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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Market Trends, Interest Rates, and Yu Group Accounts

Yesterday was another dismal day in the markets. The US fell significantly allegedly caused by the rise in interest rates announced by the Federal Reserve and the UK market followed it down this morning. The US rate rise was widely expected although perhaps slightly lower estimates for US economic growth had an impact. But when the markets are in a bear mood, excuses for selling abound. Meanwhile the Bank of England has announced today that their base rate will remain at 0.75%. The UK market recovered somewhat after it’s early fall, even before that announcement at 12.00 am. Did it leak one wonders, or is it those city high fliers with big bonuses stimulating the market before it closes for Xmas? Or was it the news from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) that a de-merger was to take place? Many market trends are unexplainable so I won’t say any more on that subject.

The general state of markets was highlighted in a recent press release from the Association of Investment Companies (AIC). They represent investment trusts and reported that the industry’s assets hit an all-time high of £189 billion in September but pulled back subsequently. At the end of November the average investment company returned 1.3% over the prior year they said, but that suggests that when the year ends most will be lucky to show any return at all. Investors who manage to beat zero for 2018 should consider themselves either lucky or wise.

But the good news the AIC reported was that many investment trusts, 37 of them, have reduced fees in 2018. Even better news was that 9 of them abolished performance fees which I believe is a good move for investors. There is no evidence that performance fees improve investment managers’ performance and they just lead to higher fees. Needless to point out that the lack of returns in 2018 might have encouraged the trend to cut performance fees!

Not only that but the average return of 1.3% by investment companies beat that of the average of open funds who showed a loss of 2.6% and the FTSE All-Share with a loss of 6%. Perhaps this is because there are more specialist or stock-picking investment trusts as opposed to the many open-ended index trackers and heavy weighting in a few large cap dominated sectors in the FTSE. That shows the merits of investment trusts (I hold a number but very few open-ended funds).

Coming up to Xmas and the New Year, it’s worth warning investors about share trading in small cap stocks and investment trusts though. Both often have low liquidity and this is exacerbated over the holiday season as active investors take a break. The result is that such stocks can spike or decline on just a few trades. Might be a good time to take a holiday from following the markets even for us enthusiastic trend followers.

Yu Group (YU.) is the latest AIM company to report fictitious financial accounts. Yu Group is a utility supplier to businesses and only listed on AIM in March 2016, reached a share price peak of 1345p in March 2018 and is now 68p at the time of writing, i.e down 95% – ouch!

An announcement by the company yesterday, following a “forensic investigation” of its past accounts, reported more bad news including serious deficiencies in the finance function. They are now forecasting an adjusted loss before tax of between £7.35 million and £7.85 million for the year ending December 2018, but that excludes lots of exceptional costs including possible restatement of prior year accounts. Future cash flow is also called into question. In summary it’s yet another dire tale of incompetent if not downright fraudulent management in AIM companies which it seems likely the auditors did not spot. The FCA and FRC should be investigating events at this company with urgency. The AIM Regulatory and NOMAD system has also again failed to stop a listing or what clearly has turned out to be a real dog of a business.

Let us hope that the mooted changes to financial regulation in the UK bear some fruit to stop these kinds of disasters in future years. Risks of business strategy failures and general management incompetence we accept as investors. Likewise general economic trends, even Brexit risks, and investor emotions driving markets to extremes we accept as risks. But we should not need to accept basic accounting failures.

On that note, let me wish all my readers a Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

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

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Blancco AGM and Regulatory Landscape

Today I attended the Annual General Meeting of Blancco Technology Group (BLTG). This technology company is now focused on the data erasure market which is surely a growing one. I have commented on this company before (see links below), particularly as the company, and its shareholders, seemed to be a victim of false accounting – an issue that is way too prevalent of late.

