SVS Securities Update – Another Example of the Dangers of Nominee Accounts

ShareSoc have published an update on the situation at broker SVS Securities which went into administration recently and has affected 21,000 clients – even more than the number at Beaufort. As has happened before, it looks like some clients will lose money as a result of the “Special Administration” regime and there will be the usual long delays before clients are able to regain control of their shares and receive dividends on them. Read the update here: https://tinyurl.com/y6q82ekp

Yet again this displays the danger of the nominee account system which I have repeatedly campaigned against – see the ShareSoc web site here for more information: https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/shareholder-rights-campaign/

Please do support ShareSoc’s campaign on this issue, and support them by becoming a member. Nominee accounts are positively dangerous and do not protect your investments regardless of what the broker tells you.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

JD Wetherspoon Results and Directors Reappointed at Edge Performance VCT

JD Wetherspoon (JDW) published their results for the year on Friday (13/9/2019). The revenue figures were very positive with like-for-like sales up 6.8%, overall revenue up 7.4% and earnings up 9.2% (after exceptional items).

There was an extensive diatribe from Executive Chairman and founder Tim Martin on two issues: 1) Brexit and 2) Corporate Governance standards.

Mr Martin’s stance on Brexit is well known. He is a Brexit party supporter and sees no problem with a “hard” Brexit. He says “Elite remainers are ignoring the big picture regarding lower input costs and more democracy, and are mistakenly concentrating on assumed short-term problems, such as delays at Channel ports”.

On corporate governance he dislikes the requirement for non-executive directors to step down after nine years. He says his company’s stance “is that experience is extremely important and the so-called nine-year rule is perverse and counterproductive”. He has a number of other complaints about the UK Corporate Governance standards. It looks like there may be a battle on some of these issues at the forthcoming AGM.

I agree with Tim Martin on Brexit but not altogether on corporate governance. I don’t like directors serving for more than 9 years simply from past experience of directors becoming stale and sycophantic over time. But he is right to criticise the “excessive focus on achieving financial or other targets”.

It’s well worth reading the announcement, but this is clearly one of those companies where shareholders have to have faith in the leadership of Tim Martin.

I do not hold the shares, but not for any prejudice against Mr Martin.

At the Edge Performance VCT (EDGH and EDGI) the sole remaining director Terry Back has reappointed two of the directors removed by votes at the recent AGM. This I consider most atrocious behaviour. The last time I saw this happen was at the bun fight over the future of Victoria (VCP) and that was soon overturned and a new board put in place.

It is of course essential to have more than one director in a public company because of the listing rules and for other reasons. It can of course be difficult to recruit new directors at short notice, particularly when a company is in difficulties. Potential directors fear they are at reputational risk. But reappointing directors removed by a vote of shareholders is simply not acceptable. Shareholders have a strong interest in improving matters so it should not be impossible to find some volunteers. I have suggested that ShareSoc line up some nominees to put the board on the spot. Investors need some new independent directors, not the same old guard.

As I said in this previous blog post: https://roliscon.blog/2019/09/02/edge-performance-vct-sorted/, I have long considered this VCT to be a basket case of the first order. The situation should not be allowed to continue.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

AppScatter Group – Another Case of Very Dubious Accounts

Last night I gave a presentation on my new book and explained why accounts are not to be trusted. I said that there were several new examples revealed every month of dubious accounts and today we have another one. In this case the company is AppScatter Group (APPS). This is an AIM listed company whose shares are currently suspended because of a proposed acquisition. I do not hold the shares but have been monitoring it as it operates in a sector that is of interest to me.

Today they published their interim results for the period to the end of June. To quote from it: “appScatter is a scalable B2B SaaS platform that allows paying users to distribute their apps to, and manage their apps on, multiple app stores. Additionally, the centralised platform enables app developers and publishers to manage and track performance of their own and competing apps across all of the app stores on the platform”.

Launch of the platform is behind schedule putting pressure on working capital so they have issued equity to raise £1.6 million and entered into a loan facility for £5 million on which they are paying 11% interest to cover that and the acquisition costs.

Revenue was up on the 2018 figure at £710k but the half year loss was £5.1 million. But this is the really surprising statement: “The revenue for the first six months of 2018 included accrued revenue of £576,573. This related to work carried out for corporate customers where invoicing was anticipated to occur after the reporting date.  Only £38,000 of this work had been invoiced as at 31 December 2018 and given timing uncertainties under when the balance will be invoiced the accrued revenue was not recognised for the twelve months to 31 December 2019. On a consistent basis the comparable revenue figure for the first six months of 2018 would be £365,596”.

So in simple words, they recognised future revenue when there was no certainty of invoicing or when it could be billed. This is just totally imprudent accounting but the directors signed off on this and their AIM Nomad would have done so also.

