Airbus faces criminal investigation by UK's serious fraud office

A criminal investigation into Airbus Group’s practices in selling planes and arranging financing overseas will seek to shed light on the use of third parties who are often critical in closing deals.

The inquiry, which the United Kingdom’s serious fraud office (SFO) said it opened in July and Airbus disclosed late on Sunday, could run for years. While Airbus may not feel the short-term impact, given that it has dropped the questionable middlemen and expects suspended financing guarantees to be restored, an unfavourable outcome could result in fines and damage the company’s reputation.

Scrutiny of the use of third parties comes as Airbus and its rivals seek greater influence in emerging markets, which have taken over from the United States and Europe as drivers of growth in the commercial aircraft business. Airbus said in April that top management had identified questionable use of third parties and alerted the UK and other regulators, but the formal investigation brings the issue to a new, more serious level.

“The news came as a shock, since the issue had been downplayed,” said the Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Christophe Menard in a note to investors Monday. “It could turn out to be more serious than envisaged.”

One focus of the SFO inquiry is Airbus’ failure to disclose its use of third parties to UK Export Finance (Ukef), an agency that arranges credit guarantees for overseas sales. Airbus lost export credit in April after the plane maker informed authorities of inaccuracies in a number of applications. Government guarantees are expected to resume by year-end, the Airbus chief executive Tom Enders has said.

Airbus shares fell to their lowest since July 11 and traded down 0.7 per cent to €50.64 at 11:53am in Paris.

The investigation adds to a growing list of challenges facing the company, including delays on its A400M military transport, production teething problems with the wide-body A350 commercial jet, slow sales of the A380 superjumbo and the grounding of the Super Puma helicopter after a fatal accident.

Using intermediaries for overseas sales is not illegal, but can complicate oversight.

In 2012, the aircraft engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings handed over details on what it called “matters of concern” uncovered in China and Indonesia. The following year, the SFO opened an investigation into whether Rolls-Royce engaged local agents in return for orders.

Airbus, which is based in Toulouse, France, said on Sunday that it is cooperating with investigators. Airbus in April flagged to UK regulators and European export credit authorities “misstatements and omissions” involving the outside contractors in some export financing applications, which it found through an internal probe.

“This will have some negative impact,” said Shukor Yusof, the founder of the aviation consulting firm Endau Analytics in Malaysia. “The business of aircraft sale is so intense and competitive that there are people trying many avenues.”

For 2015, only 6 per cent of Airbus’s scheduled deliveries involved government loan guarantees, compared with about 30 per cent at the height of the credit crunch, around 2009 and 2010.

SFO investigations take an average of four to six years. Mr Enders’s mandate as the chief executive extends another two years.

One incentive for Airbus to cooperate is to make sure the company could be eligible for a deferred prosecution agreement, or DPA, if criminality is found. A DPA allows for a prosecution to be suspended in exchange for promises of compliance, as well as payment of a fine, redress and helping bring cases against individuals.

DPAs are a common enforcement tool in the US and were introduced in the UK in 2014, where the SFO has issued two of them. In November, ICBC Standard Bank became the first company to agree to one, paying $33 million to resolve an investigation into bribery at its former Tanzanian unit.

Fines in SFO cases tend to be smaller than those in the US. In 2010 the UK defence contractor BAE Systems agreed to pay almost $400m to the US and £30 (Dh39.1m) to the UK to resolve a bribery and fraud investigation.

Ukef is one of several European agencies that have provided backstop loans for Airbus sales overseas. The company builds wings in the UK and assembles aircraft in France and Germany.

The Airbus rival Boeing has been unable to tap US trade financing because a congressional impasse has left the US Export-Import bank with too few directors to approve deals. Until the financing is restored, both companies face the challenge of navigating uncertain markets with limited government assistance.

The Airbus investigation adds to the scrutiny of the role played by cross-border intermediaries. The SFO is investigating Monaco-based Unaoil SAM, which served as a go-between for companies and officials in areas including Africa and former Soviet countries, amid allegations of corruption. The company has declined to comment.

Airbus said in the July 27 filing that it is undertaking a sweeping review involving “legal, investigative, and forensic accounting” of consultants and other third parties used to support sales. The plane maker said it is also screening potential contractors more diligently.

“The group cannot exclude that the comprehensive review and these enhancements of its controls and practices lead to additional commercial disputes or other consequences in the future,” the filing said.

Separately, Airbus is trying to restore export funding from Ukef under a revised compliance scheme.

The company said last month it had agreed a process for this and expected export credits to resume in the fourth quarter.

But several people familiar with the case say it has deeply soured relations between Airbus and export agencies, notably Ukef, and that much work remains to be done to restore trust.

As for the operational impact of the funding hiatus, analysts say this is limited for now because liquid markets mean there is little demand for export credit. Just 5 per cent of Airbus deliveries were supported by export credits last year.

One person familiar with the case said the onus was on Airbus to prove it had a robust system for preventing abuse.

One move being floated to win back confidence is a voluntary ban within Airbus on the use of percentage commissions to third-party sales agents and more careful vetting of any other form of payment, people familiar with the matter said.

But it could provide a headache for a company which has stated to UK authorities in the past that it relies on a long-established network of representatives to remain competitive, and the ban does not appear to have unanimous support.

In the meantime both Airbus and Boeing are having to offer the least creditworthy airlines some bridge financing.

“Financial markets have priced in aircraft financing at attractive rates so EXIM and European credit agencies haven’t had to step in. But I think this is going to become an issue,” an aviation sector analyst said, asking not to be identified.


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