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KPMG partners receive bumper payouts despite Carillion fallout

KPMG, the auditing firm that gave Carillion a clean bill of health, has reported a leap in profits that will result in the average pay of its 635 partners soaring from £519,000 to more than £600,000 each.

Only months after KPMG was accused by MPs of being part of a “cosy club” and “complicit” in the run-up to the collapse of the construction and government outsourcing company, the accountancy group reported an 8% rise in revenue to £2.3bn in the 12 months to 30 September. Profits surged 18% to £365m.

Bumper profits helped to boost the pay packets of KPMG’s most senior executives, with the average payout per partner rising to £601,000. The chairman, Bill Michael, who was appointed last year, received £2.1m.

KPMG was one of the firms singled out in a damning report on the demise of Carillion, which collapsed under a mountain of debt in January.

“In its failure to question Carillion’s financial judgments and information, KPMG was complicit in the company’s questionable accounting practices, complacently signing off its directors’ increasingly fantastical figures over its 19-year tenure as Carillion’s auditor,” MPs on the work and pensions and the business select committees concluded in May.

KPMG was also fined £3m in August by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) after the firm admitted to misconduct in its audits of the fashion chain Ted Baker in 2013 and 2014. That penalty followed a £4.5m fine by the FRC in June, for its audit of Quindell in 2013.

The boost to profits comes at a difficult time for the big four accountancy firms – KPMG, EY, Deloitte and PwC – which have attracted criticism from politicians and regulators over the quality of their audit work and face calls to be broken up.

They were all criticised for failing to spot problems at Carillion sooner and for prioritising profits over proper scrutiny of companies during their audits.

MPs accused the firms of “feasting” on the carcass of Carillion after banking £72m for work in the years leading up to the construction firm’s collapse.

Professional firms such as KPMG have also been criticised for conflicts of interest, given the wide array of work done for big clients such as Carillion. It has been claimed that firms are less willing to challenge auditing clients in the hope of winning lucrative contracts for consultancy and advisory work.

However, KPMG stressed in its latest results that it was the first UK firm to “voluntarily stop providing ‘non-audit’ services to the FTSE 350 companies it audits”. It has also recommended that the ban is rolled out across all audit firms in the UK.

Michael said: “I have been clear that our wider profession faces challenges. In order to safeguard against any perceptions of conflict of interest, we have drawn a clear line between our advisory and audit work for UK-listed businesses.”

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Business France focused on future, despite stalled negotiations

While the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership hangs in mid-air, Robert Blumel is optimistic about French investments being made in the Southeast U.S. and conversely the potential for Atlanta-based start-ups and small-to-medium sized firms in France and Europe.

Having spent the past three years in Atlanta representing the Business France agency and four years beforehand in New York. Mr. Blumel told Advisory Excellence that he has seen “an increased interest from French companies to expand to the Southeast region and especially Atlanta.”

Business France was founded in 2015 to support the international development of the French economy and is responsible for fostering and supporting growth by French businesses as well as promoting and facilitating international investment in France.

As prime examples, Mr. Blumel cited Groupe PSA, a French multinational manufacturer of automobiles and motorcycles, which opened this year its North American headquarters in Atlanta, and Airbus S.A.S.‘s choice of Atlanta for its commercial drone subsidiary.

Granted PSA’s entry into Atlanta is part of a deliberately conservative foray executed with the use of its technology to determine potential markets for its array of products. Nevertheless it’s success in Europe augurs well for its Atlanta-based initiative.

Airbus’ wholly-owned subsidiary Airbus Aerial aims to sell its services to a wide array of industries in their efforts to capture helpful data from above through the use of drones or satellites.

This year Airbus Aerial received a Crystal Peach award from the Atlanta-based French-American Chamber of Commerce for its investment.

The Crystal Peach Awards ceremony is in its 14th year and other recipients for either inbound investment into the Southeast or outbound investment into France included Imerys, a French multinational firm specialised in the producing and processing of industrial materials.

