Mello Event and Crimson Tide  Presentation  

 

I attended the Mello event yesterday where I reviewed Terry Smith’s book entitled “Investing for Growth” and Andrew Latto reviewed my book entitled “Business Perspective Investing”. He gave it a very positive review and made some suggestions for a second edition such as adding some case studies. I will ponder whether to work on another edition.

Another interesting session was a presentation by Crimson Tide (TIDE). This is a very small company even though it’s been around for a number of years – market cap only £19 million. It sells a software product called MPRO5 which claims to be a “leading mobile workforce management platform and service” on their web site. I own a very few shares in the company.

The presentation was by Luke Jeffrey, CEO, and he clearly has a technical background. He somewhat disappointed me by saying the product is a “toolkit”. It’s obviously a technology platform not an application solution. It has to be configured to meet application needs of which there seem to be a wide variety, i.e. there is no very strong focus on any business sector.

My experience of the software industry has taught me that people are looking for solutions not toolkits. Not surprisingly, he mentioned when asked about competitors that they often come up against “point solutions”.

They also seem to be extending their technology to cover IOT applications and also developing a “micro business” version. I find the idea of marketing software products to businesses such as plumbers to be a quite horrific business proposition. Selling low-cost software solutions to small businesses is rarely economic because it takes as much time and effort to sell to a small business as it does a large one while the price you can charge never reflects that. Sales, marketing and distribution in that sector is a major problem.

In summary I am not convinced that they can turn their interesting technology into a big business unless substantial changes are made. The presentation actually discouraged me from buying more shares in the company which is no doubt the opposite of what the speaker was aiming for.

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

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Mello Event

I am doing a review of Terry Smith’s book this afternoon at the Mello event and Andrew Latto is reviewing my book – should be an interesting free session: https://melloevents.com/melloresultsroundup/ . It starts at 1.00 pm and is a full afternoon of sessions of interest to investors. That includes a number of interesting companies presenting results.

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

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A Book to Cheer You Up

We are in one of those depressing moments of the manic-depressive cycles of the stock market. Invest-ability just told us that the FTSE 250 has now lost over 7 per cent this month and I can quite believe it with my portfolio certainly heading downhill. With the gloom of winter fast arriving, I can only recommend the book “Where are the customer’s yachts?” by Fred Schwed.

This book was first published in 1940 and the author had experienced Wall Street at its most extremes. He was a trader but lost a lot of his money in the crash of 1929. It’s a cynical look at the practices and people on Wall Street of which the author clearly had a fine understanding. One might conclude that the financial world has not changed much since.

It’s both witty and educational. As the introduction to the 2006 edition by Jason Sweig spells out: “The names and faces and machinery of Wall Street have changed completely from Schwed’s day, but the game remains the same. The Individual Investor is still situated at the very bottom of the food chain, a speck of plankton in a sea of predators”.

The title of the book refers to the apocryphal story of some out-of-town visitors to New York. On arriving at the Battery their guides indicated some handsome ships riding at anchor and said “Look those are the bankers’ and broker’s yachts”. “Where are the customer’s yachts?” asked the naïve visitor.

Here’s one educational paragraph from the book after he comments that “pitifully few financial experts have ever known for two years (much less fifteen) what was going to happen to any class of securities – and that the majority are usually spectacularly wrong in a much shorter time than that”:

“Still he is not a lair; nor is our other friend. I can explain it, because I have not only had lunch with economists, I have sometimes had dinner with psychiatrists. It seems that the immature mind has a regrettable tendency to believe, as actually true, that which it only hopes to be true. In this case the notion that the financial future is not predictable is just too unpleasant to be given any room at all in the Wall Streeter’s consciousness. But we expect a child to grow up in time and learn what is reality, as opposed to what are only his hopes. This however is asking too much of the romantic Wall Streeter – and they are all romantics, whether they be villains or philanthropists. Else they would never have chosen this business which is the business of dreams”.

On the subject of trusts he says “There has been a good deal of thoughtful, searching legislation enacted against trust abuses in recent years, and all of it favors the investor. The sad thing is that there can be no legislation against stupidity”. The recent events at Woodford come to mind.

The writer also comments on the detachment of the investor or speculator from the real businesses represented by pieces of paper – and “with these pieces of paper thrilling games can be played……this inability to grasp ultimate realities is the outstanding mental deficiency of the speculator, small as well as great”.

