Ten Entertainment Placing and Porvair AGM Arrangements

Ten Entertainment (TEG) did a placing yesterday. It was done at 155p to raise £5 million and represented about 5% dilution. Although I hold some of the shares I was not too unhappy because I only have 50 shares left worth less than £100 having sold most of my holding at 270p and higher. I suspect this is one of many placings we are going to see in the near future to enable companies to strengthen their balance sheets and avoid going bust. TEG runs bowling alleys which are now closed so as I pointed out yesterday, valuing such companies is getting very difficult.

Porvair (PRV) another of my now miniscule holdings have made an announcement about their Annual General Meeting (AGM). It’s now going to be held in their offices in the remote location of Kings Lynn. Although the company points out that under its Articles the company cannot hold virtual meetings, it advises shareholders not to attend in person. Instead they are asking shareholders to vote via proxy and are planning to provide a conference call facility to enable shareholders to ask questions.

This seems to be an eminently wise approach that should be adopted by other companies until the virus epidemic is over. I will certainly not be attending any physical meetings for the foreseeable future being one of those quarantined on the basis I am exceptionally vulnerable. It’s equivalent to being on gardening leave, which I did some of yesterday.

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

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It’s Impossible to Value Companies at Present!

The stock markets rose sharply yesterday and this morning, allegedly on the news of the $2 trillion economic support package announced in the USA. But the company news is consistently bad where it is available.

In the company announcements I have read, they seem to fall into two kinds: 1) We are shutting down all or part of our operations and managing the cash but our balance sheet strength is such that we can survive this for weeks and won’t go out of business (Greggs, Dunelm, Next and Victoria for example); or 2) Only minor impacts so far but it is too early to judge the wider impact of a possible economic recession on the business (Diploma for example).

Nobody is giving forecasts and it’s impossible to work them out for oneself. The result is that individual stock prices are bouncing up and down, and the whole market is also gyrating. I have no confidence that the recent market bounce is an indication that we have passed the bottom. It’s simply impossible to value companies at present with any accuracy.

One could perhaps say one can value them because the coronavirus crisis may only last a few weeks while company valuations should be based on years into the future, but there is no certainty on the duration of the epidemic, how many people will die and when the economy will be back to normal.

Here’s a useful quotation from the Victoria (VCP) announcement today: “….the Group goes into the uncertainty of the next few months from a position of considerable strength. However, as Darwin stated, those who survive ‘are not the strongest or the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change.’ Therefore, our managers have been willing to think the unthinkable and act decisively and promptly to protect their business – particularly its cash position – as the impact will, in the short term, be significant”.

Some of the companies mentioned above have seen an immediate impact on their businesses while others are less affected. Those who run “non-essential” businesses such as General Retailers and Hospitality operators are the worst hit, but I suspect others will see the impact in due course as the economy slows. It’s OK for Governments to pump money into the economy to try and keep it afloat but the future profits of many companies will surely be wiped out this year.

The impact might be wider than we expect. For example, one of the on-line retailers I use has closed down its web site today presumably because of the difficulty of packing and shipping orders. On the other hand, office productivity might suddenly improve if everyone is working from home – less time will be spent gossiping or flirting with others or wasted on commuting.

As an investor does one simply sit on one’s hands in the expectation that the crisis will pass in due course and the markets will rebound?  There was an interesting article by Chris Dillow in last week’s Investors’ Chronicle. He pointed out that research tells us that when there is bad news, investors tend to look at their portfolios less often. It’s the equivalent of not going to the doctor because their diagnosis might be bad news. Not reviewing your portfolio regularly is surely a habit to be avoided. I do it every evening as a matter of routine.

I know exactly the value of all my portfolios and the movements of individual holdings over the day. It’s made for gloomy reading of late. I also get alerts during the day of share prices that have moved significantly from previous levels and review them at the end of the day also. I use software products such as ShareScope and Stockopedia to provide this information. As a man of action, I do react to what I see happening in the market and to individual shares. I manage my portfolio to reduce exposure to the market when it is falling. And I make changes to my individual holdings dependent on the latest news and current prospects.

But it’s easy to waste a lot of money by over-trading, and waste a lot of your personal time, so I try not to make changes unless trends are very clear. My habits have developed over many years of investing in the stock market and have worked out reasonably well. But others might take a different approach. There is no one “best solution” but hiding behind ignorance of what is happening in the market is surely a recipe for poor portfolio performance.

