Voting Against Directors at Greggs and MAV4

Greggs (GRG) held their Annual General Meeting today. This was a “closed” meeting but with no electronic access provided. Bearing in mind the size of the company, it seems unreasonable that they could not have provided shareholder access.

But I note that the votes reported show that several directors received substantial votes against. For example Ian Durant at 4.8% and Sandra Turner at 7.7%. I wonder why? There were also substantial numbers of votes withheld but no explanation has been given.

One advantage of a physical meeting is that if you see a lot of proxy votes being cast against resolutions you can ask why before the directors close the meeting and depart. Even electronic meetings do not give you that opportunity.

Another company where the directors received substantial votes against recently was Maven Income and Growth VCT 4 (MAV4). But I think I know why in this case. I complained in a previous blog post about the length of service of the directors and suggested shareholders vote against their re-election. At their AGM there were a large number of votes “withheld” on the reappointment of the directors – over 800,000 for all 4 which is usually a sign of disapproval. Perhaps my comments had some impact on shareholders’ votes. They also recorded over 1 million votes against reappointment of the auditors, against disapplication of pre-emption rights and against share purchases, even though voting against share buybacks is usually not a good idea in VCTs. That’s because if the company does not buy-back shares then nobody else may do, with the result there is no share trading in the company’s shares and the discount to NAV widens to a very high figure.

Clearly some shareholders in MAV4 are unhappy. Again there has been no published explanation by the company or commitment to do anything about it.

However you look at it, this is not good corporate governance and the Chairmen of these companies should comment I suggest.

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

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Rampant Speculation, Cryptocurrencies, Buffett Meeting and Ridley Blog

With a long weekend for the May bank holiday, I took the opportunity to prepare the information required by my accountants to submit my and my wife’s tax returns (it’s many years since I completed my own Self Assessment tax returns – my financial affairs got too complicated).

After reading a good article in this weeks Investors Chronicle on Inheritance Tax (IHT), entitled “Eight things executors need to know”, I think I should have simplified my financial affairs long ago! My executors are going to have quite a job on their hands. But IHT is just ridiculously complicated. It looks like a “make work” scheme for accountants.

I have of course tried to simplify matters recently by consolidating two SIPPs on different platforms into one. The process was started on the12th January and is still not complete although most of the assets have now been transferred. As I have said before, the time and effort required to move platforms is disgraceful so I will be preparing a complaint to go to the Financial Ombudsman this week.

Having reviewed my income and expenditure figures for last year, it’s also a good time to review the state of the market. Should I “Sell in May and Go Away” as the old adage goes? Not that one can go far these days without a lot of inconvenience and expense.  

My portfolios contain a mix of individual shares and investment trusts, with a strong focus on technology stocks and small cap stocks. I certainly have some concerns about small cap technology stocks which seem to be fully priced at present, even if their futures look rosy. There are a large number of new IPOs of late where the valuations seem very optimistic. Meanwhile there is rampant speculation being pursued by inexperienced investors, particularly in cryptocurrencies and NFTs.

This is what Warren Buffett’s partner Charlie Munger said at the recent Berkshire Hathaway Meeting: “Of course, I hate the Bitcoin success and I don’t welcome a currency that’s useful to kidnappers and extortionists, and so forth…Nor do I like just shuffling out billions and billions and billions of dollars to somebody who just invented a new financial product out of thin air. So, I think I should say modestly that I think the whole damn development is disgusting and contrary to the interests of civilization. And I’ll leave the criticism to others”. That’s very much my opinion also.

Government debt has been ramped up to meet the Covid epidemic and interest rates are at historic lows. The concern of many is that inflation will increase as a result requiring Governments to clamp down on the economy to stop it overheating. This was a useful comment recently from the editor of Small Company Sharewatch: “The solution to the problem of lower interest rates is self-evidently higher interest rates. But the US Federal Reserve is having none of it. In the 1970s. inflation of around 15% was the problem. This was cured by higher interest rates, which got inflation down, and allowed interest rates to fall – for the next 40 years! The problem has now flipped. Low interest rates are the problem. Debt is encouraged: complacency grows; savers take on more risk; and investor mania grows. These are all likely to persist until the Fed acts”.

The economy is certainly buoyant. I learned today from attending a webinar of Up Global Sourcing (UPGS) that even pallets are in short supply. Commodities are also increasing in price as a result. I have not lost faith in technology stocks but perhaps it is best to look for new investments in other sectors of the economy – and certainly UPGS is a very different business which I now hold.

