Coronavirus News, AstraZeneca Vaccine, Bowling Alleys and Boeing 747s Retired

The UK death count from the Covid-19 virus is now 45,233. At least that’s the latest figure available because daily reports of deaths have now been suspended because the statistic is now known to be unreliable. Anyone who was identified as a Covid-19 infected person but later died from any cause is identified as a Covid-19 death. The result is that someone who was at death’s door from cancer before infection is counted as a Covid-19 death. Even someone who is run over by a bus is likewise included. This is truly bizarre and the Government has ordered an investigation.

The good news is that a second vaccine candidate looks like it might be effective. This is the one produced by Oxford University and which AstraZeneca (AZN) is gearing up to manufacture and distribute in volume. The share price of the company perked up on Friday as a result based on press reports and rumours although the trial results are not due to be published in the Lancet until Monday. Whether they will really make any money from this product remains to be seen. I only hold a few shares in the company and will wait to see a clearer view before buying more.

The other good news is that bowling alleys and other similar entertainment venues such as casinos will be able to reopen on the 1st August. But there will be restrictions on bowling alleys with only alternate lanes open, players limited to groups of 6 and they will be offered gloves to wear. Also bowling shoes are out.

I always thought the provision of shoes was a bit odd now that everyone is wearing trainers or other rubber/plastic soled shoes as I thought the original purpose was to protect the wooden runway. It seems that bowling shoes also enable the players to slide along the surface but only professionals actually do that. Bowling shoes may now die out.

CFO of Hollywood Bowl Lawrence Keen was quoted by the BBC as saying: “At 50% capacity, the company will still be profitable, albeit just”. I own a few shares in both Hollywood Bowl (BOWL) and Ten Entertainment (TEG) but again I think it is best to wait and see whether the players return before buying more shares.

Other news was the announcement by BA that they are “retiring” their entire fleet of Boeing 747s. With 31 planes they are the largest operator of the planes in the world.

As airline passenger numbers are much reduced from the epidemic impact, BA clearly sees little chance of filling the planes in future, and you need to fill a 747 to make them economic operationally. Boeing 747s were first made operational in about 1970 and unbelievably are still being manufactured, albeit with a lot of updates such as improved engines. They are still in demand for cargo flights due to their large capacity. What’s the price of a good second-hand 747-400? About $12 million, although I suspect prices are falling rapidly.

Memories: I recall the original promotional videos for the plane which featured lots of space to walk around in “lounges” with a bar at one end. In reality they soon crammed in as many passengers as possible and were hence not particularly comfortable, particularly in economy class. Some planes were configured to use the “upper deck” which one reached via stairs and I do recall at least one trip in that location. But the large number of passengers always meant it took a long time to unload and load, with long queues at passport control resulting.  Certainly a plane to avoid for passengers in my opinion even if you were flying business or first class. There was a certain comfort in having four engines in case one or two failed, but aircraft engines improved in reliability over the years so the initial doubts about flying more fuel efficient twin-engined planes soon vanished.

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

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Boohoo – Should I Speculate in the Shares?

There has been a lot of media comment on fast fashion retailer Boohoo (BOO) after publicity on the working conditions in the clothing industry in Leicester where at least some of its products are produced. The suggestions are that people are paid less than the legal minimum wage and work long hours in poor conditions, even possibly breaching Covid-19 regulations. The company has launched an immediate review led by a QC into these allegations, although the company has other sources of supply overseas and it seems that those produced in Leicester may simply be repackaged there.

The company also came under attack from shorter Shadowfall who published a damaging dossier in May which you can find on the web. The share price has been as high as 400p this year, but fell to close at 224p last night. However it’s making a sharp recovery today.

