Patisserie and Interserve Administrations, plus Brexit latest

Yesterday the administrators (KPMG) of Patisserie (CAKE) issued their initial report. It makes for grim reading. The hole in the accounts was much worse than previously thought with an overstatement of net assets of at least £94 million. That includes:

  • Intangible assets overstated by £18m;
  • Tangible assets overstated by £5m;
  • Cash position overstated by £54m;
  • Prepayments and debtors overstated by £7m;
  • Creditors understated by £10m.

The accounts were clearly a total fiction. It is uncertain whether there will even be sufficient assets to make a distribution to preferential and unsecured creditors. As expected ordinary shareholders (who are not creditors) will get nothing. You can obtain the KPMG report from here: http://www.insolvency-kpmg.co.uk/case+KPMG+PJ12394136.html

KPMG suggest there may be grounds for legal action against various parties including Patisserie auditors Grant Thornton by the administrator, but as Grant Thornton are the auditors of KPMG they are suggesting the appointment of another joint administrator to consider that matter.

Otherwise it looks a fairly straightforward administration with assets sold off to the highest bidders and reasonable costs incurred.

Another recent administration was that of Interserve (IRV). This was forced into a pre-pack administration after shareholders voted against a financial restructuring (effectively a debt for equity swap) which would have massively diluted their interest. But now they are likely to get nothing. Mark Bentley of ShareSoc has written an extensive report on events at the company, and the shareholder meeting here: https://tinyurl.com/yy7heunl . He’s not impressed. I suspect there is more to this story than meets the eye, as there usually is with pre-pack administrations. They are usually exceedingly dubious in my experience. As I have said many times before, pre-pack administrations should be banned and other ways of preserving businesses as going concerns employed.

Brexit. You may have noticed that the stock market perked up on Friday. Was this because of some prospect of Mrs May getting her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament after all? Perhaps it was. The reasons are given below.

There were two major road blocks to getting enough MPs to support the deal. Firstly the Irish DUP who had voted against it. But they are apparently still considering whether they can. On Thursday Arlene Foster said “When you come to the end of the negotiation, that’s when you really start to see the whites of people’s eyes and you get down to the point where you can make a deal”. Perhaps more concessions or more money for Northern Ireland will lubricate their decision.

Secondly the European Research Group (ERG – Jacob Rees-Mogg et al) need to be swung over. Their major issue is whether the Agreement potentially locks in the UK to the Irish “Backstop” protocol for ever. Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox’s advice was that it might, if the EU acts in bad faith. I have said before this legal advice was most peculiar because nobody would enter into any agreement with anyone else if they thought the other would show bad faith. Other top lawyers disagree with Cox’s opinion. See this page of the Guido Fawkes web site for the full details: https://tinyurl.com/y4ak6q3c

Mr Cox just needs to have a slight change of heart when his first opinion must have been rushed. He has already said that the Vienna Convention on international treaties might provide an escape route so he is creeping in the right direction.

Mrs May will have another attempt at getting her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament, assuming speaker Bercow does not block it as repeat votes on the same resolutions are not supposed to be allowed in Parliament.

It was very amusing watching a debate at the European Parliament over Brexit issues including whether an extension of Article 50 should be permitted – the EU can block it even if the UK asks for it.  The EU MEPs seemed to have as many opinions as UK MPs on the issues. The hardliners such as Nigel Farage wish that it not be extended so that the UK exits on March 29th. Others are concerned that keeping the UK in will mean they have to participate in the EU elections in May with possibly even more EU sceptics elected.

It’s all good fun but it’s surely time to draw this matter to a close because the uncertainty over what might happen is damaging UK businesses. A short extension of Article 50 might be acceptable to allow final legislation to be put in place but a longer one makes no sense unless it’s back to the drawing board. But at least the proposal for another referendum (or “losers vote” as some call it) was voted down in Parliament. Extending the public debate is not what most of the public want and would surely just have wasted more time instead of forcing MPs to reach a consensus.

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

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FRC Revolution to Fix Audit and Accounting Problems

A major announcement that will impact investors was made yesterday by the Government. You may not have noticed it in the midst of political turmoil, but it’s worth studying.

