Report: auditors propped up bad banks


10:00 am - November 29th 2010

by Paul Cotterill    


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The leftie blogosphere has been somewhat taken up recently with coverage and analysis of the student protests, and rightly so.

But in so doing this potentially huge story of rank corruption at the heart of the world’s banking industry risks being relegated to the obscure inside pages of the financial press, when it could do with being on the front pages of the papers that the occupying students hopefully get given by helpers from the outside.

It’s certainly educational, and may help with the formulation of demands……

Auditors misled investors in the lead up to the crisis by supplying UK banks with a clean bill of health after being told taxpayers’ money would be used to bail them out, a House of Lords Committee has heard.

The Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee criticised auditors for signing off on banks’ accounts on the basis the UK Government would prop up the banks.

“Your duty is to report to investors the true state of the company. You were giving a statement that was deliberately timed to mislead the company and mislead markets and investors about the true state of those banks and that seems to be a very strange thing for an auditor to do,” said Lord Lipsey.

Debate focused on the use of “going concern” guidance, issued by auditors if they believe a company will survive the next year. Auditors said they did not change their going concern guidance because they were told the government would bail out the banks.

“Going concern [means] that a business can pay its debts as they fall due. You meant something thing quite different, you meant that the government would dip into its pockets and give the company money and then it can pay it debts and you gave an unqualified report on that basis,” Lipsey said.

Lord Lawson said there was a “threat to solvency” for UK banks which was not reflected in the auditors’ reports.

“I find that absolutely astonishing, absolutely astonishing. It seems to me that you are saying that you noticed they were on very thin ice but you were completely relaxed about it because you knew there would be support, in other words, the taxpayer would support them,” he said.

Hats off to Nigel Lawson, the closet revolutionary. Get it? The auditors didn’t say the banks might go bust, because they knew the taxpayer would bail them out anyway.

The riches of bankers, the bankers would have us believe, are in keeping with their roles as go-getting risk takers and entrepreneurs who bring wealth. This is a lie.

And why didn’t the auditors do their job?

Well, just like the Credit Rating Agencies, the way they make their money best is by not doing their job, because they depend on those same banks for their lucrative contracts.

As Francice at the brilliantly forensic Re The Auditors blog says:

Their complacency is calculated. They are much too tied into the work, and the millions in fees, that have been generated by the aftermath of the crisis.

And just like the Credit Rating Agencies, the audit firms might make a suitable target for what it is increasingly obvious is legitimate peaceful protest.

You hear that, you students?

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About the author
Paul Cotterill is a regular contributor, and blogs more regularly at Though Cowards Flinch, an established leftwing blog and emergent think-tank. He currently has fingers in more pies than he has fingers, including disability caselaw, childcare social enterprise, and cricket.
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Reader comments


Delighted to see LibCon standing up so strongly for shareholders.

I don’t know about the rights and wrongs of this Paul (genuinely) but this is worth thinking about:

who benefited/lost from this?

if the auditors had said “this bank is bankrupt” what would have happened next? answer: (if it had made any difference at all) probably a bank run followed by government bailout. It’s possible that the ‘cost to the taxpayer’ – i.e. the size of the bailout might even have increased if the auditors had not signed off as ‘going concern’ and it caused a bigger panic than otherwise.

Who lost from this? perhaps bank shareholders who, had they been appraised of the bank’s solvency, might have sold their shares and escaped subsequent losses … although that’s dubious: it may merely have brought losses forward. If they’d bothered to read the audtor’s report, could they have seen the basis on which the accounts were signed off anyway?

But I think in 2008 everybody knew the banks were up the swanny, and very little may have rested on these auditor reports either way (this is just my guess). So this is interesting, but not necessarily such a big deal. I’m ready to be corrected on this.

it might even be that the auditors were right to do what they did, if the point was to tell creditors whether they can expect to be repaid or not.

What effect it had on the level of banker bonuses paid, I don’t know.

The riches of bankers, the bankers would have us believe, are in keeping with their roles as go-getting risk takers and entrepreneurs who bring wealth. This is a lie.

This may, incidentally, be true, but it’s not really supported by anything in the article.

2 – I think I agree with this. If the auditors had ruled that one or more of the large UK banks was insolvent it would, at the very least, have hastened the need for the capital injections. At most it would have caused a run on all banks that would have brought down the banking system in the UK as a whole. There is no doubt, for example, that RBS was basically bust. Without the bail-out it would have gone under. Should the auditors have come out and refused to sign off their accounts?

