The Signs Were There – Corporate Disasters and How to Avoid Them

This is a review of the recently published book entitled “The Signs Were There” by Tim Steer. It’s worth reading by any investor who invests directly in stock market shares, but particularly by those new to the game. Experienced investors will know about many of the causes of companies collapsing, and how accounts can deceive, from their own past experiences. But it’s best to learn what to look for in other ways.

The book covers many UK examples of corporate disasters – not all of them went bust but many did. It profiles Connaught, NCC Group, Sports Direct, Hewlett-Packard/Autonomy, Cedar Group, iSoft, Utilitywise, Slater & Gordon/Quindell, Mitie, Guardian IT, Tribal Group, Conviviality, Amey, Capita, Carillion, Northern Rock, Cattles, Healthcare Locums, Erinaceous, Findel, AO World and Toshiba; and explains why investors were fooled. I have been involved in a few of those as an investor or trying to help those who were caught out, and have written about some of them in the past to try and educate investors on how to spot the dogs.

The author shows how many of the problems in these companies could have been identified in advance by reading the Annual Reports, or looking at some financial ratios. One comment I saw on the book was that few investors have the time to read Annual Reports – if they don’t they should not be investing in my view. Perhaps one criticism is that the author is an accountant and hence is more used to reading the accounts of companies than the average investor. But that is surely a capability that all investors should acquire. The fact that so many of the above companies had professional fund managers as investors in them, or were acquired by supposedly experienced managers (e.g. Hewlett-Packard/Autonomy) tells you that there is a lack of education on such matters.

Reasons given for disappearing profits are frequently revenue recognition problems, accruals misstated, assets wrongly valued, goodwill unreasonably inflated or not written down, capitalisation of operating costs and unexplainable related party transactions. The author also warns about companies that grow via acquisitions when the acquisitions do not help but enable “exceptional” costs to be buried.

You won’t pick up all the future corporate black holes after reading this book. For example, anyone can be fooled by false accounts where even the cash on the balance sheet simply is not there (e.g. at Globo and Patisserie). Simple frauds can conceal many ills, but most of the examples covered in the book were more down to management incompetence and a desire to present profits rather than losses. As is pointed out, accounting rules permit a lot of interpretation and flexibility which is why published accounts cannot always be relied upon. The book will help you avoid a lot of those errors.

The last chapter covers more general issues about why the “System isn’t working”, i.e. the failings of auditors to identify such problems and what to do about it. The author’s comments on the FRC are similar to those in the recent Kingman review. To quote: “The trouble with the FRC is that, rather like the Keystone Cops, who always arrived late to the scene of a crime, their important investigations often commence some time after the damage has been done”.

One suggestion made is that the FRC could take a proactive role in identifying companies that were at risk. Either by reviewing those shares that were being shorted, or a “specially tailored financial screening tool”. The latter might identify those companies where there was a widening gap between reported profits and cash flows, or other declining financial ratios. That seems an eminently sound idea that should be pursued. A public report of such ratios would be an even better idea.

As the author points out, the amount and quality of published research on companies is declining because of the impact of MIFID rules and market dynamics. So investors need to do more of their own research. This book tells you some of the things to look out for.

I have suggested to ShareSoc that they put this book on their “Recommended Reading List”. Let us hope that it does not get lost like the innumerable cookery books that all cooks who pretend to aspire to be good cooks keep in their libraries but never use. Investors have the same tendency to read numerous books on how to pick stocks but then either forget what they have read or get confused by too many answers. They buy more such books while looking for the one simple answer to their quest for the holy grail of a finding a share on which they can make a fortune. There is of course no one simple answer which is why stock market investment is still an art rather than a science. It is just as important to avoid the real dogs in addition to picking winners if your overall portfolio performance is to be better than average. The book “The Signs Were There” is certainly a book that can contribute to your knowledge of how to avoid the worst investments.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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