Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler

Tomlinson: IPs caught in the cross-fire

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Banks have become the 21st century pariahs. It seems that they can do nothing right and they cannot afford to do anything wrong. Lawrence Tomlinson may have banks, and RBS in particular, sighted in his cross-hairs, but is there much in his report that should concern the IP regulators or may herald changes for IPs?

Tomlinson’s published report can be found at: http://www.tomlinsonreport.com/docs/tomlinsonReport.pdf.

The IP’s role: pre-appointment

A large part of the report raises issues regarding companies’ routes into the RBS’ Global Restructuring Group and how, once there, companies find it almost impossible to escape it alive. IPs become wrapped into this argument via Tomlinson’s observations over the opaque nature of the Independent Business Review process: the bank selects the IP and usually only the bank sees the report. When you add to this the fact that the cost of the IBR is passed to the company, I can see how this may rankle, although I am not sure that this makes the whole process flawed.

Tomlinson raises the issue of conflict of interest: he states that “it is easy to see how these reports may be used to protect the bank’s interests at the expense of the business. Much of the high value work received by these firms comes from the banks so it is naturally in their interest to protect the bank’s financial position”. Inevitably, the work of the IBR IP is fraught – can they really act independently? But who really is expecting them to do so? The IP’s client is the bank, not the company, so, at a time when the bank’s and the company’s interests cease to be aligned, it would seem to me to be foolish to assume that the IP introduced by the bank is not advising first and foremost the bank on how to protect its interests. If the company wants its own advice, then it should instruct its own IP. Of course some do, although Tomlinson fails to mention the barriers to some companies and their instructed IPs working to find a solution acceptable to the bank.

The appointment of administrators

Tomlinson writes that there are many occasions when the IBR IP later is appointed administrator. This seems to be a general comment rather than RBS-targeted, which might have been difficult to make stack up, as I understand that it is RBS’ policy not to appoint the IBR IP as administrator, is it not?

It is also not clear whether the cases involving directors who feel mistreated by the banks are the same cases in which the IBR IP later became the administrator. I think this is important because, on its own, an IBR IP becoming administrator is not an heinous act. On the other hand, if we take one of Tomlinson’s worst case scenarios, where a business was only considered insolvent because of a property revaluation, the directors were frozen out of any opportunity to offer solutions, and they protested that the IBR leading to the bank’s decision to appoint an administrator was flawed, then one might expect the IP to decline the appointment.

The Insolvency Code of Ethics states: “Where such an investigation was conducted at the request of, or at the instigation of, a secured creditor who then requests an Insolvency Practitioner to accept an insolvency appointment as an administrator or administrative receiver, the Insolvency Practitioner should satisfy himself that the company, acting by its board of directors, does not object to him taking such an insolvency appointment. If the secured creditor does not give prior warning of the insolvency appointment to the company or if such warning is given and the company objects but the secured creditor still wishes to appoint the Insolvency Practitioner, he should consider whether the circumstances give rise to an unacceptable threat to compliance with the fundamental principles.” If an IP still decides to accept the appointment amidst protestations, clearly he should be prepared to encounter a complaint and perhaps worse.

Tomlinson makes the point that “once an administrator has been appointed, the directors lose their right to legal redress”. Whilst directors lose their management powers and the administrator acquires the power to bring any legal proceedings on behalf of the company – and I should point out that I’m not a solicitor – there is precedent for directors to take some actions, e.g. challenging the validity of the administrator’s appointment, as demonstrated in Closegate (http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-4I). Challenges may also be made to court by shareholders (or creditors) (Paragraph 74 of Schedule B1 of the Insolvency Act 1986) and courts can order the removal of administrators (Paragraph 88). Of course, these measures cost money and probably will not reverse any damage done.

The IP’s role: post-appointment

More to the point, I think, is the risk of conflict of interest for bank panel IPs generally. Tomlinson puts it this way: “The relationship between the bank, IPs, valuers and receivers should undergo careful analysis. The interdependency of these businesses on banks for generating custom establishes a natural loyalty and bend towards the interests of the banks. Often the bank recommends or instructs the IP directly, so their preferential treatment is critical to their clientele. Maintaining independence and a fair hand for all parties involved appears extremely difficult.”

