It’s Not Just Blood on the High Street – ASOS et al

The trading statement this morning (17/12/2018) from ASOS (ASC) has caused the share price to fall by 40% at the time of writing. Other internet retailers such as Boohoo (BOO) fell in sympathy.

ASOS reported that revenue was up by 14% over the previous year, but warned that they “experienced a significant deterioration in the important trading month of November and conditions remain challenging. As a result, we have reduced our expectations for the current financial year”.

In effect the previous forecast sales growth for the year of 20 to 25 percent has been reduced to circa 15% (last year it was 25%). In addition margins are down which they blame on a “high level of discounting and promotional activity across the market” which they have reacted to by increasing their own level of promotional activity with more discounting and clearance sales.

They blame the weakening in consumer confidence driven by economic uncertainty plus unseasonably warm weather in the last three months. Weather is normally blamed by retailers for poor footfall in their shops so why should it affect internet retailers? It’s because it allegedly has reduced the average selling price of items purchased. But the really interesting aspect is that it is not just the UK that has suffered. Trading in France and Germany has also become “more challenging” with more promotional activity therefore required.

Note that I do not hold either ASOS or Boohoo although I have done in the past. Before this profit warning, ASOS was on a prospective p/e of 36 for the current financial year according to Stockopedia which I considered rather fanciful even given the high growth rates. Estimates will now be revised down substantially, the company is cutting capital expenditure which is always a negative sign, and they “continue to anticipate returning to a free cash flow positive position in FY20”. In other words they are still burning cash.

So it would seem that the dire stories about trading on the High Street is not just caused by the move to internet shopping. Both High Street and internet traders have been hit by declining consumer confidence, with the former also damaged by high business rates and increased staff costs.

There has been no Santa Claus rally in share prices as normally expected this year. It may be too soon to judge the outcome of all retail sales over the Xmas period but this news does suggest that there will be no Santa Claus effect there either. One has to question whether internet retailers such as ASOS will ever return to the heady 25% annual growth rates. There are too many companies getting in that game because there are no significant barriers to entry. Internet retail start-ups are spending money on marketing on the basis that they will make money sooner or later, but will they? Competition to the likes of ASOS and Boohoo can only increase.

A similar trend is being seen in the on-line estate agent market (Purplebricks et al) where competition is growing, some are giving up after running up losses, and nobody is making money due to high levels of marketing expenditure so as to grab market share.

These are markets where I have no urge to dabble in the shares of such companies at present.

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

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Blancco AGM and Regulatory Landscape

Today I attended the Annual General Meeting of Blancco Technology Group (BLTG). This technology company is now focused on the data erasure market which is surely a growing one. I have commented on this company before (see links below), particularly as the company, and its shareholders, seemed to be a victim of false accounting – an issue that is way too prevalent of late.

The legal framework under which companies, their directors and the regulatory bodies operate just seems to be too weak to bring errant directors and auditors to account. This is not just obvious from this case but from the discussions at the recent ShareSoc/UKSA sponsored meeting with the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). See my previous comments on the Autonomy case in addition. As you will see below, no action seems to be being taken against the former directors of Blancco by the company, although complaints have been made to the FRC and to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) about past events and the latter may still be investigating – but as usual feedback is non-existent. As regards the complaint to the FRC, they have passed the buck to the ICAEW (the regulatory body for accountants) on the basis that it is too small a company to be bothered with.

There were about a dozen shareholders at the Blancco AGM in the City of London. The Chairman, Rob Woodwood, opened the meeting by introducing the board. That included new CEO Matt Jones who joined in March and new CFO Adam Maloney. Rob said the last year was a period of positive change for the company, which one can hardly dispute. He said after a turbulent year, they are on a positive track.

Shareholder Bruce Noble, first queried comments on the impact of currency movements (see page 9 of the Annual Report). The CFO admitted it could perhaps have been explained better.

Bruce then pointed out that the report made it clear that management controls had been avoided in the past as a result of which the accounts were false. This resulted in the management obtaining £400,000 and shareholders losing £135 million. The board responded that investigations were on-going and as result they were unable to comment about what is being done due to “legal privilege”. Both Bruce and I complained that we did not understand that comment, and I said that they were in breach of their legal obligations to answer questions put by shareholders at a General Meeting (see my past articles on similar issues at Abcam and Patisserie). As usual they refused to respond further due to “legal advice” so I suggested they should get better advice.

As I said to the Chairman after the meeting ended, we don’t expect him to disclose their conversations with the FCA or FRC, but there is no reason why they cannot pursue a civil case against the former management if there are justifiable grounds. They need to give reasons if they choose not to do so and simply saying they wish to concentrate on rebuilding the business is not good enough. I suggested I would be voting against his re-election in future (not on the agenda at this meeting) if he failed to take action on this matter.