I’d like to see the timing on this too – if the accounts were signed off after the bailouts had been agreed in principle, then I’d tend to the view that the auditors did the right thing. If it was well before? Much trickier.

And obviously the absolute best way to resolve such technical disputes between select committees and sector representatives is to send round morons with SWP placards to burn things. I’m sure we can all agree on this at least.

Luis @2:

There’s a much better report than my thin piece, written up by financial journalist Ian Fraser at http://bit.ly/h8mjw4 It covers the timings well.

Interestingly, for Ian is no outright leftie, it reads a lot more angrily than mine.

Paul

OK, but look who he is angry on behalf of: bank shareholders. Bank shareholders should have lost all their money anyway, having invested in worthless banks, so what’s the difference. Certainly the left-wing point of view is that bank shareholders should have been utterly wiped out. Who are you angry on behalf of?

I agree with Tim that the chronology is crucial. However, the auditors were captured by the banks before the crisis and still are to a certain extent. Their balance sheets were utterly opaque and the only guide to how much risk they were exposed to was the unrealistically high returns they were generating. The auditors may find themselves subject to the legal claims because RBS and HBOS went to the market with rights issues 2008. I have no problem with them after the government was involved making the assumption that the government was going to provide capital if that is what the Treasury told them. However, the timing is key.

@TimJ

Imagine if you will a world where bank shareholders have enough information to hold Executives to account for their behaviour (by, say, auditors not telling porkies about the companies they audit to keep fees rolling in).

Executives would be forced to operate in shareholders interests by, for example, ensuring risks were managed appropriately rather than ignored and those raising them driven out of companies, or being unable to design cushy bonus and incentive schemes operating against long-term shareholder interest.

Shareholder and societal interest converge sometimes.

Imagine if you will a world where bank shareholders have enough information to hold Executives to account for their behaviour

Shareholders have far too much information as it is – in the sense that there is so much information about companies publicly available that it is literally impossible even to read it all – let alone understand it. There’s a good Malcolm Gladwell article about this issue with regard to the Enron trial. All the information that was ‘hidden’ had in fact been published – usually as footnote 235 on page 648 of an annual report that no-one would have read past the executive summary.

sevillista

I’m sympathetic to that, but I think in the case of banking what we need is transparency not auditors trying to value bank assets. It’s too hard: bank assets are state-contingent (i.e. we will receive/pay £X on event Y) and auditors aren’t in a position to come up with superior judgments on probability of Y. Aside from this moment (2008) when it become apparent to everyone that assetsliabilities, were correct from legal point of view, right up until it became apparent assets<liabilities. Check out why capital can’t be measured

Paul – an auditor’s job, on the “going concern” point, is to say “do I think it’s reasonable to stake my professional reputation and risk unlimited personal liability if I’m wrong on the conjecture that the company will still be able to trade?”. If the answer’s ‘yes’, they’re a going concern. If, as was the case for the UK banks, everyone and their dog knew that they’d be bailed out by the government, the accountant would be in breach of the law and their professional code to say anything other than ‘yes’.

Tim J – disagree on Enron. It was obvious at the time that they were a scam, solely from the results they posted given the industry they were in. Andersen deserved to be ruined, not because of any specific frauds they colluded in, but because there was *literally no way* you could be an intelligent person looking at the work Enron did from an objective point of view and justifying the money they made [*]. Whereas from the UK banks, you can say *exactly* how they made money, how they lost it, and where you’re professionally sure the money is coming from.

[*] that’s not entirely true – rampant market manipulation and fraud in the energy trading business could just about have accounted for Enron’s profits, but they were the only two possibilities. The reason the company was allowed to go so far before it went bust was because people – especially Andersen, but also stock analysts who should’ve called it sooner – assumed it was the latter. But oddly enough, nobody’s going to go in front of a grand jury and say “I was happy to take profits from what I thought was an evil conspiracy to screw everyone over”, whereas “sorry, I was an idiot conned by these excellent smart guys” saves you a spell in chokey.

11. James from Durham

It would be great to see the partners at the big accountancy practices made personally bankrupt. Unfortunately it won’t happen. They are all LLPs so they accept no responsibility for anything. They can and do peddle any amount of bullshit, take the money and no-one should expect anything they say to have any reliability. Audits are a government sponsored license to print money without any personal responsibility.

Tim J – disagree on Enron. It was obvious at the time that they were a scam, solely from the results they posted given the industry they were in. Andersen deserved to be ruined, not because of any specific frauds they colluded in, but because there was *literally no way* you could be an intelligent person looking at the work Enron did from an objective point of view and justifying the money they made [*].

