Posts

(But a Government procurement leader joining a supplier while still working as a civil servant is!)

In my last article about fraud related to supply chain finance (which came to mind because of the emerging Greensill / Gupta developments), I said that I hadn’t come across that type of fraud previously. There are plenty of other variants on invoice-related fraud in my book, however.

That brought a call from a friend. He told me of a case he had seen where a business created fake invoices to “clients” and used those invoices to obtain funding from their supply chain finance (SCF) provider. The amusing angle was that the finance provider was a major bank, and the fake invoices included a number that were supposedly issued to the same bank!

So the finance was provided by a bank on the basis of non-existent delivery of goods or services to the same bank … you might have thought that someone would have spotted this or checked to see if the supposed supplier was in their AP system. But perhaps they did, given the fraud was discovered eventually! You also wonder whether the fraudster was stupid, secretly wanted to be caught or was just having a laugh at the expense of the bank itself.

Exploring this theme further, it is clear that supply chain finance related fraud is not new. Just last year, a major scandal in Singapore saw the Him Leong oil trading company collapse. Part of that was down to false invoicing and over stating of receivables, which enabled the firm to obtain financing based on these invoices.

As the spglobal website reported, “financial statements for the year ended 31 October 2019 grossly overstated the value of assets by “an astonishing amount of at least $3 billion” comprising $2.23 billion in accounts receivables which had no prospect of recovery and $0.8 billion in inventory shortfalls”.

There are also cases that are not overtly “fraudulent” but are misleading. When leading UK construction and facilities management firm Carillion collapsed in 2017, the use of supply chain finance was one of the ways it concealed its problems until the final reckoning.  Carillion worked with Santander bank to offer its suppliers payment earlier than its ridiculous 120-day standard payment terms (in return for a fee, of course). Santander then retained the money it owed for the full period.

Globalconstructionnews website reported that “Carillion tucked the cash managed through reverse factoring into the box labelled “trade and other payables”, to which it had added “other creditors”. This, believes S&P, allowed it to show a modest increase in working capital from 2012 to 2016, because “working capital” does not usually include trade payables.  After 2012, the growth in money owed under trade payables ballooned from £263m that year to £761m in 2016. Reverse factoring, said S&P, allowed Carillion to “hide a substantial part of its debt from view”.

To widen the discussion to fraud generally, I believe that Boards, CFOs and CPOs should regularly ask themselves, “how would I defraud this organisation if I was an evil criminal genius”? Or maybe employ an actual evil criminal genius consultant to do that for them (I’m available at very reasonable evil genius rates). Read most of the cases I quote in the Bad Buying book, and you realise that any intelligent insider could have spotted the flaw in process that allowed the fraud, if only they had spent some time thinking about that.

However, the problem with much SCF related fraud or dubious practice is that it is almost always an internally generated fraud. It might involve third parties, innocent or not so innocent, but it is often driven by very senior people in the business, or even owners and founders. So there would not have been much point asking the Board of Carillion to look at the use of SCF if they were complicit in the  bad practice. If it is found that the Gupta companies did issue fake invoices to generate SCF funding  from Greensill, then no doubt that will have originated at a pretty high level in the business.

Meanwhile, back to other aspects of the Greensill affair, and yesterday we saw newspaper revelations that Bill Crothers actually joined Greensill two or three months before he left the civil service, while he was still Chief Commercial Officer for the UK government. Such a move seems very odd but it was all signed off within the Cabinet Office, apparently.  That seems to show very poor judgement at best from Crothers, and perhaps the judgment of the experienced top-level civil servants who approved this was even more suspect. More to come on all this, I’m sure.

We’ve written a couple of times about the Greensill affair, and now more is emerging about another key player in the financial scandal. Greensill in effect lent billions to Sanjeev Gupta, creator of the GFG Alliance of steel businesses.  That appears to have been based on both financing the invoices where GFG owed money to their suppliers, and also making early payment to gupta’s firms where GFG invoiced its own customers.