The above is an abbreviated summary of what was a rather long discussion on this issue.

Bruce Noble also criticised the proposed re-election of Frank Blin, who was Chairman of the Audit Committee when the past events occurred. He asked him to do the “honourable” thing and step down, which Mr Blin refused to do. Bruce also criticised the appointment of PWC to take over from the former auditors (KPMG) when Mr Blin had a previous relationship with PWC and PWC had received criticism about other audits. Mr Blin responded that the relationship mentioned was more than 6 years ago and PWC had been appointed after an open tender process. Another shareholder suggested they might get better attention from a smaller audit firm but Blin responded that they did need a firm that could cover a complex international business particularly their operations in Finland and India. Comment: I don’t think having a smaller audit firm would help – Grant Thornton has had similar problems to larger firms. There is a more general problem with the overall quality of audits which has been recognised in the national media and by many investors.

I questioned the presentation of the income statement in the Annual Report, where “adjustments” are mixed in with normal “reported” figures and confuse the reader. They will look at this issue.

We then had a brief presentation from the new CEO Matt Jones. He is clearly an experienced manager of IT businesses. He said they have good customers and good staff but were spread too thinly. They need to focus more. He will be focusing on those with good growth opportunities, namely ITAD, mobile and enterprise solutions (note: they each represent about one third of current revenue).

There was a question about cash flow and operating margins. The response was that they are making investment this year to increase growth and hence margins will come down this year, but will grow thereafter. It was noted later that the investment will be mainly in R&D and to a lesser extent in sales and marketing. The CFO said the key was to avoid major exceptionals and improve cash flow.

One shareholder raised the issue about reliance on one customer at 11% of turnover but the board expressed no concerns and it might fall slightly this year.

I asked about the competitive landscape. Answer given was the main area for that was in mobile and they are working to improve their offering to meet that.

Another shareholder questioned their presence in 26 countries – are they spreading themselves too thinly? The answer was they are not planning any cut back in the geographic perspective. It transpired later than some of their locations are only very small sales operations, even though the CEO clearly spends a lot of time on planes (incidentally he mentioned he is based in California and works from home with an office above his garage). Modern communications methods assist a great deal.

The CEO said they have adequate sales/marketing staff and productivity is improving.

Lastly a question was raised as to the apparent votes from large shareholder M&G who abstained on some of the resolutions. Does the board know why? The answer was no, and it was not clear whether they had even been asked why although the Chairman did say he had been in communication with them and other large shareholders. Could it be I wonder that they were also unhappy with the openness of the board and their apparent failure to pursue past wrongdoing?

In conclusion, it does seem that the Chairman and the rest of the board are at least taking sensible steps to rebuild the company. The new executives seem to be good appointments but we will have to wait and see whether they can actually produce the goods. In the meantime, investor confidence in the company may take time to rebuild but even so it’s still quite highly rated on the normal financial ratios. My concern is that revenue growth does not seem particularly high for this kind of business and the current valuation. But there is certainly business opportunities to pursue given the growing populations of IT and phone equipment that need erasure or disposal at some point.

https://roliscon.blog/2018/01/15/sharesoc-takes-up-blancco-complaints/ https://roliscon.blog/2017/12/20/lse-general-meeting-and-blancco-agm/

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

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Bioventix AGM, Babcock Attack and FCA Measures on CFDs

On Thursday (6/12/2018) I attended the Annual General Meeting of Bioventix Plc (BVXP) at Farnham Castle. There were about a dozen ordinary shareholders present. Bioventix develop antibodies for use in blood tests. Their Annual Report contains a very good explanation of the business.

This AIM company had revenue of £7.9 million last year and post-tax profits of £5.6 million. They did that with only 15 staff. Total director pay was £362,000 even though CEO Peter Harrison’s pay went up by 54% – but no shareholders even mentioned that. With consistent growth, good dividends and high return on capital, there’s not much to complain about here.

There is a copy of the last presentation the company gave to investors here: https://www.bioventix.com/investors/overview/ which gives you more information on the company.

