New academic research suggests it’s still primarily the CFO, not the audit committee, who negotiates the audit fee, despite Sarbanes-Oxley provisions meant to put audit committees in the driver’s seat.

“When push comes to shove, the power of audit committees can be an iffy proposition,” said Elaine Mauldin, an associate professor of accountancy at the University of Missouri, in a statement. She carried out the study, titled Who’s Really in Charge? Audit Committee versus CFO Power and Audit Fees and published in The Accounting Review, with Matthew Beck, an assistant professor at Michigan State University. “Our findings suggest that at many companies it is still primarily the CFO who calls the shots when it comes to hiring an auditor and setting the audit fee,” Mauldin said.

If investors want to know who’s likely managing the company’s relationship with the audit firm, they can figure out by looking up the CFO and audit committee tenures, the authors suggest. “If the CFO has been with the firm a good while and most of the audit committee is fairly new to the board, in all likelihood the CFO dominates on matters related to auditing,” Mauldin said. “If the CFO is fairly new and the audit committee is a seasoned group, the opposite is probably the case.”

Beck and Mauldin arrived at their conclusions by analyzing audit fee patterns through different economic periods. They studied audit fees during a period of heavy corporate stress, in 2009 and 2009, when audit committees and CFOs were more likely to be at odds over audit costs. CFOs were motivated to reduce fees to improve net income, the authors said, while audit committees were motivated to support auditors’ and shareholders’ desires for higher fees to guard against higher audit risk.

The authors compared audit fee activity during that period with fees charged in the two years prior to the 2008-2009 financial crisis and recessionary period, along with patterns of CFO and audit committee power, to arrive at their conclusions. They noticed that audit fee reductions in individual companies were smaller when the audit committee outranked the CFO, but greater when the CFO tenure was greater than the audit committee’s. The study considered and investigated other factors, such as CEO tenure, other measures of CFO and audit committee power, and even client influence, and the results held consistent.

The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board are concerned about whether audit committees are taking the active, assertive role intended under Sarbanes-Oxley. At a recent session of the PCAOB’s Investor Advisory Group to explore various ways to improve audit quality, SEC Chair Mary Jo White said the SEC expects to issue a concept release in early 2015 looking for views on new ideas to upgrade audit committee performance.