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EY faces mounting pressure to disclose Wirecard details to German parliament



EY partners are facing mounting pressure to provide detailed evidence to Germany’s parliament about a decade of their work auditing Wirecard after the defunct payments provider’s management board released the Big Four firm of its duty of confidentiality.

EY had said that it may refuse to testify before Thursday’s parliamentary investigation into the collapse of Wirecard on the grounds that its auditors could become liable for secrecy breaches, which carry a prison sentence or large fine.

The decision by Wirecard’s executive board to end EY’s duty of confidentiality to its former client could lead to problems for the accounting giant. It is already facing a number of investor lawsuits over alleged negligence in its audits of the company’s finances, which meant it failed to identify a criminal racket that defrauded creditors of €3.2bn.

In a letter dated November 23, the board informed the parliamentary inquiry that it has lifted the secrecy obligations on EY. The letter was signed by Wirecard’s chief financial officer Alexander von Knoop and chief product officer Susanne Steidl.

Fabio De Masi, an MP for Germany’s leftwing Die Linke party, who published the letter on Twitter on Tuesday night, said: “The door should now be left open for testimony by the auditors.”

Wirecard’s administrator Michael Jaffé, who is winding down the company that collapsed in June in one of Germany’s biggest accounting frauds, had already released the company’s auditors from its confidentiality obligations.

However, EY has continued to argue that a ruling by Germany’s highest court is needed before its staff can reveal details about their audit work.

The firm said it was unclear under existing German laws if an administrator is entitled to release auditors of defunct companies from their confidentiality duty, or if decisions by both the former executive and supervisory boards are needed.

EY’s challenge has raised concerns that it is trying to extricate itself from the parliamentary investigation amid criticism that it made repeated failures over a decade of auditing Wirecard.

The firm has disputed this. Andy Baldwin, EY’s global managing partner for client service, said this week: “We are hopeful that the witnesses invited in a personal capacity can be fully released from confidentiality so they can best assist the inquiry.”

EY said in a statement that it “welcomes” the letter from Wirecard’s board but argued that it was not sufficient to remove the legal risk on its partners.

“The release [from confidentiality obligations] needs to be given by the individual members of the supervisory board and the executive board who commissioned the audit in the relevant year or, respectively, were members of the management board,” EY said.

This would mean that signatures from former chief executive Markus Braun and former chief operating officer Jan Marsalek are required. The whereabouts of Mr Marsalek are unknown. He has been on the run since the company collapsed in late June and is currently on Interpol’s most wanted list.

“My sympathy for EY, which seems to be hiding behind Braun and Marsalek, is very limited,” said Danyal Bayaz, an MP for Germany’s Green party. He said that detailed testimony by the company’s auditors was crucial to get to the bottom of the Wirecard affair.

“We are currently evaluating all legal means available to get comprehensive testimony from EY,” said Mr Bayaz. The committee can issue fines of up to €10,000 and even impose prison sentences for contempt of the investigation.

Matthias Hauer, a MP for Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU, told the Financial Times that EY was showing a “blockade mentality” that could not be justified and that the insistence on a decision by Germany’s highest court was “used as a pretext”. “The witnesses will have to thoroughly answer questions tomorrow,” said Mr Hauer. 

KPMG, which conducted a special audit into Wirecard’s financial reporting, told the FT that its employees will give full testimony to the parliamentary investigation this week as it does not believe there are legal issues regarding client confidentiality.

On Monday, EY struck an informal deal with the inquiry to seek a clarification by the court, which would delay its testimony. “I am hoping that the Federal Court of Justice will come to a swift decision,” the committee’s chairman Kay Gottschalk, a politician for far-right Alternative für Deutschland, told the FT.

The parliamentary inquiry is working under intense time pressure as its work needs to be concluded during the current parliamentary term, which is ending in less than a year.

EY is preparing for a backlash as the hearing approaches as it fears more criticism of its work for Wirecard. The firm wrote to its partners last weekend to warn them that it expected new details to emerge during KPMG’s testimony and “negative comments”.

One partner said it had caused tensions within some parts of the firm. “There’s a growing population of non-audit partners who don’t want to be attached to this audit practice for a nanosecond longer than is necessary,” he said.

