The Big Four : The Curious Past and Perilous Future of the Global Accounting Monopoly
 
Book Review
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Author: Stuart Kells & Ian D. Gow

Publisher: Black Inc.

Publication Date: 2 April 2018

Number of Pages: 272

ISBN-10: 1863959963

Many of you hear Big 4 accounting firms, which are Deloitte, PwC (or PricewaterhouseCoopers), Ernst & Young, KPMG. In fact, none of them is a single firm. They are the four biggest professional services network in the world offering audit, assurance, taxation, management consulting, corporate finance and legal services.

The book under review, as described by the title, is about ‘Big 4’ history as well as authors’ views on their future. My first job is in Deloitte, one of the ‘Big 4’. I seldom find a book about Big 4 accounting firms. My curiosity as well as my emotional attachment on ‘Big 4’ drove me to buy this book.

The Author

The book is written by Ian D. Gow and Stuart Kells.  Gow received a Ph.D. in business from Stanford University and held various positions at Morgan Stanley, General Motors, Stern Stewart & Co. and Anderson Consulting before joining Harvard Business School as a professor.

Kells is an author based in Australia while he received his Ph.D. from Monash University. He wrote different books include Rare: A life among antiquarian books; and Penguin and the Lane Brothers: The Untold Story of a Publishing Revolution.

 

Both of the authors has very strong academic background while Ian is also an expert in professional advisory and consulting industry.

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Ian D. Gow

Stuart Kells

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Content in brief

Gow and Kells unveil the Big Four story from the past to modern age and finally forecast what will happen on the firms. They structure the story into four parts, namely, Infancy, Maturity, The Difficulties of Adulthood and The Twilight Years.

Infancy investigates the economic and cultural history of the Big Four. The authors share with us the Big Four’s global partnership structures, creation story of the modern accounting firm and the history of the Big Four partnerships.

 

Maturity describes how the Big Four change themselves in modern time.  Examples include how they defined professional values and boundaries, how they brand themselves and whom they hire. The focus here is finding how the modern Big Four culture emerged.

 

Part III, The Difficulties of Adulthood, highlights the challenges faced by the Big Four. Auditing is the foundation of the Big Four. However, it is apparent an underinvestment in auditing leading worse and worse of ‘audit quality’.

 

Gow and Kells then explore Big Four tax disasters and how a new ethic of disclosure is undermining old models of tax avoidance.  This part concludes the Big Four involved deeply in Chinese business that have gotten them into some serious hot water.

 

Finally, Part IV is concerned with obsolescence and endgames. Different pressures such as technological change, regulatory action and the arrival of disruptive competition are now forcing the firms to transform. Gow and Kells argue the Big Four can go wrong and fail with reference to the Medicis in the late middle ages and the Renaissance.

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The Big Four

Stuart Kells & Ian D. Gow

2 Apr 2018

My opinion on the book

As mentioned by the book title, many of the contents cover history on how the Big 4 accounting firms were formed. From Medici Bank to modern world, the authors did a lot of research and study.  Even it is a bit strange to mention Medici Bank in the beginning that I can’t link up to the Big 4, I am still happy to have a detailed story and background on those accounting giants.

Gow and Kells use eight chapters to talk from the past to modern era. It is interesting. Then, they start to share their views on what are the problems or difficulties faced by the Big 4. From their view, auditing is the foundation of the Big 4 brands.

Recent criticism of the firms has focused on the tax advice provided to clients following the release of the Paradise Papers (2017) and Panama Papers (2015). The authors argue the firms adopting old models of tax avoidance which is a disaster.

They imply non-audit service should be barred from the Big 4 and no more consulting service so it can avoid any conflict of interest.

All these views are controversial and still under debate. Though I am an alum of Deloitte, one of the Big 4 accounting firms, I am open-minded on these views and only look at the evidence quoted to judge whether their views are correct.

 

Part IV is the most valuable part of the book by understanding what do the authors think about the Big 4 future. With different pressures, the authors are pessimistic about the Big 4 future.  From my view, every business leaders should know they are in a business environment changing faster than ever under digital era, so do the Big 4 leaders. They know the need to disrupt in order to survive in the digital world. 

 

In his article, Peter Bendor-Samuel provides an insight on how big 4 accounting firms are becoming formidable challengers in digital transformation services. Click HERE to read Peter's article.

Big 4 Accounting Firms 2018 Ranking

In 2018, Deloitte is ranked number 1 in terms of global revenue but it is slightly ahead of PwC. 

The sum of all big 4 accounting firms global revenue is US$148.3B, even more than Hungary 2017 GDP!

Big 4 accounting firms 2018 ranking: Deloitte is ranked number one with revenue slighlty more than PwC

Recommendation

There are not many books talking about the big 4 accounting firms, especially the history on them. It is a book competently written, well structured and authoritatively researched. But some arguments are controversial and you need to judge or verify whether they are true or not.  However, if you are in the accounting or related professions, it is an important reading that you cannot miss.

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