Horizon Discovery AGM and Chrysalis VCT

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Horizon Discovery Group (HZD) in Cambridge. This is a new holding for me, and I don’t often buy shares in companies that are not reporting profits, but I thought it was worth going along to learn some more about the business. The company’s primary focus is on cell manipulation tools (gene editing, gene modulation) which they sell to drug development companies et al. I am not sure I have great understanding of the science but they recently had an offer for the business from Abcam who should understand it, particularly as they shared a non-exec director, Jonathan Milner, until recently. The offer from Abcam was rejected on the basis it was not good enough. The board of Horizon thought it was worth twice as much on a revenue multiple basis looking at comparable companies so the offer was withdrawn. Analysts forecasts are for near breakeven on an adjusted basis this year so it is making progress, but it’s still valued at more than seven times revenue.

However, I shouldn’t need to tell you that this area of medical science is a rapidly developing one with great prospects for innovatory cures of genetic defects and more focused drugs to match a person’s DNA profile.

With minimal shareholders present, it was a short meeting and only I asked any questions, so it will be a short report. One question I asked is why the company loses money on services but makes a profit on product sales. See segmental breakdown on page 66 of the Annual Report. As I said at the time, normally it’s easier to lose money on product sales because with services if they are not profitable you can simply stop providing them. In other words, this was an unusual profile. The Chairman, Ian Gilham, initially denied they lost money on services (it’s over £10 million excluding even “leveraged R&D”), but the CFO then explained that the services are often development projects for customers where they retain the IP, i.e. the customers are paying to some extent to develop the products. That is always a good business model.

I asked why the former CEO had recently left and the only answer I got was that he probably wanted to work for a smaller company while Horizon is now quite large after the recent acquisition of Dharmacon. That will transform the financial numbers. The new CEO is Terry Pizzie who has worked for the company since February 2017.

I was favorably impressed on the whole but I did comment that even if it is an AIM company they could do with having a Remuneration resolution on the agenda. Their pay scheme is actually quite a simple one, and bonuses last year were quite limited, so I would have voted in favour of it anyway.

A long-awaited announcement yesterday on what they plan to do to tackle some strategic issues was from Chrysalis VCT (CYS). This venture capital trust has been somewhat unusual in being self-managed and having no discount control mechanism, i.e. no active buy-back policy. As a result of the latter combined with decent fund performance the trust was offering a very high dividend yield to those investors brave enough to buy shares in the market (like me). Some of the directors took advantage of that situation in the past, although not recently. However the company is facing some possible problems in that the size of the trust is tending to run down due to the high dividends paid out, and the changes to the VCT rules might make it difficult to follow their past investment strategy.

So yesterday they announced that they were implementing an “active buy-back” policy with a target discount to NAV of 15%. The share price rose on the day as a result. Even after that the yield is 7.6% (tax free) according to the AIC. The buy-back policy might help if they wished to raise more investment funds, but they also say they are likely to make “further distributions of capital” so it looks like the fund will run down further in size instead.

The half year results given in the same announcement were somewhat pedestrian (NAV up 1.6%) like many VCTs I hold of late. But anyone considering the shares needs to look at the large holding of Coolabi in the portfolio.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Tungsten, RedstoneConnect, Proactis, LoopUp, Mello and productivity

ITesterday there was an announcement by Tungsten Corporation (TUNG) that there was press speculation about a possible requisition of a general meeting to remove some of the directors, including the Chairman and CEO, and appoint others. This is likely to come from Odey Asset Management supported by other large investors the company understands. Their combined holdings could give them a good chance of winning any vote, or at least it would be a hard-fought proxy battle.

It would seem that the former CEO Edi Truell is involved in this initiative. It would be most unfortunate in my view if he returns to this business (and I did purchase a very few shares in the company after he departed which I still hold). Richard Hurwitz has done a good job in my view of turning this company from a financial basket case with very substantial annual losses into a sounder one. Revenue has been rising and costs have been cut although profits have been longer to appear than hoped. However the company does report that EBITDA was at breakeven for the first four months of the calendar year. It’s at least heading in the right direction now so I am unlikely to be voting for any such requisition.

