Bonmarché Update, FCA Grilling over Woodford and Amati AIM VCT AGM

Yesterday Bonmarché (BON) conceded defeat in its opposition to a takeover bid at 11.4p. On the 17th May it had rejected the bid because it “materially undervalues Bonmarché and its prospects”. The share price of this women’s clothing retailer was over 100p a year ago but the latest trading review suggests sales are dire because of underlying weakness in the clothing market and “a lack of seasonal weather”. Auditors might have qualified the accounts due to be published soon due to doubts about it being a going concern if sales did not pick up before then. Bonmarché looks to be another victim of changing shopping habits and changing dress styles.

Is the market for traditional men’s clothes any better? Not from my recent experience of buying two formal shirts from catalogue/on-line retailer Brook Taverner. Cost was zero although I did have to pay postage. Why was the cost zero? Because they had a special offer of 60% off for returning customers, and I had collected enough “points” from them to wipe out the balance. Smacks of desperation does it not?

On Tuesday the Treasury Select Committee interviewed Andrew Bailey of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) over the closure of the Woodford Equity Income fund and their regulation of it. It is well worth listening to. See https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/34965022-ec99-4243-8d0b-ae3350c31fe4

It seems that technically the fund only made two minor breaches of the 10% limit on unlisted stocks twice in the UCITS rules which were soon corrected in 2018. But Link were responsible for ensuring compliance as they were legally the fund manager as they were the ACD who had delegated management to Neil Woodford’s company. But in the morning of the same day the Daily Telegraph reported that nearly half of the fund investments were actually illiquid including 20% that were nominally listed in such venues as Guernsey and not actively traded. In other words, they were perhaps technically complying with the UCITS rules but their compliance in principle was not the case. Mr Bailey suggested this is where regulation might be best to be changed to be “principle” based rather than “rule” based but surely that would lead to even more “fudges”? The big problem is yet again that the EU, who sets the UCITS rules, produced regulations that lacked any understanding of the investment world.

The Investment Association has suggested a new fund type be allowed which only allows limited withdrawals, e.g. at certain times or on notice. But that does not sound an attractive option to investors. When investors want to sell, they want to sell now.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has said open-ended funds are “built on a lie” in that they promise daily liquidity when it may not always be possible. He also suggested they posed a systemic risk to financial stability. Or as Paul Jourdan said at the Amati AIM VCT AGM: “Liquid investments are liquid until they are not”.

There is of course still no sign that Neil Woodford is taking steps to restore confidence in his funds, as I suggested on June the 5th. There needs to be a change in leadership and in name for that to happen. Once a fund has become a dog and untouchable in the minds of investors, and their financial advisors, redemptions will continue. Neil Woodford making reassuring statements will not assist. More vigorous action by Woodford, Link, and the FCA is required. Affected investors should encourage more action.

The Amati AIM VCT (AMAT) had a great year in the year before last as small cap AIM stocks rocketed but last year was a different story. NAV Total Return was down 10% although that was better than their benchmark index. AB Dynamics was the biggest positive contributor – up 93% over the year with Water Intelligence also up 93%. Ideagen was a good contributor (now second biggest holding) and Rosslyn Data was also up significantly. Accesso fell 36% but they are still holding. I asked whether they had purchased more AB Dynamics in the recent rights issue but apparently they could not as it was no longer VCT qualifying.

I also asked about the fall in Diurnal which wiped £1.2 million off the valuation. This was down to clinical trial results apparently. However, fund manager Paul Jourdan is still keen on biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms as he suggested that healthcare is being revolutionised in his concluding presentation – he mentioned Polarean as one example.

Other presentations were from Block Energy – somewhat pedestrian and not a sector I like – and Bonhill Group which was more lively. Bonhill were formerly called Vitesse Media but are growing rapidly from some acquisitions and clearly have ambitions to be a much bigger company in the media space.

It was clear from the presentations that the investee company portfolio is becoming more mature as the successful companies have grown. This arises because they tend to take some profits when a holding becomes large but otherwise like to retain their successful holdings.

All resolutions were passed on a show of hands vote but I queried why all the resolutions got near 10% opposing on the proxy counts which is unusual. It seems this is down to one shareholder whose motives are not entirely clear.

In summary, an educational event and worth attending as most AGMs are.

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

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Broker Charges, Proven VCT Performance Fee and LoopUp Seminar

The Share Centre are the latest stockbroker to increase their fees. Monthly fee for an ISA account is going up by 4.2% to £5.00 per month with increases on ordinary share accounts and SIPPs also. This is the latest of a number of fee increases among stockbrokers and retail investor platforms. The Share Centre blame the required investment in technology development and “an increasing burden of financial regulation”. The latter is undoubtedly the result of such regulations as MIFID II imposed by the EU which has proven to be of minimal benefit to investors. As I was explaining to my sister over the weekend, this is one reason why I voted to leave the EU – their financial regulations are often misconceived and often aimed at solving problems we never had in the UK.

