Big Four and Blockchain: Are Auditing Giants Adopting Yet?

Last week, Big Four firm Deloitte unveiled a mobile platform designed to host blockchain networks on a small scale for demonstration purposes. The product is “based on client interest in understanding blockchain capabilities in live interactions," as per the press release

With this move, the Big Four companies — comprised of Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young (EY) and KPMG — continue their expansion into the field of blockchain. Combined, the firms brought in over $148 billion in revenue last year, as they handle over 50% of audits for both public and private companies. Consequently, their presence in the crypto space could be a reflection of the state of blockchain adoption.

So, how far have the Big Four gone while exploring distributed ledger technology (DLT), and can blockchain offer any particular perks for those companies?

Big Four: Consistent, but limited interest in blockchain

At this point, all of the Big Four companies have at least demonstrated some interest in blockchain, albeit their approaches tend to differ. Some companies, like Deloitte, have been mostly researching how this technology has affected the general market, while EY, for instance, has focused on releasing software solutions tailored for the needs of cryptocurrency businesses. 

Such diversity can be explained by the very nature of those companies — being professional services networks, they offer a variety of services, including audit, tax, consulting, enterprise risk and financial advisory. It is also the reason why the Big Four have yet to fully dive into blockchain instead of merely flirting with the technology, as Cal Evans — the founder of Gresham International, a compliance and strategy firm — opined in a conversation with Cointelegraph:

“Because the Big Four work in such a wide scope of sectors, they are unable (or unwilling) to dedicate serious time to blockchain. This makes sense, given that they cannot invest in every new technology set which comes along (although we view blockchain as different). One key thing to note is that many of the big four only got into blockchain when Crypto projects began using them to show more transparency. The Big Four are known to only get involved with something when their client base is using it, blockchain was and is no exception.”

“These appear to be just early steps,” Juan M. Villaverde, chief crypto analyst at Weiss Ratings, said. “They [the Big Four] have begun to recognize the potential of DLT, but they have not yet figured out how to leverage that potential.”

According to recruitment platform Indeed, as of March 2019, PwC had 40 blockchain-related job offerings, being the top recruiter in the field among the Big Four. EY came second with 17 vacancies, followed by Deloitte with 10 job offers. 

Meanwhile, a more up-to-date search shows that PwC is still the most active professional services network when it comes to blockchain technology, but has only 13 positions directly mentioning the word “blockchain” left. EY has four job offerings, while apparently neither KPMG nor Deloitte are hunting for any blockchain talent at this point. That seems to confirm that the Big Four’s interest in the crypto space is existent, but moderate: PwC, for instance, has a total of 1,010 open vacancies on Indeed, meaning that its 40 blockchain-related job offers account for a minuscule fraction of that number. 

Maurizio Raffone, CEO at crypto-focused consultancy and advisory firm Finetiq Ltd., told Cointelegraph:

“My impression is that the Big Four are keen on blockchain as an additional area where they can provide consulting services rather than audit services. There has been a trend by audit firms to move into more lucrative consulting and blockchain offers them yet another opportunity for that strategy.”

Related: How Blockchain Is Reshaping External Audit: Crypto Developments by PwC, KPMG, EY and Deloitte

Nevertheless, blockchain itself should also prove especially useful in the auditing market due to its transparent nature, as Evans told Cointelegraph: 

“Blockchain is one of the few technology sets that can actually aid in most auditing respects. Financial auditing can be assisted by an end-to-end blockchain-based company as all transactions will be open and verifiable. They will also be contained within one ledger, which is one of the largest problems for an independent financial audit. Of course, there is more than one type of audit. Blockchain can be deployed across different sectors to make, for example, a service level agreement audit more effective. Companies could be monitored using blockchain to ensure that they are meeting compliance and the clients wishes.”

Raffone agrees that auditing practices could benefit from having blockchain in place. “I see blockchain as a cost-saving technology in the auditing space,” he told Cointelegraph. “Given the public nature of financial accounts, a blockchain solution would be rather efficient.”

