JD Wetherspoon Results and Directors Reappointed at Edge Performance VCT

JD Wetherspoon (JDW) published their results for the year on Friday (13/9/2019). The revenue figures were very positive with like-for-like sales up 6.8%, overall revenue up 7.4% and earnings up 9.2% (after exceptional items).

There was an extensive diatribe from Executive Chairman and founder Tim Martin on two issues: 1) Brexit and 2) Corporate Governance standards.

Mr Martin’s stance on Brexit is well known. He is a Brexit party supporter and sees no problem with a “hard” Brexit. He says “Elite remainers are ignoring the big picture regarding lower input costs and more democracy, and are mistakenly concentrating on assumed short-term problems, such as delays at Channel ports”.

On corporate governance he dislikes the requirement for non-executive directors to step down after nine years. He says his company’s stance “is that experience is extremely important and the so-called nine-year rule is perverse and counterproductive”. He has a number of other complaints about the UK Corporate Governance standards. It looks like there may be a battle on some of these issues at the forthcoming AGM.

I agree with Tim Martin on Brexit but not altogether on corporate governance. I don’t like directors serving for more than 9 years simply from past experience of directors becoming stale and sycophantic over time. But he is right to criticise the “excessive focus on achieving financial or other targets”.

It’s well worth reading the announcement, but this is clearly one of those companies where shareholders have to have faith in the leadership of Tim Martin.

I do not hold the shares, but not for any prejudice against Mr Martin.

At the Edge Performance VCT (EDGH and EDGI) the sole remaining director Terry Back has reappointed two of the directors removed by votes at the recent AGM. This I consider most atrocious behaviour. The last time I saw this happen was at the bun fight over the future of Victoria (VCP) and that was soon overturned and a new board put in place.

It is of course essential to have more than one director in a public company because of the listing rules and for other reasons. It can of course be difficult to recruit new directors at short notice, particularly when a company is in difficulties. Potential directors fear they are at reputational risk. But reappointing directors removed by a vote of shareholders is simply not acceptable. Shareholders have a strong interest in improving matters so it should not be impossible to find some volunteers. I have suggested that ShareSoc line up some nominees to put the board on the spot. Investors need some new independent directors, not the same old guard.

As I said in this previous blog post: https://roliscon.blog/2019/09/02/edge-performance-vct-sorted/, I have long considered this VCT to be a basket case of the first order. The situation should not be allowed to continue.

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

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Burford Governance Changes

Burford Capital (BUR) have announced a number of changes to their board to meet the concerns of investors about corporate governance at the company. It includes the CFO (wife of the CEO) moving to another role, and refreshing the board in due course.

This is what Chairman Sir Peter Middleton had to say: “Companies are owned by their shareholders, and when the shareholders speak, it is the role of boards and management to listen.  While we may take a different view on some of these points, shareholders have clearly spoken and we have listened, just as Burford has throughout its existence.  We trust that these governance enhancements operate to bolster investor confidence in Burford as it enters its next era of growth and success.”

I hope the directors of the Ventus VCTs (see previous blog post) are listening also.

Burford is also looking for a US listing (on the NYSE or Nasdaq) as investors have made it clear they do not support Burford being solely listed on AIM.

These changes will help to make the company more of a sound investment proposition but the question remains over whether their financial accounting is prudent, and has been historically accurate. Muddy Waters clearly suggested otherwise. The key question for investors is whether a new CFO will take a different approach to their accounting and decide it should be done differently.

Unfortunately the new CFO, Jim Kilman, was the former investment banker at Morgan Stanley for the company and has been acting as an advisor to the company since 2016. It hardly looks like they undertook a formal recruitment process but have just appointed someone they already know, and who knows them, to the position as a stop-gap measure. That is not the best way to reassure investors on financial prudence.

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

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Burford – Illegal Market Manipulation?

