There are 1,900 of them in Utah, but you'd be hard pressed to recognize them on the street or in the office.
They don't wear green eye shades or sleeve garters anymore, nor do they spend their time counting beans.As for the oversize ledger books in which fastidious entries were once made with an ultra-fine-tip pen. Forget it. They're using computers just like the rest of us.
Meet the all new Certified Public Accountant of the 1990s.
But don't call them accountants, a job title guaranteed to get its owner ignored at social gatherings. ("An accountant? How interesting! Well, uh, please excuse me, I see my periodontist across the room.")
They've outgrown the nose-in-the-ledger Bob Cratchit image, assures Reed E. Pew, president of the Utah Association of Certified Public Accountants. "We're not bookkeepers anymore. We're business advisers." Moreover, he adds with a smile, "We're glamorous."
Well, maybe. One thing is sure, the business of being a CPA has changed dramatically in recent years and shows no signs of returning to its once placid and predictable ways. As with banking, the savings and loan
business and, increasingly, insurance, the nation's accounting firms have been shaken by mergers, acquisitions, name changes . . . all the slings and arrows that make the accounting business a different breed of cat at the end of the '80s that it was when the decade began.
Remember the "Big Eight?" It's now the "Big Six." Remember when a CPA's report on a company's finances was the final word? Now the final word is just as likely to come from a judge in a courtroom.
Like physicians forced to leave their private practices to join health maintenance organizations (HMOs) because they can no longer afford malpractice insurance, CPAs find that their once benign profession is now frought with risk of law suits. And, like the doctors, liability insurance has become unaffordable.
"Excluding members of the Big Six, I'd say more than half the CPA practitioners are going naked today," said Pew - a figure of speech that refers not to their lack of clothing but their lack of liability insurance protection.
A CPA's opinion on the fiscal health of a company has never been based on more than due diligence, good faith by the company under review, and the professional competence of those performing the audit.
"But in our litigious society, that's often not enough," said Pew, who is executive vice president of Auto Simulations Inc., a company based in Bountiful.
"You can get sued by anybody at any time. And you get to the point where the cost (of liability insurance if someone is harmed, or contends he is, by an inaccurate audit opinion) is so high he can't afford to pay it. Professional premiums can run $30,000, $40,000 $50,000 a year."
It's not a case of simply worrying about a potential boogeyman, who probably will never show up. Pew said there is currently some $1 billion in lawsuits around the country against accounting firms that issued opinions saying their clients were fiscally sound when, in reality, they were not.
What does this say about the accounting profession today? Pew doesn't mince words. "It says there are some problems with the standards of our industry. It says the standards have become so overwhelming and complex it's difficult to keep up with them."
Pew believes the CPAs will never be able to keep up with the bright, creative but, unfortunately, crooked, minds that are out there trying to get rich the quick and easy way. "New standards are created for the various (scams) that come along, but always there are new things to take their place."
The system, itself, is not without flaws because of the conflict of interest that arises when a company hires a firm to perform an audit on them. It is both human and business nature to try and avoid biting the hand that feeds you. The answer, some say, is to get private enterprise out of the auditing business and bring on the government.
Not surprisingly, the very thought strikes horror in the hearts of the profession (and anyone else who has ever had to deal with a government bureaucracy). Socialization of the accounting profession, says Pew, "may reduce the conflict but it will also reduce the quality that now exists in the profession to almost across-the-board mediocrity."
All of this, you will not be surprised to learn, has tended to cast some public doubt on the accounting profession in general and accountants in particular. It's undeserved, Pew assures, but condedes that neither the professions nor its members can afford to pretend things haven't changed.
"The franchise of CPAs is that we are independent, objective, (and) that we've got high ethical standards," said Pew. We've earned it, marketed it, and I think we have to go back to those characteristics and build our framework for the future on those things. We have a good thing, and I don't think we should throw it all out and head into socialized auditing."
Still, he admits, the pressure isn't likely to go away soon.
"The public expects more than we are now delivering, that's a fair statement. But it comes back to the risk issue of delivering more. Right now we say that financial statements are (audited) according to generally accepted accounting practices. But what does that mean? That the company won't go bankrupt next year or in five years? Does it mean earnings and revenues of the last five years will continue? Those are impossible to answer."