For another topical quote, here’s one from Matt Ridley in an article in the Telegraph (he always has something intelligent to say):

“The whole aim of practical politics, said HL Mencken, ‘is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’

It is hard to avoid the impression that officials are alarmed rather than pleased by the fading of the pandemic in Britain. They had a real hobgoblin to hand, and boy did they make the most of it, but it’s now turning into a pussy cat. So they are back to casting around for imaginary ones to justify their draconian – and deliciously popular – command and control over every detail of our lives. Look, variants!

And yes, the pandemic is fading fast. The vaccine is working ‘better than we could possibly have imagined’, according to Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, based on a study which found that it reduced hospitalisation by 98 per cent……”.

If the pandemic and the associated fear of the population is over, no doubt the Government will ramp up the concern about global warming despite the fact that we had the coldest April for almost 100 years. Government actions in this area are already having a significant effect on some sections of the economy and I have been putting a toe into that pool. No I am not buying electric car stocks but the power generation area is certainly of interest. How to avoid the speculations and just buy good businesses that are not totally reliant on Government funding is surely the key.

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

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Madoff Dies, Parsley Box, Active Trading, Babcock and Covid Vaccinations

Bernie Madoff, arch fraudster, has died in prison. He ran the largest ponzi scheme in history which defrauded investors of over $60 billion. His funds showed unbelievable good performance because he invented share trades to support his fund valuations. This attracted new investors whose cash he used to pay out departing investors and to support dividends. It is unbelievable that such outrageous frauds can still take place in the modern world despite all the onerous regulations.

I mentioned a recently listed company called Parsley Box (MEAL) in a prior blog post. I have now sampled their products – prepacked dinners and have come to the conclusion that I question whether this is likely to become a great company. The meals are rather bland and you can buy cheaper equivalents from supermarkets. They do have the advantage of a long shelf life and do not require refrigeration, but so do other products such as canned goods so I am not convinced there is a big market for them. The company is spending money on national TV advertising, on channels focused on the elderly like me. You can always generate sales if you spend enough on marketing, but that does not necessarily mean that you have a profitable business.  

How actively should one trade? This is a matter of personal preference I have come to believe. Some people can hold stocks for ever in the belief that they will come good in the end whereas others panic at the first sign of trouble. It does of course depend to some extent on the type of stocks in which you invest. Dumping small cap stocks that are on wide spreads can be a very bad idea. The volatility of small cap stocks can bounce you out of a holding quite easily if you have a tight stop-loss.

But there was an amusing story in the latest edition of the Techinvest newsletter. To quote: “In that respect, we are often reminded of a well-publicised study by a large American brokerage a few years ago that aimed to identify which retail accounts generated the highest investment returns. Top of the list were: the accounts of customers who it turned out had been deceased for some time; next best was those accounts that customers had forgotten about and had not traded on for many years; the poorest of investment returns belonged to accounts that had clocked up the highest transaction costs through frequent stock rotation”. Techinvest runs a portfolio and certainly its returns have been very good over the years as they rarely sell stocks. They appear to just wait until some idiot comes along willing to pay a premium price for their holdings.

Personally I often hold stocks for years but I am also impatient when investments seem to be going wrong. I cannot sit there doing nothing. As a man of action, I pander to my impatience by selling a proportion of my holding but not all, i.e. I sell on the way down in stages. That cuts my possible losses. The only exception to this rule I make is if the news is catastrophic or I have lost all trust in the management when I dump the lot.

Babcock (BAB) is a good example of the danger of holding on regardless. It has looked fundamentally cheap for some time but the shares have actually lost 75% of their value in the last 5 years in a steady downward trend. There was more bad news on the 13th April. An announcement from the company said “The contract profitability and balance sheet review (“CPBS”) has identified impairments and charges totaling approximately £1.7 billion”. They now plan some disposals which they suggest may enable them to avoid an equity issue.

On a personal note, I had my second Covid-19 vaccination yesterday (the Pfizer version) so I am feeling slightly tired this morning, as I did after the first. The organisation was chaotic though this time. Originally planned to be done at Guys Hospital but then redirected to St. Thomas hospital and they lost my wife’s record altogether. My tiredness may partly relate to the miles I walked yesterday around and between hospitals. The person who administered the injection worked for British Airways as cabin staff. He was redeployed as there are few flights to service at present. He said a lot of people are extremely nervous about taking the vaccine. He had spent 45 minutes talking to one person before they eventually refused it.

