ADVFN AGM – How to Disenfranchise Shareholders, and OFCOM Interest

I was surprised yesterday to pick up an RNS Announcement from ADVFN Plc (AFN) stating that the company’s Annual General Meeting had taken place on that day and all resolutions were duly passed. I was surprised because as a shareholder in the company (and on the register), I had received no notification of the AGM and no proxy voting form either of course.

In addition there is no notice of the AGM given in any RNS announcement, and there is no information on it on the company’s web site. It’s an easy way to avoid folks from voting or turning up at the AGM – you simply don’t tell anyone about it!

Now admittedly I don’t hold many shares. I only bought a few in early 2017 because ADVFN were peripherally involved in a libel suit I was pursing (settled in the High Court on Thursday to my satisfaction – more on that another time). I thought it would be helpful to attend any General Meetings of the company to learn more about the business.

This might be one of my best investments in 2017. Share price when purchased was 27.4p, share price now is 39.5p (i.e. up 44%). But the price did fall 9% yesterday, so perhaps other folks did attend the AGM and asked some awkward questions. If any readers of this blog did so, a report on the meeting would be helpful.

ADVFN run investment information platforms including a popular bulletin board. Profits have been non-existent for most of the last few years, but revenue was £8.2 million last year so the current market cap of £10.5 million is not totally bonkers. The company also indicated it was now focusing on profits rather than growth so results might improve – or at least they might not run out of cash and need to do more fund raising although the picture is not totally clear. One reason for the share price rise was probably the announcement by the company of a cryptocurrency project, using blockchain technology. The application is for a digital wallet to support a social media cryptocurrency. Although it is not altogether apparent who might use that and what the benefits might be, it appears to possibly be a way to support micropayment services for blog contributions. Any company that can claim involvement in the blockchain/cryptocurrency world gets their share price inflated it seems. It’s another “bubble” just like the Bitcoin price.

There has been a lot of public debate about the problem of “fake news” on social media and the failure to remove abusive content or more generally censor irresponsible stories. Financial bulletin boards and blogs are one part of this world of dubious content often posted by anonymous contributors who frequently get their facts wrong. And sometimes possibly deliberately so.

One interesting comment last week was from the Chairman of OFCOM, the media regulator. Patricia Hodgson said internet businesses such as Google and Facebook are “publishers” and not simply “platforms”. In other words, they might be responsible for their content after all. Ofcom are considering the issues although she indicated it was for Government to decide on any action in this area and OFCOM probably do not have the resources at present to cover it. But businesses such as ADVFN might find they are caught up with any general media regulation even though they have so far avoided interference from financial regulators such as the FCA – why that is so I have never understood.

Freedom of the press is a meritorious policy, but the internet has introduced numerous problems such as “trolls” who abuse folks in public often for dubious motives. Politicians are frequently attacked now (death threats are common for example) so we might see some action from them once the politics of Brexit are out of the way.

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

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Persimmon Directors, IDOX Profit Warning and Transplants

This morning house building company Persimmon announced that Chairman Nicholas Wrigley and Non-Exec Director Jonathan Davie were departing. The company says that both of them recognise that the 2012 LTIP “could have included a cap” and “in recognition of this omission” they have tendered their resignations.

Holders of Persimmon shares like me, or indeed anyone who has followed the debate on excessive executive pay, will be aware of the outrageous pay that has resulted at this and other companies because of the adoption of complex and aggressive LTIPs. Often these schemes have paid out unanticipated amounts, because the directors seemed not to understand their complexities or the possible outcomes. In the case of Persimmon it has meant that as much as 10 per cent of the value of the company has been paid out to the beneficiaries, allowing the CEO to pocket more than £100 million.

Neither of course did the shareholders understand these schemes and hence voted in favour of them regularly. So long as the company financial performance was good, some shareholders considered the payouts were justified. So the Board of Persimmon “believes that the introduction of the 2012 LTIP has been a significant factor in the Company’s outstanding performance over this period, led by a strong and talented executive team”. No mention of the main factors that have driven performance – high house prices supported by interest rates lower than they have been for thousands of years, the rapid growth in households from immigration and other factors, the Governments “help to buy scheme”, and other contributors. When companies are making hay, few shareholders will pay much attention to remuneration schemes or vote against them which is surely an argument for Government intervention in this area.

