FRC Seminars, Lookers Results, Caparo Judgement and Autonomy Case

I attended two seminars organised by ShareSoc and UKSA with the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) yesterday (24/11/2020) and the day before. The first session was about the “ARGA transformation”, i.e. the steps being taken to improve the audits of companies and the reporting of accounts following the Kingman review two years ago. ARGA stands for Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority which will be the new name for the FRC.

Before reporting on the meeting, it’s worth noting the latest example of how audits have failed to disclose substantial errors in accounts, including fraud, in the case of Lookers (LOOK). In their announcement on Tuesday they made it clear that profits had been wildly overstated for some years and the balance sheet was likewise overstated. To quote from the announcement: “A total of £25.5m of non-cash adjustments are necessary to correct misstatements in PBT over a number of years” and “Adjustments reduce  PBT by £10.9m in 2019 and £7.2m in 2018 with the balance cumulatively decreasing PBT by £7.4m in 2017 and earlier”. Auditors Deloitte have resigned.

It is a regular occurrence that the published accounts of public companies are subsequently shown to be wrong and that fraud goes undetected. The audit process which investors rely on to enable them to have confidence in the accounts on which they are basing investment decisions is clearly regularly failing.

The FRC seminar was presented by Sir Jon Thompson, their new CEO following a wholesale shake-up of management, and Miranda Craig, Director of Strategy and Change. They reported on the progress to implement the required changes, many of which require changes to legislation. They hope to get those implemented in the second half of 2021 with ARGA becoming live in 2022. But none of this is certain as it depends on Government co-operation and priorities. There will also need to be another consultation round on the details of the proposals.

The Kingman review proposed joint audits be introduced but the Government has decided against that but managed shared audits are being considered so as to give smaller audit firms some involvement in bigger audits.

ShareSoc Director Cliff Weight asked a question about the Caparo legal judgement and the problem of people holding shares in nominee accounts not being “members” of a company.  I followed up with some points on Caparo, which Sir John Thompson did not appear to know much about and assigned a response to someone else.

Let me explain why this issue is so important and how the Caparo legal judgement undermined the duties of auditors.

Investors in the stock market purchase shares on the basis of the published accounts of companies being a fair view of their financial position. Before the Caparo legal judgement in 1990 it was widely assumed that auditors had a duty of care to shareholders – after all what was the purpose of the audit other than to provide reassurance to shareholders? Historically that was why audits were introduced. See this ShareSoc blog for more information https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/audit-quality-caparo-judgement and there are more details of the legal case on Wikipedia.

This judgement effectively meant that no shareholder in a company could sue the auditors for incompetence or breach of duty, only the company could. But that rarely happens, when it is the shareholders that have typically lost money as a result. In fact some auditors have claimed that even the company does not have a claim if the reported accounts were false because it might not necessarily have affected what actions the company took. Sometimes when a company goes into administration the liquidators might sue, as in the recent example of Patisserie (CAKE) but there is no certainty of success or any pay-out to shareholders.

The failure to make auditors responsible financially to investors relieves them of a big financial incentive to do their work properly and to identify false or fraudulent accounts.

I put it to Miranda Craig that all that was required to fix this problem was a simple Act of Parliament to overturn the Caparo judgement. She suggested they did not have the powers to implement this but that is a weak excuse.  They could surely suggest to the Government that such an Act be introduced as it’s perfectly practical. It just needs to reinstate the duty of auditors to shareholders and overturn the somewhat perverse decision in the Caparo judgement.

Another attendee at the seminar raised the issue of the auditors being able to limit liability to the company by contractual means which is another issue that needs tackling.

The second seminar was about “Enforcement”, presented by Claudia Mortimore and Jamie Symington. There has been growth in the enforcement team – from 9 staff in 2012 to 54 now. Certainly enforcement has been more active but they are still hampered in some cases by limitations on their powers – for example they only have powers over members of regulatory bodies whereas many company directors are not such members (even finance directors or chairs of audit committees). There are plans to change this.

They have identified two main issues from past audits: 1) A failure to plan and perform audits with professional scepticism; and 2) Failure to obtain sufficient audit evidence.

Enforcement does seem to be improving, but there are still some issues as Robin Goodfellow pointed out (a failure to communicate with complainants over FRC findings or during investigations).