I don’t currently hold the shares but I did hold them from 2014 to 2017/18 and made considerable profits as a result. Last night the share price was back to near where I sold. Should I buy back into the shares is a question I face and my answer is probably not. These are my reasons:

The company has obviously been on a roll in the last few years with revenue doubling in the last 3 years. They have exploited the growth in the use of the internet for clothes shopping in the same way as ASOS, thus leaving traditional retail stores in their wake. With low price clothes that appeal to the young to the extent that some of it is disposable after one use, they have established a new business model with associated marketing channels.

Financially they have a very high rating as investor enthusiasm for the growth story means they are now on a historic p/e of 53. But there are a whole range of issues that are of concern, some of which are apparent from the Shadowfall report. I particularly focus below on the non-financial aspects because as I say in my book Business Perspective Investing, accounts cannot be relied upon and it’s best to look at other aspects of a business.

Are there any barriers to entry in this business is one key question? Are they doing something that cannot be copied by competitors? Will their profits and profit margins be eroded by lookalike competitors in the traditionally fierce rag trade?

A few years ago, it might not have been easy to set up an internet retailing operation, but now everyone knows how to do it and it does not cost much either. The traditional clothing retailers and supermarkets may be catching up fast even if Boohoo have built a big customer base. But I suspect their customers are fickle, being young and impulsive and might easily be poached by others with lower priced promotions.

Shadowfall points out that one of the company’s competitors is ISawItFirst.com who even appear to be selling apparently identical products. That company is majority owned by the brother of BOO’s Chairman. Another oddity is that BOO owns 66% of PrettyLittleThing with an option to buy the rest. That company is also a competitor and is run by the son of BOO’s Chairman.

The company also acknowledges in its latest announcement that the current board comprises 4 executive directors and 3 non-executive directors, i.e. there is no majority of non-execs as usually expected for larger companies – and BOO is large with a current market cap of about £3 billion.

In summary, this looks like a company for short term speculation rather than long-term investment to me. Not my ideal investment proposition without even looking at their financials and the questions raised on them.

There is also a big risk there will be more bad news about their operations revealed in due course. Once a company comes under a spotlight, any dirt that was previously swept under the carpet tends to be revealed.

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

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Obituary – Tony Pidgley of Berkeley Group

Last week the sudden death of Tony Pidgley, Chairman of Berkeley Group (BKG), was announced at the age of 72. He founded the company and grew it to be one of the largest housebuilders in the UK.

He had a difficult childhood being adopted by travelers but left school at the age of 15. Only a few years later he founded Berkeley, building just one house initially. The company announced its results on the 17th June which showed revenues of £1,920 million last year and profits of £503 million, albeit they were down by 35%. Altogether a remarkable success story over many years by riding the peaks and troughs of the housing market very successfully. It is undoubtedly the case that Tony Pidgley knew a great deal about the building industry and how to make money in it.

I held shares in the company prior to 2017 and there were reports on the company AGMs written by me and my son in 2016 and 2014. These meetings were not good examples of how public companies should be run with Pidgley clearly dominating the business as Executive Chairman. For example there were complaints about directors’ remuneration, and the AGMs were treated as trivial affairs. ShareSoc members can read those AGM reports on the ShareSoc web site.

Perhaps it’s a typical example of how all very successful people have more than one side to their personality.

Berkeley have traditionally focused on building up-market houses or apartments in London and the South-East. But is this market changing? There was an interesting article in the Financial Times last week about the movement of people out of central London into the suburbs. It was headlined “Dalston is out, Twickenham is in; why Londoners are dreaming of the suburbs”. It explained how the success of home working, but the inconvenience of doing so in small houses or flats, has made people look to move out of central London to the outer London suburbs where I live. That is particularly so as they may not need to go into the office every day.

I can well believe it. Not only did my neighbour manage to sell her house in record time, but we received a personal letter sent to all of our street asking whether we wanted to sell. This was not the normal estate agents letter touting for business which we get occasionally.

I can see the merit in such moves as central London house prices are still astronomic in comparison with the suburbs and the quality of life is substantially better. Less crime and fewer riots for example.