The company has appointed a new Chairman of the Remuneration Committee, who is Marion Sears. Will policies and practices change as a result? I doubt it because back in 2015 I argued with her at the AGM of Dunelm where she chaired the Remuneration Committee and subsequently exchanged emails on the complexities of the bonus scheme at that company. I also said to her that it was “difficult to understand the implications of the new policy on the overall remuneration of the senior executives and its sensitivity to different scenarios” and argued that the performance targets were not stretching.

I have come to the conclusion that all traditional LTIP schemes are dysfunctional and I therefore vote against them. There are better ways of recognising superior management performance.

IDOX

Another company I have held for a long time is AIM listed software company IDOX. This company was very successful under the leadership of former CEO Richard Kellett-Clarke. Two days ago the company issued a profit warning (not the first) saying that results for the year ending October 2017 will be delayed until next February. The announcement indicated some concerns about revenue recognition, complicated by the “sudden absence” of the CEO, Andrew Riley, on sick leave.

This is the kind of announcement that investors hate. No real details, and no information on when or if Andrew Riley might return. All we know is that the EBITDA forecast is reduced again to approximately £20 million. But at least we know that Kellett-Clarke is back as interim CEO.

There were concerns expressed by me at the last IDOX AGM about revenue recognition, high debtors and the apparent offering of long payment terms to customers (effectively providing them credit). I opined at the time that this was no way to run a software company because even if the customers are credit worthy, projects can run into unforeseen difficulties causing the customers to argue about the bills. I reduced my holding in the company substantially at the time as a result although it’s still one of my bigger holdings. Leon Boros also made negative comments about cash flows at the company and some investors were shorting the stock at the time – they are probably doing so again.

Comments on bulletin boards also raise the issue about the restating of accounts at 6PM, an acquisition that IDOX made in December 2016. But this is old news. Reference to accounting restatements at 6PM were made in the offer document (page 15, where it says for example that “the Directors expect that the value of the net assets of 6PM under IDOX accounting policies will be reduced materially”). Indeed 6PM subsequently filed accounts in Malta where they are registered showing substantial losses in 2016 and restating the 2015 and 2014 numbers. I thought the acquisition was a dubious one at the time for various reasons and voted against it. But these adjustments were surely known about earlier in the year so the latest announcement suggests some other problems.

Needless to say, with all these uncertainties and lack of clarification from the company (which we may not get until February it seems), all the likely share buyers have disappeared because it becomes very difficult to value the business. Simply too many unknowns. I will be encouraging the company to clarify the position a.s.a.p., but the “transplant” of the CEO, even on a temporary basis, might provide some reassurance that the problems will be sorted.

On the subject of transplants, one public consultation that is of personal interest to me is the Government’s consideration to change the default on organ donation to be an “opt-out” system as opposed to the current “opt-in” arrangement. In other words, unless you had specifically opted out, then it would be assumed that you had no objection to your organs being used for transplantation. Relatives may still be consulted though.

It is hoped that this will increase the number of transplants that are performed. There are a large number of kidney transplants performed each year, with lesser numbers of liver, pancreas, lung and heart transplants. The NHS says that 50,000 people are alive today who would not otherwise be so as a result (including me of course). But there are still long queues of people awaiting transplants. In the case of kidney patients, the alternative of dialysis reduces quality of life substantially and also reduces life expectancy significantly so it is a very poor alternative. Dialysis just keeps you alive, but a transplant gives you a new and better future.

For my financially informed readers, you also need to bear in mind that transplants save the NHS money because maintaining a kidney transplant patient costs a lot less than looking after dialysis patients.

Scotland, Wales and other countries have introduced opt-out systems already. Go here to respond to the public consultation on the matter: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/introducing-opt-out-consent-for-organ-and-tissue-donation-in-england

I hope readers will support this change to the law.

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

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Stale Directors and the UK Corporate Governance Code

One interesting fact highlighted by the Financial Times today was the impact of the proposed new UK Corporate Governance Code on company Chairmen. It pointed out that the change in the Code to limit the length of service of directors will include their time as Chairmen and will mean dozens of long-standing Chairmen may need to retire.

The FT suggests 67 of FTSE-100 chairmen will be affected, and there will be another 48 chairmen of FTSE-250 companies according to an analysis by the FT and Manifest. The reason for the 9-year rule for non-executive directors is simply because they cannot be considered “independent” after that length of time.

