James Moore: Deloitte is brought to book at last – but what about the Phoenix Four?


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The Independent Online

Eight years after MG Rover’s ignominious collapse, someone is finally paying a penalty for its demise.

After what was described by one trade paper as an “epic battle” with the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), which went all the way to a tribunal, Deloitte has been hit with a £14m fine as a result of various aspects of its work for the last British owned “mass market” car maker.

Those aspects were two transactions advised upon by a former Deloitte corporate finance partner. He and the firm were said to have acted with a “persistent and deliberate disregard” of accountancy industry ethics.

One might care to ask exactly what those ethics were, but nevertheless, it could have been worse. Keen to earn some spurs, the FRC was angling for between £15m and £20m under new provisions that allow it to take into account aspects such as the profitability, size and clout of a regulated firm when setting penalties.

Still, after the thick end of £2m in costs is included in the calculation, the penalty will ultimately fall within that range anyway.

At this point, businesses in financial services would be dusting down their best Uriah Heep acts, pointing out how keen they had been to co-operate with regulators at an early stage of their investigations while crying crocodile tears of apology.

The nearest you’d get to a protest would be some sort of suggestion that the offence wasn’t as bad as their regulators had made out (off the record, you understand).

Not so Deloitte. The accountancy industry is simply not used to this sort of treatment, as you might have gathered had you read Deloitte’s reaction to the fine.

It fulminated about the “negative” consequences that the decision could have for the “advice” given by accountancy firms, and warned darkly of grave consequences for the wider business community.

What its statement doesn’t say is quite what it means by the business community.

If it means men like the Phoenix Four, who bought MG Rover for a tenner, and some connected firms for similarly laughable sums, and then proceeded to take a shade over £40m out while running it into the ground, then you might think that they could do with some negative consequences.

The accountancy industry has been allowed to have its cake and eat it for years. That this may be coming to an end should be seen as a thoroughly good thing for business community.

But if there is a nasty taste left by the affair, it is the fact that while Deloitte and its partner were fined (the accountancy firm plans to pay the quarter of a million on his behalf), the Phoenix Four  – businessmen John Towers, Nick Stephenson, John Edwards and Peter Beale – got off with little more than slapped wrists in voluntarily accepting bans from being directors while admitting no wrong doing.

Primark’s in fashion but tragedy is played down

Barely six months ago, a Bangladeshi factory collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers including a number who worked for one of Primark’s suppliers.

To be fair, Primark paid compensation to the victims and joined other retailers in signing up to a deal to improve conditions, but you might think that such a tragedy and the resultant bad publicity would have some sort of an impact on sales.

You’d be wrong if you did. Yesterday the discount clothing chain was the toast of the City, and of the shareholders in its parent Associated British Foods, which  is likely to be leaning on it to keep the numbers up in the short to medium term.

Memories are short, and money is tight, and the Primark formula is a winning one in the current environment. There was nary a mention of the Bangladesh incident in the early reports of its numbers yesterday.

It’s not only in clothes retail that the discounters are the height of fashion. Just look at the rise of chains like Lidl, and especially Aldi, whose ads are currently trumpeting an award from Which?

Meanwhile, sales of books and entertainment have moved online to companies such as Amazon and eBay, with their out-of-town warehouses and creative accounting when it comes to corporation tax.

Even though there is sometimes a price to be paid for discounting, as the Bangladeshi building collapse graphically demonstrates,  the British consumer, faced with rising prices and flat or declining real terms income, is prepared to pay it.

Of course there will remain a place for aspirational brands, and businesses that buck the trend. Just look at the Marks & Spencer food business (but not, alas, its clothes).

But in general those retailers that aren’t prepared to price keenly may increasingly find themselves priced out of business.

You have to be wary of TSB’s brave new world

Welcome back, then, TSB. If your account is in one of the branches that Lloyds is being forced to spin off to create this “new” bank, congratulations.

You’re a customer whether you like it or not. When TSB claims it is going to be different, it is worth remembering this uncomfortable fact about its (re)birth. Its new customers have been treated like commodities, having no choice in the matter.

If they want to stay with Lloyds, they will have to go through the process of switching, which might be better than it once was but is still a nerve-racking thing for anyone to contemplate. You only need a direct debit or two to go astray and you’re in a world of pain.

Of course, they could try somewhere completely new to bank, but quite where they would go to  find a banking business where individual “retail” customers aren’t treated with a contempt that is more or less thinly veiled is hard to identify.

TSB can make so many bold pledges not to engage in casino banking but ultimately it will only succeed if it both recognises this and fully appreciates the implications. The process of its birth doesn’t augur all that well.