Lessons from Carillion

If we are to prevent another Carillion from happening, boards and institutional shareholders need to take responsibility, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

The collapse of construction and support-services group Carillion has left a lot of people with a lot of explaining to do. First up, the UK's equity analysts. Even in 2015, says the Financial Times, two-thirds rated Carillion's shares a buy despite warning signs in its accounts. The managers are also in the firing line. Why on earth were they taking huge bonuses in the face of a failure they surely saw coming? Why did they take on so much debt (if there is one lesson for investors here, it is to avoid companies with high levels of debt)? And why did they keep paying dividends, even as their cash-flow woes mounted?

The UK's institutional shareholders are hardly blameless either. They bore on endlessly about how they take a long-term view so why were they demanding those dividends from a firm that was clearly stressed? Short-termism at its worst(see this week's cover story for more on firms who pay dividends that they probably shouldn't). Next there is the civil service (and hence the government) awarding major contracts to firms you know might not be able to deliver is embarrassingly irresponsible. So to whom should all of these people be explaining themselves?

There is the taxpayer: equity and bondholders will take the first financial hit, but the taxpayer will be next: all the contracts will have to be re-tendered and interim arrangements made while the bids come in and that's before we get the bill for the inevitable inquiries. There are the small subcontractors who may find the administration and cash-flow crunch of Carillion's bankruptcy leads to their own. And the workers some will lose jobs; all will have sleepless nights.

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Finally, there are the pensioners. The Pension Protection Fund (PPF), which takes on the schemes of bankrupt firms, reckons it will cost around £900m to look after members of Carillion's various schemes, even though they will pay current pensioners lower cost-of-living increases than they have been used to, and slash the eventual payments of those who aren't yet retired. But Carillion's pensioners aren't the only victims.

The PPF works like a reverse tontine: it is financed by a levy on all other defined-benefit schemes. The more that fail and have to be taken on by the PPF, the more the survivors have to pay which can only make them a little more vulnerable themselves (the PPF levy for next year is currently £550m it will now surely rise).

None of this will make the firms that finance those remaining schemes feel confident: with not just your own pension scheme hanging around your neck but everyone else's too, why would you raise wages or invest heavily in the future? That's not a dynamic that is good for any of us. My point is simple, and it is one I have made many times before. Too many institutional shareholders and too many boards act as if their behaviour only affects them. It isn't so.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.