Yvonne Joyce and Eileen Maclean provide an insight into insolvency practitioner reporting in corporate insolvency proceedings.
- Insolvency reports, including statements of affairs, abstracts of receipts and payments (R&Ps), trading accounts, estimated outcome statements and the accompanying qualitative narrative, are a primary channel of communication between insolvency practitioners (IPs), creditors and shareholders. Insolvency reports provide creditors with information on how the IP has maximised value for the creditors and stewardship information on how the IP has managed scarce resources.
- Statements of Insolvency Practice 7, 9 and 14 set out the principles under which this information should be presented, but the indirect findings of a large-scale empirical research project undertaken by academics at Glasgow University suggests that reporting in insolvency is not straightforward, despite the requirements of the relevant SIPs.
- Yvonne Joyce and Eileen Maclean analyse the challenges this presents to the creditor body (the primary recipient of these reports) in terms of their ability to fully understand how the insolvency has been managed and to quantify the amounts paid out as dividends, and suggest room for improvement in practitioner reporting if the insolvency reports are to fulfil their important accountability and trust-building roles and comply with relevant SIPs.
Contemporary analysis of corporate reporting underlines the importance of robust communication between companies and a range of stakeholders. Corporate reports provide information on performance and stewardship information relating to the management of resources. Corporate reporting is therefore a key mechanism by which managers can account for their decisions and actions to different stakeholders. Corporate reports are also recognised as an important means of restoring trust among market participants (ICAS, 2018)<1>. The relevance of the above analyses to insolvency reporting ought to be clear. Insolvency reports, including statements of affairs, abstracts of receipts and payments (R&Ps), trading accounts, estimated outcome statements and the accompanying qualitative narrative, are a primary channel of communication between insolvency practitioners (IPs) and creditors and shareholders. Insolvency reports provide creditors with information on how the IP has maximised value for the creditors and stewardship information on how the IP has managed scarce resources.
Academic research has drawn attention to ‘information’ and ‘competence’ gaps between IPs and creditors (Joyce, 2019)<2>. An ‘information gap’ arises as a consequence of information asymmetry. IPs should be better informed than many creditors, having access to management and internal information systems. A ‘competence gap’ arises as a consequence of one party possessing expert knowledge of a situation compared with another. IPs are expected to have higher competence levels than many creditors on insolvency-related matters, being repeat players and professionally qualified. In this context, insolvency reports play an important role in mediating relationships between IPs and creditors, helping to build trust at a time of uncertainty (Joyce, 2019). However, their potential in this regard depends on the quality of information provided. According to SIP 7, insolvency reports should be clear, informative and presented in a manner that is transparent, consistent and useful to creditors.
The quality of information provided by IPs
Considering the above, the purpose of this article is to explore and debate the quality of information provision by IPs. It does so by summarising the indirect findings of a large-scale empirical research project undertaken by academics at Glasgow University<3>.
During the process of data gathering, it became apparent that reporting in insolvency was not straightforward, despite the requirements of relevant SIPs. This presents challenges to the creditor body (the primary recipient of these reports) in terms of their ability to fully understand how the insolvency has been managed and to help explain the monetary amounts paid out as dividends. These issues suggest room for improvement in practitioner reporting if the insolvency reports are to fulfil their important accountability and trust-building roles and comply with relevant SIPs.
Categorisation between fixed and floating charge assets
A key reporting issue identified was the allocation of realisations between different categories of assets and apportionment of costs. SIP 14 sets out best practice for receivers in cases where assets are subject to a floating charge. Despite the specific application to receivership, it is our view that the principles of SIP 14 ought to apply across all corporate insolvency proceedings, a point we return to later in this article.
In a significant number of cases, the format of R&P accounts is such that the categorisation between fixed and floating asset realisations and payments is unclear. Single headings are used, described only as ‘receipts’ or ‘asset realisations’ and ‘payments’ or ‘costs of realisation’, with a corresponding list of what the realisations and costs entail. Reporting in this way does not enable a straightforward and transparent view of how realisations relate to or have been apportioned between the different categories of assets and, furthermore, hinders an assessment of how costs have been allocated between fixed and floating charge asset realisations. Without a clear categorisation between fixed and floating charge assets, readers are often left to form ‘best guess’ allocations of realisations and costs. In the majority of cases, the narrative provided within the administrator’s reports is inadequate to form anything other than a ‘best guess’.
The level of dividends paid to preferential and unsecured creditors is a function of the funds realised from the disposal of assets subject to a floating charge net of the costs of realisation. SIP 14 reminds us that these returns are dependent not only on the correct categorisation of the assets but also on the appropriate allocation of costs incurred in effecting realisations. Data gathering revealed the difficulties in assessing the allocation of the administrator’s fees and expenses between fixed and floating asset realisations. There was usually no explanation of how administrator’s fees had been split and the SIP 9 data was of little help. In fact, SIP 9 data often supported time spent on ‘asset realisations’ (including property) but with no corresponding allocation of fees to fixed asset realisations on the R&P accounts. Greater transparency over allocation of significant cost items, such as office-holders’ fees and legal fees, is of paramount importance, given the knock-on effects on the calculation of a prescribed part.
