The Bottom Line
Accounting

As the global accountancy profession began adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, the International Federation of Accountants convened a series of round-table discussions to understand the implications of the pandemic for professional accountants and leaders. Kevin Dancey and Alta Prinsloo outline the findings. Crises inevitably demand that difficult decisions be made. Yet, the preferred conditions for making such decisions – time to deliberate or a clear sense of focus, for example – are in short supply. Countless small business owners, CEOs, government leaders and more confronted this reality in 2020. For many of them, professional accountants were there as trusted advisors when there was no semblance of certainty. Like every profession, accountancy will emerge from COVID-19 changed. We will be accustomed to digital processes we once thought impossible. Our change management abilities will be sharper than ever. How we anticipate the future will be informed by an experience many of us never imagined would happen. Right now, the profession has the opportunity to transform for the benefit of business, government, and society. It is also a critical moment to nurture existing talent and attract new talent. We must achieve this progress collectively, with clear and measurable goals. Through it all, the pandemic highlighted the importance of future-proofed skills that can anticipate challenges and opportunities, and are agile in a new world where professional accountants are established as strategic leaders. A shock to the system In the Netherlands, virtual work has been commonplace for more than a decade. When COVID-19 forced lockdowns, professional accountants were ready. In other regions, the transformations were not as simple. In South Africa, workers embraced change very quickly, but the more remote areas of the country found it difficult to find immediate solutions. In China, meanwhile, the shift to remote work was rapid. In the US and many other countries, new systems took root overnight, but with them came new-found concerns about security and the availability of technology. 94% of the global workforce live in areas where workplaces closed in 2020 due to lockdowns, according to the International Labour Organisation. These challenges impacted governments, businesses, and employees. In our new hybridised workplaces, preserving the tenets of trust and integrity while also embracing opportunities that virtual environments introduce is key. For example, when firms are not bound to a physical office, hiring more diverse talent from different geographies is possible. Educators and students were also disrupted and had to manage through a wide range of trials. On the one hand, universities and professors moved faster than ever to online instruction and, in some jurisdictions, had to overcome legal limitations in administering examinations online. On the other, students had not only to navigate internet bandwidth challenges, but also the mental health toll, personal economic hardships, and more, which the pandemic inflicted. One silver lining of remote learning is that classes not bound to a physical classroom can capitalise on the connective power of technology. In academia, as in the workforce, it has become clear that much of the accountancy profession’s infrastructure needed to transform – not just for the immediate future, but also the long-term. While the core skills of the professional accountant have not drastically changed due to COVID-19, the profession is changing. This crisis cast a spotlight on anticipation and agility, making it clear that the profession must take the opportunity now to rethink our curricula, our business models, and how professional accountants maintain their competency and relevancy so that they are ready for anything. Evolving technology, regulations and standards In early 2020, digital transformation was either in progress or identified as a strategic growth driver across businesses, accounting firms, governments, and beyond. Through the crisis, however, technology and data have been imperative not only to stay operational, but also to inform new and evolving strategies and ways of working. In a Deloitte survey, more than one-third of financial services industry firms in the US said technology upgrades were the top priority emerging from COVID-19. Meanwhile, more than half cited digitising client interactions as the first imperative. Across all industries, according to PwC, more than 60% of global CEOs acknowledge that they need a more digital business model for the future and that working outside of an office is here to stay. The way businesses everywhere operate is altered forever, and that reality has shifted how professional accountants engage with stakeholders. Professional accountants are the custodians of information that drives long-term strategy and, as businesses transform to stay relevant, professional accountants must be at the centre of that transformation. With change comes uncertainty, both for professional accountants and our stakeholders – especially the public. In this moment, the profession must align around clear goals for our members so we can collectively meet the changing demand around us. This is critical as we aim to leverage technology in new ways, and as we continue to champion trust and transparency in businesses and governments worldwide. As a profession, we cannot passively accept change; we must seize the opportunities change creates while also anticipating and mitigating risks. We have the guiding principles to do this and international standards for financial reporting, audit and assurance, ethics, public sector, and, hopefully soon, sustainability, will continue to help the profession evolve. Even regulators are being challenged to adapt to how accountancy work has changed, especially in light of 2020. In round-table sessions, we discussed how accounting firms should consider advocating for a way forward by partnering with regulators on the latest approach to financial reporting and auditing in a digital-first world. This will also serve us well as we align ourselves with a shared vision of the role sustainability reporting, focused on environmental, social, and governance (ESG)-related matters, will play in the future of the accountancy profession and our stakeholders. Accountancy is directly tied to prosperity, and a more holistic view of how people and planet fit into our profession is imperative. According to many stakeholders, sustainability is now an indisputable necessity. A long-term strategy