Fraser Perring. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRISTOPHER GOODNEY
Fraser Perring. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRISTOPHER GOODNEY

Australian restructuring specialist Ferrier Hodgson has moved to distance itself from a former employee's involvement with Viceroy Research, the the team that won big by betting on Steinhoff’s share price collapse.

Ferrier issued a statement on Friday saying that Gabriel Bernarde had resigned from Ferrier on November 3.

"Ferrier Hodgson has no relationship with Viceroy Research and was unaware that Mr Bernarde had any involvement with that firm," it said.

"Any actions Mr Bernarde took were his own undertaking and not as part of his employment with Ferrier Hodgson. Ferrier Hodgson has received no benefit from Mr Bernarde’s involvement with Viceroy.

"Mr Bernarde had no involvement in the appointment of Ferrier Hodgson as advisers to Steinhoff Asia and had resigned his employment prior to Ferrier Hodgson becoming involved in that matter."

Business Day earlier reported that Viceroy may have had inside information on the retail group’s dire state of affairs through Bernarde.

On Thursday, former British social worker Fraser Perring revealed in a Bloomberg interview that he and two 23-year-olds, Bernarde and Aiden Lau, were behind Viceroy.

The firm researches companies it suspects of sketchy accounting and then publishes its findings while shorting the stocks.

Perring was struck off the social worker roll in 2014 for misconduct by the UK’s Health and Care Professions Council. According to Bloomberg, he later sued the regulator for mistreatment, receiving £24,000 as part of a settlement.

Bernarde was an accountant at Ferrier from February 2013 to June 2016, when he became a research analyst before leaving the company in December, according to LinkedIn.

Ferrier told the Australian Financial Review that Bernarde worked for the firm.

That means Bernarde was simultaneously working for Viceroy (the team was formed in 2016, according to Perring) and Ferrier, which provides advisory and restructuring services to companies. Some of Ferrier’s work overlaps with Viceroy’s.

On December 28, Steinhoff Asia Pacific said it had hired Ferrier as a strategic adviser given the "significant uncertainty" facing its parent.

It therefore was possible that the Steinhoff subsidiary had approached Ferrier well before Steinhoff’s December 6 statement announcing "accounting irregularities" and the resignation of CEO Markus Jooste.

This caused the Steinhoff stock to lose 80% of its value in two days. Through Ferrier, Bernarde could have been privy to confidential information on Steinhoff’s finances. 

This could not immediately be confirmed, as Ferrier did not respond to queries on Thursday - but Friday's statement emphasised that Bernarde had resigned before Steinhoff Asia engaged Ferrier's services.

Steinhoff had "been on the radar for months", but "we really knuckled down at the start of November", Viceroy said. It appears that its Steinhoff report was based largely on publicly available information.

While Bernarde was in Ferrier’s employ, Viceroy published damning reports on two other companies with links to Ferrier: Syrah Resources and Quintis.

Ferrier was appointed administrator of Syrah rival Triton Resources in March 2016. Both companies were invested in graphite mines in Mozambique’s Balama region. A Viceroy report on Syrah in December 2016 says "industry sources" admitted that uranium was a serious contaminant in the soil at the Balama site, without naming the sources.

In another case, Ferrier was the administrator and later liquidator, until December 2016, of an investment scheme into a sandalwood plantation.

Viceroy published a report in May 2017 about another sandalwood grower, Quintis, which voluntarily suspended its stock on the Australian Securities Exchange in October over the need to be recapitalised.

Viceroy references a Dr Padmanabha, whose sandalwood research appears to have contributed to "driving at least three other sandalwood investment schemes into the ground".

"It would be illegal to use confidential information, to which you as an analyst are privy, to profit on a public exchange," said Jean Pierre Verster, a portfolio manager at Fairtree Capital.

It was less clear cut when an analyst, in carrying out work, became aware of information that happened to also be available publicly and on which he or she then traded, he said.

Viceroy had not responded to questions at the time of going to print on Thursday.

ziadyh@businesslive.co.za

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