There is also an issue that fines on audit firms or partners are still not enough to discourage poor behaviour or match the losses incurred by shareholders due to incompetence or inadequacy. For example, one of the cases mentioned in the seminar was that of Autonomy. Deloitte was fined £15 million in September over their audit work for the company. But Hewlett-Packard (now HPE) claimed for £3.8 billion over their losses resulting from the acquisition of Autonomy, i.e. 250 times what Deloitte were fined!

Altogether these were somewhat disappointing seminars for those of us looking for vigorous action and speedy revolutions in the FRC. I am not convinced the culture of the FRC has yet changed, with progress being slow and decisive actions to improve audit standards not being implemented, although others do think there is progress being made. Improvements are being implemented but not nearly as quickly as I would like and auditors are still being protected from the worst impacts of incompetent audits. The fines that are issued are still too low – for example Deloitte registered a profit of £518m for the year ended May 2020 so they probably won’t worry too much about a £15 million fine.

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

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Revenue Recognition in Minds + Machines

Yesterday I talked about preventing fraud in accounts and the revised standard set by the FRC for the auditing of accounts. The standard actually highlights a common problem area in company accounts. Namely the question of revenue recognition. It can be easy to fabricate revenue even if somewhat more difficult to create the cash that normally flows from revenue.

But not always as one can see in the announcement today from Minds + Machines Group (MXX). It says that the board has concluded that cash of £1.125 million that was received in connection with a specific contract and £938,000 of revenue in FY 2019 was incorrectly recognised in the accounts. In reality the cash received was an advance from the customer against future end-user sales and should have been treated as a deposit.

There were also two other contracts where receipts were incorrectly categorised as revenue. Both the CEO and CFO have resigned with immediate effect.

Comment: these are of course pretty basic accounting errors which any director of a public company should be aware of. In addition the auditors (Mazars) failed to pick up the issue. These were substantial contracts in relation to the overall revenue of the company so surely should have been reviewed in detail?

These failings may not have been deliberate fraud but they just demonstrate how it’s so easy for investors to be misled by false accounting. Not a company I have ever held fortunately.

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

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Preventing Fraud in Accounts – FRC Tightens Audit Rules

There have been repeated examples of the accounts of public companies being fraudulent in recent years. Wirecard was probably the latest and biggest example. I have seen examples of such misdeeds twice in my investment career in my own holdings although losses have been minimal in both cases, the last example being Patisserie (£95 million missing from their accounts). But I have avoided a lot of others where the losses to some investors have been enormous. There have simply been too many such cases for investors to avoid them all however careful you are in analysing the accounts of companies. There can often be hints that something is wrong, but in many cases the fraud is so well concealed it is very difficult to detect. In both the examples I mention, the cash that was claimed to be on the balance sheet was not there, which should be a simple thing for auditors to verify.

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC)) have announced that they are tightening up the rules followed by auditors to impose more responsibility on them for detecting fraud. In the past it was unclear that auditors had any responsibility to detect fraud and some have even denied it.

The FRC claim they are making the auditor’s obligations clearer – specifically to try and identify fraud. The FRC is running a public consultation on the proposed new audit standard which you can read about here: https://www.frc.org.uk/news/october-2020/consultation-on-revised-auditing-standard-for-the

It makes for interesting reading and it actually spells out the kind of problems that auditors should be looking for. In general the proposed changes to the audit standard make sense.

Will it solve the problem of too many frauds altogether? No for three reasons:

  1. Because audit work is bid for by audit firms, while companies pay their fees, there is a strong incentive by both parties to keep the cost of the audit as low as possible. This brings pressure to bear to not do more work than is absolutely necessary.
  2. Auditors cannot challenge management too much if they are going to retain the audit brief, and there is a tendency to build a cosy trusting relationship.
  3. Auditors are protected from being sued by shareholders for incompetence by the Caparo legal judgement, and their liability even to the company can be undermined by the contracts they require signing. In other words, the legal framework under which they operate enables them to escape responsibility for incompetence.

How might these problems be solved? It has been suggested that auditors be appointed by an independent body rather than by the directors of a company. Perhaps another solution might be to set up an independent fund that rewards auditors when they identify and report fraud, with big bonuses for the individuals that do so. That would give them a strong financial incentive to discover it.

That would provide a carrot. But the stick needs to be change in the regulatory framework and the law so that auditors cannot escape financial penalties when they do not do a competent job. A simple change would be to require audit contracts to be based on a standard set by an independent body such as the FRC and not written by auditors as at present.

