Thursday, 19 February 2009

Now, let me see ...

A number of prominent news stories crossed my mind today as I watched England's cricketers limp and hobble their way to failure in Antigua. My thought-process was: Antigua - cricket - Stanford - anti-terror laws - banks - Madoff - MPs' expenses.

Nothing is as big in Antigua as cricket. For those who don't follow these things, England were scheduled to play a match against the West Indies on Antigua's new ground last week but it had to be abandoned after a short period of play because the ground was unfit. To the enormous credit of Antigua's cricket authorities a replacement match was arranged at very short notice on the island's old ground, and it is that match that ended today with England snatching a draw from the jaws of certain victory. Antigua's greatest living hero is the retired cricketer Sir Vivian Richards, a man of fearsome talent who graced the professional game for about 20 years from the mid 1970s. Sir Viv was knighted in 1999 under the system of honours set up by his home country the previous year.

There are not many Antiguan knights, another is a fellow by the name of Allen Stanford. Sir Allen Stanford has dual citizenship, being American by birth and having adopted citizenship of Antigua & Barbuda in later life. He holds a lower rank of knighthood than Sir Viv, which might explain why The Times refers to him as Mr Stanford. He hit the front page of The Times today as a result of having got himself into a bit of a pickle with his accounts. All sorts of allegations are being thrown around but the only thing that is known for certain is that no one seems to know what has happened to the money paid to his financial and banking businesses. Time will tell whether he has also been in the baking business and has been cooking the books. Sir Allen Stanford rather enjoys cricket and has sponsored some vastly remunerated tournaments. That, however, would appear to be all in the past because the US financial authorities are investigating his businesses and have frozen his assets.

For more than a day Sir Allen was nowhere to be seen. Noted for his keenness to be photographed as well as his love of cricket, it seemed somewhat odd that he was not lording-it-up with Sir Viv and the rest of the West Indian cricket glitterati, but champagne and dolly birds were there none. He'd done a runner. Where had he gone? No one knew. It can't have been the US because their impeccable anti-terrorist border security systems will have made it instantly apparent that he was there. Ah, woops. He was found in Virginia as the result of a tip-off. When discovered he was served with legal papers relating to the freezing of his assets and of those of his businesses. One of those businesses is the Stanford International Bank which boasted of making extraordinarily large profits for investors year-on-year. Once rumours circulated of the investigation by the US authorities there was a run on the bank and a number of governments had to intervene to stall claims while investigations continue into whether it is a Northern Rock with bad investments or a Ponzi scheme with no investments.

Obvious parallels are being drawn with the recently-exposed Madoff fraud. Whether there is a true comparison will only become apparent later in the course of the enquiry, but what is clear is that nothing is clear. Nothing is clear because the accounting practices adopted by the Stanford Financial Group's accountant (allegedly a one-man firm operating from a small office above a fish and chip shop) were not concerned with transparency. Lack of transparency does not itself cause fraud, but it does allow fraud to go undetected. Madoff took advantage of this for years, as did many fraudsters before him.

It's not just fraud that can remain hidden where rules do not require absolute financial candour. Similarly, the need for candour in financial dealings is not just so that fraud can be eliminated. Companies insist on receipts to back up expenses claims because they only want to pay for expenses that were actually incurred and they need to be able to prove those expenses further along the accounting chain. That they also want to ensure their employees are not cheating them is part of the story, but only part of it. The other part is the need to ensure money is being spent for proper purposes. And that's how my brain arrived at MPs' expenses.

If ever there is a proper use of the phrase "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear" it is in relation to "expenses" payable by the taypayer to those who sets the levels of tax. Transparency is the only way to deter jiggery-pokery.

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