Insolvency Regime Changes – A Step Forward

There’s nothing like issuing a major Government announcement on the Sunday of an August bank holiday weekend to get good media coverage is there? But as it’s raining and I have nothing much else to do, I have read the announcement and here is a summary:

The announcement is entitled “Insolvency and Corporate Governance – Government Response” (see https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/insolvency-and-corporate-governance ). It is the Government’s response to past public consultations on how to tackle some of the perceived problems when companies get into difficulties or go bust. Such examples as House of Fraser (see my past blog posts on that subject where I called for reform of pre-pack administrations), Carillion, BHS, et al.

It aims to tackle issues around company director actions when a company gets into difficulties but one of the main proposals is very significant. That is that the Government intends to introduce a “Moratorium” scheme where a company can hold off its creditors for up to three months while it seeks to develop a restructuring proposal. Although a Moratorium will be a court process and will be supervised by a “Monitor” who is likely to be an insolvency practitioner, the directors of the company will remain in control albeit with some limitations.

Representatives of secure creditors (e.g. bank lenders) did not seem to like this idea at all based on their responses to the consultations, but it’s not quite as generous as first appears. Apart from the “monitoring” requirement to protect the interests of creditors, the initial period of a Moratorium will only be 28 days and can only be extended to 3 months if justified, and the company must be able to meet the normal insolvency rule that current obligations must be capable of being met as they become due during the Moratorium. But it is surely a step in the right direction in that it will provide more chance of those businesses that are not pure basket cases of being rescued to the advantage of trade creditors, pensioners and shareholders. That’s as opposed to the present situation where a pre-pack administration can instantly dump everyone except the secured creditors with massive damage to everyone else.

But directors of companies will need to act more in advance to ensure that a Moratorium is of help. To encourage them to do so the Government hopes to improve shareholder stewardship by identifying means to help the actions of institutional shareholders and others to escalate their concerns about the management of a company by its directors.

In addition the Government wishes to improve board directors effectiveness and training including raising awareness of their legal duties when making key decisions, and developing a code of practice for board evaluations. Comment: it is certainly the case that in smaller public companies the directors often seem to be unaware of their legal obligations and this sometimes extends to larger companies. I have argued in the past that all public company directors should have some minimal education in company law and their other responsibilities when acting as a director.

One issue examined was the payment of dividends by companies when companies were apparently in a weak condition such as having substantial pension liabilities or were paying dividends shortly before they went bust. Whether a company can pay dividends is governed by the calculation of whether it has “distributable reserves”, but that is a calculation that only the company and its auditors might be able to do. It’s not obvious from the published accounts. The Government is to work with interested parties on a possible alternative mechanism.

There were also concerns expressed that some companies are now paying dividends only as “interim dividends” which can escape approval by shareholders at Annual General Meetings. The Government has asked the Investment Association to report on the prevalence of the practice and they will take further steps to ensure that shareholders have an annual say on dividends if the practice is widespread and investor pressure proves insufficient.

In summary, I welcome all of these proposals as a step forward in rectifying some of the defects in the existing insolvency regime. The slight concern is that companies will be reluctant to enter a “Moratorium” due to the adverse publicity it might generate and the costs involved so we will have to see whether that turns out to be the case or not. But almost any restructuring solution is better than a formal administration or liquidation.

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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Quindell, Carillion and Brexit

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) have announced that they have fined audit firm Arrandco (formerly RSM Tenon) £750,000 and the Audit Partner Jeremy Filley £56,000 in relation to the audit of the financial statements of Quindell for the 2011 accounts. They also “reprimanded” both parties and Tenon had to pay £90,000 in costs. Both parties admitted liability. Two of their errors were a “failure to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence and failure to exercise sufficient professional scepticism”. In other words, quite basic failings. The FRC is still looking into other issues that do not affect those parties.

So after seven years shareholders in Quindell have finally seen some action. But the penalties are hardly sharp enough to cause the targets any great suffering. Quindell which was primarily a claims management company, and a favourite of many private investors, had accounts that were in essence grossly misleading. For example, the FRC reported in 2015 that the restatement of its accounts in 2013 turned a post-tax profit of £83 million into a loss of £68 million. Revenue recognition of future contracted profits was one issue.