I attended the Mello event at Hever yesterday and was hoping to get an update from Mark Braund on RedstoneConnect (REDS) where he was due to present. But his presentation was cancelled. Now we know why because an announcement this morning from the company said he was leaving. Perhaps he wants a new challenge. This was another basket case of a company where Mark turned it around in the two years he has been there. So some investors may not be pleased with his departure and the share price predictably dropped on the news. The new CEO will be Frank Beechinor who is currently the Chairman. He is also Chairman of DotDigital and clearly has experience of running IT companies so it’s probably a good choice. A new non-executive Chairman has been appointed (Guy van Zwanenberg).

The Mello event, organised by David Stredder of course, was held near Hever Castle in deepest Kent. I know some of the roads in the area as I live nearby but even so managed to get lost. Not the ideal location. But it was a useful event otherwise. I did an interview for Peter of Conkers Corner and sat on the panel covering the Beaufort case. Videos of both are likely to be available soon, and I will tweet links to them when they appear.

A company that did present at Mello was Proactis (PHD) with CEO Hamp Wall doing the talking. I was unsure of the potential future growth for the company as I thought the market for procurement software might be quite mature (i.e. most likely users had such a product/service). But not so it seems, particularly in the USA and their target vertical segments. Hamp spoke clearly and answered questions well. He is clearly an experienced IT sales/marketing manager. He said he was surprised though that the share price fell over 40% recently when they announced the loss of two of their largest customers. He thought it might fall 15%. I agreed with him that it seemed excessive. But the market does not like surprises.

Today I attended the AGM of LoopUp Group (LOOP) who sell conferencing software. They recently merged with a competitor named MeetingZone and it looks likely to double revenue and more than double profits if things go according to plan. The joint CEOs made positive noises about progress. The company is chaired by heavyweight Chairperson Lady Barbara Judge CBE which is somewhat unusual for this kind of company – at least heavyweight in terms of past appointments if not lightweight in person.

Tim Grattan was the only other ordinary shareholder present and may do a fuller report for ShareSoc. A disappointing turnout for a very informative meeting as both I and Tim asked lots of questions.

Tim advised me after I mentioned the Foresight 4 VCT fund raising that it was odd that no mention was made in the prospectus of the alleged illegal payment of a dividend. Is this not a “risk factor” that should have been declared he asked? That company and its manager seem to be turning a blind eye to that problem.

There was an interesting letter from Peter Ferguson in the Financial Times today. It covered the issue of a declining productivity growth in the UK and other countries aired in a previous article by Martin Wolf. This is certainly of concern to the Government and should be to all investors because only by increasing productivity can we get richer. Mr Ferguson suggested one cause was the negative impact of increasing regulation. He suggested it has three impacts: 1) more unproductive people appointed to monitor and enforce the regulations, 2) more compliance officers, and 3) less productivity as a result in companies due to sub-optimal practices. Perhaps fortuitously I am invested in a company that sells risk and compliance solutions. It’s certainly a growth area and there may be some truth in this argument. Has MIFID II reduced productivity in the financial sector with few benefits to show for it? I think it has.

But Rolls-Royce are going to improve the productivity in their business at a stroke. They just announced they are going to fire 4,600 staff. But are any of them risk and compliance staff?

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Hybrid AGMs and British Land

The British Land Plc (BLND) Annual General Meeting is coming up on the 17th July and I took the opportunity to review the agenda items as some are particularly interesting this year. One resolution refers to a change in the Articles which have been substantially revised. They include:

