As the debate heats up over whether accounting and consulting practices should be separated, one brokerage thinks pure-play consultancy
stands to benefit from the commotion.
UBS Warburg upgraded Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting, to strong buy from buy, largely because it thinks the IT services firm will reap market share from competitors deemed to have conflicts of interest.
Ashish Nanda, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, agrees: "Pure-play consulting firms will pull business away from accounting firms that do consulting as well. The very fact that one part of the business is advising a company and the other part is evaluating it leads to concerns about conflicts of interest."
Like many topics these days, this issue came to a head in the wake of the
meltdown. (Enron used Arthur Andersen as its auditor and for consulting services.) In 2000, Accenture severed ties with Arthur Andersen; it's said to have no liability in the Enron fiasco.
According to UBS's research, there could be up to $3.6 billion to $5.7 billion in revenue "at risk" for firms providing consulting and auditing services to the same clients. "We think the opportunity for Accenture is between $100 million and $1.4 billion," said Adam Frisch, the analyst. He set a one-year price target on the stock of $33, a 28% gain from yesterday's $25.78 closing price.
The way Frisch explains it, there's an overlap of $3.6 billion to $5.7 billion for IT services and auditing services. Of this amount, he assumes $900 million to $2.9 billion could be lost. If Accenture wins 10% to 50% of that money, it could mean an incremental $100 million to $1.4 billion in revenue for the firm.
Others disagree: "The amount of business they'll pick up, as a result of the conflict of interest issue, is overstated," said Tom Rodenhauser, president of Consulting Information Services, an independent research firm.
Among the other Big Five firms, KPMG took its
unit public last year. And Ernst & Young sold its consulting business to Cap Gemini in early 2000.
That leaves Deloitte & Touche and Andersen -- which retained its own $2 billion consulting unit after the August 2000 spinoff of Accenture -- as most "at risk." UBS Warburg also puts PricewaterhouseCoopers in that category in its calculations, but they were made before the firm said it would file plans this spring to split off its consulting business Thursday.
"They'll pick up business related to Andersen," Rodenhauser said. "But it's doubtful they'll get anything significant from the other firms." With regard to Deloitte and Pricewaterhouse, he added: "Their clients aren't going to abandon those firms in the near future."
So will Accenture's focus in the year ahead be on benefiting from its Big Five rivals' woes? Not likely, says Rodenhauser, who thinks getting customers from
IT service division and
are more pressing challenges.
"Whatever scraps of business Accenture picks up from the accounting debacle, they'll gladly accept," he said. "But they're not going to spend much energy trying to lure those clients away."