Burford Capital (BUR) have issued an announcement that makes a number of allegations about the events surrounding the recent shorting attack involving Muddy Waters. It includes:

  • Spoofing and layering to move the share price, e.g. putting in numerous share sales on the order book and cancelling them before they can be filled.
  • That includes numerous such transactions just before Muddy Waters issued a tweet giving Burford as the target, and as that tweet was delayed only Muddy Waters or its associates could have known of the timing.
  • Exiting their short position by buying Burford shares at the same time as continuing on the same day to make their allegations.
  • Falsely alleging the company was “insolvent” which would have been picked up by algorithmic traders.

They allege these activities are simply illegal and have informed the regulatory authorities on the matter, plus hired three large law firms (Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Morrison & Foerster LLP) plus a Professor at New York’s Columbia University who is an expert to look into the trading activity.

For those not familiar with market manipulation techniques, just read the Burford announcement for a good explanation: https://tinyurl.com/y6xrs38h.

Let us hope that the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) promptly looks into these complaints, and that the Financial Report Council (FRC) also investigates the accounts and past audits of the firm. Despite Burford being a very large company, it is listed on AIM so the AIM regulators (i.e. the LSE) and its NOMAD should also be looking into the matter surely?

As I said in a previous blog post here: https://tinyurl.com/yy9pamh5, one of the problems in most shorting attacks is the mixture of possibly true and false allegations, which the shorter has not even checked with the target company, along with unverifiable claims and innuendo. The shorter can make a lot of money by such tactics while it can take months for the truth or otherwise of the allegations to be researched and revealed. By which time the shorter has long moved on to other targets.

Shorting is not wrong in essence, but combining it with questionable public announcements is surely market manipulation which is covered by the law on market abuse.

To remind you, I have never held any position in Burford Capital, short or long, and there are good reasons why not which I give below. But I have held shares in other companies which have been the victim of shorting attacks – in one case justifiable in another not, so I would like to see some reform of this area of the market.

As regards Burford, just reviewing this company against the check lists given in my new book, it would have failed as an investment proposition on several counts. These are:

  • Smaller transactions (Chapter 2). Burford’s profits are very dependent on a few large legal cases. Any problems in such cases could wipe out the profits whereas companies who have many smaller contracts rather than a few large ones are less vulnerable to surprises.
  • Repeat business (Chapter 2). Every legal case they pursue is a “one-off” transaction which means there is no certainty of future such business.
  • Short term contacts (Chapter 2). The legal case the company pursues can take years to finally resolve, i.e. they are long-term contracts rather than short-term ones. This means they are complex in accounting terms and risky.
  • No risk of Government regulation (Chapter 4). This area of legal practice is very much subject to Government regulation and has significantly changed in recent years.
  • Applicable listing rules (Chapter 7). The company is listed on AIM which is a much lighter touch regulatory regime than that for fully listed companies despite the fact that it is a very large business (market cap still £1.8 billion even after recent share price falls).
  • Adhere to corporate governance code (Chapter 7). Corporate governance at this company is odd to say the least with directors serving for more than ten years and no executive management on the board. In addition the CFO is married to the CEO.
  • AGMs at convenient time and place (Chapter 7). The company holds its AGMs in Guernsey where it is registered.
  • Accounts easy to understand and accounts prudent and consistent (Chapter 8). I would certainly question whether both the recognition of the value of on-going legal claims in the accounts is prudent. It is also very difficult for any outsider to judge the merits of the claims.
  • Do profits turn into cash (Chapter 10). From the 2018 accounts: Pre-tax profit was £307 million while Cash Outflow from Operating Activities was £233 million. Enough said.

The above are just a few easy points to pick out, but I could go on at some length on why I would not have invested in Burford and did not despite it being regularly tipped in the financial press.