Personally I have no qualms at all about any of the vaccines. They are much safer than the risk of catching the virus. But there are a lot of idiots in this world are there not! The latest bad news however is that the CEO of Pfizer has suggested that we may need a booster every 12 months in future. As I have been having annual flu vaccinations for 25 years that is of no great concern.

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

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Parsley Box Webinar, Wey Education Offer, Crimson Tide Placing and Deliveroo

I have just watched a Mello presentation by Parsley Box (MEAL) which was most interesting. They have recently listed on AIM at a price of 200p valuing the company at £84 million. The business supplies “ready meals” direct to consumers and targets the “baby boomers” like I and my wife, i.e. the 70+ age group, or younger. To quote from their prospectus which is well worth reading: “Parsley Box is listening intently to its customers and aspires to champion the needs of the life-loving 60+ population, whose voice has gone too long unheard and untapped”.

The products are pre-cooked and do not need refrigerating so can be stored in any cupboard with a shelf life of 6 months. It is not a subscription model and orders can be placed by phone or over the internet with next working day delivery. Convenience is clearly the key in comparison with having to visit a local store or order a take-away – you just need to open a cupboard.

The business was founded in 2017 and revenue last year was £24 million with a pre-tax loss of £3.2 million. The reason for the loss seems to be the high expenditure on marketing to grow the customer base. The management team seems very experienced even if the CEO looks a lot younger than his age. When will it make a profit? Who knows?

On a quick read of the prospectus I could not see anything amiss but I have ordered a sample pack to personally check out the product before investing – it does seem to have good reviews on the net. My only possible concern is that there are no clear barriers to entry in the business so competitors could move into the space. That was one reason why I did not consider buying shares in Deliveroo which turned into the biggest IPO flop ever – that’s apart from the dual voting structure which also put off many institutional investors and several other concerns about the business.

One surprise today was an offer for Wey Education (WEY) which I have held since 2019. It’s a bid from Inspired Education via a scheme of arrangement – a cash offer at 47.5p which is a premium of 46% to the last closing price. They already have 53% of the shares committed to vote in favour and with the offer looking very generous I think it’s likely to be a done deal. I will certainly be voting in favour.

Another slight surprise today was a placing by another small AIM company I hold which is Crimson Tide (TIDE) who share a director with Wey. They are raising £6.0 million to fund more sales/marketing and product development. The annual results also announced today were positive with revenue up 21% and pre-tax profits up 51%. However, the historic rate of growth of this business has not been great so perhaps the intention is to fix that. The amount being raised will certainly substantially dilute the share base so it needs to help with revenue and profits growth or eps will be falling significantly.

It seems to make sense to raise funds to develop the business but I will not be rushing into buying the shares particularly until the picture is clearer.

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

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The Death of the High Street, and All Physical Retail Outlets

A couple of items of news today spelled out the dire situation of retailers with physical shops, whether they are on the High Streets, in shopping malls or out of town locations.

Firstly chocolate seller Thorntons are to close all their 61 shops and rely on internet orders and partner sales alone.  Thorntons has been a feature of the retail scene for many years but it had been losing money even before the pandemic hit. I did hold the shares for a time when it was a listed company but it is now owned by Ferrero. I even sold the company some software over 20 years ago and remember visiting their factory more than once. It was indicative of changing shopping habits with supermarket sales and local convenience stores taking over from specialist shops for much of their business and with internet sales being the final nail in the coffin. Some 600 jobs will disappear as a result. The vertically integrated structure (both making and selling their products) gave them some competitive advantage but not enough.

Another indication that shoppers have changed habits, and probably permanently, was the announcement from payments company Boku (BOKU) this morning. In their results for the last year the CEO said this: “Industries dependent on face-to-face contact have been decimated. Some – hospitality, for example – will bounce back when restrictions are released, but for others, the pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends. It turns out that many people didn’t really like driving into town to go shopping and for many types of goods the switch to online will be permanent”.

I hold some Boku shares and although revenue shows another healthy increase, it still lost money last year mainly because of a big write down of goodwill in the Identity Division. One might consider that an exceptional item, although the division is still reporting a loss.

