Woodford Closing Down and How to Avoid Dud Managers

No sooner had I suggested that Neil Woodford should retire after his management company was fired from looking after the Woodford Equity Income Fund (see my personal blog article here: https://tinyurl.com/yxflsh8c ) than he decided to shut down the company. So that looks like the end of his career as a fund manager. Other funds that the company managed were the Woodford Income Focus Fund which has also been closed to redemptions and the Woodford Patient Capital Trust (WPCT).

The latter trust’s share price fell another 5% today and it was already on a discount to Net Asset Value of over 45%. The board of WPCT needs to find another manager and quickly. But yesterday they said that “The Board is in advanced discussions in relation to the ongoing management of the Company’s portfolio and expects to be in a position to announce details of the new management arrangements shortly” so perhaps it won’t be long.

Is the discount on WPCT something to take advantage of? Or can one pick up some shares cheaply that the open-ended funds have been and will continue to dispose of? The problem with this is that valuing some of these holdings is exceedingly difficult and some that are unlisted may be worth a lot less than that at which they were last valued by the trust. In addition it may be some time before there are any realisations from the open-ended funds even in the liquid holdings. In essence it would need a lot of careful analysis by an investor to see if there is money to be made from this collapse, and I am not sure it would be worth the effort. Would anyone have any confidence in picking up shares in companies that Woodford had chosen? They might consider that a very negative indicator now.

There was an interesting analysis in the Daily Telegraph by “Questor” (Richard Evans) today on how to spot poor managers. One is not keeping to their initial promise about dividends from the fund, the second is not having a consistent investment style and sticking to it. He said that investment professionals “know perfectly well that no fund manager can offer certainty of returns but they can and do expect certainty about how their money is managed”. He also said they “have learnt the hard way that when they entrust money to an asset manager on the basis or track record or reputation alone, things go wrong”. I certainly agree with those sentiments.

Which is why I said yesterday that investors need to monitor their fund (or trust) investments closely. Unfortunately many of the people who invest in open-ended funds do so on the recommendation of others (IFAs or platforms) without understanding what they are buying. They often get very little information on the performance of the fund or the issues the manager is facing. Even if they do get sent it, they tend not to read it. This is something the FCA could look at to avoid such debacles in the future.

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

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Woodford Closure, Renishaw Trading, DotDigital Results, Accesso Technology Bids Disappearing and Probate Fees

The big news today was that the Woodford Equity Income Fund is to be wound-up after a decision by Link Fund Solutions, the fund administrator. Neil Woodford has made known his opposition to the move but it is something I have advocated for some time. Decisive action was required because a fund that nobody wants to buy into and with a name on it that puts investors off is going nowhere. Blackrock and PJT Partners will take over the fund immediately and wind it down although it seems likely to be some months before investors receive any cash return. That’s just from the liquid listed investments. Some of the illiquid or small cap holdings could take much longer and valuations are questionable. Neil Woodford surely needs to retire.

What’s the moral of this story? That investors should keep a close eye on their fund holdings and not put up with poor performance for more than a short period of time. They should not have absolute faith in star fund managers however good their past records, and they should be more sceptical about recommendations from their share platforms.

The other issues to be looked at are the EU regulations on liquidity and how Woodford ignored the rules by listing stocks in the Channel Islands. The Financial Conduct Authority does also need to tackle the problem of open-funded funds holding unlisted stocks or property.

Another favourite holding of private investors has been Renishaw (RSW) whose stock price has been falling of late. This morning a trading statement indicated a sharp fall in revenue for the first quarter. The share price is down by 11% at the time of writing. The company’s statement is full of negative phrases – “reduced demand for our products”, “challenging global macroeconomic environment” and “trading conditions are expected to remain challenging”. I am glad I sold my holding some time back. Has the market for the company’s products changed, particularly in the APAC region? I don’t know but shareholders need to ask some tough questions and perhaps it is time for a change of leadership.

Other bad news was from Accesso Technology (ACSO)  in which I still hold a few shares. This company had entered a formal sale process but it seems none of the offers received were considered good enough. The sale process is still on-going but the share price has fallen 15%.

