Persimmon Directors, IDOX Profit Warning and Transplants

This morning house building company Persimmon announced that Chairman Nicholas Wrigley and Non-Exec Director Jonathan Davie were departing. The company says that both of them recognise that the 2012 LTIP “could have included a cap” and “in recognition of this omission” they have tendered their resignations.

Holders of Persimmon shares like me, or indeed anyone who has followed the debate on excessive executive pay, will be aware of the outrageous pay that has resulted at this and other companies because of the adoption of complex and aggressive LTIPs. Often these schemes have paid out unanticipated amounts, because the directors seemed not to understand their complexities or the possible outcomes. In the case of Persimmon it has meant that as much as 10 per cent of the value of the company has been paid out to the beneficiaries, allowing the CEO to pocket more than £100 million.

Neither of course did the shareholders understand these schemes and hence voted in favour of them regularly. So long as the company financial performance was good, some shareholders considered the payouts were justified. So the Board of Persimmon “believes that the introduction of the 2012 LTIP has been a significant factor in the Company’s outstanding performance over this period, led by a strong and talented executive team”. No mention of the main factors that have driven performance – high house prices supported by interest rates lower than they have been for thousands of years, the rapid growth in households from immigration and other factors, the Governments “help to buy scheme”, and other contributors. When companies are making hay, few shareholders will pay much attention to remuneration schemes or vote against them which is surely an argument for Government intervention in this area.

The company has appointed a new Chairman of the Remuneration Committee, who is Marion Sears. Will policies and practices change as a result? I doubt it because back in 2015 I argued with her at the AGM of Dunelm where she chaired the Remuneration Committee and subsequently exchanged emails on the complexities of the bonus scheme at that company. I also said to her that it was “difficult to understand the implications of the new policy on the overall remuneration of the senior executives and its sensitivity to different scenarios” and argued that the performance targets were not stretching.

I have come to the conclusion that all traditional LTIP schemes are dysfunctional and I therefore vote against them. There are better ways of recognising superior management performance.

IDOX

Another company I have held for a long time is AIM listed software company IDOX. This company was very successful under the leadership of former CEO Richard Kellett-Clarke. Two days ago the company issued a profit warning (not the first) saying that results for the year ending October 2017 will be delayed until next February. The announcement indicated some concerns about revenue recognition, complicated by the “sudden absence” of the CEO, Andrew Riley, on sick leave.

This is the kind of announcement that investors hate. No real details, and no information on when or if Andrew Riley might return. All we know is that the EBITDA forecast is reduced again to approximately £20 million. But at least we know that Kellett-Clarke is back as interim CEO.

There were concerns expressed by me at the last IDOX AGM about revenue recognition, high debtors and the apparent offering of long payment terms to customers (effectively providing them credit). I opined at the time that this was no way to run a software company because even if the customers are credit worthy, projects can run into unforeseen difficulties causing the customers to argue about the bills. I reduced my holding in the company substantially at the time as a result although it’s still one of my bigger holdings. Leon Boros also made negative comments about cash flows at the company and some investors were shorting the stock at the time – they are probably doing so again.

Comments on bulletin boards also raise the issue about the restating of accounts at 6PM, an acquisition that IDOX made in December 2016. But this is old news. Reference to accounting restatements at 6PM were made in the offer document (page 15, where it says for example that “the Directors expect that the value of the net assets of 6PM under IDOX accounting policies will be reduced materially”). Indeed 6PM subsequently filed accounts in Malta where they are registered showing substantial losses in 2016 and restating the 2015 and 2014 numbers. I thought the acquisition was a dubious one at the time for various reasons and voted against it. But these adjustments were surely known about earlier in the year so the latest announcement suggests some other problems.

Needless to say, with all these uncertainties and lack of clarification from the company (which we may not get until February it seems), all the likely share buyers have disappeared because it becomes very difficult to value the business. Simply too many unknowns. I will be encouraging the company to clarify the position a.s.a.p., but the “transplant” of the CEO, even on a temporary basis, might provide some reassurance that the problems will be sorted.

