The Dangers of Share Tipping, Alliance Trust and AIM Regulation

Share tipping is a mug’s game. Both for the tipsters and their readers. More evidence of this was provided yesterday.

Investors Chronicle issued their “Tips of the Week” via email during the day. It included a “BUY” recommendation on Conviviality (CVR). Unfortunately soon after the company issued a trading statement which said the forecast EBITDA for the current year (ending 30th April) will be 20% below market expectations. Conviviality is a wholesaler, distributor and retailer of alcohol and it seems there was a “material error in the financial forecasts” in one part of the business and that margins have “softened”.

The share price dropped by almost 60% during the day and fell another 10% today at the time of writing. This puts the business based on the new forecasts on a prospective p/e of less than 6 and a dividend yield of over 10% (assuming it is held which may be doubtful). Is this a bargain?

Having had a quick look at the financial profile I am not sure it is. Although net debt of £150 million may not be too high in relation to current revenues or profits, their net profit margin is very small and their current ratio is less than 1, although this is not unusual in retailers who tend to pay for goods after they have sold them.

(Postscript: Paul Scott of Stockopedia made some interesting comments on Conviviality including the suggestion that they might be at risk of breaching their banking covenants and hence might have to do another placing. Certainly worth reading his analysis before plunging into the stock. He also commented negatively on the mid-day timings of the announcements from Conviviality and Fulham Share which I agree with, unless there was some compulsive reason to do them – perhaps they were aware of the Investors Chronicle commentary being issued).

Another tip Investors Chronicle gave yesterday was on Fulham Shore (FUL) which they rated a SELL on the grounds that “growth looks unsustainable”. They got that one right. The company issued a trading statement on the day which also said EBITDA would be below market expectations. Their London restaurants are simply serving fewer customers. The share price dropped 17% on the day. This looks to be symptomatic of the problems of restaurant chains – Prezzo are closing a number of outlets which I was not surprised at because from my visits it seemed rather pedestrian food at high prices. Restaurant Group also reported continuing negative like-for-like figures recently, perhaps partly because of price cutting to attract customers back. Restaurants are being hit by higher costs and disappearing customers. Boring food from tired formulas is no longer good enough to make money.

Another announcement yesterday was results from Alliance Trust (AT.). This is a company that I, ShareSoc, some investors in the trust and hedge fund Elliott Advisors spent a lot of effort on to cause a revolution a couple of years ago so it’s good to see the outcome has been beneficial. Total shareholder return was 19.1% which was well ahead of their benchmark. There was a lot of doubt expressed by many commentators on the new multi-manager investment strategy adopted by the board of directors and the involvement of Elliott, who were subsequently bought out, but it has turned out very well.

The only outstanding issue is the continuing problems at Alliance Trust Savings. They report the integration of the Stocktrade business they acquired from Brewin Dolphin has proved “challenging”. Staff have been moved from Edinburgh to Dundee and the CEO has departed. Customer complaints rose and they no doubt lost a lot of former Stocktrade customers such as me when they decided to stop offering personal crest accounts. So Alliance have written down the value of Alliance Trust Savings by another £13 million as an exceptional charge. No stockbrokers are making much money at present due to very low interest rates of cash held. It has never been clear why Alliance Trust Savings is strategic to the business and it’s very unusual for an investment trust to run its own savings/investment platform. Tough decisions still need to be taken on this matter.

AIM Regulation. The London Stock Exchange has published a revised set of rules for AIM market companies – see here: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-rules-for-companies-march-2018-clean.pdf .

It now includes a requirement for AIM companies to declare adherence to a Corporate Governance Code. At present there is no such obligation, although some companies adhere to the QCA Code, or some foreign code, or simply pick and choose from the main market code. I and ShareSoc did push for such a rule, and you can see our comments on the review of the AIM rules and original proposals here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/aim-rules-review/ and here is a summary of the changes published by the LSE: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-notice-50.pdf (there is also a marked up version of the rule book that gives details of the other changes which I have to admit I have not had the time to peruse as yet).

In summary these are positive moves and the AIM market is improving in some regards although it still has a long way to go to weed out all the dubious operators and company directors in this market.

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

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Beaufort, OFGEM and National Grid

As a postscript to my last blog post on the administration of Beaufort, an interesting article was published by the FT this morning. They had clearly had a chat to administrators PWC. The article reports that the 14,000 investors affected will get no more than 85p in the £1 invested and that no money would be returned for at least a month.

