“Autonomy’s technology allows computers to harness the full richness of human information, forming a conceptual and contextual understanding of any piece of electronic data”. Thus a footnote to one of the company’s constant light drizzle of petty announcements in 2011 when it was a listed company, this one for an order from an un-named US bank worth $50m “over the next few years.”

There were those who claimed to understand exactly what Autonomy did when it wasn’t gobbling up other mysterious companies, while others gave up the unequal struggle and produced research questioning the whole enterprise. The bulls propelled the company into the FTSE100, and to a $11bn takeover by Hewlett-Packard, the maker of overpriced printing inks that was looking for something more exciting.

The acrimony broke out almost as soon as the deal closed, poleaxing the HP stock price, and the two sides have been exchanging fire ever since. HP has been muttering darkly about fake sales, and last week published restated 2010 accounts for Autonomy showing half the previously declared revenues, and 81 per cent less profit.

That’s quite some restatement. A member of Autonomy’s former management blames HP for not nurturing the delicate flower of its technology, and then talks of differing accounting treatments. Neither explanation begins to bridge such a gap, although the new numbers do produce the handy side-effect of cutting HP’s UK tax bill.

Autonomy’s auditors Deloitte are sticking to their guns, but HP’s auditors, Ernst & Young, won’t give an opinion on the restated numbers, citing lack of  “appropriate evidence”. This is curious indeed, since we’re told that nothing electronic is ever destroyed nowadays, so it may owe something to the reluctance of one big four accounting firm to attack another.

There’s so much money at stake here that court action seems inevitable. While erudite arguments over sales recognition may not grab the headlines, an independent analysis of Autonomy’s accounting methods is urgently needed. Outside the profession, audited accounts are still seen as something to rely on, even if the signatories no longer claim that they present a true and fair view. In this case the process seems so inexact that it’s hardly a science at all. Accounting bodies, please note.

Then there’s the little matter of due diligence from HP and its advisers. There was plenty of work from analysts doubting Autonomy’s ability to “harness the full richness of human information” before the bid. Studying some of it might have saved billions for HP shareholders, who might now look to those advisers to get some of it back.

A fine whine

With a bit of luck, you didn’t invest in Fine Wine‘s Bordeaux Fund. Launched in 2008, it’s to be wound up, and £100 invested then will turn into about £42. We’re constantly being told that wine is one of those wonderful alternative asset classes which have made returns from shares look pedestrian, so this sort of performance is something of a shock.

Andrew della Casa of Anpero Capital, which advised the fund, says that the bottles themselves didn’t do too badly. The damage was done by gearing up the fund, and the management and storage charges. Together, these turned an 8 per cent gain over five years into the 58 per cent loss. Mr della Casa says other funds advised by Anpero have done better, but the Bordeaux Fund is another reminder of Woody Allen’s definition of a stockbroker as a man who invests your money until it’s all gone.

Why is Amazon like RBS?

The head office curse has already struck the Royal Bank of Scotland. Its memorial to corporate hubris at Gogarburn would be redundant should Scotland become independent, since the bank is far too big for the Scottish economy to support in a crisis, and Vince Cable is convinced that the bank would have to flee south. Away in downtown Seattle, Amazon is buying land, and building three 38-storey blocks and a circular dog park for an anticipated 12,000 workers. As with RBS, the cost hardly bears thinking about, suggesting corporate nemesis around 2017 when the project is due to complete. At least Gogarburn, so handy for Edinburgh airport, would make a fine hotel.

This is my FT column from Saturday

Advertisements