Dividends Slashed, Investing for Income, NMC Health and Finablr

Many companies are announcing cancelled, reduced or postponed dividends – two of the latest were Shell (RDSB) and Sainsburys (SBRY). This will hit investors hard who rely on dividends for retirement income. But should they be doing so?

Terry Smith of Fundsmith had an article published in the Financial Times today under the headline “Investors: never let a crisis go to waste” in which he attacks income funds. In particular he questions whether the Investment Association should allow funds with “income” in their name to only have a yield greater than 90% of the average fund yield, i.e. less than the average! Even that requirement has now been suspended for 12 months. Terry calls this a “ridiculous piece of deception” and I can only agree.

If you invest in individual shares, there is a strong temptation in times of stock market crises to run for the hills and start buying what are viewed as defensive businesses with high dividend payouts. You argue that the dividend yield will keep the share price up even if all other news is bad. But this is a fallacy. All you do is put yourself at risk of a sharp decline in the share price when the dividend is chopped.

As Terry Smith also pointed out in his article, dividend cover in many companies that are on high yields are inadequate. In reality they are not maintaining the businesses, or certainly not growing it, by not investing enough of their profits back into the business. Sometimes it indicates that they are operating in a declining sector and many have an abysmal return on capital. Should you really be investing in such companies is the question you should ask yourself?

The simple rule should be: Never invest in a company solely for the dividend. Invest in it because it is a quality company with positive prospects and management dedicated its long-term future for the benefit of all stakeholders.

I have mentioned NMC Health (NMC) and Finablr (FIN) in previous blog posts along with many other frauds. It’s not that I am trying to put off people from investing in the stock market which is one of the main sources of what little wealth I have. Likewise when I criticise those who invest in income funds or high yielding shares. But my desire is to educate people about how to get positive rather than negative results. NMC and Finablr have both been chaired by Dr B.R.Shetty and he made a rather surprising comment in a letter which was published by Finablr yesterday. He said: “The preliminary findings provided by my advisors from my own investigations indicate that serious fraud and wrongdoing appears to have taken place at NMC, Finablr PLC (‘Finablr’), as well as within some of my private companies, and against me personally. This fraud also appears to have been undertaken by a small group of current and former executives at these companies”. He goes on at some length on how the frauds were committed. This all sounds rather unlikely but we will no doubt see in due course whether what he says is true.

The shares of both companies are currently suspended and NMC is already in administration. Finablr also had this to say: “The results of this exercise currently indicate that the total net indebtedness of the Finablr Group may be approximately $1,300 million (excluding any liabilities of the Travelex business). This is materially above the last reported figure for the Group’s indebtedness position as at 30 June 2019 and the levels of indebtedness previously disclosed to the Board. The Board cannot exclude the possibility that some of the proceeds of these borrowings may have been used for purposes outside of the Finablr Group”.

The outlook for shareholders in both companies looks very bleak indeed. Let us hope that the investigation of these frauds is quicker than it normally is, but I doubt it will be. The larger and more complex the company, and the bigger the fraud, the longer it takes regulatory authorities to pin the tail on the donkey. Think of Polly Peck for example.

As I said in my previous blog post that mentioned false accounting at Lookers, “Such events totally undermine investor confidence in the accounts of public companies and suggest much tougher action is required to ensure accounts reported by companies are accurate and not subject to fraud or misrepresentation”.

For investors the motto must be ““Let’s Be Careful Out There” (as said by the sergeant in Hill Street Blues) because the financial world is full of shysters. You need to research companies as much as possible before investing in them, but even that is not fraud-proof unfortunately. Only improved regulation and accounting can really solve the problem of corruption in the financial scene.

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

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Stock Market Trends, Covid-19 Treatments, Burford Results, Lookers Accounting and Medica

The stock market seems to be returning to normal with a positive trend over the last month despite the economy being in a complete shambles as a result of the “lock-down”. The Government is incurring massive costs to bail-out companies, support the NHS and pay workers to do nothing. We have yet to see the real economic impact of those measures on the Government’s finances. But investors seem to be euphoric because they now realise we are not all going to die from the Covid-19 epidemic and there are signs we will be able to get back to work soon.

