The persistent dominance of the Big Four accounting firms in the listed audit market continues to be a significant challenge for smaller firms, as revealed by recent research conducted by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC).

The study sheds light on various obstacles faced by smaller players, such as staff shortages, limited resources, and a general lack of interest in navigating the complexities of the highly regulated sector.

The struggles of smaller firms

Smaller firms find it increasingly challenging to compete effectively in the listed audit market.

The research points to a multitude of reasons for this struggle, including a lack of resources and the daunting prospect of the regulatory “cliff edge.” Many smaller firms are hesitant to enter the listed audit arena, citing concerns about the demanding regulatory landscape and the high initial costs associated with participation.

Moreover, the perceived lack of profitability in audit services, especially when compared to more lucrative opportunities in non-audit work, further discourages smaller firms from venturing into this segment.

What about larger firms?

Even larger audit firms currently outside the listed audit market express little to no inclination to enter or re-enter.

Their reservations stem from the belief that more attractive opportunities lie elsewhere and concerns about potential reputational risks associated with listed audits.

This sentiment underlines a broader issue – the perceived risks linked to public audit work, including personal liability, intricate and “risky” audits, and substantial financial investments required to compete effectively.

Regulatory concerns

The regulatory environment plays a pivotal role in dissuading smaller firms from engaging in the listed audit market.

The fear of Financial Reporting Council (FRC) inspections is a significant deterrent, leading many firms to opt for alternative avenues.

The negative perception of a career in audit compounds the problem, with respondents highlighting the immense pressure, heavy workloads, and poor work-life balance associated with the sector.

Recruitment challenges

Recruitment and retention of experienced and specialist staff present additional challenges.

The reluctance of staff to engage in audit work, coupled with the retirement of audit partners triggering reviews of existing contracts, contributes to a persistent skills shortage.

Among all firms, recently qualified staff and audit managers were identified as the most challenging to recruit and retain.

There exists a notable expectation gap in understanding statutory audit, compounded by the complexity of standards and a rigorous oversight regime.

Smaller firms find it challenging to navigate these intricacies, further limiting their ability to compete effectively.

High costs

High costs emerge as another formidable barrier for smaller firms, which struggle to benefit from economies of scale when handling only a small number of listed audits.

The research suggests that carrying out only a handful of PIE audits annually is an unsustainable strategy for smaller firms.

The initial cost outlay becomes unrecoverable if a firm decides to dabble in the market and later seeks to exit.

Support available

Despite initiatives like Scalebox launched by the FRC to assist smaller firms in understanding regulatory standards and enhancing their public interest entity (PIE) audit capabilities, the dial has not moved significantly.

In light of these findings, audit firms are encouraged to prioritise cultivating supportive cultures for their staff through training and resource allocation.

Simultaneously, professional accounting bodies are urged to continue their efforts to attract new talent into the profession while maintaining and upholding high auditing standards.

However, despite these recommendations, efforts to reform the audit market seem to have been deferred, with successive business ministers pushing the issue into the long grass.

As the FRC stresses the importance of a resilient, competitive audit market for upholding the UK’s status as a leading financial centre and protecting the public interest, the need for comprehensive and timely action becomes increasingly apparent.

How Williamson & Croft can help

In the face of the challenges outlined in the research on the dominance of the Big Four in the listed audit market, Williamson & Croft stands as a beacon of support for businesses seeking a reliable and agile partner in audit services.

With a commitment to excellence, we understand the intricacies of the audit landscape and are well-equipped to navigate the regulatory complexities.

Our firm provides tailored solutions to address the concerns raised in the research, offering not only high-quality audit services but also a supportive work culture that prioritises the well-being of our clients and staff.

As a trusted partner, Williamson & Croft is ready to assist businesses in overcoming the barriers to audit firm growth, fostering sustainable development, and contributing to a more competitive and resilient audit market.