PWC said that that Beaufort’s own funds were very limited and therefore clients will have to cover the cost of recouping their own money and assets. It seems it is a “complicated” administration and there are a number of challenges including assessing the accuracy of financial records. In other words, it’s a typical such mess where the administrators will run up enormous bills sorting it out. As I said in the last blog post, “past experience of similar situations does not inspire confidence”.

It will be months if not years before PWC can sort out who owns what and in the meantime the assets will be frozen. But anyone thinking of taking legal action over the alleged fraudulent practices of the company might find it not worth doing because the cupboard is bare, unless they can target individuals and their assets. Meanwhile there have already been 600 complaints to the Financial Ombudsman apparently but investors might find share dealing by “sophisticated” investors is not covered, and neither are they by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

The energy market regulator OFGEM issues a press release this morning. Here is some of what it said: “Ofgem proposes significantly lower range of returns for investors. Tougher approach would deliver savings of over £5 billion to consumers over five years.

Ofgem has today set out proposals for a new regulatory framework from 2021 which is expected to result in lower returns for energy network companies and significant savings for consumers.

This includes a cost of equity range (the amount network companies pay their shareholders) of between 3% and 5%, if we had to set the rates today. This is the lowest rate ever proposed for energy network price controls in Britain. Ofgem also proposes to refine how it sets the cost of debt so that consumers continue to benefit from the fall in interest rates.”

This is very negative news for National Grid (NG.), but surprisingly the share price has risen today. It is possible that analysts and institutional investors were expecting it to be worse, so it’s a “relief” rally. Meanwhile some chatter on twitter from private investors talks about how cheap the shares are on fundamentals. That may be one view, but just look at 2021, when Corbyn and John McDonnell might be in power and to me there look to be very substantial risks. If equity investors are getting less than 5% return, then in any nationalisation the valuation of the equity could be very low even if the Government pays a “fair” price – which no recent Government did on nationalisations. They used totally artificial valuation rules to come out with the figure the politicians wanted. Investors should not trust politicians, but I think we all know that.

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

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Chrysalis VCT AGM Report

Last week (27/2/2018) I attended the Annual General Meeting of Chrysalis VCT Plc (CYS) in the City of London. Here’s a brief report on the event. There were about half a dozen ordinary shareholders present, the three directors and fund management representatives despite the difficult travel conditions.

Chrysalis is of course a venture capital trust but somewhat different to many VCTs. It has a good performance record in recent years but does not undertake share buy-backs. As a result the shares trade at a high discount to NAV (about 20% at the time of writing). With a dividend yield of about 8% (and no tax on VCT dividends), many of the current shareholders may have purchased their shares in the market although some of my holdings date back to the year 2000 when I claimed capital gains roll-over relief.

The company is relatively small in size for a VCT, and the new VCT rules which require such companies to focus on early stage investments are causing the board some concerns apparently. There is reference in the Annual Report to “a review of the options available to the Company” and there was considerable discussion on that topic at the AGM.

Should the company wind-up? Or simply become an ordinary investment company rather than a VCT? Or perhaps look for a merger with another VCT? As regards the latter possibility, this company seems to be getting into the same situation as Rensburg AIM VCT which eventually merged with Unicorn but rather late in the day and after a lot of encouragement from me to take action. I likewise encouraged the directors of this company to make decisions fairly soon on the future of the company.

One matter discussed at the AGM was the company’s large investment in Coolabi where they hold debt repayable in 2020. Having looked at the Annual Report of that company available from Companies House before the meeting, I have a pretty jaundiced view of the value of that business. Although Chrysalis increased the valuation of their loan in the accounts, they actually wrote down their equity stake to zero it transpired (holders of Edge VCT who have a big equity stake in Coolabi should note). However, fund manager Chris Kay did make some very positive comments about the value of the intellectual property in Coolabi.

Chris also commented on the difficulty of making new investments at present with small companies now valued very highly and lots of competition for the good ones. The new VCT rules are making it more difficult and it seems that there are still long delays on getting pre-approval (advance clearance) from HMRC (now 3 to 6 months).

Obviously what the company decides to do affects different shareholders in different ways, depending on their tax status, whether they claimed roll-over relief on investment, and their desire to convert their holdings into cash. The company may do a survey of shareholders but they are not sure they will get a good response.