See here for the book details that includes the checklists used in the above analysis: https://www.roliscon.com/business-perspective-investing.html

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

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LoopUp Profit Warning and Brexit Party Policy

Conference calling AIM company LoopUp (LOOP) issued a trading statement this morning which contained a profit warning. At the time of writing the share price is down 47% on the day but it has been falling sharply in recent days which suggests the bad news had already leaked out.

This is an example of what happens when lofty growth expectations are revised downwards. Revenue is now expected to be down 7% on the previous market consensus and EBITDA down 20%. The company blames the shortfall on “subdued revenue across its long-term customer base” driven by macro-economic factors and diversion of sales staff into training new ones.

LoopUp is presenting at the ShareSoc seminar event on the 10th July so it will be interesting to hear what they have to say about this – see https://www.sharesoc.org/events/sharesoc-growth-company-seminar-in-london-10-july-2019/ . This news comes only a month after LoopUp held a Capital Markets Day when there was no hint of these problems. I did a report on that here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/06/07/broker-charges-proven-vct-performance-fee-and-loopup-seminar/

I do hold a few shares in LoopUp but thankfully not many.

Brexit Party Policy

I mentioned in a recent blog post that the Brexit Party is looking for policy suggestions to enable them to develop a platform for any prospective General Election. Here’s what I sent them with respect to financial matters:

  1. The personal taxation system is way too complicated and needs drastically simplifying. At the lower end the tax credit system is wide open to fraud while those on low incomes are taxed when they should not be. The personal tax allowance, both the basic rates, and higher rates, need to be raised to take more people out of tax altogether.
  2. The taxation of capital gains is also now too complicated, while tax is paid on capital gains that simply arise from inflation, which are not real gains at all. They should revert to being indexed as they were some years ago. For almost anyone, calculating your own tax that is payable is now way too difficult and hence requiring the paid services of accountants using specialist software.
  3. Inheritance tax is another over-complex system that wealthy people avoid by taking expert advice while the middle class end up paying it. It certainly needs grossly simplifying, or scrapping altogether as a relatively small amount of tax is actually collected from it.
  4. The taxation of businesses is inequitable with the growth of the internet. Small businesses, particularly retailers, pay a disproportionate level of tax in business rates while their internet competitors often avoid VAT via imports. VAT is now wide open to fraud and other types of abuse such as under-declarations, partly because of the EU VAT arrangements. VAT is in principle a simple tax and the alternative of a sales tax would create anomalies but VAT does need to be reformed and simplified.
  5. All the above tax simplifications would enable HMRC to be reduced in size and the time wasted in form filling by individuals and businesses reduced. Everyone would be a winner, and wasted resources and expenditure reduced.
  6. The taxation of company dividends on shares is now an example of the same profits being taxed twice – once in Corporation Tax on the company, and then again when those profits are distributed to shareholders. This has been enormously damaging to those who receive dividends and the lack of tax credits has also undermined defined benefit pension funds. The taxation of dividends should revert to how it once was.
  7. The regulation of companies and financial institutions needs very substantial reform with much tougher laws against fraud on investors. Not only are the current laws weak but the enforcement of them by the FCA/FRC is too slow and ineffective. Although some reforms have recently been proposed, they do not go far enough. Individual directors and senior managers in companies are not held to account for gross errors or downright fraud, or when they are, they get off too lightly. We need a much more effective system like they have in the USA, and better laws.
  8. Shareholder rights as regards voting and the receipt of information have been undermined by the use of nominee accounts. This has made it difficult for individual shareholders to vote and that is one reason why investors have not been able to control the excesses in director pay recently. The system of shareholding and voting needs reform, with changes to the Companies Act to bring it into the modern electronic world.
  9. The pay of directors and senior managers in companies and other organisations has got wildly out of hand in recent years, thus generating a lot of criticism by the lower paid. This has created social divisions and led partly to the rise of extreme left socialist tendencies. This problem needs tackling.
  10. Governance of companies needs to be reformed to ensure that directors do not set their own pay, as happens at present, but that shareholders and other stakeholders do so. Likewise shareholders and other stakeholders should appoint the directors.
  11. Insolvency law needs reform to outlaw “pre-pack” administrations which have been very damaging to many small businesses. They are an abuse of insolvency law.
  12. All the EU Directives on financial regulation should be scrapped (i.e. there should be no “harmonization” with EU regulations after Brexit). The MIFID regulations have added enormous costs to financial institutions, which have passed on their costs to their customers, with no very obvious benefit to anyone. Likewise the Shareholder Rights Directive might have had good objectives but the implementation has been poor because of the lack of knowledge on how financial markets operate in the UK. Other examples are the UCITS regulations which have not stopped Neil Woodford from effectively bypassing them, or the PRIIPS regulations which have resulted in misleading information being provided to investors.