He points out that one of the agendas of the S.E.C. is to work towards the ideal of a completely informed investing public. A laudable effort he says but then points out that then “everybody would know whether to buy or sell, and whichever it was, everybody would try to do the same thing at once”. Orderly markets exist on differences of opinion. This view is worth pondering now that we have such instant dissemination of financial news and analysis on large cap stocks.

There is a much wisdom in this book which is both relatively short and readable. Highly recommended for those new to investment for the education and to experienced investors for the levity.

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

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City of London Investment Trust Annual Report

I have been reading the City of London Investment Trust (CTY) annual report in advance of their AGM on the 28thof October. This is one of my oldest shareholdings – first purchased in 2011 with an annual total return since of 11.5% p.a. according to Sharescope. Historically it has been a good performer, if somewhat boring. That’s OK but last year was a disappointing one. Has Job Curtis, the long-time manager, lost his touch?

Last year the trust supplied a share price total return of 20.0% but that was less than the FTSE All-Share and the 26.4% reported by the AIC UK Equity Income Sector.

CTY is a UK “Growth and Income” trust and has a focus on higher-yielding “value” shares as it says in their annual report. For the second year running they had to draw on revenue reserves to enable them to maintain their record of increasing dividends.

But one only has to look at the top ten holdings to see why performance is not brilliant as it’s stuffed full of FTSE-100 shares such as British American Tobacco, Diageo, Rio Tinto, Unilever, M&G, RELX, Shell, Phoenix, BAE Systems and HSBC. The Fund Manager’s report notes that stock selection generated -3.80% of the performance. They did well from holdings in big miners such as Rio Tinto, BHP and Anglo American, didn’t we all, but not holding Glencore was a big detractor. They had a number of other holdings that detracted.

It may be unreasonable to take one year’s performance as indicative of likely long-term performance but are tobacco and oil companies really good investments at this point in time, however generous their dividend yields? More emphasis on growth and less on income might be appropriate I suggest.

The trust also has a large number of holdings – the top 40 only represent 76% of the portfolio. It looks over-diversified although given the size of the fund there may be good reasons for this.

The Fund Management company is Janus Henderson and it’s interesting to note in the history of the company, which they expand at length on in the annual report, that it used to be called TR City of London when Touche Remnant was the manager. After they were acquired by Henderson, the company was simply renamed “The City of London Investment Trust”. A wise move to disassociate the company name from that of the fund managers which was likely to change over time. The new name might not have been ideal though as there is another listed company named City of London Group and it hardly a good or registrable trade mark. The directors of Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Trust (SLS) who are about to make a mistake over a new name should bear that in mind.

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

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ShareSoc Woodford Legal Claim Seminar

There are several legal firms who are mounting cases to try and gain some redress for the investors but ShareSoc is backing Leigh Day who presented at the seminar. They are focussed on a claim against Link Fund Solutions, the Authorised Corporate Director (ACD) for the fund and which is part of a large financial group (Link).  Leigh Day’s investigations lead it to believe that Link allowed WEIF to hold excessive levels of illiquid or difficult-to-sell investments, and that this caused investors significant loss. In doing so, they consider Link breached the rules of the FCA Handbook and failed to properly carry out the management function of the Woodford Equity Income Fund. They have already issued a letter before action and received a rebuttal response from Link so have now filed a case in the High Court, i.e. the case is progressing – see https://woodfordpayback.co.uk/ for more details and how to join the claim.

A representative of Leigh Day presented the facts and the basis for their claim against Link, but as usual when lawyers present cases, this might not have been exactly clear for the average person. Lawyers seem to want to display their intelligence and knowledge in such presentations which might impress corporate clients but is inappropriate for the general public. Those who invested in the Woodford fund might not have been the most financially sophisticated individuals with many of them relying on recommendations from brokers such as Hargreaves Lansdown (HL).

It seems that Leigh Day cannot identify a good case against Neil Woodford himself, against his management company or against HL. This is unfortunate. Link and the FCA might have fallen down on the job of regulating WEIF and monitoring what Neil Woodford was doing but in essence it was his actions that eventually brought about the collapse. Not only did he invest in companies that were inappropriate for an “equity income” fund but many of them were high risk. Liquidity evaporated when fund performance was poor and negative publicity hit the fund at which point everyone wanted out.

