Continuous Disclosure, Class Action Regulation, and Restructuring

The continuous disclosure regime presents additional challenges for directors trying to turn around a listed company.  The turnaround itself will probably mean that that there is more to keep the market informed about, but there is more to it than that.  A perceived failure to properly disclose may well lead to a class action, adding to the workload of an already busy management team and board, as well as adding to the list of creditors.

Perhaps the most extreme example is that of Surfstitch, where on one analysis the commencement of a class action claim resulted in a majority of directors concluding – incorrectly in the view of the administrator that they appointed – that their company was insolvent. For these reasons, turnaround and restructuring professionals should have a keen interest in the outcome of a recently commenced Australian Law Reform Commission review.

Background

In December 2017, the Attorney-General asked the ALRC to inquire into the regulation of class actions and those who fund them, with a report due by 21 December 2018.

After a series of bilateral consultations with forty-three parties: regulators, funders, lawyers and other industry participants, the ALRC issued a discussion paper (available here) on 31 May 2018.

A ‘standard approach’

The discussion paper identified what it described as a ‘standard approach’ by litigation funders:

Litigation funders and/or plaintiff law firms (or their hired experts) identify a significant drop in the value of securities.  This is analysed to determine whether it is likely that the relevant drop had been occasioned by the late revelation of material information.

Typically, the analysis determines whether or not it is likely that there is a sufficient basis for assuming the existence of contravening conduct during a period prior to the eventual announcement of the material information.  The litigation funders and/or plaintiff law firms then determine the size of the potential loss that may have been occasioned by the suspected period of contravening conduct.  The duration of that period may extend back for a considerable period, as in the recently announced class actions against AMP where a period of five years has been identified.

Once the funders and/or lawyers are satisfied that there is a sufficient basis for assuming the existence of contravening conduct, funding terms are discussed and (at least prior to the advent of the common fund order) there is an effort to sign up institutional and other group members (complex questions relating to issues of privacy and data sets are likely to arise in this context).  During this developmental stage, an announcement might be made of a potential class action, attracting media attention which may augment the number of affected shareholders who wish to participate in the proposed class action

To address the problems it identifies, the discussion paper has recommended:

The Australian Government should commission a review of the legal and economic impact of the continuous disclosure obligations of entities listed on public stock exchanges and those relating to misleading and deceptive conduct contained in the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001 (Cth) with regards to:

  • the propensity for corporate entities to be the target of funded shareholder class actions in Australia;
  • the value of the investments of shareholders of the corporate entity at the time when that entity is the target of the class action; and
  • the availability and cost of directors and officers liability cover within the Australian market.

The impact of the continuous disclosure regime is is arguably outside the terms of reference so perhaps it is difficult for the ALRC to do more than it has, but the recommendation of a further review will not quickly take us closer to a solution.

Those with practical suggestions should make a submission, due before 30 July.

A fix for construction industry insolvency? The Murray Report

Last month the government released the Murray Report: A Review of Security of Payment Laws.  It is a welcome – if low profile – step towards a national scheme, although the lack of fanfare, and the delay between delivery of the report in December 2017 and its release in May this year, do not reflect the sense of urgency that many would be hoping for.

The review was intended to identify ‘legislative best practice’ to improve ‘consistency in security of payment legislation’ and the better protection of subcontractors: the question is clearly not whether there should be a national scheme, but rather, what a national scheme should look like.

East Coast v West Coast

One of the major issues addressed by the 382 page report (available here) is the type of model to be used – essentially a choice between the ‘East Coast Model’ – deployed in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT – and the ‘West Coast Model’ used in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

There are variations even between the states that use the same model, but in broad outline the key differences are:

  • The East Coast model provides a statutory payment scheme that can override contractual provisions whereas the West Coast model provides ‘legislative assistance’ to supplement the existing contractual arrangements.
  • The East Coast model only allows claims ‘up the line’ i.e. to a head contractor but not to a sub-contractor – compared to the West Coast Model allows claims in both ‘directions.’
  • Under the East Coast Model a failure to provide a ‘payment schedule’ in reply to a payment claim and to pay by the due date creates a statutory debt for the claimed amount, capable of enforcement.
  • The West Coast model allows the parties in dispute to select the adjudicator that they believe is best suited to resolve the dispute, an adjudicator is independently allocated under the East Coast Model.

