From a systemic regulatory standpoint, the Madoff Ponzi scheme remains of limited significance, especially compared to the latest exposed fraud case, at the large Indian software company, Satyam Computers Services Ltd., whose shares trade on the New York Stock Exchange (in the form of American Depository Receipts, or ADRs). Its CEO released a letter yesterday disclosing an elaborate, and apparently simple, billion-dollar fraud that went undetected by the firm’s outside auditors, an India affiliate of PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC).
The Satyam fraud presents serious questions about systemic regulatory efficacy, particularly concerning auditing and audit firm oversight. True, it may seem outlandish that Madoff was able to use a rinky-dink auditing firm to review the books of a fund commanding billions of dollars in assets and it may be that even such small auditing firms of even private funds require as much regulatory supervision as larger auditing firms auditing public enterprises.
But the Satyam scandal presents a far more serious problem. Unlike Madoff, the company has shares listed in the United States. Also unlike Madoff, it was audited by a foreign affiliate of a large US auditing firm, PWC, whose operations apparently were outside the scope of review undertaken by the US auditing profession’s regulatory overseer, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB).
Pending additional information from the newly-revealed fraud, of course, a couple of preliminary issues may prove to be lessons of the Satyam fraud. First, if foreign companies list securities in the United States, their financial statements need to be audited by a firm whose activities are subject to regulatory oversight in the United States.
Second, the fraud implicates the Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent enthusiasm for the concept of mutual recognition. This refers to a policy allowing foreign firms, especially brokers but potentially also companies and auditors, to access US securities markets without regulatory oversight here, so long as they are subject to comparable regulatory oversight at home. (I have questioned this policy before.)
Third, there is some possibility that audit failures by foreign affiliates of US auditing firms could expose the US firm to crushing legal liability. This could lead to the dissolution of one of the four remaining large US auditing firms (see my post here). Should that occur, with only three such firms standing, the country would face an additional blow to its system of corporate finance, with attendant adversity for the real economy and citizens.