Utilitywise Profit Warning

A trading update from Utilitywise (UTW) caused the share price to fall another 18%. It’s already down from over 350p in May 2014 to 48p the last time I checked. A pretty disastrous investment for many. This was one of those go-go small cap stocks that lots of share tipsters were promoting back in 2013/14. Revenues and profits were apparently on a strong upward trajectory from their sales of utility services to commercial users.

I even bought a few shares myself. But I sold when I came to realise that their revenue recognition practices were in my view somewhat aggressive. So far as I understood it, they were recognising profits on contracts when the customer signed up for an annual or longer contract. From today’s announcement that even included recognising profits on signature rather than contract commencement. But the real problem to my mind is that instead of most businesses where profits are taken on amounts invoiced, which is shortly before cash is paid on them, in this case the cash was received very much later. So I got cold feet and bailed out. I simply don’t like imprudent accounting and aggressive revenue recognition (Quindell was a similar example).

That is basically what is so damaging in today’s trading statement where they cover a change in accounting policy to IFRS 15 which has tougher rules on revenue recognition from contracts. Who were the auditors of Utilitywise? BDO LLP.

Respected investor Leon Boros has already tweeted that with the adjustments to their accounts required, all the historic profits of the company will disappear. As he says “always follow the cash”.

I did write a report on a Mello event for ShareSoc where Utilitywise was one of the companies presenting back in 2013, but it was not a particularly complimentary one – it mentioned possibly regulatory problems, aggressive sales practices and director share sales for example. The revenue recognition issues only became apparent at a later date.

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

Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Property Companies and TR Property AGM

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of TR Property Investment Trust (TRY). I have held shares in this company for a long time, and it’s always useful to attend their AGM as you get a useful update on trends in the property market from the fund manager (Marcus Phayre-Mudge of late). As he mentioned, the fact that they hold property directly, as well as holding shares in property companies gives them a unique insight into the state of the market.

Apart from holding TR Property, I also hold some direct property company shares which are British Land, NewRiver, Segro and Tritax Big Box. Not claiming to be a property expert, have I made the right choices there? Answers will be obvious later.

Segro announced their interim results yesterday also. Segro, like Tritax, are focused on large warehouses. They reported adjusted eps up 6.5%, and NAV up 2.6% with the dividend increased by 4%. The share price rose 2.8% on the day and has been in a strong positive trend in the last few months. Marcus was particularly positive about the Segro results and said there was tremendous rental growth in that sector with a 94% retention rate which is remarkably high. So no problems there.

As Marcus made clear, the property market is at present only doing well in certain sectors and certain geographies. TR Property is very well diversified though as it covers the whole of Europe (one might consider it as another of those Brexit hedging stocks with only 36% of holdings in the UK and they have been reducing that). The commercial property market is somewhat cyclical and was expected to decline in the UK, particularly after the Brexit vote. London offices were perceived as being vulnerable. There is also the impact of the internet on large retail stores. They are reducing exposure to retail but not to convenience stores. Shopping habits in the UK are clearly changing substantially, but less quickly in the rest of Europe. Marcus said they have been trying to focus on buying more physical property but the market has been surprisingly strong.

Switzerland, Benelux and Sweden were the worse geographic areas, and one shareholder commented very negatively on the political and social problems of late in Sweden. Rental growth in Paris and Stockholm is taking place and we might even get some in Spain as properties are filling up.

He made it plain that two sectors are performing well in the UK – “big box” warehouses, and convenience stores. So my holdings of Segro, Tritax and NewRiver are in the right place. But TR Property also hold those two big companies of British Land (pedestrian performance of late with asset value declines) and Land Securities (now renamed Landsec – Marcus said he hoped it did not cost them much to change). He has a bigger holding in the latter, but apparently he may not be totally happy as he mentioned he held a meeting with them recently, and it was not just to have a cup of tea.

He was positive about the share buy-back announced by British Land but suggested it was not big enough to make much difference. British Land is currently on a big discount to NAV so it probably makes sense when I am generally opposed to market share buy-backs. The discount discourages me from selling the shares at present.

TR Property managed to achieve a Total NAV Return of 8.0% last year which was very similar to the previous year and ahead of their benchmark. The depreciation of sterling helped the valuation of their European holdings. The share price discount is currently 7.8% which is slightly below their average. The dividend grew by 26% last year due to strong revenue growth, and currently yields 3.0%.

Marcus was positive about the future because capital markets are still good for property with very cheap debt. There has been record bond issuance by property companies – fixed for longer and lower, which they are encouraging.

He is slightly worried about Brexit and our politicians – “not sure they could negotiate themselves out of a paper bag”.

