Adjustments, Adjustments and Adjustments at Abcam, Oil+Gas Companies and FCA Decision on Woodford/Link.

Abcam (ABC) published their interim results yesterday (on 12/9/2022). I have commented negatively on this company and its Chairman before despite still holding the shares.

The same game continues – revenue up but reported operating profit down and cash flow from operations down. But adjusted operating profit up. What are the adjustments? These include:

£2.6 million relating to the Oracle Cloud ERP project (H1 2021: £2.0m); £6.0 million from acquisition, integration, and reorganisation charges (H1 2021: £3.5m); £9.0 million relating to the amortisation of acquired intangibles (H1 2021: £4.0m); and £13.0 million in charges for share-based payments (H1 2021: £6.7m).

The ERP project costs continue and I very much doubt that they are getting a justifiable return on the investment in that project now or in the future. Together with the acquisition, integration and reorganisation charges it just looks like a whole ragbag of costs are being capitalised when they should not be.

The company also announced there would be a webinar for investors on the day and a recording of it available on their web site later. Neither was available on their web site on the day or at the time of writing this. More simple incompetence!

The share price of Abcam has been rising of late which just tells you that most investors are unable to look through the headline figures and the sophistry of the directors.

As a change from investing in technology companies such as Abcam who of late are massaging their accounts, and not paying dividends, my focus has turned to commodity businesses. I have even been buying oil/gas companies such as Shell, BP, Woodside Energy and Serica Energy plus several alternative energy companies. There is clearly going to be a shortage of energy worldwide for some time while institutional investors have been reducing their holdings in some oil/gas companies simply from concerns about the negative environmental impacts and long-term prospects as Governments aim to reduce carbon emissions. But in reality the progress on carbon reduction is slow and I feel oil/gas companies will be making good profits for a least a few more years. Energy has to come from somewhere and these companies should do well and can adapt to the new environment easily. In the meantime, they will be paying high dividends and/or doing large share buy-backs.

I am generally not a big holder of commodity businesses as their profits can be volatile and unpredictable as they depend on commodity prices. These can be moved by Government actions or political disruptions such as the war in Ukraine. Will the war end soon? I have no idea. But even if it does there is likely to be a new “cold war” if Putin or other hard line Russian leaders remain in charge. I never try to predict geopolitical changes but just follow the trends in the stock market.  

The partially good news for Woodford investors is that the FCA has formed a provisional view that Link Fund Solutions may be liable for £306 million in redress payments to investors for misconduct rather than losses caused by fluctuations in the market value or price of investments. In other words, it may be nowhere near covering investors losses in the Woodford Equity Income Fund. They have announced this simply because Link is currently subject to a takeover bid which they have approved subject to a condition to commit to make funds available to meet any shortfall in the amount available to cover any redress payments. I suspect this is going to make gaining a full recover for investors somewhat problematic.

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

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Queen Elizabeth, Energy Caps, Verici DX, Equals and Paypoint

The sad death of Queen Elizabeth reminds me of my own mother’s death at the age of 100. They looked similar in later life. Both managed to die in their own home which is the best place from which to leave. Will Charles III make a good king? We will have to wait and see but his name is not propitious bearing in mind the track record of the previous two. As I am not a monarchist I will say no more.

It was interesting to see an open coal fire in use in the photographs of Liz Truss with the Queen. Balmoral does not have central heating apparently while Buckingham Palace does have a CHP plant. But the bill to run the later was about half a million pounds per annum before the projected price increases. So King Charles might welcome Truss’s announcement to cap the maximum price of gas and electricity.

This is a cap on prices, not on overall cost so people with big houses with large gas consumption will still pay more. But at least it will replace the OFGEM price cap which was an irrational policy that would not encourage people to reduce energy consumption. Fracking is also being permitted to boost local gas production.

Truss did not give in to calls for this largess to be funded through a windfall tax. She said this would undermine the national interest by discouraging the very investment we need to secure home-grown energy supplies. You can’t tax your way to growth she said. So it will be funded by more Government debt in essence.

Is this wise? I believe it is the lesser of evils as it will help to bring inflation under control which is essential to keep the economy healthy and avoid a severe recession. These decisions by Truss and her new cabinet are positive in my view and should help the stock market.