I won’t cover the meeting in detail but there were a few points worth mentioning:

Peter explained that the Vitamin D antibody market is “plateauing”, i.e. unlikely to show the same growth as historically. The key product for future revenue growth is their new Troponin test for which there are high hopes, but take-off seems sluggish. This is a marker for heart attacks and is used to check when someone turns up in A&E with chest pains whether they are having a heart attack or some other problem, the former being much more serious of course and needing rapid treatment. The new Troponin test is faster and more accurate which helps speedy and more accurate diagnosis. However adoption of it to replace the older test is slow. This seems to be because hospitals are slow to change their “protocols”. There is also some competition but it is not clear how the company’s product stands against that in terms of sales. It would seem more education and promotion of the new product is required but Bioventix is reliant on the blood-testing machine partner (Siemens) to promote it and it seems there is little financial advantage in doing so to them – the new product is no more expensive than the old. That you might think makes it easy for customers to convert to the new, but also provides little motivation for the supplier to promote. However, NICE and others are promoting the new tests. That’s a summary of what Peter explained to the shareholders with my deductions.

It would certainly be of advantage to patients if the new test was adopted. Might have saved me hanging around in A&E for most of the night a few years back just awaiting confirmation I had not had a heart attack.

There are other antibodies in the R&D pipeline although it can take 5 years from R&D commencement to product sales, even if the product is adopted. All R&D is written off in the year incurred though.

There were questions on cash and special dividends which the company sometimes pays. The business is highly cash-generative but they like to keep about £5 million in cash on the balance sheet and no debt so that they can take up any acquisition or IP opportunities.

On Friday (7/12/2018), there was an interesting article in the Financial Times on the attack on Babcock International (BAB) by Boatman Capital Research – a typical type of attack by an anonymous blogger probably combined with shorting. The article quoted an investor as saying “Boatman made some valid points…..but there were whopping inaccuracies which seemed calculated to drive the share price down”. For example, the article mentioned claims about overruns on a contract to build a dry dock at Devonport – there is no such contract.

Babcock has been trying to find out who Boatman Capital are, but with no success at all. The organisation or its owners cannot be located, and their web site is anonymised. So Babcock cannot even sue the authors. They may well be located overseas in any case which would make it even more difficult. Babcock share price has been falling as a result and is down 20% since the Boatman report was published. See the FT report here: https://www.ft.com/content/c2780d6e-f942-11e8-af46-2022a0b02a6c

Comment (I do not hold Babcock shares): The Boatman report seems to be the usual mixture of a few probable facts, mixed with errors and innuendo as one sees in such shorting attacks. There have been a few examples where such reports did provide very important information but because of the approach the writers of such reports take it is very difficult to deduce whether the content is all true, partially true, or totally erroneous and misguided. The shorter does not care because they can do the damage regardless and turn a profit.

The basic problem is that with the internet it is easy to propagate “fake news” and get it circulated so rapidly that the company cannot respond fast enough, and regulators likewise – the latter typically take months or years to do anything, even if they have a channel they can use. We really need new legislation to stop this kind of market abuse which can just as easily involve going long on a stock as going short. Contracts for Difference (CFDs) are one way to take an interest in a share price without owning the underlying stock and hence are ideal for such market manipulations.

Which brings me on to the next topic. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has announced proposals to restrict the sales of CFDs and Binary Options to retail investors. Most retail investors in CFDs lose money – see my previous comments here on this subject: https://roliscon.blog/2018/01/14/want-to-get-rich-quickly/ . The latest FCA proposals are covered here: https://www.fca.org.uk/news/press-releases/fca-proposes-permanent-measures-retail-cfds-and-binary-options

You will note it contains protections to ensure clients cannot lose all their money and positions will be closed out earlier. But leverage can still be up to 30 to 1. The new rules might substantially reduce losses incurred by retail investors, the FCA believes.

But it still looks like a half-baked compromise to me. If the FCA really wants to protect retail investors from their own foolishness, then an outright ban would surely be wiser. At best most CFD purchasers are speculating, not investing, and I cannot see why the FCA should be permitting what is essentially gambling on stock prices. It creates a dubious culture, and the promotion of these products is based on them being a quick way to riches when in reality it’s usually a quick way to become poorer.

You only have to look at the accounts of publicly listed CFD providers to see who is making the money – it’s the providers not the clients. Those companies seem to be mainly saying the new rules won’t have much impact on them. That is shame when they should do and shows how the FCA’s solution is a poor, half-baked compromise.

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

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Autonomy, FRC Meeting, Retailers and Brexit Legal Advice

The big news last Friday (30/11/2018) was that former CEO Mike Lynch has been charged with fraud in the USA over the accounts of Autonomy. That company was purchased by Hewlett Packard who promptly proceeded to write off most of the cost – see this blog post for more information: https://roliscon.blog/2018/06/02/belated-action-by-frc-re-autonomy/. As this was a UK company, are we anywhere nearer a hearing in the UK over the alleged “creative accounting” that took place at the company and the failure of the auditors to identify anything amiss? That’s after 8 years since the events.

