Another Accounting Scandal – Goals Soccer Centres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Staffline Issues, Audit Purpose and News on Patisserie

Yesterday Staffline Group (STAF) issued a statement first thing in the morning saying that the publication of results scheduled for that day would be delayed. The shares promptly dropped by about a third. Later in the day it stated that “the company can confirm that this morning concerns were brought to the attention of the board relating to invoicing and payroll practices within the Recruitment Division”. A full investigation was promised and the shares were then suspended. Is this yet another accounting scandal in an AIM company one wonders? Generally after such announcements, only bad news comes out.

Staffline is a recruitment/staffing and training business. It’s one of the largest AIM companies with revenue of nearly a billion pounds and reported profits of £71 million last year. It has been growing rapidly in recent years.

I have never held the stock although I did see a presentation by the company a couple of years ago. In general I don’t like employment businesses as they tend to follow economic cycles and the sector has few barriers to entry. I also considered the company to be at risk from regulatory and tax problems. The company also has considerable debt which is odd for this kind of business which generally have a “capital light” structure. Investors might have been concerned by the announcement on the 8th January that net debt had risen to £63 million at the 2018 year-end.

Investors will have to keep their fingers crossed for further news.

I covered in some previous blog posts the issue that audit quality is generally poor and that false accounts and outright fraud are regularly missed by audits – and it’s not just one or two firms – the whole audit industry seems to be incompetent in that regard. The Commons BEIS Committee held a meeting yesterday and one of the witnesses was David Dunckley, head of Grant Thornton, who audited the accounts of Patisserie (CAKE). He admitted that auditors did not look for fraud when auditing accounts and that there was an “expectation gap”. Committee members were not impressed.

Meanwhile Investor’s Champion revealed that Luke Johnson and Paul May, directors of Patisserie, owned a property that was leased back to a subsidiary of the company. As a related party transaction this should have been disclosed in the Patisserie accounts but was not.

The FT also disclosed that at least 30 shareholders had signed up to support a legal case with law firm Teacher Stern. But other investors are talking to other solicitors. In such cases it can be many months before the basis of a claim is clear and solicitors tend to jostle for the business of pursuing a claim in the meantime – one might call some of them “ambulance chasers”. Investors are advised not to spend money on such actions until the basis of a claim, and the ability to both finance an action and identify asset rich defendants is clear.

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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Open Season on Auditors?

I attended a joint ShareSoc/UKSA meeting hosted by PwC yesterday. There was a lively debate as one might expect on the problems of the audit profession where there have been just too many issues with listed company accounts in recent years. The latest is an investigation announced by the FRC into the audit of Conviviality but there have been lots of other problem cases in both large and small companies – Carillion, Interserve, BHS, BT, Rolls-Royce, Mitie, RSM Tenon, Connaught, Autonomy, Quindell, Globo and Blancco Technology are just a few not to mention those in the financial crisis a few years back such as HBOS, RBS, Northern Rock et al. There are simply too many such examples but whenever I go to meetings run by auditors or the FRC I get the distinct impression of complacency. They all think they are doing a great job and the bad apples are exceptions. Yesterdays event was no different.

Reading the London Evening Standard on my way home, there was an article on this topic written by Jim Armitage which was headlined “It’s open season on auditors as others dodge the bullet”. He blamed the incompetent management at Conviviality for the company becoming bust but did the audit report at that company highlight the risks being taken?

Even if it did it seems unlikely from comments from the audience at the PwC meeting that anyone would have noticed them. Only a minority of investors read the audit report part of the annual report because most of it consists of boiler plate text following by the comment “nothing to report”. Indeed it was very clear that auditors will do everything possible to avoid a “qualified” report as that might damage the company and its share price. The result is that a “qualified” report is a rare beast indeed.

There are two ways to improve performance of anyone: the carrot or the stick. Perhaps auditors should be paid more so they can put more time and effort into their audits but company boards might be reluctant to do that. There were a few suggestions raised in the meeting on how to improve matters. One was having auditors appointed by a shareholder committee rather than by the board of directors. But I suspect that would only help if such a committee had the power to approve expenditure of the company’s money. Certainly one problem at present is that auditors are selected to a large degree on price rather than quality.

Another suggestion was to have an independent audit committee (i.e. not made up of board directors), rather like a supervisory board which is used in some European countries. But that would surely add complexity and cost that only the largest companies could justify.

