Much of the damage that has been done to audit and consulting firm KPMG has been self-inflicted. It hasn’t grasped that when things go badly wrong with any institution, the judgment by clients and stakeholders is guided not by the nature of the disaster itself but by the way it is handled.
Its ham-fisted efforts at damage control suggest that if KPMG’s advice to its clients is of a similar standard, these clients should be dashing out the door to find someone else to look after them.
A few weeks back, KPMG seemed to have acted decisively when it boldly announced the departure of nine senior executives, including CEO Trevor Hoole. This was seen as a forced mass resignation — in effect, dismissal.
Now, however, it has emerged that those executives were paid severance packages — presumably commensurate with their seniority and experience. This implies that rather than acting because of any great conviction that errors were made, KPMG just wanted these executives to go, and go quickly, hoping this would make the shouting stop.
In other words, KPMG panicked — bungling further by then only partially withdrawing its report on the alleged Sars "rogue unit".
It misjudged the scale of the damage and public sentiment, thinking paying back fees would be enough. It didn’t consult the aggrieved victims of the "rogue unit" episode before deciding on its "reparations".
And since then, KPMG has taken an inordinately long time to appoint a panel to investigate what went wrong with the audits of Gupta companies and the Sars report. They are in the absurd position of having admitted fault before even discovering what they did wrong.
Circuses have been run with a far greater sense of order, planning and forethought.
Meanwhile, clients desert steadily. People who work at KPMG say the atmosphere is like a morgue, with people stealthily brushing up their CVs as if their lives depended on it.
Some have argued that the fallout over KPMG is overdone, that all it actually did was mess up a copy-and-paste job in the Sars report, overreach on a few findings and fail to trace the source of funding in an audit. They’ll say it’s not the first time SA has had an auditing disaster and point to Brett Kebble’s forged financials, African Bank’s understated provisions and LeisureNet’s dubious income recognition as just a few examples.
But, actually, the KPMG case is the straw that broke the public’s trust. If you can’t trust just two items in an audit, why are auditing firms paid immense fees every year? It’s true that none of the auditing firms is entirely innocent — it’s just that the buck has stopped here.
It speaks of other frustrations too: the use of expensive consultants by organisations that are supposed to have their own expertise.
There are many jokes about consultants, including that they look at your watch and charge you to tell you what the time is. Given the fees charged by KPMG and McKinsey, it seems there are many executives in state-owned companies who cannot tell the time at all.
Perhaps it is time for auditing companies to go back to auditing, rather than moonlighting (often badly) as consultants and advisers. They’re like doctors who decide they’re now going to run the HR department or manage the hospitals too.
It is not just KPMG: the auditing profession has suffered serious damage to its reputation. We need to know what will happen to fix it — beyond snapping up clients who are deserting KPMG.