Last fall Imerys USA Inc. celebrated the opening of its global Science & Technology Centre in Suwanee, Ga., one of nine networked centres around the world for the sharing of ideas, equipment and competencies across Imerys.

Mr. Blumel also pointed to the investments in France by Crystal Peach award winners Invest Asset Management SA/France, a branch of Invesco Ltd., an independent investment management company that is headquartered in Atlanta, and Cognira, a start-up specialized in cognitive retail analytics that received this year’s Crystal Peach entrepreneurship award.

He is especially supportive of Cognira’s entry into France which he has been assisting. “They are growing fast,” he said, acknowledging the role played by Business France in its development there.

“I see Atlanta becoming a vibrant start-up scene with very promising companies,” he added. “I have been identifying start-ups with great ideas, services or products and helping them in their business development strategies in France and in Europe.”

Among his activities as the agency’s director for the Southeast, he said that he is responsible for hosting delegations such as the representatives from 11 French paper company suppliers whom he introduced recently to South-eastern paper and board manufacturers.

He also has been selected to participate on juries such as those choosing companies for the Atlanta-Toulouse start-up exchange in 2016 and 2017, the Young Enterprise Initiative in 2016, a start-up competition organized by the French embassy in Washington, and the Crystal Peach Awards committee.

Additionally, he arranged for the CEOs of United Parcel Service Inc., AGCO Corp. and the Coca-Cola Co. to participate in the French International Business Summit held in January that drew to Versailles 140 of the leading executives of the world’s largest firms to learn first hand from French President Emmanuel Macron and the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, France’s desires for international investment.

Whatever delays negotiations over TTIP or tariffs may impose on French-U.S. business relations, Mr. Blumel said that at the local level cross-investment is progressing at a gallop, especially for start-ups and SMEs on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Atlanta-based start-ups are hot,” he said. “And Business France can help them in their business development in Europe and France.”

Mr. Blumel may be reached by email [email protected] or calling 347-567-1140.

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What is artificial intelligence? Defining it in business – a CTO guide

In the dictionary, Artificial Intelligence is defined as: the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.

This guide will focus on what is artificial intelligence, in the context of business, with insights from CTOs and AI experts.

The Exploration Of Intelligent Behaviour

Harald Gölles, the CTO of omni:us, says that — broadly — “artificial intelligence (AI) is the exploration and development of intelligent behaviour in machines”.

“Businesses can rely on dedicated AI solutions to take automation to the next level and solve complex practices that are often too complicated and costly to maintain.”

Just An Algorithm

Hari Mankude, CTO at Imanis Data, believes that at this point, AI is just an algorithm.

“There’s little ‘intelligence’ in terms of autonomous, experience-based decision-making. The science behind it is complex, but the real importance here is that businesses are beginning, after years of doubt, to trust AI (in this case, machine learning) to manage the enormous scale and granularity of big data that enterprise otherwise are really struggling to protect and analyse.”

“I think we’re truly cresting a wave of early adopters who have taken the plunge, and I think the decision-making behind that is interesting.”

Useful Decisions

Ed Bishop, co-founder and CTO at Tessian, suggests that artificial intelligence can be used to describe computer systems that are able to receive inputs and make relatively useful decisions based on those inputs.

“For example, AI could be used to identify features of a photo. As a result, insurance companies can use it to evaluate customer-submitted photos of car damage. Combined with the ability to store and process much larger volumes of data, AI allows businesses to extract significantly more value from the many forms of information related to their organisation.”

A Spectrum Of Technologies

John Gikopoulos, Global Head for automation and AI at Infosys Consulting, says it is important to define what artificial intelligence is, because the technology is becoming a bit of a buzzword.

“When we talk about AI, we’re talking about a spectrum of technologies ranging from advanced analytics and the ability to predict outcomes, to robotic process automation (RPA), through to natural language processing (NLP) and deep learning.”

