All Change in the Audit World

Readers don’t need to be told that the audit profession has come in for a lot of public criticism of late. Too many unexpected failures of companies and phantom profits being reported are the cause, apart from simple inability to detect fraud. There are three important announcements today that aim to tackle these issues.

The first is the Kingman Review of the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) published by the BEIS. Sir John Kingman basically says that the FRC is not fit for purpose – it should be scrapped and replaced by a new body called the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA). Not exactly a catchy title but the objective is certainly clear.

He wants the new body to have wider powers and a clearer remit. He also criticises the “consensual” approach the FRC takes to regulatory work, that it has an inappropriate culture and staff recruitment is often informal. In summary it’s a pretty damning report on the effectiveness of the FRC and how it currently operates.

BEIS have also announced a review of audit standards by Donald Brydon which will look at the quality and effectiveness of the audit market.

Plus the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have proposed new legislation that would separate auditor work from consultancy activities (the latter is 75% of their revenue at present) – what they call a “structural break-up”. They also suggest that audits of the biggest firms (i.e. FTSE-350) be done by 2 firms of which one must be outside the big four audit firms. This might reduce their stranglehold on the market. The CMA also proposes “more regulatory scrutiny” of audit firms to ensure that not just the cheapest audit firm is selected. Does this mean there will be a lot more bureaucracy involved? Perhaps so.

No doubt all these proposals will be subject to public consultation so they may get watered down. But surely these are moves in the right direction.

See https://www.gov.uk/government/news/independent-review-of-the-financial-reporting-council-frc-launches-report and https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-proposes-reforms-to-improve-competition-in-audit-sector for more information.

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

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Big Audit Firm Break-Up and Northern VCT AGM

A report commissioned by the Labour Party has advocated the break-up of the big four audit firms that dominate the audits of FTSE-350 firms. The report, co-authored by Prof. Prem Sikka et al, even goes so far as to suggest that their share of that market should be limited to 50% and that joint audits be promoted. In addition it argues that audit firms should be banned from doing non-audit work for the same company, and an independent body to appoint audit firms and agree their remuneration should be set up.

It also calls for the auditors to owe a duty of care to shareholders, not just the companies they audit, which would enable shareholders to pursue litigation over audit failings which they have great difficulty in doing at present. It is surely sensible to reinstate what was always assumed to be the case before the Caparo judgement.

These are revolutionary ideas indeed to try and tackle the problems we have seen in recent years and it seems to be now generally accepted by investors, if not the audit profession, that there have been too many major failings and the general standard is low. Even the Financial Report Council (FRC) seem to accept that view at a recent meeting with ShareSoc/UKSA.

But would breaking up the big four, effectively forcing some larger companies to use smaller audit firms improve the quality of audits? I rather doubt it. In my experience problems with smaller audit firms are just as common as in large ones – it’s just that the big companies and their audit failings get more publicity. Larger firms do have more expertise in certain areas and more international coverage. So there are good reasons to use them. But this report is certainly worth reading because if Mrs May continues to make a hash of Brexit and proves unable to stop dissension within her party we may see a Labour Government looking to implement these policies. See http://visar.csustan.edu/aaba/LabourPolicymaking-AuditingReformsDec2018.pdf . I may make more comments on the report after I have read the whole 167 pages.

Note that this issue of audit firm size came up at the Northern Venture Trust (NVT) Annual General Meeting which I attended today. This is a long-established Venture Capital Trust – it was their 23rd AGM, many of which I have attended. One shareholder voted against the reappointment of KPMG on the “show of hands” vote, and there were 1.2million votes against them on the proxy counts (versus 10.9 million “for”). It is unusual to see so many voted against such resolutions. When I asked the shareholder why he voted against I was told it was because he thought that a smaller audit firm might do better as VCTs are relatively smaller investment companies. However I pointed out that VCT legislation is very complex so it makes sense to use an audit form that is more knowledgeable in that regard.

The other possible reason for high proxy votes against the auditors is that Nigel Beer, who chairs the Audit Committee is a former partner in KPMG although he told me later that he had departed many years ago. Anyway I did raise this issue in the meeting and the fact that both Nigel Beer and Hugh Younger had just passed 9 years of time on their board. In addition, Tim Levett, who is Chairman of NVM, the fund manager, is on the board. So according to the UK Corporate Governance Code that’s three directors out of 6 who should be considered non-independent.

I urged the Chairman to look at “refreshing” the board although I did not doubt their experience and knowledge. It was also pointed out to me after the meeting that there are no women on the board. So effectively this is really a stale, male, pale board. However the Chairman said they do regularly review board structure and succession.

Other than that there were some interesting comments given by Tim Levett in his presentation. He said that due to the change in the VCT rules in 2016 they have changed from being a late stage investor to being an early stage one. In the last 3 years they have built a new portfolio of 22 early stage companies and are probably the most active generalist VCT manager other than Titan. NVM have opened a new office in Birmingham and built up the Reading office. There were also a number of new staff who were introduced at the meeting.

He also said that like all the top 10 VCTs, an awful lot of special dividends had been paid in the last three years. This was because of realisations and the VCT rules that prevented them from retaining cash. This has meant a reduction in the NAV of the trust but in future they will try and maintain that at the same time as maintaining a 5% dividend. Note: that historically it means that capital has been paid out in tax-free dividends that investors might have reinvested in the trust and hence collected a second round of up-front income tax relief. One can understand why the trust does not want to continue doing that as it may otherwise spark some attention from HMRC. I also prefer to see VCTs maintain their NAV as otherwise the trusts shrink in size which can create problems in due course as we have seen with other VCTs.

NVT are doing a new share issue in January which will of course improve their NAV and I was glad to hear that at least some of the directors will be taking up shares in the offer and adding to their already considerable holdings. That inspires some confidence that they can cope with the changes to the VCT rules that mean there will be more emphasis on investing in riskier early stage companies.

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

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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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