Ernst & Young is working to break up its global audit and advisory business in the largest restructuring of the Big Four accounting firms in two decades, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Still in high-level discussions at Ernst & Young, the proposal is a bold attempt to rid itself of the conflicts of interest plaguing the industry and bringing regulatory action from the UK to the US.
Ernst & Young and the other big four accounting groups that globally dominate the industry – Deloitte, KPMG and PwC – have been heavily criticized for what they see as a lack of independence in auditing firm accounts, as they also have expertise in consulting, taxation Consultation work with fees incurred in transactions.
The firms have rebuilt their consulting divisions since the 2002 collapse of US energy firm Enron, which brought auditor Arthur Andersen out of business and reduced the “Big Five” to the “Big Four.”
Ernst & Young’s senior partners have been discussing options to restructure their global operations, according to three people familiar with the matter.
The plan envisages separating an audit-focused company from other businesses, the people said.
Such a move would result in significant changes to the two independently owned businesses compared with the more limited separation of operations agreed by the big four UK audit and consultancy functions following the corporate scandals at retailer BHS and outsourcer Carillion.
The exact structure of the reorganization is still being discussed, and any reform would require a partner vote and broad agreement from the various country member firms that make up EY’s global business, one of the people said. The potential split was first reported by Michael West Media.
Mergers and acquisitions within professional services firms are notoriously difficult to achieve because of the need to build consensus among the individual partners who own and operate the business in each country.
EY’s 312,000 employees in more than 150 countries are structured as a network of legally independent national member firms that share a brand and technology as part of contractual agreements.
The company’s leaders are still trying to find an exact structure that “works for everyone,” one of the people said.
The person said the process could take “months” and it was uncertain whether there would be a major restructuring, but acknowledged the changes would be significant if passed.
“We want to lead the industry on a new path,” the person added. “We do realize that this is going to change the profession.”
A breakup would be a sharp change in EY’s stance, with its former global chief Mark Weinberg calling for a split of the Big Four in 2018 over concerns about a lack of competition.
Ernst & Young did not immediately respond to a request for comment.