FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — An accounting scandal at one of Germany’s fastest-growing blue-chip companies has raised doubts about the national financial watchdog and, coming on top of other high-profile cases of fraud, led to questions about the country’s ability to oversee its corporate titans.
Some 1.9 billion euros ($2.1 billion) vanished from payment systems provider Wirecard, until recently heralded as Germany’s emerging giant of the financial tech sector. Its CEO was arrested on suspicion of market manipulation and inflating financial numbers. And on Thursday the company said it was filing for insolvency, a form of bankruptcy protection.
Adding to the damage to Germany’s corporate reputation was the reaction of the financial regulator, BaFin, when media reports last year questioned the company’s accounting. Rather than investigate Wirecard, it targeted investors, banning them from betting on a drop in the share price, which plunged more than 40%.
“That is a documented failure of supervision to intervene when there was clear evidence in this case,” Florian Toncar, a member of parliament for the opposition Free Democratic Party, said in an interview on Norddeutscher Rundfunk public radio.
He said the case was “a heavy blow” for Germany’s reputation as a financial center.
“Wirecard was until now one of the few functioning tech companies that have come up with new ideas in the market place and now it turns out that that was to a great extent smoke and mirrors.”
BaFin’s head, Felix Hufeld, has conceded that Wirecard’s implosion was “a disaster.” But the agency is standing by its decisions throughout the scandal, details of which are still emerging.
Wirecard provides the technology to companies and consumers to make cashless payments, a growing and competitive market globally. Its founder and CEO, Markus Braun, resigned last week and said “it cannot be ruled out” that the company could have been the victim of fraud.
He was arrested Monday on suspicion of inflating the company’s financial numbers and later released on bail. By Thursday, the company’s share price had lost almost all its value at just 3 euros, from over 150 euros last year.
Under the new CEO, James Freis, the company has said that previous descriptions of its business in countries where it worked with partners — a key pillar of earnings — were inaccurate, and that it was investigating whether those businesses were always run in the best interest of the company. The missing 1.9 billion euros was supposed to be in trustee accounts at two Philippine banks but they said they have no dealings with Wirecard. Auditor EY refused to sign off on the company’s annual report.
Corporate wrongdoing is not unheard of in Germany to say the least.
Volkswagen was caught rigging diesel engines to cheat on US emissions tests and paid more than 33 billion euros ($37 billion) in fines and settlements, while the chief executive and board chair of industrial conglomerate Siemens quit over a 2006-2007 scandal over bribing foreign officials to gain contracts. Banking giant Deutsche Bank has paid fines for breaking money laundering rules.
Wirecard’s troubles have a specific focus: they call into question the honesty of the financial statements that its investors and creditors relied on. In that sense, it echoes the accounting scandals of the early 2000s that rocked US equity markets such as the one around energy company Enron.
BaFin has come under scrutiny in part for its decision in February 2018 to prevent traders from betting against the company’s stock. BaFin imposed the ban after the shares plunged on reports by the Financial Times that raised questions about the company’s accounting, including reports of backdated sales contracts that inflated revenue to meeting financial targets. BaFin said the short sales ban was to protect market integrity and investors, not the company.
In trying to explain what went wrong at the regulator, Toncar and others have pointed to BaFin’s limited range of authority. As a financial regulator, it was responsible for Wirecard Bank AG, the German banking arm of Wirecard, not the company as a whole.
Thorsten Sellhorn, professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, said that Germany’s accounting watchdog, the Financial Reporting Enforcement Panel, was the first line of defense, not BaFin. Sellhorn, who is president of the European Accounting Association, said it was “too early to point out the culprits” before criminal investigations are resolved.
He said, however, that he does not see a “smoking gun” at BaFin.
Instead, the company’s board of directors “would be much closer to home” and the first stop if outside auditors had questions. Germany has made what he called “slow progress” in improving board oversight, such as a corporate governance code that calls for CEOs to wait two years before taking board seats, more women on boards, and independent financial expertise among board appointees.
Carola Rinker, an economist and consultant who has studied accounting fraud, said several factors might have hindered BaFin and its auditors, EY. One is the complexity of Wirecard’s business model, which involves handling cashless payments among a complex network of credit card companies, merchants and banks.
Another is that, unlike an industrial company, much of the value listed on Wirecard’s balance sheet was in the form of intangible financial factors such as accounting goodwill and customer relationships.