Where these issues become most apparent is in cases where the secured creditor appears to be ‘overpaid’ from the net proceeds of their fixed charge assets. According to SIP 7, realisations of assets subject to charges should be shown, with the amounts accounted for to the charge holder shown separately as payments. However, in some cases, the net asset realisations less payments to the secured creditor was reported as a ‘negative’ figure. Reading between the lines, a reader must assume that an element of floating charge asset realisations has effectively been applied to the secured creditor’s debt. While the ‘end result’ may be correct, R&P accounts should be presented in a way that ‘makes sense’. In some of these cases, a prescribed part could have theoretically been calculated (or could have been higher) and a (higher) distribution made to unsecured creditors.
Reporting the statutory objective of administration
The Glasgow University project collected information on which statutory objective the administrator was pursuing, the formal exit route and the administration outcome. Preliminary analysis of these variables suggests that corporate rescue is rarely achieved (the majority of cases are asset sales and approximately half of the cases pursue statutory objective c)). This result is not new. Prior studies have revealed similar findings, suggesting that administration tends to be used as means of trying to rescue the ‘business’ rather than the legal entity (Joyce, 2014)<4>. However, what this project does find is that there is insufficient explanation of how the administrator has arrived at the chosen statutory objective. Beyond the restatement of statutory wording, there is rarely any relevant and useful information provided by the office-holder on why they deem the chosen objective to be most appropriate to the case in hand. Furthermore, given the tendency for asset sales, readers are often left wondering why administration was chosen over liquidation.
In several cases, a clear statement of which statutory objective is being pursued was not provided. It was observed that either the chosen statutory objective was not stated, following the ‘boiler plate’ descriptions of the three objectives, or the proposal stated that both objectives b) and c) were being pursued apparently at the same time. The research project, which tracks cases through to completion, also revealed some instances where the stated statutory objective appears inconsistent with the formal exit route or the reported administration outcome.
General reporting issues
A wide range of general reporting issues was observed and a flavour of some of these is briefly discussed here. In cases where the company in administration enters a CVL, a common occurrence was for the ‘closing balance’ on the final set of administrator’s accounts to differ from the ‘opening balance’ (or ‘funds transferred from administrator’) on the first set of liquidator’s accounts. One explanation for this is that the ‘closing date’ and the ‘opening date’ are not necessarily the same. However, in these instances, this effectively leads to a ‘missing period of account’. In cases where the closing date of the administrator’s final R&P is the same as the opening date of the liquidator’s first R&P, no explanation is given for what in some cases are substantial differences of value.
It was also quite common to find a ‘final balance’ on the administrator’s last R&P account. Sometimes this is noted as ‘bank balances’ or ‘VAT control accounts’, but there is no explanation of what this means or what will happen to these funds.
Inconsistencies from one progress report to another or even within the same report were also encountered. The filing of documents with Companies House was also confusing in a small number of cases. For example, the notice of move from administration to dissolution is filed after the notice of end of administration or after the notice of automatic end. A further issue is reporting under English rules for Scotland-registered companies.
Summary and policy recommendations
SIP 7 states that insolvency reports should be produced with the interests of the reader in mind. Earlier in this article, we noted the theoretical possibility of information and competence gaps between IPs and creditors. The above snapshot of reporting clearly highlights the difficulties facing the general body of creditors in understanding how the IP has taken care of, managed and realised the company’s assets. It also reveals the difficulties in understanding what factors have ultimately driven the value of creditor dividends. A concern is a lack of transparency and therefore understandability for creditors. Reports are not consistent across a case and a considerable amount of ‘toing and froing’ is required between reports. Unfortunately, even then, a ‘best guess’ is quite often the end result for the reader. Insolvency reports must be capable of providing a ‘stand-alone’ account of how the office-holder has fulfilled their statutory duties and provide creditors with a clear account of the office-holder’s stewardship activities. Greater care and attention ought to be directed towards the preparation of these reports and accounts. IPs, whose names ultimately appear on these documents, must be satisfied with their accuracy, consistency and understandability before they are sent to creditors and made available to the public.
The ambiguity surrounding the allocation of realisations and costs to fixed and floating charge assets was observed in a significant number of cases. From a creditor’s perspective, this ambiguity and lack of transparency makes it more difficult for them to understand why, in many cases, they are receiving very little or no dividend. The qualitative information contained within the reports should be consistent and helpful in explaining the financial position presented in R&Ps. This article and the wider research project that underpins it therefore support the revision of SIP 14 and the argument that SIP 14 should be best practice across all corporate insolvency proceedings.
Consideration may also be given towards improving the required content and format of the explanation and justification within the administrator’s proposal of the chosen statutory objective. Given the rare occurrence of statutory objective a) administrations, attention may be directed towards enhancing the explanations offered for why administration has been chosen rather than liquidation.
Finally, it may be worth considering whether a reconciliation ought to be provided by the liquidator between the closing balance per the administrator’s accounts and the opening balance per the first set of liquidation accounts.
<2>Joyce, Y. (2019) Building Trust in Crisis Management: A Study of Insolvency Practitioners and the Role of Accounting Information and Processes, Contemporary Accounting Research, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1911-3846.12577
<3>The researchers are Yvonne Joyce (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Betty Wu, from Glasgow University, Adam Smith Business School, Accounting and Finance. The final data set comprises the full population of Scottish registered companies entering administration during 2012-2013.
<4>Joyce, Y. (2014) Knowledge mandates in the state-profession dynamic: A study of the British insolvency profession. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 39 (8), pp. 590-614. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361368214000555?via%3Dihub
Yvonne Joyce (BA Hons CA) is senior lecturer in accountancy at Glasgow University
Eileen Maclean (MA Hons MIPA MABRP MBA) is director of Insolvency Support Services Ltd