LONDON (Reuters) - British companies on Monday rushed to heed unprecedented calls by regulators to mothball their results in the face of the escalating coronavirus, the latest rewrite of the financial market rulebook.
Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority said on Saturday that listed companies planning to report over the next few days should hold off for two weeks to better assess how the pandemic is affecting their business.
The move, the first time UK Plc has ever been asked to suspend results en masse, follows similar actions in countries including Spain and China and comes as firms grapple with just how deep an expected global recession is likely to be.
Auditors are also likely to struggle to sign off companies’ accounts as the first-quarter reporting season nears.
“It is hard for management to accurately say how badly they will be hit,” said Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell.
“All they can really do is state how they intend to preserve cash, clarify the current level of cash and debt in the business, give some guidance on how they intend to protect workers, and explain what the next steps might be in their crisis management plan.”
With trillions of dollars already shed from fear-driven global markets, investors are also flying blind in their ability to assess companies’ health and ability to stay in business just as they were preparing for first-quarter trading updates to start filtering through.
The delay in updates “naturally makes my job a little more difficult in trying to decipher a company’s wellbeing”, but was “a reflection of the unprecedented times”, said Helal Miah, Investment Research Analyst at The Share Centre.
By 0954 GMT, 11 British companies had responded to the FCA’s call including home improvement group Kingfisher (KGF.L), drinks maker A.G. Barr (BAG.L) and outsourcer Mears Group (MERG.L). At least 50 companies were expected to report in the week to March 27, data from Refinitiv showed.
The Financial Reporting Council (FRC), which polices accountants that check the books of listed companies in Britain, said on Monday it backed the FCA’s decision and that auditors could broaden their approach to delays in company financial statements as the situation “rapidly” evolves.
“It is important that due consideration is given by companies to these events in preparing all reporting,” the FRC said.
“The FRC therefore encourages listed companies and their auditors to consider carefully whether they should delay other corporate reports for the next two weeks, such as interim financial statements and final audited financial statements, except where necessary to meet a legal or regulatory requirement,” the watchdog said in a statement.
The FCA, FRC and the Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority are expected to come out with a further package of measures, perhaps as soon as this week, while the delayed results are likely to fuel calls for stock markets to be suspended.
PwC and KPMG, two of the world’s “Big Four” auditing firms, welcomed the delay.
“It is clear that given the pressures on people and the changes that we see day to day, it is in the public interest for reporting to be delayed to give companies the time to properly consider the impacts on their results,” said Jon Holt, head of audit at KPMG UK.
Separately on Monday, the London Stock Exchange said it was looking into whether annual meetings of companies could be held online during the epidemic.
Additional reporting by by Sinead Cruise in London, Jesus Aguado Gonzalez in Madrid; editing by Jason Neely and Josephine Mason