But the Financial Times, which has been instrumental in exploring matters, reports that Grant Thornton, the administrator for Greensill, has contacted some GFG “customers”.  Clearly, they in theory owe Greensill money. However, “some of them say they did no business with Gupta”.  In other cases, there are allegations that the customers were friends or associates of Gupta.

If this is true, it seems that Greensill was advancing money to GFG based on their invoices which had in theory been issued.  Greensill would collect the money owed from the customers in line with payment terms. So note this is financing Gupta based on its sales, rather than improving its cash flow by helping on the purchase side. But if these invoices – or some of them – were fake – then we have a real fraud, and Greensill obviously won’t be able to collect its debts. Maybe Greensill was an innocent victim, being told by GFG these were real customers and real debts. Or maybe not.

Anyway, this link with supply chain finance is for me potentially a new type of invoice-related fraud. I must admit I did not cover this in Bad Buying, but it might be in the 2nd edition / follow-up!

The more usual invoice frauds that I describe in my book fall into three categories.

  1. Fake invoices are created, submitted and authorised by someone inside the organisation. The money is paid to firms (probably set up for this purpose) which the insider(s) controls.
  2. Fake or inaccurate invoices are submitted by an external party, either “on spec” in the hope that the internal systems are poor and they get paid, or to be authorised by an accomplice internally. The supplier may even be genuine, but the amount invoiced may not reflect the actual goods supplied or work done.
  3. Invoice mis-direction, where the fraudster persuades the firm to pay a genuine invoice to the fraudsters bank account rather than to the real supplier’s account.    

“Fake invoice” fraud by insiders happens in the private sector, in government, and even in the charity sector. And it can be the most unlikely people – as in this case (taken from my book), where the former head of counter-fraud at Oxfam, the charity that fights poverty globally, was jailed after stealing more than £64,000 from the organisation.

Edward McKenzie-Green, 34, defrauded the organisation while investigating fellow charity workers in earthquake-hit Haiti. He filed fake invoices from bogus companies, making £64,612 in nine months before resigning because of unrelated disciplinary proceedings. The scheme was discovered after an internal inquiry was launched to investigate allegations that he’d behaved unprofessionally while leading a team in Haiti in 2011.

He agreed to resign, was given a £29,000 “golden handshake”, but then investigators unearthed 17 fraudulent invoices from two companies under his control.  An audit of his own counter-fraud department revealed payments to “Loss Prevention Associates” and “Solutions de Recherche Intelligence” in 2011. Investigators contacted the supposed head of one company, Keith Prowse, for an explanation of invoices for ‘intelligence investigation’, ‘surveillance equipment’ and ‘Haiti Confidential’. But there was no Mr Prowse – that was, in fact, Mackenzie-Green.  (The “real” Keith Prowse founded a very successful corporate hospitality firm in the UK).

McKenzie Green got two years in jail and Judge Wendy Joseph QC told him: “You have taken from those who desperately need it substantial sums of money. Worse, you have undermined the public confidence in a charitable institution. You were head of a department set up to counter fraud. This was a profound abuse of the trust invested in you.”

We suspect that the magnitude of the Gupta / Greensill affair might dwarf the Oxfam case and most of the others in the book, except perhaps for the Petrobras / Odebrecht scandal in Latin America, where fake invoicing was only a small part of the wider fraud and corruption picture. In any case, it will be interesting to see what emerges in the Gupta case over the coming months.

We wrote about the collapse of Greensill Capital here, and more information has emerged on a daily basis over the last couple of weeks. It seems increasingly clear that the talk of innovative new supply chain finance models was nonsense, concealing some old-fashioned dodgy lending to unstable companies. (after I drafted this article, the Sunday Times of March 28th had yet more about Cameron’s involvement and that of others, including Bill Crothers and Jereny Heywood, head of the civil service).

For instance, Greensill’s financing of the Gupta group of companies was based (in part at least) on a notional future income stream. But there were no actual orders, no contracts and not even any named customers in some cases! That is a million miles away from traditional invoice factoring. The way this very high risk lending was then dressed up and sold by firms such as Credit Suisse as low-risk bonds will I suspect keep the courts occupied over coming years.

