Preventing Fraud in Accounts – FRC Tightens Audit Rules

There have been repeated examples of the accounts of public companies being fraudulent in recent years. Wirecard was probably the latest and biggest example. I have seen examples of such misdeeds twice in my investment career in my own holdings although losses have been minimal in both cases, the last example being Patisserie (£95 million missing from their accounts). But I have avoided a lot of others where the losses to some investors have been enormous. There have simply been too many such cases for investors to avoid them all however careful you are in analysing the accounts of companies. There can often be hints that something is wrong, but in many cases the fraud is so well concealed it is very difficult to detect. In both the examples I mention, the cash that was claimed to be on the balance sheet was not there, which should be a simple thing for auditors to verify.

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC)) have announced that they are tightening up the rules followed by auditors to impose more responsibility on them for detecting fraud. In the past it was unclear that auditors had any responsibility to detect fraud and some have even denied it.

The FRC claim they are making the auditor’s obligations clearer – specifically to try and identify fraud. The FRC is running a public consultation on the proposed new audit standard which you can read about here: https://www.frc.org.uk/news/october-2020/consultation-on-revised-auditing-standard-for-the

It makes for interesting reading and it actually spells out the kind of problems that auditors should be looking for. In general the proposed changes to the audit standard make sense.

Will it solve the problem of too many frauds altogether? No for three reasons:

  1. Because audit work is bid for by audit firms, while companies pay their fees, there is a strong incentive by both parties to keep the cost of the audit as low as possible. This brings pressure to bear to not do more work than is absolutely necessary.
  2. Auditors cannot challenge management too much if they are going to retain the audit brief, and there is a tendency to build a cosy trusting relationship.
  3. Auditors are protected from being sued by shareholders for incompetence by the Caparo legal judgement, and their liability even to the company can be undermined by the contracts they require signing. In other words, the legal framework under which they operate enables them to escape responsibility for incompetence.

How might these problems be solved? It has been suggested that auditors be appointed by an independent body rather than by the directors of a company. Perhaps another solution might be to set up an independent fund that rewards auditors when they identify and report fraud, with big bonuses for the individuals that do so. That would give them a strong financial incentive to discover it.

That would provide a carrot. But the stick needs to be change in the regulatory framework and the law so that auditors cannot escape financial penalties when they do not do a competent job. A simple change would be to require audit contracts to be based on a standard set by an independent body such as the FRC and not written by auditors as at present.

I hope readers will respond positively to the consultation because I can see many objections from audit firms to the imposition of new obligations, however reasonable they appear to investors.

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

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Regulating Consumer Investments and Company Register Reform

 The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have launched a consultation on the Consumer Investment Market. They consider it a priority to reduce the harm that many consumers suffer from fraud in this sector. The FCA has this to say:

“We have made significant improvements to this market to protect consumers. But there are over 5,000 financial adviser firms and more than 27,000 individual advisers acting as intermediaries between the consumer and their investment. Dominated by small firms, these complex chains of interdependent products and services – some of which are beyond our regulatory remit – make it easy for bad actors to ‘hide’ and challenging for us to oversee. The consumer investment market is not working as well as it should. Too often consumers receive lower returns than they should because of unsuitable products with high fees. Too often there have been scams and scandals in this market leading to consumer loss. Too often consumers leave their savings in cash because they don’t have confidence in the alternatives. That’s why we have made Consumer Investments a priority in our current Business Plan”. They also say:

“Some of the most serious harms we see relate to investments outside our regulatory perimeter and online scams, many based overseas. We have limited powers and capabilities in this space, in particular in our ability to deal with online promotions”. This is now a major problem that the FCA has been particularly poor at dealing with as Mark Taber regularly points out.

The “Call for Input” document only has 38 complex questions so I suspect they are unlikely to get many responses from real consumers, but those interested in financial markets may care to read it. See here:  https://www.fca.org.uk/publications/calls-input/consumer-investments

The Government BEIS Department consulted previously on modernising Companies House who maintain the register of companies. The Government’s response to the consultation has now been published. You can read it here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/corporate-transparency-and-register-reform

Company registration, and the identification of company directors is clearly a very essential element in preventing frauds of all kinds, but has been woefully inadequate in the past. The identify of directors is not checked and Companies House even has very limited abilities to query new applications. So you could probably set up a company called Mickey Mouse Ltd with the sole director named as Mickey Mouse. Indeed I did check to see if there was such a company registration. Yes there is a company of that name, although the sole director’s name is different.  