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

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Recent Annual Reports and Trust Discounts

After the news over the weekend, it’s clearly going to be another very bad day on stock markets. One rare riser initially was Ten Entertainment Group (TEG) despite the fact that they announced this morning that all their bowling venues had been closed but they made some positive comments about their cash balances and Government support which might have helped.

As per guidance issued by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) it has delayed publication of its Preliminary Financial Results for two weeks as many other companies will be doing. This seems unfortunate to me as a company could just give only a limited outlook statement in there and issue separate trading statements as the crisis developments. But there is no reason to delay the historic figures for the last year.

The AIM Regulator (the LSE) has also announced that in response to the epidemic it is making the rules around suspension of listings more flexible. It is also permitting Nomads not to do site visits to new clients. See https://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/inside-aim-newsletter/inside-aim-coronavirus.pdf for details.

Clearly all companies affected by the closure of all public entertainment venues such as pubs, bowling alleys and cinemas are going to suffer greatly. Although they might get some financial relief from the Government, a close examination of their balance sheets and debt will be essential. Some might request suspension of their shares until their financial position becomes clearer. Property companies seem to have been badly hit simply because independent valuers are having difficulty valuing commercial properties as the market is frozen. Retailers with physical stores are also closing them, apart from supermarkets who are doing well due to panic buying and the shift from eating out to eating in as restaurants close. But they seem to be having difficulties adapting their supply chains and coping with the new demands for on-line ordering.

With preliminary announcements being delayed, the AGM season might be delayed also. Companies might have difficulty holding physical meetings and venues might become unavailable, particularly in London. We might see companies holding small meetings in their own offices instead as they won’t expect many people to turn up – I certainly won’t be attending as I am one of those people being told to stay at home for 12 weeks. Some larger companies may try and provide a live on-line stream of the meeting such as Alliance Trust (ATST) who just issued their Annual Report which I would certainly encourage them to do, preferably with some way to submit questions.

It is interesting to look at the discounts to NAV of the share price of that trust and other similar large trusts. According to the AIC, their discount was 17.5% at the weekend, and others were Brunner on 17.5%, F&C on 19.3%, Monks on 12.6% and Witan on 15.6%. These are much higher discounts than such trusts have traded on of late. When private investors have lost faith in the stock market, the discounts tend to rise, although some of the discount can be accounted for by the delay in reporting.  There may be some bargains in investment trusts in due course as private investor sentiment tends to lag financial news.

One company that just distributed their Annual Report and which I hold is property company Segro (SGRO). They had a good year last year although the share price is down 28% from its peak in February due to the general malaise in the property sector as open-end funds close to redemptions and run out of cash. I won’t  be attending their AGM but I will certainly be submitting a proxy vote which all shareholders should do anyway. I will be voting against their remuneration report simply because the total pay of executive directors is too high. The remuneration report consists of 27 pages of justification and explanation, which is way too long and is a good example of how both pay and pay reporting has got out of hand of late.

With bonuses, LTIPs and pension benefits, the total pay of the 4 executive directors (“single figure” report) was £20.4 million. They also wish to change the Articles of the company to raise the limit on the total pay of non-executive directors to £1 million so I will be voting against that also. I would encourage shareholders to do the same.

Lastly for a bit of light relief as it looks like we might have a major recession this year, I mentioned the book “Caught Short!” by comedian Eddie Cantor on the 1929 Wall Street crash in a previous blog post. Now Private Eye have repeated one of his comments in October 1929 after John D. Rockefeller (probably the richest person in the world at the time) said “during the past week, my son and I have for some days been purchasing sound common stocks”. This was seen as an attempt to calm the market in a world where a few very wealthy investors could influence financial markets. Eddie Cantor’s response was “Sure, who else has any money left”. I hope readers do not feel the same.

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

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Market Bounces, But It’s Not on Good News

The FTSE-100 is up 2.5% today at the time of writing, and my portfolio is up 5.5%. There are several stocks in there that are up more than 20% but the bad news keeps coming so this seems to be more a case of folks picking up stocks that have fallen to very low levels and moving into defensive ones than on any really good news. The impact of the virus in the UK is still growing and business is grinding to a halt.