rooted in sustainability helps guarantee any organisation’s place in the future. Indeed, two-thirds of global respondents in a recent BCG study on how the pandemic heightened awareness of environmental challenges agreed that economic recovery plans should prioritise environmental concerns. To that end, we must evolve our mindsets and reporting, and perhaps most importantly, our curricula for future talent. In particular, the students we spoke with were passionate about a much larger focus on ESG in the accountancy profession. As one student from Hong Kong said, “We are not prepared to handle ESG because there are no strict standards to hold us accountable”. For the future of the profession, transparency and accountability concerning ESG and long-term sustainability must be ingrained in high-quality reporting and assurance practices globally. IFAC is committed to advocating for new sustainability standards that would offer a reliable and assurable framework relevant to enterprise value creation, sustainable development, and evolving expectations. This is an opportunity for accountancy to evolve and to offer the next generation of professional accountants, many of whom identify as global citizens and environmental advocates, a strong foundation to make a difference. The important marriage of technical and professional skills Change management and sharp communications: From every region, discipline, and position, one skill was referred to more often than any other in every round-table we convened in the past three months: change management. We were in a rapid state of evolution before COVID-19. At the start of 2020, McKinsey & Co. noted that nine in ten business managers said skills gaps existed in their organisations or soon would. That reality has only become more evident. Accountancy is not a profession operating in a static world, and the skills learned have to reflect an equal measure of agility. There is a clear need for well-rounded skillsets that combine technical skills and professional skills that are rooted in relationship-building and communication. Doing so means placing more emphasis on stronger, trust-based relationships with key partners. This requires a focus on interdisciplinary skills when engaging with colleagues and in our strategic discussions with clients. Stronger communication skills will help professional accountants manage risks and garner buy-in for solutions. Scenario planning and storytelling: Professional accountants are dynamic thinkers with an aptitude for proactive planning. We are trusted partners in times of change and uncertainty, and we must be prepared for that demand to continue. We have to maintain the momentum 2020 created and the renewed trust imparted on our profession. Many round-table discussions spent significant time on the importance of accountants continuing to build in the areas of professional skills and focusing on new techniques for analysing and interpreting data in differing circumstances, and aptitudes for strategising on increasing priorities such as ESG. Our stakeholders agreed that the profession must become better storytellers, able to effectively show how all the pieces fit together and how the finance function bolsters resiliency and growth. The basics of this can be taught in classrooms, but this skill will largely be shaped on the job. Upskilling: How we compete in the learning and development space – with dynamic curricula, more agile credentialing and continuous learning models that are suited to a hybrid world – will be a differentiator moving forward. “Professions that invest [in education] now are going to come out of this with a competitive advantage,” said one academic leader. We have to show aspiring accountants and those who might be upskilling during their career that the profession is anticipating, adapting with agility, and remaining a step ahead. Affirming the need for agile, future-proofed skills, one professional accountancy organisation CEO said, “I’ve worked through three pretty major crises in my career, and the common theme through all of them is that you must use it as an opportunity for change. A crisis gives you license to adapt”. Defining the accountant of the future Professional accountants are, and will continue to be, strategic partners in any setting, be it in the private or public sector. The pandemic tested our capacity as business drivers, and we rose to the occasion. This is a pivotal moment for the accountancy profession, one where we will change old paradigms and embrace new skills for the digital and rapidly evolving world in which we live. How we act in this moment will define the future of the profession, and the opportunity for positive change is immense. Right now, societies and economies around the world are trying to find a way to move forward from a crisis-laden year. Professional accountants are the highly strategic and collaborative problem solvers who will help businesses and governments, large and small, move forward. In the round-tables IFAC conducted in recent months, CEOs, auditors, academics, students and more from around the world shared a clear vision: we, as a profession, must accelerate new ways of working, embrace technology, align our work to new and evolving societal demands and, above all, ensure we are investing in the right balance of skills that will fortify the profession for whatever the future holds.   Kevin Dancey is Chief Executive at IFAC, and Alta Prinsloo is Chief Executive at the  Pan African Federation of Accountants and former Executive Director at IFAC. The research process The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) spent the past three months engaging with dozens of people associated with the accountancy profession across more than 20 countries with a range of perspectives. They included chief executives of professional accountancy organisations, chief executives in business, chief financial officers, audit committee members, auditors general, accounting firm leaders, academics and students.  By convening these various stakeholders, IFAC set out to understand the implications of the pandemic for professional accountants and leaders, and how their experiences will affect the future of accountancy and, more specifically, accountancy skills. The global COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated change and forced us to reconsider the role of professional accountants. We heard from our stakeholders about the transformation of organisations, the agility of business, and the resilience of professional accountants managing through unanticipated change.

