October 2011

We’ve got some good news for you. We’ve just found 55 billion euros…

Published on: 28 Oct 2011

Sometimes things go missing. You search high and low and if you are lucky enough to find them again then you can be pretty happy.

Germany though has just found something that it didn’t even know was missing.

It’s not as though it’s simply some keys that have dropped down the back of the sofa. No, Germany has just found €55 billion.

This is a pretty significant amount and the “find” came about due to spotting an accounting error.

In October last year, FMS Wertmanagement was created when toxic loans and securities with a face value of nearly €175 billion were transferred to it from HRE bank which was nationalised in 2009.

In other words, a so called “bad bank” was created out of the insolvent parts of HRE bank whereby the bad parts (the toxic debts) of the HRE bank were moved to a separate bank (FMS Wertmanagement).

Moving the toxic debt to the “bad bank” meant that what stayed in the nationalised HRE bank was non toxic and the nationalised HRE bank became solvent. This would in thoery help ensure that HRE bank would make a full recovery.

The German Finance Ministry today announced that there had been a double booking of debt and that staff had inadvertently subtracted funds when they should have added them.

The end result is that the reversal of this accounting error means that German debt, as a percentage of GDP reduces from 83.7% to 81.1% – i.e. debt has fallen by 2.6 percentage points.

So, in summary some good news for the German economy.

I should also mention that if the person that made the initial accounting error is by any chance reading this then we do run a wide variety of training programmes including our introduction to finance range of courses…

It’s just not tennis to leave your phone on at work is it?

Published on: 26 Oct 2011

We’ve all been there. Sat in a meeting when suddenly somebody’s mobile phone starts ringing and there’s a mad rush by that person to grab the ringing phone and turn it off.

It’s often the case that the person with the “cheesiest” ring tone is the one that forgets to put their phone on silent.

When the phone rings there’s usually a mumbled apology along with a slightly embarrassed look but then the meeting carries on.

Whilst half the people at the meeting may well be thinking something along the lines of “what an idiot”, the meeting will normally continue with the ring tone soon becoming a distant memory.

There are certain jobs though where it really isn’t advisable to take your phone with you to work. For example, I’m not sure that a surgeon or classical musician should really have their phone with them when they’re working.

The video below shoes an interesting situation when top tennis player Caroline Wozniacki is about to serve against her opponent, the French tennis player Alize Kornet.

As a professional tennis player you need to remain focussed and concentrated at all times. Miss Wozniacki’s concentration though is broken by the ring tone of a phone belonging to none other than her opponent…

It doesn’t make a good photo if you’re fired does it?

Published on: 24 Oct 2011

30 years ago he joined the British subsidiary of Olympus, the Japanese camera and optical giant, as a salesman. He slowly worked his way up through the ranks of the company until last month he became the first western CEO of the Olympus group.

Unfortunately for Mr Michael Woodford his new position lasted for only 2 weeks before he was fired from his position as CEO and according to media reports was told by the Olympus board to “get a bus to the airport”.

A western CEO of a Japanese company is extremely rare and a CEO being fired after only 2 weeks is probably even rarer.

According to the Olympus board, Mr Woodford was fired for “causing problems for decision-making”.

Mr Woodford didn’t hold back from giving his version of the story and he claimed that he was fired for in effect being a high level “whistle blower”.

After his appointment as CEO he started asking questions about payments Olympus had made to financial advisers for Olympus’s acquisition of Gyrus, a British medical equipment company, for $2bn.

The interesting thing was that advisory fees of nearly $700m were paid to a Cayman Islands registered company called AXAM whose owners were not identified by Olympus.

The really interesting thing though was that the advisory fees paid were equal to nearly 33% of the total acquisition price. This figure of 33% seems a tad high when compared to the industry average for such acquisitions of between 1% and 5%.

The really, really interesting thing though was that AXAM disappeared from the trade register 3 months after receiving their final payment from Olympus.

Now, I’m not a detective but there are some fairly chunky corporate governance issues in this one and a payment of $700m to an “anonymous” Cayman Islands company which has since disappeared probably does warrant a bit of a debate to say the least.

Mr Woodford won’t be involved in those debates though as his position as CEO was abruptly ended after 2 weeks.

The Olympus share price fell nearly 50% in the days immediately after the announcements.

Olympus has denied any wrongdoing.

Would you look at this advert or not?

Published on: 19 Oct 2011

Those marketing guys can be a creative bunch and the 2012 Olympics will be a great opportunity for them to show off their skills.

The Olympic organisers though are worried that some people may show off more than just their skills.

Ambush or guerrilla marketing is where companies which are not official sponsors of events such as the Olympics try to get their advertising message across without paying any sponsorship money to the organisers.

We’ve blogged elsewhere about Hugo Boss and Bavaria beer’s attempts at ambush marketing so what are the Olympic organisers worried may happen next year?

The London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 (the UK law in connection with the Olympic Games) is being changed to try to prevent people from using their bodies as mobile advertising boards.