The Leigh Day claim is certainly worth supporting in my view but they have only managed to sign up about 11,000 claimants so far. Why is that? No doubt the first problem is that they do not have access to a register of investors. Both Link and HL have rebutted such requests which is morally indefensible. The FCA should surely step in to ensure that happens if the required information cannot be obtained using the normal disclosure responsibility in legal cases.

Indeed the FCA could take much tougher action by enforcing compensation if they had a mind to do so, but as usual they are proving toothless.

One point I was not aware of before that came out in the meeting was that Grant Thornton were the auditors of the WEIF fund and should surely have queried the low liquidity. Another black mark against that firm.

Apart from the problem for Leigh Day getting through to investors there are a number of other difficulties in obtaining supporters for such legal actions. These are: 1) Investors are often elderly and suffer from sloth – repeated reminders are necessary to get them on board; 2) Investors are keen to forget their own mistakes in investing in the fund; 3) The time to likely obtain a judgement which is several years puts people off; 4) The legal case appears complex and the contracts between investors and the lawyers can be complicated – investors might also doubt that they are not facing risks of costs. The way the case is communicated to investors needs to be handled very carefully to ensure investors understand what is being done and why they do not face risks from the legal action.

Another issue is that ShareSoc and Leigh Day have pointed out that another approach might be to complain to the Financial Ombudsman. From my experience of that organisation, it would be a long and tedious process with little certainty of satisfaction. I would personally prefer to rely on an aggressive law firm to obtain some redress.

Leigh Day certainly seem to have acted competently so far in pursuing their legal action and have moved relatively quickly. I would also encourage you to write to your Member of Parliament to request that the Government ensures that the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) takes much stronger action over these events.  

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Roger Lawson

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Utility Prices and the Cost of Net Zero

I commented previously on gas prices, price caps and reckless pricing. I thought it best to check how much my utility bills (gas plus electric prices) have gone up since I last changed supplier to Telecom Plus 8 years ago. My bill totals have gone up by 63% over that period whereas the Retail Price Index has only gone up by 23%. Extra roof insulation and cavity wall insulation was done before the start of that period and the number of residents has not changed. So that’s a substantial increase over RPI in total charges.

How much is that increase down to subsidies that we all pay to encourage low carbon electricity production (such as wind farms) and how much to the worldwide change in gas prices?

According to Lee Drummee, an analyst at Cornwall Insight, in 2020 over 30% of the typical electricity bill was accounted for by renewable subsidies and policies. In other words, much of the excess increase in utility bills over RPI has been caused by Government low carbon policies.

The price of natural gas on worldwide markets has gone up by 48% in the same period, but the market price for gas is extremely volatile. It was almost as high as it is now in February 2014 (see  https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/natural-gas). On a longer term view, the market price of natural gas does not explain the increase in my utility bill over the last eight years.

Lord Matt Ridley has recently published a very good article on the energy crisis. It includes this comment: “It is almost tragi-comic that this crisis is happening while Boris Johnson is in New York, futilely trying to persuade an incredulous world to join us in committing eco self-harm by adopting a rigid policy of net zero by 2050 – a target that is almost certainly not achievable without deeply hurting the British economy and the lives of ordinary people, and which will only make the slightest difference to the climate anyway, given that the UK produces a meagre 1 per cent of global emissions”.

He also suggests the UK could have been self-sufficient in gas if we had not banned fracking with this comment: “We, meanwhile, decided to kowtow to organisations like Friends of the Earth, which despite being told by the Advertising Standards Authority to withdraw misleading claims about the extraction of shale gas, embarked on a campaign of misinformation, demanding ever more regulatory hurdles from an all-too-willing civil service”. I saw no reason to ban fracking so long as it was well regulated.

See Ridley’s blog here:  https://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/the-root-of-the-energy-crisis/

Meanwhile the Global Warming Policy Foundation has explained how Parliament was misled over the cost of the net zero carbon emission target we are aiming for by 2050. It’s worth reading here:  https://www.thegwpf.com/climate-change-committee-misled-parliament-about-the-cost-of-net-zero/

It certainly appears to me that Government policies on these matters have been seriously misinformed. They have been driven by eco-fanaticism from those who think they can save the world from extinction by adopting extreme policies.

Meanwhile, and as I have said before, controlling the growth in population is the only sure way to reduce emissions and improve the environment. Our Government has done nothing about that issue at all, and few other Governments had done anything about it either.