Nov 30, 2020
Comment

The changing of the US political guard has been broadly welcomed internationally, and by Irish commentators in particular. However, a Biden presidency may not have an immediate impact on Irish companies, writes Barry Flanagan. Fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast will know the answer to this one immediately: who is the only NBA player to score 100 points in a single game? LeBron James may have just won his fourth NBA Championship, but his career high is 61. Michael Jordan, widely regarded as the greatest of all time, once hit 69. The extraordinary Kobe Bryant sits second on the all-time list with 81 – 19 short of that magic 100. I’m not sure how many NBA fanatics read Accountancy Ireland, so it’s probably best if I share the answer now – it’s Wilt Chamberlain, who achieved the feat back in 1962. What is extraordinary about Chamberlain’s record is not just the number but, as Gladwell explains, how it was achieved. Chamberlain, a notoriously poor free-shot taker with a mid-40% success rate, had that season resolved to abandon the standard overhand free-shot technique used by all professional players. Instead, he used the underhanded or ‘granny shot’ method. It worked. Chamberlain’s 28 from 32 that night (87.5% success rate) doubled his average and endures as the NBA record – which is what made Chamberlain’s next move so surprising. Despite the new technique bringing him that historic record, the next season, Chamberlain went back to the old, inconsistent and trajectorially challenged overhand shot. Even though he knew it would cost him points and his team matches, he couldn’t stomach being seen as a “sissy”. The overhand technique was revived, and predictably his percentage dropped – perception over payoff. Donald Trump used that same overhand technique that when throwing out paper towels to a bewildered Puerto Rican press corps in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island. Just like Chamberlain, Trump was far more concerned about looking good than making a difference. In fact, handing out paper towels in the aftermath of a hurricane could be emblematic for Trump’s entire presidency: ineffective and often damaging policies, enacted without any real concern for consequences but with a very real emphasis on how he was perceived while implementing them. Protectionism is probably the best example from a trade perspective. Protectionism and the pandemic There is little doubt that Trump’s protectionism cost America economically, but the policy was never about winning. Imposing tariffs and bringing the US to the brink of a trade war with China over the last two years was always more about how it would be perceived by his supporter base than the economic benefit. ‘America First’ was the slogan that propelled him to The White House in 2016, convincing Rust-Belters that he could protect and regenerate industrial jobs. It also demolished the ‘Blue Wall’ and delivered Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the process. Trump’s failure to fulfil those promises over the past four years is the reason those states flipped back. Whether that was because Trump’s tariffs rendered Chinese steel too expensive for rust-belt industries (Trump imposed tariffs on roughly three-quarters of everything China sells to the US) or because the COVID-19 pandemic swept away the economic gains of the last three years is moot. The interaction of those two factors – protectionism and the pandemic – will shape American economic policy for the next two years at least. Those expecting a Biden administration to implement any quick reversals to US foreign trade policy will be disappointed. Several agents are impacting, with none at present favouring a dramatic swing. Economic priorities For starters, students of Bidenomics will know that, like the candidate himself, pragmatism and prudence are valued over radical change. Biden has been an elected official for 47 years and like most career politicians, his innate inertia would counter any reactionary instincts. His tax plan seeks to raise taxes only on the top 2% who earn more than $400,000 per annum. Second, and perhaps more pertinently, both his own and the Democratic party’s views on protectionism are far closer to Trump’s than outside observers may realise. Don’t be fooled by the toxicity of US political ‘debate’. Republicans mock the Democrats as being ‘globalist socialists’, but the Democratic party is well aware which side its bread is buttered on. The Pew Research Centre revealed last year the depth of the consensus across the American political divide on this very topic. ‘Protecting the jobs of American workers’ was ranked as the second-highest bi-partisan priority out of the 30 options presented (only ‘preventing terrorist attacks’ is rated higher by the political establishment). Republicans and Democrats alike are keenly aware that their electability depends on both the perception and reality of protecting jobs. Third, notwithstanding that he may not wish to change much in this regard, the likelihood of a Republican-controlled Senate may stymie any change Biden does want to make (we will know more after the Georgia run-offs in January). While it is true that presidential executive orders can be used to effect change unilaterally, any such orders will likely focus on the more polarising issues facing the US Executive such as the perennial battleground of healthcare, Biden’s own cause célèbre of renewable energy and, most immediately, the domestic stimulus package that has eluded agreement so far. Lastly, as Biden and the impressive and progressive Vice President, Kamala Harris, clearly signalled in their victory speeches, getting the pandemic under control will be the first and only priority for the new administration. The administration’s focus will initially be internal, and Biden has pledged to avoid any new trade agreements “until we’ve made major investments here at home, in our workers and our communities.” All of this provides Irish companies with little reason for optimism, but there will be opportunities in the Biden era. The renewable energy, infrastructure regeneration, and healthcare industries will undoubtedly benefit from this regime change, and further trade deals will eventually follow. While Biden is by no means a globalist, the rest of the world can at least look forward to the Trumpian trend towards isolationism being halted with some moderate reversals deliberately deployed early. Biden has repeatedly stated his intention to re-join the Paris Accord on his first day in office. He has also indicated his intention to re-join the World Health Organisation, which Trump distanced the US from this year. Although Biden may reverse travel bans on Muslim countries and enact some degree of immigration reform, meaningful progress in these areas will depend on Republican consent, which will be hard-won. Irish opportunities From an Irish perspective, a particular area of interest will be the US corporate tax rate and any potential changes to US tax policy. Trump targeted tax inversion by US companies that relocated internationally by dramatically cutting corporate tax from 35% to 21% back in 2017, effectively eroding the delta a company gained by shifting its headquarters to Ireland to take advantage of the country’s 12.5% rate. Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate back up to 28% from 21%, reversing half of Trump’s cut. Such a move would again increase Ireland’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign direct investment, but it would be unwise to expect too much too soon. Tax reform in the US is notoriously slow. Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was probably his signature accomplishment, but the parties had broadly agreed the basis for it before the 2016 election. A reduced corporate rate would therefore have been delivered in any event, regardless of the election’s outcome. Brían O’Cuiv, Tax Partner at PwC San Francisco, foresees opportunities for Irish companies independent of tax reform. “The reality is that US companies continue to be among the most innovative in the world. And with a seemingly endless supply of venture funding available, we will see new businesses with global ambitions emerge,” he said. “Irrespective of any changes to the US tax system, companies will need to establish operations overseas to access foreign markets and tap into the local knowledge base. Jurisdictions that position themselves as an attractive location for inward investment and provide some degree of certainty are likely to continue to benefit disproportionately from this trend.” Finally, once he assumes office on 20 January 2021, President Biden’s close ties to Ireland will at least deliver the perception of increased opportunity, even if his control over the payoff is not as strong as Ireland Inc. would like it to be. Ireland and Biden In 2016, Biden wrote in his ‘Letter to Ireland’ that “When I die, Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul”. A testament to this close relationship is the fact that An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, was one of the first political leaders Biden contacted after his projected win. During their 20-minute call, they covered the global economic recovery, relations with the EU, and tackling climate change. Most tellingly, they also discussed the importance of a Brexit outcome that respects the Good Friday Agreement and ensures no return of a physical border on the island of Ireland. Ireland’s profile will benefit exponentially from having a US president that is favourably disposed to the country, which Trump most certainly was not. The annual St Patrick’s Day summit in the White House may not restart until 2022, and a presidential visit to Ireland is unlikely before 2023. That said, the negativity towards Ireland will cease almost immediately and in terms of Brexit, to use Biden’s favourite quote from Yeats, “all changed, changed utterly”. Cummings and goings The next few weeks will tell more, but it is already possible that almost two months before he has even been sworn in, we may have already witnessed the first effects of a Biden presidency on the global stage. The UK Conservative government courted Trump shamelessly and desperately hoped that a Republican-controlled government could deliver the holy grail of a US/UK trade deal. They hoped that it could be achieved in advance of any EU deal and sold to the British public as a significant victory. That hope has been utterly dashed. The resignations of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain may signal a seismic shift in the UK’s Brexit strategy. Cummings had served as campaign director of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign in 2016 and is credited with the memorable (if potentially misleading) slogan, “Take back control”. Cain had been tipped as Johnson’s next chief of staff, an important position as it would effectively have given Cain control over access to Johnson. Their departure may be the most immediate macro consequence of Biden’s election on the global economy. The likelihood now is that Johnson and Britain will be forced back to the negotiating table with the EU. At the time of writing, the chance of a last-minute UK/EU deal had increased, and this may be the most immediate payoff from Biden’s presidency. In terms of how that presidency might benefit Ireland, it might also be the most important. Barry Flanagan is President of US Operations and Global Head of Customer Engagement at Immedis. The importance of the Georgia run-off While the US waits for President Trump to accept the results of the presidential race, the focus of the political world has already shifted to Georgia where two run-off elections set for early January will determine which party has control of the Senate. The current state of play is 50-48 in favour of the Republicans, so the Democrats must win both to draw level. The result of the contests, which will take place two weeks before Biden’s inauguration, could lead to two distinct outcomes. On the one hand, two Democrat victories could re-centre power to the Democrats by giving Harris, as the new vice president, the casting vote. This would provide Biden with broad power to carry out his policy agenda and push through nominations as he sees fit. On the other hand, a Republican win could cement Republican control, thereby allowing Mitch McConnell to remain as Speaker with the power to continue his policy of obstructionism that was so effective during President Obama’s second term. Georgia may have flipped Blue for the first time in 28 years, but the margin of victory was a tiny 14,000 votes or 0.3% of votes cast. Accordingly, anticipating a double defeat for down-ballot Republicans who outperformed Trump is not advisable.