I hope readers will respond positively to the consultation because I can see many objections from audit firms to the imposition of new obligations, however reasonable they appear to investors.

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

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Record Fine on Deloitte, But It’s Not Enough

 The Financial Report Council (FRC) has fined accounting firm Deloitte £20.6 million (including costs) for its defective auditing of Autonomy. Deloitte is the largest of the big four audit firms and this is what the head of the firm said when talking about their 2019 results: “Our FY 2019 results are a validation of Deloitte’s strategy to deliver high-quality, globally consistent service to our clients while continuing to serve the public interest and working to restore trust in capital markets”.

Revenue of the firm in 2019 was $46.2 billion. The average payout to UK partners was £882,000 and there were 699 partners (i.e. a total paid of £616 million). That size of fine therefore will not worry them much. The fine should surely have been much greater!

The fine is the biggest yet issued by the FRC which at least means it’s a step in the right direction, but still not far enough.

This is some of what the FRC said about the case:

“The Tribunal found that each of Deloitte, Mr Knights and Mr Mercer [the two responsible audit partners] were culpable of Misconduct for failings in the audit work relating to the accounting and disclosure of Autonomy’s sales of hardware during FY 09 and FY 10.  They failed to exercise adequate professional scepticism and to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence.  Deloitte should not have issued unqualified audit opinions in these years based on the audit evidence obtained. Deloitte, Mr Knights and Mr Mercer fell seriously short of the standards to be expected of a reasonable auditor.

Similarly, in relation to certain of Autonomy’s sales to VARs, the Tribunal found that Deloitte, Mr Knights and Mr Mercer were culpable of Misconduct for failing to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence and for a lack of professional scepticism in relation to the nature of these sales.  Deloitte and Mr Knights should not have issued an unmodified audit opinion in FY 09 without obtaining further audit evidence.

The Tribunal commented that ‘…it is the wholesale nature of the failure of professional scepticism in relation to the accounting for the hardware sales and the VAR transactions as well as our findings of Misconduct and of breaches of Fundamental Principles that make this case so serious’.

The Tribunal also made findings of Misconduct in relation to the consideration by Mr Knights and Mr Mercer of Autonomy’s communications with its regulator, the FRC’s Financial Reporting Review Panel (FRRP), in January 2010 and March 2011 respectively.  Mr Knights acted recklessly and thus here with a lack of integrity. Mr Mercer failed to act with professional competence and due care”.

Autonomy was acquired by HP who relied partly on the audited accounts no doubt but subsequently had to write off $8.8 billion related to the acquisition. Both criminal and civil law suits over the accounts of Autonomy are still live.

Altogether a disgraceful example of how the auditing profession is being brought into disrepute of late.

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

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Economic Trends, Audit Quality and the Importance of Management

The news on the epidemic and its impact on financial news continues to be consistently bad. GDP rebounded in May to be up 1.8% but that’s a lot less than forecast. It fell 20.3% in April but as many businesses did not reopen until June perhaps the May figures are not that surprising.

Masks now have to be worn in shops. This will be enforced by the police with possible fines of £100. That will surely discourage some people from shopping on the High Streets.

The BBC ran a story today that said that scientists forecast a second wave of the virus in Winter with up to 120,000 deaths. But that is a “worse case” scenario. The claim is that the colder weather enables the virus to survive longer and with more people spending time indoors, it may spread more. I think this is being pessimistic but it’s certainly not having a positive effect on the stock market.

The London Evening Standard ran a lengthy and very negative article yesterday on the impact of the virus on London with a headline describing it as “an economic meltdown”. It suggested 50,000 jobs will go in the West End alone due to a decline in retail, tourism and hospitality sectors. Commuters are still reluctant to get on public transport – trains, underground or buses. In Canary Wharf only 7,000 of the 120,000 people who normally work there are at their desks it is reported. One problem apparently is that with numbers able to enter lifts being restricted it can take a very long time to get all the normal staff at work in high rise buildings. Hotels, clubs and casinos have been particularly hard hit with the extension of the Congestion Charge (a.k.a. tax) discouraging visits. 

Audit Quality

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) has confirmed what we probably already knew from the number of problems with company accounts – that audit quality has declined in the last year. Following reviews of audits by the major audit firms including PwC, Deloitte, EY, KPMG, BDO and Grant Thornton there were a number of criticisms made by the FRC. The firms PwC, KPMG and Grant Thornton were particularly singled out. The last firm was judged to require improvement in 45% of its audits.