As I was attending a meeting held by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) for ShareSoc and UKSA members yesterday, I thought to review the past actions by the FRC on this matter. In February 2013 they announced an investigation but it took until May 2018 to formally announce a complaint against auditors Deloitte and the former CFO of Autonomy Sushovan Hussain who has already been convicted of fraud in the USA. On the 27th November, the action against Hussain was suspended pending his appeal against that conviction, but other complaints were not. But why the delay on pursuing the auditors?

The FRC event was useful in many ways in that it gave a good overview of the role of the FRC – what they cover and what they do not cover which is not easy for the layman to understand. They also covered the progress on past and current enforcement actions which do seem to have been improving after previous complaints of ineffectiveness and excessive delays. For example PWC/BHS was resolved in two years and fines imposed are rising rapidly. But they still only have 10 case officers so are hoping the Kingman review of the FRC will argue for more resources.

It was clear though that audit quality is still a major problem with only 73% of FTSE-350 companies being rated as 1 or 2A in the annual reviews when the target is 90%. The FRC agreed they “might be falling short” on pursuing enforcement over poor quality audits. So at least they recognise the problems.

One useful titbit of information after the usual complaints about the problems of nominee accounts and shareholder rights were made (not really an FRC responsibility) was that a white paper on the “plumbing” of share ownership and transactions will be published on the 30th January.

There were lots of interesting stories on retailing companies yesterday. McColl’s Retail Group (MCLS) published a very negative trading update which caused the shares to fall 30% on the day. Supply chain issues after the collapse of Palmer & Harvey are the cause. Ted Baker (TED) fell 15% after a complaint of excessive hugging of staff by CEO Ray Kelvin. This may not have a sexual connotation as it seems he treats male and female staff similarly. Just one of the odd personal habits one sees in some CEOs it seems. Retail tycoon Mike Ashley appeared before a Commons Select Committee and said the High Street would be dead in a few years unless internet retailers were taxed more fairly. He alleged the internet was killing the High Street. But there was one bright spark among retailers in that Dunelm (DNLM) rose 14% after a Peel Hunt upgraded the company to a “buy” and suggested that they might be able to pay a special dividend next year. There was also some director buying of their shares.

Before the FRC meeting yesterday I dropped in on the demonstrations outside Parliament on College Green. It seemed to consist of three fairly equally balanced groups of “Leave Means Leave” campaigners, supporters of Brexit and those wishing to stay in the EU – that probably reflects the composition of the Members in the House across the road. You can guess which group I supported but I did not stay long as it was absolutely pelting down with rain. There is a limit to the sacrifices one can make for one’s country.

But in the evening I did read the legal advice given to Parliament by the attorney-general (see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/761153/EU_Exit_-_Legal_position_on_the_Withdrawal_Agreement.pdf

Everyone is looking very carefully at the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement that cover the Northern Ireland backstop arrangements. The attorney-general makes it clear that the deal does bind the UK to the risk of those arrangements continuing, although there is a clear commitment to them only lasting 2 years when they should be replaced by others. There is also an arbitration process if there is no agreement on what happens subsequently. However, he also makes it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement is a “treaty” between two sovereign powers – the UK and the EU.

Treaties between nations only stick so long as both parties are happy to abide by them, just like agreements between companies. But they often renege on them. For example, the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939 was a notorious example – Hitler ignored it 2 years later and invaded Russia. Donald Trump has reneged on treaties, for example the intermediate nuclear weapons treaty last month. Similarly nations and companies can ignore arbitration decisions if they choose to do so.

What happens after 2 years if no agreement is reached and the UK insists on new proposals re Northern Ireland? Is the EU going to declare war on the UK? We have an army but they do not yet have one. Are they going to impose sanctions, close their borders or refuse a trade deal? I suspect they would not for sound commercial reasons.

Therefore my conclusion is that the deal that Theresa May has negotiated is not as bad as many make out. Yes it could be improved in some regards so as to ensure an amicable future agreement but I am warming to it just like the Editor of the Financial Times recently. He did publish a couple of letters criticising his volte-face when previously he has clearly opposed Brexit altogether, but changing one’s mind when one learns more is just being sensible.

Note: I have held or do hold some of the companies mentioned above, but never Autonomy. Never did like the look of their accounts.

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

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EMIS Investor Event

On Thursday (29/11/2018) I attended the EMIS Group (EMIS) Capital Markets Day at the London Stock Exchange. Having held shares in the company since 2011, this was a great opportunity to get an update on the situation of the company and its future plans.

First some background. EMIS is best known as the provider of software that general practitioners use – EMIS Web (primary care). That has more than 50% of the UK GP market. But the company also has many other solutions for other healthcare sectors such as secondary and acute care, pharmacy services and diabetic eye screening. Many of these services are sold to the NHS but there is also private income. The company has also been investing in development of a Patient app and web site for providing information and services directly to the general public (https://patient.info/ ).