The report recommends a modified East Coast Approach.

Statutory Trusts

Murray recommends that a deemed statutory trust model should apply to all parts of the contractual payment chain, in preference to any expansion of the limited Project Bank Account regimes currently in place in WA and Queensland.

There is extensive discussion of the administration burden imposed by PBAs, and it seems clear that some of those who welcome the protection that a PBA provides would prefer to avoid the paperwork involved in providing similar protection to their own sub-contractors!

The report states:

“…the concept of a deemed statutory trust has not only been operating in large parts of North America for many years without inhibiting the smooth functioning of the industry, but it has also (unlike the case of the various security of payment laws in Australia) not been the subject of significant critical reviews.”

Surprisingly, it seems that the review was undertaken without any input from ARITA, or any individual insolvency practitioner.  Perhaps that is why the report has not identified any of the practical problems that arise from creating the type of trust arrangements that it proposes, or explained whether and how such problems have been solved in those overseas jurisdictions.

Next steps?

The website of the Department of Jobs and Small Business explains that the Government is using the Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) – the group of Federal, State and Territory Ministers with responsibility for building and construction – to consider and respond to the review, and that Federal Government responsibility has been transferred to the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.


For comment on the Queensland regime, introduced whilst the Murray review was under way – and recently delayed until 17 December 2018 – see here.

Cozy relationships? Not much uncovering required!

Last week the Australian Financial Review reported the Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell as having said that the Banking Royal Commission had missed an opportunity to uncover ‘a cozy relationship’ between banks and the administrators and receivers who work for them.

Most service providers and suppliers work very hard to have a good relationship with their customers, and restructuring and turnaround professionals are no different – but presumably the ASBFEO is concerned with something improper.

Significantly, the ASBFEO Act requires (section 69, here) the Ombudsman to transfer matters to another agency if:

‘the request could be more conveniently or effectively dealt with by the other agency’

ASIC has both the legal powers of compulsion and the technical expertise to investigate the Ombudsman’s concerns.  More importantly however, ASIC already receives copies of the Declaration of relevant relationships and declaration of indemnities (DIRRI)* which a registered liquidator must prepare on each occasion he or she is appointed as liquidator or voluntary administrator.  The DIRRI – which is also given to creditors – provides considerable detail about an appointee’s relationship with those who appointed him or her, as well as relationships with significant creditors.

That wealth of public disclosure means that neither ASIC nor the Royal Commission would need to do a great deal of ‘uncovering’ to understand the nature and extent of the relationships between banks and the restructuring professionals they appoint, were either to decide that an investigation was warranted.

All of which stands in marked contrast to the situation as regards pre-insolvency advisers: no licensing, no regulation, no regulator, no standards, and no disclosure about their relationships!


*The DIRRI is now an online form accessible via a portal available to registered liquidators, but for those interested the ARITA Code of Practice includes a template (at page 100).

Safe Harbour Restructuring Plans: Would the Carillion turnaround plan pass muster?

The investigation in the UK  into the collapse of Carillion Plc by a House of Commons select committee provides rare public access to the restructuring plan for a large company.  Would the plan meet the requirements of Australia’s Safe Harbour regime?

The Collapse of Carillion

Carillion was a UK-headquartered construction company with worldwide operations employing 43,000 staff.  It was placed into liquidation on 15 January 2018 following the UK government’s refusal to provide emergency funding,

With only £29 million in cash and creditors of more than £4.6 billion the position was so dire that – according to the select committee report – the company was forced into liquidation because it could not find a administrator prepared to take on the job in light of uncertainty about whether there was enough money to cover their costs.

Investigations into the conduct of the directors and auditors by the Insolvency Service, Financial Reporting Council, Financial Conduct Authority, and the Pensions Regulator are underway.  In addition, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee launched an inquiry within a fortnight of the collapse.