Nov 30, 2020
Comment

Cormac Lucey explains why, as societal fissures and inequality grow, we must no longer be satisfied with unduly simple answers to complex questions. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel explains how humans across the world speak different languages. In the generations following the Great Flood, humans spoke a single language and migrated to the land of Shinar, where they decided to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. Unhappy at this impudence, God intervened so that humans spoke several different languages, were unable to understand each other and were thus unable to build their idolatrous tower. Today, it is not different languages, but several other aspects of life, that risk pulling us apart. Specialisation has been one of the key ingredients of dramatic economic growth in recent centuries. But growing vocational differences and technical specialisation make it more and more difficult for national leaderships comprised of generalists to manage and control a society increasingly comprised of technical specialists. Consider the economic disaster of the financial crash just over a decade ago, and the failure of the Central Bank of Ireland and the Financial Regulator to take corrective action. Consider the current lockdown and reflect on the fact that, if everyone in the Republic contracted COVID-19 and we suffered the median fatality rate estimated by the World Health Organisation (0.23%), the resulting fatalities would equal around one-third of total fatalities that we suffered from all causes in 2019. Another serious societal fissure is growing economic inequality and the increasing role of education in determining an individual’s earning capacity. Here in Ireland, we are lucky that income inequality has not grown over recent decades. But it has grown substantially in the US. We can see the political polarisation that has followed and, increasingly, political affiliation in the US follows education. This pattern was very evident when the UK voted for Brexit. The political and media establishments may dismiss those who dared to vote for Brexit or Trump. But if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that in an ever more complex world, our fates are increasingly interdependent. In such a world, it makes little sense to dismiss large blocs of fellow citizens as if they are fools. Yet that is what has happened. This sneering reaction feeds another fissure, that which separates insiders from outsiders. We can see this in the rise and rise of monopolies and quasi-monopolies in the US. A paper published recently by two Federal Reserve economists found that the concentration of market power in a handful of companies lies behind several disturbing trends in the US economy such as a falling share of national GDP going to labour, a rising share going to capital, increasing inequality, rising financial leverage, and an increase in financial instability. Here in Ireland, we are confronted by a different monopolistic power, that of the State. At the end of Q2 this year, average weekly earnings in the Irish public sector exceeded those in the private sector by 32.6%. In the UK in 2019, (pre-pension) public and private sector earnings were approximately equal with public sector earnings 3% ahead before consideration of bonuses and 3% behind after their consideration. The stark public/private gap in Ireland arouses little public commentary, but feeds the fissures in our society. What can we do as we face this increasingly divided world? We should be careful of those who suggest simple answers to complex questions that generally don’t have yes/no answers but, rather, difficult trade-offs. Independence of judgement matters just as much for our public life as it does for our auditors. Cormac Lucey is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Nov 30, 2020
Comment

2020 was nothing short of a disaster for many people, but a constellation of emerging factors can give us hope for 2021 – from an economic standpoint at least, writes Annette Hughes. For the Irish population, COVID-19 has in many ways been a double-edged sword over the past nine months. The recent transition from levels two and three to a nationwide level five lockdown caused a significant number of businesses to close once more and pushed the number of those in receipt of government wage support through the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) up by 50% month-on-month from 228,858 on 11 October to 342,505 on 9 November. However, this is still well below the 5 May peak of 598,000. EY’s labour market forecasts suggest that, for November, this represents approximately 14% of those in employment. Kerry and Donegal suffer most, with about one in five workers in receipt of PUP at present, possibly due to their dependence on tourism. The reality for the fortunate segment of the population that managed to hold on to employment is quite different. The Central Bank of Ireland has reported that household deposits increased by 10.9% year-on-year in September 2020. This is indicative of a general trend of reduced consumption and increased savings since the beginning of the pandemic, as the measured savings ratio reached an unprecedented 35.4% in Q2 2020 with a quarterly increase in savings of €10 billion for Q2 2020. This suggests that there is a section of Irish society that is broadly unaffected, has money, and is merely waiting to spend. Results from a recent survey conducted by EY indicate that the world mood is anything but black and white. The impact of COVID-19 on consumer behaviour has led to diverse spending patterns globally. In the October release of our Future Consumer Index, 26% of consumers noted that they were unaffected and unconcerned for the future, while 31% stated the antithesis, commenting that they were struggling and worried about what is yet to come. A lack of job security, family health, and discomfort around a premature return to societal norms are foremost in the minds of those who believe the COVID-19 impacts will remain in the medium- to long-term. The remaining consumers surveyed classed themselves as either okay but adapting (30%) or hard-hit but optimistic (13%). Retail in Ireland is a mixed bag of late. The CSO release for September proves the lockdown ‘banana bread, work-from-home, DIY’ hypothesis with sales of hardware, paint and glass up 31.3% year-on-year while food, beverages and tobacco also increased by 12.4%. Meanwhile, sales for fuel have reduced by 10.2%, with stationery, books and newspapers also down by 11.6% as large swathes of workers, particularly those working in multinational companies, no longer commute to Ireland’s urban centres. EY expects that economic recovery will resume in 2021, with GDP forecast to rise by 3.5% after a 3.9% contraction in 2020. The current accumulation of deposits, which are earning meagre interest in the banks, combined with reduced reliance on PUP and projected employment growth of 6.5% should significantly support consumer spending next year and act as a catalyst for increased economic activity. Annette Hughes is a Director at EY-DKM Economic Advisory.

