Tax Break

ABA members argue legality of audit firm rotation proposal

The watchdog for U.S. auditors has been debating some of the toughest reforms in many auditors’ memories this year. Now some legal experts are questioning whether it has the authority to impose its most controversial idea – making companies switch, or rotate, audit firms after a set number of years.

In a letter to the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, members of the American Bar Association joined a long line of critics of rotation. The lawyers cited the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley act, which created the PCAOB, and questioned where it gave the board any authority to mandate rotation.

The letter was signed by the chairs of ABA’s federal regulation of securities committee and its law and accounting committee.

If they are correct, it would be a blow to investor advocates, who fought for years to have an independent standard-setter with broad powers over audit firms.

Before Sarbanes-Oxley, the audit profession set its own standards, which were often criticized for being laced with qualifications that helped auditors avoid legal liability.

FASB under political heat from Congress over lease accounting

U.S. and international accounting rule-makers have been struggling for years to come up with a common standard for lease accounting. Now they have a new hurdle: U.S. lawmakers.

Sixty members of Congress, led by representatives Brad Sherman, a Democrat, and Republican John Campbell, have written to the U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board warning of dire economic fallout from a plan to have companies put leases on their balance sheets.

The business lobby’s handiwork was evident in the congressional letter on leases. The letter relied heavily on a report commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other trade groups earlier this year. That study said the leasing changes could destroy up to 3.3 million U.S. jobs, or at least 190,000 in the best case. U.S. gross domestic product would fall by $27.5 billion to $478.6 billion a year.

PwC’s Nally hopeful about China progress

PricewaterhouseCoopers CEO Dennis Nally sits between Eli Lily and Company Chairman and CEO John Lechleiter (L) and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (R) during the APEC CEO summit in Honolulu, Hawaii November 11, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Big audit firms are hoping talks will resolve an impasse between Chinese and U.S. regulators over work papers of the firms’ Chinese subsidiaries.

Auditors landed in the center of an international spat last year when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission went to court to force a Chinese arm of Deloitte to hand over audit records on its China-based audit client Longtop Financial Technologies.

Essential reading: Offshore tax havens’ links to crime, budget choices, and more

Tourists walk on Seven Mile Beach at sunset in George Town, Cayman Islands REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

Welcome to the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.

* These islands aren’t just a shelter from taxes. Robert Morgenthau – The New York Times opinion. The British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Bermuda and the Bahamas – these offshore jurisdictions allow some individuals and corporations to engage in outright tax fraud, costing America at least $40 billion each year. The secrecy laws in these tax havens are at the root of serious crimes: fraud, money laundering and international terrorism. Follow the trail of nearly any major financial scandal and you will enter one or more of these notorious jurisdictions. Link

* House Republicans target social cuts to shield military. David Lawder – Reuters. Republicans in the House of Representatives on Monday will fire their first shots of the next deficit-reduction battle, advancing legislation to cut nearly $380 billion largely from social programs while protecting defense spending. President Barack Obama is likely to consider signing a replacement measure that offers “balance,” meaning spending cuts combined with new revenues such as those proposed in Obama’s February budget plan. But the tax increases for the wealthy proposed by Obama, along with some spending increases, make that budget a non-starter for House Republicans. Link

Essential reading: Ernst & Young no longer lobbying for companies it had audited, and more

Welcome to the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.

* Ernst, audit clients cut lobbying ties-records. David Ingram and Dena Aubin – Reuters. Ernst & Young’s lobbying unit is no longer listed as a lobbyist for three major U.S. companies, all of whom were 2011 audit clients of the accounting giant. The deregistration follows questions raised by two U.S. senators in March about whether the dual relationships crossed auditor independence boundaries. Documents filed last month with Congress showed that Washington Council Ernst & Young, the E&Y unit, was no longer registered as doing lobbying work for Amgen Inc, CVS Caremark Corp and Verizon Communications Inc. Link

* House Democrats plan to pounce again on GOP budget. Ed O’Keefe – The Washington Post. House Democrats plan to attack the spending plan next week as the GOP-controlled House votes on a budget reconciliation package that includes cuts to replace automatic, across-the-board reductions set to begin in January as part of the Budget Control Act. The BCA raised the debt ceiling, cut $1 trillion in federal spending and authorized another $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade, with roughly half of the money coming from defense spending. Link

Wal-Mart auditor unlikely to suffer in bribery case

Shoppers cart their purchases from a Wal-Mart store in Mexico City, April 24, 2012. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

The bribery scandal at Wal-Mart Stores Inc’s  Mexican unit is unlikely to land the giant retailer’s auditor, Ernst & Young, in hot water if the government’s record on prosecuting such cases is any indicator, academics and other experts said.

Bribery cases brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act are on the rise, but a review of past U.S. government FCPA settlements shows that external advisers, including audit firms, almost never become legal targets.

Essential reading: Mall landlords battle tax, Groupon shifts board amid accounting issues, and more


A padlock on a closed shop in a Colorado mall REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Welcome to the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.

