COVID-19 Profit Warnings: Delivering Bad News in a Time of Crisis

19/01/2021

In our Zoom for Thought on January 19th, 2021, UCD Discovery Director Professor Patricia Maguire spoke to Niamh Brennan, Michael MacCormac Professor of Management at UCD, and Founder/Academic Director of the UCD Centre for Corporate Governance about “COVID-19 Profit Warnings: Delivering Bad News in a Time of Crisis”. In case you missed it, here are our Top Takeaway Thoughts. 

Profit Warnings

A financial report called a profit warning discloses unexpected news to investors. There have been many since the pandemic began. Brennan and her colleagues Dr Sean Power in UCD and Dr Victoria Edgar from Norway’s Agder University collected 568 trading updates from the London Stock Exchange, extracting 164 profit warnings. “We conclude that the quality of the disclosures in the profit warnings are very poor and that companies regressed to silence. In a time of extreme uncertainty, such as a Covid time, investors need good quality information. So it's quite damning that companies have been so poor in their disclosures.”

 

Corporate Governance Scandals

The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) is “on its knees following poor governance arising from the chief executive having captured the board”. The board then “became subservient to him”. Another example of bad corporate governance is German outfit Wirecard, which collapsed last year despite years of clean audit reports. “It turns out that €1.9 billion in the balance sheet did not exist. The chief operating officer is still on the run; nobody knows where he is.” A third example is British cake shop chain, Patisserie Valerie. “It couldn’t be simpler from a financial reporting point of view. The company was exposed to a fraud, in which nobody stole any money, but six people engaged in fraudulent financial reporting, distorting the results of the company.” The reason? It was “easier to commit a fraud than to tell any bad news to the hard-nosed, results-driven Executive Chairman”.

 

Regulation Versus Human Behaviour

Despite the many rules and checks, “corporate governance, at the end of the day, is about human behaviour”. The FAI’s implosion “wasn't about regulations; it was down to human behaviour”. Likewise Patisserie Valerie’s chairman frightened staff so much “they couldn't tell him the business is not doing well”. He owned 35% of the company and personally lost £220 million.

 

Impact and Aftermath

Most people aren't aware of corporate governance until it directly impacts their lives. Irish football supporters traditionally might not have had much interest in how the FAI was run - “But they do now”. It was an organisation with a huge number of stakeholders, particularly football fans. “All of those fans are now gutted that poor corporate governance has ruined the sport for them. Without money and resources, it's hard to see the Irish team being successful in future football competitions”. Such board-level failures affect our lives in “very broad ways. Take for example the banking crisis. That followed poor corporate governance and all of us have had to pay for that.” 

  

Interdisciplinary Ideas

A first-class honours, first-in-class UCD Science (Microbiology and Biochemistry) graduate, Brennan went on to qualify as a chartered accountant with KPMG. She is a firm believer in the value of interdisciplinary research. “To get published in the really good journals, you have to have really good ideas. And I look to other disciplines to get my ideas.” She has recently collaborated on a paper with linguist Professor Doris Merkl-Davies from Bangor University, who “has brilliant ideas from communication and linguistics, which we then bring into financial reporting”. Brennan has also co-authored a paper that used psychiatrist Lord David Owen’s fourteen symptoms of hubris to analyse the annual report of a bank. “The title of the paper is Executive Hubris: the Case of a Bank CEO. And like Icarus the bank CEO flew too close to the sun and his metaphorical wings melted. He fell and crashed to Earth. But worse still, the bank crashed to earth too.”

 

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