I received the Annual Report of Proven VCT (PVN) this morning – a Venture Capital Trust. Total return to shareholders was 10.3% last year, but the fund manager did even better. Of the overall profits of the company of £18.6 million, they received £7.7 million in management fees (i.e. they received 41% of the profits this year). That includes £5.6 million in performance fees.

Studying the management fee (base 2.0%) and the performance fee, I find the latter particularly incomprehensible. I will therefore be attending the AGM on the 3rd July to ask some pointed questions and I would encourage other shareholders to do the same. I am likely to vote against all the directors at this company.

I also received an Annual Report for Proven Growth & Income VCT (PGOO) and note that of the 4 directors, 2 have served more than 9 years and one is employed by the fund manager. So that’s three out of four that cannot be considered “independent” so I have voted against them. I would attend their AGM on the same day but the time is 9.30 which is not a good choice and would waste a whole day.

Yesterday I attended the “Capital Markets Day” of LoopUp (LOOP). This is an AIM listed company whose primary product is an audio conference call service. It’s just a “better mousetrap” to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson as 68% of the world are still using simple dial-in services rather than more sophisticated software products such as Zoom and WebEx. There are lots of other competitors in this field including Microsoft’s Skype which I find an appallingly bad product from past experience. Reliability and simplicity of use is key and LoopUp claimed to have solved this with no learning required, no software downloads or other complexities and high-quality calls aimed at the corporate market.

I have seen the company present before and do hold a few shares. This event was again a very professional sales pitch for the company and its product with no financial information provided. Yesterday they also covered the addition of video to their basic conference call service which was announced on the day, plus a new service for managed events/meetings. Video addition is probably an essential competitive advantage that was previously missing. They covered how their service is differentiated from the main competitors which was good to understand.

Last year they acquired a company called MeetingZone which has increased their customer base and revenue substantially and are transitioning the customers to the LoopUp product. Revenue doubled last year and is forecast to rise by about 50% in the current year. Needless to say the company is rated highly on conventional financial metrics and return on capital has been depressed by the cost of the acquisition. But one reason I like this company is that it’s very easy to understand what they do and what the “USP” is that they are promoting, plus their competitive position (many company presentations omit any discussion of competitors).

They also have an exceedingly good sales operation based on groups of people organised in “pods” which was covered in depth in the presentation. These only have team bonuses and the key apparently is to recruit “empathetic” people rather than “individualists”. Perhaps that is one reason 60% of them are female. As I said to their joint CEO, I wish I had seen their presentation some 30 or more years ago when I had some responsibility for a software sales function.

The latter part of this 3-hour event was an explanation of how the software/service is used by major international law firm Clifford Chance with some glowing comments on the company from one of their managers. Customer references always help to sell services.

In conclusion a useful meeting, but lack of financial information was an omission although “Capital Market” days are sometimes like that. But the positive was that they had both institutional investors and private investors whereas some companies deliberately discourage the latter from attending such events which I find most objectionable.

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

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AB Dynamics Placing, and Metro Bank Troubles

AB Dynamics (ABDP) announced a placing to raise £5 million this morning. The money will be used to finance potential acquisitions, add production capacity and meet working capital requirements. This company provides vehicle testing systems and has been rapidly expanding recently. The share price has also been rising like a rocket in the last few weeks and on fundamentals the company is now very highly rated – prospective p/e for the current year is 47. So perhaps the company just saw this as a good opportunity to raise some money.

The new shares are being placed at 2200p though which is a discount of 13% to the share price last Friday. However although this is being done via a placing to institutional investors there is also an “open offer” for those such as private shareholders who cannot participate in the placing. This is the way to do such things and as a holder of the shares I will probably take up the open offer just so as to avoid dilution, although I don’t consider the price as particularly attractive. The share price dipped first thing this morning on the news but has subsequently recovered most of that fall.

Metro Bank (MTRO) has been in trouble since the start of the year when it disclosed it had wrongly risk-weighted some of its loans which meant its capital ratio was wrong. Metro is one of the so-called “challenger banks” that aim to tackle the dominance of the big high-street banks in the UK. The company did a placing to raise another £350 million last week to shore up its balance sheet.

