RBS, Shareholder Committees, LTIPs and Weir

It is good news that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) have accepted a requisition for a resolution on a Shareholder Committee at their forthcoming AGM. ShareSoc and UKSA, who jointly promoted this under the leadership of Cliff Weight have issued a press release confirming the resolution has finally been accepted after some legal evasions to try and avoid it.

Shareholder Committees are a way to improve corporate governance at companies and ensure that the views of shareholders (and potentially other stakeholders) are noticed by the directors. It might put a stop to such problems as wildly excessive pay in public companies which non-executive directors have been unable to do – mainly because they are part of the problem.

RBS has an appalling track record of mismanagement and dubious ethics in recent years, from the dominance of Fred Goodwin who pursued a disastrous acquisition and then a right issue (in 2008) that was promoted by a misleading prospectus, to the activities of its Global Restructuring Group (GRG) which is still the subject of regulatory action and law suits, through involvement in the sub-prime lending problems that caused the financial crash to PPI complaints.

A Shareholder Committee might have tackled some of these issues before it was too late. You can read more about the campaign to get one at RBS, and how shareholder committees operate here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/campaign-to-obtain-shareholder-committee-at-rbs/ . I wrote the original note on the subject published there by ShareSoc back in 2011 and I still consider that it would be a step forward in UK corporate governance to have one in all public companies. But there is still strong opposition from boards to the idea mainly apparently on the principle that it might interfere with their decisions. That may be so but only if they are unjustifiable and it would not undermine the “unitary” structure of UK boards.

Shareholders in RBS should make sure they vote for the resolution to appoint one at the AGM, but winning the vote will not be easy. RBS have made it a “Special Resolution” which requires 75% support.

Another aspect of RBS that has concerned investors is the delay in paying out the legal settlement that was agreed over the Rights Issue. This has received a lot of media coverage but the problems faced by the legal firm now handling the settlement, Signature Litigation, should not be underestimated. It appears that they face two problems: 1) confirming the eligible claimants and their shareholdings; and 2) confirming the contracts with “litigation funders” who helped to finance the legal action and their entitlements.

You might think that confirming the shareholders would be easy but it is not. A very substantial number of the claimants will have held shares in nominee accounts (i.e. the shares they subscribed for were not put on their names on the share register of the company). They are quite likely to have subsequently sold the shares due to the collapse in the share price. After 10 years the nominee operator may not be able to confirm their past holding, and if they ever received a contract note or other written confirmation of their holding they may not have printed it out or retained a copy in digital form. Many claimants may have died in the meantime or become senile, or moved house or changed their email address so that would create other problems.

There are two morals to this story: 1) Make sure you always keep accurate records of share transactions, including any contract notes or confirmation of subscriptions; 2) do push for reform of the share registration system so that everyone is on the share register and there is no doubt about who owns what and when the shares were acquired.

As regards the contracts with litigation funders, it is entirely appropriate that Signature Litigation seek to confirm the details of those contracts and that they were appropriate, i.e. that real services or funding was provided and the commission due was fair and reasonable. The fact that these arrangements seem to be difficult to confirm, or at least are taking time, certainly raises some doubts that the campaign and legal action was competently managed all through its duration.

However, as I recently said to a member of the fourth estate, the action group(s) and shareholders involved in this case should be complimented in continuing the fight for ten years against very difficult odds and a ridiculously expensive legal system. I know exactly how difficult these cases are – the Lloyds Bank one is similar and is still in court. To obtain a settlement at all in the RBS case was an achievement, when there was no certainty at all that it would be won.

As regards corporate governance, an interesting item of news today was that from Weir Group Plc (WEIR) who are changing their remuneration scheme to replace LTIPs. That was after losing a “binding” vote on pay two years ago. The new scheme means shares will be awarded (valued at up to 125% of base salary for the CEO per year) with no performance conditions attached, although the board may be able to withhold awards for underperformance. The base salary of the CEO was £650,000 in 2016 while Weir’s share price is still less than it was 5 years ago. The justification for scrapping the LTIPs was that they paid out “all or nothing”, often based on the prices of commodities that directly affect Weir’s profits and share price. They are also changing the annual bonus so that it focuses more on “strategic objectives” rather than “order intake and personal objectives”.