But there was good news from DotDigital (DOTD) one of my “ten-baggers” which was first bought ten years ago. Sales and profits were ahead of expectations for the full year in a Final Results Statement. Revenues were up 19% and recurring revenues are now 86% of the total – the latter rose even higher in the first quarter of this year which “has started well” they say.

Investors Chronicle ran an article in last Friday’s edition on how to identify multibagger stocks. It focused particularly on pharmaceutical and resource stocks but these are very tricky sectors in reality. You might strike lucky with a blockbuster drug or exploration company but you can also lose a lot on failed projects. The better approach is simply to aim for companies that consistently grow revenues and profits like DotDigital. That company also meets the profile of the companies I like as documented in my recent book “Business Perspective Investing”.

DotDigital has strong IP, high customer loyalty, small transactions, diverse customers and high recurring revenue. What more do you want?

More good news from wealthy investors came as the Government announced it was to rethink the proposed change on probate fees – effectively scrap the major hike for large estates that was due to be imposed in April next year. The previous proposals generated a lot of criticism as it was seen as a new way to generate tax to go into Government coffers instead of an equitable fee to cover the cost of the work involved on larger estates.

I watched the Queen’s Speech yesterday for the first time live. The Queen has never been a great speech maker but she managed to turn what should be exciting announcements about future Government policies and programmes into a dull recital. Perhaps a change of management is required there also?

You can read her full text here: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/queens-speech-2019 , although there is little that might affect investors directly.

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

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Are VCTs Worth the Risks, and 40-Year Mortgages?

The FT Money supplement on Saturday ran a big article on Venture Capital Trusts which was headlined “Are VCTs worth the risks for higher earners?”. As a long-standing investor in such companies, having first invested in some in 1995 soon after they were launched, it made for interesting reading.

It seems that wealthy investors are flocking to these funds due to the generous tax breaks and now there are few other good alternatives so the amount invested in them reached near record levels in the last tax year. The article suggests that performance can be volatile but that’s not my experience – at least in terms of share prices. I now hold over 15 different VCTs. Some have certainly performed better than others over the years and in the early years of VCTs there were some absolute stinkers as fund managers seemed to lack experience of investing in early stage companies and investors focused primarily on the tax reliefs that were even more generous than now.

But in recent years, a portfolio of VCT shares would likely be less volatile than a portfolio of FTSE shares. This is for two reasons. First the managers of these trusts try to smooth out the dividend returns which are a big component of the returns from these trusts and secondly the valuations of unquoted companies in which they mainly invest are driven by trade prices of companies rather than stock market hysteria. When stock markets plunge on depresssion, or spike upwards on euphoria, as seen recently in the impact of Brexit politics, VCT share prices can remain very stable.

VCTs do have major tax benefits. They offer 30% tax relief on the amount invested and all dividends are tax free. Capital returns are also tax free after 5 years but the chance of much capital growth is low. In reality capital is often turned into dividends as such trusts can pay out the profits on realisations while ignoring the losses. In effect capital invested (at a 30% tax discount in real terms) is recycled into tax-free dividends so investors need to reinvest the income generated regularly into new share offerings. VCTs therefore do regular new share issues to meet that demand and maintain or grow their assets under management.

It’s not difficult for an investor who puts the maximum £200,000 a year into a VCT portfolio to after a few years be generating a tax-free income of over £30,000 a year based on the current dividend yields. Grossed up at 40% for higher-rate taxpayers that’s equivalent to an income of £50,000 per annum. However as the FT article suggests it might be unwise to hold more than 10% of your overall investment portfolio in VCTs.

What have been the real returns from such trusts? The AIC gives figures for most VCTs and they give the overall share price total return from “Generalist” VCTs over the last ten years as 157%. For example a couple of such better trusts I invested in 24 years ago and still hold returned 207% and 201% over the last ten years. But those figures grossly under-estimate the real returns achieved by investors because they ignore the tax reliefs.

There are risks of investing in such trusts the biggest being the chance that any future Government would change the tax reliefs, perhaps even retrospectively affecting current holdings. But VCTs have been very successful in developing a vibrant small company investment scene. Growing small companies is the key to developing employment in the UK economy. The other big risk is that the recent change in VCT rules mean they might be investing in more-risky earlier-stage companies rather than “asset-backed” or “management buy-out” ones. How that pans out remains to be seen and many VCTs have said that dividend returns might be more volatile in future. But what I have seen so far gives me hope that past mistakes will not be repeated.