Those present gave their views on the situation and there were some differences. I plan to write to the Chairman giving my views in more detail. For example, I will probably suggest a “shareholder committee” that might act as a consultative group.

If you are holding shares in Chrysalis, are interested in discussing the future of this company, or would like a copy of my letter to the Chairman, you can contact me via this web page (my company’s web site): http://www.roliscon.com/contact.html

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

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It’s a Bleak Mid-Winter

It’s a bleak mid-winter, everybody is hunkering down against the icy winds, Royal Mail have given up delivering post even in the London suburbs, and retailers are suffering. Well no, actually it’s the second day of Spring but the first was the coldest one on record. It’s not surprising that many people have a jaundiced view of the science of global warming.

But the stock market is drifting down and the news from many companies is dire. Let’s review some of those to start with. Note: I hold or have held some of the companies mentioned.

Safestyle (SFE) sell replacement plastic windows. You would have thought households would be rushing to replace their tired and leaking windows in the bad weather but apparently not. On the 28th Feb they announced a profit warning and the share price fell 37% in the next two days. Is that because of difficulties in installing in the bad weather? No, that will come later no doubt. The problem was lack of order intake so far this year. The real problem is “the activities of an aggressive new market entrant” in an “already competitive landscape” – the latter presumably referring to consumers cutting back on big ticket items. Historically the company showed great return on capital and good profits but the old problem of lack of barriers to entry of competition seems to be the issue.

Carpetright (CPR) also issued a profit warning yesterday. They now expect a loss for the year and blame “continued weak consumer confidence”. It seems they need to have a chat with their bankers about their bank covenants, but the latter “remain fully supportive”. I suspect the real issue here is not consumers (most buyers replace carpet in one room at a time so they are not exactly big purchases) but competition, including from Lord Harris’s son (Phil Harris was the founder and Chairman of Carpetright for many years). Other carpet suppliers (such as Headlam which I hold) have not seen such a major impact, but perhaps they are not as operationally geared as Carpetright. Or the bad news will come later.

Many retailers have faced a changing market – the market never stands still, with internet sales impacting many. Both Toys-R-Us and Maplin have gone into administration. The latter have no doubt been particularly hit by the internet and Amazon, but they have also suffered by private equity gearing up their balance sheets with very high levels of debt. Neither seemed particularly adept at keeping up with fashion. Might just be a case of “tired” stores and dull merchandise ranges. But why would anyone buy from a Maplin store when they could order what they needed over the internet (from Maplin, Amazon or thousands of other on-line retailers) and get it delivered straight to their door in 24 hours? In addition, many such on-line suppliers avoid paying VAT so Maplin was going to suffer from price comparisons.

But there has been some better news. IDOX (IDOX) published their final results yesterday – well at least there was no more bad news. They issued previous profit warnings after a dreadful acquisition of a company named 6PM, and the CEO, Andrew Riley, then went AWOL on health grounds. In addition there were problems with inappropriate revenue recognition, a common issue in software companies. Mr Riley has now definitely departed permanently and former CEO Richard Kellett-Clarke continues to serve as interim CEO.

The latest financial figures report revenue up 16% for the year although some of the increase will be from acquisitions. The profit figures reported on the first page of the announcement are best ignored – they talk about EBITDA, indeed “adjusted EBITDA” and “adjusted earnings”. I simply skipped to the cash flow statement which indicated “net cash from operating activities” of £13.4 million. That compares with a market cap at the time of writing of £152 million, so the cash earnings yield might be viewed as 8.8%.

They did spend £24.3 million on “investing activities”, mainly financed by the issue of new shares, last year and much of that might effectively have been wasted. But cash flow going forward should improve. Unadjusted diluted earnings per share were very substantially reduced mainly due to increased overheads, higher amortisation and high restructuring and impairment costs. These certainly need to be tackled, but the dividend was increased which shows some confidence in the future.

The share price perked up after the results announcement but some commentators, such as my well-known correspondent Tom Winnifrith, focused on the balance sheet with comments such as “negative current assets” (i.e. current ratio less than one) and less polite phrases – he does not pull his punches.

Any accountant will tell you that a company with a current ratio (current assets divided by current liabilities) of less than 1.4 is likely to go bust simply because they risk running out of cash and will not be able to “meet their debts as they become due” (i.e. will become insolvent).

