Members of a new accounting oversight board met yesterday for their second public meeting, listening to wide-ranging advice from accounting experts about how to improve audits as they race to create a new regulatory apparatus for overseeing and disciplining auditors.
The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board has not yet hired many staff members. But the acting chairman, Charles D. Niemeier, said the board is confident that it will be able to satisfy the Securities and Exchange Commission that it is capable of meeting its oversight responsibilities by April 26, a deadline set last year by Congress.
By November, the board's new chief information officer, Ray Schmidt, a former systems manager for McLean software company MicroStrategy Inc., must construct an online database and registration system capable of processing applications from the 125,000 individuals and firms that must register to audit public companies under a law passed last year.
Niemeier said the system will be crucial to its effort to police audits. "This system may be the most valuable asset that this board has," he said. "It could reveal the risks developing in particular industries or markets that might otherwise go unnoticed."
Niemeier cited the trading patterns of Enron Corp. as an example of the type of data that could have tipped off regulators to the energy company's financial instability. He said he envisions a system that would collect this kind of information and send out warning signals.
Congress voted to create the board last year after a series of corporate accounting scandals focused criticism on the accounting industry's system of self-regulation. The commission members were appointed by the SEC, but the board operates as a nonprofit corporation rather than a government agency and will be funded by fees from publicly traded companies.
Congress gave the board the authority to subpoena and discipline accountants, up to revoking their licenses to practice.
Niemeier asked if the accounting board should introduce new regulations for auditors to use if following generally accepted accounting principles resulted in financial reports that the auditors thought were misleading to investors.
Katherine Schipper, a member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which sets the accounting principles, said she did not think that such a move was a good idea. She said that if complying with a financial accounting rule led to a confusing financial report, "then we're not doing our job."
Roderick M. Hills, a former SEC chairman, urged the board to give audit committees "real" independence. Congress last year required that auditors be hired and supervised by company audit committees, not by management. But Hills said that at many companies, audit committees are still too influenced by management when they make such decisions.