Pluralistic: The long sleep of capitalism's watchdogs (26 Jan 2024)

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A vintage photo of Wall Street, tinted sepia. It has been altered. A chainlink fence pattern has been overlaid on the scene. A crooked, dirty 'BEWARE OF DOG' sign hangs from the fence, with a line-art drawing of a lunging, snarling German shepherd. Beneath the sign, and behind the chainlink, a small, cute puppy snoozed. In the middle of Wall Street is the 'Charging Bull' bronze statue, standing in a spreading pool of blood. Its eyes glow red.

The long sleep of capitalism's watchdogs (permalink)

One of the weirdest aspects of end-stage capitalism is the collapse of auditing, the lynchpin of investing. Auditors – independent professionals who sign off on a company's finances – are the only way that investors can be sure they're not handing their money over to failing businesses run by crooks.

It's just not feasible for investors to talk to supply-chain partners and retailers and verify that a company's orders and costs are real. Investors can't walk into a company's bank and demand to see their account histories. Auditors – who are paid by companies, but work for themselves – are how investors avoid shoveling money into Ponzi-pits.

Attentive readers will have noticed that there is an intrinsic tension in an arrangement where someone is paid by a company to certify its honesty. The company gets to decide who its auditors are, and those auditors are dependent on the company for future business. To manage this conflict of interest, auditors swear fealty to a professional code of ethics, and are themselves overseen by professional boards with the power to issue fines and ban cheaters.

Enter monopolization. Over the past 40 years, the US government conducted a failed experiment in allowing companies to form monopolies on the theory that these would be "efficient." From Boeing to Facebook, Cigna to Inbev, Warner to Microsoft, it has been a catastrophe. The American corporate landscape is dominated by vast, crumbling, ghastly companies whose bad products and worse corporate conduct are locked in a race to see who can attain the most depraved enshittification quickest.

The accounting profession is no exception. A decades-long incestuous orgy of mergers and acquisitions yielded up an accounting sector dominated by just four firms: EY, KPMG, PWC and Deloitte (the last holdout from the alphabetsoupification of corporate identity). Virtually every major company relies on one of these companies for auditing, but that's only a small part of corporate America's relationship with these tottering behemoths. The real action comes from "consulting."

Each of the Big Four accounting firms is also a corporate consultancy. Some of those consulting services are the normal work of corporate consultants – cookie cutter advice to fire workers and reduce product quality, as well as supplying dangerously defecting enterprise software. But you can get that from the overpaid enablers at McKinsey or BCG. The advantage of contracting with a Big Four accounting firm for consulting is that they can help you commit finance fraud.

Remember: if you're an executive greenlighting fraud, you mostly just want to be sure it's not discovered until after you've pocketed your bonus and moved on. After all, the pro-monopoly experiment was also an experiment in tolerating corporate crime. Executives who cheat their investors, workers and suppliers typically generate fines for their companies, while escaping any personal liability.

By buying your cheating advice from the same company that is paid to certify that you're not cheating, you greatly improve your chances of avoiding detection until you've blown town.

Which brings me to the idea of the "bezzle." This is John Kenneth Galbraith's term for "the weeks, months, or years that elapse between the commission of the crime and its discovery." This is the period in which both the criminal and the victim feel like they're better off. The crook has the victim's money, and the victim doesn't know it. The Bezzle is that interval when you're still assuming that FTX isn't lying to you about the crazy returns they're generating for your crypto. It's the period between you getting the shrinkwrapped box with a 90% discounted PS5 in it from a guy in an alley, and getting home and discovering that it's full of bricks and styrofoam.

Big Accounting is a factory for producing bezzles at scale. The game is rigged, and they are the riggers. When banks fail and need a public bailout, chances are those banks were recently certified as healthy by one of the Big Four, whose audited bank financials failed 800 re-audits between 2009-17:

The Big Four dispute this, of course. They claim to be models of probity, adhering to the strictest possible ethical standards. This would be a lot easier to believe if KPMG hadn't been caught bribing its regulators to help its staff cheat on ethics exams:

Likewise, it would be easier to believe if their consulting arms didn't keep getting caught advising their clients on how to cheat their auditing arms:

Big Accounting is a very weird phenomenon, even by the standards of End-Stage Capitalism. It's an organized system of millionaire-on-billionaire violence, a rare instance of the very richest people getting scammed the hardest:

The collapse of accounting is such an ominous and fractally weird phenomenon, it inspired me to write a series of hard-boiled forensic accountancy novels about a two-fisted auditor named Martin Hench, starting with last year's Red Team Blues (out in paperback next week!):

The sequel to Red Team Blues is called (what else?) The Bezzle, and part of its ice-cold revenge plot involves a disillusioned EY auditor who can't bear to be part of the scam any longer:

The Hench stories span a 40-year period, and are a chronicle of decades of corporate decay. Accountancy is the perfect lens for understanding our modern fraud economy. After all, it was crooked accountants who gave us the S&L crisis:

Crooked auditors were at the center of the Great Financial Crisis, too:

And of course, crooked auditors were behind the Enron fraud, a rare instance in which a fraud triggered a serious attempt to prevent future crimes, including the destruction of accounting giant Arthur Andersen. After Enron, Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), which created a new oversight board called the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB).