On the subject of transplants, one public consultation that is of personal interest to me is the Government’s consideration to change the default on organ donation to be an “opt-out” system as opposed to the current “opt-in” arrangement. In other words, unless you had specifically opted out, then it would be assumed that you had no objection to your organs being used for transplantation. Relatives may still be consulted though.

It is hoped that this will increase the number of transplants that are performed. There are a large number of kidney transplants performed each year, with lesser numbers of liver, pancreas, lung and heart transplants. The NHS says that 50,000 people are alive today who would not otherwise be so as a result (including me of course). But there are still long queues of people awaiting transplants. In the case of kidney patients, the alternative of dialysis reduces quality of life substantially and also reduces life expectancy significantly so it is a very poor alternative. Dialysis just keeps you alive, but a transplant gives you a new and better future.

For my financially informed readers, you also need to bear in mind that transplants save the NHS money because maintaining a kidney transplant patient costs a lot less than looking after dialysis patients.

Scotland, Wales and other countries have introduced opt-out systems already. Go here to respond to the public consultation on the matter: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/introducing-opt-out-consent-for-organ-and-tissue-donation-in-england

I hope readers will support this change to the law.

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

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Worldwide Healthcare Trust – Telegraph Omits Latest News

This morning (7/12/2017) the Daily Telegraph’s Questor column ran a puff on the Worldwide Healthcare Trust (WWH), a company which incidentally I do hold. It made such comments as “this trust has returned 16 per cent a year for 22 years, and it should keep on roaring”.

The Trust fund is managed by Orbimed Capital LLC, and perhaps the unfortunate aspect of the above is the failure to mention the announcement by the Trust yesterday over serious allegations of sexual harassment against Orbimed’s Managing Partner and founder Samuel Isaly. I won’t repeat them here but you can find them on the internet quite easily.

Samuel Isaly is also a director of Worldwide Healthcare Trust. I am never very keen for fund managers to sit on the boards of investment trusts and regularly vote against this practice. Boards need to be independent of the fund managers, even if we recognise that the fund managers often have a significant influence over the affairs of such companies. Non-executive directors of investment trusts should all be “independent” which they cannot be if they are employed by the fund manager.

The Trust advises that Orbimed has retained an independent law firm to investigate the matter, but surely this is an appropriate time to consider the composition of the board.

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

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ULS Technology, Keystone Law and Collusion on IPO Pricing

Yesterday I attended an interim results presentation by ULS Technology (ULS). They have been listed on AIM for a couple of years and have grown both from organic increases in revenue and from acquisitions which is often a good formula. They operate in the legal conveyancing and estate agency market where volumes have not been great of late – it seems house prices have made it difficult for folks to move plus changes to stamp duty and buy-to-let taxes have deterred transactions. But they seem to be prospering regardless.

I first became interested in this company, and acquired some shares, when I noticed that Geoff Wicks have become a director. He has also just been made Chairman. Geoff used to be CEO of Group NBT which was one of my most successful technology investments and he did a great job of sorting out and then growing a failing dotcom business.

I did perhaps amuse the CEO of ULS, Ben Thompson, by noting that I don’t really like companies with unmemorable three letter acronym names (ULS, NBT for example). Investors can never recall what they do. ULS used to be called United Legal Services but needed a new “umbrella” name so came up quickly with ULS. Should have used a branding consultancy I suggest. Unless you are a really big company, like IBM or BAE, establishing name recognition for such “brands” is hard work.

So ULS it is for the present, but understanding what they do and how they make money is not necessarily easy. Attending the seminar helped with understanding that. In summary, ULS aim to make house moving easier by making conveyancing easier, quicker and lower costs. They use web technology to support that. So if you are looking for a conveyancing solicitor they can help, and they have partnerships with other businesses in the house buying space such as mortgage brokers/lenders so that their service is offered when required. For example, Lloyds Bank is one of their largest partners. In addition they have a specialist comparison web site for when you are looking for an estate agent (includes price and performance comparisons).