But another interesting aspect has been the role played by the UK’s ex-Prime Minster David Cameron. He appointed Lex Greensill as his “crown commercial representative” for supply chain finance back in 2014. Greensill got his CBE in 2017 and Cameron then took up a role as an adviser to the firm when he left office. His share options were rumoured to be worth tens of millions. Last year, he is alleged to have lobbied the Treasury and the chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to try and obtain government grants and loans for Greensill. To the credit of senior civil servants, most of Greensill’s applications were refused.

That has led to questions about the propriety and ethics of Cameron’s intervention. But it raises some broader questions too. In an excellent article in the Sunday Times (behind the paywall unfortunately), columnist Mathew Syed raises the general issue of ex-politicians and their activities post-politics.

For instance, as Syed says, “ Robert Rubin, former US Treasury secretary, helped introduce a law that allowed banks to merge with insurance firms, something lobbied for by Citibank. He left the Treasury the day after the law was passed and, three months after that, was hired by — you guessed it — Citibank. He earned $126 million (£91 million) over eight years as the bank loaded up on risk, then used his connections to secure $45 billion in taxpayer bailouts when it failed”.

The former Danish Prime Minster Thorning-Schmidt says that she is still independent, despite co-chairing Facebook’s Oversight Board. But she now argues that an aggressive regulatory approach could “infringe freedom of speech”.  She won’t say how much she is being paid in this role – but we know that Nick Clegg, ex leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, now VP of Global Affairs at the firm is on something around $1 million a year. Ex UK Chancellor Philip Hammond now has 14 jobs including with the finance minister of Saudi Arabia, whilst his predecessor George Osborne has nine jobs including at the world’s largest investment firm.

Syed points out that what we are seeing is dangerous and calls this sort of process “retroactive inducements”. It is undermining our faith in capitalism and democracy as politicians see that their route to future wealth is to help market incumbents, Syed argues. “Unconsciously or otherwise, the revolving door is lubricated”.

I would slightly disagree with Syed in that it does not need to be an “incumbent” – Greensill was a relatively new market entrant. But the concern is that those in positions of power might see future benefits coming to them if they do favours for a firm now.

It’s not just the politicians…

And of course it is not just Cameron and co that we should worry about. Bill Crothers became vice-chairman of Greensill having been government’s Chief Commercial Officer from 2012-15.  Now I don’t think for a moment Crothers did particular favours for Greensill in that role – I didn’t pick up any hint of that at the time. In fact, I have heard it suggested that Crothers may have actually put money into Greensill himself, so may be a personal creditor.

But you can see the danger here of senior decision makers looking to their futures.  I know it is an issue in the Ministry of Defence. So many senior people, particularly uniformed mid-level officers who leave the forces in their forties or fifties, end up working for defence suppliers. Are they tempted to help those firms whilst they are public servants, or be gentle with them if they are a contract manager with the firm as a supplier, because of what they might get in the future?

Syed calls for change. The solutions are simple, he says.  He wants “stronger constraints on lobbying and donations, together with new rules on monopolies and moral hazard. Crucially, we should also raise the pay of ministers and regulators, with the quid pro quo of longer periods that prevent them from working for corporations after leaving office”.  I don’t agree that these are “simple” issues though – higher pay for Ministers would not go down well with many! But he is absolutely right when he says this.

Above all, though, we need a transformation in values of the kind that has (partially) changed medicine. For until seemingly decent people can see that their actions are unethical, we cannot hope to win. It is, I think, the only way to save capitalism from itself”.

And I would extend that beyond politicians, to the ranks of the senior public, military and civil service too. If key people are constantly thinking about what might be in it for them at some future stage of their career, we’ve got big problems.

(On the day I published this article, the Sunday Times of March 28th had yet more about Cameron’s involvement and that of others including Bill Crothers and the late Jeremy Heywood, ex-head of the civil service. So we may come back to this story again once I have digested that!)

