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The border between accounting scandal and fraud is marked by the bars of a jail. Steinhoff, the South African conglomerate, is under investigation by prosecutors in Germany over suspicion that “inflated revenue numbers made their way into the accounts” and this week said it was considering the “validity and recoverability” of €6bn of assets. Experience suggests a long process to find out on which side Steinhoff falls.

Consider 2002, the banner year for malfeasance. Multibillion-dollar frauds at WorldCom and Tyco landed executives in jail — three years later. Global Crossing, a telecoms group, also filed for bankruptcy protection after it said profits were inflated. Xerox admitted to overstating revenues. Yet in spite of criminal probes, and settlements paid by executives, banks and auditors, guilty verdicts were none.

More recent scandals illustrate the slow path to justice, even when there appear to be confessions. Six years passed between the chairman of Indian software group Satyam admitting to manipulating its accounts in 2009, and sentencing. Let’s Gowex, a Spanish technology darling, collapsed in 2014. Its chief executive told fellow directors that the accounts were untrustworthy and he was responsible. The case continues. In 2015, UK-listed tech group Globo failed. Its chief executive and chief financial officer resigned, telling the board about “falsification of data and misrepresentation of the company’s financial situation.” Investigations are ongoing.

At Steinhoff, chief executive Markus Jooste has departed, while Ben La Grange, chief financial officer, remains. There is “no evidence to suggest [the CFO] had any involvement in the matters under investigation”, the company says. At the very least, that raises questions about the competence of its top beancounter, as well as the oversight of Christo Wiese, chairman and largest shareholder. Perhaps the authorities could aim to resolve the scandal this side of 2020.

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