Nov 30, 2020
Financial Reporting

Leigh Harrison outlines the practical issues, for both the auditor and management, that may arise when applying the revised going concern standard. As auditors rapidly approach the start of ‘busy season’ and management near the end of the financial year, one of the biggest challenges that will impact on both the auditor and management are the changes to the going concern auditing standard. The revised standard, applicable for periods beginning on or after 15 December 2019, increases the auditor’s work effort, which includes expanded risk assessment procedures over going concern, increased scrutiny over management’s going concern assessment and enhanced reporting requirements in the auditor’s report. The directors’ responsibility for going concern is seated in company law, with the duty to prepare financial statements that give a true and fair view, in accordance with the applicable financial reporting framework. The accounting standards require the preparation of a going concern assessment, taking into account all available information about the future, for a period of at least 12 months. The financial statements are prepared on a going concern basis unless management determines that they intend to liquidate the entity, cease trading, or have no realistic alternative but to do so. Complexities in the current year The world is now a very different place than it was at the start of 2020. In a matter of months, COVID-19 swept across the globe. The pandemic subsequently led to travel restrictions, business closures, cancelled events, and lockdowns. Governments responded with a range of financial supports in an attempt to support jobs and businesses. During this time, management will have had to revisit their business plans, forecasts and cash flows in response to the ever-changing economic environment. Meanwhile, calls for better climate change reporting and the end to the Brexit transition period compound the complexity. Practical issues for management Although the directors are ultimately responsible for the assessment of going concern, in many cases, they may delegate the preparation of the assessment to management. The directors will need to possess the skills and knowledge to understand and challenge the assessment prepared by management and have a robust governance, oversight and approval process to challenge and validate management’s assessment. For management in smaller businesses, where an assessment of going concern may not have been formally prepared and documented in previous years, the requirement in the current year is likely to be a step-change. In some ways, the continually changing economic environment in which businesses currently operate will have prepared management for the preparation of their going concern assessment as they continuously re-assess the impact of change on their business. Ahead of year-end, management should engage with their auditor to agree on the expected audit deliverables and ensure that they have the processes in place and resources required to perform the assessment. Remote working may add further complications as inputs required for the assessment are likely to be prepared across the finance function, and team members may be on furlough. Management will need to factor in additional time for scenarios where, for example, additional funding is required or waivers of covenants must be negotiated and agreed, as credit approval may be delayed due to the impact of bank staff working remotely. Management will need to have specific processes in place, including a risk assessment process to identify, assess and address risks facing the business relating to going concern. Management will also need to explain to the auditor how they measure and review financial performance, use their information systems to identify and capture events or conditions that may impact the going concern assessment, and how management identified the relevant method, data and assumptions used within their going concern assessment. The assessment must be prepared and documented by management in all cases and should be tailored and right-sized for the business. For some non-complex businesses with high levels of cash reserves, management’s assessment may not require detailed cash flow forecasts. A memorandum detailing management’s analysis and considerations may suffice. In contrast, more complex entities will require a thorough assessment of current and future risks, forecasted cash flows, consideration of current funding available, and the identification and assessment of plans to address identified risks. The area management must consider when preparing their assessment is wide-ranging and includes risks facing the business (both internal and external, current and future), the business environment, developments in the industry, and future prospective plans. The purpose of the assessment is to determine whether certain events or conditions may cast significant doubt on going concern and whether those events result in a material uncertainty to exist. In preparing and documenting their assessment of going concern, the auditor might expect to see the following: Analysis of the core operations of the business as they relate to going concern, including the business model, types of investments or disposals planned, how the business is financed and so on. Analysis of the current financial position compared to the prior year, considering key metrics such as net current assets/liabilities, operating cash inflow/outflow for the year-to-date, funding arrangements in place and related covenants, and so on. Analysis of the results post-year-end compared to the prior year, including revenue, profits, and status of funding. Details of events or conditions identified by management that may cast significant doubt on going concern and may affect the future performance of the business. For example, changes in demand for products or liquidity challenges. Where events or conditions are identified by management, management should document their plans to address those events. When management consider that a detailed assessment is required, they should document the model, assumptions and source of data used in their assessment. Management may find it useful to prepare a sensitivity analysis, where there are several potential assumptions or actions. The assumptions and data used in the assessment of going concern must be consistent with those used elsewhere in the business – when considering the valuation of goodwill, for example. Practical issues for the auditor In the planning phase, the auditor will need to ensure that the team has the resources and experience necessary to perform the required procedures. Where the new requirements present a step-change for clients, it will be particularly important for the auditor to engage early. Doing so will help clients better understand the extent of audit evidence expected, and the level of input that will be required from management throughout the audit process to assist the auditor in their enquiries and procedures. There is no prescribed methodology for management to use when preparing their assessment of going concern. In scenarios where management has determined that detailed forecasts and cash flows are not required, the auditor will need to use their professional judgement to determine whether they consider the assessment to be appropriately detailed. This may lead to difficult conversations. At the other end of the scale, management’s assessment may include, for example, detailed forecasted cash flows that are built on complex models with multiple assumptions and sources of data. In these situations, the auditor will need to obtain a detailed understanding of the model, and careful consideration will be required to determine which assumptions and sources of data are critical to the assessment. Professional judgement will be needed when designing the required audit procedures, which may include evaluating the design, implementation, and testing management’s controls over the process for preparing the assessment. For 2020 year-ends, more entities will likely face liquidity issues given the continuing impact of COVID-19 on business. As such, management’s plans may include seeking reliance on group support. Auditors of components within groups will need to get a ‘big picture’ view of the group’s ability to provide the support required. More than ever, there is a greater need for the auditor to maintain their professional scepticism, challenge management throughout the audit process, and evidence that on the audit file. Conclusion For some businesses, the implementation of the revised going concern standard will be a step-change that will result in changes to processes, controls, oversight arrangements and increased management input to prepare management’s assessment of going concern. For the auditor, greater audit effort will be required, resulting in additional time input throughout the audit process. The auditor will need to exercise their professional judgement when evaluating management’s assessment, identifying the critical assumptions and data, considering whether sufficient appropriate audit evidence has been obtained, and concluding on going concern in the audit report.  Leigh Harrison is Director at KPMG’s Department of Professional Practice.