The Kingman review of the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) was published last December. It was a quite damning criticism of many aspects of the current regulatory regime that had resulted in so many audit failures and poor-quality financial reporting. See my previous blog post on this subject here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/12/18/all-change-in-the-audit-world/

There are few experienced investors who have not suffered from audit failures in the last few years. Accounts need to be accurate, reliable and trustworthy but they have been far from that in the last few years. It is now proposed that the FRC, which regulates the audit world and sets accounting and corporate governance standards, be scrapped and replaced by a new body to be called the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority – ARGA as it will no doubt be abbreviated to. ARGA will have stronger powers, a new mandate and new leadership.

There is a public consultation on the proposed new body and supporting legislation which can be obtained from here: https://tinyurl.com/y55a376d . Anyone with an interest in improving auditing, and preventing company failures such as those at Patisserie or Carillion and major banks in 2008 should respond. But there are so many changes proposed that the document may take time to digest. I pick out some of the more important ones below:

A new Chairman and Deputy Chairman are being recruited to head ARGA so there will be change at the top. Let us hope they manage to change the culture of the FRC even if many of the FRC’s staff move into the new body. It needs to be more than a change of name.

The ARGA will have clear statutory powers with a clear purpose and objectives, supported by a “remit letter” from the Government. One objective will be “to protect the interests of users of financial information and the wider public interest…” which is a positive statement and replaces the unclear historic accumulation of limited powers by the FRC.

The new board responsible for the ARGA will be smaller, more diverse and less representative of “stakeholder” interests. Let us hope that this means less dominated by major audit firms and the audit profession.

The Audit Firm Monitoring Approach will be put on a statutory basis and with enhanced skills and seniority in the team. There are also proposals to improve the Audit Quality Review system which sound promising although such reviews only affect large companies. There will also be expansion of Corporate Reporting Review activity focused on higher risk companies and the new regulator will have the power to change accounts without going to Court.

The “audit expectation gap” where, for example, investors expect auditors to detect false accounting or even fraud whereas auditors don’t perceive that as part of their job will be reviewed. There is indeed a problem with the failure of auditors to challenge the information they receive from management and the latter’s forecasts and interpretation. Let us hope that is a meaningful independent review that results in some changes.

A new “pre-clearance” system will be introduced to enable companies and their auditors to obtain approval for “novel and contentious matters in accounts in advance of their publication”. This may assist auditors to “pass the buck” to someone else if they have doubts about how to present the financial figures.

More transparency in the new body is encouraged on such matters as disclosure of undertakings from concluded cases and it will become subject to the Freedom of Information Act. There will also be more publication of information on complaints and improved handling of them. Such changes are to be encouraged to stop the current secrecy under which the FRC operates which frustrates investors.

The oversight of the accountancy profession is proposed to be improved although the details are unclear and it may require primary legislation. The wording suggests that audit firms may escape substantial change.

The prevention of corporate failure is to be tackled by developing a market intelligence system to identify emerging risks in companies. This will enable a change from a purely historic analysis of corporate failures which is rather like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted to a more proactive, future-looking approach. Auditors may also be required to warn of concerns about viability.

The AARG will be able to commission a “skilled person review” where concerns are raised about a company. Details of how this will operate are to be determined, but this appears to be a useful step forward. The cost would be charged to the companies where it is invoked.

The Government accepts that there is merit in improving internal company controls by something along the lines of the US Sarbanes-Oxley regime. They will explore options in this area and do a consultation on it in due course. This is a welcome move and I covered the benefit of such a change in a previous blog post: https://tinyurl.com/yxmx9gzg

It is proposed to improve “viability” (i.e. “going concern”) statements and the FRC has been tasked with taking that on immediately. Such statements are certainly ineffective at present and could be improved in several ways, e.g. to avoid the “all or nothing” approach at present. Such questions are not simple black and white issues in most cases.

It is proposed to replace the existing, and most peculiar, voluntary funding arrangement of the FRC with a new statutory levy for the ARGA. This is surely welcomed as money is the key to improving many of the regulatory functions. It is clear that the FRC is under-resourced in terms of the numbers and skills of staff.

In summary, most of the recommendations in the Kingman review are being taken forward.