The report even says: “There are benefits to the UK’s fight against crime: these reforms will increase the accountability of those few that transgress. As noted, the volume of economic crime in the UK is immense and growing. It accounts for almost one third of all crime experienced by individuals. The Home Office estimates that the social and economic cost of fraud to individuals in England and Wales is £4.7 billion per year and the social and economic cost of organised fraud against businesses and the public sector in the UK is £5.9 billion.

We will be able to trace and challenge those who misuse companies through the improved information on those who set up, own, manage and control companies. In partnership with others, our improved analytical capacity will use this information to detect suspicious activity earlier and hold those responsible to account”.

The recommendation to tighten up on the identities of directors has been generally supported so that is likely to be progressed. The ability to suppress some personal information will also be enhanced to improve security over that.

In general I suggest company directors and shareholders should welcome the proposals as a step forward in modernising Companies House, but you may care to review the details.

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

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FCA Seminar and Property Funds Rule Change

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is consulting on a rule change for open-ended property funds. The problem of such funds holding illiquid investments in direct property are well known. If investors want to sell when property goes out of favour, the funds simply cannot sell their underlying holdings fast enough. It can take months to do so when investors in the funds expect their cash immediately. Or as the FCA puts in, there is a mismatch between the liquidity offered to investors in the funds, and the liquidity of the fund’s holdings.

This problem has resulted in the funds having to be “suspended” or “gated” to stop redemptions, and many still are after the March crash this year.

The FCA’s solution is to require investors to give notice before they can get their cash – potentially up to 180 days. But this would probably mean that investors would not be able to hold such funds in ISAs, unless their rules are changed. Needless to say, investors who currently do so are not going to be best pleased as they would have to sell them.

This is a very simplistic solution to a long-standing problem, and to my mind may not solve the problem as disposing of property can take longer than 180 days if you want to obtain a fair value for it. Permitting illiquid investments of any kind to be held in open-ended funds is simply wrong.

Such funds should be wound up, or converted to investment trusts which is surely not impossible. Meanwhile I won’t personally be responding to this consultation as I am not so daft to hold such funds, only property investment trusts.

See the FCA press release here for details: https://www.fca.org.uk/news/press-releases/fca-consults-new-rules-improve-open-ended-property-fund-structures  and for how to respond to the consultation.

Yesterday the FCA presented at a seminar hosted by ShareSoc and UKSA as a webinar. Mark Seward was the speaker from the FCA but he did not cover the above issue at all (he is responsible for “Enforcement and Market Oversight”).

He did cover the outcome of the Redcentric case where grossly misleading accounts were published. He said the investors had “purchased a lemon”. They did not fine the company, but the company is compensating the shareholders affected and 3 former executives are awaiting trial. He explained the reasons for the FCA’s actions which seemed reasonable to me (I never held the shares though – those more familiar with the case might have a different view). He also mentioned the Burford case and the legal decision re disclosure of trading data and made some uncalled for derogatory remarks about the comments made on it by some ShareSoc members.

He covered the emergency measures introduced by the FCA for the Covid-19 epidemic which he said enabled the UK markets to raise 3 times more capital than any other European market in the first half of the year. But Mark Northway raised the issue of the problems of private investors participating in these fund raisings. I would also have liked to see the issue raised of companies not providing access to AGMs nor any other means for shareholders to talk to the directors while the epidemic rages.  

Another issue discussed was the outright refusal of the FCA to provide any information on the progress of an investigation. This is exceedingly frustrating for investors as it means after a complaint is made, there is no apparent action for many months if not years. When many of the facts are reasonably well known and in the public domain already (as in the Redcentric case, or in other cases such as those of Globo or Patisserie) this can appear quite unreasonable.

Mark Seward suggested that no regulatory body (for example, the Police) discloses anything about their investigations, partly because the evidence might disappear if they did. But this is simply not true. The Police often inform victims of crimes about the progress of a case, sometimes albeit on a confidential basis. Victims and the police are also entitled to follow the “Code of Practice for Victims of Crime” published by the Government which the police have to adhere to (but not the FCA who are specifically excluded for no good reason).

