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‘Reckless’ Carillion directors to avoid fines over collapse

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The UK’s financial regulator has said it is planning to publicly censure former directors of Carillion rather than impose financial penalties, almost three years after the government contractor collapsed under £7bn of liabilities and left taxpayers to pick up the pieces.

On Friday, the Financial Conduct Authority announced that it had issued warning notices to the company itself and to “certain previous executive directors” over a series of breaches of financial rules before the business failed.

These include giving “false or misleading signals as to the value of its shares”, “failing to take reasonable care to ensure that its announcements were not misleading, false or deceptive”, and “failing to take reasonable steps to establish and maintain adequate procedures, systems and controls”.

Despite these findings, the FCA said “a public censure is proposed, not a financial penalty”.

The regulator did not name the directors it had warned because the case is ongoing. It also stressed that a warning notice is not a final decision and individuals may appeal against any later decision to its upper tribunal.

Prem Sikka, professor of accounting at the University of Sheffield and a member of the House of Lords, said this was “evidence that the FCA is not fit to be a regulator”.

He added: “There are 30,000 small and medium-sized enterprises who have lost money, thousands of employees who lost jobs and pension rights and the regulator has taken two years to do little or virtually nothing. This is not going to act as a deterrent or encourage responsible behaviour.”

Carillion, which had 43,000 employees worldwide including 19,000 in the UK, was liquidated in January 2018 with just £29m in cash and £7bn in liabilities, leaving the UK government to step in to ensure delivery of key services including school meals and cleaning of hospitals and prisons

MPs have demanded that Richard Adam, a former finance director, Richard Howson, a former chief executive, and Philip Green, former chairman, be held to account for their role in the biggest UK corporate failure in recent years. In addition, the Financial Reporting Council is currently investigating the conduct of Mr Adam as well as another former Carillion finance director, Zafar Khan.

During their tenure, the company ran up debts and sold assets so that it could continue paying dividends to shareholders. It paid performance-related bonuses to executives just months before its collapse.

According to the FCA, the company “made misleadingly positive statements”, particularly in relation to its UK construction business, which did not reflect “significant deteriorations” in its expected performance.

Although the directors “were each aware” of this problem, and the increasing financial risks the business faced, the regulator found that they failed to inform the company’s board or audit committee, or check the accuracy of its public announcements — despite being responsible for them. The FCA concluded that, in doing so, they “acted recklessly”.

But campaigners criticised the FCA proposal to censure rather than fine those responsible. Cat Hobbs, director of anti-privatisation group We Own It, said: “This is yet another case of senior executives being let off the hook while their former employees and pensioners suffer the consequences. The total scandal of Carillion’s collapse should have been a turning point. Instead, the government is continuing to outsource the pandemic response to companies like Carillion when services would be better run in-house.”

However, Nick Bayley, a former FCA regulator who is now head of UK regulatory consulting at Duff & Phelps, said a censure would have an impact. “The headline market abuse offence, of being knowingly concerned in recklessly misleading the market, is one that — if proven — will have serious reputational and financial consequences for the individuals involved,” he noted.

Tom Sasse, of the Institute for Government, said it showed the “checks and balances on companies like Carillion remain much too weak and too slow”.

He added: “The government promised reform but we are yet to see it follow through, including with the primary legislation needed to strengthen audit.”



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Pimco’s Ivascyn warns of inflationary pressure from rising rents

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US Inflation updates

A leading US bond manager has warned of inflationary pressure from housing rental costs that could push interest rates higher and overturn a sense of complacency among investors.

The comments by Dan Ivascyn, chief investment officer at Pimco, which has $2.2tn under management, comes after US 10-year interest rates eased in recent months to about 1.25 per cent. Fears of an inflation surge sparked alarm among bond investors at the start of the year and pushed the important benchmark to a peak of 1.75 per cent by the end of March.

“There is a lot of uncertainty on inflation and while our base case is that it proves transitory, we are watching the relationship between home prices and rents,” Ivascyn told the Financial Times. “There may be more sustained inflation pressure from the rental side.”

