The Big 4 don’t appear to be happy about this…

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We blogged earlier this year about Michel Barnier, the EU internal market commissioner announcing plans to issue new laws which would dramatically impact the “Big 4” (namely Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC.)

Well, these changes have now got a bit closer as the draft law has just been released.

In an attempt to reduce conflict of interest and to introduce more competition into the industry the main proposal of the draft law includes the requirement for the Big 4 firms to separate their auditing and consulting divisions in the EU.

This is a pretty big issue as in simple terms if the law becomes final it could prevent the Big 4 “audit firms” from providing any non audit related services such as consulting, providing tax advice or running training courses.

This could see a major restructuring of the audit profession.

Other provisions in the draft law include banks being banned from insisting that a company uses a Big 4 firm if they are to be lent money by the bank (at the moment a number of banks make it a requirement for a company to be audited by a Big 4 firm before they will release significant loans.)

There is also a proposed requirement for audit firms to be rotated every 6 to 12 years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the Big 4 are reported to be against any changes to the current rules (after all as the saying goes, “how many turkeys would vote for Christmas?”).

I’m pretty sure though that the “mid tier group” of auditing firms that are below the Big 4 in terms of size such as BDO, Grant Thornton and Mazars would maybe take a different view to the Big 4 and be in favour of Mr Barnier’s views as this could open up a number of opportunities for them.

Before everyone that works at a Big 4 company starts rushing to rearrange the office furniture though it’s worth noting that the law at the moment is only draft and the EU states and the European Parliament have to provide the final sign off before the law becomes a reality.

Will passing your ACCA or CIMA exams make you slimmer?

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According to a report released yesterday by Eurostat, if you’re in the UK and you’re speaking to a woman then there is a 24% chance that she is obese (or to use less technical terminology, she is very fat).

At the other end of the “fat scale” are ladies from Romania who have the privilege of being the “slimmest nation” in the EU with only 7% of Romanian ladies being classified as obese.

So nearly 1 in 4 ladies in the UK are obese. From an environmental analysis point of view this increase in the number of fat people over recent years is a classic movement in the “Social” part of PESTEL analysis.

As well as having serious implications for the health of those individuals that are overweight the movement towards “fat nations” can have serious implications for businesses over the medium to long term.

In the private sector, Airlines for example will need to invest in bigger seats and spend more on fuel costs to move all this heavier weight around the world.

The public sector will also be impacted with for example hospitals needing to have stronger and bigger beds.

One interesting thing I noticed within the Eurostat report though was the following statement:

The share of obese persons also varies according to the educational level. For women, the pattern is again clear: the proportion of women who are obese falls as the educational level rises in all Member States.

Wow – this is interesting as surely it means that the cleverer you are, the less likely you are to be fat?

So does this means that all your hard work spent improving your educational levels by studying for ACCA and CIMA not only helps your career but also reduces your chances of being obese??

This must be an additional incentive for studying and it also provides a great excuse for any gentlemen that are reading this.

After all, if your wife or girlfriend happens to catch you looking at a slim lady then all you have to say is that you were simply “admiring her intellectual ability”…

So are they top or bottom of the league?

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In most industries if a company had revenue of £153m and a wage bill of £174m there would be serious questions asked.

Manchester City are the current leaders of the Premier league in the UK and they have just released their annual financial results.

The figures show that as well as being top of the league in terms of football they are also bottom of the league in terms of their financial results.

Their income was £153m and their expenses £348m. The resulting loss of £195m is the largest loss ever reported in English football history.

A loss of £195m on sales of £153m would have alarm bells ringing for most companies but Manchester City have got wealthy investors.

Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi has so far invested over £460m on players since 2008 and has plenty of cash to invest.

The European footballing body Uefa though have introduced “Financial Fair Play rules” which come into full effect in 2013-14 and require clubs to break even over three years.

The reason for this is that Uefa are keen to prevent football becoming a rich man’s toy and these new rules will prevent wealthy backers from simply throwing money at a team to make it successful without caring about the loss that arises.

After all, if you’ve got a personal wealth of several billion then what does the odd hundred million here and there matter?

Manchester City have stated that they are confident that they will achieve a break even position over a 3 year time period and one of their recently announced revenue streams is a lucrative 10 year sponsorship deal worth £400m with Etihad Airways.

Press reports though have pointed out that Etihad Airways is based in Abu Dhabi, the home of Sheikh Mansour who is a member of the emirate’s ruling Al-Nahyan family and questions have been asked as to whether the £400m sponsorship deal was higher than would normally have been the case and was simply undertaken at an inflated price to artificially reduce the loss to get to the required breakeven point.

