Big Four No More: What Does the EY Split Mean?

Big Four No More: What Does the EY Split Mean?

The term ‘Big Four’ refers to the world’s largest four professional services networks Deloitte, Ernst & Young (EY), KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Their service repertoire ranges from offering audit, assurance, and taxation to management consulting, actuarial, corporate finance, and legal services.

The Big Four came into existence only in the late 20th century. Previously the market for professional services was dominated by eight big networks that were nicknamed the ‘Big Eight.’ These were Arthur Andersen, Arthur Young, Coopers & Lybrand, Deloitte Haskins and Sells, Ernst & Whinney, Peat Marwick Mitchell, Price Waterhouse, and Touche Ross.

It was the gradual mergers between all these firms including the collapse of Arthur Andersen in 2002, that left the market being dominated by the ‘Big Four’ in the 21st century. Such was their market domination that in the year 2011, the United Kingdom reported that 99% of the companies in the FTSE 100 index and 96% of the companies in the FTSE 250 index were being audited by one of the Big Four firms.

Legal Structure of the Big Four
The EY Split
The Effect on the Big Four

All four firms are, in reality, professional services network that is owned and managed independently. Each of these independent entities has entered into agreements with the other member firms in the network, which, then, share a common name, brand, intellectual property, and quality standards. In an effort to coordinate the activities of the network, each one has established a global entity.

Of these four, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Ernst & Young are registered as a UK Limited Company, whereas KPMG’s registration was under the co-ordinating entity of a Swiss association. Under Swiss law, it changed its legal structure to a cooperative in 2003. It was only in the year 2020, that KPMG became a UK-limited company.

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Being market dominant for a number of years, the ‘Big Four’ have had their fair share of controversies and criticisms regarding their business practices and ethics, audit quality, tax avoidance, and alleged collusion amongst them. The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) in the United States did an analysis in 2019 and reported that the ‘Big Four’ had mismanaged approximately 31% of their audits since 2009 with KPMG having the worst audit failure rate of 36.6%.

May 2018 saw KPMG being accused of complicity and signing off on Carillion’s inflated figures before the company finally collapsed. Two years later in 2020, PwC was facing allegations of a potential interest conflict in its audit of Sonangol as it played a dual role of consultant and auditor. The same year Deloitte was fined 15 million pounds by the FRC for failing to apply professional skepticism in its audit of Autonomy’s financial statements between 2009 to 2011 before it was acquired by Hewlett-Packard. Wirecard’s collapse in 2020 brought to light the poor auditing of Ernst & Young as it failed to discover the missing cash of 1.9 billion Euros.

The EY Split

The firm of Ernst and Young, one of the ‘Big Four’ may be heading for a split separating their accounting and consultancy businesses. A top EY official made the observation that this move will help pay the rising technology bills and might be copied by the other ‘Big Four’ firms.

In the event of a confirmed split, it would be the biggest in the sector since the collapse of Arthur Andersen. The firm of EY is worth approximately USD 50 billion. EY feels confident that the split will make it easier for the firm to raise capital to invest and create two more lucrative firms. The critics, on the other hand, are showing doubt and saying it may adversely affect the auditing side of the business.

Andy Baldwin, the Global Managing Partner of EY said that if the deal did not go through due to the currently unsettled financial markets, it could be voted on again at a later date. The fundamental drivers of the deal will remain unchanged. He went on to say “It may come to a timing point, so our plan is that we will continue to what we call soft separation next year, and continue to start to run these two businesses separately, albeit they will continue to be part of the single enterprise of EY.”
EY's Big BreakUp Plans

The Effect on the Big Four

At the time of writing this article the other firms of the ‘Big Four’ have shown no public interest in a separation of powers. However, in the eye of governing bodies trying to sort out the potential conflicts in the global accounting giants and continue to exert pressure, the other firms may not be left with any other choice. Smaller accounting firms may now see a growth opportunity associated with the split.

If the time comes when the other ‘Big Four’ firms acknowledge the opportunities associated with the split, the fintech market will see unprecedented growth as automated accounting, spend management, and other fintech software will become an inseparable part and tool of the trade.


The CMA, in 2018, announced that it would launch a detailed study of the market dominance of the ‘Big Four’ in the audit sector. The UK Financial Reporting Council in July 2020, asked the Big Four firms to submit their plans to separate their audit and consultancy operations by 2024. However, with the EY split looming on the horizon, it seems it might very well be the beginning of a new chapter in the audit and consulting industry.


Why are the Big Four accounting firms losing their dominance in the industry?

Big Four's decline is caused by factors such as regulation, scandals, tech disruption, evolving client demands, and competition from smaller firms with specialized services and lower costs.

Is EY no more a part of the Big Four?

EY has announced that it will go ahead with splitting into its audit and consulting divisions into two separate companies.

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