At the last Olympic Games in Athens a man invaded one of the diving events with a brand name written across his bare chest.

Olympic organisers are worried that ambush marketing may go one step further and people may “streak” naked at an event with advertising slogans written across their bodies.

Whilst a naked spectator running across an Olympic event will no doubt get the press cameras clicking it’s not something that the Olympic authorities and the official sponsors would appreciate.

The change to the legislation could result in a person that undertakes guerrilla advertising at the Olympics by using advertising on his or her body being fined £20,000.

My personal view though is that this is nothing for the organisers to worry about. Given how cold the British summers are I doubt there will be many people willing to take their clothes off at the London Olympics and run as a mobile advertising board…

Would you have done this if you were an Ernst & Young partner?

Published on: 17 Oct 2011

An Ernst & Young (EY) partner has been rather naughty. In fact, I should straight away say that he quickly became a former EY partner as soon as EY found out what he had done.

So, what did he do?

Well, put it this way but it wasn’t the most professional of things to do.

The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) is the main “watchdog” of the US auditing profession. As part of their quality review procedures they look at samples of audit working files of registered audit firms.

EY were selected for a review and in particular the audit of one of the clients of Peter O’Toole, an EY partner who had been with the firm for 20 years.

Now, it appears that Mr O’Toole’s work on this particular client wasn’t exactly complete and he tried to hide the fact that the work was incomplete by going back to the audit files and doing a quick “tidy up“ before the PCAOB visit.

Working together with a senior manager (who unsurprisingly is also now no longer with EY), Mr O’Toole created fake documents about work they said they had completed hoping that these fake documents would go unnoticed and the PCAOB would sign off on the audit files.

Alas for Mr O’Toole the backdated fake documents were identified and his dishonesty was found out.

If there’s one key lesson from this it’s probably that it’s best to be honest and not try to cheat with things.

As a result of faking the documents, Mr O’Toole lost his job of 20 years with EY, was barred from auditing for 3 years by the PCAOB and had to pay a civil penalty of $50,000.

If instead of trying to falsify things he had simply owned up to his mistake the chances are that he would have had a “slap on the wrist” and would still be in his job.

Sorry to break the news to you but Christmas is cancelled…

Published on: 14 Oct 2011

3 years ago in the middle of the financial crisis when some of the best known banks in the world were on the verge of collapsing, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was rescued by the British tax payers to the tune of £45 billion.

Since then the bank has been under a lot of scrutiny. Not just from the point of whether it would survive but also when it would turn things around so that the business became profitable and the tax payer would start to get their money back.

Along with lots of other companies that have suffered in the crisis, RBS has undertaken a cost cutting exercise over the last couple of years.

Chris Kyle, the CFO of the Investment Banking division of RBS yesterday announced some additional cut backs to his staff.

An internal memo to his staff told them amongst other things that:

– No-one will be given a new Blackberry phone or other handset.

– There will be no magazine or newspapers subscriptions (I guess this now means that they won’t be able to do the daily FT crossword over morning coffee in the office)

– People working late in the office will not be able to claim a taxi expense to take them home unless they are working past 10pm (it used to be a 9pm cut off)

The bank has also banned all staff entertaining for the rest of the year so there will be no bank funded Christmas party for the RBS investment bankers and instead the bankers will have to pay for their office Christmas party themselves.

Now, whilst some people will think this is good cost control some others may feel that this is just “window dressing” to give the impression that the investment bankers’ excessive remuneration and benefits are being stopped.

Some of the RBS employees may well be a bit upset about having to pay for their Christmas party but last year over 300 key staff within the bank reportedly shared a bonus pot of £375 million which equals an average bonus of over £1.1 million each.

I guess these particular individuals are quite relaxed about buying their own Christmas drinks…

Is it easier to become a partner if you’re a man or a woman?

Published on: 12 Oct 2011

Not so long ago the finance profession was predominantly a male one.

At the risk of showing my age, when I first entered the world of work the senior roles in the company I worked for were completely dominated by men.

Things are rightly changing though and in most countries around the world the younger generation that are now entering all business functions appear to be more evenly balanced between the two sexes.

This opening up of opportunities to both men and women can only be a good thing. Any form of discrimination whether it’s discriminating on the basis of race, gender or religion is not only morally wrong but can also result in valuable parts of the working population being overlooked for jobs.

KPMG is one of the top firms in the world and they appear to be getting their gender equality sorted out.

Despite being in the finance and consulting industry which in previous generations was dominated by men, their latest set of promotions indicate that woman are “fighting back”.

KPMG in the UK has just announced the appointment of 29 new partners and 88 new directors.

Prior to their announcement the proportion of female partners working for KPMG in the UK was 14%. Out of the new promotions though, 24% of the new partners and 30% of the new directors are women.

Richard Bennison, CEO of KPMG in the UK, said:

“We are also very pleased to be able to improve the gender balance amongst our partners. We are genuinely committed to enabling more women to reach senior positions.”

So, whilst the number of female partners is still in the minority the percentage is starting to get more balanced.