How do you pick the best VCTs in which to invest? Certainly look at their track record by using the AIC web site. Don’t invest in any newcomers until they have proven their investment experience over more than 5 years, i.e. they have been through more than one investment cycle – there are plenty of established VCTs so why bother with newbies?

Secondly look at their management and overhead costs which can be very high in VCTs. They usually have management performance fees that can be both very generous and impossible to comprehend due to complexity. Particularly avoid those that are based on dividend payouts as dividends can be paid out by VCTs even when there are losses being made on their investments. In other words, managers can be paid a performance fee even though they are reporting overall losses!

Thirdly beware of glowing prospectuses covering past performance written by VCT managers, particularly where the company has been subject to restructuring in the past or a limited time period is selected for the performance figures. Some VCTs seem able to raise more equity even though they have poor performance records simply because of recommendations by IFAs and other promoters. Inexperienced investors in this sector tend to look at the tax reliefs and the “name” on the fund rather than the important factors. Those who bought into the Woodford funds will know the latter syndrome well.

40-Year Mortgages

In the same edition of FT Money there was another interesting article on the growth of 40-year mortgages. Over 50% of mortgage product offerings now offer such terms. As house prices have risen, buyers have apparently looked to reduce their mortgage costs by repaying the capital over a longer period. When mortgage interest rates are so low the focus is more on the capital repayments it seems.

This might make sense if there was any certainty over the future value of property and interest rates over the next 40 years but another article in the FT on Saturday tells you that is a dangerous assumption. People are obviously expecting to repay these long-term mortgages by selling their house and downsizing when they retire. But house prices do not always go up. They can stagnate over very long periods or drop sharply in the short-term. Hence the FT showed how house prices in Dublin fell by nearly 50% from their peak in 2012.

I suggest 40-year mortgages are positively dangerous and should come with a “health” warning. This looks like another “mis-selling” scandal unregulated by the FCA which will come home to roost in the future. When you borrow money, you should pay it off as soon as possible. A house you buy to live in should be considered to be just that – an operating cost not an investment, and cutting your operating costs should always be a priority.

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

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Brexit Bounce, Green Accreditation, Security Issues and Hargreaves Lansdown AGM

The FTSE and my portfolio jumped up this morning on the hope of a Brexit Agreement after all. RBS is up 16% which seems to be a function of euphoria. I think I’ll wait and see the progress of discussions in the next few days before plunging in to buy some more stocks. But if an Agreement is reached then the market is likely to power ahead so keep that cash handy.

The London Stock Exchange (LSE) announced today a new “Green Accreditation” scheme which will recognize companies and funds that derive 50% or more of their revenues from products or services that contribute to the global green economy. One company that has promptly announced accreditation is Blancco Technology (BLTG) in which I hold a very few shares after a disappointing track record. How do they qualify for this award? They do so because they provided data erasure services thereby helping people to recycle and reuse hardware rather than scrap it. No doubt there will be other “virtue signalers” claiming this award but I doubt it will make a lot of difference to my investment choices.

The takeover of Cobham (COB) has run into a lot of criticism about the threat to national security. The founding family have raised concerns and the Government has decided to intervene. On a personal note should I be worried that our new home security system based on Hikvision technology leaves us open to being hacked? Not only that but I also have a Huawei smartwatch. Both companies have been banned by the US due to their links to the Chinese Government. Hikvision have 1.3 million cameras installed in the UK, often in NHS facilities. This is surely an issue where the Government should be providing some advice. Why do we now have cameras all around our house? Not because of worries that my views on Brexit might stimulate some demonstrators but because the home of two Asian families in our street were recently burgled. Apparently such families are particularly at threat of such attacks because they often keep gold at home. Readers can be assured that there are no gold bars in our house. The burglaries that did take place were to houses with non-functioning alarm systems but my wife was somewhat concerned.