Owners’ equivalent rent is a key input used for calculating the US consumer price index. As rents become more expensive, investors could become increasingly concerned about “sticky inflation”, pushing the 10-year Treasury yield back towards 1.75 per cent, said Ivascyn. 

Line chart of US 10-year expected rate of inflation showing long-term bond market inflation expectations loiter near decade peaks

The Federal Reserve said in its latest policy statement last week that it had made “progress” towards its goals of full employment and 2 per cent average inflation. Jay Powell, the Fed’s chair, said there was more “upside risk” to the inflation outlook, although he expressed confidence in transitory price pressure over time.

The latest measure of core consumer prices, which is followed by the central bank, ran at 3.5 per cent over the 12 months to June, the fastest pace since July 1991.

“There is a lot of noise and uncertainty in the data” and “the Fed has a difficult job deciphering the economic information coming in”, said Ivascyn.

The fund manager said the potential for much higher bond yields is probably capped by the prospect of the central bank tightening policy in the event of inflation expectations breaking higher.

Bar chart of assets under management ($bn) showing Pimco Income ranks as the largest actively managed bond fund

“We do believe if the Fed sees inflation expectations rise out of their comfort zone, that they will probably act,” said Ivascyn. “That has been the message from Powell’s last two press conferences.”

Pimco expects the central bank will announce a tapering of its current $120bn monthly bond purchases later this year, with a view to starting the process in January. While the policy shift is being “well telegraphed” and data dependent, Ivascyn said higher bond yields and more market volatility were likely.

“This is a tough market environment and it is a time when you want to be careful,” he said, adding that Pimco had been reducing its exposure to interest rate risk as the bond market had pulled borrowing costs lower. 

“Valuations are stretched and it makes sense to adjust our portfolios.”

Ivascyn oversees the world’s largest actively managed bond fund, according to Morningstar. The $140bn Pimco Income Fund co-managed with Alfred Murata, has a total return of 2 per cent this year, versus a slight decline in the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate index. Over the past year, the fund has extended its long record of beating its benchmark, according to Morningstar.



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Wall Street stocks follow European and Asian bourses lower

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Equities updates

Wall Street stocks followed European and Asian bourses lower on Friday after markets were buffeted this week by jitters over slowing global growth and Beijing’s regulatory crackdown on tech businesses.

The S&P 500 closed down 0.5 per cent, although the blue-chip index still notched its sixth consecutive month of gains, boosted by strong corporate earnings and record-low interest rates.

The tech-focused Nasdaq Composite slid 0.7 per cent, after the quarterly results of online bellwether Amazon missed analysts’ forecasts. The tech conglomerate’s stock finished the day 7.6 per cent lower, its biggest one-day drop since May 2020.

According to Scott Ruesterholz, portfolio manager at Insight Investment, companies which saw significant growth during the pandemic may see shifts in revenue as consumers move away from online to in-person services.

“[Consumers are] going to start spending more on services, and so those businesses and industries which have benefited in the last year, companies like Amazon, will be talking about decelerating sales growth for several quarters,” Ruesterholz said.

The sell-off on Wall Street comes after the continent-wide Stoxx Europe 600 index ended the session 0.5 per cent lower, having hit a high a day earlier, lifted by a bumper crop of upbeat earnings results.

For the second quarter, companies on the Stoxx 600 have reported earnings per share growth of 159 per cent year on year, according to Citigroup. Those on the S&P 500 have increased profits by 97 per cent.

But “this is likely the top”, said Arun Sai, senior multi-asset strategist at Pictet, referring to the pace of earnings increases after economic activity rebounded from the pandemic-triggered contractions last year. Financial markets, he said, “have formed a narrative of peak economic growth and peak momentum”.

Column chart of S&P 500 index, monthly % change showing Wall Street stocks rise for six consecutive months

Data released on Thursday showed the US economy grew at a weaker than expected annualised rate of 6.5 per cent in the three months to June, as labour shortages and supply chain disruptions caused by coronavirus persisted.