It goes without saying that the healthcare sector is growing as the population increases and the age profile rises – particularly now the baby boomers are entering retirement. The population seems to be becoming generally less healthy and one example of this is the growth in diabetes sufferers.

EMIS has certainly managed to grow revenue both as a result of increasing demand for medical services but also because of the provision of new services and minor acquisitions over the years. Revenue has almost doubled in the last 5 years £160 million, but profits have not shown the same growth. Reported profits fell in 2017 to £8.8 million mainly due to £5.8m of reorganisation charges, £11.2m of “Service Level” charge provisions (see below) and high amortisation charges of £15.2m mainly relating to past software development costs. Perhaps that is why this event barely covered the financials of the business, either historic or future projections, but concentrated on software and business developments. That was somewhat surprising considering the audience must have been mainly investment professionals.

The share price has been trending down since January 2016 and is now on a prospective p/e of 20.3 for the current year ending in December according to Stockopedia (analyst consensus forecasts are actually given on the company’s web site).

What was the exceptional Service Level provision of £11.2 million for? That arose because the company discovered that it had not been meeting the service level agreement terms for EMIS Web with the NHS. They expect to conclude a settlement soon within the terms of the provision. I asked the CFO about this matter because my own GP was certainly not aware of any failings in support of EMIS Web. His answer was that certain reports of minor bugs had simply been lost rather than been progressed. This all seems rather odd to me that this had ever happened yet alone required financial compensation when the client was not apparently aware of it.

There were a number of demonstrations of the software and solutions on display for attendees both before and after the presentation. The latter was very slick and well-rehearsed with two very professional videos on trends in healthcare (ppt slides available from the company’s web site). It covered:

  • Financial progress of the business since IPO which of course looks a lot better than over the last 5 years.
  • Improved relationship with NHS Digital which is good to hear as future renewal of the EMIS Web contract is very important.
  • Current leadership team including relatively new CEO Andy Thorburn appointed in May 2017. Also clear they have added substantially to the team lately.
  • Intention is to build sales momentum including rapid growth of private sector business to 50% of group and margin improvement.
  • Acceleration of technology roadmap which is to be “self-funded” (by customers and “operational leverage”).

Comment it is clear that the company has committed to very substantial development in software and technology with staff numbers growing as a result (will be up by 150 this year). The focus is to transition from just being number 1 or 2 in lots of individual healthcare sectors to providing an integrated platform where applications can communicate with each other – including partner or even competitor solutions. So for example, EMIS Web is to become EMIS-X and enable an integrated view of multiple practices so you could book appointments with other GPs in your local area. In addition the Patient App will provide access to GP appointments and other services such as repeat prescriptions (it was noted that 45% of the UK population have such prescriptions which helps to explain why the NHS is so costly to run).

The objective is to make EMIS the centre of healthcare. They also see opportunities to grow by entering new markets. They expect their addressable market to double by 2022. The plans are aligned with NHS initiatives and the provision of more “joined-up” healthcare which everyone is demanding – there is still too much paper in the NHS and lots of independent systems and medical practitioners who cannot easily communicate, e.g. hospital systems with GPs and social care providers.

EMIS-X will be an “open” platform and enable the sharing of information between “tenants” (i.e. authorised users) and will help to reduce development costs and be a scalable solution. Technically it will be a cloud-based service using Amazon Web Services (AWS). This raised one question concerning security concerns which might be a roadblock to wide adoption. Certainly there are concerns about this in the healthcare professionals I know and by some patients.

As regards the Patient App, it was noted that we have been “patient” with the Patient App but “next year will be the year”. Personal note: I had an old copy of the Patient App on my i-Phone which I could not update for unknown reasons. Had to delete and download a new version which I did after the event – but was unable to do so without entering credit card info so gave up. Don’t see why that should be required until needed.

Included in the presentations was one on the management of medicines where there is an opportunity. Some 23,000 deaths per annum are from prescribing errors which cost £1.6 billion, but only one third of patients adhere to taking their prescriptions after a few weeks.

Another question raised was how are they going to compete with Babylon which I covered in a previous blog post: https://roliscon.blog/2018/11/13/should-you-give-up-fags-and-booze-plus-coverage-of-babcock-and-babylon/ . Babylon is providing a GP service and triage capability. They have been receiving a large amount of venture capital funding. The answer was that EMIS does not need external funding because they already have the customers so don’t need to spend on customer acquisition and on people. They claim to have more App users also. EMIS is not going to provide GP services themselves, but solutions to support GPs. An interesting comment from CEO Andy Thorburn at this point was that the EMIS model will be similar to BTs (where he used to work) where they will have both wholesale and retail customers where wholesale provides the infrastructure which other suppliers might use. The focus will be on development of a “partner ecosystem”.