But she is still committed to net zero by 2050 which is simply an unrealistic and unachievable objective.

I attended a couple of interesting results webinars this week. The first was from Verici DX (VRCI) who provide pre and post diagnostic technology for kidney transplants to avoid rejection. This is a subject in which I have a strong interest as a transplant patient and I do hold the shares which were acquired free as a scrip dividend when they spun off from EKF. The company is making progress but revenue is some way off and profits impossible to forecast so I would not purchase the shares at this time.

I did attend a two-hour seminar at Guys Hospital recently for pre-transplant patients as I need another. It was apparent that transplant procedures have not changed much in the last 25 years. Back then there was hope of xeno-transplantation but that faded away. More recently a bioartificial kidney has been developed (see  https://pharm.ucsf.edu/kidney ) but that could be years away from clinical use.

The other webinar I attended was that of Equals Group (EQLS) which I have held in the past. Financial figures are improving and a focus on the SME sector has clearly helped. It’s a complex payment business though and the webinar only helped in some degree to understand it. It might be another UK technology business vulnerable to being acquired by a trade buyer who understands the technology and regulatory environment. The company has been tipped recently by Simon Thompson in Investors Chronicle.

One company I do hold which is also looking cheap in the payments world is Paypoint (PAY) – probably because it operates in the retail sector and has been around a long time. There is a good write-up on the company in the latest Techinvest newsletter. But like Equals it is a complex business providing a number of different services. Both Equals and Paypoint could do with better communications on their business activities.

All of Verici DX, Equals and Paypoint have one advantage – they are not affected by the price of energy except very indirectly!

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

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Comments on Possible Offer for GB Group

Announcements late yesterday and this morning indicate that GB Group (GBG) may receive a cash offer for the business from private equity firm GTCR. I have held these shares since 2011 – first purchased at 42p, closed last night at 522p. It’s one of my larger holdings and needless to say I have been very happy with my investment as it has been one of the few AIM companies that has shown consistent growth in revenue and profits.

The share price touched over 900p in 2020 when I realised some profits but I bought back some more recently at near 400p. The current share price seemed fair to me – Stockopedia reports a prospective p/e of 25 – so I am in no rush to sell unless a significant premium is paid. As it is this would be another of my bigger holdings after Ideagen and EMIS that I might lose so I would end up with a big capital gains tax bill which I can do without.

There is a shortage of quality small cap stocks in which to invest and with cash paying so little in interest I would prefer the company was not taken over at this time. Let us hope the directors of GB hold out for a good offer and reject one that does not recognise the growth prospects for the company.

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

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Brompton Bikes – The UK Productivity Explanation

One of the big UK economic problems is the lack of productivity in the workforce. We compare badly with most of our competitors. Last night (5/9/2022) I watched an interesting BBC programme which covered production at Brompton Bicycle Ltd.

Brompton are now the largest UK manufacturer of cycles and specialise in folding bikes. Their products range in price from £1,000 to £3,700 while you can buy an imported folding bike from Halfords for £375. Brompton are clearly focussed on the “premium” market sector.

Their main factory is in west London and the view of the shop floor showed lots of people building bikes manually with not a robot in sight – they claim “All Brompton bike frames are built by hand”. Even painting the frames was shown as being done via a manual spray gun while the frame is built by using brazing rather than welding – this requires a lot of manual skill and time.  

As a former production engineer this strikes me as a horribly labour intensive and inefficient process. They can apparently recruit relatively unskilled people in west London to do the work who then require lengthy training. You can see why productivity is in essence so low.

Brompton may have built a business on good technical innovation and clever marketing but they are likely to remain a niche producer in world markets. Their business model is probably only viable because of the availability of cheap labour in London.

While this kind of business can succeed in the UK, productivity and wages will remain low.

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

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Truss Victory – But Do We Trust Her to Deliver?

Liz Truss has won the election for Conservative Party Leader and therefore will be our next Prime Minister. She won by the expected large majority although she would not have been my personal choice. Lacks charisma. Her acceptance speech was a lacklustre bunch of pedantic soundbites.

