I Never Felt So Handsome

Four days. 5,000 of the world's top accountants. It doesn't get better than this! As an outsider, Bryan Walsh takes a lighter look at the recent meeting of world's accountants held in Hong Kong.

Stuff I discovered last week at the 2002 World Congress of Accountants: 1) International accountancy is facing a crisis of public confidence that will be countered only through the rigorous application of universal standards ensuring consistent auditing, and 2) Don't get between a hungry Ghanaian accountant and her free California roll.

The World Congress of Accountants is a summit where 5,000 bean counters meet to discuss the industry's searing issues, like solar vs. battery-powered calculators or the long-awaited switch to No. 3 pencils. Usually it would be the dullest four days this side of, well, a meeting with 5,001 accountants, but thanks to the bookkeeping debacles at kleptocorporations like Enron, once-ignored accountants are suddenly the mysterious bad boys of the corporate world. This year's congress was the perfect chance for the tarnished industry to pick itself up, dust itself off and blame Kenneth Lay for all its problems. I was assigned to cover it.

I think my editors hate me.

Held every five years, the congress is known as the Olympics of the accounting world, though to my disappointment there was no 100 m tax sprint, no rhythmic derivative calculation, not even a lousy doping scandal. It was convened this year in Hong Kong, which managed to beat out both Jerusalem and Harare for the honor, proving that it truly is the City of Life—or at least the City Without Regular Bus Bombings or Systemized Brutality. If not precisely Olympic, the congress was global, with more than 100 nationalities attending, led by the French (because the incoming president of the International Federation of Accountants is French), the Japanese (because the outgoing president is Japanese), the Russians (because the Russians will use any excuse to get out of Russia) and 1,800 mainland Chinese delegates wearing Jiang Zemin glasses. It resembled the U.N. from the 1970s: heavy brows, bulky suits, unfashionable eyewear, few Americans, fewer women and even less hair. I felt uncomfortably attractive.

Even Zhu Rongji looked pretty good by comparison. The outgoing Chinese Premier gave the opening address and sternly reminded accountants that their motto should be “make no false account.” Besides presenting China as an unlikely model for pristine accountancy, the congress's chief priority was restoring the public's image of accountants as honest and boring. Unusually animated IFAC President René Ricol took charge of the defense, exhorting fellow double-entry doyens to share “a passion for the quality of accounts and their audit; for taxation, for information systems, for management controls and systems.” I liked Ricol, whose public speaking style is reminiscent of the electrifying Jean Chrétien, who is not an accountant but is Canadian. When I gave Ricol the chance to bash greedy Americans for besmirching accounting, he demurred. “And I'm French,” he added. “We know the French always enjoy to criticize the Americans.” His bonhomie was revolutionary; he was a veritable Lafayette of the ledgers. But his big idea was to replace the industry's key word of “independence” with “integrity.” I guess it saves on letters, but as a member of the public, I must say my trust is not being rebuilt.

Not that I have any idea what I'm talking about. “The thing is, we really don't understand what accountants are doing,” says Zachary Coffin, an accountant turned venture capitalist. “People just think they wear green eyeshades and run numbers all day.” I can say unequivocally that in my four days at the congress there were no green eyeshades and little running of any kind, except when they unveiled the sushi buffet at the opening reception. I still have the bruises.

The congress's exhibition area was like a science fair for accountants. Some booths went overboard (Deloitte, Touche, Tohmatsu had laser lights) and some slacked off (Johnson, Stokes and Master made do with flyers). Members of the Japanese delegation could be found huddled around the TaylorMade golf pavilion, missing putts on the artificial green like they were Phil Mickelson in a Grand Slam playoff. Almost as popular was the Republic of the Marshall Islands booth, which gave out brochures touting the islands' offshore laws as having “confidentiality surpassing most jurisdictions” and “free redomiciliation.” I'm not certain what redomiciliation means, but I'm sure it's something I'd want in my offshore tax shelter.

The 2002 World Congress of Accountants had everything you could want in a world congress of accountants, except for two words: Arth … Ander … In his closing speech, Ricol finally mentioned the Firm That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Arthur Andersen. “It is so sad what happened,” he said. “It's so sad, we are not speaking about Andersen.” Enron's ex-employees might feel differently, but I could hardly keep from tearing up. Or falling asleep.

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