Autonomy, FRC Meeting, Retailers and Brexit Legal Advice

The big news last Friday (30/11/2018) was that former CEO Mike Lynch has been charged with fraud in the USA over the accounts of Autonomy. That company was purchased by Hewlett Packard who promptly proceeded to write off most of the cost – see this blog post for more information: https://roliscon.blog/2018/06/02/belated-action-by-frc-re-autonomy/. As this was a UK company, are we anywhere nearer a hearing in the UK over the alleged “creative accounting” that took place at the company and the failure of the auditors to identify anything amiss? That’s after 8 years since the events.

As I was attending a meeting held by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) for ShareSoc and UKSA members yesterday, I thought to review the past actions by the FRC on this matter. In February 2013 they announced an investigation but it took until May 2018 to formally announce a complaint against auditors Deloitte and the former CFO of Autonomy Sushovan Hussain who has already been convicted of fraud in the USA. On the 27th November, the action against Hussain was suspended pending his appeal against that conviction, but other complaints were not. But why the delay on pursuing the auditors?

The FRC event was useful in many ways in that it gave a good overview of the role of the FRC – what they cover and what they do not cover which is not easy for the layman to understand. They also covered the progress on past and current enforcement actions which do seem to have been improving after previous complaints of ineffectiveness and excessive delays. For example PWC/BHS was resolved in two years and fines imposed are rising rapidly. But they still only have 10 case officers so are hoping the Kingman review of the FRC will argue for more resources.

It was clear though that audit quality is still a major problem with only 73% of FTSE-350 companies being rated as 1 or 2A in the annual reviews when the target is 90%. The FRC agreed they “might be falling short” on pursuing enforcement over poor quality audits. So at least they recognise the problems.

One useful titbit of information after the usual complaints about the problems of nominee accounts and shareholder rights were made (not really an FRC responsibility) was that a white paper on the “plumbing” of share ownership and transactions will be published on the 30th January.

There were lots of interesting stories on retailing companies yesterday. McColl’s Retail Group (MCLS) published a very negative trading update which caused the shares to fall 30% on the day. Supply chain issues after the collapse of Palmer & Harvey are the cause. Ted Baker (TED) fell 15% after a complaint of excessive hugging of staff by CEO Ray Kelvin. This may not have a sexual connotation as it seems he treats male and female staff similarly. Just one of the odd personal habits one sees in some CEOs it seems. Retail tycoon Mike Ashley appeared before a Commons Select Committee and said the High Street would be dead in a few years unless internet retailers were taxed more fairly. He alleged the internet was killing the High Street. But there was one bright spark among retailers in that Dunelm (DNLM) rose 14% after a Peel Hunt upgraded the company to a “buy” and suggested that they might be able to pay a special dividend next year. There was also some director buying of their shares.

Before the FRC meeting yesterday I dropped in on the demonstrations outside Parliament on College Green. It seemed to consist of three fairly equally balanced groups of “Leave Means Leave” campaigners, supporters of Brexit and those wishing to stay in the EU – that probably reflects the composition of the Members in the House across the road. You can guess which group I supported but I did not stay long as it was absolutely pelting down with rain. There is a limit to the sacrifices one can make for one’s country.

But in the evening I did read the legal advice given to Parliament by the attorney-general (see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/761153/EU_Exit_-_Legal_position_on_the_Withdrawal_Agreement.pdf

Everyone is looking very carefully at the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement that cover the Northern Ireland backstop arrangements. The attorney-general makes it clear that the deal does bind the UK to the risk of those arrangements continuing, although there is a clear commitment to them only lasting 2 years when they should be replaced by others. There is also an arbitration process if there is no agreement on what happens subsequently. However, he also makes it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement is a “treaty” between two sovereign powers – the UK and the EU.

Treaties between nations only stick so long as both parties are happy to abide by them, just like agreements between companies. But they often renege on them. For example, the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939 was a notorious example – Hitler ignored it 2 years later and invaded Russia. Donald Trump has reneged on treaties, for example the intermediate nuclear weapons treaty last month. Similarly nations and companies can ignore arbitration decisions if they choose to do so.

What happens after 2 years if no agreement is reached and the UK insists on new proposals re Northern Ireland? Is the EU going to declare war on the UK? We have an army but they do not yet have one. Are they going to impose sanctions, close their borders or refuse a trade deal? I suspect they would not for sound commercial reasons.

Therefore my conclusion is that the deal that Theresa May has negotiated is not as bad as many make out. Yes it could be improved in some regards so as to ensure an amicable future agreement but I am warming to it just like the Editor of the Financial Times recently. He did publish a couple of letters criticising his volte-face when previously he has clearly opposed Brexit altogether, but changing one’s mind when one learns more is just being sensible.