She has promised to cut taxes and tackle the energy crisis. But how is she going to control energy prices? It’s easy to impose price controls or subsidise consumption but who is going to pay for it and where is the money coming from are the key questions. She has promised quick answers to those questions but do we trust her to deliver?

Having a surname that is a homophone of trust should have helped her political career but now she faces real problems in the UK economy and social unrest over the cost of living. This will not be helped by the latest news that Russia has turned off the Nord Stream gas pipeline and has no intention of reopening it while sanctions persist. This will drive gas prices even higher.

It was a good morning to release negative news. Abrdn UK Smaller Companies Growth Trust (AUSC) which I hold announced that long-serving manager Harry Nimmo is to retire at the end of the year. This has long been expected and after 19 years of service is probably overdue. There comes a time when even the most respected managers need to be refreshed.

It’s bad news for staff of the FRC after the FT reported that a decision has been made to locate the new ARGA body which will take over their role in Birmingham. Well at least they might find cheaper housing and shorter commutes so they might view it as a positive move.

The new ARGA body is sorely required as the FT reports yet another “brazen $400mn accounting fraud” in a Chinese biotech company (China Medical Technologies). KPMG is being sued in a Hong Kong court for $830 million. The report says that four audit firm failed to ask “obvious” questions that would have “easily” exposed the fraud. These included not questioning a large related-party transaction by the group in 2006, when it acquired a Chinese diagnostics business worth $155,000 for $176mn, according to the liquidator.

These kinds of events are way too common all over the world including the UK. Implementing ARGA is taking way too long but I suspect that it will not be one of Truss’s priorities.

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

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Useless Financial Ombudsman and FCA plus Defective Insolvency Regime

The stock markets are in turmoil now everyone is back from their holidays and facing up to the realisation that with high inflation and looming recessions the stock market may not be the best place to be for investors. I have moved more into cash and more defensive shares but cash is not the place to be for very long when inflation is eroding its value by more than 10% per annum. Stocks are getting cheaper as the short-term speculators and inexperienced investors exit so there will soon be bargains to be had while there are still few good alternatives when banks are paying less interest than inflation and fixed interest bonds are collapsing in capital values as interest rates rise.

I have written before about how useless the Financial Ombudsman is after I complained about the time it took to complete a transfer of a SIPP from one platform to another – see https://roliscon.blog/2022/04/28/the-financial-ombudsman-is-useless/ . It took over 5 months and I complained to the Financial Ombudsman about the delays in May 2021. After lengthy correspondence and an initial offer from the sending platform which I rejected as derisory, they have accepted that there was an unnecessary delay of 9 days at one stage in the transfer process. The Ombudsman has now proposed compensation of £350 for the inconvenience caused and £139.75 for the loss of investment return. This I have reluctantly accepted although my complaint about the receiving platform is still outstanding.

It has therefore taken 15 months to resolve the complaint which I do not consider reasonable. But the key problem is the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) not laying down strict rules about the time to complete transfers of investment holdings as they do for bank accounts. Both the FCA and Financial Ombudsman are toothless in essence and do not provide reasonable protection to investors.

ShareSoc has just issued its latest Informer Newsletter to members and it makes for a good read. One good article is on 4D Pharma (DDDD) which recently went into administration. This company claimed to be “a world leader in biotherapeutics” but it was a typical jam tomorrow story company. I never held the shares so I cannot judge whether the claimed prospects were realistic or imaginary but it does appear to have been very badly managed such that it ran out of cash. Unfortunately shareholders have no recourse against incompetent or inept directors.

But the key point to highlight is the typical wildly excessive costs of the administration which has run up costs of over £580,000 in just a few weeks. Shareholders should never expect any return from an administration and this case is no different. There may be some assets (mainly IP) in the business but after the administration costs and settling debts, there may be nothing left.

The insolvency regime needs major reform. At present the big beneficiary of administrations are insolvency practitioners who to a large extent can do what they want and charge what they want. The insolvency regime seems to have been designed for the benefit of the insolvency profession. I suggest the regulations in this area should be totally reformed and administrations should be a court supervised process as per Chapter 11 in the USA.