This kind of sharp practice hardly inspires confidence in the future of the business. But it’s symptomatic of the lax accounting standards that have crept into public companies of late. The 2018 full year results show the CFO resigned in June 2018 and adoption of IFRS15 reduced revenue by £1 million over the prior year. The accounts were also qualified by their auditors over the valuation of their investment in Priori Data.

Unfortunately although I do not hold the company directly it is held by two of the Venture Capital Trusts I hold. I hope they make representations to the management on this issue.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Open Orphan, Operation Yellowhammer and a Bridge to Ireland

Last night I attended a ShareSoc company presentation seminar. One of the companies that presented was Open Orphan (ORPH) which used to be called Venn Life Sciences but changed name after a reverse takeover of Open Orphan and a change of CEO. The new focus is on orphan drugs which are those medications that are focused on rare diseases, i.e. those with relatively few patients and where historically there have been few treatments available and typically very little research. Big pharma tends not to spend money researching such drugs because the likely revenue from them is small. As a sufferer from a rare disease this presentation was of particular interest to me.

As the presentation indicated, Venn was historically loss-making and was viewed as “under-capitalised”. Market cap of ORPH is only £17 million when forecast revenue this year is £16.5 million.

Open Orphan’s new strategy is to concentrate on launching additional services focused on orphan drugs and develop a proprietary data platform. That includes building a database of patient and genomic data. They are also developing a “virtual sales rep” service to enable lower cost sales to specialists in orphan diseases. This seems to be a telemarking operation supported by webinars. I was surprised to learn that drug sales in big pharma are still promoted by personal visits from highly-paid sales staff when in other fields a more “hybrid” approach is long established.

There is clearly a lot of work going into digital health platforms and databases – Renalytix which I covered in a previous report is one company focused on doing this for renal disease. So there are no doubt opportunities here although the presentation was short on information on the likely cost of developing such a platform and building the databases. Future fund raising looks a distinct possibility.

One question raised by the audience was whether patients would volunteer their own data (which in Europe they “own”). But I don’t think they will have objections because the chance of assisting development of treatments when there may currently be none will incentivize them to do so.

I suggest Open Orphan is a company to keep an eye on for the future. It’s still at an early stage of development.

Which brings me onto the subject of Operation Yellowhammer, the Government report which has now been published on the impact of a “hard” Brexit, or the “Reasonable Worst Case Planning Assumptions” as they headline the document (see https://tinyurl.com/yy2oll7p for the full document – it’s only 5 pages). As I am personally dependent on drugs to stay alive, the scare stories being propagated by some people about shortages on a hard Brexit are not just of academic interest.

The report suggests some disruption at Channel ports, including possibly up to 2.5-day delays to HGVs in Kent, i.e. similar to past disruptions caused by strikes in France which had no obvious impact on consumers although it might have some impact on “just-in-time” operations of manufacturing businesses.

But three-quarters of medicines come by the Channel straits which might have an impact on the supply of medicines and medical supplies, if unmitigated. As Nigel Farage has pointed out, the UK has 100 ports so alternatives to the Channel ports are readily available. Only a minority of drugs are time-sensitive and those could possibly be transported by air freight.

Pharmacy2U, one of the biggest prescription suppliers have published this note which covers patient concerns about Brexit: https://tinyurl.com/yxubdlsu . It basically says “don’t panic”, and carry on as normal. There are often problems with drug supplies due to complex supply chains, manufacturing or regulatory issues so this will be nothing new.

The report says demand for energy will be met as there will be no disruption to electricity or gas interconnectors but there may be rises in electricity prices. But it does warn about the availability of fresh foods, e.g. salad products from southern Europe which may be reduced. Are you worried about not being able to purchase tomatoes at Christmas? I cannot say I am.

In summary the Yellowhammer document is not something that will put off Brexit supporters from wanting to exit the EU on October 31st regardless.

One way around the problem of the Irish “Backstop” in the Withdrawal Agreement is to simply move the customs border to the Irish sea. This won’t please the DUP party of course but can they be bought off with the sop of a new bridge linking Northern Ireland to Great Britain? Or is this another of Boris Johnson’s bridge fantasies like the Garden Bridge in London? Is it even practical?

The Daily Telegraph published an analysis by a civil engineering expert. In essence it is possible because there are similar bridges in terms of length (13 miles or more depending on the chosen crossing point) elsewhere in the world. Even the deep water, up to 160 metres on one possible route, can be done. The cost might be £15 billion. So it’s perfectly feasible and probably better value than HS2.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Trust, The Merchants Trust and Management Longevity

Today I received the Annual Report of Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Trust (SLS) which I have held for many years. Performance last year was disappointing – NAV total return of -1.1% but that was considerably better than their index benchmark.

I attended a presentation by The Merchants Trust (MRCH) at the ShareSoc seminar in Manchester. Merchants have a very different market focus which is on UK large cap companies predominantly. They offer a dividend yield of 5.7% which is of course much higher than SLS and higher than most other similar trusts. It’s interesting to compare their performance to SLS using AIC figures. Merchants produced a share price total return of 144.9% over ten years, while SLS produced a comparable return of 417.8% over the same period.