We were promised a tougher stance from the FRC but it is clearly not having the required impact. Published accounts are still clearly not to be relied upon which is a great shame and undermines confidence in public companies.

There were a couple of interesting articles in last week’s Investors Chronicle (IC). One was on the investment approach of Harry Nimmo of Aberdeen Standard. He is quoted as saying: “We do measure prospective and future valuations – it’s not completely ignored. But it doesn’t lead our stock selection, and we don’t have price or valuation targets”. Perhaps he does not trust the accounts either? He does apparently screen for 13 factors though including some related to momentum and growth.

Management Competence

The other good article in IC was by Phil Oakley headlined “How important is management”. If you don’t trust the accounts of a company, it’s all the other factors that help you to judge the quality of a business and the prospects for long-term returns which are important. Phil says that “management does matter” but he thinks some investors overemphasise it’s importance.

How do you judge the quality of the management? One can of course look at the results in the financial numbers over past years but that can suffer from a major time lag. In addition management can change so past results may not be the result of work by the current CEO but their predecessor. This is what I said in one of my books: “Incompetent or inexperienced management can screw up a good business in no time at all, although the bigger the company, the less likely it is that one person will have an immediate impact. But Fred Goodwin allegedly managed to turn the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), at one time the largest bank in the world, into a basket case that required a major Government bail-out in just a few years”.

RBS was also a case where the company’s financial results were improved by increasing the risk profile of the business – the return on capital was improved but the capital base was eroded. Management can sometimes improve short term results to the disadvantage of the long-term health of the business.

Is it worth talking to management, say at AGMs or other opportunities? Some people think not because you can easily be misled by glib speakers. But I suggest it is so long as you ask the right questions and don’t let them talk solely about what they want to discuss. Even if you let them ramble, you can sometimes pick up useful tips on their approach to running the business. Are they concerned about their return on capital, or even know what it is, can be a good question for example. I recall one conversation with an AIM company CEO where he bragged about misleading the auditors of a previous company about the level of stock they held, or another case where a CEO disclosed he was suffering from a brain tumour which had not been disclosed to shareholders. Unfortunately in the current epidemic we only get Zoom conversations rather than private, off-the-record chats.

Talking to competitors of a business can tell you a lot, as is talking to former employees who frequently attend AGMs. Everything you learn can help to build up a picture of the personality and competence of the management, and the culture that they are building in the company. The articles being published on Wirecard and Boohoo in the last few days tell us a great deal about the problems in those companies but you could have figured them out earlier by some due diligence activity on the management.

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

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How to Spot a Fraud (Wirecard)

There was a very good article on Wirecard by fund manager Barry Norris on Citywire yesterday. It was headlined “Wirecard raised more red flags than a communist rally” and explained how he thought it was probably a fraud as long ago as March 2018.

He met the former CFO of the company Burkhard Ley in that year but he seemed unable to answer the basic question of “Precisely from which activities did they generate revenue”. One particularly telling comment from my knowledge of the payments sector was this: “When pressed for a specific response on how much of the company’s revenues came from online pornography and illegal casinos, Burkhard claimed ignorance and just grinned, like a well-coiffed cat who not only had just had the cream but who had also just eaten the family pet hamster”.

The Financial Times published allegations about false accounts at the company in January 2019, and again later. But the German financial regulator took no action and even banned short selling of the company’s shares.

Another very negative sign was in early 2020 when the company raised more debt even though it had high profits margins, limited capital expenditure, paid minimal dividends and according to its accounts was generating cash.

The latest news is that former Wirecard CEO Markus Braun has been arrested based on allegations of false accounting.

What can be learned from this case? Firstly that company management who are reluctant to answer detail questions about the business are not people you can trust. The bullshitters who wish to talk about market dynamics and their position in a hot sector rather than the details on how they actually make money (i.e. the business model) are particularly suspect. Secondly that accounts cannot be trusted – not even the cash figures even though they should be simple to verify. See also Patisserie and Globo for examples of where the cash was simply not there. Where there are international businesses with multiple auditors involved, they are even more likely to be unreliable.