However, Villaverde of Weiss Ratings is wary that the Big Four can stimulate crypto adoption only in certain scenarios. If the Big Four seek to involve themselves exclusively in the support of private blockchain solutions, the expert said, then it would hardly have any effect on the market at large, because “a private, permissioned blockchain is little more than a glorified database.” He went on, saying:

“It’s only when these firms decide to leverage the power of public blockchains, such as Ethereum or Bitcoin, that we envision these initiatives having a significant impact on public adoption.”

PwC

  • Crypto/blockchain market reports: Yes
  • Blockchain-based software solutions: Yes
  • First-hand adoption (Bitcoin acceptance, crypto ATMs): Yes
  • Investments in the crypto market: No

Having started accepting Bitcoin (BTC) as a payment for a part of its services back in 2017, PwC today is arguably the Big Four company that is the most proactive in exploring cryptocurrencies and blockchain. The company even has a major training program in place to boost its employees’ knowledge on the field. 

Thus, PwC is no stranger to the crypto space and its major problems: In its 2018 study entitled “Blockchain is here. What’s your next move?” the firm highlighted regulatory uncertainty and trust as major barriers to blockchain adoption among businesses. Additionally, PwC has paid particular interest to stablecoins — another increasingly important part of the industry — and struck a partnership with decentralized lending platform Cred to advise on issuance of a United States dollar-pegged cryptocurrency. 

However, the firm has not limited its blockchain presence to its advisory department. In March 2018, it partnered with leading global asset management company Northern Trust in a bid to enable real-time equity audits via blockchain and hence make the underlying transactions more transparent. Two months later, PwC invested in VeChain, a large cryptocurrency startup specializing in web services, supply chain management and anti-counterfeiting. In July of the same year, news broke that PwC was going to audit Tezos, the ambitious cryptocurrency project that was going through an internal dispute and several class-action lawsuits at the time. As per the accompanying press release published by the latter, it was allegedly the first time a “large-scale blockchain organization” had been accepted as a Big Four audit client. 

Most recently, PwC announced the release of a cryptocurrency auditing software solution. Specifically, the company updated its Halo auditing suite to accommodate “entities engaging in cryptocurrency transactions” by providing independent evidence of private-public key pairing and collecting information about transactions and balances from blockchains. 

Related: Will PwC’s New Software Solve the Cryptocurrency Auditing Problem?

EY 

  • Crypto/blockchain market reports: Yes
  • Blockchain-based software solutions: Yes
  • First-hand adoption (Bitcoin acceptance, crypto ATMs): No
  • Investments in the crypto market: No

EY has released more solo crypto-related software projects than any of its Big Four rivals. First, in April 2018, EY announced Blockchain Analyzer, becoming the first mainstream auditor to offer its services specifically for the needs of cryptocurrency companies, which allowed for the gathering of an organization’s entire transaction data from multiple blockchain ledgers. A year later, the firm followed up with a major update, introducing “the second generation” of EY Blockchain Analyzer. According to Paul Brody, the global innovation leader for blockchain at EY, the new version can be used for multiple purposes — such as audit, tax and transaction monitoring.

Moreover, in March 2019, EY unveiled another software solution — this time, for tax purposes exclusively. Dubbed Crypto-Asset Accounting and Tax, or CAAT, the tool was designed to assist its U.S. customers — both public and institutional — in filing IRS tax returns related to crypto assets. 

Further, in May, EY open-sourced the code of Nightfall — its solution that enables the transfer of ERC-20 and ERC-721 tokens on the Ethereum (ETH) blockchain “with complete privacy” — and put it on GitHub. “It is an experimental solution and still being actively developed,” the company warned. 

Finally, the audit titan has applied blockchain to track wine. Specifically, the platform — titled Tattoo — helps consumers across Asia determine the quality, provenance and authenticity of imported European wines. As with the aforementioned Nightall, EY's solution enables its customers to perform secure and private transactions on the Ethereum public network by using zero-knowledge proof technology. 

On top of releasing a number of blockchain-related software solutions, EY has also been supplying its regular services to crypto actors. Namely, the firm has been appointed by QuadrigaCX — a Canadian cryptocurrency exchange that went defunct under mysterious circumstances — as an independent third party to monitor the proceedings in a creditor protection case. However, some of the exchange’s former clients are not happy with how EY has been handling the case: At some point, the auditor re