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The high street is reeling after a winter of ill health. Toys R Us, Maplin, House of Fraser, Claire’s: it seems that even stalwarts of the retail landscape aren’t immune to rising rents, the burgeoning ecommerce market and wavering consumer confidence. Below Finance Monthly gains special insight from Andrew Watts, Founding Partner, KHWS, The Brand Commerce Agency, on the impact behavioural science can have on high street performance.

Many other household names appear on the brink of crashing. The question must now be, is the high-street blight another blip or could it this time be terminal?

Nowhere are the symptoms more obvious than casual dining chains like Prezzo, Carluccio’s and Jamie’s Italian. These eateries and others like them have enjoyed the benefits of the booming experience economy in recent years, but not anymore.

Their current troubles are based in low consumer confidence which started with the financial crash almost a decade ago. As real-term income has dropped, and the cost of raw materials increased, consumers have become even more selective about how they spend their disposable income. Retail therapy is no longer proving the consumer tonic that it once was, and even the experience economy is under pressure. A nice experience is no longer enough; spending must result in a clear benefit and value for money.

The homogenised nature of casual dining is a sound example. The majority of chains are backed by private equity, so scale and profit are a key part of their basic business strategy. As a consequence, each brand offers similar mediocre food and a mirror-image dining experience. It’s become harder to charm consumers into splashing out and coming back. Add rising prices to the mix, and people can be forgiven for dining out less.

What’s unfolding in casual dining is symptomatic of a wider malaise on the high street, but this trauma needn’t be fatal. In casual dining, we can see the possible remedies that can be used to salve other areas of retail - a natural downsizing of the market coupled with stronger brand differentiation.

Understanding consumer behaviour is of fundamental importance to succeeding in this landscape. Establishing how and why spending decisions are made will empower brands to tailor their marketing messages accordingly. Behavioural science-led marketing techniques are now enabling brands to do just this, something that has not previously been possible.

Working in partnership with Durham University Business School, we examined the hardwired short-cuts – known as heuristics – that everyone uses to make decisions. We then identified and reframed the nine most relevant to purchase decisions; we refer to them as Sales Triggers.

For casual dining brands, there are two Sales Triggers that are particularly relevant and could prove the cure for the current problems ailing them: Brand Budgeting and Less Means More. This means using marketing messaging to demonstrate real value in a crowded marketplace (Brand Budgeting) and also offering something different or exclusive that enhances the experience when dining (Less Means More).

Despite the seemingly dismal outlook on the high street, some retailers are bucking the trend. Grocery discounters like Aldi and Lidl are triumphing because of their successful use of the Brand Budgeting and Less Means More Sales Triggers. There are some success stories in fashion retail, too. FatFace and Ted Baker have done well in the past quarter, posting robust Christmas sales. This is down to two things: a good product range and a strong reputation. This demonstrates their use of two Sales Trigger. FatFace uses Choice Reduction to simplify information and choice, so people don’t suffer from overload and default to their current behaviour. Ted Baker utilises the obvious truth, communicating well-held positive views of the brand’s heritage, to provide people with information that they are unconsciously seeking to confirm their beliefs.

Flourishing retailers are those who invest in understanding the key Sales Triggers that inform the purchasing behaviour of their customer base, and tailor their service output, products, tech and shopping environment accordingly. High-street brands seeking to replicate and sustain such successes can then use these insights to inform their marketing strategy. This differs from sector to sector, but can be clarified by a behavioural science-led approach which can inform marketing and ultimately present an offering and point of difference that will boost retailer longevity.

There’s no quick fix, but with the right sort of changes, the current retail retrenchment doesn’t need to be a terminal issue for the high street. Gaining a deeper understanding through behavioural science of how shoppers could help cure the pressures on the high street.

With the upcoming introduction of IFRS 17, the new insurance contracts standard, the Financial Stability Board (FSB) is calling for implementation as soon as possible. Under IFRS 17, insurance obligations will be accounted for using current values, instead of historical cost. Martin Sarjeant, Global Risk Solutions Expert, FIS, below provides Finance Monthly with a thorough account of why firms should welcome the change.

