A History of Japanese Audit Firms, 1965–2010

Integrating Personal Expertise: A History of Japanese Audit Firms, 1965–2010

by

Masaru KARUBE (Institute of Innovation Research, Hitotsubashi University, Japan)

Hironori FUKUKAWA (Graduate School of Commerce and Management, Hitotsubashi University, Japan)

ABSTRACT

To examine empirically the knowledge integration process of professional expertise that individuals have in a professional firm, this paper examines the emergence and growth of four large audit firms (ShinNihon, Azusa, Tohmatsu, and ChuoAoyama) in Japan over a period from the mid-1960s to 2010. Known as the Big Four, these firms—the product of a series of mergers between more than 70 audit firms—handled the vast majority of audit services for listed companies during this period. After the dissolution of ChuoAoyama in 2006, the remaining three audit firms have dominated the market.

A longitudinal case study documents how these professional service firms were successful in providing nationwide services through mergers with domestic competitors and the provision of global services in alliance with large international firms, even though they did not sufficiently realize the systematic attainment of individual expertise. The historical account of this process suggests that the two driving forces underpinning the merger growth of the Big Four were strategic intent in (1) systematizing individual expertise and (2) establishing nationwide and global service networks in response to the increase in size and growing diversity and complexity of their client base. Finally, this paper discusses the knowledge tension between localized individual expertise and organizational knowledge in a global context.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/hitiirwps/13-07.htm

Review by Masayoshi Noguchi

This paper is an interesting piece of work that intertwines management and accounting history with a focus on post-war developments in Japan. The paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-04-06.

The main issue is ‘how knowledge workers collaborate and create new knowledge through collaboration’ in general, and ‘how professional knowledge workers collaborate between themselves and how collaboration is organized’ (p. 2) in particular. Then the authors state the research question in this study as follows:

‘Our basic research question concerns why large audit firms through a series of mergers have replaced audit services, as initially provided by a single or limited number of individual accountants’ (p. 2).

The fieldwork in Karube and Fukukawa’s paper moves forward by exploring the official history of accounting firms while, at the same time, looking for stated motivations of mergers during the post-war period. As a result, they state the following views as motivation for mergers amongst accounting firms:

‘(1) to overcome the intrinsic contradiction between economic dependency and the independence of audit opinion,

(2) to enhance their systematized audit capabilities to meet the growing and diverse need for audit services by client firms, and

(3) to acquire new client firms by establishing a reputation for audit services’ (p. 2).

Point (3) above is the most interesting, particularly given the stated aim of Karube and Fukukawa. Point (3) seems to be an important driver that helps to explain the mergers between major large-scale firms, according to the authors; who also state that:

‘…such explicit differences did not exist between major firms in terms of the substance of competence. Rather, it seems that no explicit difference in terms of the substance of competence promoted further competition for scale expansion. In other words, scale itself came to serve as a symbol of competence in the competition process between audit firms, especially large major firms. Scale expansion through merger then emerged as a reflection of the intense competition for the social proof of competence’ (p. 27).

According to Karube and Fukukawa, audit firms expanded through the acquisition of the audit services for the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation, Japan National Railways and the Japan Tobacco & Salt Public Corporation. In this regard, greater detail as to the process and selection of these acquisitions would provide interesting case material and warrant further examination in order to deepen the business history of Japanese corporation. In this regard Karube and Fukukawa state that:

‘…these firms were all large, the expectation was that the designated auditor or auditors would have sufficient human resources to provide audit services for such large firms. Moreover, many audit corporations shared the understanding that audit service was in essence difficult to differentiate, so that the size of the audit firm mattered for gaining these sorts of clients’ (pp.17-18).

A key concept in this study is ‘the social proof of competence’, where acquiring reputation, social status and symbolic outputs is more important than actual results/outputs. Therefore, for Karube and Fukukawa during the post-war period Japanese professional auditors:

‘…are more concerned about gaining social proofs of competence than the substance of competence. To do this, they pursue strategies that win reputation from clients, acquire good clients regarded as having high status, and produce symbolic outputs that are visibly appealing to clients. Reputation also derives from each client’s own experience of audit services, or is inferred from the provider’s past experiences, including their courses of action and results. Thus, past courses of action and experience for providers matter in gaining reputation from clients’.

In spite of this profound understanding, the authors develop the following proposition:

‘…in contrast to consulting services, as audit services derive more from the formal audit procedures decided by government, it is more difficult to differentiate services. Thus, the most symbolic output is the scale of services, as exemplified by the number of clients, the number of good clients, revenues from audit services, and the geographic coverage in providing services’ (pp. 6-7).

To be sure, the author will also consent to the other elements, such as recognition from influential others, such as government, being important, though size is one of the important elements for acquiring reputation.

Finally Karube and Fukukawa find no evidence that expansion through mergers contributed to an improvement in organizational competence nor that it improved the quality of audit services (and reduce accounting fraud. Specifically the authors state that:

‘…in the light of the substantial integration of organizational competence, there should be efforts to remove such weak integration as soon as possible after the merger. In the case of Asahi-kaikeisha Audit Corporation, it took nearly 10 years to dissolve the personalized audit system and to systematize the job and client rotations of junior professionals among audit offices within the firm. … As a result, Japanese audit firms succeeded in gaining social proofs of competence by way of scale expansion through mergers rather than realizing the substance of competence, in that they still faced difficulties with the internal integration of the merged firms’ (pp. 25-26).

‘The fact that this mobility [of accountants caused by the demise of Misuzu Audit Corporation] was observed six years later when Chuo and Aoyama merged in 2000 implies not only the existence of insufficient integration but also the presence of strong relationships between clients and accountants in their operations, suggesting the possibility of insufficient systematization of the substance of organizational competence’ (p. 28).

If the social proof of competence and substance of competence are completely different and scale expansion pursues the former objective, this result of the merger of the audit firms is quite natural. Probably, the relationship of both would not be so simple. The merger between the audit firms should have offered an important opportunity to enhance organizational competence, such as wider risk diversification, enhanced economic independence, strengthened bargaining power, improvement through scale merit, nationwide services, etc. Rather it largely depends on the management after the merger whether this opportunity can be exploited or not. In this sense, the authors’ following indication is appropriate:

‘[w]hile merger can be the “easiest” way for a firm to grow, the process of post-merger integration remains a critical and ongoing issue for management’ (p.29).

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