Note: I have held or do hold some of the companies mentioned above, but never Autonomy. Never did like the look of their accounts.

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

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Too Much Cash, Wey Education and Patisserie Accounts

Are you stacked up with cash in your ISAs, SIPPs, and direct portfolios? As a dedicated follower of fashion (if the markets are falling as investors sell, then so do I) it is of some concern that the cash is not earning any interest. There was some relatively good news yesterday from soon to be listed A.J.Bell Youinvest. They are increasing the interest they pay on cash held in portfolios. Previously you got 0.05% on balances more than £50,000. It will now be 0.10% above £10,000, 0.15% above £50,000 and 0.25% above £100,000 on SIPPs and similar increases on ISAs and dealing accounts.

But that is still really quite paltry and still not good enough when you can get over 0.2% on even High Street bank deposit accounts and Goldman Sach’s Marcus account is offering 1.5%. Youinvest and other platforms must try harder I suggest to offer fair interest rates. In the meantime, the only option for investors is to take the cash out and deposit it elsewhere or spend it. But moving cash out of ISAs and SIPPs can make it difficult to put back in. The rules on such accounts should surely be changed to permit that more generally because at present it is “anti-competitive”. One option is to transfer your ISA or SIPP to another provider who does provide a better rate of interest on cash holdings, but that is such a tortuous and expensive process at present that it’s not really very practical to do so – at least the FCA is looking at that issue.

Why are investors selling? Apart from panics in certain stocks and sectors, such as the FAANG technology stocks in the USA, the political uncertainty in the UK is surely simply causing investors to take their money off the table. Folks are getting nervous. Reducing exposure to stocks likely to be hit by a hard Brexit or by the risk of a General Election and Labour taking power is a completely rational move. Private investors can do this quite easily while institutional investors apart from hedge funds can be more limited in their ability to do so. Investors in funds don’t like their funds to be holding large amounts of cash and the manager cannot easily move in and out of holdings in size without finding prices move against them.

Wey Education (WEY) is an AIM listed provider of on-line education. It has big ambitions but this morning the company announced that Executive Chairman David Massie has resigned with immediate effect. The cause is continuing health problems after major heart surgery. They also reported trading as “strong” but this will clearly be a major disruption in the short term as Mr Massie was undoubtedly the driving force behind the business of late. It rather highlights the danger of having an Executive Chairman in a company rather than a more conventional board structure. The share price is down 11% at the time of writing. This was one of my “experimental” small holdings where the picture has simply not developed as I hoped – that’s apart from the latest news. One concern here is that the company did not announce the fact that Mr Massie was only working part-time because of his health problems recently – surely this is “price-sensitive” information that should have been issued?

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) have announced an investigation into the audit of the last 3 years accounts of Patisserie Holdings (CAKE) by Grant Thornton. They are also looking into the preparation of the financial statements by the former CFO. With the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and the FCA also involved, the management of the company are going to be spending a lot of time talking to investigators. Let us hope that does not detract too much from putting the company back on a sound basis.

Patisserie has also been accused of failing to declare LTIP share awards to executives including the former CFO. Will there be action on that matter? I wrote a previous blog article on how they do things differently in the USA after the conviction of a former Autonomy executive for fraud – see https://roliscon.blog/2018/05/02/they-do-things-differently-in-the-usa/ . They also do things differently in Japan where Carlos Ghosn, Chairman of Nissan, has been arrested for misreporting his pay. Allegedly he actually received over $88 million over the last five years but only half was reported in their accounts. It is surely true that the UK is really quite “soft” on corporate misdemeanors of all kinds when it should be a lot tougher.

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

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Earthport Accounts, City of London IT and Patisserie

Earthport (EPO) is the latest AIM company to report that its past accounts are not all they should have been. Following a review by the new CEO and CFO, it seems there have been errors in reporting of forward foreign exchange transactions. This will result in fair value adjustments and a reduction of £6.3 million to £16.6 million in the net assets of the group at June 2017. Likewise adjustments are required to previous years. Reported earnings are also reduced although there is no cash impact.

This is a payments business which has been consistently loss making despite growing revenue. The former Chairman and CEO (who was still on the board as a non-exec director) have departed “with immediate effect”. This is surely yet another case of audit failure. Who were the auditors? Answer: RSM. But it’s worth reading their audit report in the 2017 Annual Report where they highlight some problems in the same area.

I do not currently hold shares in Earthport and this latest news is hardly likely to inspire confidence in the company from investors. After many years, the company has not proved it has a business model that can generate any profits.