There are also indications that vaccines to prevent the disease, or treatments for it, may be available in the next few months. One of the best commentators on the epidemic because of his scientific background is Matt Ridley who I met many years ago in circumstances he probably prefers to forget. He publishes a blog which is here: http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/ plus he has several good books published which I can recommend. His latest blog article is entitled “The contenders – and challenges – in the race to cure Covid” and is a good review of the field.

One interesting suggestion is the possible use of monoclonal antibodies to replicate antibodies from those infected with the disease and use them to treat other people. This might be very expensive from my knowledge of other such treatments but if the treatment is effective it might only require an injection every few months. It might be affordable for developed countries.

The diversion of NHS resources to treat Covid-19 patients is creating many problems though. Minor operations and non-urgent consultations are being cancelled. You can see the impact of this in the results reported by Medica Group (MGP) earlier this month. The company provides teleradiology services to the NHS and others. This is what it said: “In terms of Routine activity, the Company is experiencing a decline of around 90% in activity with many NHS hospitals having already suspended non-urgent elective procedures”. Reduced A&E admissions are also having an impact. But the company remains positive and can reduce its cost base substantially. ShareSoc has organised a webinar with this company this evening which may be interesting as I do not hold it.

Another company I do not hold is Burford Capital (BUR) which announced results this morning. This company has been in the news a lot because of a shorting attack. This is what the Chairman had to say: “2019 was a year of contrasts, marked by the continued expansion of our business yet also by the disruption of a meritless short attack.  Though our business fundamentals remained strong, investor confidence was dented, causing shareholders to urge changes to our governance”. The announcement contains many positive comments about the progress on litigation, the future prospects, and balance sheet strength.

The accounts are not easy to understand and the Annual Report consists of 163 pages so I have not read it all. No doubt other people will comment on it in detail. But one simple thing I did do was look at the income and cash flow statements.

This is a company where the profits do not turn into cash. Comprehensive income was down from $342 million to $194 million but after changes in “capital provisions” the net cash outflow was $8.3 million. There are also doubts as to whether the legal awards which are recognised in the accounts can actually be collected. The share price is up over 25% today at the time of writing.

Another company worth mentioning as I like to cover cases of defective accounts is that of motor dealer Lookers Group (LOOK) – I have never held it. A few days ago the company gave a “Trading and Operational Update”. It included coverage of the fraud investigation which is now expected to result in a non-cash charge of £4 million in the 2019 financial accounts. Those have now been delayed until June. The investigation has also been extended across all divisions and more charges are expected.

The share price of Lookers was 185p in early 2016. It’s now about 21p. Such events totally undermine investor confidence in the accounts of public companies and suggest much tougher action is required to ensure accounts reported by companies are accurate and not subject to fraud or misrepresentation. Auditors surely are one group who need to take a lead on this as frequently when frauds are identified they have been running for several years.

As I said in my book Business Perspective Investing, “financial accounts don’t matter because they cannot be relied upon”. That’s certainly the case at present and it’s better to look at other measures of the quality of a business.  That is particularly the case at present when the Covid-19 epidemic is distorting the results of companies and making it very difficult to forecast future financial numbers.

Better to look at other factors such as your trust in the management, the market position of the company and its future prospects.

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

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Avoiding Another NMC Debacle

Yesterday the shares in NMC Health (NMC) were suspended and a formal investigation by the FCA was announced. The suspension announcement said that the company has requested the suspension of its shares and that the company is focused on providing additional clarity to the market as to its financial position.

The events at NMC are hardly the kind of thing one expects from a FTSE-100 company with reported revenue of $2.5 billion and profits of $320 million. The company operates hospitals and other healthcare facilities in the Middle East – hardly a sector that should be particularly volatile. The company has of course been the subject of an attack by Muddy Waters and the share price was already down by 80% from their peak in 2018, before they were suspended.

There now seems to be considerable doubts about the accounts (the finance director is on long-term sick leave which is never a good sign), there are doubts about who holds the shares, and questions about related party transactions and debt. The founder and CEO have departed from the board leaving the COO as interim CEO.

