Gas Prices, Price Caps, Reckless Pricing and Telecom Plus

There was a lot of coverage of the impact of rising gas prices in the media this morning, particularly on retail consumers. The wholesale price of natural gas has been shooting up for a number of reasons – up 17% alone on Monday for example.

The Government imposed “price cap” has protected consumers to some extent, but it has meant that many companies that supply consumers have been losing money. There are as many as 55 companies that supply gas to retail consumers but a number have already entered administration and the forecast is that only 10 might survive.

The price cap is only reviewed every six months and that is clearly insufficient to keep up with the rapid change to open market prices. The price cap was introduced to protect consumers from big companies who had many long-standing customers on fixed expensive tariffs. Many were reluctant to switch to other suppliers which is now very easy. Government action might have been laudable to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation but when you start interfering in markets, the outcome is usually perverse.

As a shareholder in Telecom Plus (TEP) I have some interest in this issue. They have repeatedly complained about new entrants to the market who were promoting prices so low that they were bound to lose money. But they were doing this to build a customer base.

This is what TEP said in their last Annual Report in June: “The level of the energy price cap increased by almost £100 at the start of April, a substantial rise that reflects both rising wholesale prices and higher covid-related costs. Since then, wholesale costs have remained at an elevated level, which makes the switching market particularly challenging for all market participants.

Despite this, many independent suppliers are still setting their retail prices at whatever level is required to attract new customers on price comparison sites, irrespective of the impact it will inevitably have on their profitability and cashflow; as a result, we continue to see them reporting significant and unsustainable losses in their latest published accounts. A number of further suppliers have left the market over the last 12 months, with further insolvencies likely in the event that the current Ofgem consultation (designed to prevent suppliers using customer deposits as a substitute for shareholder capital) becomes effective”.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said that the Government “will not be bailing out failed companies” which is good to hear because it is the companies own fault that they have got into this parlous situation. Gas prices are always volatile and companies that had not hedged the price nor had long-term supply contracts were very likely to come unstuck.

A meeting of supply company leaders with Mr Kwarteng apparently encouraged dropping of the price cap, but he was adamant in retaining it. That is a great pity because this problem would never have arisen if a free market was allowed to operate.

There are other possible ways to protect vulnerable consumers and nobody ever has their gas cut off because their supplier goes bust.  

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

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Charles Stanley Takeover

   

I attended, via the LumiAGM platform, the Court Meeting and General Meeting of Charles Stanley Group (CAY) to approve the takeover by Raymond James this morning. In other words, these were hybrid meetings with both physical attendees and web attendees.

The meetings were reasonably well run but there were no questions from attendees and I guess it will go through as the offer price is more than 40% higher than the previous closing price for CAY shares. But we will have to await the final vote results (a 75% majority is required plus court approval in due course).

The LumiAGM platform is easy to use and I would recommend it to other companies.

It is perhaps unfortunate that yet another stockbroker is disappearing, therefore reducing competition. Consolidation in brokers and platforms is the name of the game of late as size matters now that profits are being eroded by new entrants while operating and regulatory costs rise. Keeping up technically is now expensive for example.  Raymond James is a good fit because they are primarily a full-service broker like Charles Stanley. But it may leave the execution-only Charles Stanley Direct platform out on a limb. I would expect they might sell that business to another execution-only platform operator in due course but the stated intention is not to change anything in the short-term.

At least this takeover will remove another holding from my portfolio, reducing it to 84 companies and funds, although a number of them are investment trusts and VCTs which require little monitoring. But with the market riding high, it’s a good time to weed out a few holdings.

Postscript: Based on the voting results, it looks like a done deal. Some 99.9% of shares were voted in favour, although the number of shareholders actually voting is astonishing low at only 72 (only 12.5% of those eligible). This should lead the Court to question the outcome, but will they?  See here for the full results: https://www.londonstockexchange.com/news-article/CAY/results-of-court-meeting-and-general-meeting/15138290  

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

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Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Proposes Name Change – Vote Against It!

The Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Trust (SLS) is proposing to change its name. The managers are currently Aberdeen Standard Fund Managers Limited but the name “Standard Life” has been sold to Phoenix Group so a change of name is not unreasonable.

Of course this is the kind of problem that arises when a trust is named after the fund manager. It also causes problems if the board of directors of the trust decides to change the manager which is not a rare event. Much better to choose a unique name which is not associated with the manager and which makes a good trade mark.

Investment trusts should not appear to be poodles of the fund manager which using the manager’s name gives the impression is the case.

What is the proposed new name? It’s “abrdn UK Smaller Companies Growth Trust Plc” (and no that’s not a typo – just the modern idiot fashion to decapitalise names). The word “abrdn” is the new name for the Aberdeen Group.

I recommend shareholders vote against this proposal and ask the directors to come up with a better name that they alone own, as I shall be doing. As an exercise in rebranding the proposed new name is not a good choice however one looks at it.

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

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Comments on Ultra Electronics Bid

Ultra Electronics (ULE) have announced a possible cash offer for the company from Cobham. The “non-binding” offer is for £35 per share, which is 42% up on the closing price last night. Before I say any more, it’s worth stating that I own quite a few shares in the company which I started buying over a year ago as it looked reasonably priced and a defensive stock during the pandemic.

But as Ultra operates in the defence sector (a strong focus on anti-submarine warfare for example), the Government may have a say in whether the deal goes through. That is why the company says it is “minded to recommend” the offer subject to a number of conditions including the “establishment of safeguards for the interests of Ultra’s stakeholder groups”.

Cobham is a UK company but is now owned by US based private equity business Advent International. Their takeover of Cobham was also controversial as this was another example of what was perceived to be a great UK technology business with exposure to sensitive defence operations.

The deal may not go through which is why the share price is trading below the likely offer price. But with such a high bid premium (82% to what I first started buying it at), I am unlikely to vote against the offer.

The only question in such circumstances where completion is uncertain, and even if a bid goes through is likely to take many months to complete, is whether to sell shares in the market on the principle a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, or whether to wait out the result. I tend to hedge my bets in such circumstances by selling a proportion of my shares and awaiting the outcome for the others.

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

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Abcam Remuneration Vote Only Narrowly Won

There was a vote by Abcam (ABC) shareholders last week on a new Remuneration Policy including a new “Profitable Growth Incentive Plan (PGIP)”. I voted against them because the proposals seemed very generous to me particularly bearing in mind that they are in addition to existing bonus and LTIP schemes and could involve up to 2.8% of shares being awarded to participants in the scheme (including 1.36 million shares to the CEO, currently valued at £14.25 per share).

The outcome of the vote was that 46% of shareholders voted against the revised Remuneration Policy and 44% against the PGIP. The company says that those who use proxy advisors did not support the resolutions but that “Abcam’s Remuneration Committee received positive indications of support for the final proposals following an extensive consultation process” prior to the meeting.

It seems the company plans to do nothing about this substantial opposition to the remuneration proposals which I consider most unfortunate. All they say is “The Board remains firmly committed to maintaining an open dialogue with its shareholders to ensure it fully understands their views and it will continue to constructively engage with those shareholders who were unable to support the proposals”. This is simply not good enough. I will also be voting against the current Chairman in future as I have done in the past after he failed to answer some simple questions I posed at a previous AGM.

This company’s financial performance has been declining in recent years. Perhaps the PGIP was designed to incentivise improvements in that regard but I think the directors and managers have incentives enough.

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

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Platform Transfer Finally Completed and Pointless Trust Changes

Good News! A transfer of one of my SIPPs from one platform to another has finally been completed today (22nd June). I initiated the transfer on the 12th January this year so this has actually taken over 5 months. A totally unreasonable period of time for what should have been a simple transfer of cash and a few direct shareholdings of UK listed crest stocks. However their failure to collect the tax refunds on PID dividends on some of the holdings remains outstanding and my complaint about both parties involved in the transfer to the Financial Ombudsman is ongoing.