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

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Grant Thornton Fined Trivial Amount over Patisserie Valerie Audits

The interesting news today, at least for a former shareholder in Patisserie Holdings (CAKE) as I am, was the announcement by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) of fines on Grant Thornton and their Audit Partner over the defective audits of the company in financial years 2015, 2016 and 2017. The company subsequently collapsed in 2018 when it became apparent that the accounts were a work of fiction.

This is what the FRC had to say: “This Decision Notice sets out numerous breaches of Relevant Requirements across three separate audit years, evidencing a serious lack of competence in conducting the audit work. The audit of Patisserie Holdings Plc’s revenue and cash in particular involved missed red flags, a failure to obtain sufficient audit evidence and a failure to stand back and question information provided by management. As a result of this investigation, GT has taken remedial actions to improve its processes and to prevent a recurrence of these types of breaches. The package of financial and non-financial sanctions should also help to improve the quality of future audits.”

The sanctions imposed include fines of £2.3 million on Grant Thornton and £87,500 on audit partner David Newstead, after taking into account mitigating circumstances and the financial resources of GT.

But the detail of the case makes for interesting reading, which can be obtained in the link from here: https://www.frc.org.uk/news/september-2021/sanctions-against-grant-thornton-uk-llp-and-david where the Final Decision Notice can be read.

It shows that not only did the audit fall down in many ways but that accounting practices at Patisserie were amateurish in the extreme with apparently no proper oversight by the directors. It includes such problems as:

  • Large amounts of revenue recorded from voucher sales near the year end without being queried.
  • Cash growth that was significantly larger than growth in revenue or profit, with repeated inconsistencies in bank statements and dormant bank accounts being reactivated but the auditors not informed.
  • Reconciling items and journal entries being misused or without proper explanation. For example journal entries being used to record sales transactions, employee costs, etc. As a result there were many thousands of journal entries each year.
  • Additions to fixed assets being miscategorised and wrongly capitalised. For example, motor car purchases being treated as “plant, equipment, fixtures and fittings”.
  • Documents used as supporting evidence containing obvious errors or oddities such as lack of corporate logos, or invoices for vehicles with no vehicle identifications, remittance advices that looked like invoices, and alleged bank statements that appeared to be Excel spreadsheets.

The auditors failed to obtain sufficient evidence to support queried items or to challenge management’s explanations. Professional scepticism in the auditors was clearly lacking.

The liquidators of the company are pursuing a legal claim against Grant Thornton but according to a note in the FT they will continue to defend against that claim on the basis that it “ignores the board’s and management’s own failings in detecting the sustained and collusive fraud that took place”. GT claim that “our work did not cause the failure of the business”. At the end of the day that might have been so but if the defective accounts had been identified in 2015 or 2016 before the fraud became totally out of hand, perhaps the company could have been saved. It would certainly have saved me and many other investors from investing in the company’s shares after 2015.

The financial penalties for such incompetence are of course still trivial. Grant Thornton’s trading profit last year was £57 million.   

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

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Gas Prices, Price Caps, Reckless Pricing and Telecom Plus

There was a lot of coverage of the impact of rising gas prices in the media this morning, particularly on retail consumers. The wholesale price of natural gas has been shooting up for a number of reasons – up 17% alone on Monday for example.

The Government imposed “price cap” has protected consumers to some extent, but it has meant that many companies that supply consumers have been losing money. There are as many as 55 companies that supply gas to retail consumers but a number have already entered administration and the forecast is that only 10 might survive.

The price cap is only reviewed every six months and that is clearly insufficient to keep up with the rapid change to open market prices. The price cap was introduced to protect consumers from big companies who had many long-standing customers on fixed expensive tariffs. Many were reluctant to switch to other suppliers which is now very easy. Government action might have been laudable to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation but when you start interfering in markets, the outcome is usually perverse.

As a shareholder in Telecom Plus (TEP) I have some interest in this issue. They have repeatedly complained about new entrants to the market who were promoting prices so low that they were bound to lose money. But they were doing this to build a customer base.

This is what TEP said in their last Annual Report in June: “The level of the energy price cap increased by almost £100 at the start of April, a substantial rise that reflects both rising wholesale prices and higher covid-related costs. Since then, wholesale costs have remained at an elevated level, which makes the switching market particularly challenging for all market participants.

