Good News – Autonomy CFO Jailed

Good news – former CFO of public company jailed for fiddling the accounts. Oh to see that happen more often so as to deter manipulation of accounts that is so prevalent and so damaging to investors.

Sushovan Hussain, the former CFO of software company Autonomy, was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment by a US Court yesterday plus he was fined $4 million and ordered to forfeit $6.1 million he made from the sale of the company to Hewlett-Packard. He won’t even be spending time in a cushy minimum-security prison as he is a foreign national. He was found guilty some months ago on 16 counts of security fraud and other counts. In essence the allegation was that sales were inflated in the accounts and the result was that when HP bought the company, they had to write off much of the $11 billion they paid for it.

Although Autonomy was a UK public company, and the Serious Fraud Office did look at the case they decided to do nothing. However a civil action against Mr Hussain and the former Autonomy CEO, Mike Lynch is still being pursued in the English courts, and the latter also faces criminal charges in the USA.

Mr Hussain is planning to appeal the verdict. Let us hope he does not succeed because such cases provide a good deterrent to future malefactors.

These were some of the allegations against Autonomy:

  • Booking transactions to resellers as revenue when there was no end-user license (i.e. “channel stuffing” as it is sometimes called).
  • Engaging in “round-trip” transactions where purchases were invented so it could pay money to companies which then returned it to Autonomy to cover fictitious sales.
  • Backdating sales transactions so they fell into a previous accounting period.

There was also a claim that bundles of hardware/software sales were treated as solely software in the accounts. Why does this matter? Because software sales are valued in company valuations much more highly than hardware sales.

The above are some of the things that investors in IT companies need to look at although abuse can be difficult to spot in the published accounts of a public company. High accounts receivable and apparent lengthy payment delays can be clues. There were some questions raised about Autonomy’s accounts even before the takeover.

Hussain and Lynch have claimed that some of the disputed differences were simply down to different accounting standards (US GAAP versus IFRS) and I said when originally commenting on the case that I was unsure that this stood up to scrutiny. The US Court judge clearly rejected that argument.

But the sad thing is of course that we rarely see such cases pursued to criminal convictions in the UK, whether they are large or small companies.

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

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Changes Proposed at Companies House

The Government BEIS Department have recently proposed a number of important changes to the way Companies House operates in a public consultation entitled “Corporate Transparency and Register Reform” (see https://tinyurl.com/yysf9gdn ). Here’s a brief summary of the main points:

This consultation will be of interest to anyone who is a director of a private or a public company, or a major shareholder in such a company (i.e. those People with Significant Control). Even directors of the smallest companies could be affected.

A major proposal is to verify the identity of directors and to collect more information on them (although not their email address apparently, which I have suggested be added). This can now be done very quickly and at minimal cost electronically using various verification services (e.g. listed GB Group in which I hold shares). This will help to prevent fraud and they even hope to be able to link all directorships in various companies together. For example, this might make it easier to track the past activities and record of directors which even in small listed companies can be very informative as to their competence and reliability.

They propose to continue to retain the records of dissolved companies for 20 years which many investors consider important and is useful for investigators of all kinds.

They also plan some changes to improve the protection of personal information held at Companies House. Bearing in mind that there are well over 6 million records of directorships, with significant personal information, this is clearly important.

For public company investors there are two significant proposals:

1 – Improved digital tagging standards for accounts, which might make it simply to provide information services based on them.

2 – A possible cap on the number of directorships any one person can hold. There are common complaints about “overboarding” where directors take on too many roles. I have suggested a maximum of 5 in public companies, with some possible exemptions, should be imposed.

In general the proposals seem eminently sensible and I suggest they be supported on the whole. You can see my detailed comments in a response submitted to the consultation here: https://tinyurl.com/y6j9u4do 

But you should of course submit your own comments on those points of interest to you.

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

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Warren Buffett and FCA Review of RDR & FAMR

 

There was an interesting article on the career of Warren Buffett in the last FT Weekend magazine. It was a wide-ranging interview with the renowned investor who became one of the richest persons in the world by making investments which consistently outperformed the markets over the last 50 years. At aged 88 he still claims to be having fun by working at investment.

But in the last ten years he has fallen behind the S&P index. The reason is primarily because he has to look now for enormous deals to soak up the $112 billion in cash the Berkshire Hathaway fund holds and there are not many such opportunities now available. In addition he has to compete with leveraged private equity funds who currently have access to very low cost money and who are willing to pay high prices for good assets.