It was disappointing that insufficient time for Q&A was given.

Demonstrations included the new video GP appointment service which will be available very soon in some GP practices, and booking appointments using AI capabilities in EMIS-X. Another one was talking to a smartwatch to access GP services via the Patient App.

In conclusion, the event provided good coverage of the technology direction that EMIS is pursuing. It was unclear though how that would be turned into revenue and profits. It was more of a technology presentation than a business presentation with little mention of target markets and segmentation.

However, the company already has a dominant and key position in the NHS and in medical services in the UK in general. Their future plans should enhance that position and be in alignment with NHS priorities. Profits are forecast to grow but the rate of growth is not great (revenues are expected to provide “mid-to-high single-digit annual growth” according to one presentation slide which seems to be relatively unambitious to me and analysts forecast is for only 5.9% this year).

Bearing in mind the cost pressures in the NHS and the reliance by the company on that one customer to such a large degree, you can see why the company is keen to develop its private sector business and why the shares are not currently more highly rated.

But for heavy personal users of medical services like myself, it gave a useful overview of what we soon might be seeing in the real world. Not having to repeat one’s past medical history to numerous medical professionals could save the NHS an enormous amount of money alone, and improve safety in many areas. The key for EMIS is how to turn that and other opportunities into profits.

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

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AJ Bell and FinnCap IPOs

Here are some comments on the IPOs of AJ Bell and FinnCap which are open to private investors  ̶  the former to any of their clients who wish to put in £1,000 or more. The latter can be purchased from the PrimaryBid platform.

Bearing in mind that I have previously said that you should never invest in IPOs (see my comment on Aston Martin which was certainly right as the shares are now down over 20% since IPO here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/09/09/the-market-dunedin-and-standard-life-smaller-companies-merger-and-aston-martin-ipo/ ), these comments will be reserved in nature. Even the very successful launch of Smithson Investment Trust which went to an initial premium seems to have retraced its steps. But there are exceptions.

One reason why you might wish to buy AJ Bell shares, or at the very least read their prospectus, is if you are a client who uses their Youinvest platform. As we saw with past debacles in stockbrokers, such as the recent events at Beaufort, because investors on such platforms are in nominee accounts it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on their accounts. Being a shareholder means you can go along to their AGMs and ask questions. Investors will be pleased to hear that AJ Bell claim to have a “strong regulatory capital position which is supported by a high Pillar I coverage in excess of approximately 440%”.

The company has 95,000 retail investor customers and 89,000 customers via advisors. All are execution-only clients, i.e. AJ Bell provides no advice. Their average customer account value is higher than most of their big competitors and this is probably because of their historic concentration on SIPP accounts which represent 63% by asset value of their accounts.

Founder Andy Bell is still with the company as CEO after 23 years and will remain. No very specific reasons are given for the IPO – it’s just referred to as a “natural next step”. No new capital is being raised and Andy Bell is selling 10% of his shares in the IPO, which will cut his holding to 25%, but together with related parties (a “Concert Party”) he will still control more than 30% after the IPO. Major shareholder Invesco is also selling a major proportion of their shareholding. No new money is being raised for the company.

The financials look very good in comparison with many platform operators, other than possibly Hargreaves Lansdown who are the gorilla in this market, but the shares are likely to be cheaper than theirs. Share price range will be between £1.54 and £1.66 giving a market cap of over £626 million.

Is it a good time to invest in platform operators whose profits can depend on the volume of share trading and assets under management? Certainly recent volatility might have helped but it is difficult to judge the longer-term trend. But as stockbrokers are highly regulated businesses it’s worth reading the “Risk Factors” and associated warnings in the prospectus. Market trends of an ageing population who may be tending to move their pension funds into SIPPs or have saved in ISAs has no doubt helped AJ Bell in recent years and is likely to continue to do so. This has generated compound growth in numbers of customers at AJ Bell of 24% in the last 7 years.

It’s particularly interesting to read the “asset transfer momentum” table on page 45 of the prospectus. That shows AJ Bell among the top few for transfers in, while Alliance Trust Savings is at the bottom – perhaps Alliance Trust were wise to dispose of it.

I have never heard complaints about the AJ Bell IT platform (they have a proprietary client front-end with “outsourced” software being used for the back-office work), so that bodes well for the future. Although it would be good if they made it easier for investors to vote their shares on their nominee platform which I think was promised but has not arrived.