Will Berkeley have to transition to a slightly different model under a new leader I wonder?

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

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Coronavirus Impacts – Victoria, Auto Trader and Bowling Alleys

Stock market investors are clearly becoming nervous again following a rise in Covid-19 infections in the UKA – particularly in the Southern and Western states. This has affected the US stock markets and, as usual, it has affected UK markets in sympathy.

There were two announcements this morning that were interesting as regards the impact of the virus epidemic and the resulting “lockdown” of the population. Home working has become more normal or people have been “furloughed” or permanently laid off.

Victoria (VCP), a manufacturer of floor coverings, had to close their factories but they have all now reopened. Their customers are mostly retailers and many of them had to close but are now reopening or already have done. The company says group revenues for the last three weeks are now at 85% of pre-Covid-19 budgets.

Interestingly they say this in today’s trading update: “It is important to remember that 93% of Victoria’s revenues are derived from consumers redecorating their homes, not construction or commercial projects, and consumer demand for home decorating products appears to be strong across the world. This is not altogether surprising, given the extended period consumers have spent in their home over the last four months, which is likely to have encouraged the impulse to redecorate”. Clearly it’s time to do some DIY jobs.

Auto Trader Group (AUTO) announced their final results for the year ending March 2020, which contained an update on current trading. They provide a web portal for car dealers, who all had to close. Auto Trader provided free advertising in April and May plus a 25% discount in June. As a result they lost money in those months. The company has also chopped the dividend, cancelled further share buy-banks, did an equity placing and used the Government’s Job Retention Scheme. A vigorous response in essence, rather like that of property portal Rightmove.

Car dealers are reopening but for most you cannot just walk in to the dealer. You have to make an appointment. This encourages web shopping for a new car which is to the advantage of Auto Trader. The company announcement (and what was said in their web cast which was otherwise somewhat boring as it consisted mainly of reading a script), was generally positive but it leaves a question as to how soon car sales will recover. They don’t seem to be losing many dealers and dealer stock figures are what matter rather than sales. But dealers’ revenue and profits might come under pressure as many car purchases can be postponed. Cars do wear out of course, but with mileage reduced as there were, or are, few places open to go to and more home working is taking place, this could reduce car sales.

This is therefore a company where one needs to look to the future and how they can capitalise on the trend to shop for cars on the internet, like one might shop for groceries or clothes of late. One competitor mentioned in the conference call was Cazoo who sell (or lease) cars directly on the internet. No test drives or inspection first. You just get 7 days to trial it before acceptance. This is clearly a different business model that might affect traditional dealers although they also provide service of course and concentrate on new cars which is a more complex sales process. There may also be an issue of trust when using an on-line service. But the process of buying and selling cars certainly needs simplifying from my last experience of doing so.

At least bars and restaurants can reopen, albeit with severe restrictions on social distancing. That will certainly reduce their sales volumes and increase their costs, resulting in a big hit to profits. Still a sector to avoid I think.

Bowling alleys were expecting to be able to open from the 4th July based on what Ten Entertainment (TEG) and Hollywood Bowl (BOWL) said. But the recent Government announcement has put a stop to that along with the reopening of gyms and swimming pools. They now hope to reopen in August.

Is this ban rational? I can see why indoor gyms might need to remain closed. A lot of heavy breathing and sweating in close proximity. But bowlers don’t exert themselves much from my experience and if alternate lanes were used social separation would be good so long as they used their own shoes.

Note that I hold shares in some of the above companies. But thankfully not in Wirecard which I previously commented upon and which is now filing for bankruptcy proceedings.

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

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How to Spot a Fraud (Wirecard)

There was a very good article on Wirecard by fund manager Barry Norris on Citywire yesterday. It was headlined “Wirecard raised more red flags than a communist rally” and explained how he thought it was probably a fraud as long ago as March 2018.

