No losses, only gains.

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So I’m back in the audit firm. Last year, they picked me as the best in the country and sent me to Disney, Florida to meet CEO of the firm. I’ve been marked for leadership roles and further professional development. People say I’m on a partner track, which is ridiculous given that I’m a first year. I don’t plan on staying, anyway.

Big 4 audit firms work like a pyramid scheme. They have a high turnover rate for all staff below manager: first years, second years and third years. These are also called Staff 1, Staff 2 and Senior 1. Every year you’re in, you go up a level. Everyone who joined with me in September is on a 3 1/2 year training contract. At the end of it, if we can pass the three years of exams and survive the burnout, we are qualified as Chartered Accountants, which is the Commonwealth equivalent of a CPA. But the retention/completion rate for the lower levels is abysmal. Of the seniors who finished their contracts in November, only 1 in 20 stayed on.

This rate of turnover requires the firm, which is about 1400 people, to recruit 150 to 200 graduates a year. So it’s a job with quick promotion, but a lot of burnout, with a serious choke on the people who make audits work: the seniors.

In the US, I understand auditors work much longer hours than we do in [small European island nation], at all levels, all throughout the year. Our office closes at 9 PM, and opens at 8AM. So the most we can really work is 13 hours. Some US offices require 15 hour days for several weeks.  We, as a profession, have a 4 month “busy season” where the firms have to audit public companies’ financial statements, and give an audit opinion that their financial statements reflect how the company is actually doing. This audit is required by law. Given that there is such pressure to report, these audits tend to make assumptions about what’s really at risk of material misstatement, and we also select a threshold value, items over which we should test. We can’t check it all.

Hence, auditors get bad rep for causing the financial crisis, like the Lehman Brothers audit where the firm said everything looked A-OK just before the house of cards collapsed, or the Anglo Irish Bank collapse, which forced the government to give a blanket guarantee to all bank debt, under pressure from the global capital markets. But auditors can only test what the firm will release to us. Do I really give a shit? At least I have a fucking job. Most of my friends have emigrated or are unemployed. A handful have killed themselves or tried to. I am back on the straight and narrow: loving life, loving myself.

I cruise in work as much as I can. If I could sell, I would be in a law firm. But as long as I keep my mouth shut and work hard, I can afford a wife and an upper middle-class lifestyle. Living the dream. At the same time, I like funds audit. I like the arcane nature of the capital markets and the strange financial instruments that bounce money around. The repetitive nature of the work is soothing. Talking to brokers to see what positions they hold, and getting documents that confirm their holdings is very satisfying. Some brokers are nice, some I have to speak in different languages to, others I have to consistently follow up to ensure they deliver. Some require cross-examination, letting me use my law skills.

My favorite thing to do when a broker says they have provided confirms already, when they haven’t, is to get them worked up and committed to the date they said they sent them. I know they haven’t. In a few cases, there will be thousands of positions left to confirm, and confirm teams in India will swear blind they have been sent. When they get strident, and are confident I will back down, shut up and go away, I simply ask them:

“Can you point out where in the attachment you’ve sent the positions are confirmed? Because I can’t see them on my end.”

If they were obstinate, they’ll concede and say they’ll “resend”. If they are legit, they will point them out to me. US brokers and European brokers are easiest to deal with. They have a lot more knowledge, and the communications skills to deliver. This is why I think accountancy is difficult to outsource.

Existence and valuation of cash and investments takes up most of my time, as it does for most first years. The chartered accountancy qualification deals with manufacturing and retail accounting, and the full balance sheet of the business. It doesn’t touch on my area of expertise, funds. I deal with huge volumes of imaginary cash and investments moving all over the world. I don’t check stock or visit clients, because I work with non-domiciled hedge funds. But it’s fine.

People seem to like me, and work at the moment takes about 20% of my mental ram, leaving the other 20% for maintaining posture, and the other 60% for thinking about anime music, gay erotica and Lu Xiaojun’s traps. My job gives me plenty of time for mediocre lifting, but enough hours sunk into work that I can forestall unpleasant family commitments. I cycle to work, and repairing my bike and fueling myself feels like my real job. I don’t have to go out in the rain, nobody shouts at me, and I’m not getting shot at.

 

So, it’s a 3 out of 5, can’t complain. No mope there. I am getting out of the job as soon as I can, because being ambitious and awkward makes you seem mysterious and dynamic. Stay tuned for more compelling insights into the world of professional services trainees.

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