Productivity, Sage, Sophos and Investment Trust Discounts

There was an interesting article last week in Investors Chronicle where Bearbull attempted to analyse the variations between company productivity. Productivity, or the lack of it in the UK, is one of the big issues weighing on the minds of politicians of late. Is the productivity of UK companies getting better or worse was one of the questions he attempted to answer.

For investors, productivity is surely one thing we should look at when deciding in which companies to invest. Those businesses that get the most out of the capital they employ (measured by Return on Capital, or ROCE), and also get the most out of their employees, are surely the ones most likely to be successful and generate the profits and dividends we like as investors.

But one needs to combine the two because obviously employees can be traded off against capital. By investing in more automation, employees can be reduced. But there is also the problem that businesses vary in nature. So natural resource companies such as oil producers can have large revenues and profits generated by relatively few staff, while retailers generate equivalent profits from much larger staff numbers.

Bearbull had a stab at producing a combined productivity index for a range of large cap companies, but as the results were still very wide ranging ended up focusing on whether their productivity was increasing or decreasing. Results were still varied.

There is a way to make use of such figures and that is to compare companies in the same business sector. For example software companies employ a lot of staff, but generally little capital apart from their past investment in developed software or in acquisitions. One way I used to look at companies in the software industry when I worked in it was to look at the revenue and profits per employee and I still find those useful measures. They can tell you a lot about the nature of the business.

It’s informative for example to compare two of the larger UK software businesses – Sage (SGE) and Sophos (SOPH). Sage has recently been the subject of a downgrade by analysts at Deutsche Bank and the shares have been heading south for some time as competition from new entrants into the accounting software space seems to be increasing. But at least they are making profits. Sophos is in the hot IT security sector but is still reporting operating losses.

But it’s interesting to look at their sales per employee – that was £124,320 in the case of Sage (13,795 employees) and £116,975 in the case of Sophos (3,187 employees) from the latest Annual Reports that are available. In other words, very similar. Operating profits per employee were £25,154 at Sage while Sophos reported a loss of £8,000 per employee.

The big difference was in average employee costs which were £57,194 at Sage and £95,387 at Sophos. The latter is a very high figure which helps to explain why they are losing money.

Sophos looks to be an example of where the directors and employees are taking most of the profits leaving very little for shareholders – indeed a negative return to them.

Investment Trust Discounts

I mentioned in a previous article the high share price discount to Net Asset

Value at RIT Capital Partners which encouraged me to sell the shares. The discount was actually a premium of 6.8% which I reported although I am advised it had actually been even higher in the recent past.

It is common knowledge with anyone who invests in investment trusts that discounts have narrowed in the last year with popular trusts now often on premiums. The dangers of buying trusts that trade at a high premium was recently evidenced by the fall in the share price of the Independent Investment Trust (IIT). As reported by Citywire recently, the share price unwound by 10.9% in one week after the premium shrank from a peak of 20% in June. It’s now only 6.2% but that’s still too high in my view.

The company performed exceptionally well in 2017 (NAV up 53%) but even so this is surely a case of investors expecting “past performance to be indicative of future performance” when every health warning on stock market investments tells you the contrary. The long-term performance record is good but there is a limit to the price one should pay for anything.

You can track the company’s performance, and the discount it trades at on the Association of Investment Companies (AICs) web site. There are many other relatively high performing investment trusts that still trade at a discount.

Why should investment trusts trade at a discount? Because just looking at the income they produce, if the management and administration charges reduce their income by 1%, when their yield was otherwise 5%, then the share price should be at a discount of 20% because otherwise people can buy the individual holdings of the company directly and increase their income in that proportion. That ignores the relative proportion of dividends paid out of income versus capital growth. Of late we have had lots of capital growth but that is not always the case. If the market starts to go down then share price premiums on investment trusts could well collapse.

A particular problem with investment trusts, and the reason why discounts, or premiums, can sometimes become extreme, is the relatively low volume of share trading even in large trusts, i.e. there is low liquidity. Buyers are often long-term holders with few active traders speculating in the shares. This problem tends to worsen in the summer months when many investors are on holiday so one needs to be wary of trading such shares in that period.

I hold none of the companies mentioned above, for the avoidance of doubt.

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

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