Two investment trusts I have holdings in are Montanaro European Smaller Companies Trust (MTE) and JPMorgan European Smaller Companies Trust (JESC). The latter company has decided to change its name to JPMorgan European Discovery Trust with a new TIDM code of JEDT. Shareholders were not given any say on the matter, although the company says it “had discussions with major shareholders and the wider investor base”. All I can say they did not ask me! If they had, I would have objected.

The company claims the former name was inappropriate as some of their holdings have large market capitalisations but the new one is totally meaningless. There are lots of other investment trusts with out of date and inappropriate names – such as Scottish Mortgage. It’s just pointless changing the name and the new one is a poor choice. Brand recognition is important in naming trusts and changing the name unnecessarily will not help. They could at least have chosen a less bland name.

The other trust (MTE) has decided to do a 10 for 1 stock split. The company gives no justification for the change although the usual excuse for such a change is to improve the marketability of the shares. But who are they fooling? A share split makes no difference to the value of shares held. The current share price is about 1700p but if Berkshire Hathaway can happily get by with a market price of $417,290 why would MTE be bothered?

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

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Collecting Your Personal Health Data – Should You Object?

There seems to be quite a furore developing over the plans by the NHS to make your personal medical data available for research to a wide range of organisations, including commercial companies. It is no doubt true that the NHS has an enormous amount of medical data on the UK population which is unrivalled anywhere else in the world except possibly in China.

That data which might be as simple as weight and blood pressure, through to blood tests and even DNA samples, could be exceedingly useful by using “big data” analysis techniques to identify possible causes of disease. It would of course include past diagnoses and treatments including medication.

But there have been a number of protests raised about the risk of loss of confidentiality and the fact that it might not be completely depersonalised (i.e. the data released might enable people to be identified). Even some of my neighbours on the App Nextdoor have been advising people to opt-out.

This is a complex area and I remember discussing it with my GP some years ago when it was first contemplated. He had concerns but I do not while I think such data could be enormously useful in diagnosis and the development of new treatments. The Investors Chronicle ran an informative article on the subject last week and covered some of the companies active in this area.

For example it mentioned Alphabet (parent of Google) partnering with hospital chain HCA Healthcare to develop algorithms using patient records. As I have recently been treated in an HCA facility (they own London Bridge Hospital) that might include me. The article pointed out that even your Apple Smartwatch will be recording some medical data such as heart rate exercise data.

A number of companies are developing partnerships with hospital groups to collect and analyse the data they have on patients. For example, AIM listed Sensyne Health (SENS) is doing so. They recently announced an agreement with the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine which will extend their database by 7.3 million patients to over 18 million. They obviously plan to “monetise” that data by supplying it to other companies for research purposes. I do hold a few shares in Sensyne.

What are the concerns? Insurance companies would certainly like to know who might be bad risks by looking at patient data. They are unlikely to be able to do that, particularly as any data released will be depersonalised. But will it be impossible to identify people as some might enable linkages to be made? Perhaps not totally impossible but the risks seem low to me and personally I could not care less who knows my medical history. Others might disagree on that point but the benefits of having a good database of medical data to help with research, much of which is done by commercial companies, is surely invaluable.

There are opt-out provisions for those who have any concerns.

See https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/data-collections-and-data-sets/data-collections/general-practice-data-for-planning-and-research for more information.

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

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Scottish Investment Trust Reviewing Management Arrangements

I wrote about the Scottish Investment Trust (SCIN) back in February and commented negatively on its underperformance in recent years. Their investment style has been based on a contrarian approach, i.e. picking cheap stocks that look undervalued but which might recover. The article included this comment: “It would appear that they adopted the new investment style five years ago which might be identified as when under-performance took off. If an investment strategy does not work, how long should you persist with it? Not many years in my experience. It’s too easy to hold the dogs longer than you should”.

Since I wrote the article the company has been running advertisements on an “ugly duckling” theme suggesting that the undervalued investments it holds will turn into beautiful swans given some patience. I found these advertisements quite amusing.

