Is the independence of auditors in government banks being compromised?

 The major frauds in the banking industry during the last two decades were mainly because of the failure of the audit profession in identifying the signals in advance

The appointment of statutory central auditors for public sector banks (PSBs) was the prerogative of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) till a few years back, and the banks had practically no say in this matter. This system ensured the independence of auditors, who were not obligated to the banks for their appointment and hence could report their findings without fear or favour. The independence of auditors is widely considered as the cornerstone of the public accounting profession.

However, from the year 2008-2009, the government in its wisdom granted managerial autonomy to the public sector banks to appoint their statutory auditors, by directly sourcing the names of auditors from the panel maintained by Controller & Auditor General of India (CAG) and getting it approved by the RBI, which in effect is a mere formality. However, the RBI has informed the banks that though the autonomy is given to PSBs, the norms for empanelment and remuneration of auditors shall continue to be as prescribed by it. Further, RBI has advised all PSBs to frame their own policy for appointment of statutory central/branch auditors.

This revised practice has been followed for the last four years and it is time for RBI to reflect on this practice. To pre-empt any misuse, it is desirable to make the following changes in the present system to make the auditors’ appointment above board. 

  1. Transparency and professionalism while appointing statutory auditors: One of the apprehensions voiced both by the public and a few members of the CA profession was that there being no specific criteria for selection of auditors, all kinds of pulls and pressures could operate to ensure appointment of specific firms of auditors, which are aggressive in marketing themselves through fair and foul means. As one of the readers of Moneylife puts it, “audit firms are in an open field vying with each other in wooing bank managements to get the audits awarded to them and, in exchange, the banks are in a position to get the certificates from their auditors on dotted lines”. It is also said that that the auditors are tempted to compromise with audit independence because they are de-facto appointed by the management. Auditors are no doubt honourable men and women, who belong to the intelligentsia of the country. But there being no ground rules for selection; abuse of the system cannot be ruled out in the environment in which we function today. In order to minimize such situations the best course for the RBI is to introduce the method presently followed in the appointment of auditors in private banks, where banks are required to recommend double the number of vacancy available and the RBI can pick and choose the best amongst those recommended according to their judgment, thereby making the system more transparent and less prone to misuse. In effect, if there are six vacancies, the PSBs should recommend twelve names to the RBI, which in turn will select the best six among them, thereby considerably reducing the chances of favouritism in the appointment. This is an improvement over the present system of leaving the entire selection to the banks’ managements, which are prone to be influenced by even the political class in such selection. The proposed system of giving some discretion to the RBI has served the private sector banks well and there is no reason why it cannot be followed in PSBs also.
  2. Evaluation of audits by RBI: At present there is no system of evaluating the auditing done in PSBs and the report of the auditors is final without any review. RBI being the regulator of banks can introduce the system of evaluating the audit so as to serve as an oversight over the audit work being done, and this will ensure that the auditors do their job with due diligence and with seriousness it deserves. This can be easily done by the RBI by introducing a system of review of audit also in their annual financial review (AFI) conducted by them every year in every bank and assess the level of performance of the statutory auditors in a systematic way. Normally it is observed in every bank that there is always short provisioning for NPAs (non-performing assets) resulting in inflation of profits and this is one of the important findings of the AFI by RBI every year.  If the variation is large, there is certainly a case for deciding whether the auditors have done their job properly or not and whether they deserve to be reappointed as auditors for the next year. There are many other critical areas like frauds, irregularities in reporting, etc, if not unearthed by the auditors but subsequently noticed by the RBI inspectors, is an indication of the failure of the audit profession and this could be a case for review for their reappointment. RBI could think of many other ways in which to review the audit and thus serve as the protector of banks if the auditors fail in discharging their duties honestly, diligently and fearlessly in the best interest of the banks concerned. 
  3. Cooling off period requires to be changed: At present it is a game of musical chairs so far as appointment of auditors is concerned. A small coterie of audit firms monopolize the entire audit of public sector banks and they are rotated from one bank to another making the system of cooling off period a mockery of the whole exercise and gives rise to all sorts of abuses in the selection process. In order to widen the base of eligible audit firms it is necessary to increase the cooling off or rest period and provide opportunity to the new members of the audit profession, who can be groomed to take up audits of larger banks in due course. At present at the end of three-year period of continuous audit of a public sector bank, there is a cooling off period of two years during which period; the audit firm is not eligible to be considered for statutory audit of any other PSBs. This in effect means that there are only two sets of teams of audit firms who monopolize the audit of public sector banks, by alternating between themselves, virtually depriving all other audit firms from participating in the audit of public sector banks. Unless this system is changed, the monopoly of a few audit firms cannot be broken. The cooling off period should ideally be increased to minimum of four years, so that another set of teams of auditors get an opportunity to audit the PSBs. This increases the participation of audit firms by 50% from the present level, thereby broad-basing the system making more audit firms eligible to compete for audit of PSBs. Along with increasing the cooling off period to four years, there is a need to change the selection norms prescribed by the RBI to enable the new audit firms with slightly lesser experience to become eligible for being appointed as statutory auditors of banks, thereby extending the opportunity to many more audit firms who are waiting in the wings to take up this job. 
  4. Change of partner of the audit firm every year: At present there is no system of changing the partner of the audit firm which is responsible for signing the balance sheet of the bank allotted to them and the same partner can continue for a period of three years in a bank. The drawback of this system is that it results in the audit partner going on the beaten track and deprives the bank the benefit of new thinking, which is essential to gear up the efficiency of audit in the interest of continuous improvement in the system of audit. The RBI should lay down guidelines to ensure that a different partner represents their firm and leads the audit team every year in the larger interest of making bank audits more independent and objective. 

