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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Quindell and the FRC’s Role

There was a very good article written by Cliff Weight and published on the ShareSoc blog yesterday about the fines on KPMG over the audit of Quindell. Cliff points out the trivial fines imposed on KPMG in that case, the repeated failings in corporate governance at large companies and he does not even cover the common failures in audits at smaller companies. The audit profession thinks they are doing a good job, and the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) which is dominated by ex-auditors and accountants, does not hold them properly to account.

Perhaps they lack the resources to do their job properly. Investigations take too long and the fines and other penalties imposed are not a sufficient deterrent to poor quality audits when auditors are often picked by companies on the basis of who quotes the lowest cost.

Lots of private investors were suckered into investing in Quindell based on its apparent rapid growth in profits. But the profits were a mirage because the revenue recognition was exceedingly dubious. One of the key issues to look at when researching companies is whether they are recognizing future revenues and hence profits – for example on long-term contracts. Even big companies such as Rolls-Royce have been guilty of this “smoke and mirrors” accounting practice although the latest accounting standard (IFRS 15) has tightened things up somewhat. IT and construction companies are particularly vulnerable when aggressive management are keen to post positive numbers and their bonuses depend on them. Looking at the cash flow instead of just the accrual based earnings can assist.

But Quindell is a good example where learning some more about the management can help you avoid potential problems. Relying on the audited accounts is unfortunately not good enough because the FRC and FCA don’t seem able to ensure they are accurate and give a “true and fair view” of the business. Rob Terry, who led Quindell, had previously been involved with Innovation Group but a series of acquisitions and dubious accounting practices led to him being forced out of that company in 2003. The FT has a good article covering Mr Terry’s past business activities here: https://www.ft.com/content/62565424-6da3-11e4-bf80-00144feabdc0 . They do describe Terry as “charismatic” which is frequently a warning sign in my view as it often indicates a leader who can tell a good story. But as I pointed out in a review of the book “Good to Great”, self-effacing and modest leaders are often better for investors in the long-term. Shooting stars often fall to earth rapidly.

One reason I avoided Quindell was because I attended a presentation to investors by Innovation Group after Terry had departed. His time at the company was covered in questions so far as I recall, and uncomplimentary remarks made. They were keen to play down the past history of Terry’s involvement with the company. So the moral there is that attending company presentations or AGMs often enables you to learn things that may not be directly related to the business of the meeting, but can be useful to learn.

The ShareSoc blog article mentioned above is here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/the-quindell-story-and-the-frc/

Note though that subsequently the FRC have taken a somewhat tougher line in the case of the audit of BHS by PWC in 2014. Partner Steve Dennison has been fined half a million pounds and banned from auditing for 15 years with PWC being fined £10 million. But the financial penalties were reduced very substantially for “early settlement” so they are not so stiff as many would like. I fear the big UK audit firms are not going to change their ways until their businesses are really threatened as happened with Arthur Anderson in the USA over their audits or Enron. That resulted in a criminal case and the withdrawal of their auditing license, effectively putting them out of business. The UK needs a much tougher regulatory regime as they have in the USA.

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

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Beaufort, OFGEM and National Grid

As a postscript to my last blog post on the administration of Beaufort, an interesting article was published by the FT this morning. They had clearly had a chat to administrators PWC. The article reports that the 14,000 investors affected will get no more than 85p in the £1 invested and that no money would be returned for at least a month.

PWC said that that Beaufort’s own funds were very limited and therefore clients will have to cover the cost of recouping their own money and assets. It seems it is a “complicated” administration and there are a number of challenges including assessing the accuracy of financial records. In other words, it’s a typical such mess where the administrators will run up enormous bills sorting it out. As I said in the last blog post, “past experience of similar situations does not inspire confidence”.

It will be months if not years before PWC can sort out who owns what and in the meantime the assets will be frozen. But anyone thinking of taking legal action over the alleged fraudulent practices of the company might find it not worth doing because the cupboard is bare, unless they can target individuals and their assets. Meanwhile there have already been 600 complaints to the Financial Ombudsman apparently but investors might find share dealing by “sophisticated” investors is not covered, and neither are they by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

The energy market regulator OFGEM issues a press release this morning. Here is some of what it said: “Ofgem proposes significantly lower range of returns for investors. Tougher approach would deliver savings of over £5 billion to consumers over five years.

Ofgem has today set out proposals for a new regulatory framework from 2021 which is expected to result in lower returns for energy network companies and significant savings for consumers.

This includes a cost of equity range (the amount network companies pay their shareholders) of between 3% and 5%, if we had to set the rates today. This is the lowest rate ever proposed for energy network price controls in Britain. Ofgem also proposes to refine how it sets the cost of debt so that consumers continue to benefit from the fall in interest rates.”

This is very negative news for National Grid (NG.), but surprisingly the share price has risen today. It is possible that analysts and institutional investors were expecting it to be worse, so it’s a “relief” rally. Meanwhile some chatter on twitter from private investors talks about how cheap the shares are on fundamentals. That may be one view, but just look at 2021, when Corbyn and John McDonnell might be in power and to me there look to be very substantial risks. If equity investors are getting less than 5% return, then in any nationalisation the valuation of the equity could be very low even if the Government pays a “fair” price – which no recent Government did on nationalisations. They used totally artificial valuation rules to come out with the figure the politicians wanted. Investors should not trust politicians, but I think we all know that.

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

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