There was an interesting report in the Financial Times on the Hargreaves Lansdown (HL.) Annual General Meeting (I do not hold the shares). It sounds like it was a lively affair. Apparently some shareholders were not happy with the reaction of HL to the Woodford Equity Income Fund suspension after HL had promoted the fund. One shareholder said the reopening of the fund “has been postponed more often than Brexit” and suggested that HL should push for Woodford to liquidate the fund immediately. Comment: liquidating the fund abruptly would be easier said than done due to the nature of its holdings, but I agree that more vigorous action could have been taken. The fact that Neil Woodford is still running the fund when it will clearly be every unlikely to recover rapidly if at all is far from ideal.

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

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Dunelm Trading, Abrupt Share Price Moves and Volatility

It’s a good job I am not an emotional person. This morning Dunelm (DNLM) issued what I considered a very positive trading statement for the last quarter. The share price promptly dropped 6% after the market opened.

Total group sales were up 5.8%, with like-for-like sales up 6.4%. In addition this is a company that is clearly making a successful transition from being a retail store business to a hybrid on-line/store model. On-line business was up 34.7% while store business was still up 2.9%. On a prospective p/e of less than 15 and a yield of over 4% this is starting to look attractive. The company says year-end expectations remain unchanged as it continues to win market share. The only slight negative was that “September trading was mixed in part reflecting a softer homewares market”. But should a retailer be judged on one month’s trading alone?

This is the third of my holdings to suffer abrupt falls in the last couple of days. The others were 4Imprint (FOUR) and Telecom Plus (TEP), neither for any very obvious reason although there were some large trades put through on the former. But the UK market has been falling driven by the nervousness over resolution of the Brexit situation no doubt. That looks even more problematic at present with it being clear that the EU thinks they can force Brexit to be cancelled by sitting on their hands and dictating another referendum or general election before they will negotiate a withdrawal agreement. Conspiring with Speaker John Bercow is the latest attack on the democratic constitution of the UK by the EU in furtherance of this objective. What’s the motivation for the position of the EU Commission on all of this? I would suggest as usual it’s about money which always drives politics and the actions of individuals. The departure of the UK from the EU will leave a massive hole in the EU budget which they have not even attempted to solve as yet.

These events mean of course that foreign investors, who hold the majority of UK listed companies, are spooked and the risk of a future Labour Government rises as the leavers vote is split between Conservatives and Brexit party supporters. The only positive aspect is that the falling pound, driven by the same emotions, is improving the potential profits of many of my holdings which have large overseas revenues. 4Imprint comes into that category of course so the recent falls are difficult to explain except on the basis of recent past irrational exuberance. Smaller cap stocks are particularly vulnerable because just a few trades can move the share price substantially.

When markets and investors get nervous, volatility does increase and sharp share price falls can happen for no great reason. This is the time to pick up some bargains perhaps?

Postscript: Commentators on the Dunelm results after the share price fell further focused on the threat to margins from a falling pound, but the company announcement indicated that they expect gross margin for the full year to be consistent with last year despite currency headwinds towards the end of the year.

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

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Company Refs Acquired

Slater Investments and Stockopedia have issued a press release saying they have acquired the Company Refs financial analysis service. Company Refs was devised by Jim Slater, the father of the current Slater Investments Chairman and was originally published in paper form as a summary of all the key financial information on public companies on one page. It was later digitised but active marketing of the service has not taken place in recent years. But it was a truly innovative solution to help both professional and private investors when first devised.

Stockopedia provides a very similar service and the press release suggests that current REFS subscribers will be integrated into the Stockopedia service while Slater will use the financial database and intellectual property for internal research purposes.

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

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Speedy Hire Presentation, Burford Analysis and Treatt Trading Statement

On Tuesday the 1st October I attended a company seminar organised by ShareSoc in Birmingham, mainly to present my new book. But there was an interesting presentation given there by Speedy Hire (SDY). This is not a company I have looked at before because it seemed to be in a sector driven by construction activity which tends to be cyclical and in a fragmented market with few barriers to entry. This is probably why other listed companies in the sector such as HSS and VP are on low valuations (typically P/Es of less than 10). Speedy Hire is on a prospective P/E of 9.5 and a dividend yield of 4.2% according to Stockopedia.