I recall NMC being tipped in numerous publications before all this bad news came out and it certainly looked a good proposition at a glance. Both revenue and profits were rising at 30% per year driven by rising wealth in the Arab states. So why did I avoid it?

The key point I would make is that “financial numbers are not important when picking shares” which is the subtitle of my book “Business Perspective Investing”. The numbers alone cannot be trusted even if they have been audited by a big firm such as Ernst & Young.

The company is registered in London and listed in the UK but the company had a peculiar governance structure with two joint Chairman and an Executive Vice-Chairman. They had a large number of directors otherwise and at the last AGM actually approved a resolution to increase the maximum number to 14. That is way too large for any company and results in board meetings being dysfunctional. The Muddy Waters financial analysis clearly raised some concerns and it is well worth reading. It also raised issues about the level of remuneration of the board and share sales. These might be considered warning signs and there is the key issue that it might be very difficult for UK based investors to monitor the operations of the company.

These are the kind of issues that I suggested investors need to look at in my book.

What do investors do if they find they have been suckered into a company with dubious accounts and when other negative facts have come to light? The simple answer is to study the evidence carefully and if in doubt sell the shares. It is never too late to sell is phrase to remember. You only have to look at the share price graph of NMC to see that investors with a trailing stop-loss of 20% would have exited long ago and hence avoided the worse outcome.

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

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Competition in the Audit Market

I attended a “roundtable” event at the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) on Monday. It was primarily a discussion of audit market competition and how to improve it, with private investors attending. But as I said at the meeting the key issues in the audit market are the quality of audits and the accountability of auditors. Too many blatant frauds go undetected by auditors, and they avoid any responsibility for their errors. Being able to avoid accountability for their failings has resulted in declining audit standards over the last few decades. The Caparo legal judgement is one big reason as it prevents shareholders suing auditors for their failings. It needs overturning.

These thoughts were echoed by other speakers at the meeting although the FRC made clear that their focus is on quality.

The Kingman review of the FRC was critical of the audit sector and its regulation by the FRC while the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is undertaking a review of the market for audit services which is dominated by the big four audit firms.

Would improved competition for audit services improve the quality of auditing is one key question? Or simply lead to a race to the bottom as price competition was increased? Alternatively could quality be improved by improving the work of audit committees and how they select auditors? All of these questions were discussed but no specific conclusions reached.

One proposal to improve competition is to enforce “joint” or “shared” audits where all audits of larger companies would require the involvement of more than one audit firm. This might enable smaller audit firms to become more experienced and more credible to take on larger audits it is argued. But as I said in my response to the CMA consultation: “ So far as investors are concerned, joint and several liability would be a positive advantage to ensure audit quality in theory. But in practice as auditors avoid liability for most failings, it might not matter a great deal”.

I do not see how joint or shared auditing will improve the quality of audits or necessarily improve competition either. An alternative suggestion that there should simply be a cap on the market share of any one audit firm seems a better and simpler solution to the competition issue.

Apparently according to a report in the FT, audit firms have been lobbying hard to retain the status quo. The FT reported the comments of Will Hayter, a director of the CMA that those in the industry should not doubt the CMA’s resolve to go “from four to more” [audit firms].

Improving competition is undoubtedly of benefit even if it just avoids the risk of one of the big four collapsing (as happened with major audit firm Andersen a few years ago after reputational damage and criminal charges over the Enron fraud). But shareholders major concern is improving the quality of audits so that fraud is detected and dubious financial reports are not published; in other words to ensure that published accounts do indeed contain a “true and fair” view of the financial position of a company.

One example of where they might not be was mentioned in the meeting which is the accounts of Burford Capital (BUR) which I have also commented on myself negatively recently, much to the displeasure of Burford holders. All Burford shareholders should read the article by John Dizard published in the FT on the 17th February and entitled “Burford faces long wait over $1bn Argentina claim”. It questioned the valuation of the Petersen legal claim. See https://www.ft.com/content/6debcc05-e368-44b2-bb99-618b7bc0a618 . The key issue is reliance on the management to value the legal claims where any cash arising from the claimed profits based on the valuation of on-going claims may be a long time in coming, if at all.