Congratulations therefore to KPMG on this and it does of course raise the question of how long will it be before the balance is completely reversed and 14% of the total partners are men and 86% are women?

Goodbye to a visionary and creative genius.

Published on: 07 Oct 2011

Born to an unmarried interracial couple, adopted at a young age, dropped out of college and fired from him first major job. Steve Jobs went on to build two billion dollar businesses.

Unfortunately, the iconic face behind Apple lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on Wednesday and the world lost one of the true business greats.

In terms of his impact on business as well as people’s everyday lives, his legacy will be right up there with the likes of other great visionaries who introduced “life changing technology” such as Henry Ford and the mass motor car.

Steve Jobs taught the world many things and whilst there have been, and no doubt will be, lots written on his business methodologies one particular approach of his stands out as far as I’m concerned.

His creations really encase the concept of providing great products but importantly offering real “value” for these great products.

By “value” I don’t mean that they are the cheapest. In fact, they are far from the cheapest but what Apple do provide are excellent products which customers will pay a premium for as they perceive that this additional value the products offer is worth paying for. In classic Michael Porter terminology this could be referred to as “differentiation”.

Steve Jobs had an uncanny ability to spot the next great thing that customers would want and then to develop a product which although relatively expensive would create such “value” that customers would purchase it instead of cheaper options.

If Apple had competed purely on price then there would always be another company which would come along and offer a similar product for a lower price.

As well as the innovative Apple products that have hit our shelves, Steve Jobs will also be associated with the black St. Croix Collection turtleneck sweater that he would wear at product launches.

Since his death there has been a run on people wanting to buy these sweaters and the company that manufactures them, US based Knitcraft Corp has reported a surge in orders in the last 24 hours. Despite a total order run of between 4,000 to 5,000 sweaters many St Croix stores have now run out of stock.

Rest in Peace, Steve Jobs.

Can I have a skinny latte, a blueberry muffin and a corporate loan please?

Published on: 05 Oct 2011

One of the real challenges facing a lot of companies at the moment is access to funds.

The economic turmoil over recent years has led to the loan markets largely drying up and without access to suitable cash reserves a number of firms have hit cashflow problems and have gone out of business.

Similarly, a lot of businesses that have wanted to start up in the recession haven’t had access to loan funds to enable them to do so.

The end result is that jobs have been lost.

The global coffee chain Starbucks though think that they may have an answer to some of the funding problems.

They have just launched a campaign to try to stimulate job growth in America by launching a “Create Jobs for the USA” initiative.

They are partnering in this initiative with Opportunity Finance Network (OFN), a group of private financial institutions that provide affordable loans to certain parts of the American population including low-income people and communities.

As well as donating $5 million to get the project off the ground Starbucks are also covering the admin expenses of OFN as well as paying for the manufacture of wristbands which will be given to any of their customers who donate $5 in one of their coffee shops.

Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz said “Small businesses are…employing more than half of all private sector workers – but this critical jobs engine has stalled. We’ve got to thaw the channels of credit so that community businesses can start hiring again.”

100% of the donations made will go to OFN to help fund loans to community businesses including small businesses, microenterprises and nonprofit organizations.

Starbucks themselves though have also been a victim of the recession with several hundred stores being closed in the US alone in recent years and some sceptics may argue that this is just a PR initiate by them.

My personal view though is that if this initiative helps to create jobs then it can only be a good thing.

Will the Big 4 firms be completely different next year?

Published on: 03 Oct 2011

Michel Barnier, the European Union’s top financial services policymaker, has reportedly drafted a green paper which is expected to be presented to the European Parliament later this year.

If the proposals included within the paper are actually implemented it would mean a radical shake up of the Big 4 business models within the EU.

Mr Barnier has been quoted in the press this week as declaring that “auditors are the dog that did not bark during the crisis and their role has been put into question”.

His proposals are pretty significant and they include preventing the Big 4 from doing any non-audit services such as undertaking consulting work, providing legal advice, running training courses or performing bookkeeping services (or at least not providing these to their audit clients).

The argument behind this is that it would prevent potential conflicts of interest where for example, the auditors are reporting on some consulting work undertaken by their colleagues from their consulting division.

If the Big 4 were prevented from undertaking any non-audit work this would be pretty dramatic for them. It’s estimated that in the UK 67% of their revenue is from non-audit work with only 33% coming from audit work.

Mr Barnier’s proposals also include appointing two auditors for companies with balance sheets greater than €1 billion and at least one of these auditors would need to be a non-Big 4 company.

There is also a proposal to enforce a compulsory rotation of auditors if they have audited a company for a period of 9 years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the Big 4 have rallied against the proposals (after all, “how many turkeys would vote for Christmas”) but there do appear to be some valid arguments against Mr Barnier’s proposals.

For example, having dual auditors would no doubt increase the cost of the audit significantly.

Whatever the outcome of the proposals when they are discussed at the European parliament later this year, this is a subject which will be debated for many years to come by people who hold opposing views on the matter.

The ExP Group