So why was the company interesting? Firstly Speedy Hire seems to be somewhat of a turnaround situation from dire 2016 results. The presenter, Chris Morgan, explained how the company has a new focus on improving the proportion of services in the revenue mix which have better margins and there is a new focus on SME customers which they consider a significant opportunity. They are also undertaking a “digital transformation” to reduce costs and improve service. That includes a new “app” that enables customers to order items whereas most orders are taken over the phone at present. This is currently in essence a very labour intensive business – for example they have over 50 people on credit control alone.

There are clearly opportunities to improve efficiencies in the business by investing in technology which small local hire companies would be unable to match. There is also a focus on improving the return on capital employed (ROCE) which I always like to see – it’s now about 12.8% excluding the recent Lifterz acquisition so is moving in the right direction. On the 3rd October the company issued a positive trading statement with revenue up 6% and higher growth in the sectors focused upon mentioned above.

In summary a company that may be worth a closer look as management seem to be improving the business substantially.

After the Speedy Hire presentation I covered my book “Business Perspective Investing” (see https://www.roliscon.com/business-perspective-investing.html ) which explains the important things that you should look at when choosing companies in which to invest. It suggests ignoring the typical approach of looking for “cheap” shares based on low P/Es and high dividend yields but focusing on the business model and other attributes.

As Burford Capital (BUR) is a company in the news after the shorting attack by Muddy Waters, I chose to run through why I would never have invested in the company based on the check lists given in the book. In essence it fails too many of them, no doubt to the consternation of some in the audience who held the stock. Here are just some of the problems:

  1. High barriers to entry? None I am aware of – I suspect anyone could set up a litigation funding company given enough capital.
  2. Economies of scale? I doubt there are any as legal claims are labour intensive.
  3. Differentiated product/service? I am not clear that they differ much from other litigation funding businesses.
  4. Low capital required? Absolutely the contrary as they have to fund legal cases for years at enormous cost before they get any payback.
  5. Proprietary technology or IP? There is none.
  6. Smaller transactions? The opposite. Burford’s profits depend on a few large legal cases.
  7. Repeat business? I question whether there is any. Legal cases tend to be one-offs.
  8. Short term contracts? The opposite. The cases they take on can run for years.
  9. No major business risks obvious? Significant risks of losing major cases.
  10. Low debt? The contrary as they use debt to finance their legal cases.
  11. Appropriate corporate structure? Odd to say the least until recently with the CFO being the wife of the CEO and no executive directors on the board.
  12. UK or US domicile? No they are registered in Guernsey.
  13. Adhere to UK Corporate Governance Code? No.
  14. AGMs at convenient time and place? No, they are in Guernsey.
  15. No big legal disputes? Apart from participating in the legal actions they fund, they also have received a claim from their founder and former Chairman recently.
  16. Accounts prudent and consistent? Is recognition of the value of current legal claims prudent (upon which the reported profits rely) and the accounts conservative? It’s very difficult to determine from the published information but I have serious doubts about them.
  17. Do profits turn into cash? Not in the short term. They are effectively recognising what they consider to be the likely chance of success in current profits. But winning legal claims is always in essence uncertain. I have been involved in several big cases and your lawyer always tells you that you have a very good chance of winning as they wish to collect their fees, but even if you win collecting any award can be uncertain.

I could go on further but the above negatives are sufficient to rule it out as a “high quality” business so far as I am concerned. That’s ignoring the allegations of Muddy Waters and the counter allegations by Burford of share price manipulation (i.e. market abuse).

Treatt (TET) issued a trading statement today (4th October). This is a company that specialises in natural ingredients for the flavour and fragrance markets, particularly in the beverage sector. I hold a few shares in it.

The statement says that there has been “a significant fall in certain key citrus raw material prices…..”. This is impacting revenue growth although they have been diversifying into other product areas. Profit before tax and exceptional items is still expected to be in line with expectations – which was for a fall in EPS for 2019 based on consensus broker forecasts.

Now when a company says its input prices are coming down by more than 50% as in this case, you would expect the company to be making bumper profits as a result. But clearly this is not so. It would seem that their customers expect to pay less which suggests this is a “commodity price” driven business where competitors track the prices of the raw material downwards.

This might be a well-managed business in a growth sector for natural ingredients but there may well be low barriers to entry and an undifferentiated product in essence. So it may well fail the checklists in my book.

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

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