But it seems the directors have finally lost patience because they have announced a “Review of Investment Management Arrangements”. They are inviting proposals from fund management groups who might take over managing the fund.

The board is to be congratulated on finally taking action. Better late than never.

Note: The company should not be confused with the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust which is an unrelated company.

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

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Scottish Mortgage Trust Report and Shell Climate Change Votes

The Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (SMT) recently published their Annual Report and it’s well worth reading bearing in mind the exceptional performance they achieved last year. NAV total return was up 111% and that was way ahead of the global sector average. It was the best ever performance of the trust since it was founded in 1909 and it’s now one of the largest investment trusts.

How did they achieve such a remarkable result? You might think it was because of a strong focus on technology stocks – but that is only 23% of their portfolio. Perhaps you think it was because they made big bets on a few well-known names such as Tencent, Illumina, Amazon and Tesla? But that is not the case.

It is true that Amazon represented 9.3% of the portfolio at the start of the year and Tesla 8.6% but the 30 largest holdings only represented 80% of the portfolio. In other words, it was in essence a large and diversified portfolio. But a few stocks made a large contribution to overall performance with Tesla contributing 36% despite the trust selling 80% of their holding during the year so as to maintain diversification.

In his closing words, fund manager James Anderson suggests that he should have been more adventurous. He says “we have to be willing to embrace unreasonable propositions and unreasonable people in order to make extraordinary findings….”. He discounts the value of near-term price/earnings ratios – understanding how the world is changing seems to be his main focus.

Another share that many private investors hold is oil company Shell (RDSB) who recently held their Annual General Meeting. If you don’t hold it directly you might hold it indirectly as it’s usually a big holding in global generalist funds and trusts.

There were two resolutions on the agenda related to climate change one by the company asking for support for their “Energy transition strategy” and one requisition from campaign group Follow This. The latter demanded more specific targets to achieve reduction in long-term greenhouse gas emissions. The company’s resolution received 89% votes FOR, but the latter achieved 30% FOR. Even so that was higher than previous votes, or similar resolutions at other oil companies with support from proxy advisory services and big institutions.

Even the company’s resolution, supported by a 36-page document and which was only “advisory” includes reference to Scope 3 emissions (i.e. those emitted by their customers using their products). They say “That means offering them the low-carbon products and services they need such as renewable electricity, biofuels, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and nature-based offsets”.

Are these proposals likely to be effective or substantially contribute to climate change? I think not when China and other countries continue to build coal-fired power stations and many people question whether it’s possible to change the climate by restricting CO2 emissions. These resolutions look like virtue signalling by major investors and may be financially damaging to Shell. It is particularly unreasonable to expect Shell’s customers to swap to other energy sources – they may simply switch to other suppliers if they can’t buy them from Shell. As the Shell report says: “If we moved too far ahead of society, it is likely that we would be making products that our customers are unable or unwilling to buy”.

Shell says that “Eventually, low-carbon products will replace the higher carbon products that we sell today”, but their report is remarkably short on the financial impact. In fact their report reads more like a PR document than a business plan and it also makes clear that projecting 30 years ahead is downright impossible with any accuracy.

Note: I hold Scottish Mortgage but not Shell. I do not hold any oil companies partly because they are exploiting a limited resource making exploration and production costs more expensive as time passes and partly because I see a witch-hunt by the environmental lobbyists against such businesses. I also dislike companies dependent on the price of commodities and vulnerable to Government regulation which Shell certainly is on both counts.

One interesting question is who owns and runs the Follow This campaign and how is it financed? Their web site is remarkably opaque on those questions. Even if they have been remarkably effective in getting media coverage for their activities, I would want a lot more information on them before supporting the resolutions they advocate.

