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    Audits of Complex Estimates as Verification of Management...
    research summary posted October 19, 2015 by Jennifer M Mueller-Phillips, tagged 05.0 Audit Team Composition, 05.01 Use of Specialists e.g., financial instruments, actuaries, valuation, 08.0 Auditing Procedures – Nature, Timing and Extent, 08.04 Auditors’ Professional Skepticism, 09.0 Auditor Judgment, 09.03 Adequacy of Evidence, 09.12 Impact of potential post-audit review - e.g., PCAOB, internal firm inspections, 11.0 Audit Quality and Quality Control, 11.05 Training and General Experience, 11.09 Evaluation of Evidence 
    Audits of Complex Estimates as Verification of Management Numbers: How Institutional Pressures Shape Practice.
    Practical Implications:

    Based on the interviews and problems identified, the authors conjecture that potentially suboptimal auditing methods are being used to evaluate complex estimates which are an important and growing part of the financial statements. This may be negatively impacting audit quality. More specifically, auditors over-rely on management estimates because they lack the knowledge and incentives to behave otherwise. This possibility has direct consequences for auditor professional skepticism because increasing professional skepticism may be less effective unless auditors are also given the requisite knowledge to properly use it. These problems are reinforced by auditing standards and regulators which generally outline/criticize the current auditing methods without suggesting new or better ones.  


    Griffith, E., J. Hammersley, and K. Kadous. 2015. Audits of Complex Estimates as Verification of Management Numbers: How Institutional Pressures Shape Practice. Contemporary Accounting Research 32 (3): 833-863.

    Complex Estimates, Subjectivity, Institutional Theory, Valuation Specialists, Professional Skepticism, Interviews
    Purpose of the Study:

    Complex estimates are increasingly important to financial statements and of growing concern to both regulators and investors. While auditors have well-established procedures for auditing more objective account balances (i.e., valued at historical cost), little is known about the process auditors use to evaluate more subjective, complex estimates. This article conducts interviews with experienced audit personnel to determine how auditors evaluate such estimates, determines the problems with such approaches, and uses “institutional theory” to theorize the reason such problems exist and persist. The authors consider the influence of both audit firms themselves and regulators (i.e., information from PCAOB inspection reports) on auditors’ complex estimate audit procedures.

    Design/Method/ Approach:

    The authors conducted semi-structured phone interviews with experienced audit personnel. Participants are from 6 large accounting firms with at least manager level experience. Interviews were conducted between October and November 2010. The authors analyzed the audit process steps discussed by participants for complex estimates and coded these steps according to the PCAOB auditing standards related to accounting estimates (AU 342 and 328).  For steps that could not be appropriately classified into ones discussed by the auditing standards, the authors developed additional classifications.


    While auditing standards allow for different approaches to evaluating complex estimates (e.g., testing management process, preparing independent estimate, etc.), the authors find that auditors usually just test management’s process (i.e., verifying inputs such as historical cost, understanding who and how estimate is generated, testing controls surrounding process, and testing sensitivity of assumptions used).  

    Based on institutional theory, the authors theorize two key reasons that auditors mainly use management process verification when auditing complex estimates instead of other (potentially more creative and skeptical) approaches. The reasons are:

    • Both audit firm policies and professional standards generally emphasize management process verification techniques over other potential techniques. Additionally, regulators (i.e., PCAOB) reinforce/encourage this behavior because inspection findings largely focus on problems with auditing management’s process instead of suggesting alternative, superior auditing methods.
    • Audit firms employ valuation specialists who have the necessary knowledge to more critically analyze complex estimates. This fact means that financial statement auditors generally do not have the necessary knowledge to critically analyze management’s models or develop an independent expectation. When auditors do use such specialists, they over-rely on their work.
    • Given the lack of guidance regarding complex estimates, firms tend to use practices that have been previously legitimized. For auditing of complex estimates, verification (which works well to audit less subjective accounts) is used to audit more subject complex estimates. Auditing standards also mainly emphasize verification.
    • Given inspection pressures, firms find it safer and more legitimate to mimic each other’s policies and procedures for auditing complex estimates instead of develop new ones.
    Audit Quality & Quality Control, Audit Team Composition, Auditing Procedures - Nature - Timing and Extent, Auditor Judgment
    Adequacy of Evidence, Auditors’ Professional Skepticism, Evaluation of Evidence, Impact of potential post-audit review (e.g. PCAOB - internal firm inspections), Sustainability ServicesTraining & General Experience, Use of Specialists (e.g. financial instruments – actuaries - valuation)