Frauds rarely come out of the blue but there are warning signs much earlier than the final disclosure of unexplained problems and company collapse. So it took 4 years at Wirecard for the truth to be generally acknowledged even though issues with the accounts were widely publicised. Why did investors stay faithful to the company? Because investors are always reluctant to admit to their own blind faith in the business particularly when the share price has handsomely rewarded them in the past. People do by nature trust management of companies when the correct approach should be the contrary. Charismatic leaders who dominate their companies are frequently the ones to be wary about.

But it’s never too late to change your mind about a company and sell. A reluctance to sell on negative news is a common psychological trait – it’s called loss aversion. Wirecard investors certainly had plenty of opportunity to do so.

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

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Dividends Slashed, Investing for Income, NMC Health and Finablr

Many companies are announcing cancelled, reduced or postponed dividends – two of the latest were Shell (RDSB) and Sainsburys (SBRY). This will hit investors hard who rely on dividends for retirement income. But should they be doing so?

Terry Smith of Fundsmith had an article published in the Financial Times today under the headline “Investors: never let a crisis go to waste” in which he attacks income funds. In particular he questions whether the Investment Association should allow funds with “income” in their name to only have a yield greater than 90% of the average fund yield, i.e. less than the average! Even that requirement has now been suspended for 12 months. Terry calls this a “ridiculous piece of deception” and I can only agree.

If you invest in individual shares, there is a strong temptation in times of stock market crises to run for the hills and start buying what are viewed as defensive businesses with high dividend payouts. You argue that the dividend yield will keep the share price up even if all other news is bad. But this is a fallacy. All you do is put yourself at risk of a sharp decline in the share price when the dividend is chopped.

As Terry Smith also pointed out in his article, dividend cover in many companies that are on high yields are inadequate. In reality they are not maintaining the businesses, or certainly not growing it, by not investing enough of their profits back into the business. Sometimes it indicates that they are operating in a declining sector and many have an abysmal return on capital. Should you really be investing in such companies is the question you should ask yourself?

The simple rule should be: Never invest in a company solely for the dividend. Invest in it because it is a quality company with positive prospects and management dedicated its long-term future for the benefit of all stakeholders.

I have mentioned NMC Health (NMC) and Finablr (FIN) in previous blog posts along with many other frauds. It’s not that I am trying to put off people from investing in the stock market which is one of the main sources of what little wealth I have. Likewise when I criticise those who invest in income funds or high yielding shares. But my desire is to educate people about how to get positive rather than negative results. NMC and Finablr have both been chaired by Dr B.R.Shetty and he made a rather surprising comment in a letter which was published by Finablr yesterday. He said: “The preliminary findings provided by my advisors from my own investigations indicate that serious fraud and wrongdoing appears to have taken place at NMC, Finablr PLC (‘Finablr’), as well as within some of my private companies, and against me personally. This fraud also appears to have been undertaken by a small group of current and former executives at these companies”. He goes on at some length on how the frauds were committed. This all sounds rather unlikely but we will no doubt see in due course whether what he says is true.

The shares of both companies are currently suspended and NMC is already in administration. Finablr also had this to say: “The results of this exercise currently indicate that the total net indebtedness of the Finablr Group may be approximately $1,300 million (excluding any liabilities of the Travelex business). This is materially above the last reported figure for the Group’s indebtedness position as at 30 June 2019 and the levels of indebtedness previously disclosed to the Board. The Board cannot exclude the possibility that some of the proceeds of these borrowings may have been used for purposes outside of the Finablr Group”.

The outlook for shareholders in both companies looks very bleak indeed. Let us hope that the investigation of these frauds is quicker than it normally is, but I doubt it will be. The larger and more complex the company, and the bigger the fraud, the longer it takes regulatory authorities to pin the tail on the donkey. Think of Polly Peck for example.

As I said in my previous blog post that mentioned false accounting at Lookers, “Such events totally undermine investor confidence in the accounts of public companies and suggest much tougher action is required to ensure accounts reported by companies are accurate and not subject to fraud or misrepresentation”.

For investors the motto must be ““Let’s Be Careful Out There” (as said by the sergeant in Hill Street Blues) because the financial world is full of shysters. You need to research companies as much as possible before investing in them, but even that is not fraud-proof unfortunately. Only improved regulation and accounting can really solve the problem of corruption in the financial scene.