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

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EKF Diagnostics AGM, Verici DX, Eleco Issues and Boku AGM

I attended the Annual General Meeting of EKF Diagnostics (EKF) today via Zoom. This was one of the better organised electronic format AGMs I have attended. To quote from the company’s web site: “EKF Diagnostics is a global medical manufacturer of point-of-care and central lab devices and chemistry reagents including hemoglobin tests, HbA1c tests, glucose and lactate tests. EKF also manufactures and distributes products associated with COVID-19 pandemic”.  The latter has enabled the company to generate very high revenue growth recently and the AGM statement said this also: “Strong trading continues into the second quarter 2021 and the Board is now confident that trading for the full year will be comfortably ahead of already upgraded management expectations”.

There were a few questions posed by the approximately 50 attendees to the AGM and as they gave the proxy vote figures I asked why they got 11% of votes against the approval of the accounts. Such a level of opposition is unusually high. The answer given was that this was because of a recommendation from a major proxy advisor with the added comment “It’s just stupidity”. This is not a very helpful kind of answer. Why exactly was there a recommendation to vote against? And why was it stupid?

Note that EKF holds interests in companies RenalytixAI (RENX) and Verici DX (VRCI) who are focused on renal disease, the latter on diagnosis of kidney transplant rejection. Both companies listed on AIM last year and have zero or minimal revenue. I recently read the prospectus (admission document) for VRCI. As a transplant patient myself, I have a strong interest in this subject but the company seems to be some way from developing a saleable product or service, i.e. fund raising seems to be for financing research. I won’t be investing in either company until the prospects are clearer. It is very clear that it is possible to list new companies on AIM at present that are not just early-stage ones but pure speculations, but that has probably always been the case. These companies might meet a strong demand for new diagnostic and treatment options for renal patients if they are successful but success is far from assured and large amounts of capital have been raised and expenditure incurred with no certainty of profitable revenue resulting. At least that’s my opinion but anyone who thinks otherwise is welcome to try and convince me.  

Another unhelpful response to a question I received today was from Eleco (ELCO). I have been a shareholder for some time in this construction software company. The company announced on the 26th of April that it had received a requisition notice that covered resolutions to reappoint two directors, that all directors stand for re-election at future AGMs and that the remuneration committee report be approved.

It was certainly unusual that such resolutions were not on the AGM agenda on the 6th of May and the above requisition was ignored (probably too late anyway). It is of course standard practice now for all directors of listed companies to stand for re-election, and a remuneration resolution is also normal at most AIM companies even if not legally required. The AGM was held in a format that discouraged questions also so I did not attend.

On the 14th May the company announced that the requisition notice had been rejected as it did not comply with the Companies Act and the company’s Articles, but gave no further information.

So I sent a question addressed to the Chairman, asking what was the reason for the requisition and exactly why was it rejected. The answer I received from advisor SECNewgate (not from the Chairman) was: “Thank you for your email regarding Eleco. It has been discussed with the Company’s NOMAD and lawyers and we do not believe we need to add any further detail other than that the requisition notice does not comply with the requirements of the Companies Act 2006 and is also contrary to the provisions of the Company’s Articles of Association”.

Hardly a helpful response. Why should the company avoid answering such simple questions? Will they continue to evade answering, which legally could be difficult at the next AGM? If they have one or more disgruntled shareholders who chose to submit the requisition why should not other shareholders know about their concerns? This is just bad corporate governance.

I also attended the Boku (BOKU) Annual General Meeting today. This was another Zoom event with about 10 attendees. The CEO gave a short presentation and the Chairman covered the issue that proxy advisor ISS had recommended voting against the remuneration resolution (there were some votes against). The ISS complaint was apparently that the LTIP was not solely performance based. The Chairman said they needed to match the more normal US remuneration structure, i.e. options based on length of service.

Several questions were posed by attendees after the end of the formal meeting and the CEO gave his usual fluent responses. I questioned the new focus on e-wallets. Surely there were lots of companies offering such wallets? How were they to compete? The answer apparently is by focusing.

Both of the on-line AGMs I attended today were useful events if rather brief and not nearly as good as a physical meeting. It’s also difficult to put in follow-up questions after initial responses. Let us hope we can revert to physical or hybrid meetings soon (hybrid ones will at least make it easier for those with travel difficulties to attend so I hope the electronic attendance option is retained).

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

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