World Survey 2022 Outlook
Increased demand for consulting services drives accountancy industry
2022 has kicked off with an expansion of economic activity globally, with increased hybrid working and demand for advisory services driving revenue growth, spurred on by the challenging regulatory focus on audit scrutiny, tax and ESG reporting. Zoya Malik, Group Editor, International Accounting Bulletin speaks to accounting C-suite and practice heads about their outlook for the industry over the coming year.
t first glance, the start of the new year looks like a continuation of most of 2021 with the vaccination effort against Covid-19 continuing apace, the world dealing with the economic fallout from disrupted economies and trade routes, work-from-home converting to a ‘hybrid’ model, sustained supply chain disruptions, natural gas shortages and the ramifications of the international community’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and US/China disagreements on a range of issues.
Adding to this are new concerns about a full-scale war on the Russia/Ukraine border which could draw in NATO, the global inflationary surge and the, so-called, ‘Partygate’ scandal in the UK. There are some positives on the horizon, though, with the lifting of the most onerous Covid restrictions, an apparent economic resurgence in North America and Europe and, seemingly, greater global focus on climate change issues.
With this background, the Accountancy Industry develops swiftly. In Europe, we have seen a significant rise in demand for consulting services over the last 12 months, which has been particularly driven by M&A activity. However, due to economic uncertainty, large private equity firms have been waiting and observing the market, holding back from investing until recent months. The roll out of a strong vaccine programme in Europe restored some optimism and favourable market conditions. This has unleashed investor appetite for new investments. In the past few months, with low interest rates and plenty of committed, but unallocated capital reserved, M&A activity has ramped up. For example, RSM Firms in Europe completed 276 deals in the first half of 2021, which equates to two deals per working day.
Due to increased scrutiny on audit quality and perceived conflicts of interest between audit and non-audit work, firms are having to develop their audit practices in terms of focus, staffing and training. Across the industry, 2022 is expected to be all about preparing their audit teams for ISA 315 Revised and the new ISQMs. Whilst 2021 could be characterised by evolving regulatory standards and expectations, ISQMs that are approached positively this year may create scope for the process to have significant benefit to how firms are run and managed, and not just for audit.
BDO’s Keith Farlinger, Global CEO says, “As part of BDO’s ongoing mission to drive quality throughout the organisation, Regional Quality Directors were appointed for each of the Americas, Asia-Pacific and EMEA regions and we continue to invest in our ISQM implementation.” BKR International’s CEO, Tim Morris adds, “Assurance leaders in member firms actively identify situations when the firm is conflicted out, and they will typically refer another firm while establishing a new consulting or outsourced accounting role with these prospects or clients. In other cases, member firms are dropping their audit practices to focus on deeper outsourced accounting, tax and business advisory services.”
Shedding audit practices may be a logical step for some firms but it still forms an integral part of the industry. PrimeGlobal’s CEO, Steve Heathcote elucidates, “Our firms are still finding that audit is very much in demand with around 35% of our firms’ service lines focused on it. With more uncertainty, there is greater demand for assurance, that financial statements present a true and fair view of the position of organisations. The larger networks do face conflict challenges; however, this creates opportunities for our firms to win new assignments. The biggest challenge is securing sufficiently qualified staff to complete the audits.” Nick Jeffrey, Director of Professional Standards, BakerTilly International, adds a note of caution, “We are engaging in the debate around EU corporate reporting reform, but there isn’t much new on the table. A regulatory response to unexpected corporate failure that just tightens existing independence rules without appropriate root cause analysis, has a limited useful life. Even with a total ban on non-audit services, mandatory audit-only firms and audit firm rotation periods of one year, you will still get unexpected corporate failure.”
“Firms should focus on specialised practitioners as a key strategy to maintain and improve their audit quality. General practitioners will not survive in the long run,” expounds Dr. Christian Gorny, CEO, ETL Global. For many, this would require adding technological capabilities to the academic education and training of audit professionals.