Comment: These long-overdue reforms are certainly welcomed and the Government does seem to be applying some urgency to them, although with a log-jam in Parliament at present it may take time to get some of the needed statutory law changes in place. But cultural changes in organisations are never easy. Old bad habits in the FRC may persist, while it remains to be seen whether adequate funding will be put in place for the ARGA. There is also a lot of detail yet to be worked out. Let us hope it is a case of welcome to ARGA and not AARGH when we learn the details.

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

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Another Accounting Scandal – Goals Soccer Centres

Yet another problem in accounting has been revealed at Goals Soccer Centres (GOAL). This morning they disclosed in a trading update the discovery of “certain accounting errors” and are reviewing their accounting practices. As a result, the board now expects full year results to be below expectations and publication of the 2018 results has been delayed.

The even worse news is that they have breached their banking covenants so are having to have one of those difficult conversations with their bankers. The share price has fallen 30% this morning (at the time of writing).

Goals is an operator of soccer pitches which listed on AIM as long ago as 2004. Revenue has been flat for the last few years and profits variable. Net debt approximates to revenue which is never a good sign. The company changed auditors from KPMG to BDO in June 2018 and in July 2018 the CFO resigned from the board “with immediate effect” to join his family business but continued in his role as CFO. A new “interim” CFO was not appointed until the 15th January 2019.

After this “own goal”, the company suggests it “will take a more prudent approach” in future. But it reinforces the need to reform the accounting and auditing professions because we are very likely to be told that this issue extends back for more than one year.

Note: I have never held shares in this company despite the fact there was some enthusiasm for it among investors at one time. The share price peaked at 425p in late 2007 but it’s been steadily downhill since. It’s now 38p. I was always doubtful whether there was any real money to be made enabling amateurs to play soccer.

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

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Inconvenient AGM at Phoenix, Changes to “Going Concern” and GoCompare

I have been advised that life insurance and pension consolidator Phoenix Group (PHNX), a FTSE 250 company, is holding this year’s AGM in Edinburgh at 9.00 am. That’s a damn inconvenient time and location for most investors. Previous general meetings have been held in London where their registered office is located, although I am told that only one director and no shareholders turned up for the 2018 AGM.

This is the explanation given by the company for the latest venue in the Annual Report: “Our three general meetings in 2018 were held in London. Following the acquisition of Standard Life Assurance, our 2019 Annual General Meeting will be held on 2 May 2019 in Edinburgh, which is now our largest operational centre”. But it’s surely where investors are located rather than operations that matter.

It is undoubtedly time for some standards to be imposed on the timing and location of AGMs because setting a time of 9.00 am suggests they wish to deter shareholders from attending. Why not 2.00 pm which at least would give any shareholder in the UK some chance of getting there without an overnight stay?

There also needs to be more encouragement to attend by the promise of a presentation on the affairs of the company and the attendance of all directors so that questions can be fully answered. Institutional investors should also have an obligation to attend. This practice of trying to turn AGMs into meaningless events needs to be stopped in the interests of improved shareholder engagement.

Going Concern

Auditors have to confirm in their audit reports published in companies Annual Reports that the business is a “going concern”, i.e. will be able to continue trading for the foreseeable future. Any uncertainty in that regard has to be disclosed. But that did not prevent the unexpected collapse of companies such as HBOS, BHS and Carillion. Such events can be very damaging to both investors and suppliers.

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) is proposing to tighten up the ISA 570 standard used in the UK that defines a going concern. A public consultation on it is present here: https://www.frc.org.uk/consultation-list/2019/exposure-draft-proposed-isa-(uk)-570-(revised)

Comment: The proposed changes to the standard may improve matters but company management will be absolutely horrified with any suggestion they are not a going concern. For a bank it might produce a “run” on the bank and a serious downgrade of its credit rating. For a trading company it would mean suppliers might refuse to trade with it. As a result the management will take enormous effort to convince the auditors they are a going concern, and auditors will be under severe pressure to agree. Such pressure, when companies hire and pay the auditors at present might be irresistible.

There is also the problem that auditors can have built a relationship with the appointing company and its management over several years. They may not be of a nature, or have the inclination, to challenge management. Unless tougher sanctions are imposed on auditors who are too easy going, when collapses take place soon after a clean audit report, I doubt much will change.