Now I never held Quindell despite having looked at it more than once. One thing that put me off was talking to someone about the previous involvement of Rob Terry, CEO of Quindell, in Innovation Group. The FT have a good article on his previous career here: https://www.ft.com/content/62565424-6da3-11e4-bf80-00144feabdc0 . I also did not like the look of the accounts at all and the recognition of revenues. Paul Scott, that well-known commentator on small companies, said yesterday: “…its accounts were fairly obviously highly suspect. Excessive debtors, excessive capitalisation into intangible assets, and a flurry of acquisitions to muddy the waters, are the usual give-aways of fake profits, so these dodgy companies are really terribly easy to spot.”

In essence, just a little background research combined with some understanding of accounting, would have put off most investors. But both private and professional investors (even institutions were fooled by Quindell) do not put in the work, or get carried away by the management and company promoters. Rob Terry has yet to be brought to account for the events at Quindell.

There was an interesting letter in the Financial Times yesterday signed by a number of people including Martin White of UKSA. It said the blame for Carillion’s demise was causing fingers to be pointed in all directions, but most are missing the real culprit – namely that faulty accounts appear to have allowed Carllion to overstate profits and capital. This enabled them to load up on debt while paying cash dividends and big bonuses to the management.

One problem again was recognition of future revenue from signed contracts, but the letter says “anticipated revenues from long-term contracts cannot count as distributable capital, and foreseeable losses and liabilities need to be taken into account”. Carillion effectively reported profit that was “anticipated”. They suggest KMPG’s audit should be investigated as I also said in a previous blog post.

The letter writers suggest that faulty standards mean that today accounts cannot be relied upon and the results for all stakeholders can be devastating. Indeed the fall-out from Carillion is going to be really horrendous with potentially thousands of small to medium size businesses that relied on sub-contract or supply work from Carillion likely to go bust. The letter writers suggest that Carillion is yet another “canary in the coal mine”. Perhaps when MPs get deluged with letters from disgruntled business owners and their out of work employees, they will actually get down and demand some reform of the accountancy and insolvency professions.

Incidentally I never held Carillion either probably because it was mainly in the “construction” sector which I avoid because of low margins, unpredictable and “lumpy” revenue and high risks of projects or contracts going wrong. It also had the Government as a major customer which can be tricky. So from a “business perspective”, such companies are bound to be risky investments.

Another good letter in yesterday’s FT was on the subject of Brexit from Dr Ian Greatorex. It said “For too long, some FT contributors have peddled the line that Brexit is the result of a “populist” backlash that might be reversed”. He restated the “remainers” causes for why they think they lost the vote, but then said “The main reason I voted to leave, often based on FT reports over the years of reported EU mess-ups, was that I believed EU institutions lacked proper democratic control and were complacently trying to create an ever-deeper political union against the instincts of the average voter………”. It’s worth reading and good of the FT to publish a more sober letter on the subject than they have been doing for some months. Perhaps the FT have finally realised that not all their readers are so opposed to Brexit and that the reason a number of educated and intelligent people supported it was for factors other than the possible trade difficulties that will need to be overcome.

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

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Carillion Goes Into Liquidation

Carillion (CLLN) has gone into liquidation. No messing about with “administration” – it’s gone straight into liquidation with a receiver being appointed. The Government may apparently take over direct responsibility for some of the contracts that Carillion operated to provide public services, but it is unclear what will happen to the commercial contracts. Up to 43,000 jobs are at risk. In addition, many other companies are at risk who acted as suppliers to Carillion because as trade creditors they are likely not to get their debts paid.

Why did this £5.2 billion revenue business collapse? In essence ballooning debt, poor cash collection and risky contracts. The construction sector has been one with low profit margins in the last few years (builders seem to take on work just to help their cash flow from advance payments regardless of the likely profitability according to a conversation I had with a director of such a company). But building anything is risky and the bigger the projects, the bigger the risks. Managing such complex projects (such as building part of HS2 which is a contract they won) is tricky however experienced you are. Time over-runs can kill you, and fixed price contracts are anathema in any business, but the Government tends to insist on them.

This was and is the kind of business to avoid investing in however cheap it looks.

Needless to say, the equity shares in Carillion are now almost certainly worthless.

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

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