He met the former CFO of the company Burkhard Ley in that year but he seemed unable to answer the basic question of “Precisely from which activities did they generate revenue”. One particularly telling comment from my knowledge of the payments sector was this: “When pressed for a specific response on how much of the company’s revenues came from online pornography and illegal casinos, Burkhard claimed ignorance and just grinned, like a well-coiffed cat who not only had just had the cream but who had also just eaten the family pet hamster”.

The Financial Times published allegations about false accounts at the company in January 2019, and again later. But the German financial regulator took no action and even banned short selling of the company’s shares.

Another very negative sign was in early 2020 when the company raised more debt even though it had high profits margins, limited capital expenditure, paid minimal dividends and according to its accounts was generating cash.

The latest news is that former Wirecard CEO Markus Braun has been arrested based on allegations of false accounting.

What can be learned from this case? Firstly that company management who are reluctant to answer detail questions about the business are not people you can trust. The bullshitters who wish to talk about market dynamics and their position in a hot sector rather than the details on how they actually make money (i.e. the business model) are particularly suspect. Secondly that accounts cannot be trusted – not even the cash figures even though they should be simple to verify. See also Patisserie and Globo for examples of where the cash was simply not there. Where there are international businesses with multiple auditors involved, they are even more likely to be unreliable.

Frauds rarely come out of the blue but there are warning signs much earlier than the final disclosure of unexplained problems and company collapse. So it took 4 years at Wirecard for the truth to be generally acknowledged even though issues with the accounts were widely publicised. Why did investors stay faithful to the company? Because investors are always reluctant to admit to their own blind faith in the business particularly when the share price has handsomely rewarded them in the past. People do by nature trust management of companies when the correct approach should be the contrary. Charismatic leaders who dominate their companies are frequently the ones to be wary about.

But it’s never too late to change your mind about a company and sell. A reluctance to sell on negative news is a common psychological trait – it’s called loss aversion. Wirecard investors certainly had plenty of opportunity to do so.

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

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Learning Technologies and Ten Entertainment AGMs

I “attended” the on-line Annual General Meeting of Learning Technologies Group (LTG) today. This was run using the GoToWebinar software. There did not appear to be many people on the call as only one shareholder asked a question. Perhaps this was because you had to register for the event in advance using your Investor Code – which only those on the register would have, not those in nominee accounts. This is deeply unsatisfactory.

The meeting was initially chaired by Andrew Brode who spoke some platitudes before handing over to the CFO Neil Elton. Brode’s comments were the same as published in an RNS announcement this morning I believe but he did thank shareholders for their support of the recent share placing.

Mr Elton reviewed the financial results from last year and said that the company had achieved compound annual growth of 61% per annum since listing. Net debt at the end of May was £4.5 million, and there was strong operating cash flow. The return on capital employed increased to 16.4% last year. But the final dividend payment had been delayed.

CEO Jonathan Satchell then covered the progress on corporate governance. He mentioned the “measures taken to shore up the balance sheet” which is what I suggested the placing was really for in a previous blog post. He suggested that was because the economic crisis could get much worse later this year.

On governance he said they go further than the AIM regulation requirements. All directors are up for re-election and there is a vote on remuneration. [Comment: these are certainly good points]. He also discussed diversity in the workforce and new initiatives in this area will be announced.

The company has increased the number of products sold per client. They have only 10-11% exposure to Covid affected sectors. They are currently bidding for a “gargantuan” contract for the Royal Navy. They expect a result before the year end.

He then discussed the recent LMS acquisition – they have great hopes for the future of this business which they hope to make a market leader by adding other similar acquisitions.

He discussed the recent share placing. The reason for it was that they did not feel they could use surplus funds for acquisitions as there may be a liquidity crisis later this year.  He expected the core business to return to growth next year.

Questions were then invited but as none had been received at this point, we went to the formal business with votes on a poll. The poll counts were then read out, as all proxy votes has previously been received. All resolutions were passed but I noted that two directors received relatively low votes in favour. That include Andrew Brode with only 90.8% FOR.