Another interesting announcement this morning was that by Smithson Investment Trust (SSON) which I also hold. In their final results, the fund manager said this: “In the Investment Manager’s view, a high-quality business is one which can sustain a high return on operating capital employed and which generates substantial cash flow, as opposed to only creating accounting earnings. If it also reinvests some of this cash back into the business at its high returns on capital, the Investment Manager believes the cash flow will then compound over time, along with the value of the Company’s investment…….the Investment Manager will look for companies that rely on intangible assets such as one or more of the following: brand names; patents; customer relationships; distribution networks; installed bases of equipment or software which provide a captive market for services, spares and upgrades; or dominant market shares. The Investment Manager will generally seek to avoid companies that rely on tangible assets such as buildings or manufacturing plants, as it believes well-financed competitors can easily replicate and compete with such businesses. The Investment Manager believes that intangible assets are much more difficult for competitors to replicate, and companies reliant on intangible assets require more equity and are less reliant on debt as banks are less willing to lend against such assets.

The Company will only invest in companies that earn a high return on their capital on an unleveraged basis and do not require borrowed money to function. The Investment Manager will avoid sectors such as banks and real estate which require significant levels of debt in order to generate a reasonable shareholder return given their returns on unlevered equity investment are low”.

This formula of ignoring physical assets is proving very successful and demonstrates how the world is changing. I am not quite so pessimistic about real estate companies but certainly those holding retailing assets are surely to be avoided.

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

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Retail Investor Participation in IPOs – A Good Thing?

Shares magazine have reported that the CEOs of major platform operators AJ Bell, Hargreaves Lansdown and Interactive Investor have written to Government Minister Jon Glen asking him to consider the rights of retail investors in IPOs. Long gone are the days when new company listings were advertised in newspapers and retail investors could subscribe, and frequently “stag” the issue to make a quick profit. Nowadays institutional investors are typically offered shares in a placing and retail investors are excluded from participating.

The letter quotes recent examples of THG (Hut Group), Dr Martens (DOCS) and Moonpig (MOON) where retail investors could not participate and also says that between 2017 and 2020 they were excluded from 93% of share launches.

Bearing in mind that those companies now trade at a premium to their launch price, you might think that retail investors have been missing out, although there was nothing stopping investors from buying the shares in the market soon after they launched when you would have had to pay little more. Are these platform operators really acting in the best interests of retail investors in promoting the idea of wider retail participation though? I tend to take the contrary view.

Share prices after an IPO can be extremely volatile in the short term. That is particularly so now that so many companies launch an IPO with a short track record and no profits. In the long term, IPO stocks actually underperform the market. A paper by Jay Ritter noted this: “in the long‐run, initial public offerings appear to be overpriced. Using a sample of 1,526 IPOs that went public in the U.S. in the 1975–84 period, I find that in the 3 years after going public these firms significantly underperformed a set of comparable firms matched by size and industry”; and “There is substantial variation in the underperformance year‐to‐year and across industries, with companies that went public in high‐volume years faring the worst. The patterns are consistent with an IPO market in which (1) investors are periodically overoptimistic about the earnings potential of young growth companies, and (2) firms take advantage of these “windows of opportunity”.

In other words, companies take advantage of good market conditions and insiders know best when to sell. Recent market conditions have therefore been good for IPOs.

I did have a quick look at the prospectus for Doc Martens as a long-standing wearer of their boots and shoes which I can highly recommend. But I was not impressed enough to buy the shares. For example, the company does not even own the brand names it uses. The product is easy to copy also.

Moonpig also appears to me to be wildly optimistic about future prospects given that its business model (delivering cards via internet orders) is surely highly replicable once other businesses realise how much money there is to be made from such a simple business model. Moonpig has also benefited from the short-term impact of the Covid epidemic which has reduced conventional retail sales of greeting cards.

THG certainly have a very well designed and flashy web site, but its cosmetic and health brands hardly seem unique in a crowded market for such products. The company also has a patchy record of profits.  

In essence I can understand why platform operators would like to support the demand by retail investors to get into the next “hot” stocks when launched but the investors would be wiser to step back and wait for the initial enthusiasm to abate. Or at least take a very skeptical view of new IPOs and take a careful read of the prospectus which few retail investors do. Those companies that are IPOs of companies held by private equity investors which they have geared up with debt are ones to be particularly careful about as they know when is a good time to sell and often look to get out in the short term.