Pressure of business meant I missed attending the City of London Investment Trust (CTY) Annual General Meeting on the same day as the Patisserie General Meeting. This is one of my most boring holdings as it’s mainly invested in large cap UK companies. But no problem in not attending the AGM in person because there is a recording of it available here: https://www.janushenderson.com/ukpi/content/trustslive?o_cc=c3926 . That even includes the question/answer session which was omitted in a previous year. If you watched it while it was taking place you could also submit questions. This approach is to be highly commended.

The interesting comment I noted from fund manager Job Curtis was that they had recently put more money into the market and were gearing up. He clearly perceives there are value opportunities in the market after recent declines. Others seem to agree with him because the market is now picking up.

Just one postscript on the Patisserie (CAKE) General Meeting. Lombard in the FT (Matthew Vincent) questioned this morning whether placings were the only option. He suggests the company could have delayed and done a rights issue. This is basically the same issue that was raised at the Meeting by some shareholders. But it’s very unrealistic to suggest that was a viable option. In reality I think the appetite for a rights issue would have been very low because of the lack of financial information on the current position of the company. I certainly would not even have participated in the placing! Undertaking a rights issue when there was great uncertainty about the level of support would hardly have been recommended by any advisors. In addition it would have taken a lot longer to do that than it took to do the first placing. Time is of the essence in the circumstances the company faced and looking for bankers to fill the delay hardly looks realistic to me either.

I suggest Luke Johnson took the only reasonable steps available and he should be thanked for saving the business. Shareholders should be very glad that the company did not get stuffed through a pre-pack administration which is what I rather expected would happen, in which case they would have lost everything.

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

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Yu Group Crashes, Patisserie Holdings LTIPs and Audit Quality

The latest example of defective accounts in small cap companies is Yu Group (YU.) who announced this morning that accrued income had not been recognised correctly, that trade debtors need impairing and gross margins will not be as expected. The result will be a £10 million reduction in profitability when compared with current market expectations so there will be a loss for the current financial year. The shares are down over 80% at the time of writing.

Yu Group are a utility supplier to SMEs and listed on AIM in 2016. It would seem likely that these problems go back into past years. The auditors are KPMG.

The latest announcement from Patisserie Holdings (CAKE), after a note published in the FT yesterday on directors’ share options and their exercising is a clarification of the LTIPs. It ends by saying that “The Company, as part of the on-going investigation, is seeking to understand why the grant of options relating to 2015 and 2016 have not been appropriately disclosed and accounted for in its financial statements”. So that looks like another bit of bad news as one might expect now that everyone is looking very carefully at the past reporting by this company. But this is surely another matter that should have been picked up in the last audit.

It’s not just small companies that have audit problems. BHS and Carillion are recent examples of large companies where the reported accounts were suspect. How to improve the quality of audits? One big issue in my view is the fact that audits are often priced as low as possible to get the business. Companies tender for audit services and they are likely to pick the lowest cost bid, thereby relying on regulations to ensure that the standard is acceptable. Most company directors believe their internal systems are good and their staff trustworthy, so why should they spend a lot of money on an independent review of same? Meanwhile audit firms use audits as a loss-leader to build a client relationship that enables them to obtain much more lucrative consultancy work.

One change that would improve matters would be to ban audit firms from taking on non-audit work from the same client.

Another improvement would be to have someone else than the directors appoint the auditors. It has been suggested that an independent body be set up to do that, but perhaps the best solution is to have shareholders select and appoint the auditors via a shareholder committee. Shareholders have the most interest in seeing accurate accounts published and shareholder committees have many other advantages, as has been advocated by ShareSoc of late.

Regulation only ensures adherence to high standards if the penalties for getting anything wrong are severe. But that is not the case at present. Very few cases of defective accounts ever result in the auditors being severely penalised because they have numerous possible excuses for not discovering what was wrong. The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) needs to get tougher and be less dominated by the audit profession.

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

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Patisserie Rescue Bid and Closing Accounts

It looks like Luke Johnson’s reputation will not be totally trashed after all after he announced a way for the company to be rescued today. It is proposed to do a placing at a heavily discounted share price of 50p (last price before suspension was 429p). This will raise £15 million from the issue of 30 million shares. The current shares in issue are 104 million so that implies substantial dilution although I have seen worse.

It will take some time to organise the placing as it requires a General Meeting to authorise the full number of shares required. In the meantime Mr Johnson is to loan the company an immediate £10 million on a three year term and interest free (that is generous is it not). In addition he will provide a further immediate bridging loan of £10 million which will be repaid out of the placing.