The legal framework under which companies, their directors and the regulatory bodies operate just seems to be too weak to bring errant directors and auditors to account. This is not just obvious from this case but from the discussions at the recent ShareSoc/UKSA sponsored meeting with the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). See my previous comments on the Autonomy case in addition. As you will see below, no action seems to be being taken against the former directors of Blancco by the company, although complaints have been made to the FRC and to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) about past events and the latter may still be investigating – but as usual feedback is non-existent. As regards the complaint to the FRC, they have passed the buck to the ICAEW (the regulatory body for accountants) on the basis that it is too small a company to be bothered with.

There were about a dozen shareholders at the Blancco AGM in the City of London. The Chairman, Rob Woodwood, opened the meeting by introducing the board. That included new CEO Matt Jones who joined in March and new CFO Adam Maloney. Rob said the last year was a period of positive change for the company, which one can hardly dispute. He said after a turbulent year, they are on a positive track.

Shareholder Bruce Noble, first queried comments on the impact of currency movements (see page 9 of the Annual Report). The CFO admitted it could perhaps have been explained better.

Bruce then pointed out that the report made it clear that management controls had been avoided in the past as a result of which the accounts were false. This resulted in the management obtaining £400,000 and shareholders losing £135 million. The board responded that investigations were on-going and as result they were unable to comment about what is being done due to “legal privilege”. Both Bruce and I complained that we did not understand that comment, and I said that they were in breach of their legal obligations to answer questions put by shareholders at a General Meeting (see my past articles on similar issues at Abcam and Patisserie). As usual they refused to respond further due to “legal advice” so I suggested they should get better advice.

As I said to the Chairman after the meeting ended, we don’t expect him to disclose their conversations with the FCA or FRC, but there is no reason why they cannot pursue a civil case against the former management if there are justifiable grounds. They need to give reasons if they choose not to do so and simply saying they wish to concentrate on rebuilding the business is not good enough. I suggested I would be voting against his re-election in future (not on the agenda at this meeting) if he failed to take action on this matter.

The above is an abbreviated summary of what was a rather long discussion on this issue.

Bruce Noble also criticised the proposed re-election of Frank Blin, who was Chairman of the Audit Committee when the past events occurred. He asked him to do the “honourable” thing and step down, which Mr Blin refused to do. Bruce also criticised the appointment of PWC to take over from the former auditors (KPMG) when Mr Blin had a previous relationship with PWC and PWC had received criticism about other audits. Mr Blin responded that the relationship mentioned was more than 6 years ago and PWC had been appointed after an open tender process. Another shareholder suggested they might get better attention from a smaller audit firm but Blin responded that they did need a firm that could cover a complex international business particularly their operations in Finland and India. Comment: I don’t think having a smaller audit firm would help – Grant Thornton has had similar problems to larger firms. There is a more general problem with the overall quality of audits which has been recognised in the national media and by many investors.

I questioned the presentation of the income statement in the Annual Report, where “adjustments” are mixed in with normal “reported” figures and confuse the reader. They will look at this issue.

We then had a brief presentation from the new CEO Matt Jones. He is clearly an experienced manager of IT businesses. He said they have good customers and good staff but were spread too thinly. They need to focus more. He will be focusing on those with good growth opportunities, namely ITAD, mobile and enterprise solutions (note: they each represent about one third of current revenue).

There was a question about cash flow and operating margins. The response was that they are making investment this year to increase growth and hence margins will come down this year, but will grow thereafter. It was noted later that the investment will be mainly in R&D and to a lesser extent in sales and marketing. The CFO said the key was to avoid major exceptionals and improve cash flow.

One shareholder raised the issue about reliance on one customer at 11% of turnover but the board expressed no concerns and it might fall slightly this year.

I asked about the competitive landscape. Answer given was the main area for that was in mobile and they are working to improve their offering to meet that.

Another shareholder questioned their presence in 26 countries – are they spreading themselves too thinly? The answer was they are not planning any cut back in the geographic perspective. It transpired later than some of their locations are only very small sales operations, even though the CEO clearly spends a lot of time on planes (incidentally he mentioned he is based in California and works from home with an office above his garage). Modern communications methods assist a great deal.

The CEO said they have adequate sales/marketing staff and productivity is improving.

