Productivity, Sage, Sophos and Investment Trust Discounts

There was an interesting article last week in Investors Chronicle where Bearbull attempted to analyse the variations between company productivity. Productivity, or the lack of it in the UK, is one of the big issues weighing on the minds of politicians of late. Is the productivity of UK companies getting better or worse was one of the questions he attempted to answer.

For investors, productivity is surely one thing we should look at when deciding in which companies to invest. Those businesses that get the most out of the capital they employ (measured by Return on Capital, or ROCE), and also get the most out of their employees, are surely the ones most likely to be successful and generate the profits and dividends we like as investors.

But one needs to combine the two because obviously employees can be traded off against capital. By investing in more automation, employees can be reduced. But there is also the problem that businesses vary in nature. So natural resource companies such as oil producers can have large revenues and profits generated by relatively few staff, while retailers generate equivalent profits from much larger staff numbers.

Bearbull had a stab at producing a combined productivity index for a range of large cap companies, but as the results were still very wide ranging ended up focusing on whether their productivity was increasing or decreasing. Results were still varied.

There is a way to make use of such figures and that is to compare companies in the same business sector. For example software companies employ a lot of staff, but generally little capital apart from their past investment in developed software or in acquisitions. One way I used to look at companies in the software industry when I worked in it was to look at the revenue and profits per employee and I still find those useful measures. They can tell you a lot about the nature of the business.

It’s informative for example to compare two of the larger UK software businesses – Sage (SGE) and Sophos (SOPH). Sage has recently been the subject of a downgrade by analysts at Deutsche Bank and the shares have been heading south for some time as competition from new entrants into the accounting software space seems to be increasing. But at least they are making profits. Sophos is in the hot IT security sector but is still reporting operating losses.

But it’s interesting to look at their sales per employee – that was £124,320 in the case of Sage (13,795 employees) and £116,975 in the case of Sophos (3,187 employees) from the latest Annual Reports that are available. In other words, very similar. Operating profits per employee were £25,154 at Sage while Sophos reported a loss of £8,000 per employee.

The big difference was in average employee costs which were £57,194 at Sage and £95,387 at Sophos. The latter is a very high figure which helps to explain why they are losing money.

Sophos looks to be an example of where the directors and employees are taking most of the profits leaving very little for shareholders – indeed a negative return to them.

Investment Trust Discounts

I mentioned in a previous article the high share price discount to Net Asset

Value at RIT Capital Partners which encouraged me to sell the shares. The discount was actually a premium of 6.8% which I reported although I am advised it had actually been even higher in the recent past.

It is common knowledge with anyone who invests in investment trusts that discounts have narrowed in the last year with popular trusts now often on premiums. The dangers of buying trusts that trade at a high premium was recently evidenced by the fall in the share price of the Independent Investment Trust (IIT). As reported by Citywire recently, the share price unwound by 10.9% in one week after the premium shrank from a peak of 20% in June. It’s now only 6.2% but that’s still too high in my view.

The company performed exceptionally well in 2017 (NAV up 53%) but even so this is surely a case of investors expecting “past performance to be indicative of future performance” when every health warning on stock market investments tells you the contrary. The long-term performance record is good but there is a limit to the price one should pay for anything.

You can track the company’s performance, and the discount it trades at on the Association of Investment Companies (AICs) web site. There are many other relatively high performing investment trusts that still trade at a discount.

Why should investment trusts trade at a discount? Because just looking at the income they produce, if the management and administration charges reduce their income by 1%, when their yield was otherwise 5%, then the share price should be at a discount of 20% because otherwise people can buy the individual holdings of the company directly and increase their income in that proportion. That ignores the relative proportion of dividends paid out of income versus capital growth. Of late we have had lots of capital growth but that is not always the case. If the market starts to go down then share price premiums on investment trusts could well collapse.

A particular problem with investment trusts, and the reason why discounts, or premiums, can sometimes become extreme, is the relatively low volume of share trading even in large trusts, i.e. there is low liquidity. Buyers are often long-term holders with few active traders speculating in the shares. This problem tends to worsen in the summer months when many investors are on holiday so one needs to be wary of trading such shares in that period.

I hold none of the companies mentioned above, for the avoidance of doubt.

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

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Mulberry Profit Warning – Better Late Than Never

On Saturday (18/8/2018) I wrote about the damage to suppliers from the pre-pack administration at House of Fraser. One of the companies mentioned was Mulberry Group Plc (MUL) and I queried why they had not issued an RNS announcement indicating the likely impact on their profits. I suggested it could be £2.4 million.

