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Accounting grows in shrinking economy

By Kevin Voigt, CNN

Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu CEO James Quigley, pictured, says change is good for the accounting profession.
Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu CEO James Quigley, pictured, says change is good for the accounting profession.
  • Accounting industry has emerged stronger despite Enron, financial crisis
  • China's growth, financial crisis will provide opportunities for growth, execs say
  • Emerging markets vital, says Deloitte's global CEO

Singapore (CNN) -- When the power brokers of the business world meet, the accountants are never far behind.

While other industries have downsized through the turmoil of the financial crisis, the "Big Four" accounting firms -- PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, and Ernst & Young -- will end the year with more employees than before the crisis started.

Despite a rocky decade that included the Enron scandal -- whose accounting shenanigans also took down Arthur Anderson, then one of the world's largest accounting firms -- and the financial crisis, the accounting industry has emerged stronger than ever before.

"When I called the CEO of one of our very large clients in the U.S. -- it would be inappropriate to tell you who -- there was a time when you would call them and his secretary would say, 'he's very busy, he's tied up in a meeting'," said James Quigley, CEO of Deloitte. "What they say now is, 'he's on the plane right now -- would you like me to patch you through?'"

The CEOs of three of the world's four largest accounting firms talked on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit about the forces shaping the industry and growth through the recession.

For accountants, the Ground Zero event of the past decade was the implosion of Arthur Anderson in 2002 and legislation which required chief executives of companies publicly listed in the U.S. to personally sign-off and verify financial statements. That legislation -- aimed to deter accounting chicanery -- also made accountants more important to multinational firms than ever before.

"Whether it's Enron, WorldCom or some of those other high-profile business failures, it's really put a spotlight on our profession and what we do," said Dennis Nally, global chairman for PWC.

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"You've got a CEO and CFO who basically have to certify financial statements with a tremendous amount of personal liability," he said. "As a result, they want to talk to their external auditors about what we think, what we see."

While the accounting industry has taken its turn under the klieg lights of U.S. Congressional hearings on the financial crisis, the industry hasn't emerged as a "culprit" of the crisis, accounting executives said.

"One thing that differentiates 2002 from now, you could reasonably say the 2002 time period was broadly speaking an accounting scandal," said James Turley, global chairman and CEO for Ernst & Young. "No one is saying in this current period the accounts of banks or commercial businesses were inaccurate; they're simply saying there is an awful lot of volatility that is reflective of mark to market cycle."

To be sure, the volatility of world markets has impacted the bottom line of the accounting industry, with cost cuttings and rate reductions to protect market share. But the firms have emerged from the worst with balance sheets that would be enviable to most companies: Ernst & Young and Deloitte finished the 2009 fiscal year with flat growth, while PWC revenues were down 7 percent.

Still, the Big Four firms continued to add to headcount through the recession. For example, PWC will end the year with 163,000 employees worldwide, an increase of "3 or 4 percent" from last year, Nally said. "There is a core element of what we do that continues regardless of the economy -- public companies need audits, tax services need to be provided," he said.

Ernst & Young has kept hiring young college graduates, in part, because it wants to ensure an unbroken pipeline of talent after the crisis, Turley said.

"In a typical year, you would see 15 to 20 percent of our workforce hired away, not by our competitors, but by companies that need financial or tax or other financial talent ... that process was curtailed this year because most in the marketplace weren't hiring," Turley said.

As a result, Ernst & Young and other Big Four firms have had selective culling of staff in some markets for performance-related issues. "We work in a high performance environment, and for those whom that environment doesn't fit we've encouraged them to leave," said Quigley of Deloitte.

All four firms have bet a lot of their future growth on Asia. "Very importantly we've seen the importance of emerging markets just scream to the world about how vital they are," said Turley of Ernst & Young. "A lot of people are surprised to learn we have 10,000 employees in China ... for the size of the market, however, it should be closer to 30,000."

The growth of China and perturbations of the financial crisis ultimately provide opportunities for future growth of the accounting industry, executives said.

"If you believe the only constant in business is change, then what is unique about this environment? I would say the pace and magnitude of change is unlike anything we have ever seen," said Quigley of Deloitte. "Even in the most recent 12 months that is true, even broader than our profession, this financial tsunami that has moved through our economic environment.

"But change is good for our profession, because our (clients) depend upon us to help them through those changes," Quigley added.

"Very importantly we've seen the importance of emerging markets just scream to the world about how vital they are," Turley said.