  • A new resolution to permit “hybrid” General Meetings where some members can participate electronically instead of attending in person. But “all electronic” meetings are still not permitted. This is surely a good initiative and would enable many more shareholders to “attend” such meetings. The disappointing aspect is that apparently the company has “no current intention” to use this capability.
  • A new provision is to allow the current directors to continue in office, with limited capabilities, if they are all voted off at an AGM. This is not very likely to happen, particularly when there are 13 directors on the board as in this company, although I have seen it threatened at smaller companies. Perhaps it is not an unreasonable provision. But why does any company need 13 directors? That surely makes board meetings either very long-winded or some directors are not likely to be saying much. It makes for dysfunctional board meetings. Looking at the backgrounds of some of the directors, where there is no obvious relevance to a property company, it would look like the board could be reduced in size without too much difficulty.
  • Another change is to up the limit on the total pay of non-executive directors from £600,000 to £900,000. Does that sound high? Perhaps not when the Chairman has a fee set at £385,000 per year and the non-executives get a base fee of £62,500 with other additions for sitting on various committees. Indeed the odd thing is that the total fees paid to non-executive directors were £986,000 last year. Surely that means the new limit it not enough and the limit was breached by a wide margin last year? Perhaps not because the limit excludes any additional fees for serving on committees or for acting as chairman which presumably can be set at whatever the board thinks are reasonable. In reality it’s a limit voted upon by shareholders that can be easily side-stepped. It’s surely worth asking for justification at the AGM! So I’ll be voting against the change to the Articles even though most of the revisions are sensible.

The registrar in this case is Equiniti. They sent me a paper proxy voting form but no paper Annual Report, which is somewhat annoying as reading a 186 page report on-line is not easy. I’ll have to request a paper one. But at least they provide an easy on-line voting system unlike some others I could mention – I am still on correspondence with Link Asset Services (Capita as was) on that subject.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Quindell and the FRC’s Role

There was a very good article written by Cliff Weight and published on the ShareSoc blog yesterday about the fines on KPMG over the audit of Quindell. Cliff points out the trivial fines imposed on KPMG in that case, the repeated failings in corporate governance at large companies and he does not even cover the common failures in audits at smaller companies. The audit profession thinks they are doing a good job, and the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) which is dominated by ex-auditors and accountants, does not hold them properly to account.

Perhaps they lack the resources to do their job properly. Investigations take too long and the fines and other penalties imposed are not a sufficient deterrent to poor quality audits when auditors are often picked by companies on the basis of who quotes the lowest cost.

Lots of private investors were suckered into investing in Quindell based on its apparent rapid growth in profits. But the profits were a mirage because the revenue recognition was exceedingly dubious. One of the key issues to look at when researching companies is whether they are recognizing future revenues and hence profits – for example on long-term contracts. Even big companies such as Rolls-Royce have been guilty of this “smoke and mirrors” accounting practice although the latest accounting standard (IFRS 15) has tightened things up somewhat. IT and construction companies are particularly vulnerable when aggressive management are keen to post positive numbers and their bonuses depend on them. Looking at the cash flow instead of just the accrual based earnings can assist.

But Quindell is a good example where learning some more about the management can help you avoid potential problems. Relying on the audited accounts is unfortunately not good enough because the FRC and FCA don’t seem able to ensure they are accurate and give a “true and fair view” of the business. Rob Terry, who led Quindell, had previously been involved with Innovation Group but a series of acquisitions and dubious accounting practices led to him being forced out of that company in 2003. The FT has a good article covering Mr Terry’s past business activities here: https://www.ft.com/content/62565424-6da3-11e4-bf80-00144feabdc0 . They do describe Terry as “charismatic” which is frequently a warning sign in my view as it often indicates a leader who can tell a good story. But as I pointed out in a review of the book “Good to Great”, self-effacing and modest leaders are often better for investors in the long-term. Shooting stars often fall to earth rapidly.

One reason I avoided Quindell was because I attended a presentation to investors by Innovation Group after Terry had departed. His time at the company was covered in questions so far as I recall, and uncomplimentary remarks made. They were keen to play down the past history of Terry’s involvement with the company. So the moral there is that attending company presentations or AGMs often enables you to learn things that may not be directly related to the business of the meeting, but can be useful to learn.