Comment: as readers may be aware, I regularly vote against LTIPs on the basis that I am not convinced they drive good performance and tend to pay out ludicrously large amounts. The new scheme might ensure that directors do hold significant numbers of shares, which is a good thing, but with minimal performance conditions this looks like a simple increase in base salary, in reality a more than doubling for the CEO. Looking at the history of remuneration at Weir this looks like a case of wishing to continue to pay out the same remuneration by changing the remuneration scheme when past targets were not achieved.

They really have not learned much from past mistakes have they? This would be another company where it would be good to have a Shareholder Committee to bring some reality into the minds of the directors.

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

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Musings on Mortality, and Year-End Tax Planning

The death of Steven Hawking at the age of 76 gives those who are trying to figure out how long we may live some cause for thought. He was given only a few years life expectancy soon after he was diagnosed at the age of 21 as having motor neurone disease. This problem of forecasting how long you may live is a key concern of many elderly people like myself as it has a big impact on investment and tax planning.

I am likewise living much longer than my doctors forecast 20 years ago. Despite one near death experience I have reached the age of 72 in reasonable condition, although I do get offered seats on tube trains of late. Do I really look that knackered?

But can I live another 7 years? That’s how long you need to do so to avoid tax on gifts. It can even be as long as 14 years if you have made gifts in prior periods. Now even allowing for the pessimism of doctors who seem to err on the downside on the principle that at least if their forecasts are wrong the patient may be pleased, I think tax planning will have to take another approach in my position.

Gifts of £3,000 per year are possible regardless, and gifts out of “surplus income” can also be made so now is the time of year to work out what you can do in this regard before the tax year ends. Of course it means that you need to have kept track of all your income and expenditure during the tax year which many people do not. If you have not, perhaps it’s time to start for the new tax year? The wealthiest man in the world at the time, John D. Rockefeller, was reported in his biography as keeping a pocket notebook with him at all times where he recorded the smallest expenditure. Perhaps no need to go to such extremes but the principle is worth following.

As it’s coming up to the end of the tax year, now is the time to review holdings and transactions that are not in ISAs or SIPPs in case you are likely to be paying capital gains tax. I get my accountant to work out my capital gains tax position a few weeks before the year end, then if I have gains exceeding the annual allowance (£11,300 for the current tax year), I sell any losing positions to reduce the liability. If I have gains less than that I might sell profitable holdings to maximise the use of the allowance. One can always buy any holdings back later that you prefer to keep them (more than a month later, or buy them in your spouse’s name).

This year, with the stock market being buoyant and not having made any big investment mistakes, I don’t seem to have much in the way of losses to realise. So I thought I would take a quick look at an EIS fund which was the subject of a mailing I received (EIS funds are also topical because of the Government consultation on future options for them). I previously expressed some doubts about EIS funds, but the one I received information on (Guinness AIM EIS) has been around for some time and AIM listed stocks should be less risky than unlisted investments. But when I look through the information on “historic” investments it lists the following: Chapel Down, Coral Products, Fishing Republic and Yu Energy which I do not view very positively although the last one is growing rapidly. The charges on the fund are high – 5% initial, 1.75% annual and a 20% performance fee.

You don’t get the EIS tax relief certificate until the funds are invested which could be a year or more after the closing date according to the prospectus. You also need to stay invested for at least three years to retain the income tax relief and bear in mind in any case that these are long-term investment vehicles. The immediate tax relief might be substantial but it could be a long time before there is a good return on your investment. If you die holding an EIS investment then the capital gains relief you obtained still applies (i.e. there is no tax due), but the complications of death are mind boggling on EIS investments. Anyone considering EIS investments should certainly consult an accountant who is expert in this area.

EIS funds might be one way of deferring capital gains tax liabilities, but I think I might pay the tax instead. Capital gains tax rates are currently low (10% or 20% on shares depending on your total taxable income), and there is no knowing what future Chancellors might do to change the rates and EIS rules.

