual publicly accountable for any audit failures will improve monitoring of auditors in other jurisdictions. Third, in light of significant evidence of variation in the quality of audit partners—even partners within the same firm—exposing that heterogeneity will empower members of audit committees and investors to choose auditors more carefully. Finally, commoditizing individual auditors could increase industry competition without the need for aggressive regulatory action.

The Article then argues that, in order to spur the development of a market in auditor reputation, lawmakers should encourage the development of Auditor Scorecards. To do so, regulators should require the disclosure of additional auditor-level information and ensure useful information is provided through enforcement actions. Although there are costs to these changes, those costs are likely to be outweighed by giving investors the information they need to develop a common Scorecard for auditor quality. Such Scorecards will help boards and investors make better use of the legal tools already at their disposal to hold auditors accountable when they fail in their gatekeeping function.

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Colleen Honigsberg