Auditor choice and audit fees through the lens of agency theory: evidence from Chinese family firms

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Purpose: From an agency perspective, the authors investigate whether family ownership and control configurations are systematically associated with a firm's choice of auditor and audit fees. Agency theory is an economic theory that purposes the existence of a contract between two parties, principals and agents. Auditor choice and audit fees by family firms provide interesting insights given the unique nature of the agency problems faced by such firms. Design/methodology/approach: The authors employ Big-4 auditors (PWC, KPMG, E&Y and Deloitte) as a proxy for high quality auditor (Big N) for the auditor choice model. For the audit fee model, the dependent variable is the natural logarithm of audit fees (LnAF). The authors use two measures for family firm as explanatory variables: (1) a dummy variable (FAM_Control), which equals one if the firm is classified as a family firm and (2) FAM_Ownership, which is an indicator variable with a value of one if a firm has family members who hold CEO position, occupy board seats, or hold at least 10% of the firm's equity. Data of Chinese listed firms from 2011 to 2021 are used. The authors adopt the Heckman (1979) two-stage model to mitigate the potential endogeneity issue involved in the selection of Big-N auditors. Findings: The findings suggest that compared with non-family firms, Chinese family firms have a less tendency to employ Big-4 auditors due to less severe agency problems between owners and managers. Additionally, Chinese family firms sustain higher audit fees than non-family firms. Similar to the prior literature, however, Chinese family firms audited by Big-4 auditors incur lower audit fees than family firms audited by non-Big-4 auditors in this study. In contrast to young-family firms, old-family firms are less likely to pick top-tier auditors and sustain lower audit fees. Consistent and robust results are found from endogeneity tests and sensitivity analyses. Originality/value: The empirical evidence provides a unique insight, for accounting practitioners, policymakers, family owners and other capital market participants concerning the diverse effects of various family ownership and control features on selecting high-quality auditors and audit fees. This study advances the understanding, showing that a lower demand for audit quality occurs in Chinese family firms as they encounter less severe Type I agency problems. However, the more severe Type II agency problems in Chinese family firms sustain higher audit fees due to higher audit risk and greater audit effort.

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Journal of Family Business Management



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