Andrew Collier, Quality Director at Kreston Global, qualifies this by adding, “Audit has been a specialist function for some time. Firms will continue to invest in people, technology and training to ensure they can meet the demands of their clients and other stakeholders, including regulators but they may take a view on which sectors of the audit market they will be involved in.” Interestingly, this may result in some firms withdrawing from work that is subject to regulation and, possibly, even choosing to be selective about which clients they wish to act for. Clearly, the transition to the implementation of ISQM 1 and 2 will be a significant challenge for firms. Global Audit Group Head at Kreston, Theo Theodoulou, also added, “Audit firms that decided to withdraw from sectors or clients that have increased scrutiny and regulation have strategically decided to focus on non-audit services in the same sectors therefore avoiding any conflicts of interest whatsoever.”
Interestingly, Clive Viegas Bennett, CEO, MGI Worldwide posits that, “The response will vary significantly in different jurisdictions. Many firms in more heavily regulated jurisdictions are moving away from audit and focussing more on business advisory work. 95% of our firms’ audit work is for non-PIE clients, so it is a very different world from the big firms.” His opinion is that the “illogical” IESBA/EU network rules mean that some firms are considering moving out of networks and back into the association part of organisations. Russell Bedford’s CEO, Stephen Hamlet comments that, “Where legislation requires the auditor to refrain from providing additional services to an audit client, our firms are developing business strategies to provide non-audit services to new clients. The audit is already seen as a compliance service in many countries and not susceptible to significant price increase. Our members will be using data analytics and IT support to become as efficient as possible, but a significant challenge will be to recover the costs from increased fees.”
top row from left:
Keith Farlinger, Global CEO, BDO
Tim Morris, CEO, BKR International
Steve Heathcote, CEO, PrimeGlobal
middle row from left:
Nick Jeffrey, Director of Professional Standards, BakerTilly International
Dr. Christian Gorny, CEO, ETL Global
Andrew Collier, Quality Director, Kreston Global
bottom row from left:
Theo Theodoulou, Global Audit Group Head, Kreston
Clive Viegas Bennett, CEO, MGI Worldwide
Stephen Hamlet,CEO,Russell Bedford
With the continued realignment of audit and advisory services, driven by regulatory pressures in some cases and commercial imperatives in others, the choice of specialisation is critical. Of course there are different paths and contributing factors towards this growth. Technology is driving a digital transformation at the heart of the Accountancy industry. Cloud solutions, data intelligence, AI and data security are critical to this progress. There has been a rise in cybercrime, partly because of the pandemic, but this has created opportunities for advisory firms to provide cyber security and forensic analysis advice. In addition to this, a growing focus on climate change, especially leading up to and beyond COP 26, is creating increased demand for advisory services. In recent years, with the introduction of carbon emission reduction initiatives, issues such as green finance and corporate ESG (environmental, social and governance) performance have become the focus of the market, and the role of the capital market in the process of "carbon neutrality", has also attracted much attention.
Firms have established various initiatives to exploit climate demands - through their professional skills and experience in risk management, corporate management and transaction processing, to create a base from which to assist corporates e.g. when these corporates are dealing with carbon emission compliance, voluntary emission reduction and improvements to their carbon asset management capabilities. The objective being to increase market competitiveness of enterprises. For example, Daxin Global established a business innovation service line in 2021, called Daxin Carbon Neutrality Research Centre, to study national development policies and industry trends.
As Jean Stephens, Global CEO, RSM International explains, “ESG matters are becoming increasingly important as corporate ethical behaviours continue to be scrutinised. This has been exacerbated by the climate change crisis and is expected to continue.” According to a RSM UK’s survey The Real Economy – ESG Report’ October 2021, of over 400 senior executives from UK middle market businesses, this is a growing issue. The survey found that only 56% of businesses were familiar with the concept of ESG criteria to evaluate an organisation’s performance, which demonstrates the need for expert support in this important area; whilst 74% of those that were familiar with ESG, said that they have a formal plan or strategy outlining their commitments to ESG initiatives. Furthermore, 84% said that their ESG policy will contribute to the future sustainability of their business.
Anton Collela, Global CEO, Moore Global remarks, “Across the globe our member firms are reporting rising demand for cyber services, ESG, Corporate Finance and outsourcing. We have seen an increase in cyber-attacks across mid-tier entities which are driving a demand for our experts. Additionally, continued working from home and greater use of the cloud has exposed new gaps in some entities' security levels. ESG has risen to the top of the agenda for many of our clients. All sectors are impacted by this but some, specifically Automotive and Maritime plus the key areas of Manufacturing and Distribution are under intense scrutiny. For many clients, this journey began pre-pandemic, but there has been an increased focus on sustainability and change in 2021.” Restructuring, refinancing and cost management have also been key on Andrew Leck, CEO, MSI Global Alliance’s agenda. Leck states, “Due to the changing marketplace associated with the pandemic, there continues to be an increased adoption of new technology projects where clients are looking for efficiencies and economies in their own processes and procedures.”