Let me know if you have other suggestions, and of course the above policies might be good for adoption by other political parties in addition.

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

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Worldwide Healthcare Trust and Investor Voting

I recently received the Annual Report of Worldwide Healthcare Trust (WWH). This is one of those companies that has stopped sending out proxy voting forms for their AGM. The Registrar is Link Asset Services who seem to be making it as difficult as possible for shareholders on the register to vote. You either have to contact them to request a proxy voting form, or register for their on-line portal. I don’t want to register (and the last time I tried it was not easy), I just want to vote!

But as I have mentioned before, I have provided a form that anyone can use to submit as a proxy instruction – see here: https://www.roliscon.com/proxy-voting.html. There is an option you can use if you are not on the share register but in a nominee account.

As regards WWH, performance last year was OK with net asset value total return up 13.7% although that’s less than their benchmark which managed 21.1%. Relative underperformance was mainly attributed to being underweight in the global pharmaceutical sector. The fund manager (OrbiMed Capital) believes there are better opportunities elsewhere such as in emerging markets and biotechnology. We will no doubt see in due course whether those bets are right.

But I do have some concerns about corporate governance at this trust. Not only are the directors highly paid, but two of them have been on the board for over 9 years, including the Chairman Sir Martin Smith. He also has a “number of other directorships and business interests” without them being spelled out. The UK Corporate Governance Code spells out quite rightly that directors who have served on the board for more than 9 years cannot be considered “independent”.

In addition Director Sven Borho is a Managing Partner of OrbiMed so he is clearly not independent either. So 3 of the 6 directors cannot be considered independent. I therefore give you my personal recommendations for how to vote on the resolutions at the AGM (or by proxy of course) of the following:

Vote AGAINST resolutions 2, 3, 7, 9, 14 and 15. Vote FOR all the others.

This is not “box ticking”, it’s about ensuring directors of trust companies do not become stale, not too sympathetic to the fund managers and not too geriatric. The excuses given for the directors I am voting against to remain do not hold water.

Nominee Accounts and Voting

As regards the difficulty of voting if you hold your shares in a nominee account (as most do now for ISAs etc), ShareSoc has some positive news after years of campaigning on this issue (including a lot of personal effort from me).

The Government BEIS Department have commissioned a review of “intermediated securities” by the Law Commission. See this ShareSoc blog post for more information: https://tinyurl.com/y4wk4edz . Please do support the ShareSoc campaign on this issue.

It is important that all shareholders can vote, whether you are in a nominee account or on the register, and you need to be able to vote easily. Bearing in mind the furore over the proposed requirement for voters in general elections to at least show some id before voting, which has been criticised, wrongly in my view, for possibly deterring voting, it is odd that this issue of disenfranchising shareholders has not been tackled sooner.

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

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Paying Illegal Dividends, Burford Capital, Woodford Patient Capital Trust and Zero Carbon Objective

A group of investors including Sarasin, Legal & General, Hermes and the UK Shareholders Association (UKSA) has written to Sir Donald Brydon who is undertaking a review of the audit market. They have yet again raised the question of whether the International Financial Accounting Standards (IFRS) are consistent with UK company law. In particular they question whether profits are sometimes being recognised, thus allowing the payment of illegal dividends. The particular issue is whether profits can arise on certain transactions under IFRS from transactions between parent and subsidiary companies or by the use of “mark to market” accounting. The problem is “unrealised profits” that might turn into cash in the future, but may not.