If you analyze the reasons for the major frauds in the banking industry during the last two decades, it is evident that it is mainly because of the failure of the audit profession in identifying the signals in advance, many times relying too much on the statements made by the managements of banks. The Harshad Mehta scam, Ketan Mehta scam, the GTB scam, CRB scam,  Satyam Computers scam and many others have the auditors squarely to blame for their inability to smell a rat, even when the regulators have found something amiss in their operations with the banks. And in most of these cases, it is the media who finds out skeletons in the cupboards of banks, rather than the auditors, whose job it is to do.

Therefore, when you give autonomy to the banks, it should be coupled with checks and balances to ensure that such autonomy is not misused. As per the media reports, the credit rating of most of the large public sector banks has been recently downgraded, which calls for urgent steps to improve the functioning of banks and their corporate governance standards. As the saying goes “prevention is better than cure”. Hence it is advisable to continuously improve the systems when the going is good rather than take corrective steps after the happening of a scam. The steps suggested above will help in ensuring the independence of the auditors and will go a go a long way in strengthening both the banking institutions and the audit profession in our country.

 (The author is a banking analyst and he writes for Moneylife under a pen-name ‘Gurpur’.) 

 

Comments
a v moorthi besides TIHAR
10 years ago
In Public Sector Banks employees joined after 01.04.2010, are are covered under New Pension Scheme. but Banks have not paid interest for the contributions kept in the Pension funds and so also for management contribution for the period 01.04.2010 to 31.03.2011. The Bank management has cheated these employees by denying reasonable return (even rate the Bank pay on recurring deposit has been denied) and management reduced there cost of fund and increased NIM by cheating their own employees. All this NON PAYMENT of interest is done to secure incentive of Rs 8 lacs payable to Executive Directors and CMDs. Unfortunately this issue has been over looked by Banks own staff so as to not to antogonise the executives, Majority officers and staff union as their own members sit on the Banksboard as workmen director and CAs who certify the balance sheets so that they can continue to get assignments
Money life should do a story immediately as Banks are in the process of finalising balance sheets for FY ended on 31.03.2012. In doing this Moneylife will be saving the young staff who are putting their retirement saving to NPS and their Pension contributions are earning at least returns guarented by EPF. PPF etc and interest is paid from contributions made w.e.f 01.04.2010.
dayananda kamath k
Replied to a v moorthi besides TIHAR comment 10 years ago
one of the nationalised banks used to send the confirmation of the employees after 6 to 8 months of their due date effective from back date and the contribution to provident fund would be deducted from the date of intimation from employee . you can imagin the loss to the employee on compound interest on his 6 to 8 monhs contribution till his retirement. matter was refferred to labour commissioner as well as labour commissioner and even reported to directorate of public grievances . but no action so far.
dayananda kamath k
10 years ago
the quality of bank audit is very pathetic. as an internal auditor i have brought out very serious lapses of statutory auditors and how basic rules of audit are being ignored by them. i have even filed a complaint with chartered accountants of india in 2005 and followed up but no action so far. because everybody wants to protect their turf at the cost of public. even some of these facts are brought to the notice of rbi also.
C Jyoti
Replied to dayananda kamath k comment 10 years ago
Very rightly said. One should try out an RTI application to the concerned authorities to enquire about the huge jump in the income and no. of audit and other jobs of the past presidents and ex-central council members after the end of their terms. This will throw light on the goings in in the institute. Last 10 years will do. After all, institute is a creation of an Act of Parlt. and hence covered by the RTI Act.
Nisban
10 years ago