GoCompare

I covered the preliminary results of GoCompare (GOCO) on the 28th February. Subsequently there was some director share buying and this morning it was announced that Chairman Sir Peter Wood had bought shares. In fact he purchased 17.8 million shares – about 4% of the company thereby raising his stake to 29.9% (i.e. the limit before he is obliged to make an offer for the company). The announcement quotes Sir Peter: “My share purchase underlines my view, which is shared by my fellow Board members, that the current Gocompare share price does not fully reflect the operational and strategic momentum in the business. I’m particularly excited about our weflip brand and the potential opportunities it offers.  If we deliver on our wider Savings as a Service strategy it will be brilliant for savers everywhere, reinforcing my decision to increase my holding to 29.9%.”

The share price jumped 7% this morning, but if there is a big buyer then there is also a big seller of course. However, insiders might have a better view of the future prospects for the business.

Note: I do hold GoCompare. I do not hold Phoenix.

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

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Metro Bank, Improving Accounts, Patisserie, Telford Homes and GoCompare

The latest example of a public company publishing misleading accounts is Metro Bank (MTRO). Both the FCA and PRA (the bank regulator) are looking into the “misclassification” of some loans which resulted in the bank overstating its regulatory capital. The result was that it has had to do an equity share issuance to bolster its capital.

There was a very good letter to the FT today on the subject of improving accounting and audits from Tim Sutton. He suggested the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act had improved the standards in the USA enormously so that revision of financial statements has been declining. To quote: “Section 404 requires management to assess and report annually on the effectiveness of the company’s internal control structure and procedures. In addition, the company’s external auditors must attest to the effectiveness of those controls”. As he points out that might have prevented the fraud at Patisserie (CAKE), and no doubt avoided the issues at Metro and other companies. It sounds an eminently good idea. I realise Sarbanes-Oxley did receive some criticism in the USA after it was first introduced due to the extra costs it imposed, but if that is the only way to ensure reliable accounts, I suggest it is worth paying. It was perhaps over-complicated in implementation in the USA but some of the key features are worth copying.

This morning Telford Homes (TEF) published a trading statement which was mostly bad news and the shares fell over 15%. This is a London focused housing developer which I used to hold but I got nervous some months ago about the housing market in the capital. You can read my acerbic comments made in last October here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/10/10/black-hole-in-patisserie-holdings-audit-review-telford-homes-and-brexit/

The latest announcement says that “the London sales market remains subdued”. Sales are being achieved but at a slower rate and margins are under pressure due to increased incentives and discounts. So they are putting an increased focus on “build-to-rent”. Other bad news is that contracts are being delayed on larger projects, partly due to planning delays. The result will be profit before tax for FY2020 will be significantly below FY2019.

Another announcement this morning was the preliminary results from GoCompare (GOCO). This is a price comparison web service, particularly focused on car insurance, but also covering utilities and other products. It is of course fronted by Italian opera singer Gio Compario in TV advertisements which I certainly prefer to the Moneysupermarket ones.

It was particularly interesting watching the results presentation – probably available as a recording on their web site. Results were much as forecast, with only a slight increase in revenue but a 20% increase in adjusted earnings. This is due to optimisation of marketing. You can see that these kinds of companies have to spend an enormous amount on marketing to catch customers when they are thinking of switching suppliers. GOCO spent £80 million on marketing last year, down from £89 million) to achieve revenue of £152 million.

They have made acquisitions to diversify revenue and this has led to an increase in debt, but the interesting news was about a new subscription service called WEFLIP. This automatically switches your energy supplier, among a panel of agreed suppliers, if you can potentially save £50. This will enable them to retain customers, with the suppliers paying the subscription fee. They plan to spend £10 million on marketing this in the coming year and have already done a “soft” launch to ensure the product and market are OK. Clearly though, this might be perceived as a bit of a gamble.

The market was unimpressed and the shares have fallen by another 5% today after a long decline in recent months. It’s now on a prospective p/e of less than 9 and yield of about 3%. I remain a holder at those levels.

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

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Quindell (Watchstone), SFO inaction and Tungsten Corporation

The Daily Telegraph this morning (25/2/2019) disclosed that law firm Harcus Sinclair is preparing a legal case for investors who lost money in Quindell (now renamed Watchstone). Quindell was once the largest AIM company – valued at £2.6 billion. But its accounts were extremely dubious and many investors think they were downright fraudulent. The company is still being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) but only two days ago it was announced that the SFO was dropping investigations into Rolls-Royce and GlaxoSmithKline. The SFO said there was “either insufficient evidence” or it was “not in the public interest” to continue. That’s despite the fact that Rolls-Royce paid nearly £500 million under a Deferred Prosecution Agreement over the allegations of bribery and corruption. Will the Quindell case be dropped also one wonders?

