After the Enron scandal shocked the world and created doubt about the accounting principles of public companies, the United States Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act created new standards that had to be met by publicly traded companies and accounting companies. It was designed to protect shareholders from fraud that could ultimately destroy their investments and it was meant to provide certainty to financial markets that were left jittery from the series of scandals that annihilated corporate giants.
The Sarbanes – Oxley Act created certain financial reporting procedures for both public companies and their auditors. Senior executives and auditors were given specific responsibilities to ensure that the financial reporting from public companies would be truthful in the future. Financial reporting has to happen according to certain procedures and at certain time intervals. The penalties for not complying with the requirements of Sarbanes – Oxley include both civil and criminal charges that can result in significant fines and prison sentences.
Applicability to Private Firms
The Sarbanes – Oxley Act created the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. The purpose of the Board is to oversee the auditors of public companies. Accounting firms that are not registered with the Board cannot audit public companies in the United States. However, for many years after the creation of the Sarbanes – Oxley Act the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C) waived the requirement for privately held firms. This wavier allowed the accounting firm that was responsible for auditing Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities to avoid registering with the Board and to avoid the type of governmental oversight that Sarbanes – Oxley was designed to create.
After news of Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme broke and its devastating effects on individuals and financial markets become apparent in December 2008, the S.E.C. allowed the waiver to lapse and as of January 2009 it now requires auditors of privately held firms to register with the Board and to be held accountable for the ethical and professional standards set forth by the Board.
Has the Sarbanes – Oxley Act Been a Success?
The success of Sarbanes – Oxley is often debated. Those who criticize the Act claim that the Act is unnecessary and too expensive to implement. The most ardent criticizers of the bill claim that not only has Sarbanes – Oxley failed in its mission to ensure honest financial recordkeeping and disclosure but that it has also stifled new business development in the United States. Some criticizers point to the Madoff scandal as an example of the failure of the Sarbanes – Oxley Act.
Yet, not all analysts share in this type of criticism. Many analysts believe that more precise financial statements are now being prepared for public companies and that shareholders have greater confidence in their investments as a result of Sarbanes – Oxley. In order for these benefits to be realized, however, the S.E.C. must ensure that all of the requirements of the Act are carefully and universally followed and that exceptions, such as those for certain accounting firms, are not permitted.