Rinker said that such “intangibles” were high at Wirecard, amounting to 1.4 billion euros out of a 5.8 billion-euro balance sheet. She contrasted Wirecard with the 2000 scandal over machinery maker FlowTex, which borrowed 2 billion euros on the basis of drilling machines — a tangible asset — that didn’t exist. “The problem with intangibles is that you cannot see their existence because they are not physical, so it is more difficult to show their value,” she said.
Those are complexities and issues BaFin head Hufeld will have a chance to discuss soon. He is scheduled to appear next week before the finance committee in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.
Oil pares weekly gain amid virus fears, signs of tighter supply – BNNBloomberg.ca
Oil slipped on Friday, paring a weekly gain, as concern of demand erosion from a coronavirus resurgence countered strong U.S. economic data.
Futures fell to about US$40 a barrel in New York as the virus continues to spread unabated across large parts of the U.S., clouding the outlook for energy demand. Crude prices gained 4.2 per cent for the week as data showed a rebound in the U.S. jobs market accelerated in early June and American crude stockpiles shrank by the most this year. A survey showed OPEC oil production dropped last month to the lowest since 1991.
The worsening pandemic may not have been fully captured in the jobs data, which provided a snapshot of hiring in the middle of the month before many states reversed course on their re-openings.
“We have had a sharp recovery in demand for energy products that has occurred from March to end of May,” Daniel Ghali, a TD Securities commodity strategist, said by phone. “Since then the pace of recovery has slowed. There is concern that this stall may be a signal of weakness in demand that’s tied to the rise in coronavirus cases in the U.S.”
Adding to the murky demand outlook, Chinese oil inventories swelled to a record this week, satellite data show, after the world’s biggest oil importer went on a buying spree last quarter as the economy rebounded. The stockpiles may indicate a slowdown in buying by the East Asian country.
That outlook was balanced by the OPEC+ alliance’s commitment to reducing output, with Russia showing near total compliance with its targets. The group hasn’t made any decision yet on whether to extend its full cutback — which stands at 9.6 million barrels a day — into August, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said. Ministers from the coalition next meet on July 15.
West Texas Intermediate for August delivery fell 51 cents US to US$40.14 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange as of 11:18 a.m. local time, after closing up 2.1 per cent on Thursday. Brent for September settlement declined 49 cents US to US$42.65 on the ICE Futures Europe exchange, paring its weekly gain to four per cent. Trading volumes were low as the U.S. took a day off ahead of the July 4 holiday.
The global benchmark crude’s three-month timespread remained in contango — where prompt contracts are cheaper than later-dated ones — but the spread has narrowed in recent days, indicating that concerns about oversupply have eased slightly.
The decline in U.S. oil production continued as working rigs fell for a 16th week to the least since 2009, according to Baker Hughes data released Thursday. Exxon Mobil Corp., meanwhile, reported an unprecedented second straight quarterly loss as almost every facet of the energy giant’s business slumped.
Other oil-market news
-India’s oil market is showing an uneven recovery two months after easing virus-control measures. Provisional fuel sales from the three biggest retailers were at 88 per cent of 2019 levels in June.
-The oil market is “currently perhaps too optimistic” as COVID-19 cases haven’t peaked yet and there’s still a large inventory overhang, FGE said in a note. Prices could fall to US$35 a barrel in the near-term before recovering in the fourth quarter.
-Angola is under intense pressure from other OPEC+ members to speed up its oil output cuts, and the response from the African nation has so far failed to appease the group.
-Several crude cargoes floating near China have been re-offered or sold to other buyers in Asia as long lines of oil-laden tankers continue to wait for their turn to discharge in Asia’s top importing nation, said traders who asked not to be identified.
–With assistance from James Thornhill.
The Great Facebook Boycott: Will it make any difference? – Aljazeera.com
On The Listening Post this week: Big brands are part of an advertising boycott against Facebook over racist content and hate speech. Plus, lockdown TV puts bookshelves in the spotlight.
The Great Facebook Boycott: Will it make any difference?