This morning Mulberry issued a profit warning that spelled out the likely figure. There will be a provision of £3 million of “exceptional costs” related to the 21 “concessions” that they operated in House of Fraser stores. That arises from “a review of debtor balances, fixed assets and potential costs that may result from restructuring”.

For the avoidance of doubt, I have never owned the shares, nor bought their products. They do sell some nice handbags at £1,000 plus though. Both the products and the share price are too rich for me. At a prospective p/e of over 50 even before this morning’s profit warning, they must have some loyal followers.

The share price has fallen by 17% this morning at the time of writing. I hope shareholders in Mulberry will complain to the Insolvency Service (part of the BEIS Department – the responsible Minister is Kelly Tolhurst M.P.). The insolvency regime needs major reform.

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

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House of Fraser – The Real Damage from the Pre-Pack and to Mulberry

I have covered the abuse of pre-pack administrations and the case of House of Fraser in two previous blog articles. But now that the initial administrators report has been published the real damage is very clear.

House of Fraser had total debts of £884 million of which trade suppliers were owed £484 million. The latter means goods supplied to the company, and sitting in the stores being sold to customers which will not be paid for by either the administrator or the new owners. The suppliers included big names such as Mulberry, Giorgio Armani, Gucci and Prada plus no doubt a large number of smaller suppliers as is common in the “rag trade”. Some of the latter might well go bust as a result.

Let’s look at luxury products supplier Mulberry which is a UK listed company (TIDM MUL). They are owed £2.4 million when last year their net profits were £6.2 million so the potential hit to their profits is very substantial as the administrator is very unlikely to pay them. What might offset those losses?

They might have “reserved title” on the goods supplied if they wrote their contracts correctly although such claims are typically resisted by administrators. They might also have insured the risk of not being paid by their customers in which case the cost will fall on the insurers. They may also do some kind of compromise deal with new owner Mike Ashley whereby he pays a figure to ensure continuity of supply. But Mulberry have made no public announcement of the likely impact on profits which is surely required sooner or later from a public company. Perhaps they are still trying to figure out the impact or are simply “in denial” about the cost.

Retail concession operators within the House of Fraser stores are also in a difficult position. Stock in the stores is theirs and has been removed in some cases. But past sales will have been put through the House of Fraser till system. The cash may be in a trust account, or it may not.

Retail customers of House of Fraser have also been affected, particularly those who ordered products from the company’s web site. These should have been delivered from warehouse operator XPO Logistics who are owed £30 million and stopped processing orders soon after the administration. Whether the customers will get refunds or will have to claim against their credit card suppliers is not currently clear.

The House of Fraser web site is currently unusable so they will be missing a lot of potential orders. The site simply says “We’re currently working hard to make some improvements to the website” which is a misleading euphemism for “systems needing to be totally rebuilt with a new supply chain”.

You can see from the above that although a pre-pack administration appears a simple way for a business to continue while jobs are protected, in reality it is far from simple and enormously damaging to a wide range of people and companies. The bankers and lenders to the company are first in line for any payout as “secured” creditors but typically all other creditors get nothing in such cases. It seems unlikely that it will be any different here.

In conclusion, you can see from the above, and the impact on the pension fund of the company covered in a previous article, that pre-pack administrations are only simple solutions for insolvency practitioners and bankers. For everyone else they are a nightmare. The disruption they cause creates much wider impacts and justifies looking for a better solution to the problems of companies that are losing money and running out of cash.

THE INSOLVENCY REGIME NEEDS REFORM. THERE ARE BETTER SOLUTIONS TO THE HANDLING OF INSOLVENT BUSINESSES.

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

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RIT Capital Partners, Foresight 4 VCT and Sepsis

RIT Capital Partners (RCP) is an investment trust that recently issued its interim report. As one of my longer standing holdings, first purchased in 2003 although I have reduced my holding of late, I read the report with interest. RCP has been a long-standing favourite of private investors having traditionally taken a somewhat defensive investment approach. But the portfolio is now most peculiar. It contains 8.8% of “quoted equities” but many of them are held as “swaps”, 27.7% in “long-only funds”, 19.7% in hedge funds and 0.6% in derivatives. There is 9.1% in direct private investments, 13.2% in private investment funds, 23.1% in “absolute return and credit funds”, 3.0% in “real assets” (which includes gold, silver, corn and soyabean futures) and 2.0% in Government bonds (with more swaps in there also). This is certainly an unusual portfolio to say the least.