I think this will be a popular IPO and although the market has been depressed by Brexit worries it might therefore get away easily. But you’ll have to make your own mind up whether it is good or bad value. I repeat my warning about buying IPOs in general – the sellers know more about the business and market trends than you do.

Details of the IPO can be found here: https://www.youinvest.co.uk/markets/ipo/ajbell

As regards FinnCap, they spell it as “finnCap” which rather shows their ignorance of English grammar. The business is a small company corporate broker and AIM Nomad. I hold a number of AIM companies who they act as broker for and they seem to do a competent job on the whole – at least no worse than any other AIM Nomad who operate in a market full of companies with optimistic future growth projections but frequently unrealistic ambitions and unproven management. This is no doubt a business with substantial regulatory risk.

FinnCap are merging with Cavendish Corporate Finance before the IPO. As a very people-dependent business, operating in a cyclical market sector, I am not sure these kinds of companies are ideal to be public companies. Therefore I won’t even attempt to comment on the valuation.

I repeat my warning about investing in IPOs – see above.

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

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Blue Prism, GB Group, Gooch & Housego, Greggs, IDOX, Pets at Home, Victoria, Brexit and Pre-Pack Administrations

Lots of results and trading statements this morning of interest. Here’s a few brief comments on some of them in alphabetic order (I hold some of these stocks), with the share price movement on the day at 14:00 hours (at the time of writing):

Blue Prism (PRSM) – down 12.3%. This was one of the ultimate go-go technology stocks until mid-September when it started a sharp decline like many other such stocks. It has some very interesting technology to automate business processes which is why everyone wanted to buy the shares. The trading statement had some positive comments about sales and cash flow (without giving any specifics which is annoying), but it also said “The EBITDA loss is expected to be larger than current expectations due to continued investments into the Group’s growth strategy and increased sales commissions arising from the strong fourth quarter”. With rising losses already forecast and no prospect of a profit in sight, the share price predictably fell. This company has a market cap of over £1 billion when revenue in the current year might be £55 million. I have seen technology companies before (e.g. in the dot.com boom era) that managed to grow sales at a terrific rate but with rising losses. Often they never did manage to show they had a profitable business as competition eroded their USP before they got there.

GB Group (GBG) – up 5.0%. Half year results much as expected taking into account the big one-off deal in the previous half year. Like Blue Prism the share price was down by 30% since early September in the technology stock rout. The valuation is now back down to a more sensible level and with revenue growth of 9%, cash up by £14.5 million and a positive outlook statement there seems to be little to be concerned about. The company provides on-line id verification and location services which is clearly a growth area at present and accounts for the consistently high valuation of the company.

Gooch & Housego (GHH) – down 1.8%. The share price fell sharply after the market opened but that seems to be a frequent occurrence after announcements by small technology stocks as a few insiders take the opportunity to sell. But the new chairman bought a few shares today. The shares in the company are also thinly traded which means they tend to be volatile. The preliminary results were slightly better than forecast on an “adjusted” basis although the reported accounts of this company are heavily distorted by the number of exceptional items including a large write-off of goodwill, restructuring costs (including a site closure) and transaction fees on acquisitions. The share price has been declining like other technology stocks and the announcement today about the departure of the CFO, but not until summer 2019, may not help the share price. The company has moved into a net debt position due to heavy investment in property, plant and equipment and an acquisition but it’s still quite lowly geared.

Greggs (GRG) – Up 11.6%. The share price jumped after the company reported sales up 9.0% in the last eight weeks – no particular reason was supplied. Also forecasting profits to be substantially ahead of forecasts. Greggs went through a share price dip in the middle of the year probably due to poor figures after bad weather hit this “food-on-the-go” seller. But it seems junk food is still a growth market if you adapt to sell it in new locations and less on the High Street, and the weather is good – not that Greggs are not into selling healthy options now of course.

IDOX (IDOX) – up 1.6%. A year-end trading update showed declining revenues even ignoring the disposal of the loss-making Digital business which will have a negative impact on the final results. The company is in cost-cutting mood so as to increase profitability and so as to “align the cost base more directly with its re-focused business model”. There was a new Chairman appointed recently with a very relevant industry background. The business should at least report a profit this year unlike last, and the valuation is lowly due to past problems. But investors may be getting impatient for better results.

Pets at Home (PETS) – down 0.1%. Interim results reported good like-for-like growth in both the retail business and the vet practices but a restructuring of the vet business is going to result in very substantial write-downs including cash costs of £27 million. The reason the share price did not fall is probably because of the positive trading figures and a commitment to hold the dividends both for the interim and future final ones. It’s on a prospective yield of 6.5% at present. With a new management team this may be a good share for those who like “value” plays but being in the general retail sector which is a bloodbath for many such stocks does not help.