Of more concern to me is the discounted placings of shares in existing listed companies where private investors are definitely disadvantaged. That is a problem that does need tackling I suggest.  

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

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Selling Technology, Intercede at Mello, and Sir Frank Whittle

I have just listened to a recording of the Mello event which took place on Monday evening. In the “Bash” section one of the companies presented was Intercede Group (IGP). This company sells security software and is based in Lutterworth, which is in Leicestershire in case you have never been there. Bearing in mind the company’s client list of banks, US Government bodies and companies such as Boeing and Wells Fargo you might think the location a bit odd.

I first purchased the shares in 2010 and I still hold them. But it became clear to me very quickly that this was a typical example of a company with great technology but unable to convert it to profits. The company was founded by Richard Parris who remained Executive Chairman for a very long time – until 2018 in fact when a new CEO took over. Losses have been turned into profits although revenue is still not great (£10 million last year).

I did visit the company’s AGM in Lutterworth a few times and at one meeting I discovered that the company’s operations director was actually Richard’s wife under a different surname. It’s always interesting what you can learn from attending AGMs! The problem was the dominance of the company by someone with a technology background rather than a sales or marketing background. At least that was what I perceived. The culture was I suspect a negative.

Oddly enough there was another company based in Lutterworth which I only recently learned about which had an analogous history. Great technology which became a world beater but where the owners never made much money out of it. This company was Power Jets Ltd which was the baby of Sir Frank Whittle – the inventor of the jet engine.

A recent biography of Whittle is called Jet Man. Its author is Duncan Campbell-Smith and it’s well worth reading. Whittle lost control of the invention and associated patents (being a serving RAF officer did not help) and his company was eventually nationalised. Rolls-Royce acquired some of the technology and it was also given to the USA for nothing. What should have been a great money-spinner for the UK and for Whittle after the war years was lost due to commercial incompetence.

There is apparently a memorial to Frank Whittle and a small museum in Lutterworth if you ever visit Intercede.

Will Intercede ever make real money? It’s a bit early to tell I think but I am certainly more confident in the new management than the old. A slight downside is the recent announcement that they are rewriting the LTIP to reduce the share price targets. I never like to see options rewritten but there may be some justification in this case and certainly the CEO, Klaas van der Leest, has achieved a remarkable turnaround. I’m even finally showing a decent return on my investment in the company.

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

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Scottish Investment Trust Review

This article first appeared on the ShareSoc blog.

One of my contacts has asked me to look at the Scottish Investment Trust (SCIN). This is a self-managed global investment trust which seems to have the same problems that Alliance Trust had before they had a revolution. Namely persistent under-performance. As a result, it is trading at a discount of 10.4% to the net asset value despite doing considerable share buy-backs in the last few months, presumably to try and control the discount. But as we saw at Alliance Trust, which was also self-managed prior to the revolution, share buy-backs rarely solve the discount problem if investors have become disillusioned with the company.

The AIC reported performance figures show a share price total return of -9.2% over one year and -3.1% over 3 years. That compares with global sector returns of +52.2% and +108.4% respectively. Only over 5 and 10 years do they match the sector figures. In other words, recent performance is the issue. This performance is surprising bearing in mind that 34% of their portfolio is in North America which should have been a recipe for success last year.  

What’s their investment strategy? Their last interim report spells it out. They have a “High conviction, global contrarian investment approach”. In more detail they say: “We are contrarian investors. We believe markets are driven by cycles of emotion rather than dispassionate calculation. This creates profitable investment opportunities. We take a different view from the crowd. We seek undervalued, unfashionable companies that are ripe for improvement. We are prepared to be patient. We back our judgement and run a portfolio of our best ideas, selected on a global basis. Our portfolio is unlike any benchmark or index and we fully expect to have differentiated performance. Our approach will not always be in fashion but we believe it delivers above-average returns over the longer term, by which we mean at least five years”.

This kind of comment makes me very skeptical. This looks like a “pick the cheap dogs because the fundamentals will eventually pay off” kind of approach. But I never found that worked. The dogs tend to remain dogs. Being a contrarian in the investment world can be very dangerous.  

Terry Smith of Fundsmith has been attacking the concept of chasing “value stocks”, i.e. those that look cheap on fundamentals. I believe he is quite right. The stocks with a high return on capital, good cash generation and sales growth are the ones that are more successful even when a recession hits.

