| | | Effective PR

Australian banking cartel case. The underlying problem explained

BIScom Subsection: 
Editorial Staff

There's a huge amount of excitement in Australia about the prosecution of several bankers for colluding in a share support scheme where a share issue did not fully sell out. Instead of being charged with market manipulation, itself a serious offence, federal prosecutors have taken the alternative of charging them with cartel offences. There's a lot of people spinning like tops, having panic attacks about what it means for investment banking and the professional support services like lawyers and accountants that are a central part of all public offers. But there is nothing complex about the fundamentals of the case.

A public company, ANZ Bank, as it happens, but that's actually not very important to this aspect of the story, wanted to raise capital and chose to do so by issuing a large number of shares. It appointed a team of investment banks, lawyers and accountants to advise on the offer and, in the case of the investment banks, it was part of the arrangement that they would "underwrite" the sale which means that in return for a fee, they agree to buy any unsold shares. The investment banks, lawyers and accountants advised on the price that the shares should be sold at.

By most standards and expectations, the share sale was a flop. Around one third of the shares were not sold and the banks found themselves left with a large number of shares and the bank found itself with a large shortfall.

OK, so, that's all stuff that bankers and financial lawyers and accountants can relate to but in the real world it's a bit distant from reality. Let's make it simple:

Retailers order seasonal stock about three months in advance. Once it's left the factory gate, the orders can't be changed. So, from that moment on, the retailer is 100% committed to the stock.

The long range weather forecast shows that it's going to be a long, hot summer and travel agents are reporting that bookings for summer holidays are already coming in. So the retailer orders more swimsuits in more styles. As winter draws to a close, a ship leaves Shanghai bound for Southampton with a container full of swimwear ranging from the stuff your granny might wear to stuff that is best described as risqué. As it ploughs its way north on the last leg of its trip, the ship passes some of the very places that the retailer expects the clothes to attract attention on the beaches.

Then it starts to rain. Not just a bit, a lot. And it keeps raining. Weather forecasters say they can't explain it. They say they have gone over the data again and again, looking back for months and still they can't find out why summer has been cancelled.

The swimwear is now in warehouses all over the country. The retailer doesn't know what to do with it. What looked like the right commercial decision has turned out to be a disaster. They put some of it out, but they are left with a lot. And it's time to produce a periodic report for shareholders. So they issue a statement saying that their summer sales are going well but there has been a slight dip in some product lines due to the weather. And they keep quiet about the huge stock of unsold - and unsellable - swimwear. The market is reassured. Their share price is unaffected.

So, they have chosen to omit from that report information that is material to their share price. In most highly regulated markets, that's an offence.

If they had agreed with others to hide the true position, that would have been conspiracy or collusion or, even, a cartel arrangement.

So, it's not really that complicated at its heart.