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Explain the auditor’s responsibility for discovering material misstatements due to fraud or error.
AICPA auditing standards state
The overall objectives of the auditor, in conducting an audit of financial statements, are to:
obtain reasonable assurance about whether the financial statements as a whole are free from material misstatement, whether due to fraud or error, thereby enabling the auditor to express an opinion on whether the financial statements are presented fairly, in all material respects, in accordance with an applicable financial reporting framework; and
report on the financial statements, and communicate as required by auditing standards, in accordance with the auditor’s findings.
Material Versus Immaterial Misstatements
Misstatements are usually considered material if the combined uncorrected errors and fraud in the financial statements would likely have changed or influenced the decisions of a reasonable person using the statements. Although it is difficult to quantify a measure of materiality, auditors are responsible for obtaining reasonable assurance that this materiality threshold has been satisfied. It would be extremely costly (and probably impossible) for auditors to have responsibility for finding all immaterial errors and fraud.
Assurance is a measure of the level of certainty that the auditor has obtained at the completion of the audit. Auditing standards indicate reasonable assurance is a high, but not absolute, level of assurance that the financial statements are free of material misstatements. The concept of reasonable, but not absolute, assurance indicates that the auditor is not an insurer or guarantor of the correctness of the financial statements. Thus, an audit that is conducted in accordance with auditing standards may fail to detect a material misstatement.
The auditor is responsible for reasonable, but not absolute, assurance for several reasons:
Most audit evidence results from testing a sample of a population such as accounts receivable or inventory. Sampling inevitably includes some risk of not uncovering a material misstatement. Also, the areas to be tested; the type, extent, and timing of those tests; and the evaluation of test results require significant auditor judgment. Even with good faith and integrity, auditors can make mistakes and errors in judgment.
Accounting presentations contain complex estimates, which inherently involve uncertainty and can be affected by future events. As a result, the auditor has to rely on evidence that is persuasive, but not convincing.
Fraudulently prepared financial statements are often extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the auditor to detect, especially when there is collusion among management.
If auditors were responsible for making certain that all the assertions in the statements were correct, the types and amounts of evidence required and the resulting cost of the audit function would increase to such an extent that audits would not be economically practical. Even then, auditors would be unlikely to uncover all material misstatements in every audit. The auditor’s best defense when material misstatements are not uncovered is to have conducted the audit in accordance with auditing standards.
Errors Versus Fraud
Auditing standards distinguish between two types of misstatements: errors and fraud. Either type of misstatement can be material or immaterial. An error is an unintentional misstatement of the financial statements, whereas fraud is intentional. Two examples of errors are: a mistake in extending price times quantity on a sales invoice and overlooking older raw materials in determining the lower of cost or market for inventory.
For fraud, there is a distinction between misappropriation of assets, often called defalcation or employee fraud, and fraudulent financial reporting, often called management fraud. An example of misappropriation of assets is a clerk taking cash at the time a sale is made and not entering the sale in the cash register. An example of fraudulent financial reporting is the intentional overstatement of sales near the balance sheet date to increase reported earnings.
Auditor’s Responsibilities for Detecting Material Errors
Auditors spend a great portion of their time planning and performing audits to detect unintentional mistakes made by management and employees. Auditors find a variety of errors resulting from such things as mistakes in calculations, omissions, misunderstanding and misapplication of accounting standards, and incorrect summarizations and descriptions.
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