The last paragraph of the article contains the usual pithy and wise quote from Buffett as to why investors enjoy the game: “If you played golf and you hit a hole in one on every hole, nobody would play golf, it’s no fun. You’ve got to hit a few in the rough and then get out of the rough….That makes it interesting”.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) yesterday published a call for comments on the Retail Distribution Review (RDR) and the Financial Advice Market Review (FAMR) – see: https://www.fca.org.uk/publication/call-for-input/call-for-input-evaluation-rdr-famr.pdf .

They would like some input from consumers on how the past changes to regulations on advice to consumers and how advisors are remunerated have worked out. Do you consider financial advice is accessible and affordable? If you have views on this subject, please let the FCA have them.

Other news from the FCA is that “dawn raids” as part of investigations is at a ten year high at 25 last year. It also has more investigations open at the end of the year, at 504 which is a 20% increase on the prior year. This suggests that enforcement action is increasing which is surely what is required. There are way too many financial frauds and abuses in the modern world.

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

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Debenhams PrePack, Dunelm Trading, ASOS and Privacy

Department store operator Debenhams (DEB) has been put through a pre-pack administration. It’s been bought by a new company formed by its secured lenders. Mike Ashley of Sports Direct is furious. His company invested £150 million in the shares of the company in the hope of taking it over, which will now be worthless. He had some choice words to say on the subject which included that it was an “underhand plan to steal from shareholders”, “as normal politicians and regulators fiddled while Rome burnt”, and that they “have proven to be as effective as a chocolate teapot”. I have much sympathy with Mike Ashley and the other shareholders as I have consistently criticised the use of pre-pack administrations in the past. It is an abuse of legal process. Why could it not have been put through an ordinary administration as the company appears to be a going concern, albeit with excessive debt, or Ashley’s offers considered?

Mike Ashley had previously made various offers to refinance the business including a pledge to underwrite a rights issue, but to no avail. It is not clear why his proposals were rejected, but as usual with pre-packs it is probably just a case of the lenders seeing the opportunity to make more money from a pre-pack. Ashley suggests he might try to challenge the pre-pack although that will be difficult now the deal is done.

What went wrong at Debenhams? Basically an old-fashioned retail format where sales were relatively stafic compounded by very high and onerous property leases and massive debt.

Contrast that with the trading statement from Dunelm (DNLM) this morning. This company sells home furnishings from out of town warehouse sites (not on the High Street like Debenhams) and have moved successfully into “multi-channel” operations with a growing on-line sales proportion. Overall like-for-like revenue in the third quarter is up by 9.8% with on-line sales up 32.1%.

Retailer ASOS (ASC) also announced their interim results this morning. Sales were up 14% but profits collapsed with margins declining and costs increasing while they invested heavily in technology and infrastructure. Competition in on-line fashion is increasing but you can see that such companies are taking a lot of business from High Street retailers, particularly in the younger customer age segment. The world has been changing and Debenhams has been an ex-growth business for many years. I do most of my clothes shopping, but not all, on the internet which shows even oldies are changing their shopping habits. I have never held Debenham shares although I do hold some Dunelm and have held ASOS in the past. But declining businesses with high debt are always ones to avoid however cheap the shares may appear.

Readers of my blog should be aware that after many years and growing amounts of spam I am changing all my email addresses. You can either contact me in future via the Contact page of my web site (see https://www.roliscon.com/contact.html ) or via the Contact tab on this blog.

It’s taking me some time to notify all the hundreds of organisations I am signed up with of my new email address. But that was almost frustrated when one of them sent out an email to all their clients using cc. rather than bcc. They have reported themselves to the Information Commissioner! But will they take any action? I doubt it. Thankfully the company in question used one of my older addresses which will soon be deleted. Such idiocy is not acceptable.

Another problem I am having of late is that if I mention a company or look at its web site, I then subsequently get bombarded with web advertising. So I am now seeing repeated advertisements for SuperDry products when I have absolutely no interest in such products. Despite removing cookies they still appeared. This is the kind of problem that is annoying people about the lack of privacy in the modern world and which needs tackling.

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

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LCF – Another Audit Failure & the latest on Brexit

I have not covered the events at London Capital & Finance (LCF) before although the national press has done so extensively. LCF sold “mini-bonds” to 11,500 people who invested £236 million in them and are likely to recover very little. These “bonds” were promoted as being “ISAs” in some cases when they were not, and that they were FCA regulated when in fact they were not – only the company was FCA “authorised” for certain activities but that did not include selling these bonds.

The company paid very generous commissions on the sale of the bonds, as much as 25%, and the money raised was invested in small companies with few assets and who are very unlikely to provide a return.

But it has now been disclosed in the Financial Times that based on the 2017 accounts of LCF it appears that the company was technically insolvent even then. However it received a clean audit report from auditors EY. Administrators Smith & Williamson report on a series of “highly suspicious transactions” linked to a number of individuals where money appears to have been diverted to them.