* Mall landlords engage in taxing battle. Kris Hudson and Stu Woo – The Wall Street Journal. U.S. shopping-center owners, smarting from high vacancies partly due to the rise in Internet shopping, are throwing their weight behind federal bills aimed at requiring online retailers to collect sales tax. At the same time, some of the biggest mall owners also are gaining traction in their efforts in individual states to squeeze sales tax out of the world’s largest online retailer—Amazon.com Inc. Seven states have reached pacts with Amazon to collect sales tax, with Nevada and Texas joining the list last week. Five more are in talks on similar deals. Link

* Groupon replaces Schultz, Efrusy on board. Alistair Barr – Reuters. Groupon Inc (GRPN.O) appointed two new directors on Monday and said Starbucks Corp (SBUX.O) Chief Executive Howard Schultz and venture capitalist Kevin Efrusy were leaving the board as the company tries to address criticism of its accounting practices. The world’s largest daily deals company came under renewed fire in March after revising its fourth-quarter financial results and admitting to a “material weakness” in its financial statements, months after its high-profile IPO. Groupon’s audit committee was criticized because some members are busy executives who may not have enough time to devote to fixing the company’s accounting problems. Link

Essential reading: How Apple keeps its tax bill low, KPMG inquiry in UK, and more

   

Welcome to the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.

* How Apple sidesteps billions in taxes. Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski – The New York Times. As it stands, Apple Inc paid cash taxes of $3.3 billion around the world on its reported profits of $34.2 billion last year, a tax rate of 9.8 percent. Apple was a pioneer of an accounting technique known as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean. Today, that tactic is used by hundreds of other corporations — some of which directly imitated Apple’s methods, say accountants at those companies. Without such tactics, Apple’s federal tax bill in the United States most likely would have been $2.4 billion higher last year. Link  

* KPMG faces inquiry over rescue of HBOS. Helia Ebrahimi – The Sunday Telegraph. Accountancy giant KPMG could face a formal investigation by the UK’s accountancy watchdog for its conduct leading up to the rescue of HBOS by Lloyds TSB. HBOS whistleblower and former head of risk, Paul Moore, has referred KPMG to the regulator in a formal complaint. Moore also has written to Treasury select committee chairman Andrew Tyrie, seeking his support. Moore’s complaint comes a week after it emerged that the former head of HBOS’s corporate bank, Peter Cummings, is to fight a seven-figure fine handed out by the Financial Services Authority for his part in the collapse of the bank. Link  

* Amazon seals sales tax deal with Texas. Barney Jopson – The Financial Times. Amazon has struck an unexpected deal with Texas to start collecting sales tax from consumers at the start of July, in a further sign of its readiness to accept a levy that it had long opposed at state level. Under the deal Amazon will invest at least $200 million to build distribution centers in Texas and create at least 2,500 jobs over the next four years while beginning to collect sales tax on July 1. Link  

Essential reading: H&R Block cuts back, Supreme Court restrains IRS, and more

U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Molly Riley

Welcome to the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.

* H&R Block to close stores, cut jobs. Jochelle Mendonca – Reuters. H&R Block said the head of its U.S. retail tax services unit resigned, and the top U.S. tax preparer announced another round of store closures and job cuts, as it realigns its business to focus on the fast-growing digital tax market. Separately, the company said the number of tax filings it prepared through April 18, grew 4.5 percent to 22.2 million. Link

* Supreme Court restrains IRS in tax shelter case. Patrick Temple-West – Reuters. The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the Internal Revenue Service took too much time to try to collect back taxes from a business in a tax shelter case, a decision with wider impact for dozens of related cases. The high court said the agency could not use an extended, six-year statute of limitations period. The IRS had said the extended period, an exception from the normal three-year limit, was justified in the case. But the court disagreed with the tax-collecting agency in a 5-4 decision in United States v. Home Concrete & Supply LLC. Link

* French front-runner says he’d seek to renegotiate fiscal treaty if elected. Steven Erlanger and Nicholas Kulish – The New York Times. The front-runner for the French presidency, the Socialist candidate François Hollande, said on Wednesday that if elected he would ask other European leaders to renegotiate a fiscal treaty in order to promote growth. He said he would also call for a financial transaction tax, as his rival, President Nicolas Sarkozy has done. Link

Essential reading: U.S. House passes small business tax cut, New York sues Sprint, more

Welcome to the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.

* House passes Republican business tax cut. Kim Dixon – Reuters. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday passed a tax break for small businesses, giving voters a stark alternative to President Barack Obama’s politically popular “Buffett Rule” surtax on the wealthy. In an escalating election-year war of words over taxes, the Republican measure, like the Buffett Rule, is not expected to become law. It is opposed by Democrats, who control the Senate, where the bill was expected to die. Link

* Olympus eyes fresh start, ex-CEO mulls legal threat. Tim Kelly and Yoko Kubota – Reuters. Shareholders of Olympus Corp approved a new board on Friday, hoping for a fresh start at the camera and medical device maker that hid $1.7 billion of investment losses in Japan’s biggest corporate scandal in decades. While Olympus will hope the vote draws a line under a scandal that has wiped more than $4 billion off its market value, its former CEO and foreign investors, who own 25-30 percent of the company, have sought a change in a deep-rooted culture of cross-shareholdings and cozy ties between banks and boardrooms. Link

* State tax collections pass peak from recession’s start. Michael Cooper – The New York Times. State tax collections, which during the recession  experienced their steepest and longest drop since at least the Great Depression, have been climbing back for the last two years and finally surpassed their previous peaks as 2011 drew to a close, according to a report issued on Thursday. But huge challenges remain, as their populations and the cost of providing services have continued to rise, and the growth in tax collections has begun to soften. Link