Now that all the pantomiming is over, are there any lessons to glean from the Select Committees’ efforts? I think so. Allegations of “group think” and suggestions of advisers being too heavily incentivised to drive through a particular outcome could lead some to ponder “there but for the grace of God…” Whether or not mud is warranted, some stains may prove stubborn to remove.
The House of Commons Work and Pensions and BIS Committees’ report can be found at: goo.gl/Yi9eMI
“A remarkable level of ‘group think’”
Referring to the several advisers to Sir Philip Green and to Dominic Chappell, the Committee report states that “many of those closely involved claim to have drawn comfort from the presence of others”. Names such as Goldman Sachs and respected law firms and accountants appear to have lent credibility to the proceedings.
During the evidence sessions, some witnesses valiantly attempted to explain to the Committee members the scope of customer due diligence checks and the relatively narrow terms of their engagements. The Committees’ response may be discerned from the report (paragraph 64):
“The only constraint beyond the legally required checks is the risk that a company is willing to take that its reputation may be tarnished by association with a particular client or deal. In the case of BHS, it appears that advisory firms either did not consider the reputational risk or demonstrated a remarkable level of ‘group-think’ in relying solely on each other’s presence.”
IPs and related professionals work in a fairly small pond. Although we like to think we’re a robustly independent bunch, could we be at risk of some complacency when we encounter the same old faces?
“Advisers were rewarded handsomely”
It is perhaps less fair for the Committees to target the advisers on the levels of their fees. The firm that provided a financial due diligence report on BHS to the prospective purchaser, RAL, were set to be paid four times the fee if the transaction were successful than if it were aborted. The Committee also noted that “advisers were doubly dependent on a successful transaction because RAL did not have the resources to pay them otherwise” (the report does not refer to the existence of any guarantees, which was disclosed in the evidence sessions).
The firm tried to put their engagement into context by explaining the additional risks inherent in a successful purchase and by pointing out the ethical and professional standards that safeguard against such arrangements generating perverse strategies (http://goo.gl/ugfiIP).
The Committees were forced to admit that neither of the advisers “can be blamed for the decision by RAL to go ahead with the purchase”. That said, they did feel that the transaction advisers’ report “could have more clearly explained the level of risk associated with the acquisition” and, in the Committees’ typical emotive style, they stated that the advisers were (paragraph 73):
“…increasingly aware of RAL’s manifold weaknesses as purchasers of BHS. They were nonetheless content to take generous fees and lend both their names and their reputations to the deal.”
Countering the Self-Interest Argument
The Committees’ suggestion is that the advisers were too tied into a particular outcome, leading to doubts as to the veracity of their advice. Of course, almost everyone who gives advice – from pensions advisers to dentists – suffer this scepticism. When IPs act both as solutions advisers and implementers, accusations of acting in one’s self-interest are levelled as if they are statements of the blindingly obvious. Such perceptions of being unprofessionally influenced by self-interest are not only articulated by unregulated advisers looking to pigeon-hole IPs into creditors’ pockets, but also are reflected time and again in the Government’s/Insolvency Service’s proposals, for example on how to deal with the pre-pack “problem”, the perennial debates around IPs’ fees and the more recent moratorium proposals.
How do we counter this perception? Personally, I don’t believe the solution lies in setting thresholds on where advisers’ work should end – I was pleased that the early pre-pack suggestions of using a different administrator or a different subsequent liquidator were not taken up – as this risks the evolution of unwritten partnerships with the assumption that the self-interest and self-review arguments automatically fall away.
The perception can only really be tackled by doing a good job, by serving our clients’ interests best and being attentive to our (near-)insolvent clients’ obligations. We also need to remain alert to relationships and when we have stepped over the threshold. We must not see the Insolvency Code of Ethics only in terms of the “Specific Situations”, which I feel is very much an appendix to the real substance of the Code. The Code is by design largely non-prescriptive, but this means that we need to:
- reflect on prior relationships, e.g. when we have acted as adviser (to the insolvent or to its creditors)
- evaluate the relationship: is it “significant”, i.e. does it give rise to a threat to our objectivity (or any other fundamental principle)?
- Can we reduce that threat to an acceptable level?
- If not, we must have the strength of character to accept the conclusion that we should not take the appointment.
- And of course, if we do think we can still take the appointment, we need to set out our reasonings and regularly review the position and effectiveness of any safeguards; ticking boxes on an ethics checklist is highly unlikely to be sufficient.
Calls continue to be made for directors to seek help early, when more doors to rescue remain open. IPs are being seen less often solely as insolvency office holders and they have augmented their insolvency skills accordingly.
R3 has just published two helpsheets for individuals and company directors with financial difficulties (at http://goo.gl/WOfCKI and http://goo.gl/eyHlia). These aim to dispel many of the misconceptions about IPs. As the falling insolvency statistics illustrate, IPs can and do help people and businesses get back on track without resorting always to formal insolvency tools.