For the conveyancing service they get paid by solicitors to which customers are referred, who pay 5 days after the legal completion with a fixed fee (does not vary with house price cost). The customer saves on paperwork such as filling out multiple forms. The customer introducers are many small mortgage brokers, large financial networks and others such as Moneysupermarket.com and Home Owners Alliance. They do seem to have some competitors but these are generally smaller in size and have nowhere near the same size of “panel” containing solicitors to which referrals are sent. The market generally for conveyancing services is still very old fashioned and dominated by “cottage industry” firms. ULS have only 2.6% of the conveyancing market but have a desire to become much larger. It certainly seems a market that is ripe for technical disruption.

Estateagent4me.com is their estate agency comparison site where you can search for agents and select on the basis of: the Fees they will charge; Average time to sell a property like yours; How close they might get to achieving an asking price; and How successful they are at selling similar homes. I asked whether they had received any legal threats from Purplebricks who apparently were not happy at all about some reviews that were published on their service, but it seems they have not.

The company expects to grow by: 1) Organic growth; 2) M&A (already done some of those); 3) Future new product development. They are not rushing to move outside the UK although there might be opportunities there. In essence they seem to be aiming for a conservative, profitable growth strategy which is often the kind of company I like, rather than betting the farm on a very rapid expansion as per Purplebricks. Return on capital is what matters, not empire building at huge cost.

There were a number of good questions from the audience of private investors (organised by Walbrook) but I’ll only cover one that arose. The accounts show a very low “current ratio” because the current liabilities, particularly the “Trade and other payables” figure is high at £7.8 million. This does include two earn-out payments due from past acquisitions of £5.2 million and taking those out makes the ratio look more reasonable. It would seem they do have a credit facility lined up to cover those payments, but this will add to the gearing of the company of course, at least temporarily even if operating cash flow is positive as it appears to be. They may wish to raise more equity also I suspect, particularly if other acquisitions are contemplated.

Also yesterday a legal firm named Keystone Law Group Plc listed on AIM. I think this is only the second of two commercial legal firms to list (Gateley Holdings, GTLY, was the first). Keystone promptly went to a premium over the listing price. I’ll have to read the IPO Prospectus which is available on the company’s web site under AIM Rule 26. Keystone are different to many law firms in that most of their solicitors are effectively freelances and they only get paid when the client pays (yes they are part of the new “gig” economy). The prospectus should make interesting reading as I have been a client of theirs in a libel action I have been pursuing of late which you should hear more about very soon. But buying shares in new IPOs is generally something to avoid.

Meanwhile the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) FCA has accused fund managements of colluding on IPOs. The regulator alleges Artemis, Newton, River and Mercantile and Hargreave Hale shared the prices they were willing to pay for shares. This story should run and run as it attacks the informal nature of conversations in the City of London about deals under consideration. But colluding on pricing is a breach of competition law as anyone in business should surely know.

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

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Halma and Return on Capital

Yesterday I talked about Diploma (DPLM) and their calculation of adjusted return on capital. This morning Halma (HLMA) published their half year results and they also have a strong emphasis on return on capital, but in this case they call it “ROTIC” (Return On Total Invested Capital). This was down slightly at 13.4% and they define it as Adjusted Profit After Tax divided by Total Invested Capital. The latter is shareholders funds, plus retirement benefit obligations, less deferred tax assets, plus cumulative amortisation of acquired intangible assets plus historic adjustments to goodwill. This similar to the Diploma definition but it is not clear whether it is exactly the same and they call it something different.

As almost every company now reports “adjusted” figures of one kind or another, and analyst forecasts of earning are also usually based on adjusted profits, would it not make sense to have some standard for such data? That’s in addition to the current “statutory” figures which are mandated by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC).

Some of these adjustments, like the ones above in the case of Halma to calculate return on capital make a lot of sense if you wish to obtain a somewhat different view of a company’s performance. But some do not – for example I commented negatively only recently on the figures reported by National Grid.

The FRC would be the best body to set such standards, although they appear to have avoided doing so in the past. Now it just so happens I am attending a meeting with the FRC organised by ShareSoc/UKSA later today and if I get the opportunity I will raise this issue. It would certainly help investors if companies, financial analysts and information web sites reported such adjusted data in a consistent manner, would it not?