We’ve seen this argument play out in the pre-pack arena: if directors are in control of appointing an IP as administrator, how can creditors be confident that the IP, on appointment, will be acting with due regard for their interests? Similarly, how can other stakeholders be confident that an IP will not be persuaded by this “natural loyalty” towards the bank controlling their appointment to act contrary to his duties as administrator? In a number of cases, I would suggest that it is academic: if the bank is the only party with any real interest – or it shares that with the unsecured creditors looking to a prescribed part – then any bias towards the bank will achieve the same result as if there were none… although this may overlook the first objective of an administration, which is to rescue the company as a going concern.

Tomlinson is right: maintaining the IP’s balance here is extremely difficult, although I would be inclined to take receivers out of the equation, as there is no real change of “hat” for IPs in those cases. Until now, we have depended on the professionalism of the parties and the legal and regulatory processes to wield a stick towards any who stray, but I guess that we live in an age when that is no longer seen as adequate.

Tomlinson highlights another risk of conflict of interest in relation to selling assets: “RBS is in a particularly precarious position given its West Registrar commercial portfolio under which it can make huge profits from the cheap purchase of assets from ‘distressed’ businesses… Others have stated that they believe their property was purposefully undervalued in order for the business to be distressed, enabling West Registrar to buy assets at a discount price.” This is a new one on me and I’m not aware of any other bank being in a similarly “precarious position”. Although I would have thought that there would be little criticism levelled against IPs selling to West Registrar where it represents the best deal – and Tomlinson does not appear to be suggesting transactions at an undervalue by administrators – as we all know, there is a risk of getting caught up in allegations of stitch-ups wherever there is a connected party sale, whether that involves a director’s purchase in a pre-pack or a party connected to an appointing creditor.

The Repercussions

The most IP-relevant solution suggested by Tomlinson is:

“It is also important that the wider potential conflicts of interest between the banks, IBRs, valuers, administrators, insolvency practitioners and receivers are given careful consideration. Where these conflicts occur, it does so at the expense of the business. If collusion did not happen between these parties and their relationships were more transparent, then better fairness between the parties could be ensured. This requires further investigation and consideration by the Government to ensure that the law is being upheld and these conflicts do not impact on the businesses ability to operate.”

As mentioned previously, the Insolvency Code of Ethics covers specifically the scenario of an IP carrying out an IBR then contemplating an insolvency appointment. Personally, I think it does this rather well – it addresses not only how to view an objection by the directors, but also how the IP has acted prior to the insolvency appointment, how he has interacted with the company, whether he made clear who his client was etc. However, there is no ultimate ban on the IP accepting the appointment; as with most ethical issues, it is left to the IP to consider whether the threats can be managed or they render his appointment inappropriate. I would not be surprised if, down the line, there were a call for there to be a ban that an IBR IP could not be appointed as administrator. If it were a legislative measure, we could have fun and games defining such items as what constitutes IBR work and for how long a subsequent appointment would be prohibited, but it could be done.

But would it have the desired effect? It would certainly increase the costs of some administrations, as the built-up knowledge and in many respects positive relationships of the IBR IP would be lost to the administrator. It might also have limited effect, as the “natural loyalty” could persist in any IP who has the prospect of more than one bank appointment, be it a case on which he carried out an IBR or a case on which he’d had no prior connection. I believe it is a natural tendency in all professions and trades to protect one’s clients and work sources and I do not believe it is something that can be avoided entirely.

As with pre-packs, I would prefer the solution to involve those who feel mistreated doing something about it, calling to account anyone who acted contrary to their duties, ethical or otherwise. As with pre-packs, however, the devil is in establishing a clear understanding of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour, rather than simply trusting a gut feeling. Tomlinson has aired a few relevant issues, but also some irrelevant ones, I think, which unfortunately cloud the picture.

But is anyone listening? The FT reported yesterday (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/550c5360-5c31-11e3-931e-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz2mVVnGjFz) that George Osborne has washed his hands of the report, although Mr Cable seems more convinced that there are genuine problems. However, whatever the conclusions of the FCA’s skilled person’s review, I am sure that insolvency regulators already are contemplating their next step. Some will see the Tomlinson report as an opportunity to renew calls for the end to bank panels of IPs. With a revision of the Insolvency Code of Ethics moving up the agenda of the Joint Insolvency Committee, I can see the ethics of the move from pre-appointment work to a subsequent appointment again being the subject of debate.

(01/02/14 UPDATE: BBC4’s File on Four programme, “Design by Default?”, can be accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03q8z4f/File_on_4_Default_by_Design/)

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