The PCAOB is a watchdog for watchdogs, charged with auditing the auditors and punishing the incompetent and corrupt among them. Writing for The American Prospect and the Revolving Door Project, Timi Iwayemi describes the long-running failure of the PCAOB to do its job:

For example: from 2003-2019, the PCAOB undertook only 18 enforcement cases – even though the PCAOB also detected more than 800 "seriously defective audits" by the Big Four. And those 18 cases were purely ornamental: the PCAOB issued a mere $6.5m in fines for all 18, even though they could have fined the accounting companies $1.6 billion:

Few people are better on this subject than the investigative journalist Francine McKenna, who has just co-authored a major paper on the PCAOB:

The paper uses a new data set – documents disclosed in a 2019 criminal trial – to identify the structural forces that cause the PCAOB to be such a weak watchdog whose employees didn't merely fail to do their jobs, but actually criminally abetted the misdeeds of the companies they were supposed to be keeping honest.

They put the blame – indirectly – on the SEC. The PCAOB has three missions: protecting investors, keeping markets running smoothly, and ensuring that businesses can raise capital. These missions come into conflict. For example, declaring one of the Big Four auditors ineligible would throw markets into chaos, removing a quarter of the auditing capacity that all public firms rely on. The Big Four are the auditors for 99.7% of the S&P 500, and certify the books for the majority of all listed companies:

For the first two decades of the PCAOB's existence, the SEC insisted that conflicts be resolved in ways that let the auditing firms commit fraud, because the alternative would be bad for the market.

So: rather than cultivating an adversarial relationship to the Big Four, the PCAOB effectively merged with them. Two of its board seats are reserved for accountants, and those two seats have been occupied by Big Four veterans almost without exception:

It was no better on the SEC side. The Office of the Chief Accountant is the SEC's overseer for the PCAOB, and it, too, has operated with a revolving door between the Big Four and their watchdog (indeed, the Chief Accountant is the watchdog for the watchdog for the watchdogs!). Meanwhile, staffers from the Office of the Chief Accountant routinely rotated out of government service and into the Big Four.

This corrupt arrangement reached a crescendo in 2019, with the appointment of William Duhnke – formerly of Senator Richard Shelby's [R-AL] staff – who took over as Chief Accountant. Under Duhnke's leadership, the already-toothless watchdog was first neutered, then euthanized. Duhnke fired all four heads of the PCAOB's main division and then left their seats vacant for 18 months. He slashed the agency's budget, "weakened inspection requirements and auditor independence policies, and disregarded obligations to hold Board meetings and publicize its agenda."

All that ended in 2021, when SEC chair Gary Gensler fired Duhnke and replaced him with Erica Williams, at the insistence of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Within a year, Williams had issued 42 enforcement actions, the largest number since 2017, levying over $11m in sanctions:

She was just getting warmed up: last year, PCAOB collected $20m in fines, with five cases seeing fines in excess of $2m each, a record:

Williams isn't shy about condemning the Big Four, publicly sounding the alarm that 40% of the 2022 audits the PCAOB reviewed were deficient, up from 34% in 2021 and 29% in 2020:

Under Williams, the PCAOB has enacted new, muscular rules on lead auditors' duties, and they're now consulting on a rule that will make audit inspections much faster, shortening the documentation period from 45 days to 14:

Williams is no fire-breathing leftist. She's an alum of the SEC and a BigLaw firm, creating modest, obvious technical improvements to a key system that capitalism requires for its orderly functioning. Moreover, she is competent, able to craft regulations that are effective and enforceable. This has been a motif within the Biden administration:

But though these improvements are decidedly moderate, they are grounded in a truly radical break from business-as-usual in the age of monopoly auditors. It's a transition from self-regulation to regulation. As @40_Years on Twitter so aptly put it: "Self regulation is to regulation as self-importance is to importance":

(Image: Sam Valadi, Disco Dan, CC BY 2.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Protect your investment: buy open

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#10yrsago Candy Quest: a text-adventure in defiance of the stupid Candy Crush trademark

#10yrsago Bletchley Park’s new management chucks out long-term volunteers

#10yrsago Lovecraftian rant about the horrors of Blackboard

#5yrsago The rent is too damned high because money-laundering oligarchs bought all the real-estate to clean their oil money

#1yrago Podcasts are hearteningly enshittification resistant

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: What kind of bubble is AI?
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Upcoming books:

  • The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

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