This may appear a somewhat technical question, but it can in practice lead to over-optimistic reporting of profits, leading to excessive bonus payments to managers, and the general misleading of investors. Actually calculating when a dividend can be paid as dividends are not supposed to be paid out of capital is not easy and is not self-evident to investors. The published accounts do not make it obvious. Regular mistakes are made by companies requiring later “whitewash” resolutions to be passed by shareholders. The ICAEW has previously rejected complaints on this issue but it is surely an area that requires more examination.

Incidentally I was reading a book yesterday entitled “White Collar Crime in Modern England” (from 1845-1929) which is most enlightening on common frauds that arose when limited companies became popular – many of the frauds still persist. In the “railway mania” of the 1840s it was common to set up companies and raise the capital to build a railway when the chance of it operating profitably was low. To keep the share price high, and the directors in jobs, dividends were paid out of capital. To quote from the book: “unscrupulous directors could easily pay dividends out of capital undetected – projecting a false image of profitability and enticing further investment in their lines”. That was an era when auditors did not have to be accountants and were often simply the directors’ cronies. Standards and regulations have improved since then, but there are still problems in this area that need solving.

There was an interesting discussion on Twitter recently on Burford Capital (BUR) with regard to their accounting methods. Not that I am an expert on the company as I do not hold shares in it, it but as I understand it they recognise the likely future settlements from the litigation funding cases they take on. In other words, they estimate future cash flows based on projections of likely winning the case and the possible settlements. As I said on Twitter, lawyers will often tell you a case is winnable but they will also tell you the outcome of any legal case is uncertain.

It’s interesting to read what Burford say in their Annual Report under accounting policies where it spells it out: “Owing to the illiquid nature of these investments, the assessment of fair valuation is highly subjective and requires a number of significant and complex judgements to be made by management. The exit value will be determined for each investment by the contractual entitlement, the underlying risk profile of the litigation, a trial or an appellate outcome or other case events, any other agreements in respect of settlement discussions or negotiations as well as the credit risk associated with the investment value and any relevant secondary market activity”.

The auditors no doubt scrutinise the reasonableness of the estimates but any outside investor in the shares of the company will have great difficulty in doing so.

Neil Woodford’s Equity Income Fund has a big holding in Burford Capital. I commented on the Woodford Patient Capital Trust yesterday here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/06/11/woodford-patient-capital-trust-is-it-an-opportunity/ and suggested the Trust made a mistake in naming the Trust after him. It makes it more difficult to fire the manager for example. But the FT reported this morning that the Trust has indeed had conversations about doing just that. Woodford’s firm has a contract that only requires 3 months’ notice which is a good thing. At least they can keep the “Patient Capital” moniker because investors in this trust have already had to wait a long time for much return and it could take even longer to improve its performance under a new manager. But as Lex in the FT said, “patience is now in short supply” so far as investors are concerned.

Another major item of news yesterday was soon to be ex-Prime Minister May’s commitment to enshrine in law a target for net zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2050. This is surely a quite suicidal path for the UK to follow when most other major countries, including all the big polluters, will be very unlikely to follow suit. Even Chancellor Philip Hammond has said it will cost about £1 trillion. It will effectively make the UK completely uncompetitive in many products with production and jobs shifting to other countries. We might become the first really “de-industrialised” country which is not a lead that many will follow, and it will actually be practically very difficult to achieve if you bother to study what is required to achieve zero emissions. It will completely change the way we live with the transport network being a particular problem (trains, planes and road vehicles).

