Improving Auditing – It’s Certainly Time

Readers don’t need to be reminded that many of the most damaging events for investors in public companies in recent years have arisen because of the failures of auditors to identify misleading accounts, if not downright fraud in some cases. The Kingman review of the FRC and the views of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) suggest that there is a widely recognised problem in the quality of work done by auditors and the regulation of the profession.

I have mentioned previously a report entitled “Reforming the Audit Industry” commissioned by the Labour Party which 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 (see https://tinyurl.com/yb68pfr5 ) is particularly good on the subject of how auditors have ducked any liability for their failings over the last 50 years – see Chapter 10.

If we want auditors to do a good job, then they need to be made accountable to both the companies who commission them and to investors who rely on the accounts that are published. That includes both audit firms and individual audit partners and managers. But we now have a situation where auditors have ducked both obligations by forming into Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs), by writing contracts with their clients that exclude liability and by legal judgements such as that in the Caparo case. The aforementioned document spells out how this came about and is well worth reading. It shows how the FCA, FRC, and the Government have avoided their responsibility for ensuring that auditors are properly accountable with the result that one might expect – in essence shoddy work by auditors. One can only conclude that audit firms and accountants have had too much influence over the regulation of the audit profession. Or as the report puts it “the accounting cartel sets the rules”.

As the report says, “current liability laws do not exert sufficient pressure on auditors to be diligent or even exercise reasonable care and skill. In this environment, some audit partners cannot even be bothered to spend enough time on the job, or supervise audit staff”. It mentions that the PwC audit partner spent just two hours on the final audit of BHS and its parent company; while the Audit Senior Manager recorded only seven hours and was not involved in the final stages of the BHS audit. And at Quindell, auditors KPMG failed to obtain reasonable assurance that the financial statements as a whole were free from material misstatement, failed to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence and failed to exercise sufficient professional scepticism.

The reforms recommended in the report are:

  • Auditors must owe a ‘duty of care’ to individual stakeholders who have a reasonable justification for placing reliance upon auditors.
  • The incidence of liability must act as a pressure point for improvement of audit quality. Individuals and society must be empowered to seek redress from negligent auditors
  • There must be personal liability for audit failures upon partners responsible for audits.
  • Where a partner of the audit firm acts negligently, fraudulently or has colluded in the perpetration of fraud and material irregularities, civil and criminal liability must fall upon the partner of partners concerned and upon the firm jointly and severally.
  • Class lawsuits must be permitted to empower stakeholders as many stakeholders are not always in a position to seek redress from negligent auditors.
  • In the event of negligent and fraudulent practices, audit fees for the relevant years shall be returned to the audited entity.

These appear to be eminently sensible proposals to this writer.

The report covers the issue of lack of competition in the audit market as was covered by the CMA and their proposals are similar. Also covered are the failings of the FRC – lack of urgency, investigations abandoned and puny sanctions after audit failures. An example of the latter is that the fines imposed as a proportion of a firm’s global audit fees after major failings is a miniscule 0.016% on average. In other words, audit firms have no great incentive to avoid mistakes.

The concluding paragraph in the report says this: “History shows that much of the change in the world of accounting and auditing has been introduced in the teeth-of-opposition from accountancy trade associations and accounting firms. The same approach must be taken in order to make audit work for, and be accountable to, the many, and not the privileged few. Otherwise, there will be more avoidable scandals resulting in loss of pension rights, jobs, businesses, savings, investments and tax revenues, social instability and ultimately loss of faith in the ability of institutions of democracy to connect with the plight of the innocent bystanders”.

I hope everyone in the Government who has responsibility for company regulation reads this report. It is certainly time to make major changes in the audit profession.

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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LSE General Meeting and Blancco AGM

Yesterday I attended two company general meetings (I hold a trivial number of shares in each). Here’s a brief report on events, with the later one being more interesting than the first one.

London Stock Exchange (LSE) General Meeting.

As readers may be aware, a General Meeting was called at the LSE by The Children’s Master Investor Fund (TCF), which is led by Sir Christopher Hohn, in an attempt to remove the Chairman Donald Brydon. That was the only item on the agenda. This arose from a dispute over the removal of CEO Xavier Rolet after the board decided to do some “succession planning”. Mr Rolet has been a very successful leader of the LSE for eight years (the share price has gone up more than 6 times since he was appointed to the board in 2009).

Mr Rolet was going to depart after the Deutsche Borse merger but when that fell through the board apparently decided that he should be replaced. Sir Christopher Hohn objected to him being eased out. There then appeared a number of press reports (e.g. in the FT) suggesting that Mr Rolet was a difficult person to work with – rude to colleagues, tended to not pay attention in meetings, and other defamatory remarks. The company’s defence document for the meeting referred to Mr Rolet’s “operating style” as an important factor in seeking a replacement.

The meeting was attended by mainly “suits”, with very few private shareholders as is more common at these kinds of events – only the latter asked any questions. Neither Mr Rolet or Mr Hohn attended but the latter certainly had representatives present.

The meeting was chaired by the Senior Independent Director, Paul Heiden, and the acting CEO Donald Warran also spoke. Mr Brydon said little. Mr Warren emphasised the need for a “team” to deliver business success and made positive comments about the prospects for the company.

One shareholder commented that it was a “sorry affair” that had generated considerable opprobrium against the company.