One aspect that the FT did not mention was the prevalence of such long-standing chairmen on the boards of investment trusts. Without doing a formal check, I found two in my holdings very easily. Anthony Townsend who actually “rejoined” the board of Finsbury Growth & Income in 2005 and John Scott who was on the board of Scottish Mortgage for 16 years until he retired in June. Investment Trusts seem to exhibit this symptom of permitting investment world grandees to serve for many years both as chairman and ordinary non-executive directors quite often. This has been condoned by the AIC (a trade body for investment companies) who seem to believe that length of service is no handicap. They have even suggested that such companies are not bound by the UK Corporate Governance Code in this area in the past. Will they try to take the same stance on this issue one wonders?

Will this change in the Code, if adopted, lead to a loss of highly experienced directors to the disadvantage of investors? Not likely. I suggest it will just result in a game of musical chairs where they simply move to another company when the clock would be reset. But it might at least give a hint to those too long in service to consider retirement.

It is surely a positive change as I have seen too many directors hang around for too long. They may not show actual signs of dementia (although one of the Chairmen of one my holdings did before retiring), but they are not always as sharp as they could be. Regrettably the generally aged shareholders who turn up at the AGMs of companies are averse to voting against such directors even when the issue is raised. So perhaps the boards affected by this problem of the Code change might simply choose to ignore it on a “comply or explain” excuse – I can volunteer the words they could use because I see them regularly. But that would be a pity.

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

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Brexit, HBOS, Globo and the FRC

Is it not heartening that the Brexit divorce bill, and other terms, have been settled? The exact cost is unclear but it could be up to £40 billion – a lot of money you may say! However, the fact that the key negotiators, Mrs May, Barnier et al, all looked somewhat glum about the deal when announced perhaps tells us that it was a compromise in which both sides had to concede ground. Or perhaps they were just tired. The terms of any future arrangements including trade deals still need to be worked out so it’s a long way from being concluded.

Now that £40 billion figure, sounds a lot, even if it is spread over some years. Hard line brexiteers will be unhappy. But it’s all relative. For example the annual UK Defence Budget is over £35 billion and rising. In addition, I have just read the Financial Reporting Council’s report on the HBOS audit and you can see there on page 7 that HBOS had to write off £63.3 billion in loan losses. That was only one smaller sized UK bank. According to the Bank of England, the financial crisis that affected HBOS caused £7.3 trillion of losses in total in the UK.

The report from the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) on the audit of HBOS is a quite tedious and turgid document. To remind you, HBOS was a bank that almost went bust after making imprudent commercial property loans financed by short term debt. When Lehman’s collapsed and debt became difficult to raise, HBOS had to be supported by the Government and then bailed out by a merger with Lloyds TSB. The latter’s shareholders are currently pursuing a claim against the company and its directors over that event.

The reason the audit of HBOS was examined by the FRC was because the company obtained an unqualified audit report suggesting that it was a “going concern” when it soon turned out to be otherwise. These events date back to 2008 – that’s 9 years ago which shows the speed with which the FRC typically operates.

One interesting comment made in the FRC report is that it suggests on page 11 that liquidity support from central banks may be considered “a normal funding source…..and therefore reliance on such support does not mean that the bank is not a going concern…..”. As banks with a positive balance sheet are usually assumed to be eligible for “lending of last resort” from the Bank of England that might mean that HBOS would be considered to be a going concern even if it ran out of cash (which is the reason most banks go bust, not because of defective balance sheets – Northern Rock is a good example).

The report also refers on page 29 to “market expectations” at the time. Market participants did not expect the financial crisis to get worse which affected the auditor’s views. So now we know why the FRC let the auditors of HBOS (KPMG) off the hook!

As I mentioned in a blog post a couple of weeks ago (see https://roliscon.blog/2017/11/22/standard-life-uk-smaller-companies-and-frc-meetings/ ), I attended a meeting with the FRC organised by ShareSoc/UKSA. One of the issues raised was the lack of feedback from the FRC on the progress of investigations. I followed up with one of the speakers after the meeting, specifically about the case of Globo. I asked what was the status on the investigation of the audit of their accounts by Grant Thornton. As readers may know, Globo was a company that went into administration in 2015 after it was revealed that the revenue of the company was probably fictitious (see https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/globo/ for details). The report of the administrators made it clear that the cash on the balance sheet of Globo plc seemed to have disappeared, bringing into doubt the preceding audit report on that ground alone let alone the revenue recognition issue.