I know which trust I would prefer to invest in. I suspect Merchants’ problem is basically trying to buy cheap stocks on high dividend yields which I do not think is a sound investment strategy longer term even if some investors like the high dividend they can generate as a result. But what really matters is total return. Merchants probably appeals to a different type of investor than me though as it may be less volatile than a smaller companies trust.

One interesting comment in the SLS Annual Report is under a page entitled “Investment Process”. Under “qualitative factors” is says “Founders retaining positions of authority within the companies after flotation, along with longevity of tenure for CEOs are a positive signal. Four of the top ten holdings in the portfolio are still run by the company’s founder”.

That actually conflicts with what I said in my recent book “Business Perspective Investing” where I said: “Founders can remain at the helm of companies long after they should have given way to others. This is even so in public companies even if the board or shareholders have in theory the power to remove them – the fact that they still often own a large proportion of the shares and have often appointed “yes men (or women)” to the board who are unlikely to challenge them thwarts any change. One question to ask for investors is: Is a founder still in charge and does that create a risk?”. I also reported academic research that suggests that founder CEOs are the worst type.

This issue is clearly more complex than my comments have suggested and I may need to revise those in a future edition. There are examples of very successful founders but other ones of failures. Perhaps smaller companies are helped by longevity in CEOs whereas larger companies are not. I would welcome readers’ views on this subject.

But SLS clearly believes in the principle of longevity as Harry Nimmo has been the lead fund manager of the trust since 2003.

They also say “valuation is secondary” which is very much the theme of my book.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

 

When Major IT Projects Go Wrong – Abcam Results

Abcam (ABC) published their full year results this morning. I have commented negatively on this company as a holder of the shares in the past, particularly after the last AGM in which I expressed concerns about the cost and delays to the major Oracle ERP system which they were building to replace legacy systems. Clearly over budget and running late. I was also not impressed by the failure to answer questions by the Chairman.

Now we see the real outcome – namely a write-off of £12.8 million on the ERP project. That is actually for work on the new Oracle cloud ERP system “following a detailed review of this programme undertaken during the year”. This is what they also said in the announcement:

“With the installation of the latest modules of our global ERP system, we have concluded the programme that initiated in 2015/16 to provide more scalable back-office systems at Abcam. Many global functional areas have been improved by the programme including process and data management in Human Resources, Customer Experience, Finance, and non-stock Procurement. We are already seeing benefits to scale, better data and better controls from these changes.

Manufacturing and Warehouse Management remain functional areas not yet addressed by this IT upgrade programme. Following an extensive review of business requirements and the current state of Oracle Cloud software as well as other best-in-class software providers, we have decided to make some changes to the approach and software used in these areas.”

This looks to be putting a positive gloss on a very negative result. Clearly the failure to implement Oracle for manufacturing and warehouse management including a write-off of work put in on that project, or so it appears, is a major and costly failure. They are now back at square one.

The overall financial results show that revenue is up 9.2% but profits are down by 28% on the reported figures. Even after the write-down mentioned above, the intangible assets on the balance sheet increased slightly and £22.7 million of cash was spent on the purchase of intangible assets, i.e. software development expenditure capitalised no doubt.

This looks to be a typical example of a “big-bang” approach to IT project development failing to deliver the goods, particularly in critical areas of the company’s operations. At least the company seems to have finally accepted that this project was misconceived and needed a major rethink.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

How Long Will You Live?

There was an interesting article recently published by Schroders on life expectancy. This can be quite critical to making investment decisions when you retire, if not before, or if you are living off your capital. It included the chart below which has been issued by the ONS.

How male life expectancy changes over time.

For example, a 60-year old man now has a 1 in 4 chance of living to 93 and a 1 in 10 chance of reaching 98. As you can see from the chart, once you get past 70, the chances of you living to a ripe old age substantially increases. This is probably because if you have reached 70 then you are either made of strong stuff or have been looking after yourself well. Or you have good doctors.

Of course within these figures there is a large variation in individuals so betting on the numbers can be tricky. But don’t ask your doctor for an estimate – from my experience they tend to be pessimistic to avoid disappointing the patient and their relatives. Being wealthy seems to help with life expectancy though, and you probably know all the unhealthy lifestyle choices that reduces it.

However it is a truism that you might live longer than you were expecting from this data and ensuring you have enough income to last out if you are self-investing means you almost certainly need to invest in the stock market as that is probably the only way to ensure your savings will not be eroded by inflation in the long term. That is particularly the case with current annuity rates which make no sense to use at present because of the very low rates imposed by Government manipulation of bond rates.

In summary it’s best to be conservative and minimise your erosion of capital. But those following the debates on Brexit in Parliament and on television of late may have lost the will to live, which is of course one of the most damaging factors in life expectancy. I hope the situation gets sorted out soon.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.