I have written repeatedly on the failures of the audit profession, and the lackadaisical approach of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to improve standards and enforce them. Reforms are in progress (see https://roliscon.blog/tag/arga/ ) but it cannot be too soon. In the meantime, as always, the underlying problem is the gullibility of the public and their lack of financial education. Anyone who had undertaken more than a cursory look at the background of LCF and its finances would have shied away rapidly. But certainly being able to claim FCA authorisation was misleading and that is an issue that needs resolving.

Brexit

It seems Prime Minister May could have another attempt at passing her preferred EU Withdrawal Agreement which got defeated for the third time yesterday. Not that MPs managed to get any majority for alternative solutions in previous indicative votes. I supported the Prime Minister’s solution as a reasonable compromise although it was some way from being a perfect Agreement. However, with no time remaining to renegotiate it, refusal of the EU to countenance changes, and the general desire of the public to see the matter closed with no more debate, it was the best option available. However it was clear from watching yesterday’s debate that there are many MPs, both remainers and brexit supporters who had fixed opinions on the subject and were not going to change them. Mrs May’s problems were compounded by the Northern Irish DUP contingent, the awkward squad one might call them, and by Jeremy Corbyn doing all the could to obtain a general election by opposing any compromise in the hope of winning power.

What would I do if I were Prime Minister now? Decisive action is required which could include I suggest the following options: a) Ensure we exit the EU with no deal a.s.a.p. so as to force both the remainers and brexiteers to face up to reality, and the EU likewise – a rapid agreement on a free trade deal might then be concluded or the wisdom of Mrs May’s compromise would be made plain; or b) call a General Election with a new Conservative party leader and with a manifesto that is pro-Brexit. That would force all Conservative MPs to support the manifesto or be de-selected, i.e. they either support the manifesto or quit. The Labour party and other parties would also need to clarify their position on Brexit in their manifestos thus thwarting any more bickering about where they stand. With a bit of luck the outcome would be a clear majority in Parliament for a Government not beholden to minorities.

The EU might permit an extension of Article 50 to allow time for a General Election – at least 2 months is probably required, although there is no certainty on that. Some EU bureaucrats still seem to think that if they are awkward enough the UK will decide Brexit is not worth pursuing after all, but that ignores the political split that will remain in the UK with the Conservative party still disunited.

Will Mrs May take any decisive steps such as the above? I doubt it.

There is one advantage arising from the Brexit debate. The pressure on Parliamentary time has meant that the massive increase in Probate Fees for larger estates has been delayed. They won’t now take effect from the 1st April as proposed. Now might be a good time to die if you are fed up with this world so as to avoid more Brexit debates and save on probate fees!

Rather than finish on that depressing note, let us welcome a sunny Spring day that will lift all spirits, and with the pound falling (which helps many UK companies) and the stock market rising, life is not so bleak as politicians would have us believe.

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

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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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FCA Makes Platform Switching Easier

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have today announced some measures to improve competition in the platforms market. Experienced investors who use electronic trading platforms will be well aware of the problems of switching to another provider if they are dissatisfied with the service, wish to move to a cheaper provider or for other reasons such as consolidating on one provider or spreading their risk over several. It simply takes too long to move “in-specie” holdings from one platform to another ̶ it can take many months to transfer with endless chasing required.

Such transfers are also discouraged, resulting in an uncompetitive market, by the charging of exit fees by platforms. Together with the delays that investors face, this tends to lock in investors to their existing platform providers.

You can read my response to the FCA’s previous public consultation on this subject here: https://www.roliscon.com/Investment-Platforms-Market-Study.pdf . I mentioned my and others past experiences of delays of over 3 months on transfers.

The FCA is proposing to ban or limit exit fees. The FCA is also encouraging firms to take part in the STAR initiative (see https://www.joinstar.co.uk/) to improve the efficiency of the transfer process.

One particular problem with fund transfers is that sometimes a conversion of unit class is required, or it is preferable to move to a discounted class. They have set out proposals to mitigate that issue.

More information on the FCA’s proposals and a public consultation on the subject, to which I will certainly be responding, is here: https://tinyurl.com/yyjw2jpf .

At least one platform provider, AJ Bell Youinvest, has welcomed the FCA’s findings. They say a restriction on exit fees will not have a material impact on their business, and as a net receiver of assets they would expect to benefit from more transfers if they are made easier. Other platform providers may not be so happy, and may complain they won’t be able to cover their real costs of handling transfers. But there is little incentive to reduce those costs and reduce the complexity and delays in transfers at present. Therefore surely these are positive proposals that all investors should support. Everyone can respond to the consultation so if you have been affected by these problems in the past, please do so.

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

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