There is one change in tax rates to bear in mind for the new tax year. This is that the dividend tax allowance reduces to £2,000 from April. So wealthy investors will be paying a lot more tax as a result of the dividend tax credit system being dismantled. Just to remind you, the companies you have invested in get taxed on their profits, and now you are also being taxed on the profits they distribute as dividends to you. So investors are being taxed twice on the same profits!

The conclusion is that you should avoid receiving dividends if possible. If you wish to hold high dividend paying stocks then put them in your ISAs or SIPPs. For direct holdings, it’s preferable to achieve gains by buying growth stocks rather than low growth mature companies that pay high dividends. You can always sell a few shares to generate cash income if needed. Alternatively buy such holdings indirectly in investment trusts and funds, who do not have to distribute the income, although it’s generally a good idea to avoid “income” funds. Such funds tend to underperform as Terry Smith recently pointed out. That’s probably because they tend to buy low-growth mature businesses which is a sure recipe for pedestrian stock market performance. High dividends do not compensate for lack of growth.

Another way to minimise dividend income taxes is to put money into Venture Capital Trusts. Dividends on those are tax free.

Lastly, don’t forget that giving money to registered charities can minimise your tax bill so that’s another subject to consider before the tax year end.

In conclusion, I would suggest three mottoes to follow: 1) Don’t bet on your life expectancy – it could be much longer, or shorter, than you think; 2) Keep your tax affairs simple; and 3) Encourage the Chancellor to simplify the tax system, and not keep changing the rules.

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

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Conviviality – More Bad News, and IQE

I commented on the profit warning from Conviviality (CVR) on the 9th of March and the dangers of share tipping. Today the news is even worse. They have overlooked a payment of £30 million to HMRC due at the end of the month, so their cash flow forecast is blown asunder. They will breach their banking covenants unless some short-term funding is obtained to fill the hole. Meanwhile the shares have been suspended, and the dividend that was due to be paid on Friday has been cancelled.

I hope my previous comments dissuaded some investors from picking up these “bargain-basement” shares, but not all it seems. One of the punters was Stockopedia commentator Paul Scott. To quote his latest comment on it: “What can I say? It’s total incompetence”. It seems he was persuaded that the situation regarding banking covenants was OK after reading a positive broker note. But it seems likely the broker was relying on what the company told them.

I think there is one thing to remember when investing in companies and that is always to ask the question “do you trust the management”. Any announcements by companies should be always doubted unless the management have built up a track record of delivering on their promises and giving you the unvarnished truth. Regrettably, comments from brokers and other company promoters are never trustworthy in the modern financial world. When folks are being paid to say the right thing, or are financially motivated to do so, then whatever they say is likely to be dubious, or not the whole truth.

I have not commented on events at IQE before (I have never held the shares because it’s a sector I don’t like). But there was an interesting article by the Editor of Techninvest on the subject in the last edition (this is a publication focused on small cap technology companies and always worth reading). He commented negatively on shorting efforts by two companies while they published analyses of IQE’s accounts – effectively saying they were dubious. The company then issued a strong rebuttal and the shares bounced back. The shorters did not it seems consult IQE management before publishing, a pretty basic journalistic principle, particularly if you are going to publish negative allegations. The editor of Techinvest suggests scepticism should be exercised “given the vested interests involved”. I completely agree. One of the dangers of the modern internet is that folks can publish damaging stories with impunity, to their financial advantage. The Government and regulatory authorities surely need to tackle this issue sooner or later.

Whether the claims about the accounts of IQE have any basis in fact I would not like to comment upon. It would only stimulate more debate to no purpose when the real truth may be unknowable at this time. Investors should consider my comment above. Do you trust the management?

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

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Voting Shares via Link Asset Services – It’s Infuriating!

For reasons not worth explaining, I have three Personal Crest accounts for one of the companies in which I hold shares. If I had not opted in for electronic communication, I would therefore have received three identical copies of their Annual Report, three AGM Notices, and three paper proxy voting forms.