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

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Diploma (DPLM) and Return on Capital

Diploma Plc, a supplier of specialist technical products, issued its preliminary results for the year to the end of September today (20/11/2017). This company may not be a household name and hence can fall under the radar of investors. But it has demonstrated a consistent track record in recent years. Today was no exception. Adjusted earning per share were up 19%, and revenue was up 18%, although a significant proportion of the improvement was down to currency movements (they are a very international business and the falling pound has no doubt helped). The share price has risen 10% on the day at the time of writing.

But why do I like this company? Apart from the track record, the directors have a strong focus on obtaining a good return on capital both from their on-going businesses and from acquisitions. But which measure do they use (Return on Equity – ROE, Return on Assets – ROA, or Return on Capital Employed – ROCE. These are all useful measures, and you can no doubt look up their definitions on the internet. But they use none of the above. They actually report “Return on Adjusted Trading Capital” – ROATCE. This they report as improved to 24% (their target is to exceed 20% which they have beaten in the last five years – that’s certainly the kind of figure I like to see).

How do they calculate this figure? I quote from the announcement: “A key metric that the Group uses to measure the overall profitability of the Group and its success in creating value for shareholders is the return on adjusted trading capital employed (“ROATCE”). At a Group level, this is a pre-tax measure which is applied against the fixed and working capital of the Group, together with all gross intangible assets and goodwill, including goodwill previously written off against retained earnings.”

Personally, I don’t think one measure of return on capital is particularly better than another. Return on Assets is good enough for me although it certainly helps that the company has added back write-offs of goodwill from past acquisitions to save one working it out for oneself. For a company that does repeated acquisitions, these “disappearing” assets are worth bearing in mind. Return on Equity might be considered by some as the most important for equity investors, but using that as a target by management can result in risky behaviour such as gearing up with debt. Bank directors were often keen to talk about that number before the 2008 crash.

Why is return on capital so important? Because when one invests in a company, you are investing in the expectation of a future return. How much they can generate in returns from the assets under their management is a key measure (that’s ignoring the profits from investment from getting a greater fool to buy your shares in a game of “pass the parcel”). I learned this was the best measure of the quality and performance of a company when I went to business school, and I never forgot it when I ran a business. In the modern world, it can be easy to borrow capital and blow it on expansive plans. This can help the management increase their salaries. But for equity investors, it dilutes your returns and you lose the benefit of compounding the retained profits.

The best, and shortest book, that explains this in layman’s terms is Joel Greenblatt’s “The Little Book That Beats The Market”. He uses return on capital (as he defines it) in a calculation of a “Magic Formula” for success. But of course using a simplistic formula has its dangers. If everyone followed it, prices might be driven up to unreasonable levels on the stocks chosen by such a formula. In addition I just looked at the stock list that Stockopedia suggests would be “buys” using the Magic Formula. It results in a mixed bag of shares. For example, it includes Safestyle which I also own when that company’s share price has been falling of late due to concerns about the retail market for large general merchandise items (they sell replacement windows). It might be a “BUY” now but it could also be a share where you could wait a long time for it to return to favour. So the moral is, use return on capital as one measure of the merit of a company, but look at other factors also. In addition, bear in mind that sometimes the market can favour other companies, such as those with little profits in a go-go bull market, or those with massive, if underutilised, assets in a gloomy bear market. So the Magic Formula is best applied to a basket of shares and you might need patience over some years to see the benefits realised.

Lastly, financial numbers do not tell you everything about a company. The historic numbers can be inflated by clever, or false accounting. And they can ignore major strategic or regulatory challenges that a company faces that might not be reflected in historic numbers.

But a company whose return on capital is low is certainly one I like to avoid. It is also helpful when the management talk about return on capital as having importance in their business strategy, and Diploma certainly do that. I consider that a positive sign because if they stick to it, then it should ensure the overall financial profile of the company remains positive and that profits will grow.

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

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Abcam AGM, Cambridge Cognition, Ultra Electronics, Wey Education and IDOX

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Abcam (ABC) in Cambridge as I often do as I have held the stock since 2006. Share price then (adjusted for consolidation) was about 50p and it’s now about 950p so I like most investors in the company, I am happy. Alex Lawson will be doing a full write-up of the meeting for ShareSoc so I will only cover a few points herein.