“This is the “laboratory” definition of AI.”

“In the business context, it’s about how these technologies are brought together to help businesses drive value by solving complex organisational challenges in a smarter, faster, more efficient way. The question that any business must ask about their AI deployments is this: Is the technology helping us to make better-informed decisions? That, ultimately, is what AI means for business. The process automation, the ability to learn, the data crunching – these are all the functions rather than the goal of AI.”

“As with any major strategic undertaking, AI should have specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound objectives. If the combination of technologies described above can deliver these, then it’s a true AI system.”

AI: Part Of Everyday Life & Reliant On Data

Greg Hanson, CTO and VP at Informatica, believes that AI is now ubiquitous in our everyday lives.

“With the continuous advances in machine learning, AI is increasingly able to apply human decision-making capabilities to a plethora of tasks, including organising, indexing and transforming large volumes of complex data.”

“AI is enabling businesses to transform in ways they could never have imagined. In recent years, there has been widespread investment in analytics and predictive outcomes, but companies need to look deeper than just decisions and predictions. From a business perspective, AI can be used to harness and tackle data challenges, to ensure that it makes good quality decisions and provides solutions.”

“The success of AI engines is wholly reliant on quality of data – you cannot just pump vast quantities in and expect a perfect outcome, because that will not happen. It sounds simple, yet businesses’ face many challenges here: combatting fragmentation of data, managing its immense volume and scale, and automating the benchmarking and correction of data to ensure it is high quality, to name a few.”

“Ultimately, a common data strategy that integrates AI into the quality and management of data in the backend is just as crucial as investing in AI to generate output in the first place. If businesses keep this front of mind when deploying AI projects, they are on the right track for success in digital transformation.”

A Non-Linear Impact

Paul Clarke, CTO at Ocado, says that AI, machine learning and robotics are going to have a very non-linear impact.

“That’s what makes this so different from maybe similar technological revolutions that you can point to in the past. The non-linear nature of how those technologies will impact us means that we have to respond in a very non-linear way too.”

“We need some big thinking here; big, joined-up holistic thinking that’s quite disruptive.”

“I think we need to force ourselves to think bigger than maybe we’re used to doing, and that’s true as individuals, it’s true as businesses and institutions and it’s true as governments.”

The Human Brain & Beyond

Kalyan Kumar, Corporate Vice President and CTO at HCL Technologies, explains that in simple terms, “AI leverages self-learning and healing systems that use multiple tools like data mining, pattern recognition and natural language processing, and operates very similarly to the way a human brain functions.”

“With huge amounts of data being churned out of modern-day systems, it is impossible for human brains to consume all that data and make sense of it to enable further business decision making. This is where AI and machine learning come to the rescue, by doing what is impossible for a human being, like correlating, predicting, forecasting, and gathering knowledge at scale, to drive the business forward.”

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Italy to cut deficit from 2020, provides relief to markets

Italy will cut its budget deficit targets from 2020 and reduce its debt over the next three years, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday, easing fears about fiscal policy in the euro zone’s third-biggest economy.

The ruling coalition last week stunned investors by tripling Italy’s previous deficit target for the 2019-21 period to pay for tax cuts, welfare for the poor and a planned revision of an unpopular pension reform.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting of ministers, Conte said the government would push ahead with its expansionist fiscal programme but would keep its spending in check.

“We will show courage above all in 2019, because we believe that our country needs a budget that calls for strong growth,” said Conte, flanked by deputy prime ministers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, and Economy Minister Giovanni Tria.

Conte confirmed a deficit target of 2.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 and said this would fall to 2.1 percent in 2020 and 1.8 percent in 2021.

He predicted the debt/GDP ratio would fall beneath 130 percent next year and hit 126.5 percent by 2021. It is currently around 131 percent, the second highest in Europe after Greece.