So to save the postman some effort, and the company some money, I opted out of paper communications, i.e. opted in to electronic communication, for two of the holdings, just leaving one in paper as I prefer to read annual reports on paper.

The result this year was one complete set of paper documents, and two single page letters for the others giving me the date of the meeting and pointing to a web site where it was claimed I could “log-in” to their share portal and vote. Why they could not include a paper proxy form with those letters, which would have simplified matters, I do not know. I am not registered for the Link (formerly Capita) share portal and don’t wish to do so. I just wished to vote.

The first problem was that when I typed in the company’s name to their portal software, their software could not find it. The company has an apostrophe in its name and I had to type that in to find. So that is stupidity number one.

It then insisted I needed to register – that’s stupidity number 2 when all I wanted to do was vote. Why could they not use the same system as Equiniti who have a much simpler system? I have surely spoken in the past to Capita about this issue and still they have not fixed it.

So I phoned Link and asked them to send me a paper proxy voting form. They refused to do so. The lady I spoke to said I can only vote personal crest holdings via my Crest sponsor. Even after consulting her supervisor, she insisted that was the case. They are simply wrong as I vote my Crest holdings via post all the time, and as I have pointed out they sent me a voting form for the single “paper” holding I have which I have used.

It is very obvious that they know less about voting systems and registration than I but I will be educating the next manager at Link I speak to – there should be a call back tomorrow. If they cannot figure out any other way to solve this problem, I will tell them to convert all three holdings to “paper communication”. That should please my local council who make money from selling the waste paper of residents.

This is a typical example of the obstruction faced by private shareholders when they try to vote their shares. And don’t even talk to me about the abomination that is the nominee system that defeats most people. It is simply not good enough that in the modern age that we have such unintelligent IT systems and customer relations staff who do not seem to know their job.

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

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Chancellor’s Statement, EIS Funds and EMIS Results

The Chancellor’s Spring Statement yesterday was generally positive but there are some aspects that it’s worth talking about. Mr Hammond was right to be cautious because although new Government borrowing is falling, the total debt is still rising. It’s only forecast to fall as a proportion of national income by 2020-21 because of rising GDP. There is “light at the end of the tunnel” as the Chancellor put it, but it’s still some distance away.

GDP is only rising slowly and it is forecast by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) to be rising at near 1.5% in the next few years which is not exactly rapid. The OBR also forecast that we will have to pay £41 billion to the EU after Brexit as a settlement of our obligations, although it will also free up £3bn or more per year that can be spent on other things, i.e. they suggest in the long term we will save money but the impact of changes in migration and trade terms might be more significant.

The Labour party wants the Chancellor to free up the purse strings and increase expenditure on the NHS and other areas. The Government could only do that by borrowing more which would not only increase the cost of their debt but would seem unwise given the economic outlook and the uncertain impact of Brexit. Because of an ageing population, but a growing one, more money will need to be spent on local authorities and the NHS anyway but the growth in productivity remains poor which ultimately determines the wealth of the nation.

Will the estimated figures have an impact on likely future interest rates (which have a significant impact on stock market investment)? Interest rates might need to rise somewhat to make Government debt continue to be attractive but it is not obvious that the economy is overheating as yet – inflation seems to be driven more by rising import prices as the pound has fallen rather than wage rises. The Government will no doubt be keen not to increase the cost of its debt, even if it has only indirect influence on the rate. Interest rates lower than real inflation are a good way for the Government to reduce its debts however much it prejudices savers.

One interesting mention for investors was a mention of a consultation on EIS funds that includes several options for more tax reliefs to encourage investors to put money into early stage “knowledge-intensive businesses”. That might include tax free dividends (only available on VCTs at present), or capital gains exemptions. I may write some more on this topic after reading the full consultation document which is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/financing-growth-in-innovative-firms-enterprise-investment-scheme-knowledge-intensive-fund-consultation . Investors interested in this subject should of course respond to HM Treasury’s consultation.

Some Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs) have fallen in price today. Perhaps because they might be perceived as less attractive to investors if such new EIS funds were introduced. But they would surely be very different beasts even if they might provide more competition for new investor subscriptions.