As discussed here, the 16 May committee report (available here) is scathing in its criticism of directors, auditors, and regulators.  The Inquiry has also made public a large number of documents which would not ordinarily be available – most notably including the 100 page turnaround plan.

Australia’s Safe Harbour regime

Australia’s severe insolvent trading laws make company directors personally liable for debts incurred when a company is insolvent.

By comparison the UK’s ‘wrongful trading’ regime imposes liability if directors ‘knew, or ought to have concluded that there was no reasonable prospect of avoiding insolvent liquidation’ and did not take ‘every step with a view to minimising the potential loss to the company’s creditors.’

The Australian Safe Harbour regime provides company directors with protection against insolvent trading claims but only if their conduct and actions, and the conduct of the company, meet minimum standards.

Would the Carillion plan meet the Australian Safe Harbour requirements?

The plan does articulate an appropriate objective that is clearly a better outcome than liquidation, and it does identify the use of a big 4 accounting firm as an appropriately qualified adviser.

However the plan is silent about any steps the directors had taken to conclude that they are properly informed about the financial position of the company, or that they proposed to take to stay informed.  The document identifies a number of actions that have been taken, but it doesn’t really set out a future action plan, identify those responsible for each action, or set milestone dates.

Those omissions may not be fatal – perhaps there were other documents that provide appropriate detail.  The biggest difficulty that the directors would have in meeting the Australian criteria is that the forecasts in the plan exclude employee pension contributions from the company budgets, and paying employee entitlements ‘as they fall due’ is a key requirement of the Australian regime.

Too little, too late

Of course the Carillion turnaround plan was never designed to meet the Australian requirements, so it’s not a huge surprise that it doesn’t.  But nonetheless, that ‘failure’ highlights that it is essential for directors seeking to access safe harbour to ensure that they have a plan that is fit for that purpose.

In the case of Carillion, history shows that the plan was too little, too late: the company was in liquidation within a fortnight of the plan being finalised.


First published here

‘Timid’ regulators, ‘complicit’ auditors, ‘rotten culture,’ and ‘ineffective’ directors

When Carillion PLC collapsed in January 2018 it had 43,000 employees and owed more than £4.6 billion, including a pension liability of around £2.6 billion.

Carillion’s financial position was so dire that it went straight to liquidation.  According to the 16 May report issued by the UK House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, insolvency practitioners were unwilling to act as administrators because there was no ‘certainty that there was enough money left in the company to pay their costs.’

The report follows the collapse so quickly that it cannot reflect a full forensic analysis, and it is issued under Parliamentary privilege, but the criticisms are fierce.  The report says:

  • The was a ‘chronic lack of accountability and professionalism’ and the board was ‘either negligently ignorant of the rotten culture at Carillion or complicit in it.’
  • The non-Executive directors were ‘unable to provide any remotely convincing evidence of their effective impact.’
  • The resignation and sale of shares by a former finance director ‘were the actions of a man who knew exactly where the company was heading once it was no longer propped up by his accounting tricks.’
  • The auditors ‘were complicit’ in the company’s aggressive accounting judgements through their failure ‘to exercise—and voice—professional scepticism.’
  • The Pensions Regulator ‘failed in all its objectives.’
  • The UK’s Financial Reporting Council was ‘too passive,’ and ‘wholly ineffective’ in taking the auditors to task.
  • The committee had ‘no confidence’ in the FRC or the PR, who it said shared ‘a passive, reactive mindset and are too timid to make effective use of the powers they have.’

The full report is available here, together with video of some of the key evidence.

UK Pre-Packs: where to next?

A “pre-pack” insolvency is one that involves a business sale negotiated in advance of a formal insolvency, implemented by the liquidator or administrator shortly after his or her formal appointment.

Pre-packs will achieve a quicker and cheaper sale than a full blown process by an insolvency practitioner – however if a related party ends up as the purchaser, questions are often asked about how the sale price was set. A report issued this week in the UK raises doubts as to the effectiveness of a voluntary regime intended to mitigate those problems, and further change now seems likely.

Pre-packs in different jurisdictions

In the US, pre-packs are used for the very largest insolvencies – such as Chrysler in 2009 – to try to avoid the worst of the time delays and runaway legal costs of their cumbersome Chapter 11 process (a recent example reported here).

