Panel Two

Sarbanes-Oxley Accounting Issues Cataclysmic Liability Risk Among Big Four Auditors

Published in: Columbia Law Review, v. 106, no. 7, Nov. 2006, p. 1641-1697.

Posted on RAND.org on December 31, 2005

by Eric Talley

Since Arthur Andersen's implosion in 2002, policymakers have been encouraged with ever increasing urgency to insulate the auditing industry from legal liability. Advocates of such insulation cite many arguments, but the gravamen of their case is that the profession faces such significant risk of cataclysmic liability that its long term viability is imperiled. In this Essay, the author explores the nature of these claims as a legal, theoretical, and empirical matter. Legally, it is clear that authority exists (within both state and federal law) to impose liability on auditing firms for financial fraud, and courts have been doing so sporadically for years. Theoretically, it is certainly conceivable that, under certain conditions, cataclysmic liability risk could lead to widespread industry breakdown, excessive centralization, and the absence of third-party insurance. Whether such conditions exist empirically, however, is a somewhat more opaque question. On one hand, the pattern of liability exposure during the last decade does not appear to be the type that would, at least on first blush, imperil the entire profession. On the other hand, if one predicts historical liability exposure patterns into the future, the risk of another firm exiting due to liability concerns appears to be more than trivial. Whether this risk is large enough to justify liability limitations or other significant legal reforms, however, turns on a number of factors that have thus far gone unexamined by either advocates or opponents, including the presence of market mechanisms of deterrence, the effectiveness of current regulation, the likely welfare effects of further contraction of the industry, and the likelihood of new entry after a contraction.

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