Sacred cows make great steaks. Richard Nicolosi.
Risk-based audit standards have existed for years, but I still see a resistance to risk assessment procedures. Why? A reliance on the traditional balance sheet audit approach. I think many auditors prefer to test a bank reconciliation (ticking off each cleared transaction) to interviewing the company’s CFO. They enjoy the certainty of vouching payables (yep, the invoice agrees with the payable detail) and disdain the difficulty of walking a transaction through the accounting system. Regardless, many CPA firms struggle to slay the sacred cow of balance sheet audits.
So what is a balance sheet audit approach?
It’s the examination of period-end balance sheet totals (the results of accounting processes) rather than the accounting processes themselves. For example, the auditor might confirm receivables and not perform a walkthrough of billing and collections. The balance sheet audit approach lacks any significant focus on the income statement.
While it is true that nailing down (or “beating up”) the balance sheet provides helpful audit evidence, there are some downsides.
So what are the weaknesses of a balance sheet audit approach?
First, the balance sheet approach does not address the income statement. Consequently, income statement line items may be misclassified (e.g., expenses netted with revenues). If the balance sheet is correct, net income (the result of revenues and expenses) is correct. But revenues and expenses can still be misclassified. (I once saw grant revenue of $300,000 netted with related grant expenses resulting in a $0 impact to revenues and expenses.)
Secondly, and more importantly, the balance sheet audit method does not address the possibility of theft (and some forms of fraudulent reporting of revenues and expenses). Sure we can confirm cash and reconcile the balance to the general ledger. So what? If someone steals $1 million in cash receipts (or $10 million or whatever number you want to use), the balance sheet approach may not address the risk of theft.
The same is true if the CFO steals money by cutting checks to himself (or to fictitious vendors). The accounts payable balance can be reconciled to a detail, and a search for unrecorded liabilities can be performed–typical balance sheet audit steps–but these procedures don’t address theft.
Finally, audit standards require walkthroughs, fraud inquiries, planning analytics, and an understanding of the business. Without these steps, we cannot truly understand audit risks that lie hidden in accounting processes.
I still believe that auditors can save time using a risk-based audit approach.
Understanding the business and its processes requires time, but doing so can lead to a leaner audit. You can decrease some substantive procedures when you know where your risks are. We can also mitigate audit risk (because we know what the risks are).
And this is the beauty and logic of risk-based audits. We determine where the risks are, and then we perform procedures to address those risks. We cease to blindly focus on the balance sheet.
Less time, less risk.
Sounds good to me–but slaying a sacred cow is necessary. I like my steaks medium rare. How about you?
Agree or disagree? Please let me know.
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Charles Hall is a practicing CPA and Certified Fraud Examiner. For the last thirty years, he has primarily audited governments, nonprofits, and small businesses. He is the author of The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention and Preparation of Financial Statements & Compilation Engagements. He frequently speaks at continuing education events. Charles is the quality control partner for McNair, McLemore, Middlebrooks & Co. where he provides daily audit and accounting assistance to over 65 CPAs. In addition, he consults with other CPA firms, assisting them with auditing and accounting issues.
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