Personally when I invest in a fund or an investment trust, I prefer them to invest directly – not pass the buck to some other fund manager. This trust has effectively become a “fund of funds” of late with a large proportion of its investments placed into other funds. Otherwise it appears to be hedging against armageddon.

The Chairman of the company is long-standing Lord Rothschild who is aged 82. When I have attended the AGM of this company I have never been very impressed by the way he handled the meeting or the responses to questions.

The total return net asset value performance in the half year was 3.2%, but 6.2% on share price. The current share price discount to NAV is actually at a premium of 6.8% according to the AIC and the dividend yield is 1.6%. Over ten years the total return (NAV) has been 103% when sector performance was 135%. So it’s not exactly been a great performer. I sold the remainder of my holding after reading the interim report.

Foresight 4 VCT

Another investment trust but of a very different nature is Foresight 4 VCT (FTF) which is of course a venture capital trust. It recently issued its Annual Report for the AGM due on the 11th October. I may attend it although my holding is very small.

The Annual Report does make interesting reading although it fails to mention a past complaint by some shareholders about the over-statement of reserves in the years 2013-2015 which resulted in an illegal dividend allegedly being paid. The auditor, KPMG, who still audits this company make no comment on this and neither do the directors in the Annual Report. But the Audit Committee report does mention that the company has received a letter from the FRC questioning the accounting policy for performance related incentive fees. The company has responded. Both issues are likely to be the subject of questions at the AGM no doubt.

This company has two very large holdings in its portfolio – Datapath and Ixaris. I have been very dubious about the valuations put on the latter company by this and other VCTs as I know quite a lot about the business. I used to be a director and still have a direct holding. This is particularly so after the disclosure by the Ixaris Chairman of the latest business challenges at the recent Oxford Technology VCT meeting.

I will be voting against the reappointment of KPMG as auditors at this company, against the sole director who is standing for re-election (is it not recommended that all directors of fully listed companies stand for re-election?), and against approval of the Report & Accounts.

But FTF did raise some more money this year and is investing in what appear to be interesting companies. One of their new investments has been in Mologic which is a medical diagnostic company. What sparked by particular interest was their product for rapid diagnosis of sepsis which I only narrowly survived a few years ago. Up to 50% of people who develop sepsis die from multiple organ failure, even though it can be treated with antibiotics. It is often misdiagnosed or treatment commenced too late, so a rapid diagnostic tool will be of great use.

Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter over the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock from sepsis but subsequently challenged being struck of the medical register. She won the latter legal case this week after a big campaign by doctors and a major crowdfunding exercise. Bearing in mind the other contributory factors, and the difficulty in spotting sepsis I consider the original conviction a gross miscarriage of justice. You can feel just slightly under the weather and next minute you are unconscious and in the intensive care unit as I know very well. Jack Adcock had other medical conditions that will not have helped.

There are 44,000 deaths from sepsis every year in the UK, and children are particularly at risk. It appears that cases of sepsis are rapidly rising although that might be due to better diagnosis. Even surviving it can mean life changing injuries. See https://sepsistrust.org/ for more information or if you wish to support a charity that is raising awareness of this deadly disease.

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

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RedstoneConnect (Smartspace Software) AGM and Branding

Today (30/7/2018) I attended the Annual General Meeting of RedstoneConnect Plc (REDS) which was promptly renamed Smartspace Software Plc at the meeting.

Although there were only a few ordinary shareholders present, this proved to be an informative meeting. It was chaired by new Chairman Guy van Zwanenberg. With former CEO Mark Braund having departed recently after major disposals leaving the company to focus on the remaining software business, the new CEO is Frank Beechinor who was the former Chairman. Frank is also Chairman of DotDigital which I also own shares in (a lot more than in RedstoneConnect which has had a mixed history – the focus on software alone makes it more attractive to me and I fully supported the disposals).

I asked whether Frank’s appointment was a permanent one. The answer was effectively “yes” as he is committed to it for 2 or 3 years. This is despite the fact that he promised his wife that he would not take another full-time job back in 2011 (he is only aged 54 according to Companies House though). He is apparently involved with 5 businesses and is stepping back from 3 of them, but remaining Chairman of DotDigital. He hopes to develop the company into a business with a market cap of £300 to £400 million in a few years.