In the UK, pre-packs are typically used to deal with the very smallest businesses, where the costs of a normal sale process and settlement would swallow most of the sale proceeds.  Whilst they are an established part of the UK restructuring scene, pre-packs involving a sale to a related party – which most Australians would describe as a ‘phoenix’ transaction – have been controversial in the UK for precisely the same reasons that phoenix transactions are controversial here.

In Australia, pre-packs are seen by many restructuring and turnaround professionals as problematic, because a practitioner who is involved in pre-appointment negotiations probably falls foul of the ARITA requirements for professional independence.

The Graham Review and its recommendations

In 2013 the UK government asked prominent Chartered Accountant Teresa Graham to review the use of pre-packs, and make recommendations to improve their outcomes.  The recommendations in her 2014 Report (discussed here) included a process by which related-party transactions could be referred to a ‘Pre-Pack Pool’ – a panel of experienced business people – for review.  Notably, this is a voluntary process, and those involved must choose to refer the transaction to the PPP.

As explained on the PPP website, a randomly selected panel member will provide an independent opinion to be shared with creditors.  That opinion, provided within two business days and at a cost of £800, will not include any reason or explanation, but will simply set out one of the following three conclusions:

  1. “Nothing found to suggest that the grounds for the proposed pre-packaged sale are unreasonable”
  2. “Evidence provided has been limited in some areas, but otherwise nothing has been found to suggest that the grounds for the proposed pre-packaged sale are unreasonable”
  3. “There is a lack of evidence to support a statement that the grounds for the proposed pre-packaged sale are reasonable.”

The 2017 Annual Report

This week the PPP issued its report for the 2017 calendar year (available on their website).  Key statistics include:

  • 28% of the 1,289 administrations in the UK were pre-packs (2016: 22%).
  • 57% of those pre-packs involved sales to related parties (2016: 51%).
  • Only 11% of the related party pre-packs (28%) were referred to the PPP (2016: 28%).

Of those referrals:

  • 49% received a ‘not unreasonable’ opinion (2016: 64%).
  • 34% received a ‘not unreasonable but with limitations as to evidence’ opinion (2016: 25%).
  • 17% received a ‘case not made’ opinion (2016: 11%).

What next for UK pre-packs?

The UK passed legislation in 2015 which created a framework to allow for later regulation if the process proposed by Teresa Graham did not deliver the hoped-for outcome.

The PPP’s 2016 Annual Report noted a slow take up rate in the first year of operation – but recognised that the program was still new. However, the 2017 report shows that against the hopes of the PPP, the referral rate has fallen, and fallen significantly.

It seems likely that a review announced by the UK Insolvency Service in December 2017 will conclude that the voluntary regime has not worked. The next step is less clear: will the UK endorse the referral regime but make it compulsory, restrict or ban related-party sales altogether, or find another option?


For further reading, Michael Murray has written an excellent article recently on pre-packs: here

Restructuring & Turnaround professionals and the Royal Commission

In December (here) I suggested that the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry (‘FSRC’) had the potential to become the seventh inquiry in the last seven years to examine the conduct of Restructuring and Turnaround practitioners.

The third round of hearings which commence on 21 May specifically allocates time (the agenda is here) to considering the “approach of banks to enforcement, management and monitoring of loans to businesses.”

On 7 May the FSRC published its 10th background paper: Credit for small business – An overview of Australian law regulating small business loans.  The paper does extremely well to condense a very broad subject into 41 pages but surprisingly makes no mention whatsoever of the PPSA – which is surely significant, if only for the fact that it imposes a duty comparable to section 420A.

Two days later the FSRC released background paper 11 (both papers are available here) prepared by Treasury at the request of the Royal Commission to provide an “overview of reforms to small business lending.”  There is likewise no mention of the PPSA regime, but the paper does include comment about the ILRA legislation, as well as brief reference to safe harbour and ipso facto.

There have not yet been any reports of Restructuring & Turnaround professionals being asked to appear – but we may be getting closer.