Nov 30, 2020
Tax

Tony Buckley shares eight tips to help businesses plan for a bright post-Brexit future and explains how Ireland could ultimately emerge from the mayhem as a nation of international market-making traders. Well, now we know – or do we? We are getting used to the new reality of the UK as a third country, but the UK’s relationships will continue to evolve and the changes to our way of doing business will take some time to show their impact fully. The process of realising and adjusting to change is, in many ways, just beginning. The Brexit process has taken us through some unprecedented scenes, scarcely believable public debates, and commentary that veered from “it won’t change anything” to apocalyptic descriptions of “cliff-edge” and “crash-out” and invocations of the spirit of the Blitz. In fairness, confusion and a lack of clarity were inevitable. Never before, outside of wartime, was there an attempt to consciously create a full border in the middle of an integrated and prosperous market. With it comes the risk of re-imposing all the impediments to trade so successfully lifted by the Single Market and, going back even further, the customs duties and quotas that were eliminated in 1973. Borders and their accompanying strictures usually develop over a very long period, and the countries on either side grow with, and adapt to, the border as a simple reality of life and business. Brexit proposed to dismantle a vast number of accepted and profitable practices and trading structures and reform them for a new and ill-defined reality. Daily life was going to change, but no-one could provide a full and detailed picture. The best that could be concluded was that the short-term effects would not be good. Setting the political framework was imperative so that the legal, regulatory and administrative structures and systems could be developed in good time. Unfortunately, due to various factors, the political process took up almost all of the time available and resulted in uncertainty up to the last minute. It is only fair to say, however, that with something of this scale, some lack of preparedness is unavoidable, leaving much to be resolved in the ‘live’ environment of EU-UK separation. Trade tends to find a way through. In modern Western Europe, where the benefits of free-flowing trade and commerce are so visible, all governments regard the facilitation of trade as a critical priority. We can see that in the solutions that have been created to keep trade flowing in January 2021. Without the urgency of Brexit, some of the changes, especially for Ro-Ro, would have taken years of negotiation and planning. So, not everything is in place, and the practical administration has not bedded down into the smooth operating models that will emerge. Teething troubles are expected in any new system, and this is an enormously complicated situation. Nevertheless, we can be sure that by the end of 2021, the new reality will be as well understood as was the old. At that stage, we will be able to properly take stock, count the cost, seek the benefit, and adjust our future planning. At the moment, many businesses are shouldering significantly increased cost to ensure that goods continue to move across borders in the short-term. The agents, freight forwarders and express carriers who can navigate the new rules and systems are not cheap. The generally accepted estimate is that customs will add about 4% to the cost of traded goods. For most of 2021, and possibly beyond, this is likely to be an underestimate for Irish and UK businesses, which are struggling with a shortage of expertise and capacity in customs and trade support services, not to mention long-standing supply chains and agreements that are no longer fit for purpose. The way forward will be different for each entity. The following is not intended as a full guide, but as a small collection of tips that appear to apply to most businesses. 1. Don’t be hasty The new systems and rules are permanent. They therefore represent a quantum shift in the operating parameters of business – not just for traded goods, but for all businesses directly or indirectly affected by Brexit (which is virtually all Irish businesses). For that reason, don’t rush. It may be worthwhile to incur very high costs in early 2021 for the benefit of breathing space. This will, in turn, allow you to design and tailor suitable long-term arrangements. 2. Understand the changes Costs must be managed. For those that cannot change their prices, the question is whether the margin reduction can be minimised and made sustainable. If not, the wisest course is to change direction early. There are many options to reduce costs or find off-setting benefits, but the first requisite is that the business planners (owners and advisors) fully understand the rules of the game. Customs and international trading rules are, and will remain, central considerations in planning any business involving, or connected to, the UK. We are well used to the need to understand tax exposure. We now need to become familiar with the complexities of international trade, which have not been relevant to European trade since 1993. 3. Nothing is untouchable Established structures, devised for a variety of reasons from tax efficiency to comparative cost advantage to administrative preference, must be reappraised. One of the most common challenges encountered by those advising on Brexit preparation is the insistence that existing structures and practices cannot be changed. This position usually stems from a failure to appreciate the cost of failing to optimise the supply chain. 4. Supply chains must change Commercial agreements must reflect the new reality. Many of the goods sold in Ireland arrive here via UK distributors. It makes no sense to pass goods through two sets of customs and market regulations. Standing agreements will not be easy to renegotiate, but the alternative is a significant impact on cost. 5. Check the small print Irish companies are, on average, smaller than their UK trading partners and a higher proportion of Irish companies depend on the trade. Irish companies must resist the strong temptation to agree to dictated trading terms without fully understanding the costs involved. 