LoopUp, Audioboom, Social Media Abuse and a VCT AGM

LoopUp (LOOP), a small AIM listed company that provides audio conferencing and in which I have a small holding, have announced a proposed acquisition of a company in the same business – MeetingZone Group. This will more than double the size of LoopUp so it constitutes a reverse takeover. As they are paying cash for MeetingZone it will be financed by a term loan and a large placing. The placing will be at 400p per share, when the share price last night was 435p so it’s only a small discount. The share price normally falls to the placing price in such circumstances but it actually rose today which suggests investors like the deal.

MeetingZone is profitable and is being acquired at 12 times EBITDA. The plan is to deliver a “timely transition of the MeetingZone Groups audio conferencing business to the LoopUp platform” as the announcement says. This is clearly potentially a significant step up in the size and profitability of the merged entity, but my slight concern is the risks involved in this transition as it means the customers will need to learn a new system. Such transitions are never easy.

Another small AIM company is Audioboom Group (BOOM) whose shares have been suspended for some time after they announced a proposed acquisition, with a fund raising to finance it. Yesterday they announced it had been impossible to complete the placing to fund the deal and the company now needs to raise some money just to cover its working capital needs. Audioboom is primarily a podcast hosting platform and revenue has been increasing but for the year to November 2017 it was still less than £5 million and the loss was expected to be a similar figure! Accounts have yet to be published though. Needless to say perhaps, I have never held shares in this company because I considered it to have an unproven business model. Such early stage companies are surely best financed via private equity who can accept the risks rather than public market investors. I wish them the best of luck in raising more funds.

But I did have some contact with the company after a certain person posted a podcast which contained abusive comments about me. So my lawyer asked politely that it be removed which the company did simply because it did not comply with their policies. The result was a torrent of abuse about Audioboom by the same aforementioned person which was totally uncalled for. But now the same person has been on the receiving end of an attack from someone else where he has even had to call in the police for assistance.

Postscript: Let me make it clear that I do not condone racist or other illegal communications of any kind. They can never be justified. I have only recently been informed of the content and likely reasons for it which has resulted in the aforementioned communication being referred to the police.

This is a typical example of the problems of social media and blogging sites which have been getting a lot of media coverage in the last few days. Facebook have reported that 2.5 million posts alone that included “hate speech” were removed in the last 3 months of 2017, and there were many more violent, terrorist or pornographic posts they also removed. However, they cannot easily identify lies, fake news, fraudulent advertisements and common abuse. In other words, the social norms about what should be “published” in a public forum are completely breaking down. Nobody can, nor does, police the internet.

This is now proving to be a major problem for anyone in public life such as politicians. Free speech is a good concept in essence, but when it degenerates to allowing irrational and unconsidered abuse and false allegations to be propagated then surely something needs to be done about it. The laws against “hate speech” and libel law hardly provide effective remedies to stop the kind of behaviour that is now becoming so prevalent. I suggest that the Government needs to undertake a full blown public inquiry into this problem.

It is particularly serious in the financial world where bad behaviour can affect the business of a company and its share price, effectively leading to “market abuse”.

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Maven Income and Growth VCT 4 Plc (MAV4). There were only about half a dozen shareholders in attendance in the City of London.

I raised a number of issues and posed questions. Subjects covered were:

  1. The poor performance of the company last year, which I calculated to be a total return of 1.72% (i.e. less than inflation). Total return includes asset growth and dividends of course, and although the company paid out dividends of 12.45p last year representing a yield of 16.5% on the share price at the end of the year (tax free of course), it’s the total return that really matters. Otherwise shareholders are just getting their assets returned to them.
  2. Inadequate explanation for the poor performance in the Annual Report. It does mention that “one of the larger portfolio companies suffered a write down in value which diluted the overall performance in the financial year, but more explanation would have been preferable.
  3. The length of service of the board directors. Apart from director Bill Nixon, who represents the fund manager and which I do not accept should be a director simply for that reason, the other three directors including the Chairman have all served since 2004. So this is one of the few companies where I voted against the reappointment of all of them. I made it clear that the board should look at succession and they indicated they may do so.
  4. The high overhead costs in this VCT – total administration and management expenses I calculated to be 4.0% of net assets at year end, although Bill Nixon disputed this figure.
  5. There was a suggestion made that with high returns of cash to shareholders last year, and a new fund raising, there might have been some “cash drag” in the performance data.
  6. I questioned the impact of the new VCT regulations, and Bill Nixon said the market was getting “frothy” with valuations difficult to sustain. The inability to write debentures on investments limits the amount of control they will have in future. The manager has reshaped the investment team to adjust to the new focus – they now have 4 PHDs. They rarely back start-ups and prefer to back teams with successful track records – they don’t “want them to be learning on our money”.
  7. Advanced approval from HMRC on new investments is getting better (this has been a major concern for many VCTs of late as it delays closing deals). Now closer to 30 to 40 days. There is also a proposal for a “self-certification” scheme where a qualified independent person gives a positive opinion. This might be of assistance but there are still potential problems if a business is subsequently found not to qualify.
  8. The company is looking at using the funds raised to make 10 to 12 investments in the current year, so the new rules about what kinds of businesses can be invested in are apparently not proving to be a major problem. But Bill said the result is they are moving from investing in “old” economy companies to “new” economy runs. This is likely to mean that portfolio volatility will increase so overall returns (and hence dividends) may fluctuate more from year to year.
  9. Bill thought VCTs will raise less money this year so new offerings may be in high demand.