Questions were then invited and one shareholder suggested that private shareholders could be included in placings by using such organisations as Primary Bid. Andrew Brode responded that the way it was done was based on advice from their joint brokers. Shareholders could buy shares in the market afterwards at a tiny premium, he suggested.

[Comment: Primary Bid is one solution but it is far from ideal with shareholders being given minimal time to take up any offer and possibly being downsized as well. It is also only fortuitous that the shares could be picked up for near the placing price in the market later. There did not appear to be any real urgency to get the placing done so an open offer alongside should have been done. Regrettably there are too many such placings of late].

This “virtual” AGM worked reasonably well, but you could not see who else was attending and there was no real interaction with shareholders present. Also Andrew Brode’s speech was difficult to hear at times. This was not a good alternative to a physical AGM.

Note: the above report may be inaccurate because it’s even more difficult to make notes of a virtual meeting than it is in a physical one. Sometimes it was not even clear which director was speaking for example.

Another recent AGM of an AIM company was that of bowling alley operator Ten Entertainment (TEG) for which I hold all of 50 shares. I sold almost all my holding before they had to close all their venues. This was another company that did a placing recently but it is hardly surprising in this case that it was required to keep the business afloat until they can get back into operation.

I don’t think this company even offered virtual attendance at their AGM so only the poll results were subsequently announced. They collected over 20% of votes against both the Remuneration Policy and Remuneration Report and two directors including the Chairman also collected substantial votes Against. The company is to review its remuneration policy which I certainly did not like when I looked at it.

Virtual and Hybrid AGMs, and a solution

I have been discussing with other ShareSoc members how virtual and hybrid AGMs should operate – indeed how AGMs should generally function in future as it is quite possible that virtual or hybrid options may become the norm even after the epidemic has passed. For instance companies such as TEG are changing their articles to permit them in the long term even after the temporary authorisation to permit them has lapsed.

But it is clear that there are good and bad practices while attendance at a physical AGM is still clearly advantageous so it would be a shame if that is excluded in future. For example it gives you the opportunity to have informal discussions with directors before and after the meeting as well as with other shareholders which you can never do at virtual AGMs. It also gives some of us the rare opportunity to get out of our home offices – we are all suffering from cabin fever at present!

One somewhat archaic practice that is likely to disappear is the “show of hands” vote. This was always useful and appreciated by shareholders because it firstly allowed AGMs to be concluded rapidly if there was no significant opposition to resolutions, and secondly it allowed you to easily see the overall opinion of shareholders at the meeting. If there was any doubt of shareholders views, a poll can be called by the Chairman, or by shareholders. A poll often means that the vote outcome is not declared until much later – too late to ask about any opposition. If that tactic is used I always ask the question in the meeting of “were there any significant proxy votes against any of the resolutions” as the proxy votes are known well before the meeting.

But with hybrid meetings (those where a physical meeting is combined with a virtual one), I can see a number of practical difficulties with allowing a show of hands vote (and checking who is voting), so I think that will go the way of the dinosaurs.

I suggest also that presentations to shareholders, and discussion thereon, should preferably be separated out into a previous virtual event – sometime after the Annual report is issued and Notice of the AGM has been issued but before the proxy vote deadline. This would enable shareholders (and others as such as non-shareholders and nominee holders) to become informed before they vote. The formal AGM with voting on a poll could then be held later (as a hybrid meeting).

Does this idea make any sense to readers?

But it is clear that it would help to standardise the actual process for virtual meetings and the software that might be used for them – or at least to those that can support the facilities that are needed.

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

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Wirecard Cash Missing and Black Reparations

I always have pleasure in reporting major accounting frauds as it backs up the argument in my book Business Perspective Investing that the accounts of companies cannot be trusted and you need to look at other things to judge the quality of a company. But investors in German payments company Wirecard will be very disappointed that €1.9 billion has gone missing. It seems that information on “spurious cash balances” had been provided to their auditors (EY) by a third party (a trustee supposedly holding it).