There were about 70 shareholders present at the AGM at a new venue (Marriott Grosvenor on Park Lane) with defective air conditioning. Shareholder votes were overwhelming in support of all resolutions, except that Chairman Hugh Seaborn got 5.9% against on the proxy votes. Not clear why and did not get the opportunity to ask him about that.

In summary, a useful AGM for those interested in the property sector (which I hold to offset my go-go growth stocks as property tends to be relatively defensive in nature, with share prices more driven by asset values and rental yields).

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

Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Halma AGM and Sophos Capital Markets Day

On Thursday (20/7/2017), I attended the Annual General Meeting of Halma Plc (HLMA). Not exactly a household name so you may not know what they do. In summary, they have a “diversified portfolio of businesses” that are focussed on safety, health and environmental products. Lots of niche businesses in growth sectors and they define their segments as Medical, Infrastructure Safety, Environmental & Analysis, and Process Safety. Revenue last year was £961 million, with post tax profits of £129 million.

What attracted me to this business was the steady, consistent growth over many years and good return on capital (they give as 15.3% Group Return on Total Invested Capital) with good cash flow and moderate gearing. This has been achieved under CEO Andrew Williams who has been in the role since 2005 which must make him one of the longest serving CEOs in a FTSE company. In addition, the Finance Director, Kevin Thompson, has been in the role since 1997 although he is planning to retire in 2018.

Mr Williams gave a short presentation (interesting to note that the Chairman said little and the Annual Report only contains a statement from the CEO, not the Chairman, as would be more normal.

He said that Halma has a simple growth strategy. Focus on growing markets, e.g. healthcare, while looking to acquire businesses with technology or application knowledge. Wrapped around this is a simple financial model – they aim to double earnings every five years, without becoming highly geared or seeking further equity, provided there are similar rates of organic, acquisitive and dividend growth (to quote from the Annual Report – which is a very comprehensive document if somewhat weighty). Yes they do make acquisitions but these seem to be mainly smaller ones that are complementary and easily integrated.

As Mr Williams said, this strategy has “consistently delivered”.

Questions from shareholders were then invited.

I asked whether they hedged against currency fluctuations because I noted that the increase in profits last year (up 16.9% on an “adjusted” basis) included 10.5% that arose from exchange rate movements (Note: pound falling as a result of the Brexit vote when the company is a very international business – clearly it may be that the pound will move in the opposite direction sometime). The answer given by the FD was that they don’t hedge profits in the group structure. I also asked about the possible impact of Brexit. The CEO said as only 10% of company trading was to/from Europe they did not consider it likely to be a significant problem. No plans to counter had apparently been made.

In summary, on a prospective p/e of 25.3 and yield of 1.3% this company does not look particularly cheap but that’s true of most quality businesses in the current bull market. As most of their revenue and profits are from outside the UK, you might look at it as a hedge against Brexit damage but the company is certainly vulnerable to swings in the pound/dollar/Euro exchange rates.

There is a fuller report of this AGM available to ShareSoc Members.

Sophos

One thing I noted when I read the Annual Report of Halma was that the Chairman was also a director at software security company Sophos. They are holding a “Capital Markets Day” on September 6th, the day before their AGM. As I hold the shares, I asked investor relations if I could attend. They suggested it was really only for “analysts” and “institutional investors”. Now this is prejudicial to private investors and I reckon I have enough knowledge of the sector, and a large enough investment portfolio to justify attendance. But they fobbed me of with an offer of being able to attend on-line. Will that happen? We will see. For those who are not familiar with Capital Markets Days, these are much more in-depth reviews of a company than most investors see.

But in the meantime, I complained to Paul Walker who will take it up. I may go to the AGM also to complain.

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

Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

 

First blog post

This blog is written by Roger W. Lawson and covers topical news and comment on investment (particularly stocks and shares), on corporate governance, on company management, on economics, on transport, on art, on events in London and on local and national politics. It will also cover anything else that I feel may be of general interest to my readers or where I have a burning desire to discuss a topic.

As some readers may know, I have been writing articles and blog posts on stock market investment for many years, more recently mainly for ShareSoc – an organisation for private investors. I will continue to do so as I support the objects of ShareSoc, therefore you may find similar blog posts on their web site as appear here.

This blog may cover a wider remit though in that I won’t shy away from controversial issues as much as a “responsible” national organisation has to do. In this case you are simply getting my personal opinions, but I will of course always try to get the facts straight to support any stance. If that offends some people then so be it. One cannot produce interesting and lively articles while pandering to the sensitivities of everyone in this world.

It will also cover some other areas of interest to me than stock market investment.

I hope you find it a good read.  Review what it says in the “About” section for more background information.

Roger Lawson