Am I concerned? No because examination of the balance sheet tells me that they have £19.8m of deferred income in the current liabilities (see note 18). This represents support charges which have been billed in advance for the year ahead. Such liabilities are never in fact crystalised in software companies. So deducting that from the current liabilities results in a current ratio that is a positive 1.7.

The balance sheet now does have substantial debt on it, offset by large amounts of “intangible” assets due to capitalisation of software development costs which many folks would ignore. The debt certainly needs to be reduced but that should be possible with current cash flow, and comments from the CEO about future prospects are positive. That is why the share price rose rather than fell I suggest on the announcement, plus the fact that no more accounting issues had been revealed.

There are promises of Spring next week, so let us hope that this will improve the market gloom that seems to be pervading investors of late. Even retailers may do better if shoppers can actually get to their shops. We just need the sun to come out for a few days and flower buds to start opening, for the mood to lighten but I fear my spring daffodils have been frozen to death.

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

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Running Out of Gas, and InvestorEase to Close

Media reports suggest that National Grid is running out of gas, and having to pay industrial users to stop consuming it. This is due to the exceptionally cold weather spell. But National Grid has also been running out of shareholders because of fears over possible nationalisation. The share price is down by 33% on its peak in 2016. As I have probably said before, the threat of nationalisation has undoubtedly spooked international investors who now dominate the holdings of UK public companies.

It seems Macquarie analysts have suggested that investors should encourage utility companies to move their domicile to another country. Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has said “Transferring asset holdings overseas in pursuit of higher compensation shows total contempt for the British Public”, but I think she complains too much. Surely moving the registration of a holding company would not be effective? The Government could just take control of the assets and bearing in mind principles set by other recent laws and legal judgements, just pay what they wanted. It would all be justified as being “in the national interest” even under EU law if that still applied.

One would have to pick the domicile carefully to gain much benefit. For example, National Grid has substantial assets in the USA so they could possibly keep those out of reach by demerging the relevant part of their business. But that only provides limited protection to current investors.

I have not personally held National Grid for some time because of the political risk and am not invested in other utility companies either. If those companies wish to avoid the risks of a Labour Government and their current policies, they might find it wise to look at other ways of thwarting damage to their shareholders interests.

InvestorEase

InvestorEase is a share portfolio management software product which I have used for the last 20 years. The current owner (Financial Express) has announced they are closing the service at the end of May on the basis that it is no longer economic to continue with it.

This is disappointing as although I also use ShareScope, there are some features in InvestorEase that are not easily replicated in the former. InvestorEase is also quicker and easier to use than ShareScope which has so many options that configuration is complex (SharePad from the same company is not a viable alternative either from my knowledge of it). But it’s hardly surprising that FE decided to close InvestorEase as the developer who maintains the software has clearly been having difficulty and losing interest of late.

I also have a portfolio in Stockopedia, but again I am not sure that will give a good solution. I need a product/service that enables maintenance of multiple portfolios with large numbers of holdings and transactions, plus a consolidated view on demand. The other reason I am running more than one such product is because I like to have a back-up in emergencies and by duplicating entries in the two products I can spot any obvious errors easily.

So any suggestions for good alternative solutions for the private but semi-professional investor would be welcomed.

Or perhaps anyone who might have an interest in taking on the product, which has suffered from total lack of marketing in recent years, should contact Financial Express.

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

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Persimmon Pay and Rightmove Results

This morning the directors of Persimmon (PSN) gave in to demands to revise the benefits they would get from their LTIP scheme. This has drawn lots of criticism from investors, even institutional ones who voted for the scheme a few years back. They clearly either did not understand the workings of the scheme or did not understand the possible implications. I voted against it at the time as a holder of shares in this company, but then I do against most LTIPs. The LTIP concerned potentially entitles three directors and other staff to hundreds of millions of pounds in shares.

Three of the directors have agreed to cut their entitlement to shares on the “second vesting” by 50%. They have also agreed to extend the required holding period and put a cap on the value of any future exercise.

However, they have not conceded anything on the first tranche of vesting which vested on the 31st December 2017. Director Jeff Fairburn, has said he will devote a substantial proportion of his award to charity, but surely that is simply a way to minimise his tax bill.