Another article in the ShareSoc Newsletter is on Blancco Technology Group (BLTG) in which I did hold a few shares for a while. There was a complaint to the FCA about the accounts of this company which were grossly misleading and the auditors (KPMG) have been fined £3,500 with costs of £2,743. A derisory and disgraceful outcome and another example of how weak the financial regulators are in the UK.

Ultimately the cases of 4D Pharma and Blancco reinforce the point that you should never invest in a company unless you have absolute confidence in the prudence and ability of the directors.

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

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BHP and Woodside Energy Announcements

There were announcements this morning (30/8/2022) from BHP Group (BHP) and Woodside Energy (WDS). Many BHP shareholders will also hold Woodside following the merger of the BHP oil/gas operations into Woodside. I continue to hold both having decided that now was not the time to exit a major gas producer. Institutional investors who wanted out of the sector due to their focus on ESG will surely have been regretting it.

Woodside announced half-year results and their Underlying Net Profit After Tax was up 414% on the prior half year. Obviously there was a positive impact from the merger but the major impact was from higher realised prices for their products which more than doubled to $96.4 per barrel of oil equivalent. If your home heating bills are going up, you can see why! Worldwide gas prices have risen mainly due to the reduction in supplies from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.

Some 70% of Woodside’s portfolio is in gas production and they continue to invest in new gas developments. But they are also now investing in hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage. You can see a presentation from their CEO on the results here: https://webcast.openbriefing.com/8864/player/?player_id=48929

The announcement from BHP was about three requisitioned resolutions that will be put to the Annual General Meeting. All three are advisory resolutions related to ESG aspects. Resolution 1 simply allows shareholders to express an opinion which is probably harmless.

Resolutions 2 and 3 are more problematic. Resolution 2 requests that the company proactively advocate for Australian policy settings that are consistent with the Paris Agreement objective of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C. Resolution 3 ensures reporting against the objective of Resolution 2.

I shall be voting against the latter 2 resolutions because there may be no direct connection between the company’s operations and the Paris Agreement to limit carbon emissions. Australia can limit carbon emissions by law if it considers it necessary to do so and in any case a substantial proportion of Woodside’s operations are outside Australia.

Resolution 2 attempts to impose an obligation on the company to interfere in what are political matters in Australia and hence I consider it as unreasonable. It is also unreasonable because more gas production might offset the use of coal for power generation and hence be beneficial in reducing carbon emissions. In reality these resolutions might be impossible to implement in any sensible way.

In summary these resolutions seem to be more about posturing on environmental commitments than practical objectives that the company could implement. They are attempting to force the management to make decisions on what may be best for the business.  

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

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Book Review: The Price of Time

The Price of Time is a recently published book by Edward Chancellor. Its subtitle is “The Real Story of Interest” which makes it very topical as bank interest rates are being raised in both the USA and UK in an attempt to damp down inflation. After an era when interest rates have been at their lowest levels in the last 5,000 years, and have even gone negative in some countries, a historic review of the impact of interest rates through booms and busts is certainly worth reading. But this is a difficult book in some ways.

It’s too long at 400 pages for one thing for all but the most avid reader of economic history. Why do publishers (in this case Allen Lane part of Penguin) insist on their authors padding out their manuscripts to such length? This book would have been much better at 200 pages than 400. It attempts to cover too much ground and in too much detail while not getting the key messages across.

It covers some ancient history but really gets going in a good explanation of how Scotsman John Law rescued the French economy in the 1700s by lowering interest rates and issuing paper money – similar to the modern Quantitative Easing. But thereafter that economic experiment ended in tears. The book covers the economic booms and busts in the Victorian era forward through the depression in the 1930s to the banking crisis in 2008, and the reaction of Governments.

The book attempts to answer the question of whether there is a natural rate of interest, i.e. one that would apply if the Government did not intervene as they have persistently done throughout history – from the imposition of usury laws, through debt forgiveness to modern central bank base rates.

Why is interest paid? Because an investor holding cash needs some return for the uncertainty of being repaid when money is lent. If the risk is higher then the interest paid has to be higher to attract lenders. In times of economic uncertainty such as wars, interest rates are raised.