The Financial Times has been running a series of articles over several months questioning the accounts of this company, but the shares are now down another 50% and it raises questions as to whether the company can survive.

Another story in the FT today was of organisations such as brewer Greene King and the Lloyds insurance market offering donations to charities supporting “diversity and inclusion” and were apologising for their past involvement in the slave trade. That’s for events before 1807 in Britain and 1865 in the USA when slavery was abolished. Greene King left the stock market in 2019. I just hope none of the companies in which I hold shares participates in this nonsense. Trying to rectify historic wrongs from 200 years ago is just unrealistic and totally unjustified when the persons affected are long dead. History is full of past injustices and it’s simply impossible to compensate for all of them.

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

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Why Do People Queue, and Retail Renaissance?

This blog post was prompted by pictures of people shopping on Oxford Street last night and a tweet from Emilios Shavila showing a queue for Primark at my local shopping centre in Bromley – it looks to be at least 100 yards long. Why does anyone queue to buy non-essential items? Have they not discovered internet shopping?

This is very puzzling as personally I can’t stand to queue for anything and I don’t think I have been in a shop for over 3 months, and very rarely also in the last year. Do people like the social interaction of shopping? Or is it because they can take a friend along and ask them “do I look good in this?”. Perhaps retail shops are not quite heading for extinction just yet, but I certainly would not be investing in them at present unless they had a very strong on-line business element. I feel that shopping habits really are changing and the epidemic has  hastened the move to on-line retail therapy.

The good news is that US retail sales bounced upwards by 18% in May which is a record since 1992 according to the FT and confounded forecasts of a rise of only 8%. That followed a decline of 15% in April. Will the UK follow a similar pattern? Let us hope so because retail spending can have a big impact on the overall economy.

One company that might be affected by High Street footfall is Greggs (GRG) who gave an update on their plans for outlet reopening this morning. Many of their shops are still on High Streets although they have been diversifying into other locations such as motorway service stations and train stations. Greggs has over 2,000 shops altogether and plan to reopen 800 on the 18th June. The rest will reopen in July.

The share price has jumped by 7% at the time of writing, but they do say that they “anticipate that sales may be lower than normal for some time”. Shore Capital reiterated its “Sell” rating on the share because they consider the High Street will take time to adjust to life in a post-coronavirus environment”. They also consider that Greggs will incur significant extra costs as a result of the measures they need to take.

My view (as a shareholder in Greggs) is that I still find it impossible to judge the likely profits (or losses) at Greggs in the short term despite quite a lot of detail in today’s announcement. It’s really a bet at present whether you see it as a valuable property in the long term or not while ignoring the short-term pain. That’s not the kind of investment bet I like to take so I will simply wait until the picture becomes clearer. Regrettably the same logic applies to many other companies at present.

On a personal note, one organisation that has solved the queuing problem is the NHS. Apart from converting my hospital appointments to telephone consultations, the latest manifestation was a new “drive-thru” blood testing service. You get a timed appointment so I drove up on the dot and immediately had it taken through the car window. No need to even get out of the vehicle. Absolutely brilliant. But I am not sure that will be quite so practical in mid-winter.

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

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Babcock Dividend, Ocado Placing, AGM Reform and Why Are People So Angry?

To follow up on my previous blog post about Babcock (BAB) and the possibility of it “skipping” its final dividend, the company issued its Final Results this morning and spelled it out. This is what it said about the dividend: “Given the current level of uncertainty over the impact of COVID-19, the Board has decided to defer the decision on our final dividend for the year ended 31 March 2020. We recognise the importance of the dividend to our shareholders and the Board will keep this under review during the financial year as the impact of COVID-19 becomes clearer”. That is not what Shore Capital suggested at all.