I have not looked at the SCIN investment portfolio in detail but I would certainly question some of their holdings. I would suggest investors need to tackle the board on this, and ask whether their investment managers are really making good investment decisions. Such substantial underperformance over as long as 3 years certainly raises doubts.

This is what the Chairman said in the last Annual Report: “Global markets continued this year to be dominated by a momentum style of investing which seemingly pays scant regard to valuation, and is an anathema to our value-focused style of investing. To have kept pace with global markets this year, our portfolio would have required a proportionately large exposure to a very small number of companies that we believe are greatly overvalued and a lot less exposure to the names which we consider offer the best potential for long-term gains. This influence, unfortunately, has been a hallmark of markets during the five years since we adopted our contrarian approach and has become greater in more recent years. The result is an extreme divergence between the most and least expensive parts of the market. Such extremes have, historically, proved unsustainable and we believe that a new phase for markets is overdue, one that may favour those who, like us, do not follow the crowd.

Notwithstanding our lack of exposure to what we consider irrationally priced momentum driven investments, there were two particularly advantageous decisions made during the year. The first was our Manager’s decision to take pre-emptive action to preserve capital at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis by selling out of some of the companies we believed would be most impacted. The second was a large exposure to gold miners, which participated strongly in the recovery. Unfortunately, the benefits of these decisions were masked in the second half of the year as markets rewarded stocks deemed impervious to the challenges facing the real economy, such as information technology stocks. In contrast we invested in companies we believed would be less impacted by the travails of the real economy, but were considered dull in the feverish monetary environment created by central bank support, which has fueled momentum investing.

Our contrarian approach explicitly aims to take a different view from other managers and invest without regard to index composition in order to avoid the herding around popular investments that is an inherent trait of active management. We therefore expect our portfolio, and its returns, to be unlike any index”.

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.

Shares magazine have this week published a list of 15 global trusts and gave their 5-year share price total return performance. SCIN came bottom with a total return of 43% whereas the best was Scottish Mortgage at 476%. What a difference! Scottish Mortgage might be exceptional because of their big bets on technology companies, including some unlisted companies but Alliance achieved 106% and Witan 79%. Monks achieved 272% which reminds me that I used to hold it years ago but sold due to consistent poor performance – they had the same investment philosophy as SCIN but they changed it in 2015 after a change in individual fund managers and after I sold the shares. They have been on a roll every since. Does that suggest that patience can eventually be rewarded? No it suggests to me that less patience would have been preferable.

One problem with self-managed funds, even if it does enable a low charging structure, is that it can be difficult to fire the fund managers. A multi-manager approach now followed by Alliance and Witan is I suggest a better option.

The directors got an average of 18% against their re-election at the last AGM so clearly there is a strong demand for some change from investors.

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

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Stockopedia Stockslam Report

I think I am attending too many investment webinars. Last week I fell asleep in one after ten minutes and missed most of the presentation. That can be a particular problem with evening events. But last night’s Stockslam event was lively enough to keep me awake.

These events are run by investment web site Stockopedia and consist of a number of presenters covering their favourite stocks in 3 minutes followed by a few questions. This was the first on-line version and it worked well. I’ll cover the companies presented briefly and add a few comments:

  • Caledonian Mining. A gold miner based in Zimbabwe. All gold miners are very dependent on the price of gold and the other big factor to consider is the political stability of the country in which it operates, which was not mentioned. Looks cheap but needs to be.
  • Unite. Provider of student accommodation. Has been hit by the Covid epidemic, particularly for foreign students. Will students want to return to use such accommodation as most of their education is now done on-line rather than working from home? I think I agree with the presenter that they will as I have a grandson who has just gone to university and is living in such accommodation in Oxford. Might be worthy of further research.
  • RWS. Patent translation and other IP services. I used to hold these shares but I sold after they acquired SDL which I had also held in the past but never seemed to generate real profits. An expensive acquisition perhaps but the Chairman has a good track record.
  • Braemar Shipping. This is a smaller shipping company apparently focused on tanker supply but the financial track record looks very unimpressive – declining or static revenue and profits for some years. Shipping companies are very susceptible to global shipping rates which they have no control over. Looks cheap on fundamentals but needs to be.
  • Renold. Industrial chain supplier. Presenter argued that the management are reviving the business which otherwise looks very mature. I cannot see where growth is coming from although profits are forecast to rise short-term. Big pension deficit was mentioned. It looks like an “old technology” business to me.
  • SDI. Acquirer of small technology businesses. Has been growing profits rapidly and share price has been rising by leaps and bounds as a result, driven by active CEO. As one of the two presenters said “You wouldn’t exactly say it is cheap!” As I hold the shares, I will say no more.
  • Cake Box. A purveyor of personalised “celebration” cakes via a franchise network. An interesting company that is growing rapidly and has a good financial profile. May be worth a closer look if you are not put off any cake retailers by the failure of Patisserie.
  • Gear4Music. On-line music equipment retailer. Looking at the recent share price trend, the epidemic seems to have helped them.
  • Halfords. Car accessories/servicing and bike retailer. Have held this company in the past. Sold at 380p in 2016 – share price now 265p, which tells you a lot. Might have a relatively good year this year from the demand for leisure cycling in the lock-downs but surely otherwise operating in very mature markets. Return on capital has been low in recent years.
  • Atalaya Mining. Copper mining in Spain. Demand for copper is rising due to electric cars etc. Low historic return on capital and lack of dividend mentioned. They are operating in a sector with some very large players, and like any miner are dependent on commodity prices over which they have no influence. Forecasts for next year does make it look cheap.