The government did not release growth targets, but Tria said the gap between Italian growth and the rest of the eurozone would halve next year. The IMF has forecast growth of 1.0 percent in Italy in 2019 against 1.9 percent for the eurozone.

News the coalition planned to cut the deficit faster than previously indicated caused Italian government bond yields to fall sharply on Wednesday, while the Milan bourse outperformed other major stock exchanges in Europe to close up 0.9 percent.

Investments

The coalition came to power in June promising to slash taxes and boost welfare spending, and says an expansionary budget is needed to lift Italy’s underperforming economy, which is some six percent smaller than it was a decade ago before the sovereign debt-crisis exploded.

Tria said the 2019 budget would include a lift in public investment and would offer tax breaks to firms investing in equipment and staff. The jobless rate would fall from around 10 percent now to as low as 7 percent, the prime minister said.

European Commission officials and EU allies had expressed their concern over Rome’s spending plans and there was some relief over the reduced targets.

“It’s a good signal that the trajectory has been revised because it shows the Italian authorities are hearing the concerns and remarks from their partners and the European Commission,” EU Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said in Paris.

Italy’s minister for European affairs, Paolo Savona, went to Strasbourg on Wednesday to try to reassure EU lawmakers that Rome was not being irresponsible.

“I think there is no chance that Italy will default on its public debt,” said Savona, who has previously called into question Italy’s membership of the euro currency.

“I do not intend to take any action against the euro. On the contrary, I want to strengthen it,” he said on Wednesday.

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China hits back at Trump with tariffs on $60 billion of US goods

China is to slap tariffs on an additional $60bn (£46bn) of imports from the United States in retaliation against $200bn of new trade sanctions on Chinese goods announced by Donald Trump.

The latest moves represent a new step towards a full-scale trade war between the world’s two biggest economies. Further escalation is deemed likely because President Trump is facing low approval ratings ahead of the United States midterm elections in November, while China will not want to be seen to back down.

President Trump announced his latest escalation of the bitter trade standoff late on Monday, promising to introduce the additional border taxes of 10% on Chinese goods from next week.

The tariffs – designed to make United States domestic products more competitive against foreign imports – apply to almost 6,000 items, including consumer goods such as luggage and electronics, housewares and food.

The United States president threatened further tariffs on an additional $276bn of goods if Beijing unveils retaliatory measures – a step that would mean tariffs on all Chinese imports to the United States and equate to 4% of world trade.

Early on Tuesday he tweeted to accuse China of “actively trying to impact and change our election by attacking our farmers, ranchers and industrial workers because of their loyalty to me”.

The United States president added: “What China does not understand is that these people are great patriots and fully understand that China has been taking advantage of the United States on trade for many years.

“They also know that I am the one that knows how to stop it. There will be great and fast economic retaliation against China if our farmers, ranchers and/or industrial workers are targeted!”

However, China then unveiled $60bn of tariffs on US imports including aircraft and coffee.

Ahead of China’s latest move, Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and one of the country’s wealthiest men, warned the conflict could drag on for 20 years and would be a “mess” for all parties.

China faces difficulty in responding on a scale equal to President Trump’s new tariffs because its annual imports from the United States total only about $130bn, while its exports to the United States total more than $500bn.

However, analysts said the Chinese government had a comprehensive toolbox of alternative measures it could deploy to disrupt United States businesses operating in China – and might even devalue its currency to offset the impact of the tariffs.

Erik Britton of research firm Fathom Consulting said he believed China was eventually likely to capitulate and would enter fresh talks to end the threat of tariffs as a result of the trade imbalance.

“Our likeliest outcome is that China yields. They’ve been in a game of chicken – only the United States is driving a 40-tonne truck and China is driving a Fiat Cinquecento.”

Britton added that President Trump was probably using the threat of tariffs to force Beijing to change its economic policies covering United States companies.

“The point is they [the United States] want something to change,” he said. “When I threaten my kids with stopping their pocket money it’s not that I want to raise money. It’s that I want them to tidy their room.”