One shareholder expressed concern about the rising costs. The company is clearly making heavy investments in new infrastructure and more management. Although revenue was up 26.5% last year, earnings per share were only up 11.8% (unadjusted) and operating margin has been falling. Also Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) has been falling – only 12.3% last year when it used to be in the high teens.

Apart from opening a new building next year, they are implementing an Oracle Cloud software solution to replace their historic purpose-built legacy software systems. The total cost of that project is £44 million (see page 23 of the Annual Report) when profits last year were only £42 million post tax. In other words, all of last years profits could be taken to be consumed by this project. This project has been running for some time and I have asked questions about it in previous years. This year I asked: “is the project on schedule and on budget”. I did not get a straight answer. But it was said that initial cost estimates have expanded, and additional modules been added (for example warehouse management). It should “go live” in the current financial year. From those and other comments made, I got the impression that this is a typical IT project that is too ambitious and costs are escalating while delays have arisen. Those “big bang” IT projects rarely go according to plan, but management are often suckers for them.

Now it may be arguable that older systems need replacing (for example, the CEO mentioned it was impossible to bill in Swiss francs that at least one customer would prefer), and maintaining old code was clearly proving to be difficult. The massive investment in this area alone may be justified by the company’s ambitions to “double the 2016 scale by 2023 by investing in operating capabilities” as the CEO mentioned. The expectation is that growth will improve revenues and hence margins in due course.

One more way that costs have been rising is increased pay for management. CEO’s pay alone up from £614k to £1,378k in the last year (“single figure remuneration). In addition, I commented negatively on the fact that the LTIP target had been adjusted for the “scale and complexity of the transformational programme” of the new ERP system implementation, i.e. costs are much higher than expected so the LTIP target has been made easier to achieve!

At least Louise Patten (acting Chairman now after departure of Murray Hennesey for a proper job, and Chair of the Remuneration Committee) admitted later that LTIPs are often problematic but institutions like them. LTIPs at Abcam have rarely paid out, and management at many companies seem not to value them highly. There are better bonus scheme alternatives.

I also spoke briefly to a representative of Equiniti, the company’s registrar, about the difficulty of voting electronically. He is to look into it. Amusing to see the company slogan on his business card is “Our mission is making complex things simple”, exactly the opposite of my experience!

In the morning I also visited Cambridge Cognition (COG) who have offices in the village of Bottisham east of Cambridge. Although their offices are in what appear to be wooden huts, they are well furbished. The company specialises in cognitive health (brain function). Sixty per cent of its revenue comes from clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies, thirty per cent from research institutes and academia and ten per cent from healthcare and consulting.

On clinical trials they do about 15 deals a year so by their nature they are lumpy one-off deals. Total revenue was £6.8 million last year. Before last year revenue was flat but it grew last year and is forecast to grow this year.

A lot of pharma companies are actively researching alzheimers and other degenerative brain diseases, and developing products to assist – as the population ages such diseases are becoming more prevalent. Cambridge Cognition’s technology relies on historically well validated studies. The company provides a lot of consulting support in clinical trial sales.

Such deals include 30 to 40% of software which is billed and paid for on normal 30+ days terms, with the services paid for as provided. One issue that arose is that their accountants are likely to require them to change so as to allocate the software revenue over future periods due to IFRS 15 because they host the software. This is the same problem that Rolls-Royce have tripped up on, and it is also an issue at Ultra Electronics (ULE) according to a report in the FT yesterday. That company also issued a profit warning on Monday and the share price fell 19.5% on the day. I used to hold it but not of late. The FT writer suggested it was time to “exit”. Cambridge Cognition did suggest though that they would not need to restate last years accounts, and the change might actually smooth their revenue figures. IFRS 15 is an important correction to historic aggressive revenue recognition policies in some companies.

Otherwise Cambridge Cognition have some interesting technology – for example using smart watches to monitor brain function during the day, and using speech recognition to perform analysis. Whether these can be turned into profitable markets remains to be seen. One of the original ideas in the company was to provide their software on i-Pads for general practitioners to use in diagnosis but that never took off due to changes in purchasing arrangements in the NHS who of course are notoriously difficult to sell to (and budgets of late for technology seem to have been cut). If anyone wants more background on Cambridge Cognition you are welcome to contact me.