With concerns over costs and a perceived lack of benefits among some insurers, there’s a prevailing mood of doom and gloom about IFRS 17. But rather than striking a deathly blow to the balance sheet, I believe that the new accounting standard for insurance contracts spells good news for insurers and stakeholders.

From this radical “glass half full” viewpoint, I’ve identified seven big benefits that IFRS 17 will bring to the insurance industry:

  1. Liabilities valued at market value
    By bringing the valuation of insurance contracts in line with both the assets that back them and valuations made in other industries, IFRS 17 will initiate better product design and greater transparency. As IASB chairman Hans Hoogervorst explains: “Proper accounting shines light on risks that might otherwise go unnoticed – both by companies themselves and by investors.” So, although the standard may appear initially to weaken some insurers’ balance sheets, it will actually encourage better pricing of insurance contracts and strengthen the balance sheet over time.
  2. Truer reflection of profits
    In some jurisdictions, insurers have designed products to maximize early profits. For example, if an insurer sells a 10-year insurance contract, with premiums paid for one year, it generates massive profits in the first year and then small losses afterwards. IFRS 17, by contrast, measures profit in line with the services performed and spreads it over the contract’s life in a series of smaller cash flows – giving more insight into how profit emerges. The standard also excludes deposit coverage from revenue calculations, which will especially affect the accounting of thinly veiled savings contracts – and, again, help better reflect reality.
  3. Nearly global consistency 
    A consistent and high-quality accounting standard for all insurance contracts across most jurisdictions has to be a good thing, right? Particularly for multinational insurers, it will reduce the long-term costs of compliance and make it easier to compare business units and aggregate results and financial statements. What’s not to like?
  4. Collaboration between actuaries and accountants
    Both actuaries and accountants look after the interests of stakeholders and help manage insurers’ finances and risks. But in many organizations, these are still siloed functions with little interaction or understanding of each other’s activities. IFRS 17 will drive them to work together and establish mutual respect and cooperation, which would mean good news for stakeholders and improve the way the company is managed in the future.
  5. Better governance of actuarial systems
    For more than a decade, many insurers have been raising their governance game and reaping tremendous benefits such as lower operational risks and reduced ongoing costs. Others, however, continue to use actuarial systems without the control and automation that IFRS 17 demands. Improving governance standards will not only help achieve compliance but also reduce costs, minimize manual errors and make it easier to access risk insight, all leading to better management of the business.
  6. Greater protection for policyholders
    IFRS 17 will help strengthen insurance company balance sheets (see benefit 1) and offer more protection to policyholders as a result.
  7. Investor confidence
    All the above improvements to the accounting standard give investors proper insight into insurance companies, allowing them to compare one firm with another more consistently. This can only improve investors’ confidence in and understanding of insurers – surely another reason to be cheerful.

However you look at IFRS 17, nothing will stop it from coming into force in more than 100 countries in 2021. So, why not ditch the despair, seize the opportunity for change, embrace the benefits – and see the many positive sides of compliance?

This week Tesco finally agreed to a £129 million fine for overstating its profits in 2014, thus avoiding prosecution. This agreement, made by Tesco Stores Ltd. Follows a two-year probe from the SFO. Not only did Tesco suffer majorly from share price hits, but is now also facing a huge fine for its errors. Alex Ktorides, Head of Ethics and Risk Management at Gordon Dadds LLP, here provides Finance Monthly with a specialist overview of the matter, and hints at potential implications for any business missing the mark when it comes to such critical internal vulnerabilities.

Tesco appears this week to have reached a key stage in the financial misstatement scandal that so badly hit its share price and reputation in 2014.

A brief recap. The retailer, in or about September 2014, shocked the financial world when it admitted that it had identified an apparent £250 million overstatement of its profits. The central problem was that it was alleged that Tesco had significantly overstated its profits by supposedly booking rebates (receipts) from suppliers that it had not yet received. A range of regulators became involved as the Tesco share price took a serious hit in the wake of the revelations.

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Misstating profits, as in the Tesco case, can give rise to a number of concurrent investigations in the UK, all involving different investigating and prosecuting authorities with differently sized sticks with which to beat the offending corporate entity and singled out individuals.