In a similar vein, Tim Wilson, CEO, Nexia International remarks, “There has been significant client demand in Corporate Finance related services, Legal and most importantly Risk Advisory related services. In particular, Risk Advisory has been fuelled by the impact of the pandemic, e.g., having surfaced cybersecurity issues. After some reduction of activity, now plenty of cash is looking for deployment as many clients consider acquisition of good quality businesses with enhanced multiples increasing the Corporate Finance activities. Additionally, there has been a continued source of businesses available for sale as part of succession planning, as owners have had enough following the 2009 recession and battling Covid.” Jack Clipsham, corporate finance partner, Kreston Global goes further saying, “Covid has undoubtedly had a negative impact in some sectors and has prompted some owners to consider why they are continuing to battle on. As a result, buyers see an opportunity to acquire at better values, whilst others see an opportunity to ‘pivot’ or change focus by acquiring existing businesses, rather than trying to develop a green field business/service offering themselves.”
Covid has created opportunities in other areas as well. Joe Chang, Vice Chairman, Daxin Global opines, “Our clients are seeking advisory service around the tax implications of relocating to different countries. The growth is a result of more flexibility from working remotely under the circumstances of the pandemic. In Africa, we’ve experienced a significant growth in financial modelling and debt restructure services; this is mainly driven by post-Covid business recovery efforts, as organisations try to adapt to the new environment.” Stephens maintains, “Across the RSM Network, our Firms are supporting clients with their digital transformation, from embracing SaaS platforms to streamlining processes for automating HR functions. This was particularly notable in Latin America as a significant number of businesses were forced to embrace remote working practices for the first time and new IT infrastructures and policies needed to be created from scratch.”
top row from left:
Jean Stephens, Global CEO, RSM International
Anton Collela, Global CEO, Moore Global
Andrew Leck, CEO, MSI Global Alliance
bottom row from left:
Tim Wilson, CEO, Nexia International
Jack Clipsham, corporate finance partner,
Joe Chang, Vice Chairman, Daxin Global
Regional variation, geopolitics and regulation
Whilst many firms report not seeing significant regional variance i.e., all markets being equally influenced by the pandemic-related government interventions, many can see differences in how specific regions are emerging from lockdown restrictions. Global demand for cybersecurity solutions, especially as ransomware becomes more of an issue across all sectors, is a given, but in almost all other aspects of commerce, there must be regional variations. This begs the question of how the industry can tweak their offerings to establish differentiation in various jurisdictions. Primarily, of course, demand drives the solutions.
Colella offers his perspective asserting, “Africa, and specifically South Africa, has seen an increase in debt restructuring and Corporate Finance services, concentrated in the hotel, leisure and retail sectors while Australia and the US have seen an uptick in demand for ESG services. We anticipate a further increase in demand across Europe as regulators, banks and increasing social pressures, focus attention on sustainable business practices.” Wilson agrees that advisory demand is higher across North America and Europe as compared to Latin America, Africa or Asia. He adds, though, that, “India continues to build its reputation on becoming the outsourcing hub for such services. However, it would be unfair not to state that the regions rather lagging behind have started to catch-up with amazing pockets of expertise building up for certain services in unexpected locations, e.g., RPA services in Africa and Latin America.”
In advanced economies, where firms often report they do not have the resources to take on more work, differentiation is focussed less on creating new business than on retaining and recruiting staff. Bennett explains, “Along with the need to improve margins/productivity, this also means a move away from transactional and repetitive work, better done by new technology, and into more intellectually challenging advisory work.” As Heathcote puts it, “In North America there is an increasing move away from audit to advisory. This reflects increased concerns about the profitability of audit and the burden of regulation. There is also a significant market for Client Advisory Services and continued demand for RPA across all industries. In Europe, we are seeing increasing demand from clients looking for support to improve their environmental impact, across companies of all sizes whereas, in Asia Pacific, there is increased demand to advise clients on Initial Public Offering (IPOs) and establishing new businesses. This partly reflects the flow of Chinese investment away from the west, back to China.”