The directors estimate the current revenue run rate at £120 million per annum with EBITDA of £12 million although that is clearly based on only an initial review so is subject to doubt.

Apart from the usual problem that most placings are not open to private investors, this looks a good deal and much better than the likely alternatives. If this is pulled off, it seems my small holding in the company won’t be totally worthless after all.

There has been much hand wringing among financial commentators about the fact that the fraud was not obvious from the accounts of the company. That’s assuming the cash was not stolen in the last few months which seems unlikely although at this point in time we do not know. But false accounting is often not obvious. It could be many months before we find out what the source of the problem was, and whether the auditors fell down on the job or not, but it’s good to hear that the company’s finance director, Chris Marsh, was arrested by the police. It looks like prompt action by the regulatory authorities is being taken which is often not the case.

Recently I had a call from Cornhill who I am registered with for placings. They wanted to go through a long conversation to confirm my KYC details even though I had only given them very comprehensive information eighteen months ago and I was happy to confirm that nothing had changed. After a lot of pointless debate, I told them to close the account (and the linked account with Jarvis – total cash held £1,600 and no shares). This they refused to do initially unless I provided more evidence of who I was and the bank account I wanted the money sent to (which was the one already known to them). I had to threaten then with a complaint to the FCA and the Financial Ombudsman for wasting my time before they eventually backed down.

This is compliance gone mad. It’s difficult enough to open an account now, but it should not be that difficult to close one.

Anyway I might be missing out on any placing for Patisserie as a result but I feel life is too short to waste time on tedious KYC checks.

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

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Lehman Collapse, Labour’s Employment Plans, Audit Reform Ideas and Oxford Biomedica

There was a highly amusing article in today’s FT by their journalist John Gapper explaining how he caused the financial crisis in 2008 by encouraging Hank Paulson, US Treasury Secretary, to resist the temptation to rescue Lehman Brothers. So now we know the culprit. Even more amusing was the report on the previous day that the administrators (PWC) of the UK subsidiary of Lehman expect to be left with a surplus of £5 billion. All the creditors are being paid in full.

Why did Lehman UK go bust then? They simply ran out of cash, i.e. they were cash flow insolvent at the time and could not settle payments of £3bn due on the day after their US parent collapsed. Just like Northern Rock where the assets were always more than the liabilities as also has been subsequently proven to be the case.

Perhaps it’s less amusing to some of the creditors of Lehman UK because many sold their claims at very large discounts to third parties rather than wait. Those that held on have been paid not just their debts but interest as well. So the moral is “don’t panic”.

Lehman’s administration is in some ways similar to the recent Beaufort case. Both done under special administration rules and requiring court hearings to sort out the mess. PWC were administrators for both and for Lehman’s are likely to collect fees of £1billion while employing 500 staff on the project. It may yet take another 10 ten years to finally wind up. Extraordinary events and extraordinary sums of money involved.

An editorial in the FT today supported reform of employment legislation as advocated by Labour’s John McDonnell recently. He proposed tackling the insecurity of the gig economy by giving normal employment rights to workers. I must say I agree with the FT editor and Mr McDonnell in that I consider that workers do have some rights that should be protected and the pendulum has swung too far towards a laissez-faire environment. This plays into the hands of socialists and those who wish to cause social unrest. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested the gig economy was a “reincarnation of an ancient evil” and that it meant many companies don’t pay a living wage so employees rely on state welfare payments. A flexible workforce may give the country and some companies a competitive advantage but it takes away the security and dignity of employment if taken to extremes. The Conservative Government needs to tackle this problem if they wish to be certain of getting re-elected. If you have views on this debate, please add your comments to this blog.

Mr McDonnell also promoted the idea of paying a proportion of a company’s profits to employees – effectively giving them a share in the dividends paid out. That may be more controversial, particularly among shareholders. But I do not see that is daft either so long as it is not taken to extremes. After all some companies have done that already. For example I believe Boots the Chemists paid staff a bonus out of profits even when a public company.

Another revolutionary idea came from audit firm Grant Thornton. They suggest audit contracts should be awarded by a public body rather than by companies. This they propose would improve audit standards and potentially break the hold of the big four audit firms. I can see a few practical problems with this. What happens if companies don’t judge the quality of the work adequate. Could they veto reappointment for next year? Will companies be happy to pay the fees when they have no control over them. I don’t think nationalisation of the audit profession is a good idea in essence and there are better solutions to the recent audit problems that we have seen. But one Grant Thornton suggestion is worth taking up – namely that auditors should not be able to bid for advisory or consultancy work at the same company to which they provide audit services.