Comment: having invested in both EIS funds and directly in EIS qualifying companies in the past, I have vowed only to do the latter in future. Finding an experienced fund manager in early stage companies who can pick out the good EIS businesses is not easy and the lemons they pick ripen quickly (a common VC adage) while the good investments can take years to mature. If there is very generous tax relief (at a level where investors ignore the merits of the underlying investee companies because the tax reliefs are so generous it looks like they can’t lose money), then this will encourage all kinds of dubious promoters to enter the field.

One company that is sensitive to Government spending on the NHS is EMIS Group (EMIS). They announced their Final Results this morning. They previously warned in January that they had breached their service level obligations to the NHS and the cost might be “in the order of upper single digits of millions of pounds”. I commented on the company then and still hold some shares in it. The actual damage is a provision of £11.2 million in these accounts for a “financial settlement and costs to remedy past issues”. The share price rose today perhaps in relief that the news was not worse.

Few more details of the contract breach are provided and when I talked to my GP who uses EMIS-Web and used to be active in their user group, he knew nothing about any service failures. All rather odd.

Even excluding that item which is being treated as an exceptional cost, the figures were disappointing though. Revenue was only up 1% and adjusted earnings were down 4%. The CEO commits to a “robust management of legacy matters” and a commitment to being “more performance-led with greater accountability, improved operational execution and an increased focus on our customers”.

Dividend has been increased though which suggests some confidence in the future, putting the shares on a yield of 3.5% and a possible forecast p/e of 16, but the company certainly needs to show better signs of growth if the share price is to get back to where it used to be a couple of years ago.

The Government might spend more in the Autumn budget, but whether EMIS will see much benefit remains to be seen.

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

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The Dangers of Share Tipping, Alliance Trust and AIM Regulation

Share tipping is a mug’s game. Both for the tipsters and their readers. More evidence of this was provided yesterday.

Investors Chronicle issued their “Tips of the Week” via email during the day. It included a “BUY” recommendation on Conviviality (CVR). Unfortunately soon after the company issued a trading statement which said the forecast EBITDA for the current year (ending 30th April) will be 20% below market expectations. Conviviality is a wholesaler, distributor and retailer of alcohol and it seems there was a “material error in the financial forecasts” in one part of the business and that margins have “softened”.

The share price dropped by almost 60% during the day and fell another 10% today at the time of writing. This puts the business based on the new forecasts on a prospective p/e of less than 6 and a dividend yield of over 10% (assuming it is held which may be doubtful). Is this a bargain?

Having had a quick look at the financial profile I am not sure it is. Although net debt of £150 million may not be too high in relation to current revenues or profits, their net profit margin is very small and their current ratio is less than 1, although this is not unusual in retailers who tend to pay for goods after they have sold them.

(Postscript: Paul Scott of Stockopedia made some interesting comments on Conviviality including the suggestion that they might be at risk of breaching their banking covenants and hence might have to do another placing. Certainly worth reading his analysis before plunging into the stock. He also commented negatively on the mid-day timings of the announcements from Conviviality and Fulham Share which I agree with, unless there was some compulsive reason to do them – perhaps they were aware of the Investors Chronicle commentary being issued).

Another tip Investors Chronicle gave yesterday was on Fulham Shore (FUL) which they rated a SELL on the grounds that “growth looks unsustainable”. They got that one right. The company issued a trading statement on the day which also said EBITDA would be below market expectations. Their London restaurants are simply serving fewer customers. The share price dropped 17% on the day. This looks to be symptomatic of the problems of restaurant chains – Prezzo are closing a number of outlets which I was not surprised at because from my visits it seemed rather pedestrian food at high prices. Restaurant Group also reported continuing negative like-for-like figures recently, perhaps partly because of price cutting to attract customers back. Restaurants are being hit by higher costs and disappearing customers. Boring food from tired formulas is no longer good enough to make money.