Although the company appears to have met forecasts for last year, and says it has a record order book, the share price has fallen 5% at the time of writing. The market in general is down considerably also though.

Ocado (OCDO) announced an institutional placing yesterday together with an offer via Primary Bid to retail investors. Like the one for Segro I commented on yesterday, this is a fund raising for expansion and is at a relatively small discount and dilution. These arrangements are now becoming common but I still don’t like them. They give private investors very little time to decide whether they wish to take up the offer and they do not know what price is being offered. As a holder of Ocado, this is another one I declined to invest in. Ocado share price is down 5.7% this morning at the time of writing which is exactly the same as the discount in the offer to the previous closing price, i.e. you could pick up shares in the market just as cheaply. I suggest companies should do proper rights issues rather than this dubious method and that the FCA should regulate this area more robustly.

There was a good article in the Financial Times today under the headline “Coronavirus casts doubt on the future of AGMs”. It describes the debate over the reform of AGMs and the use of virtual AGMs. It also covered an initiative by organisation ShareAction who are raising money to fund research into the issue. They quote Catherine Howarth as saying “We hope to co-develop a robust framework for AGMs that would still include shareholder votes and which would also help companies interact with a wider range of their important stakeholders including employees, customers, suppliers and communities”. That may be a worthwhile initiative if it makes AGMs more vibrant and useful than they are now but bearing in mind the funding of ShareAction it may not be a totally unbiased proposal.

What we do not want is AGMs dominated by “stakeholders” with political views as happens already at some companies – such as oil and mining company AGMs with endless complaints from environmental activists or defence industry company AGMs dominated by those who believe the company should not be involved in that industry at all. Companies are not in business to right all the social wrongs in the world, but to provide a financial return to their shareholders. They just need to operate within the laws set by national governments. Company law in the UK already requires the company to take the wider interests of stakeholders such as employees or customers into account and they can be represented at AGMs easily enough now by just buying a few shares – you only need one share to attend an AGM.

The FT article does make some good points about virtual AGMs, one of which I commented upon yesterday (EKF Diagnostics). But it suggests that it might cost £10,000 to hold a “hybrid” meeting at a small company. That is surely a grossly excessive estimate if voting is done on a poll. It’s trivial to set up a Zoom meeting for the number of investors likely to attend such a meeting (only a dozen at EKF).

I don’t often comment on general political or economic issues, but I find the current hysteria about the death of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations over “Black Lives Matter” in the USA and UK totally out of proportion. George Floyd was a very tall and heavy person who it is alleged resisted arrest. He had a past criminal record and was a drug user. The full facts of the case have not yet been revealed and it is way too early to say whether the police used excessive force or not, even if the result was very sad.

As to whether there is wider discrimination against black or coloured people in the USA or the UK is also doubtful. From my experience of working in the USA, there appeared to be very little direct discrimination. Did not Colin Powell become head of the US Army and Secretary of State? Did not Barack Obama become US President? But as in the UK, black people are disadvantaged often by the social and cultural backgrounds of their families. Righting that can only be done by education not by demonstrations or laws. Demonstrations actually make matters worse, and the recent violent ones and attacks on property such as historic statues actually make people less sympathetic to the cause. Meanwhile the failure by the police to stop these events undermines law and order in general, just as happened with the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations.

Why are people so angry that they feel the need to take part in such demonstrations, including many people who are not black and hence could not have personally suffered from any prejudice? You can see the same problem in the divisive politics of Brexit where rational debate soon flew out of the window and it degenerated into personal slanging matches on social media. In fact social media and national media reporting of news has actually coarsened political life. The BBC in particular has often seemed to be more interested in stimulating outrage to improve their readership or programme viewing and web site clicks than in reporting the facts in a neutral and unbiased way. This is not a useful national broadcasting service. It has become a medium for slanted propaganda and for stimulating social unrest. This is a problem that responsible politicians will need to tackle sooner or later. But in the meantime those such as Sadiq Khan in London seem more interested in stimulating political division over trivia with the objective of gaining a few votes.