All the presenters and the host (Damian Cannon) spoke clearly although I think some presenters could have been clearer on the “USP” of their selected companies. For example why buy Atalaya Mining rather than one of the big copper miners?

But an interesting event overall which was oversubscribed and I shall try to attend the next one.

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

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Ideagen Results, Stock Speculation and Verici DX

Ideagen (IDEA), which is one of my long-standing holdings, announced their interim results this morning. There were no surprises in them but it included a note that David Hornsby, Executive Chairman, would be retiring this year. I think I first met David at a Mello event in 2012 and I purchased some shares soon after because I was impressed by how much he knew about selling software. That turned out to be a wise investment as he has grown the business many times subsequently. My shares were originally purchased at about 15p and are now 285p.

A recent conversation with David did give me the impression that it might be time for him to retire. I submitted a written question to the AGM in October, but it was not answered so I took it up later. The question related to the write off of past sales transactions as being uncollectable which were treated as an exceptional item in the accounts. David then calls me and tells me he did not consider the question reasonable (or “somewhat crass” as he later called it). He also suggested if I was not happy, I should sell my shares. This is not the kind of aggressive response I expect from a Chairman to questions that might have been “pointed” but not unreasonable. I also tried to attend the on-line results presentation this morning but for some technical reason it did not allow me to register. Not at all satisfactory. Anyway thanks for the ride David.

Stock Speculation

There is a very good article in the Financial Times today under the headline “Retail investors rush to find the next stock market unicorn” by James Bianco. It reported how investors have piled into technology stocks in recent months. A Goldman Sachs index of non-profitable tech stocks has risen by 400% since March.

It notes three things have dramatically changed retail investor perceptions of investment in small cap stocks: 1) the cutting of broker commissions to zero; 2) the adoption of fractional purchases; and 3) the increase in savings helped by Government assistance payments (which Biden promises to increase further). In effect money is being spent “chasing unicorns”.

If you read my recent review of the book “Boom and Bust” you will realise that these changes (a rise in liquidity from lower trading costs and money being pumped in) are common drivers of speculative bubbles. It is surely time to be wary.

Verici Dx

I am still on the look-out though for interesting small cap stocks. One company I thought I might understand is Verici Dx (VRCI). The company is focused on producing better control of immunosuppression in kidney transplant patients who often suffer from damaging graft rejection. That may not be obvious from current blood tests used to monitor transplants.  As a transplant patient of 20+ years standing I thought I might understand the business.

So I read the prospectus for their IPO on AIM last November. Market cap is now over £100 million but with no revenue or profits. The company is a spin-off from Renalytix AI (RENX) with a similar financial profile and market cap of £640 million but they do expect some sales in 2021.

Both companies have some interesting technology which might certainly be beneficial to kidney disease patients, but the technology is not just unproven but adoption by clinicians might be slow and there are potential competitors.

I consider the valuations way too high for such early-stage businesses even if the potential markets for the technology might be large. A frothy market for such companies puts me off investing until they actually show some revenue. Perhaps these are companies to keep an eye on rather than jump in now.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right in most browsers or by using the Contact page to send us a message requesting. You will then receive an email alerting you to new posts as they are added.

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