Another announcement yesterday was results from Alliance Trust (AT.). This is a company that I, ShareSoc, some investors in the trust and hedge fund Elliott Advisors spent a lot of effort on to cause a revolution a couple of years ago so it’s good to see the outcome has been beneficial. Total shareholder return was 19.1% which was well ahead of their benchmark. There was a lot of doubt expressed by many commentators on the new multi-manager investment strategy adopted by the board of directors and the involvement of Elliott, who were subsequently bought out, but it has turned out very well.

The only outstanding issue is the continuing problems at Alliance Trust Savings. They report the integration of the Stocktrade business they acquired from Brewin Dolphin has proved “challenging”. Staff have been moved from Edinburgh to Dundee and the CEO has departed. Customer complaints rose and they no doubt lost a lot of former Stocktrade customers such as me when they decided to stop offering personal crest accounts. So Alliance have written down the value of Alliance Trust Savings by another £13 million as an exceptional charge. No stockbrokers are making much money at present due to very low interest rates of cash held. It has never been clear why Alliance Trust Savings is strategic to the business and it’s very unusual for an investment trust to run its own savings/investment platform. Tough decisions still need to be taken on this matter.

AIM Regulation. The London Stock Exchange has published a revised set of rules for AIM market companies – see here: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-rules-for-companies-march-2018-clean.pdf .

It now includes a requirement for AIM companies to declare adherence to a Corporate Governance Code. At present there is no such obligation, although some companies adhere to the QCA Code, or some foreign code, or simply pick and choose from the main market code. I and ShareSoc did push for such a rule, and you can see our comments on the review of the AIM rules and original proposals here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/aim-rules-review/ and here is a summary of the changes published by the LSE: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-notice-50.pdf (there is also a marked up version of the rule book that gives details of the other changes which I have to admit I have not had the time to peruse as yet).

In summary these are positive moves and the AIM market is improving in some regards although it still has a long way to go to weed out all the dubious operators and company directors in this market.

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

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Beaufort, OFGEM and National Grid

As a postscript to my last blog post on the administration of Beaufort, an interesting article was published by the FT this morning. They had clearly had a chat to administrators PWC. The article reports that the 14,000 investors affected will get no more than 85p in the £1 invested and that no money would be returned for at least a month.

PWC said that that Beaufort’s own funds were very limited and therefore clients will have to cover the cost of recouping their own money and assets. It seems it is a “complicated” administration and there are a number of challenges including assessing the accuracy of financial records. In other words, it’s a typical such mess where the administrators will run up enormous bills sorting it out. As I said in the last blog post, “past experience of similar situations does not inspire confidence”.

It will be months if not years before PWC can sort out who owns what and in the meantime the assets will be frozen. But anyone thinking of taking legal action over the alleged fraudulent practices of the company might find it not worth doing because the cupboard is bare, unless they can target individuals and their assets. Meanwhile there have already been 600 complaints to the Financial Ombudsman apparently but investors might find share dealing by “sophisticated” investors is not covered, and neither are they by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

The energy market regulator OFGEM issues a press release this morning. Here is some of what it said: “Ofgem proposes significantly lower range of returns for investors. Tougher approach would deliver savings of over £5 billion to consumers over five years.

Ofgem has today set out proposals for a new regulatory framework from 2021 which is expected to result in lower returns for energy network companies and significant savings for consumers.

This includes a cost of equity range (the amount network companies pay their shareholders) of between 3% and 5%, if we had to set the rates today. This is the lowest rate ever proposed for energy network price controls in Britain. Ofgem also proposes to refine how it sets the cost of debt so that consumers continue to benefit from the fall in interest rates.”

This is very negative news for National Grid (NG.), but surprisingly the share price has risen today. It is possible that analysts and institutional investors were expecting it to be worse, so it’s a “relief” rally. Meanwhile some chatter on twitter from private investors talks about how cheap the shares are on fundamentals. That may be one view, but just look at 2021, when Corbyn and John McDonnell might be in power and to me there look to be very substantial risks. If equity investors are getting less than 5% return, then in any nationalisation the valuation of the equity could be very low even if the Government pays a “fair” price – which no recent Government did on nationalisations. They used totally artificial valuation rules to come out with the figure the politicians wanted. Investors should not trust politicians, but I think we all know that.

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

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