The bad news today was 1) From Rightmove (RMV) who said “Notably the number of property transactions failing to complete in recent days and likely changes in tenant behaviour following the announcement of the renters’ protections by the government may put further pressure on estate and lettings agents”. They are knocking 75% off their customer invoices for the next few months which will mean a hit of up to £75 million to revenue! Better to have some revenue than have agents cancel seems to be the logic. The share price is down 4%. 2) From Tracsis (TRCS) a provider of services to the rail industry who say: “Given that the situation is changing rapidly, at this point in time it is not possible to accurately quantify the impact on H2 trading and therefore full year expectation”. A lot of their revenue is recurring in nature but they will be impacted by the cancellation of events. The share price is up over 2%, presumably on some relief that it is not as bad a prognostication as many companies are issuing.

I do hold those stocks but one I do not is Next (NXT) the retailer. They have received compliments in the national media about their recent announcement which gave some very detailed forecasts of how they would cope “in extremis”. I still doubt this is a sector to get back into because wages in many sectors of the economy will be depressed which will surely hit retail sales even if they are able to venture back into the shops or shop on-line. When the economic outlook is uncertain, people stop spending money also.

For Sirius Minerals (SRX) shareholders, ShareSoc has issued a very well judged blog post on possible legal claims – see https://www.sharesoc.org/sharesoc-news/sirius-update-9-14-march-2020/ . Regrettably there have been some hotheads who wanted more action and sooner, which was not practical, and some who think ShareSoc is raising false hopes. Neither is the case. As someone who has in the past run shareholder action groups, I have learned that quick actions are neither sensible nor practical. But legal cases for redress are sometimes possible – for example in the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland rights issue in 2008 and the false prospectus. But it can take years to raise funding and reach a conclusion. Persistence is everything in such circumstances. But rushing into legal action, however willing lawyers are to run up fees on a case, is not sensible.

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

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Stock Market Turmoil – Don’t Sit There Awaiting a Rebound

The virus epidemic is causing major disruption to businesses and our personal lives. Thank god that we have the internet so we can conduct business and do our shopping without leaving home. But the UK is seen as one of the victims in the world so the pound is falling to parity with the dollar for the first time for many, many years. Meanwhile the Governor of the Bank of England is saying that he will print as much money as needed – unlimited “helicopter” money to lend to businesses to keep them afloat. Will that stop a recession? I doubt it. But to look on the bright side, it may be a short one.

China seems to have stopped the virus from spreading with no new domestic cases and movement restrictions being lifted. There are also some technical developments that might assist particularly in testing for the virus. But the UK is gearing up for a major epidemic and major stress on the NHS.

I am in isolation trying to avoid catching the disease as I certainly don’t wish to have another spell in intensive care as I had a few years ago. I ended up with “intensive care neuropathy” where all your nerves weaken. Had to learn to walk again, rather like Kenneth More playing Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky. I recovered but it can be a very dangerous syndrome.

The news from my stock market portfolio is mixed based on the latest announcements which every company is now issuing. LoopUp (LOOP) who provide tele-conferencing is up over 40% today after a very long decline, and there are few other rises today, but overall my portfolio is still slightly down. It was not helped by 4Imprint (FOUR) reporting today that sales have declined by 40% over the last 3 days as against the prior year. They sell promotional merchandise and this an example surely of companies cutting back on non-essential marketing spend and events.

The commercial property market is interesting in that yet again a number of open-funded property funds have suspended redemptions. It is interesting to look back at the share price of TR Property Investment Trust (TRY) which I have held for many years. Such trusts have been badly affected by the gloom in the property sector even if the property companies they invest in may hold long leases and not much exposure to retail or other virus sensitive areas. But the share price of TRY is now back to the level it was in 2013. That’s down over 50% from its peak in February. If the recession is short, that will surely be seen as an anomaly.

It’s also worth remembering that valuing companies on short-term results or trading statements gives you a very poor estimate of what a company is really worth. What matters is the discounted future profits over many years. One bad year has relatively little impact. But when investors are panicking and simply reducing their exposure to the market by moving into cash, then valuations can become both unrealistic and extreme.

The Government’s response is probably a sound one. They are betting that the recession will be short and that keeping companies afloat by short-term loans is better than letting them go bust which would create a snowball effect on suppliers and staff employment.

But some sectors are clearly going to be dire in the short-term. Hospitality is one. Accesso (ACSO) who provide technology to visitor attractions published results yesterday. They might benefit from a low pound but their sales relate directly to visitor numbers to their customers’ sites. I cannot imagine US theme parks being very busy this year and solving queuing problems might be seen as irrelevant. They also declared a write off of $53.6 million on past capitalised software costs. With a new CEO this was hardly surprising to me given the shape of the business and the failure to find a buyer for it recently. Investors will need to be in for the long-haul if they wish to stay on board, but many clearly do not given the share price performance of late. The risk is that some buyer will come along and pick up the useful technology and customer contracts at a bargain price.