But depositors have been spooked by the news and apparently there were queues of customers withdrawing money from branches in West London recently. Is this another run on a bank, as happened at Northern Rock? Where a falling share price and collapsing confidence in the bank caused depositors to panic? The FT ran an editorial saying it was not similar but it looks very much so to me. Although the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) now protects deposits up to £85,000 that will not help many retail customers and the delays in obtaining compensation will encourage depositors to move all of part of their funds elsewhere and promptly. Corporate clients have no such protection anyway. When confidence in a bank is lost, even if it is technically solvent, depositors don’t hang around.

Here’s a good quote from eminent Victorian author Walter Bagehot: “Every banker knows that if he has to prove he is worthy of credit…in fact his credit has gone” (in another letter in the FT today).

From my experience of trying to open an account with Metro Bank recently, I have doubts about the quality of this business anyway. I gave up in the end. Needless to say I don’t hold shares in Metro. But all banks are becoming exceedingly difficult to deal with. My long-standing (over 50 years) bank recently made me visit a branch to prove who I was. There was a letter complaining about the service from banks in the FT on the 15th May. It suggested that “something has gone badly wrong” with frontline bank service. I had similar problems with a business account at HSBC who proved impossible to talk to other than by visiting one of their branches – and even then they were unable to resolve difficulties. It is extremely annoying that banks are becoming paranoid about KYC and security checks so that they won’t even talk to you on the telephone about simple queries.

If any readers can recommend a bank who acts more reasonably and sensibly, let me know.

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

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Wey Education News

Wey Education (WEY) published a very positive half-year report his morning. This small AIM-listed company operates in the on-line education field and I have written about it several times in the past (you can search the blog for previous posts). Under its former Executive Chairman, David Massie, who sadly died, it launched an ambitious expansion programme including overseas ventures in Kenya, Nigeria and China. They have written off those and closed down operations in London (total cost £881k) and will be concentrating on their UK InterHigh and Academy 21 businesses in future.

The good news is that turnover is up 55% and adjusted profits on continuing operations is both positive and very substantially up. The share price is up over 50% today at the time of writing. Possibly helped by share commentator Paul Scott saying he had bought some recently.

There is a great need for the alternative education to conventional schools that Wey provides so let us hope they are now heading in the right direction, albeit that there is some competition in this sector.

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

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Trump Tariffs, 4Imprint AGM and Purplebricks Apologies

US President Donald Trump has created some havoc in world stock markets by threatening in a tweet to impose 25% tariffs on a wider range of Chinese goods from Friday. He is apparently getting impatient with the progress on trade talks between the USA and China, but is pursuing international diplomacy via tweets a good idea?

One company that might be affected by higher tariffs on Chinese products is 4Imprint (FOUR) whose AGM I attended this morning. 4Imprint is an AIM-listed retailer of promotional products (sold via catalogues and the internet). Most of its business arises in the USA with only a relatively smaller operation in the UK, and it imports a considerable proportion of the merchandise from China. I asked the Chairman after the AGM whether this was a concern. He said they discussed tariffs at every board meeting but as their competitors would be in the same position the impact might not be high.

There was a trading statement from the company this morning before the AGM. Revenue up 16% in the first four months and the board is confident that the Group will deliver full year results in line with market expectations.

This is the kind of company I like. Revenue growing, no debt, profits turn into cash and return on equity was 82% last year. Like a lot of retailers, they sell the products and collect the cash from customers before they have to pay the suppliers. In essence a simple business and the AGM in the City was a quite brief affair – duration about 15 minutes.

Only I asked any questions in the formal part of the meeting and one was: what is their market share in the USA? About 4% was the answer, and it’s still increasing. The competition is also fragmented so there is room for growth. You can see the kind of products they sell here: https://www.4imprint.co.uk/ . Having used the company in the past I can recommend them.

I also asked whether there were any substantial numbers of proxy votes against any of the resolutions (this is a question to ask when the Chairman says proxy votes will be disclosed at the end of the meeting as happened here!). Yes there was one. Remuneration Committee Chairman Charles Brady only got 93% support. I later asked him why. He said one institutional investor voted against him because the company does not have an LTIP.

I actually voted for the Remuneration Report because they have a simple remuneration scheme and pay of the executive directors is not unreasonable bearing in mind they are based in the USA. This is the kind of pay scheme that should be applauded, not voted against.

Another AIM company of a very different nature that made an announcement this morning is Purplebricks (PURP). A trading statement gave a financial update but included several very negative points. The Australian operation is being closed down, the US operations are now the subject of a “strategic review” with bad news being hinted at, and founder/CEO Michael Bruce is “stepping down with immediate effect”. That usually means the person named has been fired.

