Fitch Ratings (see here) is a global rating agency that provides credit opinions, research and data to the world’s credit markets.
It recently issued a report titled “U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – No Minor Matter.”
The report contains some interesting and informative non-legal perspectives on FCPA enforcement which are excerpted below.
“Aside from management distraction and reputational risk, additional compliance costs and fines [arising from FCPA violations] could have rating implications for those companies with modest FCF [free cash flow] and/or liquidity. It should also be noted that it can take years from the discovery of a violation to the time a plea agreement is reached. In the interim, corporate credit profiles, liquidity, and ratings may weaken. The fine that could be easily paid with cash on hand today might not be readily payable years down the road if a company’s credit profile has weakened and liquidity becomes constrained.”
The report notes that many FCPA fines are “imposed on large investment grade corporations whose substantial cash balances easily afforded them the ability to absorb the payments with no or minimal increases in leverage.”
However, the report notes, “there have also been violations by non-investment grade companies.”
The report then discusses Willbros Group, Inc. “which borrowed from banks on a secured basis.” The report notes that when the company became aware of its FCPA issues (see here for prior posts on Willbros) the issues resulted “in the restatement of its annual financial statements at December 2002 and 2003, as well as the first, second, and third fiscal quarters iof 2004 and 2003.”
The report continues:
“In its 2005 10-K [Willbros] noted that it required an amendment on an indenture due to late filing and several amendments on its bank credit facility. In the July 1, 2005 Second Amendment and Waiver Agreement the credit facility was reduced from $150 million to $100 million.”
The report also discusses the fiscal consequences of “deferring the legal consequences” of an FCPA violation – as so often happens given the frequency in which non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements are used to resolve FCPA enforcement actions. Pursuant to these agreements, the non-prosecuted or deferred charges could go “live” if the company fails to adhere to its obligations under the agreement. “This means,” according to the report, “that investors and analysts cannot take a deep breath or relax until” the time period in the NPA or DPA has expired.
The report also discusses how FCPA issues can become a “sticking point in acquisitions/dispositions of businesses.”
The report notes:
“Sellers may have contingent liabilities related to violations even after assets or businesses are sold. Prices could be less than expected and may hamper sellers who need to receive a certain level of cash or offload debt to deleverage or meet covenants. Additionally, buyers who have not done enough due diligence up front may find themselves with an unexpected obligation and higher litigation expenses in the future.”
For a recent example of a company halting a planned acquisition because of an FCPA issue (see here).
As to “management distraction” resulting from an FCPA inquiry, the report notes:
“Fines, penalties, widespread adverse publicity with potential damage to corporate reputations, having an independent compliance monitor, and building up the compliance organization can all pose an enormous distraction to management. More importantly, while many companies tend to have significant financial resources at the
start of an inquiry, it generally takes years before there is a conclusion. In that interim, it is possible that a corporation’s financial profile could weaken.”
The report contains an informative chart detailing “Fitch-Rate Issuers” that tracks the date the FCPA issue first went public.
Noteworthy examples include:
Accenture Ltd. (identified a potential FCPA issue in July 2003 – in its March 2010 SEC filing the company stated that there has been no new developments);
Bristol-Myers Squibb Company (the SEC notified the company in October 2004 of an inquiry of certain pharma subsidiaries in Germany – in its 2009 10-K the company stated that it is cooperating with the SEC);
Eli Lilly & Co (the SEC notified the company in 2003 that it was investigating whether certain Polish units has violated the FCPA – in its 2009 10-K the company stated that the DOJ and SEC had issued subpoenas relating to other countries).
As to “credit implications,” the report notes, among other things:
That, because the time from discovery of FCPA violations to resolution can take years, a company’s credit profile could weaken – perhaps reflecting a weak economic cycle. When allegations of bribery separately arise, “for most corporations if the credit profile weakens, potential fines and/or legal contingencies would be among the items of concern in the Rating or Outlook.”
The report then talks specifically about Avon and its FCPA issues (see here for a prior post).
The report notes:
“The cost of investigations and ongoing compliance can be sizeable, and each company’s liquidity and metrics over the medium term would need to be considered. Avon, with $10 billion in 2009 revenues, had $120 million in FCF. In April 2010 the company disclosed that the cost of the investigation would be in the $85 million – $95 million range, up from $35 million in 2009. The additional cost of widening the investigation represents a significant percentage of the company’s 2009 FCF. While the company has more than $1 billion in cash on hand, Fitch’s expectation of moderate FCF in the medium term was part of the rationale for the downgrade to ‘A-’ from ‘A’ on Feb. 2, 2010. Additional layers of investigatory or compliance-related expenses could hamper FCF for Avon and other companies that violate the FCPA. Continued relative weakness in FCF and/or increased leverage typically can provide the impetus for a downgrade or change in outlook for many corporations.”
All in all, the Fitch Report is an interesting and informative read.
A couple of observations.
Some FCPA enforcement actions, per the enforcement agencies’ allegations, involve conduct that goes “all the way to the top” – the Siemens enforcement action comes to mind. In this type of FCPA enforcement action, the company’s credit ratings, and much else about the company’s business, ought to be negatively impacted by the FCPA enforcement action.
However, enforcement actions like Siemens are clearly outliers.
The far more common FCPA enforcement action involves allegations of improper conduct by a single employee or a small group of employees – often in a foreign subsidiary. Even so, because of respondeat superior, the parent company issuer faces FCPA exposure. In such a situation – a common FCPA scenario – is it proper for company’s credit rating to be negatively impacted by the enforcement action?
Add to this the fact that most FCPA enforcement actions are resolved through non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreements. These agreements are privately negotiated, subject to no (or little) judicial scrutiny, and do not necessarily represent the triumph of one party’s legal position over the other. In such a situation – again a very common FCPA scenario – is it proper for the company’s credit rating to be negatively impacted by the enforcement action?
In my forthcoming piece “The Facade of FCPA Enforcement,” I discuss why the facade of FCPA enforcement matters.
The Fitch Report has informed me of another reason why the facade of FCPA enforcement matters – and that is because FCPA enforcement actions can negatively impact a company’s credit rating.