Eric Watson and Mark Hotchin dodged a bullet yesterday as the SFO decided not to press charges... and responded with about as much grace as you'd expect
After two and a half years, the Serious Fraud Office wound up its extensive investigation into Hanover Finance yesterday, deciding they would not lay criminal charges against those leading the finance company. The company's owners, in what's become typical bad taste, couldn't wait to gloat at the outcome.
Eric Watson and Mark Hotchin essentially stuck their tongues out and said, 'told you so', with no mention of the many millions lost or lives damaged.
Watson went so far as to say the decision reinforced his confidence that Hanover was "responsibly governed and managed" and to question the taxpayer money spent on such a long investigation. That is some bald cheek.
The investigation, in fact, suggested the exact opposite of the Watson/Hotchin spin. The SFO said they couldn't make a case they felt confident would win – but not being able to meet that threshold is a long way from saying the company and its leaders were good and responsible managers.
The fact that the SFO spent over two years on the case shows how many questions were raised and suggests that the office was very concerned by what it found. You don't spend that long on an investigation if everything looks tickety-boo.
The tone of the SFO's release was one of disappointment that it couldn't make the charges stick, despite its best efforts. Acting Director Simon McArley went so far as to say his team had "serious questions" about Hanover's work and listed its concerns.
This was clearly an office frustrated it couldn't get the case across the line, not one giving Hanover a clean bill of health.
The relief for some Hanover investors is that at least the Financial Markets Authority is going after a portion of the money it says Hanover raised by dubious means. The FMA, like the SFO, would only proceed if it was confident it had a good chance of winning, so those investors who put their money in – or back in – in 2007 have some hope.
Of course there is investor responsibility and bad luck plays a part. But having had some money in Hanover – luckily withdrawn just a few months before its collapse – I'm well aware of the pressure put on investors to have patience and stick with the company, the insistence that all would be well, when clearly it wasn't.
But the FMA has made it clear it wants money rather than a scalp in its dealings with Hanover. So the sad implication of no criminal trial means that the company directors may settle with the FMA, thus avoiding the true story of their "responsible management" being made public. We'll see.
But in the meantime let's not buy the Watson/Hotchin spin. To add insult to injury, Watson claimed the directors did a fine job through an "unprecedented" period of financial turmoil. Unprecedented? Hardly. What was the Depression, if not the Asian financial crisis or various other bubbles of recent years. Yes, the markets went south and quickly. But investors have every right to expect a wise company to have some plan to deal with tough times. To so blithely blame the market and show such little compassion simply reinforces my confidence in the character of the man.
The only consolation, small as it is, is that while they may not face a criminal court, in the court of public opinion these men have received a harsh sentence.