Meanwhile, China’s regulatory assault on large tech businesses has sparked fears of a broader crackdown on privately owned companies.

“It underlines the leadership’s ambivalence towards markets,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard of Capital Economics. “We think this will take a toll on economic growth over the medium term.”

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index closed 1.4 per cent down on Friday, while mainland China’s CSI 300 dropped 0.8 per cent, after precipitous slides earlier in the week moderated.

Japan’s Topix closed 1.4 per cent lower, after the daily tally of Covid cases in Tokyo surpassed 3,000 for three consecutive days. South Korea’s Kospi 200 dropped 1.2 per cent.

The more cautious investor mood on Friday spurred a modest rally in safe haven assets such as US government debt, which took the yield on the 10-year Treasury, which moves inversely to its price, down 0.04 percentage points to 1.23 per cent.

The Federal Reserve, which has bought about $120bn of bonds each month throughout the pandemic to pin down borrowing costs for households and businesses, said this week that the economy was making “progress” but it remained too early to tighten monetary policy.

“Tapering [of the bond purchases] could be delayed, which in many ways is not bad news for the market,” said Anthony Collard, head of investments for the UK and Ireland at JPMorgan Private Bank.

The dollar, also considered a haven in times of stress, climbed 0.3 per cent against a basket of leading currencies.

Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, rose 0.4 per cent to $76.33 a barrel.

Unhedged — Markets, finance and strong opinion

Robert Armstrong dissects the most important market trends and discusses how Wall Street’s best minds respond to them. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday



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US regulators launch crackdown on Chinese listings

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US financial regulation updates

China-based companies will have to disclose more about their structure and contacts with the Chinese government before listing in the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission said on Friday.

Gary Gensler, the chair of the US corporate and markets regulator, has asked staff to ensure greater transparency from Chinese companies following the controversy surrounding the public offering by the Chinese ride-hailing group Didi Chuxing.

“I have asked staff to seek certain disclosures from offshore issuers associated with China-based operating companies before their registration statements will be declared effective,” Gensler said in a statement.

He added: “I believe these changes will enhance the overall quality of disclosure in registration statements of offshore issuers that have affiliations with China-based operating companies.”

The SEC’s new rules were triggered by Beijing’s announcement earlier this month that it would tighten restrictions on overseas listings, including stricter rules on what happens to the data held by those companies.

The Chinese internet regulator specifically accused Didi, which had raised $4bn with a New York flotation just days earlier, of violating personal data laws, and ordered for its app to be removed from the Chinese app store.

Beijing’s crackdown spooked US investors, sending the company’s shares tumbling almost 50 per cent in recent weeks. They have rallied slightly in the past week, however, jumping 15 per cent in the past two days based on reports that the company is considering going private again just weeks after listing.

The controversy has prompted questions over whether Didi had told investors enough either about the regulatory risks it faced in China, and specifically about its frequent contacts with Chinese regulators in the run-up to the New York offering.

Several US law firms have now filed class action lawsuits against the company on behalf of shareholders, while two members of the Senate banking committee have called for the SEC to investigate the company.

The SEC has not said whether it is undertaking an investigation or intends to do so. However, its new rules unveiled on Friday would require companies to be clearer about the way in which their offerings are structured. Many China-based companies, including Didi, avoid Chinese restrictions on foreign listings by selling their shares via an offshore shell company.

Gensler said on Friday such companies should clearly distinguish what the shell company does from what the China-based operating company does, as well as the exact financial relationship between the two.

“I worry that average investors may not realise that they hold stock in a shell company rather than a China-based operating company,” he said.

He added that companies should say whether they had received or were denied permission from Chinese authorities to list in the US, including whether any initial approval had then be rescinded.

And they will also have to spell out that they could be delisted if they do not allow the US Public Companies Accounting Oversight Board to inspect their accountants three years after listing.



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