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Watchdog’s bark far worse than its bite

From our November 2005 Shell News Archive

The Times: Watchdog’s bark far worse than its bite

“In the Shell case, the FSA had plenty of evidence of a conspiracy at the highest level against the interests of shareholders. The company’s own investigation unearthed compelling e-mail evidence, not least former exploration director Walter van de Vijver’s infamous complaint that he was “becoming sick and tired about lying about the extent of our reserves issues”.: “…it looks downright embarrassing that the FSA official who fought Sir Philip, former acting enforcement head David Mayhew, will later this month wave goodbye to the FSA and walk straight into a highly paid job at Herbert Smith — the firm advising Sir Philip.”

Posted Friday 11 Nov 2005

SHELL, we were told by the Financial Services Authority last summer, was guilty of “unprecedented misconduct”. For five years, from 1998 to 2003, the company had repeatedly misled shareholders over its oil and gas reserves. It was so culpable that the regulator felt it had no choice but to fine it a then-record £17 million.

Yet we are now asked to believe that no one running the company at the time was actually to blame. The FSA yesterday dropped its investigation into and proceedings against the former chairman, Sir Philip Watts, and other unnamed individuals. After an 18-month inquiry the regulator’s enforcement arm had assembled a case against the individuals. But its Regulatory Decisions Committee, which makes the final judgment, was unconvinced. Or was it simply unwilling? For years the FSA has banged the drum about how it would hold senior figures to account when companies broke the rules. Yet time and again, the FSA finds companies guilty of serious offences while failing to secure individual scalps. The Citigroup bond trading scandal ended with all the traders who had been involved reinstated and no senior figure so much as formally reprimanded by the authorities.

The AIT market abuse case, which ended with two main board directors being jailed for deceiving shareholders, was a rare exception. Too often those ultimately responsible escape justice.

In the Shell case, the FSA had plenty of evidence of a conspiracy at the highest level against the interests of shareholders. The company’s own investigation unearthed compelling e-mail evidence, not least former exploration director Walter van de Vijver’s infamous complaint that he was “becoming sick and tired about lying about the extent of our reserves issues”.

Shell’s deceit went back many years. As early as 1998, when the company was under the chairmanship of Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, a paper was produced under the title Creating Value through Entrepreneurial Management of Hydrocarbon Resource Values. That may not have been a blueprint for inflating the value of reserves but it was certainly an ominous title. Sir Mark is now a pillar of other British boardrooms, chairman of Anglo American and a director of HSBC.

Yesterday’s decision looks all the more curious because the FSA spent the first half of the year fighting Sir Philip in the Financial Services and Markets Tribunal for the right to pursue him. Why bother if the case was not looking sound? And it looks downright embarrassing that the FSA official who fought Sir Philip, former acting enforcement head David Mayhew, will later this month wave goodbye to the FSA and walk straight into a highly paid job at Herbert Smith — the firm advising Sir Philip.

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