As a lifelong supporter of Bristol City (struggling in the division below the Premier League) I sometimes question whether it’s good for the sport of football if only a handful of clubs get huge amounts of money pumped into them.

It’s worth noting however that I would of course quickly change my mind should a wealthy backer invest in Bristol City…

ACCA exam tips released today but don’t do what this person did…

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There’s a saying that studying for professional exams is a marathon and not a sprint.

In other words, it’s a long hard journey to reach the exam finish line and not just a quick sprint to exam glory. Anyone that has qualified as an accountant will fully appreciate that it’s hard work and certainly feels more like a marathon than a sprint!

So qualifying as an accountant can be compared to a marathon race although one thing for sure is that you shouldn’t adopt the approach that Mr Rob Sloan took when he recently ran the Kielder Marathon in the UK.

Mr Sloan was 20 miles through the 26 mile race when he decided to give up because he was feeling tired. He then got on a bus and headed home.

As luck would have it though his bus home went near the finish line and he jumped off just before the finish line. He then hid behind some trees and came back to the course when he thought no one was looking and then sprinted to 3rd place.

Mr Sloan was awarded the medal for 3rd place but luckily for the honest runners in the race, his cheating was eventually found out and he was disqualified from the race and is now facing a ban from his running club.

It’s only the examiners that know for sure what’s in the December 2011 ACCA exams but we’ve put together a list of subject areas that we’d personally make sure we knew pretty well in the run up to the exams.

We launched our Facebook page yesterday and the December 2011 ACCA exam tips can be found at www.facebook.com/theexpgroup

We’ve also added to our free ACCA and CIMA courses by launching free online training courses on Facebook towards ACCA’s Foundations in Accountancy (FIA) qualifications and these courses can also be found at www.facebook.com/theexpgroup

Good luck to those of you that are studying for the exams and I hope the final sprint goes well and you’re not forced to “get on the bus” half way through…

Are the young ones always smaller?

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I’m willing to bet that nearly all of you have used a Microsoft product. Probably an equally high proportion have used Google and a reasonably significant number of you will own an Apple product.

What about LinkedIn? Most of you have no doubt heard of it and a number of you will be registered with the website.

But did you know that Microsoft currently has one of 9.40, Apple has one of 13.61, Google has one of 20.30 and LinkedIn has one of well, … well, you’ll just have to wait a moment to hear the figure as it’s rather impressive.

So, what figures am I talking about?

The figures mentioned above refer to the PE ratio or the Price Earnings ratio.

In an attempt to astound you with my knowledge, the Price Earnings ratio measures… (wait for it)… the ratio of Price to Earnings (a round of applause please for that brilliant explanation).

In other words, the share price of Microsoft for example is such that the market is currently prepared to pay 9.40 times the earnings to own it.

The PE ratio is also sometimes known as the “price multiple”, “earnings multiple” or simply “multiple” and whilst share prices can be affected by a number of different things, a high PE ratio generally implies that the market is expecting earnings to rise in the future.

If we round up the PE ratios of the companies above we get:

Microsoft: 9

Apple: 14

Google: 20

That other tech giant on the market, LinkedIn currently has a PE ratio of 1,498 (yes, 1,498).

Wow – that’s not bad is it?

So hang on. A PE ratio this high implies that the market has factored in an expectation of significant growth in earnings for LinkedIn.

This really is an expectation of pretty significant growth as at the moment for every $1 of current earnings an investor gets he or she has to pay $1,498.

So, for the sake of the LinkedIn shareholders let’s hope that in the future more people become linked in.

I don’t think your customers are as loyal as this one…

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A lot of companies seem to mistakenly focus most of their effort on getting new clients rather than looking after their existing ones.

Some companies are so concerned with getting new clients that they forget about their existing clients and they end up winning one new client but losing two existing ones.

The benefits of having loyal customers who undertake repeat purchases can be substantial.

I’m not sure though that many companies will have as loyal a customer as Mr Thomas Stuker.

Mr Stuker is a sales consultant and has made nearly 6,000 flights with United Airlines.

To put that into perspective he’s accumulated 10 million air miles with them and has flown the equivalent of 400 times around the world.

To say he is a frequent flyer is stating the obvious and from the airline’s point of view, assuming an average cost of $300 per flight that’s a nice $1.8 million dollars revenue as a result of his flights.

Now United Airlines understandably appreciate his custom and when he reached the 10 million mile landmark the airline announced that they were going to name one of their planes after him and award him free upgrades for life.

Anyone who flies a lot will appreciate that you can accumulate “airmiles” with airlines as part of their loyalty programmes.