The two biggest news stories of 2020 – the coronavirus pandemic and the racial inequality protests – have triggered what the United Nations calls a “tsunami” of hate speech – a surge in xenophobia online. The social media platforms involved now find themselves the focus of an advertising boycott – a campaign called “Stop Hate for Profit” – that is designed to get them to clean up their act, by hitting them where it hurts. The primary target has been Facebook. For years, Mark Zuckerberg and company have resisted demands to take a more active approach – a harder line – to moderating hateful content. Ninety-nine percent of Facebook’s revenue – $70bn last year – reportedly comes from advertising. However, given Facebook’s size, the boycott is unlikely to seriously damage its bottom line, at least in the short term.
Shoshana Wodinsky – enterprise reporter, Gizmodo
Nadine Strossen – professor, New York Law School and former president, ACLU
Jessica Gonzalez – Stop Hate for Profit campaign and co-CEO, Free Press
Sarah Roberts – Center for Critical Inquiry, UCLA and author, Behind the Screen
On our radar
Richard Gizbert speaks to producer Johanna Hoes about China’s new national security law for Hong Kong and its implications for the media; plus, the Iranian journalist sentenced to death simply for doing his job.
Framing the self: The rise of the bookshelf aesthetic
With the pandemic forcing so many of us to work from home, all kinds of talking heads – news anchors, interviewees, pundits and politicians – have had to redefine their “natural environments”. So you have been seeing a lot of bookshelves. They are the perfect solution. They provide a little visual texture – they do not distract – and they create the impression, true or not, that the talking head has actually read the books, maybe even written some of them. Creating a backdrop is an exercise in self-branding – it sends a message and speaks to your alleged credibility before you say a word. And this book-flaunting has led to a new genre of media critique: bookshelf analysis. The Listening Post‘s Flo Phillips reports on judging a person by their bookish backdrop.
Tamar Garb – professor of art history, UCL
Bernie Hogan – senior research fellow, Oxford Internet Institute
Hussein Kesvani – culture and technology journalist
Alex Christofi – editorial director, Transworld Books
Source: Al Jazeera
TSX Composite ends solid week directionless with US markets closed
TORONTO — Canada’s main stock index wrapped up a solid week on a down note while U.S. markets were closed for the Independence Day holiday.
Crude oil and gold prices were down a little bit but not enough to “really spook” the market so the Toronto Stock Exchange followed the path set in Europe where investors took some profits after recent gains, said Philip Petursson, chief investment strategist at Manulife Investment Management.
“It’s kind of one of those wishy-washy days where when you don’t have the leader, which is the U.S. equity markets, 1/8so 3/8 the market is searching for direction,” he said in an interview.
Petursson said the market is hitting that third phase of exhaustion after the prior two of a bear market and a sharp rebound.
“In this phase what we’re doing is we’re waiting for the results and it’s not necessarily just the economic results, more importantly its the earnings results or anything that leads to a positive earnings outlook in Q4 or into 2021 to really drive the market to that next leg higher.”
Second-quarter earnings, which start mid-month are expected to be very bad, said Petursson.
“No matter what the earnings look like the market is just going to shrug it off,” he said.
Rather than recent performance, investors are going to be looking for signs in company guidance that “baby steps” are being taken back to normal despite the increase in COVID-19 infections in the United States.
The S&P/TSX composite index closed down 25.65 points at 15,596.75. It ended the week up 2.7 per cent on a rise in oil and gold prices.
The Canadian dollar also appreciated with oil surpassing US$40 a barrel. It traded for 73.72 cents US compared with 73.61 cents US on Thursday.
Petursson expects the loonie will reach 75 to 77 cents as crude rises to US$45 per barrel, gaining to hit about US$60 over some 18 months.
On Friday, the August crude contract was down 33 cents at US$40.32 per barrel and the August natural gas contract was up 1.6 cents at US$1.75 per mmBTU.
Husky Energy Inc. was the weakest performer as its shares dropped 2.6 per cent, followed by Vermilion Energy Inc. at 2.1 per cent and Cenovus Energy Inc. off two per cent.
Nine of the 11 major sectors on the TSX were lower amid low trading because of the U.S. holiday.
Health care, real estate and materials decreased.
The August gold contract was down US$2.70 at US$1,787.30 an ounce and the September copper contract was down 2.75 cents at US$2.72 a pound.
Consumer staples and telecommunications were slightly higher.
The market choppiness should continue, rising one day and then dipping as investors take some profits, Petursson said.
“This is what I expect to happen until the fall where I think we will have a better picture on what the start of 2021 is going to look like, not only with respect to COVID, more importantly to earnings.
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