Auditing Equity: The Why and How Guide

Auditing equity is usually quite easy--until it's not

What are the keys to auditing equity correctly? In this post, we’ll answer this question, showing you how to focus on the important equity accounting issues.

how to audit equity

Auditing Equity — An Overview

In this post, we will cover the following:

  • Primary equity assertions
  • Equity walkthroughs
  • Directional risk for equity
  • Primary risks for equity
  • Common equity control deficiencies
  • Risk of material misstatement for equity
  • Substantive procedures for equity
  • Common equity work papers

Primary Equity Assertions

Before we look at assertions, consider various potential equity accounts such as:

  • Common stock
  • Paid in capital
  • Preferred stock
  • Treasury stock
  • Accumulated other comprehensive income
  • Noncontrolling interests
  • Members’ equity (for an LLC)
  • Net assets (for a nonprofit)
  • Net position (for a government)

Certain types of equity accounts are used for certain types of entities. For example, you’ll find common stock in an incorporated business, net assets in nonprofits, and members’ equity in a limited liability corporation. 

Then, the equity accounts used will depend upon what the entity does. Examples include:

  • Has the company purchased treasury stock?
  • Does a commercial entity have unrealized gains or losses on available-for-sale securities?
  • Does a nonprofit organization have restricted contributions?
  • Does a government have restricted net position?

So, it’s a must–before you determine the relevant assertions–that you understand the accounting for (1) the type of entity and (2) the particular equity-related transactions.

The primary relevant equity assertions (often) are:

  • Existence and occurrence
  • Rights and obligations
  • Classification

When a company reflects equity on its balance sheet, it is asserting that the balance exists and that the equity transactions occurred. For example, if common stock is sold, the balance of the account is based upon the actual sale of stock and the monies received. The balance is not fictitiously or erroneously stated. 

Equity instruments also have certain rights and obligations. For example, common stock provides rights to retained earnings. Also, some classes of stock provide voting privileges. Others do not.

Additionally, the classification of equity balances is important. Determining how to present equity is usually easy, but classification issues arise when an entity has equity instruments such as convertible stock. Classification is also relevant when there is a noncontrolling interest

Keep these assertions in mind as you perform your transaction cycle walkthroughs.

Equity Walkthroughs

Early in your audit, perform a walkthrough of equity to see if there are any control weaknesses. As you perform this risk assessment procedure, what questions should you ask? What should you observe? What documents should you inspect? Here are a few suggestions.

Walkthrough Questions and Actions

As you perform your equity walkthrough ask or perform the following:

  • What types of equity does the entity have?
  • How many shares are authorized? How many shares have been issued?
  • Does the company have any convertible debt?
  • Has the company declared and paid dividends?
  • Are there any state laws restricting distributions?
  • Does the company have accumulated other comprehensive income?
  • Inspect ownership documents such as stock certificates.
  • Read the minutes to determine if any new equity has been issued.
  • Does the company have classes of stock? What are the rights of each?
  • Is the entity attempting to raise additional capital?
  • Has the company sold any additional equity ownership?
  • Is there a noncontrolling interest in the company?
  • Does the company have stock compensation plan?
  • For a nonprofit, are there any restricted donations?
  • For a government, is the net position restricted?
  • For a limited liability corporation, are there differing classes of ownership? 

As you perform your walkthroughs, also consider if there are risks of material misstatement due to fraud or error.

Equity-Related Fraud and Errors

Theft seldom occurs in the sale of stock. If fraud occurs, it’s usually an intentional false equity presentation. Inflating an entity’s equity can make the organization appear healthier than it really is. 

Additionally, mistakes can lead to errors in accounting for equity. Such mistakes may occur if the entity sells complex equity instruments. Understanding the rights and obligations of ownership interests is a key to proper accounting.

Directional Risk for Equity

The directional risk for equity is that it is overstated (companies desire strong equity positions). So, audit for existence. 

Primary Risks for Equity

The primary risks for equity are:

  1. Equity is intentionally overstated
  2. Misclassified equity 

As you think about these risks, consider the control deficiencies that allow equity misstatements.

Common Equity Control Deficiencies

In smaller entities, it is common to have the following control deficiencies:

  • One person performs two or more of the following: 
    • Approves the sale of equity interests,
    • Enters the new equity in the accounting system, 
    • Deposits funds from the sale of the equity instruments
  • Accounting personnel lack knowledge regarding equity transactions

Another key to auditing equity is understanding the risks of material misstatement.

Risk of Material Misstatement for Equity

In auditing equity, the assertions that concern me the most are existence, classification, and rights. So my risk of material misstatement for these assertions is usually moderate to high. 

My response to the higher risk assessments is to perform certain substantive procedures: namely, a review of equity transactions. Why?

A company may desire to overstate its equity. Also, misclassifications occur due to misunderstandings about equity accounting.

Once your risk assessment is complete, you’ll decide what substantive procedures to perform.

Substantive Procedures for Equity

My normal substantive tests for auditing equity include:

  1. Summarizing and reviewing all equity transactions
  2. Reviewing all equity accounts for proper classification
  3. Agreeing all beginning of period balances to the prior period’s ending balances
  4. Reviewing equity disclosures for compliance with the requirements of the reporting framework (e.g., GAAP)

In light of my risk assessment and substantive procedures, what equity work papers do I normally include in my audit files?

Common Equity Work Papers

My equity work papers normally include the following:

  • An understanding of equity-related internal controls 
  • Documentation of any equity internal control deficiencies
  • Risk assessment of equity at the assertion level
  • Equity audit program
  • A copy of (sample) equity instruments 
  • Minutes reflecting the approval of new equity
  • A summary of equity activity (beginning balances plus new equity less equity distributions and ending balance)

In Summary

In summary, today we reviewed the keys to auditing equity. Those keys include risk assessment procedures, determining relevant assertions, performing risk assessments, and developing substantive procedures. The most important issues to address are usually (1) equity accounting (especially when there are more complex types of equity transactions) and (2) the classification of equity.

Look for my next post in The Why and How of Auditing

If you’ve missed my prior posts in this audit series, click here.

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