Despite this, many independent suppliers are still setting their retail prices at whatever level is required to attract new customers on price comparison sites, irrespective of the impact it will inevitably have on their profitability and cashflow; as a result, we continue to see them reporting significant and unsustainable losses in their latest published accounts. A number of further suppliers have left the market over the last 12 months, with further insolvencies likely in the event that the current Ofgem consultation (designed to prevent suppliers using customer deposits as a substitute for shareholder capital) becomes effective”.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said that the Government “will not be bailing out failed companies” which is good to hear because it is the companies own fault that they have got into this parlous situation. Gas prices are always volatile and companies that had not hedged the price nor had long-term supply contracts were very likely to come unstuck.

A meeting of supply company leaders with Mr Kwarteng apparently encouraged dropping of the price cap, but he was adamant in retaining it. That is a great pity because this problem would never have arisen if a free market was allowed to operate.

There are other possible ways to protect vulnerable consumers and nobody ever has their gas cut off because their supplier goes bust.  

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

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Scrapping Share Certificates and Clive Sinclair Obituary

The Government is to push ahead with the scrapping of paper share certificates. An announcement yesterday by Lord Frost included this in a bonfire of regulations which also included plans to scrap driving licences (i.e. making them digital only). The dematerialisation of shares was long ago committed to by an EU directive with no new paper certificates to be issued by 2023 and all existing ones replaced by 2025.

There are many share certificates still held by investors – for example I still hold a few, mainly for VCT companies which I have never bothered to dematerialise. A paper share certificate at least ensures you are on the share register of a company and hence are a “member” with full shareholder rights. A replacement system which ensures you retain those rights rather than shares being held in a stockbroker’s nominee system is required but plans for implementation of such a system have been slow in appearing.

See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/brexit-opportunities-regulatory-reforms for the announcement.

Inventor and businessman Sir Clive Sinclair has died at the age of 81. He developed early calculators, digital watches and the ZX81 and Spectrum personal computers. The latter were the first popular home computers in the UK sold at a price almost everyone could afford (less than £100). I fondly remember playing video games on a Spectrum but they were not much use for anything else. The keyboard was a single sheet of rubber and not fit for much at all.

Despite these short-lived commercial impacts, he never developed these businesses into long-term successes and even proceeded to destroy his reputation with the Sinclair C5 electric vehicle.

He provided a very good example of how in Britain we have good technology innovators but not good businessmen who can develop a company and conquer the world with superior sales and marketing.

Sir Clive seemed to always want to move on to new inventions rather than concentrating on making money from existing ones and doing the boring work involved in developing existing products and markets. Therefore in essence a flawed personality in many ways.

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

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Charles Stanley Takeover

   

I attended, via the LumiAGM platform, the Court Meeting and General Meeting of Charles Stanley Group (CAY) to approve the takeover by Raymond James this morning. In other words, these were hybrid meetings with both physical attendees and web attendees.

The meetings were reasonably well run but there were no questions from attendees and I guess it will go through as the offer price is more than 40% higher than the previous closing price for CAY shares. But we will have to await the final vote results (a 75% majority is required plus court approval in due course).

The LumiAGM platform is easy to use and I would recommend it to other companies.

It is perhaps unfortunate that yet another stockbroker is disappearing, therefore reducing competition. Consolidation in brokers and platforms is the name of the game of late as size matters now that profits are being eroded by new entrants while operating and regulatory costs rise. Keeping up technically is now expensive for example.  Raymond James is a good fit because they are primarily a full-service broker like Charles Stanley. But it may leave the execution-only Charles Stanley Direct platform out on a limb. I would expect they might sell that business to another execution-only platform operator in due course but the stated intention is not to change anything in the short-term.

At least this takeover will remove another holding from my portfolio, reducing it to 84 companies and funds, although a number of them are investment trusts and VCTs which require little monitoring. But with the market riding high, it’s a good time to weed out a few holdings.

Postscript: Based on the voting results, it looks like a done deal. Some 99.9% of shares were voted in favour, although the number of shareholders actually voting is astonishing low at only 72 (only 12.5% of those eligible). This should lead the Court to question the outcome, but will they?  See here for the full results: https://www.londonstockexchange.com/news-article/CAY/results-of-court-meeting-and-general-meeting/15138290  

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

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