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

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Stock Market Trends, Covid-19 Treatments, Burford Results, Lookers Accounting and Medica

The stock market seems to be returning to normal with a positive trend over the last month despite the economy being in a complete shambles as a result of the “lock-down”. The Government is incurring massive costs to bail-out companies, support the NHS and pay workers to do nothing. We have yet to see the real economic impact of those measures on the Government’s finances. But investors seem to be euphoric because they now realise we are not all going to die from the Covid-19 epidemic and there are signs we will be able to get back to work soon.

There are also indications that vaccines to prevent the disease, or treatments for it, may be available in the next few months. One of the best commentators on the epidemic because of his scientific background is Matt Ridley who I met many years ago in circumstances he probably prefers to forget. He publishes a blog which is here: http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/ plus he has several good books published which I can recommend. His latest blog article is entitled “The contenders – and challenges – in the race to cure Covid” and is a good review of the field.

One interesting suggestion is the possible use of monoclonal antibodies to replicate antibodies from those infected with the disease and use them to treat other people. This might be very expensive from my knowledge of other such treatments but if the treatment is effective it might only require an injection every few months. It might be affordable for developed countries.

The diversion of NHS resources to treat Covid-19 patients is creating many problems though. Minor operations and non-urgent consultations are being cancelled. You can see the impact of this in the results reported by Medica Group (MGP) earlier this month. The company provides teleradiology services to the NHS and others. This is what it said: “In terms of Routine activity, the Company is experiencing a decline of around 90% in activity with many NHS hospitals having already suspended non-urgent elective procedures”. Reduced A&E admissions are also having an impact. But the company remains positive and can reduce its cost base substantially. ShareSoc has organised a webinar with this company this evening which may be interesting as I do not hold it.

Another company I do not hold is Burford Capital (BUR) which announced results this morning. This company has been in the news a lot because of a shorting attack. This is what the Chairman had to say: “2019 was a year of contrasts, marked by the continued expansion of our business yet also by the disruption of a meritless short attack.  Though our business fundamentals remained strong, investor confidence was dented, causing shareholders to urge changes to our governance”. The announcement contains many positive comments about the progress on litigation, the future prospects, and balance sheet strength.

The accounts are not easy to understand and the Annual Report consists of 163 pages so I have not read it all. No doubt other people will comment on it in detail. But one simple thing I did do was look at the income and cash flow statements.

This is a company where the profits do not turn into cash. Comprehensive income was down from $342 million to $194 million but after changes in “capital provisions” the net cash outflow was $8.3 million. There are also doubts as to whether the legal awards which are recognised in the accounts can actually be collected. The share price is up over 25% today at the time of writing.

Another company worth mentioning as I like to cover cases of defective accounts is that of motor dealer Lookers Group (LOOK) – I have never held it. A few days ago the company gave a “Trading and Operational Update”. It included coverage of the fraud investigation which is now expected to result in a non-cash charge of £4 million in the 2019 financial accounts. Those have now been delayed until June. The investigation has also been extended across all divisions and more charges are expected.

The share price of Lookers was 185p in early 2016. It’s now about 21p. Such events totally undermine investor confidence in the accounts of public companies and suggest much tougher action is required to ensure accounts reported by companies are accurate and not subject to fraud or misrepresentation. Auditors surely are one group who need to take a lead on this as frequently when frauds are identified they have been running for several years.

As I said in my book Business Perspective Investing, “financial accounts don’t matter because they cannot be relied upon”. That’s certainly the case at present and it’s better to look at other measures of the quality of a business.  That is particularly the case at present when the Covid-19 epidemic is distorting the results of companies and making it very difficult to forecast future financial numbers.

Better to look at other factors such as your trust in the management, the market position of the company and its future prospects.

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

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Avoiding Another NMC Debacle

Yesterday the shares in NMC Health (NMC) were suspended and a formal investigation by the FCA was announced. The suspension announcement said that the company has requested the suspension of its shares and that the company is focused on providing additional clarity to the market as to its financial position.

The events at NMC are hardly the kind of thing one expects from a FTSE-100 company with reported revenue of $2.5 billion and profits of $320 million. The company operates hospitals and other healthcare facilities in the Middle East – hardly a sector that should be particularly volatile. The company has of course been the subject of an attack by Muddy Waters and the share price was already down by 80% from their peak in 2018, before they were suspended.

There now seems to be considerable doubts about the accounts (the finance director is on long-term sick leave which is never a good sign), there are doubts about who holds the shares, and questions about related party transactions and debt. The founder and CEO have departed from the board leaving the COO as interim CEO.