Treatt (TET) – Up 5%. This manufacturer of flavourings issued very positive final results – revenue up 11% and adjusted earnings up 10%, with positive comments about likely future results in addition. This is one of John Lee’s favourite stocks and no doubt he will have been talking about it in the last couple of days at the Mello London conference. Unfortunately I could not attend that event, which is one reason for this long blog post today.

Victoria (VCP) – up 1.6%. Interim results were generally positive and they look to be on target to make the full year estimates. But Exec Chairman Geoff Wilding probably summed it up well with this comment: “Finally, I am acutely aware that Victoria’s share price is not where I believe it should be given our current trading and prospects. As one of the largest shareholders, you can be assured that I, and the other directors and management, are focused on building the confidence of investors and delivering the financial results expected of Victoria. It is important to remember, together we own a very robust, well-managed, and growing business with over 3,000 employees who manufacture and sell some of the finest flooring in the world. The events of the last couple of months have not distracted management from delivering and for that reason I am highly confident of Victoria’s continued long-term success”. The events he refers to were the growing concerns about the level of debt in the company and the aborted proposal to convert bank debt into a bond. Floor-covering businesses can be somewhat cyclical, as results from the Australian subsidiary in these figures indicate. Investors can get nervous about high debt and what will happen when it is due for repayment. You need a lot of confidence in Geoff Wilding for him to steer through this situation to buy the shares even at the current level.

It is remarkable looking back over these results and the share price performance of the companies over the last few months that share prices seem to have been driven by emotion and trend following even more than usual. Brexit also seems to be making investors nervous and overseas investors particularly so. That explains why the dividend yield on the market overall is at record levels. Current yield is not everything of course as future growth is also important to market valuations which depends on profit growth. But apart from Brexit there are few clouds on the horizon at present.

Brexit. Mrs May is apparently trying to sell her agreed Brexit deal directly to the general public, i.e. over the heads of politicians. But with no unanimity in the Conservative party nobody sees how she can get the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament even if she manages to persuade the DUP to support it. It’s not easy to see how even a change of leader would help unless they can tweak the Agreement in some aspects to make it acceptable to the hardliners. That might just be possible whatever the EU bureaucrats currently say but otherwise we are headed for a “hard” and abrupt exit in March. Am I worried about such a prospect? Having run a business which exported considerably into Europe before we joined the Common Market, the concerns about the required customs formalities are exaggerated. The port facilities may suffer temporary congestion but it is always remarkable how quickly businesses can adapt to differing circumstances. For those who think we should simply go for a hard Brexit and stop debating what to do there is an on-line Parliamentary petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/229963/signatures/new . With the Brexit Withdrawal date set for March 29th 2019, I confidently predict that the matter will be settled by March 28th or soon after, probably based on Theresa May’s Agreement which actually does have many positive aspects. It’s just the few glaring stumbling blocks in the deal that are annoying the Brexiteers.

Incidentally Donald Trump was incorrect in suggesting that the current Agreement would prevent the UK signing a trade deal with the USA. See https://brexitfacts.blog.gov.uk/2018/11/27/response-to-coverage-of-the-uks-ability-to-strike-a-trade-deal-with-the-us-when-we-leave-the-eu/ . There’s just as much fake news from politicians than there is from digital media platforms these days.

Pre-Pack Administrations. There was an interesting article on the subject of Pre-Pack Administrations in the Financial Times yesterday (26/11/2018). I have covered this topic, many times in the past, always negatively. For example on the recent case of Johnston Press – see https://roliscon.blog/2018/11/19/johnston-press-trakm8-and-brexit/ where creditors were dumped and a payment into the pension scheme due in just days time was not made with the result than the Pension Protection Fund is likely to pick up the tab. That not just means pensioners in the Johnston scheme will suffer to some extent, but the costs fall on all other defined benefit schemes so you could be contributing also.

They are not the only losers though. The FT article pointed out that one of the biggest losers are HMRC as it seems some pre-packs are done to simply avoid paying tax due to them. There is now an advisory group called the “Pre-Pack Pool” that was set up to try and stop the abusive use of pre-packs, but it is reported that even when they gave a pre-pack proposal a “red card” many were put through regardless. This looks another case where self-regulation does not work and abuses are likely to continue.

That’s not to say that all administrations could result in a better return to trade creditors and the taxman than zero, but a conventional administration with proper marketing and the sale of a business as a going concern is much more likely to do so. The insolvency regime needs reform to stop pre-packs and provide better alternatives.

Have I got a bee in my bonnet about pre-packs because of suffering from one or more? No, but I know people who have even though they are relatively rare in public companies. But I just hate the duplicity and underhand shenanigans that go along with them.

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

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