Historically when there was a surplus of cash in the economy, interest rates would fall as there might be more lenders than borrowers. High interest rates are likely to reduce economic activity as borrowers are put off from investing in new developments such as buildings or machinery. Low interest rates should encourage economic activity and the circulation of money as opposed to the hoarding of assets.

Governments have taken a stance in recent years that lowering interest rates must be good to maintain a healthy economy but the result has been asset inflation. From stock market booms to house price inflation, if you can borrow money at very low rates it encourages speculation and the borrowing of money to buy assets.

Lenders also need a return to cover the future value of the money lent. If inflation is high, then interest will be high. Recently the Bank of England has had an inflation target of 2% while interest rates have been less for many borrowers. That made little sense. Inflation has now got out of hand but real interest rates are still effectively negative. That is essentially irrational.

The book covers the history of Government and central bank interventions in interest rates and the economy, often with unintended consequences. In that regard, it is a good education on what should or should not be done. One message is clear – artificially low interest rates are as bad for the economy as high interest rates.

The book is very well researched with numerous apposite quotations. I would recommend it to anyone interested in economic history and the trends that have made the modern world. But it could do with being shorter and having a more defined structure.

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

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The Productivity Puzzle and Fixing the Energy Crisis

There was an interesting article by Arthur Sants in last weeks Investors Chronicle. He highlighted the productivity problem in the big tech companies such as Apple, Meta, Alphabet and Microsoft. Part of the reason is that their workforces have been increasing and revenue per employee has been falling.

It is suggested that part of the problem is that to develop new products and services requires a lot of staff hacking code. Automation of manufacturing processes is relatively simple in comparison with developing programs that can write other programs – they are an order of magnitude more difficult to create.

This has been the Achilles heel of the software industry for the last 50 years. It remains a very labour-intensive industry when it need not be. The technology of software development has changed little since my era when I was involved in it – there are still too many people writing code.

Is this one reason why productivity in the UK and other developed countries has not been improving as it should have been? It’s been too easy to hire bright young things to write code because labour has been cheap. We need to make it more expensive to ensure tools to automate their work are developed with a concentration on the development of standards to assist. Teaching children to write code in schools is not the answer.

Richard Tice on the Energy Crisis

I watched a webinar presented by Richard Tice of the Reform Party this morning. He pointed out the energy crisis the country is facing and what his Party would do about it. He argues that this is not a short-term problem but that we face a long-term global energy war so vigorous action is required – in effect putting our energy economy on a wartime basis.

He presented some interesting data to support his arguments and made more sense than many politicians on the issue in my view.

You can watch in on the Reform Party’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TheReformPartyUK

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

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Transparency Task Force Attacks FCA and Sophisticated Investor/HNWI Status

Following on from the BBC Panorama programme on the Blackmore Bond scandal the Transparency Task Force have launched an attack on the incompetence of the Financial Conduct Authority – see https://www.transparencytaskforce.org/letters-to-mps-about-blackmore-bond/ . It includes a letter you can send to your Member of Parliament asking for some reform.

I agree with most of their recommendations on how matters can be improved.

One issue I would also raise is that the Panorama programme made it clear that risky and unregulated investments were sold to individuals who would not normally have qualified as “sophisticated investors” or as high net worth individuals, as is required.

It is possible to ‘self-certify’ yourself as a HNWI or a sophisticated investor. To self-certify as a HNWI you have to earn at least £100,000 per year or have net assets (excluding your property, pension rights and so on) of at least £250,000.

To self-certify as a sophisticated investor you must: have been a member of a business angels network for at least six months; or have made at least one investment in an unlisted security in the previous two years; or have worked in a professional capacity in the provision of finance to small- or medium-sized businesses in the last two years or in the provision of private equity; or be or have been within the last two years a director of a company with a turnover of at least £1m.

These are quite low hurdles and as the investor is only making the declaration with no checks necessary or evidence provided it is wide open to abuse. The company accepting the certification only has to have a reasonable belief that it is correct.

I suggest the HNWI limits should be raised and that those who claim to be sophisticated investors actually pass a simple examination on financial matters or have a recognised business/accounting qualification to prove what they are claiming.

There are simply too many cases of dubious investments being sold to widows and retired folks who have no way to judge the prudence of the matter.

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

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