As for differentiation, Heathcote feels that firms must demonstrate that they understand their clients’ business better than others. He contends, “Using data to create insights can help with this. A PrimeGlobal firm in the Netherlands has developed a data warehouse which enables them to take a 360-degree view of their clients. If the Government introduces new requirements in the Budget, within 24 hours clients receive a customised email explaining the specific impact on them. It is very difficult for other firms to compete with this. Taking a complete view of a client’s business and helping support their wider needs creates differentiation; it demonstrates the firm is a trusted advisor.”
Geo-political and regulatory trends are typically interrelated. The pandemic has created significant opportunities for firms to help companies obtain financial assistance, digitise and restructure. Demand for Corporate Finance advice has also risen considerably as investment opportunities increase post pandemic. Szczepaniak is clear that firms in countries where pandemic financial and social support is extensive, have been able to take advantage of government support whilst those in countries unable to provide the same have tended to struggle. Others, though, such as Wilson feel differently. Wilson emphasises, “We have not observed any major impact on Advisory which would be different to any other business line, for example tax. Regulation in Advisory is still rather nationally inspired than globally and we are curious to see if ISQM 1 regulation will start driving quality standards in Advisory. We see a rather steady growth across all geographies. Geopolitical developments have not played a major role so far.”
Dr Gorny, CEO, ETL Global points to the pandemic as having caused a lot of legal and economic changes. As he says, “Situations like this tend to offer excellent business opportunities as clients increasingly ask for advice on how to deal with these changes. This is not so much a geographical issue rather related to specific industries and specialisations. We would, for example, expect a temporary decline in revenues from the hospitality and entertainment sector, while advice on insolvency and restructuring matters will probably show a bigger level of demand in upcoming months.”
“Companies,” comments Stephens, “have adapted through business transformation programmes, operational reassessments and investment in new technologies. Businesses have introduced new COVID-19-related operational processes and ways of working, and reviewed their risk assessments as geopolitical, economic and regulatory landscapes evolve. The upshot for many professional services firms, including RSM, has been that clients remain active and alert to impending change. The result is that they need and seek our professional advisory services. All of this is happening at a time when regulators in many jurisdictions are extending their reach and increasing the regulatory requirements expected of businesses generally, including professional services firms. It has been and remains a perfect storm. A lot is happening in a very short space of time.”
Tony Szczepaniak, CEO, LEA Global
Even through COVID, the M&A market has remained buoyant so there has been high demand in tax due diligence work and M&A tax advisory. Tax structuring advice is in particular demand due to increased global expansion, changing tax laws (hyper-legislation) and BEPs/OECD initiatives. The capacity of any firm to carry out meaningful and realistic international tax planning is valued by clients. As Farlinger affirms, “The tax services in demand globally are determined by the need to stay compliant, to manage the cost of increasingly complex and developing regulation and the need to adjust to tax reforms and new regulations. Companies have changed their approach to tax governance in response to scrutiny from tax authorities as well as demonstrating ‘right’ tax behaviours as part of their ESG or Responsible Tax agenda.”
If Tax Assurance and Risk Management services are growing to meet this demand then what challenges and growth opportunities does that present?
Androulla Soteri, Director of Tax and People Development, BakerTilly International feels that the answer to this varies from one territory to another, and one would expect this. He remarks, “Demand for tax services of any particular nature depends on a number of domestic factors; legislative changes, political factors, economic factors, which stage of the digitalisation process the local government is in and the list goes on. Many of our members are still reporting a high demand in indirect tax services, not just in connection with the aftermath of Brexit but also, despite the pandemic, many clients are experiencing a lot of growth. An increased demand for transfer pricing services is almost unliterally being reported and an increased demand in assistance on property transactions, both acquisition and rental. Family offices are keen to deploy their large cash reserves into higher yielding assets such as real estate, as well as high-growth potential businesses.”