One particularly annoying aspect of the announcement this morning is this statement therein: “The Board believes that the LTIP put in place in 2012 has been a significant factor in the Company’s outstanding performance.  In particular, it has contributed to industry-leading levels of margin, return on assets and cash generation”. This is plain hogwash. The main factors were a buoyant housing market, supported by the Government’s “Help to Buy” scheme. House prices rose sharply driven by a shortage of housing while record low interest rates encouraged buy-to-let investors. It was the most benign housing market for decades.

So although the three directors have made some concessions, and the company Chairman has resigned, I suggest this has not really been as satisfactory an outcome as many folks would have liked to see.

Rightmove Results

Another company I hold who also operate in the property sector is Rightmove (RMV). This business mainly provides an advertising platform for estate agents. Results were much as forecast with revenue up 11% and adjusted earnings per share up 14%. These are good figures bearing in mind that there were some concerns about increased competition from two other listed companies, Zoopla and OnTheMarket, plus concerns that the business was maturing. In addition the number of house moves has been falling, thus impacting one would have assumed on estate agent transactions, but they seem to be spending more to obtain what business is available to them.

There are very few estate agents, traditional or on-line ones, that are not signed up with Rightmove plus one or other of the competitors. Although growth in revenue to Rightmove has been slowing, it’s still improving mainly because of price increases and new options available to advertisers. It is clear that Rightmove has considerable “pricing power” over its customers.

The really interesting aspect of this business is their return on capital that they achieve. On my calculations the return on equity (ROE) based on the latest numbers is 1,034% (that’s not a typo, it is over one thousand per cent).

This is the kind of business I like. A dominant market position due to the “network” effect of being the largest property portal, plus superb return on capital.

But their remuneration scheme is not much better than Persimmon’s. Retiring CEO Nick McKittrick received £159,200 in base salary last year, but the benefit from LTIPs is given as £1,063,657, i.e. seven times as much. Other senior directors had similar ratios if other bonuses are included (cash bonuses and deferred share bonuses). Such aggressive bonus arrangements distort behaviour. In the case of Rightmove I believe it might have resulted in an excessive emphasis on short-term profits which has enabled their two listed competitors to grab significant market shares.

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

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More on EMIS Profit Warning

A few days ago I commented on the announcement by EMIS Group that warned about a failure to meet customer service levels and a possible hit to profits as a result of up to £10 million. As I said at the time, I wrote to the Chairman and asked several questions. Today I received a response by letter from Peter Southby, CFO. He has been there since 2012 it is worth noting.

The letter was the typical “brush-off” that individual investors tend to receive – for example it commenced: “I am afraid we are not able to respond to questions from individual shareholders on this matter for standard reasons around customer confidentiality and commercial sensitivities”. So I phoned him up and reassured him I was not seeking inside or price sensitive information. He then proved more amenable. This is what I learned:

The failure was to meet service level agreements with NHS Digital for the GP software (EMIS Web). The current contract was signed in 2014 but there was a previous similar contract.

EMIS discovered the problem themselves, following a review of customer services, rather than the client reporting it. The issue is a “low level” service issue, and not a critical item to the customers who have not been impacted significantly. The problem was not known to senior management until it was recently reported (certainly the CFO was not aware of it). It is not currently known how long the failure to meet contract terms had been running. They are working to get back within the contract terms as soon as possible. As regards the past failure and associated financial liability, it is possible the customer will accept an alternative rather than a cheque – for example, provision of software enhancements. But that is subject to negotiation.

EMIS have an active “user group” and the problem has apparently been discussed with them already.

In my original note I suggested auditors KPMG might have been at fault for not picking up this problem in their last audit, but it does sound as though that might not have been possible. However I suggest that is a question to be revisited later and it still leaves the issue of major risks not being noted in the Annual Report.

In conclusion, the problem may be less serious than first apparent, although there is still a risk in this kind of situation that more issues may be discovered the more investigations are performed. Will have to wait and see for the moment.

One thing I am certain about though, which is why I like the company. The GP end-users would hate to switch to another software product. Admittedly EMIS will have to negotiate their way out of this difficulty with NHS bureaucrats rather than end-users but when an on-going relationship of some years standing is in place, then some horse trading is the usual outcome. I’ll have to ask my GP what he knows about this problem next time I see him.

Just one final point: If you get the kind of response I got, then it’s always worth a phone call. Personal contact can make the difference.

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

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