Oxford Biomedica (OXB) issued their interim results this morning (I hold the stock). They made a profit of £11.9 million on an EBITDA basis. OXB are in the gene/cell therapy market. What interests me is that there are some companies in that market, at the real cutting edge of biotechnology with revolutionary treatments for many diseases, that are suddenly making money or are about to do so. That’s often after years of losses. Horizon Discovery (HZD) which I also hold is another example. Investors Chronicle recently did a survey of similar such companies if you wish to research these businesses. It is clear that the long-hailed potential of cell and gene therapy is finally coming to fruition. I look forward with anticipation to having all my defective genes fixed but I suspect there will be other priorities in the short term particularly as the treatments can be enormously expensive at present.

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

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RIT Capital Partners, Foresight 4 VCT and Sepsis

RIT Capital Partners (RCP) is an investment trust that recently issued its interim report. As one of my longer standing holdings, first purchased in 2003 although I have reduced my holding of late, I read the report with interest. RCP has been a long-standing favourite of private investors having traditionally taken a somewhat defensive investment approach. But the portfolio is now most peculiar. It contains 8.8% of “quoted equities” but many of them are held as “swaps”, 27.7% in “long-only funds”, 19.7% in hedge funds and 0.6% in derivatives. There is 9.1% in direct private investments, 13.2% in private investment funds, 23.1% in “absolute return and credit funds”, 3.0% in “real assets” (which includes gold, silver, corn and soyabean futures) and 2.0% in Government bonds (with more swaps in there also). This is certainly an unusual portfolio to say the least.

Personally when I invest in a fund or an investment trust, I prefer them to invest directly – not pass the buck to some other fund manager. This trust has effectively become a “fund of funds” of late with a large proportion of its investments placed into other funds. Otherwise it appears to be hedging against armageddon.

The Chairman of the company is long-standing Lord Rothschild who is aged 82. When I have attended the AGM of this company I have never been very impressed by the way he handled the meeting or the responses to questions.

The total return net asset value performance in the half year was 3.2%, but 6.2% on share price. The current share price discount to NAV is actually at a premium of 6.8% according to the AIC and the dividend yield is 1.6%. Over ten years the total return (NAV) has been 103% when sector performance was 135%. So it’s not exactly been a great performer. I sold the remainder of my holding after reading the interim report.

Foresight 4 VCT

Another investment trust but of a very different nature is Foresight 4 VCT (FTF) which is of course a venture capital trust. It recently issued its Annual Report for the AGM due on the 11th October. I may attend it although my holding is very small.

The Annual Report does make interesting reading although it fails to mention a past complaint by some shareholders about the over-statement of reserves in the years 2013-2015 which resulted in an illegal dividend allegedly being paid. The auditor, KPMG, who still audits this company make no comment on this and neither do the directors in the Annual Report. But the Audit Committee report does mention that the company has received a letter from the FRC questioning the accounting policy for performance related incentive fees. The company has responded. Both issues are likely to be the subject of questions at the AGM no doubt.

This company has two very large holdings in its portfolio – Datapath and Ixaris. I have been very dubious about the valuations put on the latter company by this and other VCTs as I know quite a lot about the business. I used to be a director and still have a direct holding. This is particularly so after the disclosure by the Ixaris Chairman of the latest business challenges at the recent Oxford Technology VCT meeting.

I will be voting against the reappointment of KPMG as auditors at this company, against the sole director who is standing for re-election (is it not recommended that all directors of fully listed companies stand for re-election?), and against approval of the Report & Accounts.

But FTF did raise some more money this year and is investing in what appear to be interesting companies. One of their new investments has been in Mologic which is a medical diagnostic company. What sparked by particular interest was their product for rapid diagnosis of sepsis which I only narrowly survived a few years ago. Up to 50% of people who develop sepsis die from multiple organ failure, even though it can be treated with antibiotics. It is often misdiagnosed or treatment commenced too late, so a rapid diagnostic tool will be of great use.

Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter over the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock from sepsis but subsequently challenged being struck of the medical register. She won the latter legal case this week after a big campaign by doctors and a major crowdfunding exercise. Bearing in mind the other contributory factors, and the difficulty in spotting sepsis I consider the original conviction a gross miscarriage of justice. You can feel just slightly under the weather and next minute you are unconscious and in the intensive care unit as I know very well. Jack Adcock had other medical conditions that will not have helped.

There are 44,000 deaths from sepsis every year in the UK, and children are particularly at risk. It appears that cases of sepsis are rapidly rising although that might be due to better diagnosis. Even surviving it can mean life changing injuries. See https://sepsistrust.org/ for more information or if you wish to support a charity that is raising awareness of this deadly disease.

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

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