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When is an independent report truly independent?

Andrew Main
Thursday, October 11, 2018

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That’s an issue that The Banking Royal Commission’s going to have to deal with, despite the fact that it seems to come up time and again in every serious examination of our financial services industry.

What we have had to get used to over the years is an elaborate game of pass the parcel in which the controversial contents of the parcel, i.e. a supposedly independent report, gets progressively diluted until it’s worthless.

This was the case when lawyers Clayton Utz produced an independent report for AMP about charging dead people for financial advice , and when Ernst & Young did a report for Allianz Insurance over the insurer’s compliance shortcomings.

This is all about big organisations diving behind the respectability of the likes of a big law firm or the Big Four accounting firms to write a report for them.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that former ACCC boss Graeme Samuel this week said he thought it should be up to the big institutions to have the bottle to do their own in house investigations, so they knew how the jam had occurred.

The reason I believe you can spread the guilt around is that the first draft of a report is usually pretty damn good. These professional firms, at that early point in the saga, are on the side of the angels.

They are producing a report that in the trade is known as Capital “I” Independent.

Accountants and the like have taken to using the Capital I to announce to the world that they believe that the person or team putting out the report is wholly independent and perceived as such.

Whereas the “little i” tag is used in circumstances where a major accounting  firm might be earning big fees for doing other work for the same client, in which case few observers would be prepared to believe the report was totally independent.

You can devise all sorts of criticisms of these professional firms in terms of cartel pricing , conflicts of interest and straight out mercenary behaviour. 

I note that my friend and former colleague Neil Chenoweth at the Australian Financial Review two days ago suggested the Big Four may face tax promoter penalties from the ATO for marketing tax schemes of the sort enjoyed by miner Glencore.

And I have on my desk a toe-crushing tome published earlier this year in the UK called “Bean Counters: The Triumph of the Accountants and how they Broke Capitalism” by a Private Eye journalist called Richard Brooks that will give you all the ammunition you require, and more.

Where the genuine independence disappears is when the professionals deliver the draft and it gets thrown back at them for correction, amendment and generally grovelling surrender.

 I’m going to swim against the tide here and say the villainy resides mostly with the outfit which commissioned the report, in these instances AMP and Allianz.

There’s a slim grey area here in which it’s fair for the commissioning organisation to have the right to correct errors of fact, but in every case discussed here the outfit paying the report-writing piper has gone much further and absolutely turned out to have called the tune.

In the very well canvassed case of AMP and Clayton Utz, more than two dozen changes were made, at AMP’s request, to a report whose independence the Royal Commission has quite rightly queried.

That may be old news but we got another example more recently to show quite how pernicious the tactic can be, as shown last week by the publication by the Commission of documents relating to how insurer Allianz treated EY over the latter’s inquiry into how Allianz managed to leave misleading information on its travel insurance website for most of the period from 2013 to 2018.

And it was pretty much one way traffic. The initial report on September 25 last year stated that six areas of Allianz’s compliance processes were still “evolving” while only four were at the desired level of being “established”.

But by the time the report was finally accepted some six weeks later on November 2 the score had changed to seven of them being “established” and only three classified as “evolving”. That’s code for “being fixed in a hurry”.

In between times, as one senior EY executive put it to another after the nth request for a change to the wording of their report, “this feedback process is never ending”.

And most pointedly, another internal EY email discussed the fact that staff were having to take information on trust from Allianz executives in circumstances where nothing had been written down. That doesn’t sound remotely like an error of fact at all, given that there don’t seem to have been any provable facts involved. That sounds like arguing with Donald Trump.

On October 16 of that year, halfway through the arm wrestle of the “feedback process” Roberto Fitzgerald of EY emailed his colleague James Brigham to say:

“Let's find a way to thematically deal with the 'were we advised' stuff – i.e. Allianz could not demonstrate - maybe an upfront observation theme that it's high trust and not written down?”

They were talking about how to explain in their final supposedly in-depth report that they had had to take information on trust because it wasn’t written down. Which is what they ended up doing. 

So where’s this going to take us? It would be wondrous if the commissioning organisations would damn well leave the reports alone. 

OK, you say, that’s another law you’re calling for, and I don’t want to do that. 

But how about devising a standard form of words to be provided by the report writers if they are satisfied that their work has not been tampered with?

And if it’s not there, or if there’s another form of words they can use to say it has, that would be immensely useful to the reader of the report.

And most relevantly, it might start to restore public trust in the process. At the moment it’s just a way for supposedly professional firms to make a quid and hope that no one notices the ethical convolutions they’ve gone through to get paid. 

That’s no use to anybody- most particularly to the long term reputations of the firms doing the paying.

Does anybody feel like trusting AMP or Allianz statements at the moment? I think not.

Published: Thursday, October 11, 2018


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