Up to a point – things that look obvious in retrospect often aren’t at the time. But the point is that the reason investors lost everything on Enron wasn’t that they had insuffcient access to the required information. That information was always publicly available.

Weil’s story ran in the Journal on September 20, 2000. A few days later, it was read by a Wall Street financier named James Chanos. Chanos is a short-seller—an investor who tries to make money by betting that a company’s stock will fall. “It pricked up my ears,” Chanos said. “I read the 10-K and the 10-Q that first weekend,” he went on, referring to the financial statements that public companies are required to file with federal regulators. “I went through it pretty quickly. I flagged right away the stuff that was questionable. I circled it. That was the first run-through. Then I flagged the pages and read the stuff I didn’t understand, and reread it two or three times. I remember I spent a couple hours on it.” Enron’s profit margins and its return on equity were plunging, Chanos saw. Cash flow—the life blood of any business—had slowed to a trickle, and the company’s rate of return was less than its cost of capital: it was as if you had borrowed money from the bank at nine-per-cent interest and invested it in a savings bond that paid you seven-per-cent interest. “They were basically liquidating themselves,” Chanos said.

And on the relevance of Enron’s Special Purpose Entities:

Enron’s S.P.E.s were, by any measure, evidence of extraordinary recklessness and incompetence. But you can’t blame Enron for covering up the existence of its side deals. It didn’t; it disclosed them. The argument against the company, then, is more accurately that it didn’t tell its investors enough about its S.P.E.s. But what is enough? Enron had some three thousand S.P.E.s, and the paperwork for each one probably ran in excess of a thousand pages. It scarcely would have helped investors if Enron had made all three million pages public. What about an edited version of each deal? Steven Schwarcz, a professor at Duke Law School, recently examined a random sample of twenty S.P.E. disclosure statements from various corporations—that is, summaries of the deals put together for interested parties—and found that on average they ran to forty single-spaced pages. So a summary of Enron’s S.P.E.s would have come to a hundred and twenty thousand single-spaced pages. What about a summary of all those summaries? That’s what the bankruptcy examiner in the Enron case put together, and it took up a thousand pages. Well, then, what about a summary of the summary of the summaries? That’s what the Powers Committee put together. The committee looked only at the “substance of the most significant transactions,” and its accounting still ran to two hundred numbingly complicated pages and, as Schwarcz points out, that was “with the benefit of hindsight and with the assistance of some of the finest legal talent in the nation.”

The problem really isn’t a lack of documentation. Shareholders can’t exercise the sort of control over companies that you might like, because (bluntly) they’re not capable of understanding them to that level. Probably no-one is.

http://www.gladwell.com/2007/2007_01_08_a_secrets.html

The bailing out of banks, or any other business, is supposed to be a highly unusual and exceptional event. If auditors are claiming beforehand that they have confidence that a bank will be bailed out (that an exceptional event is going to occur) we have a problem. The implication is that government can almost always be blackmailed into bailing out a bank or, in other words, that the so-called risk-takers rarely have to take genuine risks.

14. James from Durham

This is a kind of phoney McCapitalism. Real capitalism works by, yes, huge rewards but also substantial personal risk. In this case the risk is passed onto the taxpayers and of course all those workers who are going to lose their jobs. The huge rewards bit remains in private hands.

Even red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism is better than this!

@timj

“Shareholders have far too much information as it is – in the sense that there is so much information about companies publicly available that it is literally impossible even to read it all – let alone understand it.”

A similar anti-transparency argument could be made for taxpayers and Government.

Surely shareholders could hire people (maybe honest auditors without conflicts of interest) to digest information on their behalf? Or perhaps an army of armchair auditors could be unleashed?

There are some key areas where shareholders are denied the information they need to adequately hold Executives to account.

A similar anti-transparency argument could be made for taxpayers and Government.

I’m not arguing against transparency – merely that the volume of disclosure is so high that it’s not possible (or at least it’s not easy) to decode it all.

Surely shareholders could hire people (maybe honest auditors without conflicts of interest) to digest information on their behalf? Or perhaps an army of armchair auditors could be unleashed?

Well, they do. That’s what financial analysts, stock-tippers, short-sellers and bond traders are for. And it’s worth noting that what sent Enron over the edge into bankruptcy was the collapse of their share price after an ‘army of armchair auditors’ did just that. But check out how long it took people – people with relevant qualifications and getting paid for it – to get to the bottom of Enron’s accounts. Months. We’re drowning in a sea of information.

That’s not to say that all this information is a bad thing – it isn’t. But I don’t think the answer to shareholder power is necessarily more disclosure.