I recall NMC being tipped in numerous publications before all this bad news came out and it certainly looked a good proposition at a glance. Both revenue and profits were rising at 30% per year driven by rising wealth in the Arab states. So why did I avoid it?

The key point I would make is that “financial numbers are not important when picking shares” which is the subtitle of my book “Business Perspective Investing”. The numbers alone cannot be trusted even if they have been audited by a big firm such as Ernst & Young.

The company is registered in London and listed in the UK but the company had a peculiar governance structure with two joint Chairman and an Executive Vice-Chairman. They had a large number of directors otherwise and at the last AGM actually approved a resolution to increase the maximum number to 14. That is way too large for any company and results in board meetings being dysfunctional. The Muddy Waters financial analysis clearly raised some concerns and it is well worth reading. It also raised issues about the level of remuneration of the board and share sales. These might be considered warning signs and there is the key issue that it might be very difficult for UK based investors to monitor the operations of the company.

These are the kind of issues that I suggested investors need to look at in my book.

What do investors do if they find they have been suckered into a company with dubious accounts and when other negative facts have come to light? The simple answer is to study the evidence carefully and if in doubt sell the shares. It is never too late to sell is phrase to remember. You only have to look at the share price graph of NMC to see that investors with a trailing stop-loss of 20% would have exited long ago and hence avoided the worse outcome.

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

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Competition in the Audit Market

I attended a “roundtable” event at the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) on Monday. It was primarily a discussion of audit market competition and how to improve it, with private investors attending. But as I said at the meeting the key issues in the audit market are the quality of audits and the accountability of auditors. Too many blatant frauds go undetected by auditors, and they avoid any responsibility for their errors. Being able to avoid accountability for their failings has resulted in declining audit standards over the last few decades. The Caparo legal judgement is one big reason as it prevents shareholders suing auditors for their failings. It needs overturning.

These thoughts were echoed by other speakers at the meeting although the FRC made clear that their focus is on quality.

The Kingman review of the FRC was critical of the audit sector and its regulation by the FRC while the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is undertaking a review of the market for audit services which is dominated by the big four audit firms.

Would improved competition for audit services improve the quality of auditing is one key question? Or simply lead to a race to the bottom as price competition was increased? Alternatively could quality be improved by improving the work of audit committees and how they select auditors? All of these questions were discussed but no specific conclusions reached.

One proposal to improve competition is to enforce “joint” or “shared” audits where all audits of larger companies would require the involvement of more than one audit firm. This might enable smaller audit firms to become more experienced and more credible to take on larger audits it is argued. But as I said in my response to the CMA consultation: “ So far as investors are concerned, joint and several liability would be a positive advantage to ensure audit quality in theory. But in practice as auditors avoid liability for most failings, it might not matter a great deal”.

I do not see how joint or shared auditing will improve the quality of audits or necessarily improve competition either. An alternative suggestion that there should simply be a cap on the market share of any one audit firm seems a better and simpler solution to the competition issue.

Apparently according to a report in the FT, audit firms have been lobbying hard to retain the status quo. The FT reported the comments of Will Hayter, a director of the CMA that those in the industry should not doubt the CMA’s resolve to go “from four to more” [audit firms].

Improving competition is undoubtedly of benefit even if it just avoids the risk of one of the big four collapsing (as happened with major audit firm Andersen a few years ago after reputational damage and criminal charges over the Enron fraud). But shareholders major concern is improving the quality of audits so that fraud is detected and dubious financial reports are not published; in other words to ensure that published accounts do indeed contain a “true and fair” view of the financial position of a company.

One example of where they might not be was mentioned in the meeting which is the accounts of Burford Capital (BUR) which I have also commented on myself negatively recently, much to the displeasure of Burford holders. All Burford shareholders should read the article by John Dizard published in the FT on the 17th February and entitled “Burford faces long wait over $1bn Argentina claim”. It questioned the valuation of the Petersen legal claim. See https://www.ft.com/content/6debcc05-e368-44b2-bb99-618b7bc0a618 . The key issue is reliance on the management to value the legal claims where any cash arising from the claimed profits based on the valuation of on-going claims may be a long time in coming, if at all.

In summary we need to improve the accounting and auditing standards if investors are to rely on the published accounts of companies. In the meantime investors will need to take a more sceptical view of the accounts of companies and not take them at face value.

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

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