Most South Africans who invested are poorer today due to Steinhoff’s business collapse and are asking for answers from fund managers.
But‚ many say‚ the business was so complicated‚ with its audited financial statements appearing so reasonable‚ that it was easy for investors to miss red flags pointing to the alleged multi-billion dollar fraud.
Steinhoff’s share price dropped from R46.60 at close of trading on Tuesday to R12.74 a week later. The company has reported a missing R100-billion in the company’s European operations.
Fund Manager Simon Brown said the easiest explanation is to say South African pension holders and investors are R160-billion poorer since the crash. As hundreds of funds would have lost money it is difficult to put an exact figure on the losses.
Many furious South Africans are demanding answers from investors. But multiple fund managers explained that until Tuesday the numbers looked reasonable and “fraud by its nature is subtle”.
The search for answers follows Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts on Monday calling for the Hawks‚ SARS‚ Reserve Bank and Independent Regulatory Board of Auditors to investigate Steinhoff’s implosion and financial losses.
Not everyone however‚ is buying the investors’ explanations‚ with some Steinhoff critics questioning the company’s executives “loose accounting practices”.
Futuregrowth chief investment officer Andrew Canter said they stopped lending money to Steinhoff roughly eight years ago.
He said they avoided Steinhoff for multiple reasons‚ which included their business’ horrendous complexity‚ involving different brands and companies across different jurisdictions in multiple currencies‚ along with their never-ending acquisitions which rendered year-on-year analysis difficult and credit ratios unreliable.
“If we can’t understand the business‚ why would we lend to it?”
Canter said key to Futuregrowth was being wary of the way Steinhoff’s management conducted business.
He said there were enough signs “which evidently some chose to ignore”.
“From what we know today‚ Steinhoff’s management appears to have been playing fast and loose with the tax laws and accounting practices.”
Investor Karin Richards who has looked back at the Steinhoff cash flow‚ and ratios investors use when scrutinising businesses since the implosion‚ however said: “There is nothing here for me that says ‘oh my … here is a big problem’.”
She said as a former auditor she had a better idea than the average person on how to “window dress accounts”. “But the numbers look reasonable.” She said many funds would have lost their first inflation bases gains in three years. Fund manager Keith McLachlan commented on how people started claiming investors should have spotted the fraud: “Everyone knew it was fraud‚ after the fact.
“Intuitively‚ if one ignores the complexity of the Steinhoff business‚ if it was obviously fraud‚ not only would the stock market have seen it‚ but the auditors would have picked up on it long before it even saw the light of day.
“Nothing in the Steinhoff financial statements really screamed fraud or deep obfuscation of the numbers.
“At best‚ it perhaps looked like a business that was growing a bit too fast. At worst‚ it showed a business whose fundamentals weren’t particularly great. Fraud by its very nature is subtle.”
Wits governance expert Alex van den Heever‚ however‚ said that one needed to question why some investment and equity loan companies saw the red flags‚ but others didn’t.
“That some firms didn’t pull their funds despite other companies’ concerns points to a bit of an ‘old boys club’ operation with people just accepting the word of others in the industry.”
Brown said the financial industry needed introspection.
“Should we not at least as an industry that after looks after people’s pension have some introspection how we got this wrong?
“There are a lot of people saying I can’t see fraud‚ but I can’t see a quality business. Yet‚ we put R400-billion in pension money into this business.”
The R400-billion is when business was R95 a share some time last year.
Financial analyst Stuart Theobald agreed that numbers appeared reasonable but said people trusted Steinhoff main shareholder Cobus Wiese. “Wiese had a certain halo effect. People had committed faith in his abilities to manage complexity and stay on the right side of the law‚ while sometimes going close to the line.”