The disposals meant the company now has substantial cash after paying off some debt but they are clearly not going to use it on share buy-backs in the short term. They are looking for acquisitions and would only return cash to shareholders if they don’t use it within the next couple of years. Acquisition will be focused on three areas: 1) Complementary to existing activities where they may pay 1 to 1.5 times revenue; 2) Analytics and 3) Visitor management solutions where their existing offering is quite weak. At present they have too large a focus on big deals (which can be lumpy) and are keen to move into the low-end, entry-level where sales can be automated web-based ones.

They have reduced staff down from 360 to 67 and now only have three buildings – in Luton, Mildenhall and Bristol with no “head office”. There are no overseas offices and they are likely to use partners to expand there.

It’s difficult to determine likely financial forecasts (Cantor have recently issued a positive note on them) – it rather depends on the success of any acquisitions, how much they pay for them, and controlling the overheads. But there are apparently no tax issues from the disposals.

The New Name

I spoke to Frank Beechinor before the AGM and advised him that I thought the new name was a bad choice. This is because I did a search of the UK/Euro trade mark register and found over 500 possible conflicting registrations – although some may be in different “classes” of goods and can be ignored. If you also use Google to search the internet for “smartspace” there are lots of matches. There is even a company listed at Companies House named “Smartspace Software Ltd”. So I think it is very likely they will get a lawyer’s letter sooner or later asking them to desist from trade mark infringement and even registering the change of name at Companies House might be difficult. Here’s a quick lesson in branding and trade mark law taken from my book “Beware the Zombies” (currently under revision):

Brand names for products or companies should be unique What are the key things to remember when inventing a new name? These are:

  1. It should be memorable.
  2. It should have the right, positive connotations with the product/service.
  3. It should be legally capable of being protected by appropriate trademark registrations.
  4. It should be usable as an Internet domain name in the chosen form(s).
  5. It should be unique, original, and not confusing with any existing trademark or brand name, and particularly not with competing or potentially competitive products.

A product or company name that cannot be registered as a trademark should never be considered. Registration of trademarks is relatively low cost and gives you much stronger legal protection (and easier enforcement of your legal rights) than an unregistered mark. Even more to the point, if you infringe someone else’s mark they can pursue a very simple and low cost legal action to force you to stop using the name – the result being that all your web site, sales literature, etc, will need revising and reissuing.

You should apply to register trademarks in all the main legal jurisdictions in which you are likely to trade. There are some differences between the different jurisdictions as to what is legally possible to register, and also as to what would be seen as a conflict with existing registrations, but the following is a good starting point:

  1. Do not use a purely descriptive or superlative mark.
  2. Make sure it is unique, distinctive and is not similar, even phonetically, with existing registered marks. You can search the main trademark registers on-line to do some basic checking.
  3. Try to think up something new and original, which is more difficult than you may imagine. Anyone new to the game of brand name creation tends to come up with the same old names that have already been thought of and previously used. Like “Smartspace”!
  4. Note that you can sometimes take a name that is already in use on other types of goods (trademark registers are based around “classes” of goods). But you need to take care with names that are in widespread use on more than one type of product.
  5. Do not fall in love with your chosen name before you have had it thoroughly researched by a trademark lawyer.

So often I have seen start-up ventures select a name which they think is original—but often it is some half-remembered echo of an existing product name or has been used before because it is so obviously appropriate. They name the business after it, start using it in sales literature and with prospective customers, and yet it turns out to be legally very questionable. You need to come up with several possible names before you go through the full legal search and registration procedure.

You probably also need to check that the chosen name is not already in use as an unregistered trademark (searching the internet can help here) and is not already in use as a corporate name (you can search company name registers also).

One of the big issues is that you will also want to protect the product name as a domain name on the internet, under the “.com” suffix, under any of the common national suffixes such as “.co.uk”, and also possibly with other newer suffixes as “.biz”. Finding a name that is free in all those domains and the relevant trademark registers and is not already in use as an unregistered trademark or corporate name is exceedingly difficult! Note that www.smart-space.com is already in use by another business so endless confusion will undoubtedly result.

Finally don’t start using a new trademark until you are sure it can be registered and is protectable. Having to change the name after a few months of usage will destroy your investment in marketing, product literature, web site design and other activities.

The resolution to change the name of RedstoneConnect to Smartspace Software was of course voted through. The directors said they had committed to change the name and had consulted legal advisors on it and might consider changing it again if necessary. I had offered some advice on the subject from my past experience in this field of inventing and registering marks but it was too late to reconsider in essence.

When I look at investing in small listed or unlisted companies, this is one area I look at because it tells you whether they have got the basics right. Hence my comments on “GB Group” naming in a previous post, and my dislike of “Tungsten” for the name of another AIM company. Unmemorable and unprotectable in both cases.