One aspect of the virus epidemic I am particularly unhappy with is that the market turmoil and declines have generated a lot more work on my portfolio than usual. Unlike some people, I do not simply sit there expecting shares to bounce back up in due course. Some may but others will not. Some companies may go bust or become a shadow of their former selves while other new opportunities arise. The trend to internet shopping and services will be accelerated. For example one of my eighty-year old neighbours has just opened a supermarket web shopping account for the first time. Ocado (OCDO) has had difficulty keeping up with demand and even had to close their App service temporarily. But once people get into the habit of shopping on-line they won’t revert to old ways. The future for the High Street looks ever bleaker.

There is one other aspect to consider. Will a short, sharp recession be quickly forgotten about or will it prompt the definite end of the bull market? Will share investment go out of fashion after many investors realise they have lost a pile of money from this incident? The general economy may quickly recover but the stock market might not. I don’t know the answer to that question but as always I won’t be guessing at it – just following the trend.

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

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Equals Trading, Bango Results, Finablr Suspension, Baronsmead VCT and Closing the Stock Market

As share prices of almost every share on the market collapses, should all trading be suspended? The argument for this is that as the impact of the coronavirus on the economy is not certain, although it looks more dire every day, shares cannot be valued with any certainty. Indeed there seems to be no hiding place as there never is in a bear market – almost all share prices have fallen. The editor of the FT thinks the market should not be closed and I agree with her. Closing the market is very prejudicial to private shareholders, particularly those who absolutely need to move into cash even if it means some sell into an unrealistic market – but that is their choice. If the market closes you have no choice. If there was to be a closure, it should only be for a few days as at the start of World War II.

I have been trend following in the market as I have mentioned before but it has proved difficult to keep up in the last few days. At least brokers’ systems seem to be robust this time around.

The major sectors affected by the virus, or soon will be, are hospitality businesses, hotels, pubs, entertainment venues and airlines. One symptom is that I just cancelled our holiday in June as I am supposed to be hibernating for 12 weeks according to the Prime Minister and I doubt the epidemic will have passed by June. But you can see that there will be many staff lay-offs in such businesses and airlines are already asking to be bailed out by the Government because if airplanes don’t fly they cannot cover their aircraft lease costs.

Meanwhile the virus is causing businesses to get their staff to work from home, including one of my brokers. Payment company Equals Group (EQLS) issued a statement this morning giving their response to the virus and a trading update. They say they have 50% of their staff working remotely in shifts and can move to 100% when required. As regards trading, group revenues to the end of February were up 33% but there has been a marked slowdown in travel cash and retail card revenues in the last week due to the adverse impact on travel. But corporate revenues are still robust so far and account for the majority of revenues. Clearly the business will be impacted to some extent so they are cutting costs to conserve cash. The share price had anticipated this and had already fallen a long way in previous days and weeks – it fell again today.

Another company in the payments sector is Finablr (FIN) which announced yesterday that the shares were suspended. The company suggests that problems with liquidity are making it difficult to manage the business. They have also discovered some cheques dating back to before their IPO which have been used as security for the benefit of third parties – a small matter of $100 million is involved! The CEO has resigned and the board is looking for a new one. This company was founded by B.R.Shetty who also founded NMC Health and whose accounting and financing arrangements are also under scrutiny. It looks like Finablr is yet another financial disaster I have managed to avoid to look on the bright side. I would not bet on shareholders recovering anything. Temporary suspensions very frequently turn into permanent ones.

Another company that operates in the mobile commerce and payment sector is Bango (BGO) who issued their final results today. Group revenue was up 41% and they say “Adjusted EBITDA” for the year was a positive £0.45 million. However cash declined because of the large expenditure on intangible assets and there was still an overall financial loss. They expect the “payments business to continue to grow exponentially” and they forecast the coronavirus to have a positive impact on End User Spend as from experience they see consumer spending rise during “stay-at-home” periods such as Ramadan and Christmas. The share price rose slightly today by the time of writing this note, but investors are still unsure about the future of the company it seems. Investors are either taking their money off the table altogether or moving out of businesses likely to be impacted by self-isolation and quarantining and this is having a very wide impact.