As I have said before, if we really want to cut air pollution and CO2 emissions, then we need to reduce the population as well as rely on such wheezes as electrification of the transport and energy systems. Mrs May’s last act as Prime Minister might be to commit the UK to economic suicide. It might not be a good time to invest in UK manufacturing companies.

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

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Broker Charges, Proven VCT Performance Fee and LoopUp Seminar

The Share Centre are the latest stockbroker to increase their fees. Monthly fee for an ISA account is going up by 4.2% to £5.00 per month with increases on ordinary share accounts and SIPPs also. This is the latest of a number of fee increases among stockbrokers and retail investor platforms. The Share Centre blame the required investment in technology development and “an increasing burden of financial regulation”. The latter is undoubtedly the result of such regulations as MIFID II imposed by the EU which has proven to be of minimal benefit to investors. As I was explaining to my sister over the weekend, this is one reason why I voted to leave the EU – their financial regulations are often misconceived and often aimed at solving problems we never had in the UK.

I received the Annual Report of Proven VCT (PVN) this morning – a Venture Capital Trust. Total return to shareholders was 10.3% last year, but the fund manager did even better. Of the overall profits of the company of £18.6 million, they received £7.7 million in management fees (i.e. they received 41% of the profits this year). That includes £5.6 million in performance fees.

Studying the management fee (base 2.0%) and the performance fee, I find the latter particularly incomprehensible. I will therefore be attending the AGM on the 3rd July to ask some pointed questions and I would encourage other shareholders to do the same. I am likely to vote against all the directors at this company.

I also received an Annual Report for Proven Growth & Income VCT (PGOO) and note that of the 4 directors, 2 have served more than 9 years and one is employed by the fund manager. So that’s three out of four that cannot be considered “independent” so I have voted against them. I would attend their AGM on the same day but the time is 9.30 which is not a good choice and would waste a whole day.

Yesterday I attended the “Capital Markets Day” of LoopUp (LOOP). This is an AIM listed company whose primary product is an audio conference call service. It’s just a “better mousetrap” to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson as 68% of the world are still using simple dial-in services rather than more sophisticated software products such as Zoom and WebEx. There are lots of other competitors in this field including Microsoft’s Skype which I find an appallingly bad product from past experience. Reliability and simplicity of use is key and LoopUp claimed to have solved this with no learning required, no software downloads or other complexities and high-quality calls aimed at the corporate market.

I have seen the company present before and do hold a few shares. This event was again a very professional sales pitch for the company and its product with no financial information provided. Yesterday they also covered the addition of video to their basic conference call service which was announced on the day, plus a new service for managed events/meetings. Video addition is probably an essential competitive advantage that was previously missing. They covered how their service is differentiated from the main competitors which was good to understand.

Last year they acquired a company called MeetingZone which has increased their customer base and revenue substantially and are transitioning the customers to the LoopUp product. Revenue doubled last year and is forecast to rise by about 50% in the current year. Needless to say the company is rated highly on conventional financial metrics and return on capital has been depressed by the cost of the acquisition. But one reason I like this company is that it’s very easy to understand what they do and what the “USP” is that they are promoting, plus their competitive position (many company presentations omit any discussion of competitors).

They also have an exceedingly good sales operation based on groups of people organised in “pods” which was covered in depth in the presentation. These only have team bonuses and the key apparently is to recruit “empathetic” people rather than “individualists”. Perhaps that is one reason 60% of them are female. As I said to their joint CEO, I wish I had seen their presentation some 30 or more years ago when I had some responsibility for a software sales function.

The latter part of this 3-hour event was an explanation of how the software/service is used by major international law firm Clifford Chance with some glowing comments on the company from one of their managers. Customer references always help to sell services.

In conclusion a useful meeting, but lack of financial information was an omission although “Capital Market” days are sometimes like that. But the positive was that they had both institutional investors and private investors whereas some companies deliberately discourage the latter from attending such events which I find most objectionable.

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

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