The board acknowledges that performance has been disappointing over the last 12 months and “we sincerely apologise to shareholders for that”. The company blames too rapid geographic expansion and poor operational execution.

The company is still losing money and the share price graph is one of those downward facing ski-slopes that investors hate. The share price is down another 7% today at the time of writing. Still an unproven business model in my view. I do not hold shares in the company for that reason.

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

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Horizon Discovery – Defective Accounting Discovered

Horizon Discovery Group (HZD) announced their full year results this morning. Horizon is a biotechnology company focused on cell engineering and CRISPR screening. Revenue was up by 68% to £58.7 million helped by an acquisition. But the “reported loss” increased to £35.8 million due to the exceptional write-off of past investment in “In Vivo”. Although this is a non-cash impairment it suggests that there was past over-optimism in the viability of that business unit and excessive capitalisation of development expenditure. This follows from a strategic review of the company last year by new CEO Terry Pizzie.

They also have a new CFO. There has been a review of revenue recognition policies that has led them to restate 2017 revenue down from £36.5 million to £35.0 million. This is what the company has to say about that: “In 2019, the Group became aware of potential revenue recognition matters in connection with certain license revenue contracts. As a result, the Group undertook a detailed review of all such contracts and determined that the terms and conditions in some of those contracts had been misinterpreted and as a consequence, the accounting periods in which the revenue is recognised have been reassessed, due to license revenues being recognised before they were committed”. Who were their auditors you may ask? Answer: Deloitte. This looks like yet another case of a basic accounting failure that the auditors failed to pick up.

At the last AGM of the company, which I attended as a small shareholder, I questioned why the company was losing money on services. Surely if services were unprofitable, they don’t need to be provided to customers? Good to see that in the latest announcement they are withdrawing from “investment” in parts of the services portfolio. Another interesting comment in the announcement is this: “Our ‘Investing for Growth’ strategy will see the business shift from a scientifically-led life sciences company to a fully commercial tools company, which will mean that Horizon is increasingly well placed to capitalise on its market-leading position to drive sustained top-line growth”.

Apart from the above issues, the company does seem to be moving in the right direction and the comments about future prospects from the CEO are positive. The share price was unmoved at the time of writing.

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

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All Change at Superdry and Intercede – Perhaps

Readers are probably aware that founder Julian Dunkerton managed to win the votes yesterday at the EGM that he requisitioned at Superdry (SDRY). The votes to appoint him and Peter Williams were won by the narrowest of margins despite proxy advisors such as ISS recommending opposition. My previous comments on events at Superdry are here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/03/12/superdry-does-it-need-a-revolution/ . It did not seem clear cut to me how shareholders should vote, but I did suggest there was a need for change.

There will certainly be that because the incumbent directors (including the CEO and CFO although that does not necessarily mean they have quit their executive positions) have all resigned from the board although some of the non-executive directors are serving out their notice. Dunkerton has been appointed interim CEO.

Perhaps the most apposite comment on the outcome was by Paul Scott in his Stockopedia blog. He said “To my mind, the suits have made a mess of running this company, so bringing back the founder seems eminently sensible to me”. However, I suggest there is still some uncertainty as to whether the Superdry fashion brand can be revived – perhaps the world has moved on and it has gone out of fashion. But Dunkerton should be able to fix some of the operational problems at least. Retailing is still a difficult sector at present so I won’t personally be rushing in to buy the stock.

Another momentous change took place at Intercede (IGP) yesterday. This company provides secure digital identities and has some very interesting technology. But for many years it has failed to turn that into profits and revenue has been also remained flat. But yesterday the company announced a large US Government order and hence they expect a “return to profitability”. This certainly surprised the market as another loss was forecast. The share price jumped 60% yesterday after it had been in long decline for several years.

I have held a small holding in the stock since 2010 (very small prior to yesterday) but I was never convinced that the company knew how to sell its technology – a common failing in UK IT companies. The former CEO and founder Richard Parris who was there for 26 years was surely part of the problem but he departed in 2018. Has the company actually learned how to make money under the new management? Perhaps, but one deal does not totally convince. One swallow does not make a spring as the old saying goes.

Even after the jump yesterday, the market cap is still not much more than one times revenue which is a lowly valuation for such a company. But investors need to be aware that the company has £4.6 million of convertible loan notes which would substantially dilute shareholders if they were converted. A company to keep an eye on I suggest, to see if it has really changed its spots.

Another surprising change yesterday was the abrupt departure of Richard Kellett-Clarke from the boards of both DotDigital (DOTD) and IDOX (IDOX) “due to private matters in his other directorships” according to the announcement from DOTD. DOTD is looking for a new Chairman. I wonder what that is about? We may find out in due course.

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

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