You feel pretty confident in the accuracy of your financial statements. But, you know that “trust me” won’t cut it with outsiders when you’re looking for a loan or investment capital. And, perhaps, you just want some reassurance that whoever is doing your books (even if it’s you!) is up to the task – and honest. If this is you, it looks like it’s time for you to to face the audit vs. review and compilation question. This is where CPAs, and the assurance services they provide, come into the picture.
Audit vs. review
There are tiers of assurance services and levels of scrutiny that CPA auditors can apply to your books, with corresponding confidence levels. It ranges from a “compilation” at the low end, to a full-blown audit at the top. Each has a different purpose, and price tag.
Cost depends upon the amount of time spent performing the service, and the level of complexity (also impacting time requirements and thus cost). The range is wide, say from around $2,000 to $10,000, $20,000 or more.
A compilation of financial statements technically does not belong in the same category as assurance services because the CPA isn’t passing judgment on the accuracy of your financial statements, as they do in the audit vs. review area. A compilation, which does not need to be performed by a bona fide CPA, is basically just a set of financial statements compiled by an accountant using your financial records.
The accountant (or CPA) who performs the compilation should know your industry enough to understand your numbers, and adapt them to standard financial statement formats. Those statements will then be understandable to anyone who needs to look at them.
If the CPA has questions about where some numbers come from, you need to provide clarification. If the accountant / CPA isn’t satisfied with your answers, they quit the engagement.
Even if the accountant has no problem compiling the statements with a compilation, a letter accompanying those statements must be shared with anyone you give them to, making it clear that no opinions are expressed about their accuracy. The letter should describe the process used to perform the compilation, and any issues that arose.
Who Uses Compilations?
There’s a lack of assurance that goes with compilations. You might use them to seek a small loan or a larger one if you pledge sufficient collateral.
The entry level assurance services category is the review. According to the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), the review service “is one in which the CPA performs analytical procedures, inquiries and other procedures to obtain limited assurance on the financial statements and is intended to provide a user with a level of comfort on their accuracy.” To produce a review, the CPA needs to gain a basic understanding of your business and your accounting procedures and principles.
Still, in performing a review, the CPA “does not contemplate obtaining an understanding of your business’s internal controls, assessing fraud risk, testing accounting records through inspection, observation, outside confirmation or the examination of source documents ordinarily performed in an audit,” the AICPA explains.
A review is only performed by a CPA who has no ties to you that could compromise the CPA’s independence.
A report accompanies a report, giving the CPA’s opinion on any necessary “material modifications” for statements. This will bring them in line with applicable accounting standards.
A review may get you by if you’re applying for a larger loan and prospective lenders will tell you what they need. They’ll provide a basic level of assurance, too. But a review is closer to a compilation than an audit, which involves significantly more digging on the CPA’s part. The audit is the gold standard of financial statement scrutiny. It provides what the AICPA describes as a “high level of comfort” in terms of accuracy.
An audit only reassures yourself, lenders, investors or prospective business buyers that your financial statements are solid. And if the auditor does have some issues with your numbers or your internal accounting quality control systems, anyone reading the audit report will know that, too.
A Roadmap for Improvement
Any reported weaknesses in your financial controls can give you a roadmap on how to improve them. Once you fix the deficiencies, your next audit report will be cleaner.
However, an audit report indicates that it only provides ‘reasonable’–as opposed to absolute–assurance of your financial statements’ integrity.
Think about an audit vs. review and keep this in mind: In an audit, the CPA can’t rely on numbers from last year’s statements as the starting point for the current year’s audit. Instead, the auditor might first need to perform tests on the prior year’s numbers (and possibly earlier years). That suggests that the sooner you have an audit performed, the less expensive it will be.
There are steps you can take to reduce the cost of an audit, or for that matter, a review. Make sure your bookkeeping system is reliable, and that your financial records are easy to decipher. Consider bringing in a pro in to clean things up before you engage a CPA.
The CPA tells you the documents you need for and inspection. Be sure to have all your papers ready before the review or audit.
Pick an appropriate auditor to get an efficient audit. Large CPA firms tend to be more expensive than mid-sized or smaller firms. You probably don’t need a large national firm. However, a firm that’s large enough to have experienced auditors might be cheaper than a tiny firm. If it can perform your audit more efficiently, take it into consideration.
The public accounting industry is highly competitive. Don’t hesitate to shop around. Before signing an engagement letter, gain a high comfort level with a firm. Check the firm’s client references, fees, promised turnaround times, scope of services, audit procedures and technology infrastructure.
Choose wisely and build a strong relationship with a CPA firm. This can benefit you not only in assuring your financial statements are trustworthy, but ultimately help you to build a strong financial foundation for your business.