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German accounting watchdog chief to step down in wake of Wirecard




The head of Germany’s accounting watchdog is to step down following mounting political pressure over corporate governance shortcomings exposed by the Wirecard fraud.

Edgar Ernst, the president of the Financial Reporting Enforcement Panel (FREP), said on Wednesday he would depart by the end of this year. He is the third head of a regulatory body to lose his job in the wake of one of Germany’s biggest postwar accounting scandals.

The collapse of Wirecard, which last summer filed for insolvency after uncovering a €1.9bn cash hole, triggered an earthquake in Germany’s financial and political establishment.

Felix Hufeld, president of BaFin, the financial regulatory authority, and his deputy Elisabeth Roegele were pushed out by the German government in January for failing to act on early red flags suggesting misconduct at Wirecard. Ralf Bose, the head of Germany’s auditors supervisor Apas, was fired after disclosing he traded Wirecard shares while this authority was investigating the company’s auditor, EY. The German government is also working to revamp the country’s accounting supervision and financial oversight.

Meanwhile, criminal prosecutors in Frankfurt are evaluating a potential criminal investigation into BaFin’s inner workings and on Wednesday asked the market authority to hand over comprehensive documents, the prosecutors office told the FT, confirming an earlier report by Handelsblatt. The potential scope of any investigation as well as the individuals who might be targeted is still unclear. BaFin declined to comment.

Ernst came under pressure as the parliamentary inquiry commission uncovered that he joined the supervisory board of German wholesaler Metro AG in an apparent violation of internal governance rules, which from 2016 banned FREP staff from taking on new supervisory board roles.

Last week, the former chief financial officer of Deutsche Post filed a legal opinion to parliament defending his move. He argued that his employment contract was older than the 2016 ban on board seats and hence trumped the tightened governance regulations.

The German government had subsequently threatened to ditch the private-sector body which currently has quasi-official powers.

In a statement published on Wednesday evening, FREP said that Ernst wants to open the door for a “fresh start” that would be untainted by the discussions around his supervisory board mandates. “FREP is losing a well-versed expert in capital markets,” the body said.

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Putin and Lukashenko’s ski fun shows cold shoulder to EU




As news of new EU sanctions against Russia began to leak out of a meeting of bloc foreign ministers on Monday afternoon, Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko were discussing a different challenge to the Russian president.

“You can try to compete with Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Lukashenko, in ski gear, said to his son, Nikolai. “But you probably won’t catch up,” he added, with a smile to Putin as the Russian leader pushed off down the slope.

Putin and Lukashenko are the men behind Europe’s two repressive crackdowns over the past six months, who have both jailed or exiled their most prominent opponents and seen their security forces violently assault and detain thousands of peaceful protesters.

But in a summit in the snow-covered mountains of Sochi, on Russia’s southern coast, they revelled in their twosome of leaders shunned and sanctioned by Brussels, in a calibrated message to the EU that the cold-shoulder was mutual.

For foreign policy experts there were few details to digest, despite the complex negotiations going on behind the scenes as the two post-Soviet states seek to recalibrate their future relationship.

Putin is keen to deepen integration on Moscow’s terms. Lukashenko is desperate for Russian investment and trade co-operation but is loath to relinquish sovereignty. Yet in place of diplomatic negotiations and policy pronouncements, photographs and video footage of the two leaders enjoying each other’s company were in full display.

At the outset, Putin, in jeans and an open-collar shirt and blazer, greeted his guest with a handshake and a hug. “Even our appearance, clothes and so on, suggest that these are serious negotiations in ordinary clothes,” Lukashenko quipped. “It suggests that we are close people.”

Pleasantries exchanged, it was time for the salopettes and ski boots, and a shared chairlift to the summit. Putin, pushing off confidently, set off down the gentle slope, Lukashenko in his wake.

After a short ride on snowmobiles back to their chalets, discussions continued over more than six hours — and what appeared to be three different sized wine glasses.

“The optics for the international audience is that they have been able to maintain their positions and nothing can be done against them,” said Maryia Rohava, a research fellow at Oslo university specialising in post-Soviet relations.

“Now we’re talking not just about sanctions against Belarus but also against Russia,” she added. “And it seems like they look at that like, ‘Well, we don’t care . . . We’re just enjoying our winter break like autocrats do.’”