Readers of the Financial Times (or the Sydney Morning Herald) will be well up to speed with the events at Greensill Capital, a leading provider of supply chain finance funding and solutions. Other broadsheet newspapers and websites are also getting increaingly interested in the story.

Lex Greensill is the son of an Australian watermelon farmer. After an early career at Morgan Stanley and Citibank, he made a big impact in the UK as a “crown commercial representative” in Cabinet Office and supply chain finance tsar for David Cameron’s government. When Cameron stepped down, Greensill made him an adviser with (allegedly) a barn-full of share options.

Greensill also recruited Bill Crothers, government’s Chief Commercial Officer (the top procurement man) from 2012-15. Crothers was deputy chairman of Greensill for a while but resigned as a director in February, and has perhaps sensibly dropped all reference to Greensill now from his LinkedIn profile. Greensill also incomprehensibly got a CBE from the Queen in 2017, whilst Crothers got a CB in 2013, the equivalent award for civil servants.

However, in a few short months, Greensill Capital has gone from planning a flotation that would have valued the firm at $7 to basically going under. We don’t have the time or space to go into all the details here, but broadly, the Greensill proposition was this. A firm such as Vodafone might offer suppliers payment terms of, say, 60 or 90 days. But the suppliers have another option. Instead of waiting for payment, they can get immediate cash from Greensill – at a small discount. So if Vodafone owes you £10,000, then you can get paid now by Greensill for perhaps a 2% discount (£9,800).

Then of course Vodafone pays Greensill the £10K after 60 days, so Vodafone benefits from a cash flow perspective. Greensill makes its money on that margin (the £200).  Nothing wrong with this conceptually or ethically. Another version of this sees the finance provider making their offer to a supplier (rather than a buyer). So the finance might cover immediate payment against a wide range of invoices that the firm has issued.

Where does the cash come from?

In both cases, Greensill has to find the money to pay out up front to suppliers. Historically, the banks have offered this sort of service, because they have easy availability of money. But Greensill had to find a way of raising the cash. So they packaged up the offering into bonds, offering investors a decent rate of return, in return for providing the funding for the scheme. If you can turn over that funding 6 times a year based on 60 days payment cycle, making 2% each time, that is 12% – plenty to offer bond holders a decent return and make millions for Greensill too.

Just to make it even safer, the bonds were insured, so an investor knew that even if Greensill somehow didn’t get all the money owed to them back from the buyers, they were protected. So what went wrong?

The unravelling started with Greensill’s insurer refusing to continue covering that risk. The firm failed to find an alternative – so no insurance meant they couldn’t raise finance and could not continue to offer the service.  But the big unanswered question is this. Exactly WHY did insurance companies refuse to provide insurance? I mean, blue chip clients such as Vodafone aren’t going to renege on their agreement to pay Greensill (which for Vodafone is in effect simply the equivalent of paying their suppliers)?

So there must be more to it. Maybe Greensill has offered the service to buyers or suppliers who were less solid and secure than Vodafone, so the risk of default was greater. The position also gets murkier if you consider this possibility. What if the buyer / supplier relationship at the heart of the transaction was an inter-company relationship?  So one part of my business supplies another, and the supply side gets the payment from Greensill based on those invoices. But what if my sister company doesn’t really have the cash on the buy-side to then repay Greensill? It could be a way of raising money for a struggling firm, but maybe the underlying transactions aren’t even genuine?

One client of Greensill in particular has cropped up as a concern, and represents a pretty large proportion of the total business – do a bit of Googling and you can read more (it’s NOT Vodafone, I should stress)!  That might have got the insurance firms worried, to say the least. Then there was the alleged extravagance from Greensill. For what was still a pretty young business, running four corporate jets seems a little questionable.

So we will see what emerges in coming weeks, months and probably years. The reputations of Greensill, Crothers and Cameron are on the line, as well as potentially real jobs and businesses. There is nothing wrong with supply chain finance per se – but we might see the accountants and regulators looking harder at how firms report on their use of the technique.  And in the next edition of Bad Buying, will this go down as a failure, a fraud or a f**k-up? Time will tell.