The stick approach would mean more penalties for auditors when they make mistakes. The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) could be tougher and impose higher penalties although they probably need more resources budget-wise to enable them to do that. But one advantageous change would be to reverse the Caparo legal judgement and make auditors liable to shareholders. At present it’s much too difficult for investors to sue auditors while companies rarely want to do so.

As regards the FRC, the Government have recently announced a review of the role of the FRC to be chaired by Sir John Kingman – see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-launches-review-of-audit-regulator

Sir John is looking for evidence so if you have some, please send it to him. I will probably be submitting something and ShareSoc/UKSA are likely to do so also. But if you have evidence of individual cases where auditors have fallen down on the job and the FRC have not been helpful then please submit it. The FRC also has responsibility for Corporate Governance so you may like to comment on that also. There may be hope of some change from this review – at least the advisory committee is not full of auditors and accountants.

One idea proposed in the PwC event to help auditors was for a mechanism to enable shareholders to suggest to auditors what they should be looking at in the accounts of a company. That might assist but from my experience of once doing this on a company, it had no impact on a clean audit report – the company subsequently went into administration.

There were some interesting comments on the general quality of accounts with one speaker suggesting that the failure to depreciate goodwill was distorting balance sheets and it was now obvious that investors ignored the statutory accounts and paid attention to the “adjusted” figures for profit or other non-statutory measures. Should not the auditors be auditing the latter and commenting on them? Perhaps we should have alternative measures as part of the statutory accounts?

In conclusion the PwC event was undoubtedly useful as it highlighted many of the current problems and also covered the technological future of auditing (the tools PwC now uses in its audits were covered). One can see that technology might embed the status quo of the four large audit firms as smaller organisations might not have the resources to develop their own equivalent software products.

The more one considers the accounts of companies and the audit profession in the modern world, the more one comes to realise that substantial reform is required.

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

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Audit Quality and the Caparo Judgement

There was a very good letter from Guy Jubb and Mark Solomon on the subject of the Caparo legal judgement in the Financial Times yesterday (6/2/2018). It was headlined “It is time the curse of Caparo was broken”. Here is some of what it said:

….the joint inquiry into Carillion by the parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee, and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, must examine closely the little-known consequences of the Caparo judgment (Caparo Industries plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605), which, in summary, ruled that auditors do not owe a duty of care to any one shareholder but rather to the body of shareholders as a whole, represented by the board of directors. The court decided that it would not be fair to visit what was viewed as indeterminate liability to investors for purely financial loss upon auditors and their firms. This all means that, as a practical matter, the auditors of listed companies are, in the normal course, immunised from the risk of being sued by investors for audit failure. It just never happens.”

The Caparo judgement overturned the previously assumed responsibility of auditors to the shareholders of a company and the general public to ensure that the accounts of a company could be depended upon. The judgement seemed to rely on the fact that shareholders have no contractual relationship with the auditors but only with the company who appoints them.

This judgement made it exceedingly difficult for shareholders to pursue auditors, and although there are possible “derivative” actions there are other obstacles that have been introduced over the years that reduce the potential liability of auditors. One is that they are now mostly not simple partnerships with the partners being individually and personally liable, but Limited Liability Partnerships. Secondly auditors write their contracts with companies and these now limit the scope of liability substantially – they frequently exclude liability for omissions that one would expect auditors to identify.

With the declining quality of audits, and the lack of competition between the big four audit firms, it is surely time to revisit the whole legal framework under which auditors operate. With companies often more interested in reducing audit costs than ensuring the accounts can be relied upon, one can see why and how the standard has been reduced over the years.

It’s not just Carillion that has shown how dubious are current audit standards but the problems in the banking crisis faced by RBS and HBOS were a direct result of lax audit reports. It also extends to numerous smaller companies – indeed too many to mention.

How to fix these problems? These are my suggestions:

  1. Auditors should have a statutory responsibility to the owners (i.e. the shareholders) in a company.
  2. Auditors should personally be liable for failings and not be able to hide behind LLP structures.
  3. Contracts between auditors and companies should be based on “model” contracts as laid down by the Financial Conduct Authority or the Financial Reporting Council, and drawn up based on the advice of investors.

I shall write to my Member of Parliament on this subject as this is something the Government needs to take in hand. I suggest readers do the same. How do you contact your M.P.? Simply go here for contact information: https://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/

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

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