In summary we need to improve the accounting and auditing standards if investors are to rely on the published accounts of companies. In the meantime investors will need to take a more sceptical view of the accounts of companies and not take them at face value.

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

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Population Growth Problem, Trump at Davos and More Bad News at Ted Baker

 

7.7 Billion and Growing. That was the subtitle of a BBC TV Horizon programme last night on population. Chris Packham was the presenter. He said the world’s population was 5 million 10,000 years ago but by 2050 it is forecast to be 10 billion. He showed the impact of excessive population on biodiversity and on rubbish generation with lots of other negative impacts on the environment. It is surely one of the most important things to think about at present, and will have major economic impacts if not tackled.

The big growth is coming in countries such as Brazil and Nigeria. Sao Paolo is now 5 times the size of London and it’s running out of water. So are many other major cities including London. The growth in population is being driven by better healthcare, people living longer but mainly via procreation. A stable population requires 2.1 babies per family, but it is currently 2.4. In Nigeria it’s 5!

In some countries it is lower than that. It’s 1.7 in the UK (but population is growing from immigration) and it’s 1.4 in Japan where an ageing population is creating social and economic problems.

The FT ran an editorial on the 14th of January suggesting population in Europe needed to be boosted but it received a good rebuke in a letter published today from Lord Hodgson. He said “Global warming comes about as a result of human activity, and the more humans the more activity.  This is before counting the additional costs of the destruction of the natural world and the depletion of the world’s resources. In these circumstances suggesting there is a need for more people seems irresponsible”.

I completely agree with Lord Hodgson and the concerns of Chris Packham. The latter is a patron of a campaigning charity to restrain the growth in population called Population Matters (see  https://populationmatters.org/ ). Making a donation or becoming a member might assist.

For a slightly different view in Davos President Trump made a speech decrying the alarmist climate views and saying “This is a time for optimism, to reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse”. He was followed by a 17-year old with limited education who said just that and got more coverage in some of the media. I believe Trump and moderate environmental writers like Matt Ridley who suggest we can handle rises in world temperature and that the future is still rosy. But we surely do need to tackle the problem of a growing world population.

Chris Packham reported how this was done somewhat too aggressively in India and China but there are other ways to do it via education and financial incentives. Just ensuring enough economic growth in poorer countries will ensure population growth is minimised. Let’s get on with it!

On a more mundane matter, I have previously commented on the audit failure at Ted Baker (TED). The latest bad news today after an independent review it has been discovered that the inventory problem is twice as worse than previously reported. The company now states that inventory in January 2019 was overstated by £58 million. The share price has fallen by another 7% at the time of writing.

This is not just another example of a minor audit failure. Stock value in the Jan 2019 Annual Report was given as £225 million so that is a 22% shortfall. Auditors are supposed to check the stock and its valuation so this is a major error. It will reinforce the complaints of many investors that audit quality in the UK is simply not good enough and the Financial Reporting Council (FRC ) has been doing a rather inept job in regulating and supervising auditors. But will we see the proposed replacement by ARGA anytime soon, which will require some legislation? It seems this is not a high Government priority at present.

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

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Brydon Audit Review and FRC Update

Readers probably don’t need to be reminded of the poor reputation of auditors and accountants. The announcement yesterday from Staffline Group (STAF) reiterates the point. They note the latest analysis indicates that 2018 profits were overstated by about £4 million. The CFO, Mike Watts, has left with immediate effect.

Sir Donald Brydon has published his review of the audit market and makes recommendations for significant changes. This is what he says in a preface:

“The quality and effectiveness of audit has become an increasingly contested issue, with the result that this Review has been commissioned. Some consider that audit is good enough but the starting place of this Report is that it is not.

At a time when information is everywhere and there is no obligation on users of the internet to be truthful, it matters even more that shareholders, and others, can trust what directors are communicating. Auditors have a unique advantage in having the right to see everything that goes on in a company and to assess whether that trust is deserved”.

