Why Auditors Should be Rotated

There is a proposal afoot to mandate auditor rotation every fiver years or so.  Some don’t like it.  I think it is a great idea, with large benefits relative to the costs.

My insights, or lack thereof come from working in life insurance financial reporting in a number of different ways for around 15 years.  Only on time in 15 years, in what is arguably one of the most complex industries as accounting goes, did I ever find serious questioning going on.  Should I tell this story?

Yeah, I should, because it involves the “piece of work” that I reported to at AIG who told me, “Dealing with auditors is bloodsport.”  He also said, “Dealing with reinsurers is bloodsport.”  Delicious that this came to bite him in both ways.

A certain life reinsurer who was large then (call them Geta Life), but is out of the business now (unimaginable then, but given what happened here, no surprise), reinsured a large portion of the immediate annuities and structured settlements, including rated structured settlements that the AIG domestic life companies had written.

Did the treaties pass risk?  With a vengeance they did; not only did they pass mortality risk, but all investment risks were passed as well.  For this fine service, Geta Life earned 1% per year on the surplus relief, i.e., the difference between the book value of liabilities and assets reinsured.

It was not so well understood then, but mortality risk for structured settlements did not tend to work out well.  After an injury giving rise to a court case which would structure a settlement for the plaintiff, the defendant would ask insurance companies to bid on the settlement, which was a stream of certain and life contingent payments.  When the injury impaired the life of the plaintiff, bidding would get stiffer, because it is cheaper to fund life-contingent payments to those who aren’t likely to live so long.

Or so you would think… there was one case where a two-year old boy was injured, to the point of being in a coma, and the underwriter who bid the case rated him as having the lifespan of one who was age 73.  But the money transferred to the parents in the judgement was more than enough to care for the boy, and have a lot left over for the parents.  Ding!  The kid would live a lot longer than 15 years as a result of the settlement.

Rated settlements, where one bid on impaired lives, carried the “Winner’s Curse.” If you won, you overpaid.

But this was not on the radar screen of the somewhat oblivious Geta Life, until they found that the treaties were passing large losses to them, and they decided to audit the treaty.  Sadly, the actuaries above me, who had signed the treaties before I was employed by AIG, forgot to inform the investment department that the treaty limited the trading of around 20% of the bonds of the company in ways that would be mimicked 10 years later in CDOs.

  • Trades may not lower credit quality
  • Trades may not lower yield
  • The cashflow profile of the assets can’t be materially changed.
  • And a few more things…

This problem got dumped in my lap as a young actuary, as I found we were way out of compliance with the treaty terms, selling had gone on with abandon, on assets the reinsurer relied on, reducing the investment income the reinsurer would receive in a falling interest rate environment.

So, I proposed to the reinsurer that I go back in treaty history, and select assets purchased to replace those sold that would have kept the treaty in compliance, and put those into the segregated portfolio, and inform the investment department of the rules.  Once Geta Life understood that, they agreed to my “solution.”  That solution took me several months to work out, but I got it done.

In the meantime, the reinsurance treaties with Geta Life had become so valuable to AIG’s domestic life subsidiaries that if they came into question, the subsidiaries would fail.  The accountants of the auditors, realizing that there was something big to analyze, but not knowing how to do it, called in one of their best actuarial auditors.  My ever-confident boss knew he could beat him.

I still remember critical parts of the meeting as the actuarial auditor slowly checkmated my boss, and forced him to reduce the reserve credit for GAAP accounting, resulting in a sizable loss.

Closing off the story, Geta Life was satisfied on the changes in the asset portfolios, but was still annoyed at the losses.  The changes in assets did not avail much; bad underwriting was pinching.  They came to us saying that “Reinsurance is a good faith venture. You’re not supposed to take advantage of us.  Refund our losses, or we will take you to court for not having having managed the treaty properly from inception.”

I said, “You wrote the treaty.  You accepted my asset changes.  You are supposed to absorb mortality risk, such as there is.  I am not an officer of the company, so if you aren’t happy with this, talk to my boss.”

Shortly after that, I left AIG; it was not a great place to work.  Geta Life sued AIG for damages and won (far more than they should have).  Should have produced a blip in terms of earnings, and didn’t.

Mmmmm…. back to the original point.  Should auditors be rotated?

In all my years of financial reporting, I got wind of things in other areas of the company that I served that auditors should have questioned.  Auditors have often been “lap dogs.”  Only once did I ever see a significant challenge.  More often, I saw the auditors try to help the company explain an “accounting oddity.”  (AIG had a nonstandard way of reporting deferred annuity reserves that was very liberal, and it was proposed by their auditors.)

If auditors know that they are only going to be on the job for five years, they will realize a few things:

  • If this is going to die in a few years, it doesn’t matter as much if it dies next year.  Maybe firm reputation is worth more than two more years of a contract.
  • My work will be reviewed by someone unsympathetic to me in a few years.  He will have little incentive not to tear my work up, and call for restatements.
  • Having a fresh set of eyes on corporate finances will lead to questioning of assumptions that get ignored because they are boilerplate to the continuing auditor.
  • If auditing ceases to be an annuity to auditors, they will be less complacent, and might even act like auditors on occasion.

My experience with auditors was that they spent a lot of time on the data, and rarely asked the tough questions on assumptions and methods.  They were bean-counters, not actuaries, and certainly not businessmen.

If auditors are rotated, the incentives for just letting things slide will diminish.  That’s why auditors should be rotated.