The FRC announced an investigation in December 2015, i.e. two years ago. What have the FRC been doing, when will the investigation likely conclude, are there any preliminary conclusions, etc, etc? All of these questions are very relevant as the answers might provide the basis for legal action by shareholders against the auditors and others. After several email exchanges with FRC staff, the only answer I managed to elicit is that the investigation is on-going. It has not even been turned into a “Formal Complaint”.

The reason more information could not be supplied is that it might prejudice “the overarching requirement for fairness”. My response was “I really do suggest that the FRC needs to reconsider its policies in this area. You have too much emphasis on treating those who have been complained about (i.e. auditors) fairly, while those who have complained are treated unfairly. This rather suggests, as we already knew, that the FRC is dominated by auditors who are the people it is supposed to be regulating”.

You will be amused to read in the FRC’s Publication Policy document (para. 3) that “Transparency contributes to public confidence in independent disciplinary arrangements….” but then proceeds to spell out all the restrictions it imposes that thwart it.

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

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Worldwide Healthcare Trust – Telegraph Omits Latest News

This morning (7/12/2017) the Daily Telegraph’s Questor column ran a puff on the Worldwide Healthcare Trust (WWH), a company which incidentally I do hold. It made such comments as “this trust has returned 16 per cent a year for 22 years, and it should keep on roaring”.

The Trust fund is managed by Orbimed Capital LLC, and perhaps the unfortunate aspect of the above is the failure to mention the announcement by the Trust yesterday over serious allegations of sexual harassment against Orbimed’s Managing Partner and founder Samuel Isaly. I won’t repeat them here but you can find them on the internet quite easily.

Samuel Isaly is also a director of Worldwide Healthcare Trust. I am never very keen for fund managers to sit on the boards of investment trusts and regularly vote against this practice. Boards need to be independent of the fund managers, even if we recognise that the fund managers often have a significant influence over the affairs of such companies. Non-executive directors of investment trusts should all be “independent” which they cannot be if they are employed by the fund manager.

The Trust advises that Orbimed has retained an independent law firm to investigate the matter, but surely this is an appropriate time to consider the composition of the board.

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

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New Corporate Governance Code

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) have published a new UK Corporate Governance Code – a draft that is subject to public consultation. The revised Code sets out good practice so that the boards of companies can:

  • Establish a company’s purpose, strategy and values and satisfy themselves that these and their culture are aligned;
  • Undertake effective engagement with wider stakeholders, to improve trust and achieve mutual benefit, and to have regard to wider society;
  • Gather views of the workforce;
  • Ensure appointments to boards and succession plans are based on merit and objective criteria to avoid group think, and promote diversity of gender, social and ethnic backgrounds, cognitive and personal strengths;
  • Be more specific about actions when they encounter significant shareholder opposition on any resolution, including those on executive pay policies and awards; and
  • Give remuneration committees broader responsibility and discretion for overseeing how remuneration and workforce policies align with strategic objectives.

Perhaps the most controversial change will be the requirement to consult with the workforce and suggests three ways this might be done (worker directors, a workforce advisory panel or a designated non-exec director), although it does not rule out other methods. This writer suggests this is a positive step but some shareholders might not agree.

It also suggests better engagement with shareholders although as usual there is an emphasis on a few major shareholders rather than the wider shareholder community.

The UK Corporate Governance Code has helped to improve the operation of UK company boards so it is important that any changes made are positive. On a quick review most of the changes seem to be improvements, but the devil is in the detail on such documents. More information including how to respond to the consultation is present here: https://www.frc.org.uk/news/december-2017-(1)/a-sharper-uk-corporate-governance-code-to-achieve

I may comment further at a later date.

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

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London Plan Published

I mainly comment on financial matters, but if you live or work in London you should pay attention to the “London Plan” that Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently published. Indeed if you live in other large conurbations you might wish to review it also because the policies he is promoting might spread elsewhere.

What’s the London Plan? It’s a document that sets the “spatial development” strategy for London over the next few years and has legal implications for planning developments, housing construction, transport infrastructure, and many other aspects of our lives.