6. Manage expectations Consignments will get bigger on average, and for a good reason. Just-in-time and small deliveries are disproportionately expensive when compared to less frequent full loads. Test your customers’ tolerance for less demanding delivery schedules. 7. Invest in your market For a UK-based business, buying goods and components from a UK producer is preferable as the producer retains responsibility for standards, quality and customer rights. Purchasing from an Irish (or other EU) producer transfers all the producer’s responsibilities to the importer. For this and other logistical reasons, serious consideration should be given to establishing in the UK if significant and long-term business is planned there. 8. Look for opportunities Don’t overlook the unique position that has been accorded to Northern Ireland. While the operation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is complicated, its possibilities are likely to repay close exploration. More generally, be aware that the advantages enjoyed by UK business – free access and large scale, for example – are significantly reduced in their effectiveness in a post-Brexit world. The competitive position of Irish business has therefore improved in the Irish and EU markets. These points may appear to be an extreme reaction. A common belief (or hope) is that the adjustment can be made with minimal cost – just an addition to variable cost that can be passed on. The reality is that, while some will struggle on without adaptation for some time, their costs will ultimately leave them uncompetitive with those who read the writing on the wall and adapt accordingly. Services have not been extensively dealt with in the EU-UK talks so far. The result is that, broadly speaking, services to and from the UK will operate similarly to any other non-EU country. The principles outlined above also apply here. There is a new reality, with national borders inhibiting the free movement of services. A similar reappraisal and planning exercise must be conducted. We are, I believe, looking forward to a new awareness of international trade in Ireland that will significantly benefit our ability to operate in world markets. Traditionally, only the largest companies in Ireland had those skills. The vast majority of Irish importers and exporters dealt only with the UK or within Europe and failed to develop the skills and knowledge that would have enabled them to become market-makers. That is changing, and I look forward to the prospect in a few years of Ireland as a nation of international traders. In summary, we are entering a critical period for Ireland’s traded goods and services sectors. If we adapt well, as we have the ability to do, we may find ourselves stronger, more agile, and a better place for small enterprise to flourish. This is not to minimise the inevitable prospect of business failure and job losses that will follow the economic and social turmoil caused by COVID-19. We must, however, look to better times ahead – and I believe that they are attainable. Tony Buckley is former Head of Revenue’s Customs division and Programme Lead for Chartered Accountants Ireland’s Certificate in Customs and Trade. Point of view: Crona Clohisey The UK is entering a new world, standing aside from Europe amid promises that it will have greater control over its destiny. Brexit could be an opportunity for Britain to reinvent itself, to cast itself off from Europe and thrive in the world on its own. But one must ask: can Brexit work? Britain’s place in this new world will not be determined on 1 January 2021; it will emerge in the months and years ahead. Indeed, some studies suggest that that Brexit will boost economic output by 7% while others say it will be reduced by almost 20%. The opportunities afforded by Brexit are often overlooked. The UK will remain an attractive place to do business and will also be free to forge new trade deals. That said, there will initially be disruption and challenges for businesses in Ireland and the UK, particularly for those dealing with customs administration for the first time. The Irish economy will remain heavily exposed to the UK, and a working UK-Ireland relationship must continue beyond Brexit. The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland will avoid the need for a land border on the island of Ireland. However, trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK must not result. Cróna Clohisey is Public Policy Lead at Chartered Accountants Ireland. Point of view: Jason McIntosh Preparations for Brexit began shortly after the referendum result – particularly for businesses located near to, or trading across, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Information and support have recently increased in availability. With the terms of a future trading relationship still unclear just weeks before the deadline, businesses have found industry resources (Chartered Accountants Ireland’s recent webinars, for example) hugely beneficial. A central pillar of successful Brexit preparation is the involvement of all relevant departments, from finance and purchasing to HR and communications, in a business. Such a collaborative approach allows for detailed impact analysis and the drafting of a robust action plan, which must have the buy-in of senior management. The impacts of Brexit extend beyond the import and export of goods. For businesses located on the island of Ireland, for example, employees might cross the EU border for work. While the risk of delays at the border for people seems to be subsiding, there will continue to be taxation and employment law impacts to consider. Taking advice will, therefore, be crucial.  Jason McIntosh is Finance Manager at Seagate Technology.

Nov 30, 2020