First in the firing line (though there is no magical order in reality) are the internal financial directors and external auditors who will likely face serious scrutiny from the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), which has in the past brought investigations in relation to past scandals such as Torex, Cattles and car manufacturer, Rover.

The FRC has a range of powers including fines and sanctions against individuals and the auditing firms.  This will not be a cheap case to defend (FRC investigators invariably outsource forensic accounting investigatory aspects, the costs of which it will seek to recoup) and which may or may not be covered by the terms of professional indemnity insurance depending on the programme carried by the auditor in question.

Secondly will be the SFO investigation. The SFO will not be shy in seeking information and this will include amongst other things extensive disclosure of documents, countless recorded meetings and a range of witness statements and experts’ reports. Not a short process, nor one which is stress free.

The FCA will also be interested in protecting the public. In the instance of alleged misstatement of profits, as in the Tesco case, the ‘public’ are the investors and shareholders buying shares in a listed entity in a major regulated market such as the FTSE 100.

Similar to the ‘soft dollar’ settlements propounded by the SEC in the US, the FCA will look to quickly assess the period during which the share price may have been artificially inflated (or indeed in some cases, deflated) and look to impose or agree a settlement scheme as swiftly as possible. There is precedent to this, as well as the Tesco scheme announced very recently.  In the mid-2000’s the FSA (now FCA) put huge pressure on the IFA sector to agree with Aberdeen Asset Management and others a financial compensation scheme for individual investors miss-sold so-called ‘split-cap’ investment trusts. This was no easy feat for the then Chief of the FSA John Tiner who was (anecdotally) personally calling up the professional indemnity insurers of those advisors involved in a bid to speed up the implementation of the compensation scheme. One imagines that Tesco and its management/insurers will be receiving similar pressure to agree the £85m scheme it has just announced.

Tesco’s Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) – if it is sanctioned in the Southwark Crown Court next week – will be the fourth reached by the SFO. All of the DPAs reached so far have involved very different allegations and conduct (see Rolls Royce for example). The allegations involving Tesco relate to relatively short periods of time and very specific behaviour of alleged accounting errors involving the early booking of receipts from suppliers.

There is one common feature to the DPAs reached so far, and that is that each of the corporates under investigation that have successfully reached DPAs with the SFO have been seen to be cooperating with the investigation. That does appear to be a crucial aspect of the potential for reaching a DPA with the SFO.

So, what to do if an investigation occurs? The first thing is to obtain advice speedily. It may be necessary for legal advice to be obtained by different advisors and professional firms, with individuals quite often having to be separately advised to the corporate entities. A DPA may be the obvious and best solution and these are always predicated on cooperation. Very often in the case of enforcement proceedings or criminal investigations, cooperation is a vital component of reaching agreement and this is only increased significantly with the advent of DPAs. Indeed, in a recent speech, the director of the SFO stated that DPAs are not the ‘new normal’ but rather will only be available where there has been significant cooperation which is meaningful evidence by the corporation in question.

Cooperation can take many forms including but not limited to, the provision of documents (this sounds simple but often in reality these are frequently requested in huge volumes and under tight timescales and in a format that the SFO’s computing experts can easily handle). In the Polly Peck case, revisited on the return of Asil Nadir after some 19 years in the sun of Northern Cyprus, the SFO had recourse to review thousands of documents which were in some cases 20 years old and it was fortunate indeed that they had been retained at all.

DPAs can lead to a swifter conclusion of investigations (which are of course very damaging) and discounts on any penalties. Also, receiving reduced sentencing for those cooperating with the prosecutors may be on the table.

In summary, financial accounting methods and over or understating profit is a business critical issue. The implications – financial penalty, share price collapse, civil compensation schemes, expensive regulatory and criminal investigations, loss of income and in some cases, prison – are as serious as it gets in the corporate world. As Tesco has shown us (and a glance at current cases with both the SFO and FCA shows us that there are many more to come, not least of all such big brands as Barclays, Airbus Group and GlaxoSmithKline) misstating profits is a short term boost towards long term pain. The settlements with the FCA and SFO as a special offer that Tesco will not be looking to repeat.

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