The recommendations encompass:

  • A redefinition of audit and its purpose;
  • The creation of a corporate auditing profession governed by principles;
  • The introduction of suspicion into the qualities of auditing;
  • The extension of the concept of auditing to areas beyond financial statements;
  • Mechanisms to encourage greater engagement of shareholders with audit and auditors;
  • A change to the language of the opinion given by auditors;
  • The introduction of a corporate Audit and Assurance Policy, a Resilience Statement and a Public Interest Statement;
  • Suggestions to inform the work of BEIS on internal controls and improve clarity on capital maintenance;
  • Greater clarity around the role of the audit committee;
  • A package of measures around fraud detection and prevention;
  • Improved auditor communication and transparency;
  • Obligations to acknowledge external signals of concern;
  • Extension of audit to new areas including Alternative Performance Measures; and
  • The increased use of technology.

Comment:

Many of the proposals may improve the information available to investors and help prevent fraud or false accounts. But they will add a substantial burden on auditors, and hence costs on companies. I can see some opposition from the latter when the details are consulted upon.

Some of the proposals will increase engagement with shareholders and the role of the Annual General Meeting so are to be welcomed.

The proposals are likely to be taken forward by the new ARGA body which will replace the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) and which was included in the Queen’s Speech today.

You can read the Brydon Report here: https://tinyurl.com/t7va5fl – 120 pages of Christmas reading to fill the days when there is no news and little to do.

The FRC have also published a revised version of their “Ethical Standard” so as to strengthen auditor independence and ban conflicts of interest. See  https://tinyurl.com/soc8hq3 – that’s another 102 pages for Christmas reading although this may be more of interest to auditors than investors.

To conclude, Donald Brydon included this poem in his report just to amuse you, and to show that the concerns about audits are not new (it dates from the 1930s):

The Accountant’s Report

We have audited the balance sheet and here is our report:

The cash is overstated, the cashier being short;

The customers’ receivables are very much past due,

If there are any good ones there are very, very few;

The inventories are out of date and practically junk,

And the method of their pricing is very largely bunk;

According to our figures the enterprise is wrecked….

But subject to these comments, the balance sheet’s correct.

 

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

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Edinburgh IT Fires Manager and Grant Thornton Fined

The Edinburgh Investment Trust (EDIN) has fired fund manager Invesco. This company is an equity income trust focused primarily on the UK, although it also has an objective to increase the Net Asset Value per share in excess of the growth in the FTSE All-Share Index. But in the last few years it has signally failed to achieve that objective. According to the AIC it has fallen behind the sector average in growth in net asset value per share in all of the last year, the last 3 years and the last five years. In the last year alone the total return was 7.0% versus 15.6% for the sector. In other words, it’s a pretty abysmal record.

The company is appointing Majedie Asset Management as the new manager. This is what the company had to say about the reason for the change: “As detailed in the Interim Results announcement also published today, the Company has experienced another period of weak investment performance. This extends the period of underperformance relative to the Company’s benchmark to over three years and is a major disappointment for the Board as well as our shareholders. The Board understands that all good conviction fund managers experience periods of underperformance and a focus on long-term results requires shareholders sometimes to bear bouts of relative weakness especially during times when the fund manager’s style is out of favour. However, your portfolio has suffered from a number of stock specific issues: that is to say large falls in prices of stocks held in the portfolio, the cause of which is specific to each stock rather than resulting from broad market movements. Collectively these stocks have been a significant contributor to the weak performance of the Company and increasingly has led the Board to question the effectiveness of the investment process”.

These are the top ten holdings in the trust: BP, British American Tobacco, Legal & General, Next, Shell, Tesco, BAE Systems, Roche, British Land and Derwent London.

Comment: Firing an investment manager does not happen very often, but certainly the board of the company seems to have given the manager quite long enough to show that improvement was taking place. Shareholders will question whether they allowed the underperformance to go on way too long.

Grant Thornton has been fined £650,000 by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) after identifying various failures in an audit on an unnamed company in 2016. They refuse to disclose which company was involved.

Grant Thornton has been involved in a number of poor or defective audits, such as at Patisserie Holdings, Vimto, Globo and Salford University. The FRC claims that “We promote transparency and integrity in business” on its web site so why should we not be told the company concerned? It is surely not in the public interest to conceal the name of the company. They clearly still have a “cultural” problem about how they handle investigations.

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

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