As a result of this heightened regulatory environment and continued growth, tax compliance services remain in demand is some parts of the world, but in others, where the tax authorities are more digitised, processes have been automated and/or outsourced. Of course, as a consequence, tax audits and tax enquiries or disputes are in high demand as revenue authorities rigorously pursue revenue to repay large budget deficits incurred from fiscal measures delivered during Pandemic. As Tim Morris posits, “Tax credits and incentives contribute to all regions of global development, whether it is affordable housing development, energy or R&D tax credits. Investors, business owners and jurisdictional authorities want to know how to leverage tax credits and incentives. It requires specialised knowledge of the laws and jurisdictions to determine eligibility and perform the calculations, and it is therefore a growing area of revenue.”
The Chair of Kreston Global Indirect Tax Group, Rupert Moyles, cites a UK-centric example, explaining that, “UK and EU indirect tax advisers have seen an increase in VAT and Duty advisory and compliance services around what is required to be able to trade goods between the EU and UK and vice versa. In terms of advisory services, there has been a lot (said) around meeting customs clearance obligations or to reduce compliance obligations. For example, the former may have led to setting up an establishment overseas and thus Corporation Tax advice, and the latter as a result of multiple registration requirements.”
Many firms have also seen significantly increased client activity across all tax services. This includes Transfer Pricing, Indirect Tax and Private Wealth. As Wilson explains, “Overall activity has been largely driven by increasing compliance requirements from tax authorities e.g. in relation to ATAD, BEPS and BEPS 2.0 as well as the international mobility of client’s businesses and high net worth individuals fuelled by Covid impacts. Furthermore, tax advisory services are more in demand following the change in the tax services market from tax compliance to tax advisory related services, with increased pressure from new tax service providers focusing on becoming global specialists in specific subsets of tax only, e.g. global mobility.”
Importantly, Stephens adds, “High levels of global M&A activity have driven the demand for tax structuring and due diligence services from private equity, venture capital and corporate buyers. It is not surprising that investors are now seeking to take advantage of low interest rates and growth opportunities as businesses rebuild in response to the pandemic. This increase in transaction volumes has coincided with growing complexity in tax legislation, particularly in relation to international transactions. Recent advancements in digital technology have revolutionised the way revenue authorities collect information on a global scale and this means that global companies now need to plan not only to provide this key information, but to also be subject to regular scrutiny in whichever countries they operate in.”
The management of reputational risk, corporate governance, and senior executive and board-level responsibility for tax are now regarded as essential. As a result, the above issues of complexity and detailed reporting have combined to make tax a priority issue for all organisations. For middle market businesses, expert external advice and support are essential in order to navigate through these ever-changing, complex areas.
Androulla Soteri, Director of Tax and People Development, BakerTilly International
Rupert Moyles, Chair of Kreston Global Indirect Tax Group
Recruitment, Technology and Investment
The pandemic caused a pause in the pursuit and implementation of emerging technology in many firms across the globe. As the reality of staff resource challenges has become apparent, those with stronger technical capabilities have resumed their focus on RPA solutions. Blockchain continues to dominate many conversations about “the future” but for the “here and now”, issues of software compliance, effective recruitment and streamlining processes are the order of the day.
Soteri states, “With regards to software, because each jurisdiction has its own tax regime, by necessity, our firms must deal with local software suppliers for the delivery of compliance services. Where we have tried to look at things globally, in the transfer pricing space for example, what we’ve found is that suppliers are not generally willing to negotiate on a global level, because frankly, they make more money contracting locally and so do not need to price competitively in a global negotiation.” He adds that the use of disruptive technologies tends not to be as impacted by jurisdictional tax regimes as their efficacy is typically process driven. Although, there remains the tricky task of bridging the gap between tech experts and tax experts, because “finding a combination of the two in one single individual, therefore creating an environment for the vision as well as the execution strategy, is still rare.” This is where professional bodies could play a stronger role. Many feel that tech should be a part of the syllabus for trainee tax advisors studying for professional exams. This has started to happen in accountancy qualifications such as ACCA and ACA in respect of audit, but tax still lags behind in the education space.
Stephens points out that, “The challenge of sharing global tools across different tax systems also provides great opportunities. Small-to-mid-sized firms are often quick to respond and attract talented individuals who flourish in an innovative culture. The absence of legacy systems often means digital technology is their starting point, providing ideas which can be picked up by larger firms with more resources to take the solutions to the next level. Third parties are also critical. The challenge is to find the best ideas for clients, wherever they are developed, and then team up the experts to deliver.”