Registered trade marks are low cost and important to ensure brand recognition and legal protection but few people realize how important they are. The importance of branding is another very key area on which many books have been written but technology companies are often inept in this area.

So I just hope the directors of Smartspace Software have not fallen in love with the new name, or if they do choose to change it again that they do it properly next time.

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

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GB Group, Social Media, Rightmove and Alliance Trust

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of GB Group (GBG) in Chester. An absolutely horrendous road journey both there and back mainly due to road works as far as I can tell. But my satnav took me on the M25, M11, A14, M6, M54 and numerous minor roads on the way there from south-east London, and the M6, A50, M1, A14, M11, M25 and other minor roads on the way back. A typical example of how the UK road network is not fit for purpose while we spend £56 billion on HS2 (that’s the Government’s estimate – it could be a lot more) to transport a few wealthy business people and politicians from London to Birmingham.

It’s also a good reason for introducing on-line AGMs, hybrid ones preferably, as someone just posted on the ShareSoc blog. Total journey time to get to/from Chester: 10 hours, meeting duration: one hour.

GB Group is an AIM-listed supplier of identity verification solutions. There has been a rapidly growing demand for quick, on-line ID verification by all kinds of financial institutions as well as by investigatory bodies such as the police. GB have exploited this demand well by both organic growth and acquisitions. Revenue up 37% last year, and adjusted profits up 55%.

There were half a dozen ordinary shareholders at the meeting and I’ll just cover some of the questions and points of note. The announcement by the company in the morning did not cover current trading but just some positive items of news. It mentioned a change in “branding strategy” to talk about “solutions” rather than “products” with a new single, focused brand of “Loqate” for their location intelligence businesses. I asked the Chairman, David Rasche, whether this means they will rename the company also (I never have liked the “GB Group” name because it is very unmemorable and not therefore a good brand)? But he said not in the short term. Same answer as given the last time I asked this question two or three years back. Regret I do not like poor names for companies as investors can easily forget who they are. But it does not necessarily seem to have an impact on share performance.

Another shareholder asked whether new Data Protection regulations would help or hinder the company. The answer was in principle it helps. The CEO said it was neutral in the short term but positive longer term.

I also asked where the future growth of the business would come from. The answer was from geographic expansion with Asia being a strong opportunity for the Loqate sector, and from acquisitions. With cash on the balance sheet rising they clearly could afford some acquisitions. They have very good penetration in some sectors (e.g. over 50% of id verification in the UK gaming sector) but lower in many others so there is room for organic growth.

When it came to the votes on resolutions (by a show of hands) I voted against the Remuneration Report and a new “Performance Share Plan”. The latter enables grants of options over 100% of employees’ salary each year, subject to performance conditions which are primarily eps based. It transpired that only 84% of shareholders voted FOR the Remuneration Report and even less for the Share Plan. Why was that I asked? It transpired that this was because ISS recommended opposition mainly because more than 10% of the company’s share capital is now under option to staff which breaches guidelines. I told the Chairman later that I voted against simply because I considered the pay scheme too complex and too generous. He justified it on the basis of the growth in the company and the need to match market levels. Difficult for shareholders to complain too much given the performance of the company over recent years (it’s one of my “ten baggers”).

After the AGM we had a demonstration of some of their software and how it can confirm postal and email addresses, phone number and other information on individuals and who they are connected to. I had seen this before but this time they even showed how they can map a person’s location by the social media tweets they post, e.g. on Facebook, Twitter and lots of others. That’s a good reminder if you have not already reviewed and tightened up your security settings in Facebook et al that you should do that pronto. GB Group obviously have limitations on who they supply information to, and they help to ensure that you are not going to be subject to “impersonation” fraud, but social media seem to have no limits on personal information and privacy.

Hence of course the recent scandal about Facebook’s activity which helped to wipe off $120 billion in its market cap yesterday as sales growth slowed. Most peculiar is the number of advertisements that Facebook has been running in the national press pointing out their failings and how they are going to reform. It included one that spelled out the enormous number of fake accounts it was removing – 583 million in the 1st quarter apparently. More to the point perhaps why did they allow such fake accounts to start with? Why don’t they use a service like GB Group provides to stop people from even registering such accounts?

I have long advocated that people should only use their genuine name on internet posts and have adhered to that principle for some years (apart from where I am posting on behalf of an organisation). I do not see why anyone should be allowed to send anonymous communications or create accounts in fictitious names. If you are not willing to be attributed as the author of something, you should not be allowed to use a false name.