The vote was taken on a poll, with results announced some time later. The votes were 79% opposed to the resolution to remove the Chairman (i.e. 21% supportive although there were also 9 million votes Withheld). Sir Christopher Hohn suggested afterwards that this shows considerable support for a change of Chairman and that the board should look to do that sooner rather than later.

Comment: I agree with the views expressed by one shareholder in the meeting. This seems to have been handled badly. Succession planning for non-executive directors who have reached ten years’ service are routine. But when you decide to remove an executive director you have to tread a lot more carefully. This resulted in a public battle, and then having to pay off Mr Rolet with a very generous compensation package.

The allegations about Mr Rolet’s management style may or may not be true. But forceful personalities are very common in high achieving leaders (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are two very good examples). Organisations are wisest to put up with such personalities in my experience. Having heard what was said at the meeting, I voted in favour of removing Mr Brydon as Chairman. 

Blancco (BLTG) Annual General Meeting

Blannco is an AIM listed software company that specialises in data erasure and mobile phone diagnostics. It transmogrified from a business named Regenersis which was into hardware repair and there were changes of management and restructuring when that happened.

The meeting was chaired by Rob Woodward with about a dozen, mainly disgruntled, private shareholders present.

The reason for their unhappiness is no doubt the substantial losses reported in the last three years (£4.3 million in the year ending June 2017) compounded by the need to restate the 2016 accounts following the discovery by a new interim CFO that sales worth £3.5 million booked in June and December 2016 were uncollectable. The company had to raise additional funds as a result at that time. The former CEO, Patrick Clawson, departed and the interim CFO is now interim CEO. They are looking for a new permanent CEO.

Mr Woodward opened the meeting by introducing the board and said “last year was a year of substantial challenge”. He summarised the events mentioned above and said “several members of the senior management team had departed”. He suggested the company needed to rebuild trust with all stakeholders, but the market opportunity remains strong. He said he was unable to comment on some of the investigations undertaken into past events for legal reasons.

Shareholders asked questions about current revenue recognition policies. Then the question of who might be accountable arose, e.g. the auditors for failing to spot the abuse or the former CEO. But Mr Woodward said the board did not believe it was in anyone’s interests to take action against individuals.

Note: the auditor at the time was KPMG but they were replaced by PWC at this meeting. Past events were not given as a reason but open tenders following length of service and other platitudes. Mr Woodward stated the auditors correctly prepared the accounts based on management information provided and that the management overrode controls. The company had taken legal advice but were unwilling to disclose it.

I asked whether there had been any report to the FRC asking them to investigate the audit. Apparently not.

A vote on the resolutions was taken on a show of hands. All resolutions passed with 100% voting For in several cases. But there were over 11 million votes Withheld on some of the resolutions. I asked who that might be as clearly some institution was unhappy. Although the Chairman declined to say, a shareholder pointed out that the number matched the holding of M&G/Prudential (see page 29 of the Annual Report).

Simon Herrick, acting CEO, gave us some information on his background (he had recently helped to float Ramsdens, a financial services company). He said Blancco had a great position in the market. Data erasure will be a big market but it is really only just beginning to kick off. The company seemed to have been rationalising its operations by introducing Salesforce everywhere and a new accounting system (NetSuite). He said the company did not need more cash in the short term but they are not generating large amounts either. He suggested shareholders study the last results presentation on their web site where cash flow is analysed (page 14).

Apparently the company is well down the process of finding a new CEO with a software background, strong leadership capabilities and who can grow the business. They are focusing on a US background which is their major market at present and where such people are easier to find. (Comment: but they are also expensive).

Note it is remarkable that this company only has one person on the board with any software industry experience. To my mind this is a major defect.

Concluding Comments: This problem of revenue recognition at software and other IT companies persists, with auditors apparently incapable of identifying the signs. The rules in the accounting standards have been tightened up, but the activities of over enthusiastic management keen to achieve their bonuses or even ramp up the share price persists. This is in reality a fraud on the company and on their investors.

Why auditors are still proving incapable of spotting such frauds is probably because they are not sceptical enough about the information they are given. But they are not that difficult to identify. Large deals done near financial year ends, where the cash is not yet collected or the agreed payment terms are very extended should be examined very closely.

Not that these are foolproof. As we are coming up to the year end, I recall the case of Software International some years ago who got their sales staff to book sales to customers near the year end which were then invoiced. The customers were told they should simply cancel them in the new year. They employed very persuasive female sales staff who begged the customers to help with their bonus entitlements. The company collapsed when this process was discovered.

But there are way too many of these problems still arising, e.g. HP/Autonomy, Globo (both audits still under investigation), and more recently IDOX. Readers can probably suggest others.

As regards the prospects for Blancco, there is certainly a market opportunity but whether it can be exploited profitably remains to be seen. They really do need a good new CEO but they are not easy to hire. In the meantime, the events in the last couple of years must have been somewhat demoralising for the company staff. If I worked for this business, I am not sure that I would have great confidence in the current board. These kinds of businesses need visionary leaders who can promote the merits of the new technology enthusiastically and who have a very strong technology background.

With profits somewhat uncertain, but on a revenue multiple of 1.5 times, the uncertainty is probably reflected in the current share price.

Postscript: Feel sorry for KPMG losing the audit of Blancco? You don’t need to. The average pay of partners in the UK at the firm last year was £519,000 and according to the last annual report there were 623 UK partners. But those at PWC, EY and Deloittes did even better (the latter on £865,000).

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

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