As investors, my readers will have to face up to these issues sooner or later because when the social fabric of a country crumbles as the result of poor leadership, sooner or later the economy crumbles also.

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

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Babcock Price Fall, Segro Placing, TR Property and EKF Diagnostics Virtual AGM

I said in a previous blog post “that I tend to avoid FTSE-100 companies as their share prices are driven by professional analysts’ comments, by geo-political concerns, by general economic trends and by commodity prices. You can buy a FTSE-100 company and soon find it’s going downhill because one influential analyst has decided its prospects are not as they previously thought”.

Indeed that is exactly what happened after I made a recent purchase of Babcock International (BAB). Soon after Shore Capital Markets published a note that said it would be skipping its final dividend. The share price promptly fell by 7% on that day even though they claimed to “retain a buy stance” on the shares.

The last announcement by the company covering the subject of dividends on the 6th April simply said “The Board will consider the final ordinary dividend for this financial year ahead of our full year results announcement [due on the 11th June] taking into account developments over the next two months”. Do Shore Capital have inside information or are they just guessing? Or did they consult the company first? If they were given any relevant steer on this matter, the company should have issued a statement on it. Regardless it’s somewhat annoying even if some moderation of the dividend might make some sense and everyone else is cutting them. I would not be too concerned about the loss of dividend because I never buy shares for dividends alone, but I don’t like to suffer capital losses.

Yesterday property company Segro (SGRO) announced a placing “to take advantage of additional investment opportunities”. There was no open offer but private shareholders could participate via Primary Bid if you were willing to accept the price agreed with institutional holders. The shares issued represented 7% of the existing capital and the placing price turned out to be 820p, a discount of 4.5% to the previous close. I declined to participate, mainly because I have enough of their shares already. One has to ask why they could not have done a proper rights issue as there seemed no great urgency in the matter.

Last night I watched a presentation by Marcus Phayre-Mudge, fund manager for TR Property Investment Trust (TRY), on the internet. This tended to simply confirm my view that this is a well-managed fund which is withstanding the Covid-19 epidemic well. It has avoided many of the property sectors most damaged by the virus. It has a pan-European focus when internet retailing in the rest of Europe is still well behind that in the UK. He said “retailing is in an accelerating structural shift” but he does not “believe the end of the office is nigh”. A very useful and informative presentation via PI World even if he got cut off at the end due to some unknown technical issue. You can see a recording of it here: https://www.piworld.co.uk/

This morning I attended the virtual AGM of EKF Diagnostics (EKF), a medical products manufacturer mainly for diagnostic applications. There were about 12 attendees via a Zoom conference call and it worked quite well. Attendees were asked to register and submit questions in advance, although there was time to ask impromptu questions in the meeting also which were invited at the end.

Voting was done on a poll so the results of that were displayed first. The meeting was chaired by CEO Julian Baines.

I submitted a question about their investment in Renalytix AI (RENX) and its progress, which had been recently listed. I suggested progress was slow but the response was that progress had not been slow at all. However the Covid-19 situation has delayed tests in hospitals in the USA.  Progress on approvals is significant and revenues are expected shortly.

There was a question on the ramp-up of sales in McKesson and the answer was they had slowed significantly. But the company overall was only about 10% down on core products. They had seen business coming back on line in May and June.

Another question related to the Longhorn product which was claimed to be “the world’s safest sample collection product” (very relevant to virus sample collection of course). They are selling millions of these tubes in the USA. There is only one competitor who is allegedly infringing their patents – they are speaking to them “robustly” at present.

There were several other questions and answers of no great significance, but it was certainly a useful meeting and a good example of how any small/medium company could run a virtual AGM very easily. Why do they not do so?

My thanks to EKF for running such an event, which took less than 30 minutes in duration.

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

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