The Mayor makes it plain that London needs to cope with the rapidly expanding population and business activity. The population of London might reach 10.5 million by 2041 he says (currently 8.8 million). That means a lot more houses have to be built (66,000 per annum he says) and support for more workplaces.

In addition it has major implications for transport infrastructure while at the same time he wants to clean up London’s air. He wants to make London a “zero carbon” city by 2050, although no doubt he will be long gone by then. As part of this he aims to reduce “car dependency” (an emotive and inaccurate phrase disparaging people who have made a rational or personal choice about how they travel when you don’t see this said about those who rely on cycles for their daily travel needs).

Why has the population of London grown so rapidly in recent years and continues to do so? Page 12 of the Plan explains why. It says 40 per cent of Londoners were born outside the UK, and the city is now home to 1 million EU citizens, no doubt attracted by the vibrant London economy. This has put a major strain on housing, transport, social services and other infrastructure (incidentally an unbelievable 1.2 million Londoners are apparently “disabled”).

This state of affairs has come about because of national policies on immigration with no effective policies to distribute that more widely across the country compounded no doubt by a desire by some politicians to improve their chances of being elected.

Specifically looking at transport, the Mayor’s target is for 80% of all journeys to be made by walking, cycling and public transport (that of course includes the 14% of Londoners who are disabled!). It’s currently 64%. This is going to mean an aggressive set of policies to reduce car use – hence the campaign against the Mayor’s Transport Strategy which supports the London Plan run by the Alliance of British Drivers – see http://www.freedomfordrivers.org/against-mts.htm

The Mayor highlights the health inequalities in London, with deprived areas of London having reduced life expectancies (as much as 15 years for men and 19 years for women) surely an astonishing statistic. What is the reason for this? Poor housing conditions are certainly one, but lack of daily activity is allegedly another so the Mayor wants us all to be walking and cycling.

The Mayor does have plans to improve public transport including proposals for Crossrail 2 and extension of the Bakerloo line but these proposals will do relatively little to soak up the increased demand, and with no proposals of significance to improve the road network, hence no doubt the need to encourage us all to walk or cycle.

The Mayor’s plans to support the need for more housing include targets for every London borough (for example over 2,000 new homes every year in Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Greenwich, Hounslow, Newham, Southwark, and Tower Hamlets). This includes high concentration developments in locations with good public transport access levels (PTALs), particularly inner London boroughs. Outer London boroughs might see a relaxation of planning regulations to allow more “in-fill” developments including building on back gardens as the Conservatives promptly complained about. There will be more encouragement for smaller builders, more efficient building techniques and “proactive” intervention in London’s land market (more “compulsory purchase” perhaps).

One aspect of transport infrastructure that the London Plan covers is that of parking provision for new housing, office or shop developments. It wants most developments to be “car free” (i.e. no parking provision), particularly those with high PTAL levels. The details of what this means in practice are not clear, but it looks like the intention is to reduce parking provision substantially, thus resulting in more on-street parking and obstruction.

The Mayor concludes his near 500-page tome on the subject of the “Funding Gap”. By this he means the gap between the public sector funding required to support London’s growth (and his plans) and the money currently committed. In other words, he wants more money, including a bigger share of taxation collected from Londoners. For example, he repeats his call for control of Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) which any right-thinking person should surely oppose. Yes the Mayor wants more money and more power. Unfortunately the establishment of directly elected Mayors such as Mr Khan has resulted in empire building of the worst kind. They are effectively dictators within their realms with no effective democratic constraints on their policies and negligible public accountability.

In summary, it is not clear that the building of lots of new homes (which of course will emit more pollutants, particularly during constructions, more than offsetting any reduction from restraining car use), of a fairly low standard in dense conurbations, is going to improve the quality of life for Londoners. It is undoubtedly the case that more new homes are needed in London but building new homes without complementary improvements to the transport infrastructure, which has consistently lagged behind the growth in London’s population, does not make much sense.

As is already seen in the statistics, older London residents are moving out and being replaced by immigrants. Some readers might wish to consider doing the same given the outlook for the quality of life in London. Simply reacting to the population growth in London without trying to constrain it, or divert it elsewhere, is surely a mistake.

You can submit your comments on the London Plan to the public consultation by going here: https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/planning/london-plan/new-london-plan/comment-draft-london-plan . Please be sure to do so. 

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

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