The retailer’s troubles continue after accounting blunder leaves the value of its stock inflated
Ted Baker’s well-respected new finance boss has certainly wasted no time in getting to grips with the troubled fashion chain. Rachel Osborne, who joined from Debenhams last month fresh from defeating chief antagonist Mike Ashley in court, has discovered that as much as £25m of its stock may not exist after all.
How serious is a blunder of this size? It’s hard to say. The company won’t know until an independent investigation led by magic circle law firm Freshfields and independent director Sharon Baylay has been concluded.
However, that’s a lot of misplaced shirts, which doesn’t bode well for a chain that has been in disarray since founder and hugger-in-chief Ray Kelvin stepped down in March amid allegations of improper behaviour.
The retailer has unravelled faster than a snagged cardy, and its share price with it, tumbling by more than four fifths in just nine months following a slew of profit warnings. A fall of another 8pc yesterday leaves the shares at a decade low of 364p. The company says that the error relates to “prior years” and there will be “no cash impact” so an adjustment to historic accounts, rather than current forecasts, is expected, which is somewhat reassuring given October’s shocking results.
The first-half loss, which missed expectations by a cool £20m, was the first since it listed on the Stock Exchange in 1997 and boss Lindsay Page claims current trading is the worst in 30 years.
Still, as analysts at Peel Hunt point out, glitches of this nature are not unheard off. Often it is nothing more than the result of a simple systems malfunction, and for most companies would be little more than a bump in the road.
At somewhere like Ted Baker though, it will raise further questions about whether the company has spiralled out of control. There are already concerns about whether a board that includes a chairman and two non-execs, all of whom are seventy-something males, is equipped to fix a brand suspected of losing relevance among its younger customers.
It is embarrassing for Page, who served as finance director for an incredible 22 years before replacing Kelvin earlier this year. It also casts fresh doubt over the competency of KPMG which has been Ted Baker’s auditor for the past 15 years.
The accountant was hit with a £3m fine last year after admitting misconduct over its work in 2012 and 2013. There is speculation that Kelvin, sitting on more than a third of the stock, may be tempted to return with a cut-price buyout bid. Yet, with every fresh clanger that becomes an even bigger leap of faith.
CMA hard man picks Big Tech fight
Lord Tyrie was expected to flex his muscles as chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority, and he hasn’t disappointed.
Having fired an exocet into Sainsbury’s planned merger with Asda, the watchdog now looks to be waging war on Big Tech.
First came the launch of an inquiry into Facebook and Google’s possible abuse of dominance in the online advertising market. Then he slapped Amazon with an investigation into its plan to take a small stake in Deliveroo.
Now, the former select committee hard man has gone looking for a fight with Google in the US with a review into its $2.6bn (£2bn) takeover of cloud computing services provider Looker.
This looks like Tyrie is drawing a line in the sand, saying that he won’t allow the Silicon Valley giants to hoover up any smaller competitors while a full-blown investigation into the structure of digital markets is in the works.
Facebook and Google control roughly two thirds of Britain’s £13bn digital advertising market. The CMA is rightly concerned that the pair can abuse their dominance of customer data to shut-out competition and overcharge advertisers, who then pass the costs onto consumers.
There is a broader worry too that the cash gusher from the duopoly is used to expand and strengthen their dominance over the entire digital economy by snapping up anything that could challenge Google and Facebook. It’s telling that the only company that appears to have any hope of breaking the duopoly is Amazon, an online giant bigger and uglier than either of them.
Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for instance maintained its grip on young people online even as its core product became mostly a forum for grandparents to share family snaps and their views on Brexit.
Google’s swoop on Doubleclick way back in 2007 gave it massive sway over the digital ad chain at a time when regulators were more concerned with local newspaper mergers. Tyrie will not want the CMA to stand by and make those mistakes again.
It can only be good news for consumers and markets if the tech giants are prevented from getting any bigger.
But it is a serious blow for any European tech start-ups who had pinned their hopes for a big payday on one of Silicon Valley’s beasts.