The seminar was not altogether a waste of time, but could have had a much sharper agenda.

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

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Why the FCA Did Nothing About the Lloyds TSB Abuse

Those who were Lloyds TSB shareholders back in 2009 when they merged with HBOS to form Lloyds Banking Group (LLOY) thought it was bad deal at the time and it certainly turned out to be so. HBOS had many dubious loans to property companies and when the banking crisis arose they were in deep financial difficulty. There seemed very little benefit in the merger for Lloyds shareholders

Subsequently a legal action was launched by the disgruntled Lloyds TSB shareholders which was lost in the High Court in late 2019. I wrote the following to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) soon after:

“I refer to the recent judgement in the High Court in the case of SHARP and Others v BLANK and Others (the case concerning the takeover of HBOS by Lloyds TSB). Although the judge in the case rejected the claim by shareholders in Lloyds, he made it clear in his judgement that there were significant omissions from the prospectus that was issued at the time.

Specifically he says in his Executive Summary: “But I consider that the Circular should have disclosed the existence of the ELA facility, not in terms such as would excite damaging speculation but in terms which indicated its existence”; and “Likewise, I consider that the board ought to have disclosed the Lloyds Repo. The board assumed that because at the time of its grant it had been treated by the authorities as “ordinary course” business that provided an answer to all subsequent questions. But whether it should be disclosed in the Circular as material to an informed decision was a separate question. The Court must answer that question on an objective basis. The size of the facility, the fact that it was extended in tight markets, the fact that it was linked to the Acquisition and was part of a systemic rescue package showed that this was a special contract which ought to have been disclosed”  (see paragraphs 46/47 of the Executive Summary which can be obtained from here:  https://www.judiciary.uk/judgments/sharp-others-v-blank-others-hbos-judgment/

There were also possible other omissions from the disclosures which the judge did not consider but the above does provide prima facie evidence of a breach of the Prospectus Rules.  The directors of the company (Sir Victor Blank and others) would certainly have been aware of this funding and failing to disclose it was negligent.

Investors in Lloyds TSB (I was one of them) were misled by these omissions and the subsequent outcome was financially very damaging to those investors.

I suggest your organisation needs to look into these matters as a breach of the Prospectus Rules surely is a matter that makes the culprits liable to sanctions under the Rules and there is no statute of limitation in regard to these matters.”

Their response after 5 months delay can be summarised as follows:

  1. The Lloyds Circular was subject to the Listing Rules, not the Prospectus Rules. The FSA approved the Lloyds Circular under those rules.
  2. In the Judgement by Sir Alastair Norris he did not consider whether they breached the FSA rules.
  3. We will not be opening an investigation into these allegations as we are time barred from taking enforcement action (there is a 2-year limit for enforcement action).

In summary therefore, the shareholders were unable to obtain redress by civil action and the FCA proved to be toothless to deal with this matter also. It is very regrettable that the protection that shareholders believed they had against the abuse of directors not acting in their interests proved to be imaginary.

Shareholders were not given all the information to which they were entitled and that fact alone merited action by the FCA. But they have declined to pursue it. Considering the similar case of the Royal Bank of Scotland Rights Issue in 2008, it is very clear that shareholders should not rely on what is said in prospectuses or circulars.

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

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Panorama on Woodford – Expletives Deleted?

Panorama covered the Woodford debacle last night and the issue of conflicts of interest in fund managers. They tried door-stepping Neil Woodford to ask him some questions, but he just walked past them. I think the questions would have been rhetorical anyway, such as “why did he make so many duff bets on companies” and “why should he have made millions while investors in his funds lost money”?

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) came in for a lot of criticism for not intervening sooner and allegedly not enforcing the rules concerning the liquidity of holdings in open-ended funds.

My old sparring partner T** W** was interviewed in his new home in Wales – looks like he has a renovation project on his hands. I don’t like to mention his name in case it attracts readers to follow him when they might find his use of language somewhat offensive. But in this interview there were no expletives which is unusual for him – perhaps the BBC deleted them.  They also interviewed some investors in the Woodford funds and one of them definitely had her expletives deleted.