Watchstone (WTG), now worth £44 million, is also the subject of a law suit by Australian firm Slater & Gordon over the acquisition of businesses from the company in 2015. They claim breaches of the warranties and deceit but Watchstone denies they have a valid claim.

Why is it so difficult to pursue directors and other senior executives over false accounts? Tesco was a similar situation where the company conceded wrongdoing and paid a fine but the prosecutions of individuals collapsed. It seems clear that the whole legal framework for fraud under which the SFO operates needs reviewing and changing to make such cases easier to prosecute. Either that or companies should not be conceding wrongdoing and paying fines (a charge on shareholders effectively) when it cannot apparently be proven. It’s the individuals who need convicting, not the company, if future frauds are to be deterred.

Also this morning Tungsten (TUNG), another AIM company and in which I have a miniscule holding, issued a trading update. This is a company that has been consistently loss making, and it was always doubtful whether it had a viable business model in the new sector of electronic invoicing and supply chain enablement.

CEO Richard Hurwitz, who was appointed to the board in 2015, after a revolution, left “with immediate effect” on the 14th February. He did seem to have made changes in the last three years that gave some hope that the company was not going to continue to be a bottomless cash pit. But losses persisted. However, this mornings announcement was somewhat more positive in that it mentioned “significant reductions in the cost base over the past three years” and there are other changes afoot including a review of the Group’s “remuneration structures”. That includes a reduction in cash bonuses in favour of shares and introduction of “clearly defined performance conditions”. Perhaps that prompted the CEO to quit (he got paid £1.3 million last year despite the company still losing money).

Other good news was that net cash inflow of £0.5 million in the quarter represented the first ever positive cash flow from operations! But the underlying EBITDA of £0.4 million includes a “seasonal working capital” inflow of £1 million so the “normalised” cash outflow was still £0.5 million. Does that make sense or is this fanciful presentation?

The share price only perked up slightly this morning on this announcement which probably reflects continuing concerns about when it will actually show some profits and (and I am not just talking about EBITDA), and the added uncertainty of a new CEO but it seems good candidates have already been lined up.

Still a “wait and see” situation so far as I am concerned.

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

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AssetCo Case and the Grant Thornton Defense

I mentioned in a previous blog post yesterday the judgement in the case of the alleged breach of duty by Grant Thornton (GT) when acting as auditors of AssetCo Plc (ASTO) in 2009/10. See https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Comm/2019/150.html for the full judgement. For those who have not had the opportunity to read all 300 pages of the judgement, here are some interesting points from it:

It was conceded that the audit was negligent in a number of respects, but GT’s defense against the damages claim was based on what it asserted were six “insuperable obstacles”. Some of the key points they made are below:

  1. They deny that if the true accounting position had been known they could have avoided an insolvent liquidation. Indeed they claim that AssetCo was better off not knowing, in 2009 and 2010, the truth of its own position.
  2. They claim that the steps that AssetCo took (a scheme of arrangement) mitigated all their losses and otherwise avoided all harm.
  3. That none of the damage claimed by AssetCo was caused by Grant Thornton but by the directors of the company.
  4. That the Letter of Representation supplied by AssetCo as part of the audits contained falsehoods and hence GT should be relieved of all liability.

They also disputed the quantum of losses suffered by the company and their entitlement to interest thereon.

The judge concluded that GT’s conduct was “not reasonable”, and upheld the claim. The defense that AssetCo were better off not knowing their true financial position is a very remarkable one indeed! How are companies expected to avoid losses if they do not know their true financial position?

But this case is a good example of how civil claims arising from company fraud are simply too expensive to pursue in most circumstances and take much too long to get into court. Expecting civil claims to discourage bad auditing and somehow police audit work is simply not a realistic proposition.

If GT’s defences had been upheld, it would effectively make it impossible to challenge any incompetent audit work however bad it was and however damaging the consequences. If the case does go to appeal, let us hope the judgement is upheld.

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

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