To be sure, the fun on the slopes was not wholly without power games. Putin was clear to underscore he was the senior partner, from wrongfooting his guest at the top of the ski lift to releasing photographs of their meeting showing Lukashenko scribbling notes as his host spoke.

But the mood music was in sharp contrast to Lukashenko’s last visit to Russia in September. Then, with protests raging and the Belarusian leader’s position looking shaky, Putin reprimanded his guest for mishandling the unrest and risking the toppling of an ageing post-Soviet regime that could weaken his own.

Then, in a businesslike and cold atmosphere, Lukashenko pleaded with Putin that “a friend is in trouble” and was granted a $1.5bn loan from Moscow — but not before his host remarked that Belarusian people should be given a chance to “sort this situation out”.

The absence of such language on Monday also sent a subtle signal to other illiberal regimes, particularly those on the outer rim of Europe who, like Belarus in the past, find themselves lured towards Brussels by economic opportunities but repelled by the reforms and democratic standards demanded in exchange.

The message to the likes of Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Turkey is that Putin, whose relations with the EU are at rock bottom, is always ready to talk.

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Mitsubishi Motors set to reverse move to withdraw from Europe




Mitsubishi Motors is set to reverse its decision to withdraw from Europe and build cars in France after months of pressure from Renault and Nissan, in a sign of fresh rifts within the alliance.

Mitsubishi will formally consider the move at a board meeting on Thursday, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter, following months of fractious discussions with its alliance partners.

A framework agreement between the three carmakers was reached on Monday during an alliance meeting, two of the people said. They added that the deal may still fall apart.

The decision to have Renault produce Mitsubishi cars at its French factories in a manufacturing deal, if finalised, would force the Japanese company to justify the U-turn — and face down accusations it yielded to a Renault campaign to protect French jobs.

The coalition between the three car groups is held together by Renault’s 43 per cent stake in Nissan, which owns 34 per cent of Mitsubishi, the smallest of the companies.

The French government’s 15 per cent stake in Renault has fed longstanding fears at the two Japanese carmakers that alliance strategy would be heavily influenced by French industrial politics.

In July Mitsubishi announced plans to in effect pull out of its lossmaking operations in Europe by cancelling model launches and running down its current line-up. This would lead to the end of all car sales in European markets as early as this year.

Following the announcement, some dealerships have already sold operations in preparation for Mitsubishi’s exit, while others are preparing to become repair garages for the brand instead.

An agreement to build Mitsubishi cars in France would be held up internally as a sign the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance was working under new management teams installed after the arrest and ousting of former boss Carlos Ghosn in 2018.

But people within both Mitsubishi and Nissan have expressed concern about such a deal that would mean Renault building Mitsubishi cars — increasing work for its French plants and providing a political boost in the country, where it is cutting jobs. 

Executives were particularly worried about a potential repetition of Renault’s 2001 decision to move the Nissan Micra from the Japanese group’s Sunderland plant to its own underperforming Flins factory outside Paris. This was seen as a political move by the French group to shore up union support.

Mitsubishi said there was no change in its policy to halt development of new models in Europe.

Nissan and Renault said they would not comment “on speculation”. Renault added the alliance always “aims to enhance competitiveness and enable more effective resource-sharing for the benefit of all three companies” and that there “are always ongoing discussions between the three companies”.

Last month, Renault chief executive Luca de Meo suggested in an interview with the Financial Times that a deal could be done, saying: “We have space in our plants; we have platforms.”

De Meo also suggested that Renault could end up building more cars for Nissan in its French plants, something that was resisted by Nissan, according to people familiar with the discussions. That led to pressure being applied to Mitsubishi by both sides of the alliance, the people said.

Before last year announcing its withdrawal, Mitsubishi sold just 120,000 cars in Europe in 2019, giving it less than 1 per cent market share.

The tentative agreement reached on Monday is the first big deal between de Meo, who joined Renault as CEO last summer, and the heads of Nissan and Mitsubishi, and a test of the relationship between the three sides.

Nissan and Renault are focusing on turning round their own businesses as well as repairing the alliance, which came near collapse in the wake of the turmoil that followed Ghosn’s ouster.

De Meo announced a scheme to save €3bn by cutting factory capacity as part of a company overhaul last month, while Nissan aims to save ¥300bn ($2.85bn) through its own turnround plan.

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