The ShareSoc blog article mentioned above is here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/the-quindell-story-and-the-frc/

Note though that subsequently the FRC have taken a somewhat tougher line in the case of the audit of BHS by PWC in 2014. Partner Steve Dennison has been fined half a million pounds and banned from auditing for 15 years with PWC being fined £10 million. But the financial penalties were reduced very substantially for “early settlement” so they are not so stiff as many would like. I fear the big UK audit firms are not going to change their ways until their businesses are really threatened as happened with Arthur Anderson in the USA over their audits or Enron. That resulted in a criminal case and the withdrawal of their auditing license, effectively putting them out of business. The UK needs a much tougher regulatory regime as they have in the USA.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Beaufort Settlement Improved, But…..

It’s good news that PWC have revised their proposals for the administration of Beaufort and the return of client assets. No doubt due to the efforts of ShareSoc and others. But it still leaves many issues that need properly tackling. These are:

  1. The Special Administration Regulations that allow client assets to be used to cover the costs of the administration. Client assets should be ring fenced and they are what they are called – client assets not assets of the broker or bank.
  2. The fact that most investors now have to use nominee accounts and they are therefore not the legal owner of the shares they hold. We need a new electronic “name on register” system and the Companies Act reformed to reflect the realities of modern share trading.
  3. The UK needs to adopt the Shareholder Rights directive as intended, so that those in nominee accounts have full rights. The “beneficial owners” are the “shareholders”, not the nominee account operator.

We must not let these matters get kicked into the long grass yet again due to the reluctance of politicians and the civil service to tackle complex issues.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Protecting Yourself Against Administrations

Investors now know that when your stockbroker goes into administration, your assets are not secure (or “ring fenced” as your contract with them often says) because they can be seized under the Special Administration Regulations by the administrator to pay their costs. This has become clear from the Beaufort case. That means many investors are facing losses because Beaufort client accounts, like most stockbroking accounts now, were nominee accounts with the shares registered in the name of Beaufort.

There are two possible ways to protect your assets: 1) Hold your shares in the form of paper share certificates – not the most convenient format for trading and expensive to do so even if you can find a broker still willing to handle them; or 2) Hold your shares in a personal crest account, i.e. a “Sponsored Crest” account where your broker acts as the sponsor but the shares are registered in your name and traded electronically.

Some doubts arose in my mind about whether the latter would actually provide the protection required. For example, would an administrator be able to transfer the shares into their name, or stop the transfer of the account and hence the holdings to another broker? So here are the answers provided by Killik & Co who. It provides some reassurance:

In order for a participant to change Sponsor, CREST require:  

  • For those Participants that are already Sponsored, 3 letters as follows – – One from the existing Sponsor stating they are happy for the Participant(s) to move away from them on a set date. – One from the Participant(s) requesting to move Sponsors on a set date. – One from the new Sponsor stating they are happy to take over sponsorship of the Participant on a set date.
  • However, our understanding is that, where the Sponsor is in administration, a letter is not required by the existing Sponsor.  We believe it would be possible therefore, for the sponsored member to instruct another Sponsor to take on the sponsorship of the account.  Note that CREST is not a custodian or a depository and the shares are actually held by the Sponsor, but in the name of the legal owner. 

Regarding the question of the ability of the administrator to issue instructions on the stocks or transfer them into their own nominee name, our understanding is that the administrator has no rights over the securities held in the name of the legal owner as specified on the legal register. 

This information is provided by Killik & Co to the best of their knowledge and belief. For more information contact Gregory Smith on 0207-337-0409.

There are few brokers that still offer personal crest accounts (Killik & Co are one of them), but that still leaves the problem that ISAs and SIPPs have to be held in nominee accounts. Until the administration legislation is reformed, the only solutions for them are to open multiple broker accounts so that no one of them contains assets worth more than £50,000 (the limited covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme) or to pick a broker which is large enough and with a balance sheet that is strong enough that it is unlikely to go into administration. Having multiple broker accounts can be wise for other reasons than the risk of administration even if it can make life very complicated and possibly less secure – for example IT meltdowns in financial services companies are not uncommon (RBS and TSB are examples). It can be very frustrating not to be able to trade even for a few minutes (as happened this morning with the LSE due to a technology problem) let alone days or even weeks as Beaufort clients are suffering.