Congratulations to Moneylife and Gurpur for this long overdue article which one hopes will be noted by the IAS-CSS bureaucratic pmniscients, the RBI and, of course, the highbrow and impractical babus of the IA&AS. Every word written in the article is so very true that the ICAI, the mute abettor to this plight of the profession of auditing in India, must reprint in its own journal. It is suggestive that this is not from the pen of a member of the ICAI!
Auditing of government's accounts has been nothing but a farce and essentially bogus too, mainly to comply with certain Constitutional and legal requirements unless, of course, the subject matter of the audit would necessarily have a newsworthy. This has been proved only too well in recent past. The general culture and the standard norms for the audit teams, whether Revenue Audit or Commercial Audit, are rather embarrassingly murky. The concerned departments or offices or companies, as the case may be, are compulsorily to be "taken care of" very well and elaborate arrangements for sightseeing/pleasure trips are invariably included in the "package" The same thing happens with many statutory auditors appointed under section 619B of the Companies Act inter alia to audit the PSUs who find it quite difficult to account for the "expenses" incurred on the Auditors. Many years ago, a steel PSU had to take up the matter of the statutory auditor's demand for huge cash in exchange of his not raising (frivolous and baseless) objections. The director in charge of finance in the ministry had to intervene in the matter but failed as the auditor was too powerful with a lot of clout in the CAG office and the corridors of power in Delhi.
Bank audits, as very aptly analysed by Gurpur, are indeed quite a study. It is learnt that a very important PSU Bank has been asked by the Finance Ministry mandarins to have the statutory audit report for the year 2011-12 "passed" by the Board by the 15th of May so as to enable it to :present" the dividend cheque to the Minister much before 30th September! As a result, circle chiefs of the bank have been begging auditors' firms to attend the meeting to allot branches and complete the audit (i.e., finalise and submit the report) by the 20th of April! It is understood that the process of allotting the branch audits is still inprogress whereas the cut off date remains the same!
Neither the all powerful ICAI, the potentate of the CAs in India, nor any anti-corruption group of self-styled activists finds any fault in this system and the minimal time given for auditing PSU banks who are custodians of government's money. NPAS and big disbursements of advances cannot by checked effectively within such a short time, even if every firm is armed with tens of assistants to test check some of these. Thus the intention of the government (read: politicioans and the IAS babus) is clearly to make the audit so meaningless a statutory exercise as to be able to hoodwink the taxpayers. Compare this scenario in respect of the Commercial Audit with the long drawn continual process of functioning of Revenue Audit teams!
One hopes, the ICAI at least will be able to realize that they become a party to all this by their inaction. And, strange enough and suggestive too, there is no check on the functioning of the CAG as regards awarding of audits to MNC firms is concerned.

One thing emerges clearly though. Smaller CA firms are being deliberately killed by this system and CA profession has lost all its respect.
malq
10 years ago
Thank you for an informative article.

It would help if you provided readers with some actual names and incidents. There is no harm in doing so.

A partial solution would also be to make the audit process and audit related correspondence totally transparent and available to all. There appears to be a direct co-relation between the so-called need for 'secrecy" and fraud in banking, which needs to be countered.

Humbly submitted/VM

A ban
Replied to malq comment 10 years ago
I think it is rather difficult to really furnish the names of the Ausitors who are extremely influential. Let some organisation like the IAC or TII take up the fight.
nagesh kini
Replied to A ban comment 10 years ago
For names get the list of auditors for SBI and its Subsidiaries. More than half with will be from Delhi/Jaipur even for the remote south or east - indicating their clout.
The earlier practice of picking up from CAG/RBI data base was relatively transparent and needs to be reverted too.
Recent events have proven that CAG is showing its teeth. Like the rest of the country inefficiency and sloth has permeated here too in some places and it needs to be eradicated.
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