So if the auditors had no choice despite their apparent conflicted position and the Government had no choice because the banks were too big to fail what are we doing now to prevent it happening again?

The problem with the banks leading up the the FC was so much of their exposure was held off balance sheet in various SPV. Just reading the annual report was no guide to their exposure. The best guide was there is no such thing as low risk high returns and they were generating high returns. Bringing the SPV losses and exposure on to the balance sheet is what destroyed their capital.

On the going concern thing John B’s right here.

As to Enron, the real sadness is that there was, at the heart of it all, a damn good business. The deregulation of the US natural gas market led to their developing a really very good indeed trading business.

It’s most of the other things they did with hte money/reputation they made from that which screwed them up (and led to hte lying/cheating etc).

If the banks that would have failed had been allowed to do so (probably only NR, HBOS and RBS) then anyone hurt as a result would have had a realistic claim against the auditors who falsified the reports. And that is as it should have been.

The whole episode of the bank bail out is a stain on the character of everyone connected with it. The issue should unite lefties and free marketeers in opposition to the political and financial establishments who cobbled together a shabby fix that has left the ordinary citizen in a much worse situation than they would otherwise have found themselves.

A run on banks need not bring down the banking system – we need something to show it would do. Has anyone got a link to something that might show this (obviously it would be a hypothesis)?

22. Luis Enrique

watchman,

not sure I follow you. runs on systemically important banks will bring down the banking system – a bank being systemically important if its failure causes other banks to fail (roughly speaking)

this might be a good reference:

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/speeches/2009/speech386.pdf

pagar on this topic I think you’re in the crazy zone. the bank failures were the problem, the bailouts the imperfect solution. no way is the average citizen worse off than we would be had banks been allowed to fail.

We did have a run on the banks, it was a run on the shadow banks. If the authorities in the UK, US and Europe had not backstopped it there would not have been any left standing. Customers queing outside a branch is not a modern bank run. The real action takes place behind the scenes in the shadow bank wholesale market.

24. Luis Enrique

to supplement Richard W’s comment, an illustration of what a run on the shadow banking system looks like, illustrated by case of Northern Rock:
http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.23.1.101

pagar on this topic I think you’re in the crazy zone.

Are you saying that without the bail out Barclays and HSBC would have failed? Are you saying that, without being conned into taking over HBOS, Lloyds would have failed? Are you saying that the Bank of England itself would have crashed and burned?

Retail depositors in a failed bank would have got their money back up to £50K- there would have been some short term mess and pain but the system needed a clean out anyway.

We would not have been left with a tainted system where we have no option but to allow a greedy and protected oligopoly steal our money for evermore.

26. Luis Enrique

pagar

I think even if “merely” HBOS and NatWest had gone under, that would have done quite enough damage to make the description “some short term pain” look silly.

as for being left with a system in which we get screwed for ever more …. I don’t think letting failed banks go under would have cured the system either, there are more than enough intrinsic risks in and problems with banking, even without a no bailout rule.

remember – the people who put their money at risk – equity shareholders – did lose everything. The people they hired to run the banks they owned – bankers – got paid in cash salaries bonuses which they’d have kept even if the banks they worked for were allowed to go bankrupt.

however, I do sympathize with you here – breaking up banks and ending too big to fail would form part of my wish list.

27. Luis Enrique

‘even without’ should read even with

however, I do sympathize with you here – breaking up banks and ending too big to fail would form part of my wish list.

But that’s not going to happen, is it?

The lack of monopoly regulation and the lack of protection for mutual organisations allowed these omnivorous monsters to be created in the first place. Are you suggesting there is now any political will to cut them down to size (and I’m not talking about Lloyds selling off a few branches)?

If the government had used some of the billions it took to put them on life support as seed corn for a range of new institutions to develop we might have changed the financial landscape for the better and paved the way for some sort of market.

As it is, they merely revived the dinosaurs to pick over our bones some more.

29. Luis Enrique

pagar

no, there’s no political will (although BoE, Vickers, may ask for some break-ups)

but if we’d had no bailouts, the few surviving banks would be even bigger, even more systemically important, so not clear that no-bailout would have left us better off in this respect.

if we’d had no bailouts, the few surviving banks would be even bigger, even more systemically important

That’s a fair point.

But the carnage that would have ensued from the bank collapses would have provided the impetus to prevent it from recurring by introducing proper monopoly regulation to control the survivors- say maximum of 5% of the market in each sector and companies not permitted to operate across sectors or hold subsidiaries that do so.