President Trump has argued Beijing uses “unfair” trade practices such as forcing the transfer of United States firms’ intellectual property when they operate in China. Some analysts, however, said the threat of tariffs could exacerbate these actions, rather than end them.

David Chmiel, the managing director of risk consultancy Global Torchlight, said: “There could be a weaponising of regulation by Beijing. You can see a situation where they target specific United States companies.”

Economists said this could have a significant impact as many United States companies – including Nike, General Electric and Apple – have operations in China. Disruption could range from invasive health and safety checks to tougher labour controls or rules on fire standards. Mergers and acquisitions could be made more difficult, and state contracts could be withheld from United States firms.

Keith Wade, the chief economist at Schroders, said: “Very zealous enforcement of regulations could make life quite difficult for companies. America is also probably more dependent on China than the official trade figures suggest.”

United States Census Bureau figures show China sells about $375bn more to the United States than goes the other way. However, Deutsche Bank reckons taking into account direct in-country sales by United States firms in China would give a $20bn surplus in favour of the United States.

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Former directors face questioning over Carillion’s collapse

The Insolvency Service is to start interviewing former directors of the collapsed government contractor Carillion as it steps up an investigation into one of the biggest corporate failures in recent British history.

Nearly seven months after Carillion entered liquidation, the government agency said it had finished transferring 278 contracts to new suppliers as part of a painstaking process designed to ensure smooth continuity of public services.

Officials are now expected to devote more time to an investigation into why the company failed, including a closer examination of the role played by former directors, who were branded “delusional” by MPs earlier this year.

The service has the power to disqualify people from serving as company directors for up to 15 years if it finds them guilty of misconduct and can pass information to criminal enforcement bodies in the most serious cases.

Earlier this year, the business secretary, Greg Clark, called on the government agency, which has 1,700 staff, to fast-track its investigation.

But while officials are understood to have been in contact with directors, who were accused of “recklessness, hubris and greed” in a report by MPs, they are yet to be interviewed.

The government’s official receiver, Dave Chapman, is expected to start the interview process in the coming weeks following the completion of the transfer of public and private sector contracts.

In a statement, the Insolvency Service said Chapman had “wide-ranging powers to obtain information, material and explanations”.

The inquiry will run alongside two parallel investigations into Carillion’s failure, which is likely to cost the government at least £150m due to the expense of hiring a team from the accountancy company PricewaterhouseCoopers to help manage its liquidation.

The Financial Conduct Authority is looking into allegations of insider trading, while the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) is examining the role played by its auditor, KPMG, and the former finance directors Zafar Khan and Richard Adam.

The Insolvency Service is turning its attention to the directors after completing the “trading phase” of the liquidation, which involved finding new companies to take on contracts for public services such as cleaning hospitals, serving school dinners, and road and rail projects.

A further 429 jobs have been rescued, taking the number saved since Carillion’s collapse to 13,945 – more than three-quarters of the company’s pre-liquidation workforce.

The number of redundancies has reached 2,787, while 1,272 have retired or found work elsewhere, the Insolvency Service said.

A further 240, mainly in Carillion’s former head office in Wolverhampton, have been retained by the Insolvency Service to help wind down its remaining activities.

Chapman said: “Carillion is the largest ever trading liquidation in the UK.

“The continued uninterrupted delivery of essential public service since the company’s collapse in January reflects the significant effort put in by its employees, supported by my team and those employed by the special managers [PwC].”

He said the Insolvency Service was still overseeing the transition of “limited” services to some suppliers and would also work with suppliers who have continued to provide goods and services during the liquidation to make sure they get paid.

“My investigation into the cause of the company’s failure, including the conduct of its directors, is also under way,” he said.

Carillion’s failure in January led to widespread recriminations, with former directors, regulators and the government all facing criticism over a company that managed huge construction projects and provided government services.