Lastly a question was raised as to the apparent votes from large shareholder M&G who abstained on some of the resolutions. Does the board know why? The answer was no, and it was not clear whether they had even been asked why although the Chairman did say he had been in communication with them and other large shareholders. Could it be I wonder that they were also unhappy with the openness of the board and their apparent failure to pursue past wrongdoing?

In conclusion, it does seem that the Chairman and the rest of the board are at least taking sensible steps to rebuild the company. The new executives seem to be good appointments but we will have to wait and see whether they can actually produce the goods. In the meantime, investor confidence in the company may take time to rebuild but even so it’s still quite highly rated on the normal financial ratios. My concern is that revenue growth does not seem particularly high for this kind of business and the current valuation. But there is certainly business opportunities to pursue given the growing populations of IT and phone equipment that need erasure or disposal at some point.

https://roliscon.blog/2018/01/15/sharesoc-takes-up-blancco-complaints/ https://roliscon.blog/2017/12/20/lse-general-meeting-and-blancco-agm/

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

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Acquittals Over Tesco Fraud

Yesterday (6/12/2018) was another sad day for those who would like to stop false accounts being published by public companies. Two former executives of Tesco who had been charged with their involvement in the inflating of Tesco’s profits by including supplier credits were discharged by the court on the basis that they had no case to answer. The judge, Sir John Royce, said the case was so weak that it should not be put to a jury.

It appears that the problem was proving that the defendants, John Scouler and Christopher Bush, knew about the false accounting or were the cause of it. This is despite the fact that Tesco, the company, entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) with the SFO over the case, and the company agreed with the FCA to compensate affected shareholders who relied on the false accounts.

A DPA does not include any admission of guilt, so it seems we now have the situation where nobody is to be held personally liable for these events.

Was this a trivial technical offence committed by a low-level employee? Not exactly. Tesco plc made an exceptional charge of £235m in respect of the DPA of £129m, the expected costs of an FCA compensation scheme of £85m, and related costs.  The profit figure of Tesco was reduced by £250 million in one quarter alone.

Auditors PwC also escaped any censure over their audits of the accounts of Tesco after an investigation by the Financial Report Council (FRC).

In summary we now have the situation where a major fraud on investors took place by the publication of false accounts but nobody is held accountable. Not until UK law is tightened considerably will such events no longer happen. Directors should be held strictly liable for the publication of false accounts on their watch, and auditors likewise. It is simply not good enough when everyone can evade responsibility by saying “nobody told me”.

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

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Bellway AGM for Early Risers Only

Should Annual General Meetings of companies be held at reasonably convenient locations and on convenient dates and times so that as many shareholders as possible can attend? Most private shareholders certainly think so. But Bellway (BWY) seem to be taking the opposite approach.

Their 2016 AGM was at the very sensible and easily achievable time of 2pm in the afternoon so all shareholders hoping to attend could actually meet the directors and ask questions. They could travel from all over the country and even have time for lunch!

But this year’s AGM kicks off at 8.30 am on Wednesday 12 December 2018 at Jesmond Dene House Hotel, Jesmond Dene, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 2EY.

So what changed….Do directors at Bellway not want shareholders any more….maybe the huge remuneration at housebuilders and recent furore at Persimmon has made directors devise cunning plans to avoid awkward questions and attention from the media.

This anti-shareholder mindset seemed to set in last year with an early morning start at 9.30 am in Newcastle but still six shareholders made it through the doors. That must have been too many for the directors because this year they have moved it even earlier. They have moved it closer to breakfast for those who like to vote whilst eating their cornflakes.

Here’s hoping that the 2019 AGM is not held at 7.30am and that at least one shareholder will make it through the early morning fog on the Tyne !!

But it is simply not acceptable for boards to take this approach. There are too few shareholders attend AGMs already without deliberately making it difficult for them. I suggest that perhaps the UK Corporate Governance Code should be modified to include coverage of when and where AGMs should be held and other aspects of how they are run (such as the answering of questions which I covered in a previous article).

Thanks to David Stredder for notes on the above events.

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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