Votes were taken on a show of hands and the proxy counts circulated after the meeting. Only about 10% of shareholders voted which is the typical pathetic turnout these days from private shareholders in such companies. There were substantial votes against one resolution on share buy-backs but apparently this was mainly from one family who may not understand the issues.

In summary this was a useful meeting and worth attending. I am only holding this VCT for historic reasons after Maven took over management of previously problematic VCTs I invested in years ago. Performance has improved as a result but is still not great and high overhead costs would put me off investing more money in it. I am always surprised that such VCTs are able to raise more funds with such apparent ease.

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

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The Dangers of Share Tipping, Alliance Trust and AIM Regulation

Share tipping is a mug’s game. Both for the tipsters and their readers. More evidence of this was provided yesterday.

Investors Chronicle issued their “Tips of the Week” via email during the day. It included a “BUY” recommendation on Conviviality (CVR). Unfortunately soon after the company issued a trading statement which said the forecast EBITDA for the current year (ending 30th April) will be 20% below market expectations. Conviviality is a wholesaler, distributor and retailer of alcohol and it seems there was a “material error in the financial forecasts” in one part of the business and that margins have “softened”.

The share price dropped by almost 60% during the day and fell another 10% today at the time of writing. This puts the business based on the new forecasts on a prospective p/e of less than 6 and a dividend yield of over 10% (assuming it is held which may be doubtful). Is this a bargain?

Having had a quick look at the financial profile I am not sure it is. Although net debt of £150 million may not be too high in relation to current revenues or profits, their net profit margin is very small and their current ratio is less than 1, although this is not unusual in retailers who tend to pay for goods after they have sold them.

(Postscript: Paul Scott of Stockopedia made some interesting comments on Conviviality including the suggestion that they might be at risk of breaching their banking covenants and hence might have to do another placing. Certainly worth reading his analysis before plunging into the stock. He also commented negatively on the mid-day timings of the announcements from Conviviality and Fulham Share which I agree with, unless there was some compulsive reason to do them – perhaps they were aware of the Investors Chronicle commentary being issued).

Another tip Investors Chronicle gave yesterday was on Fulham Shore (FUL) which they rated a SELL on the grounds that “growth looks unsustainable”. They got that one right. The company issued a trading statement on the day which also said EBITDA would be below market expectations. Their London restaurants are simply serving fewer customers. The share price dropped 17% on the day. This looks to be symptomatic of the problems of restaurant chains – Prezzo are closing a number of outlets which I was not surprised at because from my visits it seemed rather pedestrian food at high prices. Restaurant Group also reported continuing negative like-for-like figures recently, perhaps partly because of price cutting to attract customers back. Restaurants are being hit by higher costs and disappearing customers. Boring food from tired formulas is no longer good enough to make money.

Another announcement yesterday was results from Alliance Trust (AT.). This is a company that I, ShareSoc, some investors in the trust and hedge fund Elliott Advisors spent a lot of effort on to cause a revolution a couple of years ago so it’s good to see the outcome has been beneficial. Total shareholder return was 19.1% which was well ahead of their benchmark. There was a lot of doubt expressed by many commentators on the new multi-manager investment strategy adopted by the board of directors and the involvement of Elliott, who were subsequently bought out, but it has turned out very well.

The only outstanding issue is the continuing problems at Alliance Trust Savings. They report the integration of the Stocktrade business they acquired from Brewin Dolphin has proved “challenging”. Staff have been moved from Edinburgh to Dundee and the CEO has departed. Customer complaints rose and they no doubt lost a lot of former Stocktrade customers such as me when they decided to stop offering personal crest accounts. So Alliance have written down the value of Alliance Trust Savings by another £13 million as an exceptional charge. No stockbrokers are making much money at present due to very low interest rates of cash held. It has never been clear why Alliance Trust Savings is strategic to the business and it’s very unusual for an investment trust to run its own savings/investment platform. Tough decisions still need to be taken on this matter.

AIM Regulation. The London Stock Exchange has published a revised set of rules for AIM market companies – see here: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-rules-for-companies-march-2018-clean.pdf .

It now includes a requirement for AIM companies to declare adherence to a Corporate Governance Code. At present there is no such obligation, although some companies adhere to the QCA Code, or some foreign code, or simply pick and choose from the main market code. I and ShareSoc did push for such a rule, and you can see our comments on the review of the AIM rules and original proposals here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/aim-rules-review/ and here is a summary of the changes published by the LSE: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-notice-50.pdf (there is also a marked up version of the rule book that gives details of the other changes which I have to admit I have not had the time to peruse as yet).

In summary these are positive moves and the AIM market is improving in some regards although it still has a long way to go to weed out all the dubious operators and company directors in this market.

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

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