A few weeks ago I purchased a minute number of shares in Wey Education (WEY). Minute because although it looks an interesting business I thought the share price was way too high on any sensible fundamental view. This morning the company announced a share placing to make an acquistion. This will be at 22p which is a 33.3% discount to the price on the 14th November according to the company. Clearly advisors and institutions took the same view as me on the previous share price. Has the share price collapsed this morning as a result? It’s down but not by much so far. Wey Education does look like one to monitor (which is why I bought a few shares) but I think I’ll stand back from the speculation for the present while the market is so twitchy.

This looks like one of those hot technology stocks that are all the rage of late (the company provides education over the internet as an alternative to school attendance). But investors are clearly getting more nervous about many of those stocks in the last few days – it’s no longer “keep buying on momentum” as some share prices have fallen back from their peaks (Abcam is one example), so it’s now sell, sell, sell. And if a company indicates that the outcome for the year will not be as good as the optimistic broker forecasts suggest, as IDOX did mid-afternoon yesterday, then the share price gets hammered. Announcements mid-afternoon of this nature are never a good idea. Interesting to note that Richard Kellett-Clarke is to remain on the board after all as a non-executive. He was previously CEO. That might inspire more confidence in the business as these kinds of hiccups did not occur during his regime.

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

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A Quick Guide to New Issues, SMRs, Car Market and Brexit

In today’s Financial Times (11/11/2017) Neil Collins gave a quick guide to new issues which is worth repeating. This is what he said: “Do not buy into an initial public offering if most of the capital raised is going out of the business, or if it replaces existing debt (because the capital has already left). Do not buy if private equity is selling. Do not believe any forward-looking statements, because if the prospects really were that good, the vendors would wait and get a higher price. Do not buy any share that has been listed for less than a year. You will miss some bargains but you will avoid many more disappointments. Leave it to the professionals to lose other people’s money.”

Those are wise words indeed. He also made some ascerbic comments on small nuclear power stations which he says have been rebranded as “small modular reactors” (SMRs) to make them less scary. Rolls-Royce, who have produced such reactors for submarines, have touted them as a potential future business growth area for several years, but the FT’s in-depth review of the subject last week suggested that they are not likely to be put into production any time soon. Meanwhile the share price of Rolls-Royce is still below where it was in 2014.

Neil Collins also commented on the car market. You probably don’t need to be told that new car sales have slumped. The share prices of car dealers are cheap as chips and even my shares in Auto Trader are down substantially this year. Indeed one could apply Neil’s comments about IPOs to the company although it has taken a couple of years to reveal that the debt when listed is handicapping the company now. The car market is inherently cyclical which is one reason why car dealers are normally not valued highly, and they also show low barriers to entry with the car manufacturers controlling the market to a large extent and limiting the profits that dealers make. But Auto Trader is similar to Rightmove in the property market. High margins, dominant market position and a business with great network effects with the result that competitors find it difficult to muscle in on their market. I think I’ll stick with it for a while yet.

I am not convinced that we have reached “peak car” as some have suggested. There seem to be more cars on the road than ever although traffic volumes have slowed in London where most such commentators live. But that is as much about political policies that have limited road space and caused congestion, mostly irrational, than car buyers desires. Another good analysis in the FT recently was about how “green” various car types actually are. On total life emissions, some smaller petrol/diesel vehicles can beat “all-electric” cars. How is that? Because the manufacture and decommissioning of electric vehicles generate large emissions, and producing the electricity for them often does also.

With all these plugs I just gave for the FT, it is unfortunate that it coninues to publish such tosh about Brexit. Most of their writers predict the financial outcome will be calamitous. Whether that will be the outcome or not, I don’t have the space to provide a full analysis here, but most people who voted for Brexit did not consider the financial issue as conclusive. Consider an American colonialist in the year 1775, before their declaration of independance. No doubt with an economy very reliant on trade with Great Britain many people would have counselled against leaving the protection of their parent country. Did that deter them? No because they valued freedom more highly. They wanted control over their own affairs including that over taxes, and not to be ruled by a remote and undemocratic regime where they had minimal representation. That is the analogy that all the remainers should think about.

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

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