United Airlines are part of the Star Alliance mileage programme so Mr Stuker will no doubt be excitedly looking forward to some free flights for him and his family as a result of the 10 million miles he’s accumulated.

Then again, after flying the equivalent of 400 times around the world with his job he may well prefer to take his next holiday at home…

Was this as easy as 1,2,… (now what was the next one)?

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There’s a well known technique in public speaking of batching topics in groups of three.

The general idea is that it helps with the flow of the presentation and it’s easier for the audience to remember.

Unfortunately for US presidential hopeful Rick Perry, three topics were one too many when he spoke last night at the live presidential nomination debate for the US Republican candidate.

The speakers at the debate were all candidates to lead the Republican Party in next year’s US Presidential election against President Obama.

Mr Perry was in the process of listing the three US government departments he would abolish if he was elected president when he forgot what the third one would be.

His exact words were:

“I will tell you: It’s three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, Education and the….. what’s the third one there? Let’s see….. OK. So Commerce, Education and the…..the third agency of government I would…..I would do away with the Education, the….. Commerce and…..let’s see….. I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

Now, we all make mistakes at one stage or another when speaking in public so is this really something for Mr Perry to worry about?

After all, the debates are only seen as one of the key deciders in whether somebody will win the nomination or not and they were only seen live on primetime TV across America. The press and TV in American are also only talking about it all the time.

Now, any of you studying professional exams will appreciate that two out of three is 66.67% and I’m sure that if you got 67% in your exams you’d see that as a success.

A potential future president of America only being able to remember 2 out of 3 of his proposed policies though probably isn’t so good.

The video of Mr Perry’s performance can be found here and get ready to cringe with embarrassment.

Was this the deal of the day?

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Last Friday Groupon raised $700 million in its initial public offering (IPO).

Some of you may have heard of Groupon. It’s done remarkably well in the 3 years since it started in 2008 and now has over 100 million users.

It’s a daily deal site whereby people sign up to get daily “special offers”. The business model of Groupon is such that when people buy a “special offer voucher” to use on a deal, Groupon shares the revenue with the service provider that is providing the special offer.

Interestingly enough their arrangement is such that if somebody buys a special offer voucher but then subsequently doesn’t use the voucher then Groupon keep all the revenue.

In simple terms an IPO is where the owners of a private unquoted company offer a proportion of their shares to the general public.

Let’s look at some of the figures.

A relatively small proportion of the company was offered in the IPO (just over 5%) but $700 million was raised. This values the company at nearly $13 billion. Not bad for a business that started just over 1,000 days ago.

In the past, other tech companies that have undertaken an IPO include Google who raised an impressive $1.7 billion back in 2004. Since then Google has gone on to become a $200 billion company but will Groupon grow to such heady heights?

To me it seems that whilst the Groupon business model has so far been successful it’s a fairly limited business model.

After all, it’s simply offering discount vouchers and the business model would surely be easy to copy and if one of the tech big boys such as Google or Facebook decided to really push a similar voucher scheme Groupon could have real problems.

One of the challenges the Groupon business model has is that the suppliers that sign up to offer discounts on Groupon are doing so in the hope that their classic their discount voucher will be a classic “loss leader” and will result in repeat purchases by the bargain hunter customers.

Figures are not available as to how many of these bargain hunters do more than simply purchase the discount voucher and then never undertake a second purchase from the supplier but my guess is that it could be a fairly significant number.

So, in summary, a business model that is relatively easy to copy and has limited barriers to entry combined with a customer base who are always looking for the next bargain (which may well be with another discount voucher company). This seems to me to be a risky investment.

Luckily for Groupon a lot of investors took a different view to me and at the close of the first day of trading the share price had risen to $26 from a launch price of $20.

Only time will tell though whether the IPO was indeed a great daily deal…

Surely this is the best “out of office notification” ever?

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I recently visited Cardiff for a few days of work. Cardiff is the capital of Wales and one thing you notice as soon as you enter Wales is that the road signs are written in both English and Welsh.

This reminded me of a production error which was reported a while ago which to me must rank as one of the funniest results of an out of office notification.

If used properly the out of office notification is a great tool as it lets the sender of the message know if you’re away for a while and who to contact in your absence.

The error here though involved Swansea Council in Wales who required a road sign saying:

“No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only”

They emailed their in-house translation service with a request for a translation of this phrase into Welsh and a reply came back with:

“Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu”

They then produced the sign with both the English and Welsh text on it and put it in the required place by the side of the road.

It was a while later that some Welsh speakers noticed the road sign and it turned out that instead of telling drivers of heavy goods vehicles that they couldn’t drive down that particular road the Welsh text on the road sign actually said:

“I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated”

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

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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…