Fran O'Sullivan: NZ refuses to learn lessons of failure

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Dick Smith's failure is now being examined in public, in the NSW Supreme Court. Photo / Dean Purcell
Dick Smith's failure is now being examined in public, in the NSW Supreme Court. Photo / Dean Purcell

The Australians don't muck when about it comes to publicly probing into the root cause of high-profile company collapses, and neither should we.

As the anatomy of the Dick Smith collapse - being played out in the NSW Supreme Court this week - shows, when it comes to apportioning blame for the destruction of an Australian retail icon, there is no hesitation in grilling managers and directors.

As the ABC reports, the inquiry into Dick Smith has "heard a litany of dodgy accounting, boardroom division and poor strategy".

The inquiry's aim is to find whether the directors or senior management of Dick Smith are liable for the stores' collapse. A secondary aim is to find out if the banks which lent to the company can still recover losses from the insurance of directors and officers.

Dick Smith was placed in voluntary administration on January 4 this year.

Ferrier Hodgson was appointed as receiver and manager. An attempt to sell the business came to nothing. On February 25 it was announced that all Dick Smith stores in Australia and New Zealand would close, leading to job losses for 3300 employees.

The interesting point about what is happening in Sydney is that Ferrier Hodgson is using its powers under sections 586A and 597B of the Corporations Act to question the group. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) is also conducting its own investigation.

Importantly, the company's collapse is being thrashed out in public within six months of the retail chain going belly-up.

There is zero chance of this happening with a high-profile collapse in New Zealand.
Here, far too many major company collapses - particularly financial institutions - are probed in private but the results are not made public unless a court case ensues.
This can take years.

A case in point is the high-profile action that the Financial Markets Authority took against the failed Hanover Group of companies.

The FMA settled the claim out of court in exchange for payments totalling $18 million on the basis of "no admission of liability". Neither the public nor the Hanover investors will ever get to know just what went on at board level in the lead-up to Hanover's failure.

But in Australia it is highly unlikely that either the authorities or the Australian public would have condoned a move to the settlement phase without at least ensuring that the lessons learnt from the failure were made public.

Here, far too many major company collapses - particularly financial institutions - are probed in private but the results are not made public unless a court case ensues.

In New Zealand, there has have been plenty of other cases led by liquidators. The FMA has powers to lead civil actions on behalf of investors. And the FMA, its predecessor the Securities Commission, and the Serious Fraud Office have launched criminal actions to considerable success, particularly against finance companies following the mid-2000s sector collapse.

But these are highly targeted affairs.

A Parliamentary inquiry probed the finance company collapses. But it shied away from directly tackling the responsibilities of the Securities Commission and the Reserve Bank. It's arguable that both these institutions could have been far more proactive and closed down some operations ahead of the bust.

The SFO took action against some of the directors of the failed South Canterbury Finance.
But a public inquiry should have probed the role of Treasury in allowing SCF to continue to operate under a government guarantee when it was in receipt of warnings from the Reserve Bank that SCF was outside its operating agreement.

The Government hopes to get back a large portion of the South Canterbury Finance bailout package. But again, it is not prepared to look for the obvious lessons.

This mindset has been endemic since late 1989.

The collapse of DFC New Zealand in 1989 and the subsequent taxpayer-led Bank of New Zealand bailout in 1990 were never publicly probed via royal commissions.

Again in Australia, the State Bank of South Australia collapsed in 1991 and was bailed out by A$970 million of taxpayer money.

The parallels with NZ were strong. Both BNZ and State Bank had been profligate with their lending policies.

The difference is that there was a full royal commission into the State Bank collapse.

Here, directors' reputations - and the decisions by BNZ and DFC senior management -were not exposed to the glare of a public probe.

The difference was palpable.

When State Bank collapsed, investigators came to New Zealand to look at some dodgy loans made here for an Auditor-General of South Australia inquiry to determine the causes of the bank's need for Government support.

As in the NZ bank collapses, the level of non-performing assets was critical.

But the Auditor-General also attributed blame: "a contributing cause of the institution's financial failure" was the failure by the bank to adequately manage the debt, capital, and the bank's interest rate and liquidity risk. The report suggested this was because of "policy and procedural inadequacies", and the lack of effective supervision and control of some of the bank's activities, which contributed to its mismanagement.

No inquiries here. Go figure.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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