The development of a best practice framework for the formulation of overall audit strategies for insurance contracts and the related earnings of listed South African longterm insurers
ENGLISH ABSTRACT: The South African long-term insurance industry is currently believed to be at an important crossroads in its existence. The industry is haunted by concerns about high cost structures, a lack of transparency in disclosure to policyholders, unfulfilled expectations of policyholders and the proliferation of available investment vehicles in the market. These concerns are exerting pressure on the existing products and practices of South African long-term insurers. The audits of these insurers are of a complex and high-risk nature as a result of the complexity of their operations and, in particular, the highly complex actuarial valuation process in respect of policy liabilities. The prevailing auditing standards in South Africa require auditors to include policy liabilities in the ambit of their audit opinions. Recent investigations into failed long-term insurers and their audits, including those of local Fedsure Life, British Equitable Life Assurance Society and Australian HIH Insurance, demonstrate the high risk involved in the audits of long-term insurers. Against this background, the objective of this research was to develop a best practice framework for the formulation of overall audit strategies for policy liabilities arising under insurance contracts and the related earnings of listed South African long-term insurers. To justify the focus of the research on the abovementioned components of the financial statements of listed South African long-term insurers, a questionnaire was developed and sent to auditors of all long-term insurers listed on the JSE Securities Exchange South Africa for completion. Responses were processed to calculate a Relative Inherent Risk Index specifically developed for use in this research, ranking various industry-specific account balances and classes of transactions on the basis of their potential exposure to inherent risk. The results of this process provided significant support for the hypotheses that policy liabilities and the related earnings are potentially exposed to the highest levels of inherent risk. The remainder of the research consequently focused on these components. A further very comprehensive questionnaire was developed to collect data with respect to respondents’ views of potential best practices for the audit of various aspects relating to policy liabilities arising under insurance contracts and the related earnings of listed South African long-term insurers, on the basis of their extensive experience in the industry. This questionnaire was sent to experienced auditors responsible for the audits of the five largest listed long-term insurers in South Africa for completion. Responses were received from four of the five potential respondents, resulting in an 80% response rate, enabling meaningful analysis and interpretation of the data. Responses were analysed, interpreted and documented in the form of a detailed best practice framework for the formulation of overall audit strategies for policy liabilities arising under insurance contracts and the related earnings. The lack of a fifth response was compensated for by a review of the research findings by experienced auditors of Deloitte and the provision of their opinions thereon. Deloitte was selected for this purpose as the fact that this auditing firm is the only one of the so-called “Big Four” auditing firms that does not act as auditor of one of the selected target long-term insurers, resulted in the initial exclusion of the firm’s views from the research. The framework was updated to reflect these opinions and now incorporates input from all of the so-called “Big Four” auditing firms. The framework provides a comprehensive discussion of all possible types of audit procedures that may be relevant to the audit of all aspects of policy liabilities arising under insurance contracts and the related earnings of listed South African long-term insurers. As no such framework existed prior to this research, the development thereof made a significant contribution to existing knowledge. This contribution is the result of, inter alia, the method followed in designing the framework, resulting in it representing a synthesis of, inter alia, the following: • existing international and limited local guidance for auditors and, in particular, auditors of long-term insurers, customised for the South African environment; • best practices currently in use on the audits of listed South African long-term insurers; and • views of experienced practitioners on the abovementioned types of best practices that might not be employed at the moment, but that should, in their views, be employed in future. The valuable contribution of this research to existing knowledge is clear from the fact that numerous publications in popular professional as well as accredited academic journals, plus a paper delivered at a conference have resulted from it (refer to the source list and Appendix A). Furthermore, the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants has approved a project to update existing South African guidance for auditors of long-term insurers on the basis of the findings of this research.