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Once upon a time, there were six firms of accountants in the premier league. Then two of them proposed to merge. It was obvious to some of us that the strengthening of this worldwide oligopoly would be storing up trouble, especially since there was no realistic possibility of another firm ever joining them in the top flight. The deal was waved through by authorities all around the world.
The Big Five expanded dramatically, far beyond mere auditing, into financial services, government investigations and consultancy. Then came the Enron scandal. The company’s auditors, Arthur Andersen, collapsed, and the five became four.
Today, as Richard Brooks documented brilliantly in Bean Counters, they act as aggressively as the other carnivores in the financial jungle. Auditing is little more than an entry ticket to the boardroom. Inevitably, there are many conflicts of interest, as one firm is brought in to investigate the failures of another, but one of the four seems particularly accident prone.
In April EY, as the former Ernst & Young now racily brands itself, was told to pay a whistleblower $11m after he claimed to have been forced out for exposing money laundering at a Dubai gold company.
Much worse is the unravelling of Wirecard. It is over a year since Neil Campling of Mirabaud Securities raised red flags over the pride of Germany’s tech sector. While 16 other analysts rated the shares a buy, he took the trouble to read the company documents and said sell, a recommendation he has repeated many times with increasing urgency since. An investigation by the Financial Times produced an extraordinary reaction from Germany’s financial regulator, which turned on the FT, rather than follow the investigation’s findings.
This week, as the company admitted a €1.9bn black hole and postponed its results yet again, Wirecard shares halved. This “provider of software solutions to the financial services industry” was once valued at €24bn, enough to propel it into Germany’s DAX30 index. It is currently valued at less than €4bn. Audited by EY, it was recently the subject of a damning report from KPMG, another member of the accountants’ cartel.
Perhaps worst of all, EY audited NMC Health, the former FTSE100 company that recently collapsed after revealing $4bn of undeclared debts, and Finablr, a connected FTSE250 company which is hanging by a thread after also discovering massive liabilities. Together, the fallout from these two spectacular failures may be the UK’s Enron, which would be life-threatening for EY.
Yet such is the dominant position of the Big Four that none of them can be allowed to fail like Arthur Andersen. A Big Three would make any pretence at competition even more farcical than at present. There are already too few to fail. Perhaps, given the current enthusiasm by governments everywhere for spending, the business might be nationalised – or should that be internationalised. It really is that serious.
Robert Clayton and Thomas Guy have been removed from Guy’s Hospital, presumably for their own safety, as well as to satisfy the ravening hordes of woke protesters. Clayton was a director of the Royal African Company, which shipped more slaves to America than anyone else, so he was bound to be vulnerable.
Thomas Guy’s crime, apparently, was to own shares in the South Sea Company, a business that had the rights to trade slaves, but hardly got round to it because there was a war on. The directors instead decided that trading in government debt was both easier and more profitable (sound familiar?). In 1720 Guy bought £45,500 of shares at £100 each. He started selling when the price reached £300, and sold out completely when it hit £600. As so often with financial engineering, the structure collapsed soon after.
He used the resulting fortune to build Guy’s Hospital, because St Thomas’s across the river couldn’t cope with the demand. The pretty square in the middle of the hospital has a sculpture of the Good Samaritan, which seems fitting for the philanthropist that he clearly was. If his statue is vulnerable simply because he held shares in a business which was authorised to trade slaves, then we really will have had a national nervous breakdown.
Neil Collins used to write the Inside London column for FT Weekend for many years, and before that was City Editor of the Daily Telegraph.