As Soteri posits, “Tax advisory is still a bespoke service. Every advisory project is unique, with its own nuisances specific to the complexities of that particular client. There is no software that is sophisticated enough that it can hold, in some standardised format, details about the client, replicate the thought process of a tax professional and deliver high quality tax advice. We are still, thankfully, gatekeepers of our profession. The quality of data is going to be key, and legacy systems with vast swathes of uncleansed data will be the first and biggest challenge to overcome. Once this problem is resolved on a replicable scale, the rest should fall in line swiftly afterwards.”
The opportunity for tax technology investment is vast, so establishing priorities is key. Perhaps the biggest priority is to remember that people are at the heart of almost all systems and the need to keep them feeling valued, presents a tremendous challenge.
Whether it’s from providing a socially conducive environment to structuring more formal continued training/education programmes, all firms need to find ways to capture and then hold on to the most talented individuals. Liza Robbins, CEO, Kreston Global is adamant that, “The accountancy profession must develop its overall ability to attract and retain talent – we all have a role in showcasing the accountancy profession as a career for future leaders.”
For Chang, training while onboarding is the biggest challenge, as well as finding specialist know-how such as data analytics skills. Many face-to-face recruitment events can no longer take place, especially events involving large groups of participants, such as campus recruitment. The main challenge for Farlinger remains being able to offer an alternative experience to fill that gap, while still conveying the firm’s culture to potential candidates, as well as establishing a positive candidate experience, amidst the many uncertainties.
For many professional services employees, the period of remote working during the pandemic has opened up new possibilities. Many are now seeking flexible working as a permanent fixture in future roles. As professional services firms look at reimagining their futures in the post-COVID era, those who lack flexibility when it comes to hybrid working, may struggle to attract and retain top talent.
As Stephens summarises, “Employers have had to manage the regulatory considerations of remote working which has also been challenging. Unclear employer law around hybrid working, varying degrees of COVID-19 risk in geographical areas and differing working preferences from employees, are all issues that professional services firms have had to contend with. However, if managed correctly, organisations can turn flexible working policies into a recruitment opportunity rather than a challenge.”
Clearly, cyber security and cybercrime will continue to have a major impact on all industries in 2022. Organisations need to be aware of the growing risk and need to take all necessary steps to protect their infrastructure and train their people. The pandemic has forced many firms to accelerate their work in AI and RPA, creating more contactless scenarios and, as a consequence, also furthering the march towards greater resource efficiency. As Tony Szczepaniak, CEO, LEA Global says, “There is much discussion around RPA with firms experimenting and testing solutions. With the talent crunch and the increasing sophistication of tech companies in their solutions, this will be an area of increasing importance for innovation and leverage. Much of this has been in back office and administrative processing; however, this will begin to evolve and improve as firms understand and embrace this area.” Colella also views investment in technical solutions being imperative for full implementation of ISQM.
Regarding blockchain, Andrew Leck, CEO MSI Global Alliance feels that it is “still early days to understand the potential benefits of it in the audit process” but that “due to distributed ledger technology, blockchain technology eliminates the need for entering accounting information into multiple databases and potentially removes the need for auditors to reconcile disparate ledgers. This could save substantial amounts of time and offer greater assurance.” Stephens adds a note of caution, “while transactions recorded in this way can provide strong evidence regarding the existence of a transaction, risks remain that the transaction may be illegal, with a related party, or incorrectly classified in the financial statements. Furthermore, recording transactions using distributed ledgers does not overcome the potential for material errors in management’s judgments and estimates used in preparing financial statements.”
Heathcote sounds an important note of caution; he says, “frameworks will be required to create consistency in how blockchains are certified. These are likely to be created by the International Accounting Standards Board. Cryptocurrency is also being more widely adopted which will need to be accounted for and verified.”
Cloud based services will also enable the use of more benchmarking to provide added value services to clients. Some firms have started to use a range of apps to provide a more focused service to specific client groups. Of course, there are concerns about phishing, data protection, data theft and payment security but the consensus is that distributed ledger technologies, including zero-trust models, offer the prospect of a fundamental shift in the role of the auditor. Transactions recorded using this technology are evidenced by a virtually immutable record that, some argue, will eliminate the need for third party verification or assurance. The real question for the profession is how an audit should be redefined in a world of transactions recorded on distributed ledgers.
Liza Robbins, CEO, Kreston Global