It is perhaps unfortunate that these risks might make for an anti-competitive stockbroking market. Folks may be very reluctant to sign up with new brokers who have a limited track-record.

But we really do need some reform of the insolvency rules to stop administrators grabbing client assets, a new electronic “name on register” system that protects ownership to replace the nominee system (something I have been campaigning on for years), and the ability to hold ISA and SIPP holdings in our own name.

ShareSoc are running a campaign on the Beaufort case (see https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/beaufort-client-campaign/ ) and have also asked anyone who is concerned about this issue, as all stock market investors should be, to write to their M.P.s. Please do so. Only that way will we get political action on these issues. ShareSoc can provide a template letter you can use.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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RBS Sale and Blackrock Smaller Companies AGM

The Government is selling off another tranche of its holding in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). By selling another 8% it will reduce its holding to 62% of the company. The Government (or “taxpayers” as some described them) will face a loss of about £2 billion on what it originally paid for the shares. There were howls of protest from some politicians. John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, said “There is no economic justification for this sell-off of RBS shares. There should be no sale of RBS shares full-stop. But particularly with such a large loss to the taxpayers who bailed out the bank”.

I think he is suffering from the problem of “loss aversion”, i.e. a reluctance to sell a losing investment rather than looking at the current value of the bank and its prospects. The market price is surely the best indicator of the value of the company – it’s what willing buyers will pay, and what sellers consider a fair price. One aspect to consider is that the value of the business may be depressed because nobody likes to buy shares in companies where there is one dominant controlling shareholder and particularly so if that shareholder is a government. The only way the UK Government can solve that problem is to reduce its holding in stages, as they are doing. Forget the prospective loss on the share sale. Better to accept the price offered and reinvest the proceeds in something else. The Government has lots of things where it needs more cash – the NHS, Education, Defence, Brexit plans, you name it.

Mr McDonnell may be particularly unhappy as he hopes to take power at the next General Election and RBS is one of the few remnants of the past Labour government’s major stakes in UK banks. After Gordon Brown nationalised Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, they took effective control of RBS, and to a large extent Lloyds. Only Barclays managed to escape by doing a quick deal with middle-east investors which has been the subject of legal action, only recently thrown out by the courts. For any socialist, particularly of the extreme left like Mr McDonnell, the ability to tell banks what to do is an undoubted objective. Banks tend to reduce lending when the economy worsens and their clients start to have difficulties but the claim is often that such reduction in lending compounds the economic woes.

Yesterday I attend the Annual General Meeting of Blackrock Smaller Companies Trust Plc (BRSC). What follows are some brief highlights. This company has a good track record – some 15 consecutive years of outperforming its benchmark by active management. So much for passive index investing. It has been managed by Mike Prentis for many years assisted by Roland Arnold more recently. The share price rose by 25% last year but the discount to NAV has narrowed recently to about 6% so some might say it is no longer a great bargain. The company does not have a fixed discount control mechanism and has traded at much higher discounts in the past.

It’s a stock-pickers portfolio of UK smaller companies, including 43% of AIM companies and 143 holdings in total. Many of the holdings are the same companies I have invested in directly, e.g. GB Group who issued their annual results on the same day with another great set of figures.

Mike Prentis gave his key points for investing in a company as: strong management, a unique business with strong pricing power, profitable track record, throwing off cash, profits convert into cash and a strong balance sheet. They generally go for small holdings initially, even when they invest in IPOs, i.e. they are cautious investors.

When it came to questions, one shareholder questioned the allocation of management fees as against income or capital (25% to 75% in this company). He suggested this was reducing the amount available for reinvestment. But he was advised otherwise. Such allocation is now merely an accounting convention, particularly as dividends can now be paid out of capital. But he could not be convinced otherwise.

Another investor congratulated the board on removing the performance fee. Shareholders were clearly happy, and nobody commented on the fact that the Chairman, Nicholas Fry had been on the board since 2005 and the SID, Robert Robertson, had also been there more than 9 years – both contrary to the UK Corporate Governance Code. The latter did collect 5% of votes against his re-election, but all resolutions were passed on a show of hands.

I was positively impressed on the whole.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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