A possible cause of the problems at Facebook is the dominance of CEO Mark Zuckerberg who is both Chairman and Chief Executive which is never a good idea. In addition he has majority voting power in the shares because of the dual class share structure. This is surely bad corporate governance and might have contributed to their lax approach to privacy as it’s likely to be difficult to argue policy with him.

On the subject of privacy, interesting to note that Huawei, a Chinese supplier of IT infrastructure, has been classified as a national security risk in a recent report (reference the National Cyber Security Centre). As I use a Huawei smartwatch does that mean there is a risk of people reading my personal emails, tweets and text message and breaching my privacy? Perhaps one can get too paranoid about security.

Rightmove Plc (RMV) is another company in which I hold shares. They announced interim results this morning which were unsurprising, and also a 10 for one share split. The share price is currently about 4900p (i.e. £49). They are calling a general meeting to approve that. I will vote against as I never see any point in rebasing a share price. It only fools the ignorant but at some cost to the company, and confusion among investors.

Alliance Trust (ATST) also announced interim results yesterday (I still hold a few shares after the bust-up there a couple of years ago). One interesting point in the announcement was the mention of “expressions of interest” in Alliance Trust Savings – their investment platform. The strategic advantage of having an investment trust own a savings platform was never really clear now that the platform market is so diverse so disposal was always likely to be considered. They claim an “improvement in operational performance” for the division but whether they will be able to recoup the current book value of the division seems questionable. Might have to “bite the bullet” on this one, surely better sooner than later.

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

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Impressions of the British Land AGM

I attended the Annual General Meeting of British Land Plc (BLND) today. This is a large FTSE-100 property company of course, focused on London offices (39% of portfolio) and Retail stores (most of the balance).

The trading statement issued in the morning was a mixed bag. Loan-to-value (LTV) further reduced to 26% (they have been selling off developments and repaying debt plus buying back shares with the resulting cash). There were positive comments about the office sector – the Chairman indicated in the meeting that the Brexit threat had put new developments on hold so there was a growing shortage of good quality office space in London. But retail comments were less positive – long term structural change driven by the internet and short-term trading headwinds, so the market “remains challenging”. The share price fell this morning as it has been doing since mid-June.

The Chairman, John Gildersleeve, mentioned NAV was up 6% last year but profits were down because of disposals (which reduce the rental income). He gave the impression that he thought British Land have been doing a good job of managing their property holdings and “reshaping” their retail portfolio. He also talked about their new ventures in flexible office space (“Storey” – now 80% let) and in homes to rent (e.g. on Canada Water). Whether these new ventures will be sufficient to offset the negative trends in retail property in general is not yet clear.

Shareholder questions focused on whether the portfolio valuations were accurate – the Chairman defended them; should they be developing offices in Dublin – answer No; or warehouses – no clear answer but general impression is to focus on what they know and stick to the UK; and the risk of rent controls on housing – risks are uncertain and it’s only a small element in their portfolio. There were some other questions of little consequence.

More than one shareholder questioned the large buy-backs undertaken by the company – they could have doubled the dividend instead (dividend yield will be about 4.0% this year, but they are doing more buy-backs). The Chairman said as they can buy their own shares (i.e. their assets) at 30% discount why should they not do it? Can’t say I am convinced by such arguments. The company is clearly reducing its size by selling assets and hence generating surplus cash but if they cannot find a good use for it they should return it to shareholders via dividends or a tender offer, not market share buy-backs.

I asked whether they could use the new “hybrid” AGM capability (part physical, part on-line) capability in the new Articles but the Chairman seemed to think that investors were not yet ready for that, which is a disappointment. It would have saved us all traipsing into the West End of London on a hot day.

The questions only lasted about an hour before we moved to a poll vote. No questions on remuneration which is excessive (4.5% voted against), or on why they need 13 directors a number of whom seemed to have no relevant backgrounds. Thirteen directors must surely make for dysfunctional board meetings. Perhaps more questions were deterred by the witty put-downs given by the Chairman to some shareholders which is a style I do not like even if it makes such events somewhat less boring.

There were also 14% of shareholders voted against the change to 14 days notice for General Meetings – good for them. But we did not see the voting figures until later so no opportunity to comment on them.

In summary, an unexciting AGM at an unexciting company. A typical PR event for geriatric shareholders on the whole so only useful to a limited extent.

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

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