The programme also covered the issue of the conflicts of interest in fund managers such as the fact that as their fees are based on the value of funds under management, there are strong incentives to grow the assets and also an incentive to manipulate the share prices. For example, without suggesting that Woodford specifically did these things, if a fund manager buys more of a listed stock in the market then that can raise the price, particularly when the stock is a small cap one and relatively illiquid. In the case of unlisted stocks, investing at a higher price than any previous trades causes the whole company to be revalued upwards (see BVCA valuation rules). There is clearly the possibility of perverse incentives here.

The programme also mentioned the case of Mark Denning an investment manager for Capital Group who allegedly had been trading in stocks on his personal account that were also held by the fund he managed. He denies it, but clearly such activity could enable “front-running” of trades and other abuses. The Panorama programme argued that there was in essence very little oversight of fund managers.

In summary the BBC programme was a good overview of the issues and T** W** made a useful contribution. The FCA should certainly be tightening up on the oversight of open-ended funds and their managers, and should be reviewing the liquidity rules even if they are bound by the EU Directives in that regard at present.

As the FCA never acts quickly, which is of course part of the problem, in the meantime investors might like to consider what I said in my recent book in the chapter on Trusts and Funds. I repeat some excerpts here:

“A key measure of the merit of a fund is its long-term performance against similar funds or its benchmark”. [Woodford’s funds, after he set up his new management company. never demonstrated that].

“One issue to examine is whether a fund manager has a consistent and effective process for selecting investments if they are an active manager. It is important that they are not simply making ad-hoc decisions about investments however experienced they are”. [See my comments on City of London Investment Group in a previous blog post for an example].

“To judge whether a fund manager is competent it helps to look at the underlying companies in which they invest. Are they investing in companies that show a high return on capital while being on relatively low P/Es and with significant growth in earnings or are they investing in shares that appear to be simply cheap? Are they picking companies that are of high quality – in other words displaying the characteristics covered in the first few chapters of this book?” [Anyone looking at the holdings of the Woodford Equity Income Fund or Patient Capital Trust would have realised that many of the holdings were speculative].

One issue not raised in the BBC programme was that of the naming of the Woodford Equity Income Fund. Such funds typically focus on paying high dividends to investors and to do so they invest in high dividend paying companies. They therefore tend to hold boring large cap companies. But the Woodford fund was very different. It did have some high dividend paying holdings in the fund but not necessarily large cap ones and it also had a number of early stage companies that were unlisted. This was not a typical “Equity Income” fund. Investors might feel they were misled in that regard by the name.

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

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Bonmarché Update, FCA Grilling over Woodford and Amati AIM VCT AGM

Yesterday Bonmarché (BON) conceded defeat in its opposition to a takeover bid at 11.4p. On the 17th May it had rejected the bid because it “materially undervalues Bonmarché and its prospects”. The share price of this women’s clothing retailer was over 100p a year ago but the latest trading review suggests sales are dire because of underlying weakness in the clothing market and “a lack of seasonal weather”. Auditors might have qualified the accounts due to be published soon due to doubts about it being a going concern if sales did not pick up before then. Bonmarché looks to be another victim of changing shopping habits and changing dress styles.

Is the market for traditional men’s clothes any better? Not from my recent experience of buying two formal shirts from catalogue/on-line retailer Brook Taverner. Cost was zero although I did have to pay postage. Why was the cost zero? Because they had a special offer of 60% off for returning customers, and I had collected enough “points” from them to wipe out the balance. Smacks of desperation does it not?

On Tuesday the Treasury Select Committee interviewed Andrew Bailey of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) over the closure of the Woodford Equity Income fund and their regulation of it. It is well worth listening to. See https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/34965022-ec99-4243-8d0b-ae3350c31fe4

It seems that technically the fund only made two minor breaches of the 10% limit on unlisted stocks twice in the UCITS rules which were soon corrected in 2018. But Link were responsible for ensuring compliance as they were legally the fund manager as they were the ACD who had delegated management to Neil Woodford’s company. But in the morning of the same day the Daily Telegraph reported that nearly half of the fund investments were actually illiquid including 20% that were nominally listed in such venues as Guernsey and not actively traded. In other words, they were perhaps technically complying with the UCITS rules but their compliance in principle was not the case. Mr Bailey suggested this is where regulation might be best to be changed to be “principle” based rather than “rule” based but surely that would lead to even more “fudges”? The big problem is yet again that the EU, who sets the UCITS rules, produced regulations that lacked any understanding of the investment world.