My portfolio is now over 25% in cash which is very unusual but I am picking up the odd few shares in companies where the panic seems overdone – in none of the sectors likely to be affected that are mentioned above though.

One of the few companies I hold whose share price rose in the last 2 days has been Ocado (OCDO) as the popularity of on-line ordering and delivery rises. Getting delivery slots with them is now difficult for customers and other supermarkets are having similar problems and when you do get a delivery a lot of items are missing. There is clearly some panic buying going on for certain items which may subside if logistics turns out not to be a major problem after all. But surely all the workers who pack and delivery from supermarkets are going to be affected if the virus becomes rampant, even if they are in the younger and healthier group.

I mentioned some issues at the Baronsmead Venture Trust (BVT) AGM in a previous blog post (see https://roliscon.blog/2020/02/27/venture-capital-trusts-the-baronsmead-vct-agm-and-political-turmoil/). I wrote to the Chairman of the company, Peter Lawrence, after the meeting and have received a response. He confirms that the chart of returns in the last ten years in the Annual Report on page 3 was wrong. It showed a decline in NAV Total Return in 2018 when there was in fact an increase and the 2019 point was also wrong– a corrected graphic is below.

Baronsmead Venture Trust Corrected Chart 2020--03-17

It always surprises me that there are so many errors in Annual Reports that shareholders find easy to spot when the directors have not. This seems to be a particular problem in VCTs – perhaps too many jobs and not enough time allocated to each role with some VCT board directors considering their directorship a sinecure that requires little thought or effort. I suspect those are the problems. Perhaps they need reminding to read the Annual Report in detail before approving it!

Mr Lawrence rejected my complaint about the lack of time allocated to public questions at the AGM Meeting (only 15 minutes) and also rejected my complaint about the length of time he has been on the board which is contrary to the UK Corporate Governance Code. I will send him a stiff reply. To my mind this looks like one of those VCTs where a revolution is long overdue. It needs a fresh board and a good examination of the investment policy, the fund manager and the fees paid to the manager.

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

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The Great Crash – Lessons from History

The stock market is falling and it may continue to do so, with the odd bounce along the way. The reason is partly because when confidence is destroyed that investing in shares is bound to make you money, which has been a rule for the last ten years, then it takes a real change of heart to move the market in the opposite direction. Confidence, or lack of it, is contagious just like the coronavirus which has probably contributed to the market collapse. The classic example of a market crash is still the 1929 collapse on Wall Street. That was so extreme that it wiped many people out and prompted a number of suicides. It was not until 1932 that the market stabilised and many years after that until it recovered to its previous levels. Or for 2020’s speculators in the words of Al Jolson: “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.

The 1929 crash was created by cheap money where everyone was buying on margin and there were pyramid schemes of trusts that invested in other trusts. Even shoe shine boys were giving share tips and people were drawn into the stock market who had no financial experience at all. When the markets started to fall, margin calls were invoked which drove the market down further. Banks that had lent money for punters to invest in the market went bankrupt when the margin calls were not paid. One result was economic collapse and a fierce depression in the USA which echoed around the world in the 1930s. The real world of business activity mirrored the stock market which is not always the case. That was partly due to poor Government responses.

One very amusing slim volume on the Wall Street crash is a book entitled “Caught short!” written in 1929 after the initial crash by Eddie Cantor. He describes himself in the book as a comedian, author and victim. It’s recommended to those who need some light relief from the recent debacle.

Cantor was both “in the market, and under it” as he says. After one of the worst market days he was too frightened to go home so he checked into one of New York’s largest hotels and asked for a room on the nineteenth floor. The desk clerk asked him if it was for “sleeping or jumping”.

This time around the Bank of England has reacted to the collapse of the market and concerns over the economy from the virus impact so that after a long period of very cheap money it is making it even cheaper. We are again at the lowest bank base rate in history in the UK and other countries are also doing things to boost their economies which may transfer into their stock markets.

But will that revive confidence in the stock market? Only for a short time I suspect because shares, particularly US ones, still do not look particularly cheap. And bear in mind that most markets including the UK’s are highly correlated with the USA’s.

How the actions of Governments will work out remains to be seen, but hopefully they have learned something from previous market crashes. The only difference from 1929 is that the speed of trading in the market and the volumes of trades have increased exponentially. We also have many more index-tracking funds which promote herding behaviour. These two factors might not help.

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

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