You might now argue that this would put us at a disadvantage with overseas competitors but I would suggest this is a small price to pay. If government is good for anything surely it is to regulate markets to ensure it’s citizens are not ravaged by monopolised thieves? Instead it gives them a shot in the arm and tells them to get on with it.

From my vehemence on this subject you can probably guess I have a personal axe to grind.

http://www.pagar.webs.com/

However I assure you I am not alone.

The carnage may well still happen. Look at Ireland, Spain and Portugal.

32. Luis Enrique

@ Luis

Yep that was good.

I do accept that when we have the power of the state working hand in glove with big finance it’s pretty pointless trying to fight the machine.

The best we can do is to try to retain some human values and keep the bastards at arms length.

if the auditors had said “this bank is bankrupt” what would have happened next? answer: (if it had made any difference at all) probably a bank run followed by government bailout. It’s possible that the ‘cost to the taxpayer’ – i.e. the size of the bailout might even have increased if the auditors had not signed off as ‘going concern’ and it caused a bigger panic than otherwise.

You may well be right, but if the only way we can keep the economy going is by lying to our collective selves about the state of it, we’re pretty fucked, aren’t we? Do we just keep ignoring the problems and hope they go away? I mean, we approaching the point where the major banks are like Tinkerbell – they’ll die if people don’t keep clapping hard enough. And I can’t quite shake the feeling that all we’ve done is to postpone the reckoning…

“I mean, we approaching the point where the major banks are like Tinkerbell – they’ll die if people don’t keep clapping hard enough. ”

Well, yes, that is in fact the secret of fractional reserve banking. The willful suspension of disbelief.

If any significant number of people start to think that a bank will fail then that bank will indeed fail. Because what banks do, what banking is, is borrowing short and lending long.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re N Crock, HSBC, a shareholder owned company, a mutual, the Dunfermline Building Society or the East Bumfuck Credit Union. If people think you’re going to go bust they’ll all take their money out, you have a bank run and you go bust.

36. Luis Enrique

there are two things to separate out here, one that even non-bankrupt banks are vulnerable to runs if for whatever reason all creditors (depositors) try to withdraw their money, and two that banks can be bankrupt if the value of their assets falls below value of liabilities.

Dunc, we certainly don’t want to be in a situation where we have bankrupt banks and the only think keeping us alive is the lie that they are solvent, but in 2008 everybody knew we had bankrupt banks, were going to find out ‘officially’ we had bankrupt banks because the banks own accounts were going to say so, or a liquidity crisis would bring them down first, and having an auditor say “this bank is insolvent” would, at that point in time, if it had done anything at all, merely have precipitated the inevitable. At other points in time, when people don’t already know the banks are bust, having auditors watch out for and alert us to insolvency would be a great and valuable service, only I doubt their ability to do it, for reasons linked to @9.

on this theme, a nerdy but excellent finance blog has done a recent series of posts on banking and crony capitalism:

http://www.macroresilience.com/2010/11/30/the-great-recession-through-a-crony-capitalist-lens/

Well, yes, that is in fact the secret of fractional reserve banking. The willful suspension of disbelief.

I’m not entirely sure that’s fair Tim – there was a time when there was a reasonable (if not cast-iron) expectation that future commitments could and would be honoured. But now we seem to be in a position that basically boils down to “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

Perhaps we should just forgo the opportunity costs involved in auditing, if the auditors are just going to make stuff up? I’m sure they could be redeployed to more productive areas of the economy… If you can find any.

38. Luis Enrique

that said, it may be that a fair few banks out there are insolvent right now, and are hoping to slowly work their way back to solvency (by making and retaining profits) so some might argue we need generous/co-operative auditors for a while yet.

another argument in favour of Limited Purpose Banking, where you only need to audit what the mutual fund owns, not how much it is worth.

That is in fact the secret of fractional reserve banking. The willful suspension of disbelief.

Agreed. And that is the problem.

Had we had the kind of shake out in 2008 that we should have had we could have got back to a more pluralist banking system where the market would actually work. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries GDP per head of population in Scotland went from being half of that in England to being equal with it. Under a free banking system.

So what did they do in 1844?

They established the Bank of England and the roots of the current problems can be traced to that political decision.


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  8. Paul Cotterill

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    RT @BickerRecord: @Ian_Fraser The auditor story now leading at @libcon http://bit.ly/iaEbdp Have tried to big up your piece in comments.

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  24. Jan Bennett

    Auditors given a roasting for signing off on banks’ accounts because UK Gov would bail them out http://bit.ly/hiP9gK #cuts #ukuncut





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