By ANGUS LOTEN, WSJ.com
Small businesses whose books are audited—by a hired certified public accountant, not the Internal Revenue Service—improve their chances of getting a loan, and at far better terms, than businesses with less scrutinized financial statements, a new study shows.
Yet even as owners continue to struggle with tight credit, few can afford the time, effort or cost of preparing complex financial statements, let alone having them audited, small-business owners, lenders and accountants say.
But the benefits might outweigh the costs.
Based on data from more than 10,000 closely held companies—about half of which have less than 500 employees—a study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found audited businesses save an average of $6,900 for every $1 million in outstanding debt every year as a result of lower interest rates, which were more than half a percentage point below rates paid by nonaudited businesses. For a loan of $3.3 million, the average size of loans analyzed in the study, the savings was about $23,000.
A small-business audit costs anywhere from $5,000 to $75,000, depending on the size of the company, the complexity of its data and other factors—typically double the cost of a financial statement review, the next highest level of CPA-verified assurance after an audit.
An audit provides third-party assurance that a company’s financial statements are correctly prepared and based on verified business data, while a review shows the statements are at least internally consistent with data provided by management.
“There appears to be a very real cost benefit to getting an audit, beyond the obvious value of having your financial statements in order,” says Michael Minnis, a Booth School assistant professor of accounting who led the study. The Booth School study is expected to be published in the Journal of Accounting Research in May.
Similarly, a joint study last year by Michigan State University and Indiana University found small businesses with audited financial statements were “significantly less likely” to be denied credit from banks.
David Leuthold, chief executive of Century Negotiations Inc., a North Huntingdon, Pa., consumer-debt settlement firm, says he started having his books audited annually in 2005 to double-check his own bookkeeping, paying about $8,000 an audit. The move paid off when he applied for a $100,000 line of credit the following year.
“The bank required audited financial statements,” says Mr. Leuthold, whose company made $8 million in revenue last year. Even without audited books, he believes the bank might have approved the loan, though at less favorable terms. “We had what they wanted, so it was definitely worth it,” he says.
Still, for many small businesses seeking a loan, lenders say an audit is costly and unnecessary.
“Audits provide good information. The more concrete information a lender can get, the better,” says Tom Burke, the director of Wells Fargo’s Small Business Administration lending division. But he questioned the necessity of audits for every business.
Mr. Burke says a business with less than $1 million in annual revenue can ask a CPA to prepare a compilation, which is a cheaper, unaudited financial statement based on recorded sales, inventory and other data. Since owners often use these statements to manage daily operations—and they’re prepared by CPAs—lenders have some assurance of the statements’ accuracy in making loan decisions.
“I’d hate to see people taking steps that aren’t necessary, or that they can’t afford,” Mr. Burke says.
Small-business accountant David Wilke, of Carnegie, Pa., says he helps borrowers and lenders negotiate loan terms based on mutually acceptable levels of assurance, ranging from compilations to audits. He says a CPA “adds value by determining what a bank wants and what a business can provide at an early stage,” rather than trying to convince every client to get audited.
Mr. Rose, the accountant in Pittsburgh, says it’s only worth going through an audit—which can require days and even weeks of a manager’s time—when a business owner has a loan in hand that’s contingent on providing audited financial statements.
Audited or not, less than a quarter of businesses with fewer than 500 employees keep financial statements of any kind, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s National Survey of Small Business Finances.
“There’s a lot of criticism that it’s expensive and difficult to prepare and audit your financial statements,” says Teri Yohn, an Indiana University associate professor of accounting who sits on the Financial Accounting Foundation’s blue-ribbon panel on private-company accounting standards. “But there are clearly benefits.”
Schutte & Hilgendorf, PLLC, a Prescott based CPA firm provides audits and reviews to small businesses, government entities, non-profit organizations, and homeowners associations. We also provide tax preparation and planning services, QuickBooks consulting and training and payroll and sales tax services to individuals and small businesses. Contact us for pricing or more information about how we can help you!