The Investment Association has suggested a new fund type be allowed which only allows limited withdrawals, e.g. at certain times or on notice. But that does not sound an attractive option to investors. When investors want to sell, they want to sell now.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has said open-ended funds are “built on a lie” in that they promise daily liquidity when it may not always be possible. He also suggested they posed a systemic risk to financial stability. Or as Paul Jourdan said at the Amati AIM VCT AGM: “Liquid investments are liquid until they are not”.

There is of course still no sign that Neil Woodford is taking steps to restore confidence in his funds, as I suggested on June the 5th. There needs to be a change in leadership and in name for that to happen. Once a fund has become a dog and untouchable in the minds of investors, and their financial advisors, redemptions will continue. Neil Woodford making reassuring statements will not assist. More vigorous action by Woodford, Link, and the FCA is required. Affected investors should encourage more action.

The Amati AIM VCT (AMAT) had a great year in the year before last as small cap AIM stocks rocketed but last year was a different story. NAV Total Return was down 10% although that was better than their benchmark index. AB Dynamics was the biggest positive contributor – up 93% over the year with Water Intelligence also up 93%. Ideagen was a good contributor (now second biggest holding) and Rosslyn Data was also up significantly. Accesso fell 36% but they are still holding. I asked whether they had purchased more AB Dynamics in the recent rights issue but apparently they could not as it was no longer VCT qualifying.

I also asked about the fall in Diurnal which wiped £1.2 million off the valuation. This was down to clinical trial results apparently. However, fund manager Paul Jourdan is still keen on biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms as he suggested that healthcare is being revolutionised in his concluding presentation – he mentioned Polarean as one example.

Other presentations were from Block Energy – somewhat pedestrian and not a sector I like – and Bonhill Group which was more lively. Bonhill were formerly called Vitesse Media but are growing rapidly from some acquisitions and clearly have ambitions to be a much bigger company in the media space.

It was clear from the presentations that the investee company portfolio is becoming more mature as the successful companies have grown. This arises because they tend to take some profits when a holding becomes large but otherwise like to retain their successful holdings.

All resolutions were passed on a show of hands vote but I queried why all the resolutions got near 10% opposing on the proxy counts which is unusual. It seems this is down to one shareholder whose motives are not entirely clear.

In summary, an educational event and worth attending as most AGMs are.

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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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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FCA Views of the Financial Landscape

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have published a document entitled “Sector Views” giving their annual analysis of the UK financial landscape and how the financial system is working – see https://tinyurl.com/yc492lkt . For retail investors there is a chapter on “Retail Investments” which is particularly worth reading.

But we also learn that the “FCA continues to plan for a range of scenarios regarding Brexit” which is good to hear. I somehow doubt it will be settled tomorrow in Parliament – I continue to forecast March 28th. We otherwise learn that cash is still king as a payment method with 40% of payment transactions, albeit falling; that 44% of consumers say nothing would encourage them to share their financial data (that has been encouraged by recent regulatory changes); that car insurance premiums are rising even though mine just fell which very much surprised me; that the ageing population presents a considerable challenge for pension savings and that mortgage borrowers are getting older (39% will have mortgages maturing when they are older than 65).

Cash ISA subscriptions continue to exceed Stock/Share ISAs by a wide margin, although the number of new cash ISA subscriptions fell last year. But only one third of the UK population hold any form of investment product. It looks like the rest are replying on pensions, state support or housing wealth to keep them in retirement.

They claim the investment platforms market is working well “in many respects” despite the fact that their use of nominee accounts for investors has disenfranchised retail investors. You can send them some comments on that via an email to sectorviews@fca.org.uk . But they do at least highlight the difficulty of switching platforms and they note that comparing pricing is also difficult.

Assets under management by the investment management sector grew to £9.1 trillion in 2017 with 20% managed for retail investors. The proportion of passively managed assets rose to 25% which continues the past trend.

Overall this review shows the size and complexity of the UK financial sector. At 36% of European Assets Under Management, it is much larger than any other European country. The next largest is France at 18% and Germany is only 9%. Let us hope it stays that way after Brexit.

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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