Open Season on Auditors?

I attended a joint ShareSoc/UKSA meeting hosted by PwC yesterday. There was a lively debate as one might expect on the problems of the audit profession where there have been just too many issues with listed company accounts in recent years. The latest is an investigation announced by the FRC into the audit of Conviviality but there have been lots of other problem cases in both large and small companies – Carillion, Interserve, BHS, BT, Rolls-Royce, Mitie, RSM Tenon, Connaught, Autonomy, Quindell, Globo and Blancco Technology are just a few not to mention those in the financial crisis a few years back such as HBOS, RBS, Northern Rock et al. There are simply too many such examples but whenever I go to meetings run by auditors or the FRC I get the distinct impression of complacency. They all think they are doing a great job and the bad apples are exceptions. Yesterdays event was no different.

Reading the London Evening Standard on my way home, there was an article on this topic written by Jim Armitage which was headlined “It’s open season on auditors as others dodge the bullet”. He blamed the incompetent management at Conviviality for the company becoming bust but did the audit report at that company highlight the risks being taken?

Even if it did it seems unlikely from comments from the audience at the PwC meeting that anyone would have noticed them. Only a minority of investors read the audit report part of the annual report because most of it consists of boiler plate text following by the comment “nothing to report”. Indeed it was very clear that auditors will do everything possible to avoid a “qualified” report as that might damage the company and its share price. The result is that a “qualified” report is a rare beast indeed.

There are two ways to improve performance of anyone: the carrot or the stick. Perhaps auditors should be paid more so they can put more time and effort into their audits but company boards might be reluctant to do that. There were a few suggestions raised in the meeting on how to improve matters. One was having auditors appointed by a shareholder committee rather than by the board of directors. But I suspect that would only help if such a committee had the power to approve expenditure of the company’s money. Certainly one problem at present is that auditors are selected to a large degree on price rather than quality.

Another suggestion was to have an independent audit committee (i.e. not made up of board directors), rather like a supervisory board which is used in some European countries. But that would surely add complexity and cost that only the largest companies could justify.

The stick approach would mean more penalties for auditors when they make mistakes. The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) could be tougher and impose higher penalties although they probably need more resources budget-wise to enable them to do that. But one advantageous change would be to reverse the Caparo legal judgement and make auditors liable to shareholders. At present it’s much too difficult for investors to sue auditors while companies rarely want to do so.

As regards the FRC, the Government have recently announced a review of the role of the FRC to be chaired by Sir John Kingman – see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-launches-review-of-audit-regulator

Sir John is looking for evidence so if you have some, please send it to him. I will probably be submitting something and ShareSoc/UKSA are likely to do so also. But if you have evidence of individual cases where auditors have fallen down on the job and the FRC have not been helpful then please submit it. The FRC also has responsibility for Corporate Governance so you may like to comment on that also. There may be hope of some change from this review – at least the advisory committee is not full of auditors and accountants.

One idea proposed in the PwC event to help auditors was for a mechanism to enable shareholders to suggest to auditors what they should be looking at in the accounts of a company. That might assist but from my experience of once doing this on a company, it had no impact on a clean audit report – the company subsequently went into administration.

There were some interesting comments on the general quality of accounts with one speaker suggesting that the failure to depreciate goodwill was distorting balance sheets and it was now obvious that investors ignored the statutory accounts and paid attention to the “adjusted” figures for profit or other non-statutory measures. Should not the auditors be auditing the latter and commenting on them? Perhaps we should have alternative measures as part of the statutory accounts?

In conclusion the PwC event was undoubtedly useful as it highlighted many of the current problems and also covered the technological future of auditing (the tools PwC now uses in its audits were covered). One can see that technology might embed the status quo of the four large audit firms as smaller organisations might not have the resources to develop their own equivalent software products.

The more one considers the accounts of companies and the audit profession in the modern world, the more one comes to realise that substantial reform is required.

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

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Directors Removed But One Reappointed at Telit

More interesting events at the Telit Communications (TCM) AGM yesterday. This is a company that has been through troubled times of late with the departure of former CEO Oozi Cats under a cloud and lots of questions about their accounts being raised. But events at the AGM were even more surprising when the Chairman Richard Kilsby and two other non-executive directors were voted off the board on a poll. The meeting lasted all of ten minutes apparently.

Existing non-executive director Simon Duffy took over as Interim Chairman and one of the removed directors, Miriam Greenwood, was promptly reappointed (i.e. co-opted to the board). This was so as to ensure the “board and its committees continue to be quorate with an appropriate number of independent, non-executive directors” according to the announcement by the company.

Is it legal for a board to reappoint a director just removed by a vote of shareholders? The answer is yes unless a resolution was passed to the contrary. Whether it is acceptable practice is another matter altogether.

I have come across this situation once before at Victoria where the Chairperson reappointed someone just removed by a vote of shareholders. I did not like it then when the justification given was the need to have at least two directors to maintain the company’s listing. I recall saying at the time: “is there nobody else in the company who is willing to step forward”. The Chairperson was subsequently removed by shareholders.

Does the justification for re-appointing a removed director by the Telit board make any sense? Not really in my view. Board committees don’t sit frequently and new non-executive directors can usually be recruited relatively quickly. Perhaps the board anticipated some problems in that regard as joining this board might be perceived as being risky. But Telit is an AIM company so is not bound by the UK Corporate Governance Code regarding the number of independent directors and composition of board committees and nor is there any AIM Market Rule that I am aware of that would require them to immediately appoint another non-executive director. Even if the company is adhering to some other corporate governance code, the rules are typically “comply or explain” and obviously the company would have a good explanation for non-compliance.

It would seem to me that the board simply considered it a good idea to reappoint Miriam Greenwood, but when shareholders have voted to remove her, I suggest she should have stayed removed. Shareholders views and rights should not be abused in this manner. It is surely time for the FCA or FRC to lay down some guidelines on what is permissible in such circumstances as the Companies Act does not cover it.

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

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Hybrid AGMs and British Land

The British Land Plc (BLND) Annual General Meeting is coming up on the 17th July and I took the opportunity to review the agenda items as some are particularly interesting this year. One resolution refers to a change in the Articles which have been substantially revised. They include:

  • A new resolution to permit “hybrid” General Meetings where some members can participate electronically instead of attending in person. But “all electronic” meetings are still not permitted. This is surely a good initiative and would enable many more shareholders to “attend” such meetings. The disappointing aspect is that apparently the company has “no current intention” to use this capability.
  • A new provision is to allow the current directors to continue in office, with limited capabilities, if they are all voted off at an AGM. This is not very likely to happen, particularly when there are 13 directors on the board as in this company, although I have seen it threatened at smaller companies. Perhaps it is not an unreasonable provision. But why does any company need 13 directors? That surely makes board meetings either very long-winded or some directors are not likely to be saying much. It makes for dysfunctional board meetings. Looking at the backgrounds of some of the directors, where there is no obvious relevance to a property company, it would look like the board could be reduced in size without too much difficulty.
  • Another change is to up the limit on the total pay of non-executive directors from £600,000 to £900,000. Does that sound high? Perhaps not when the Chairman has a fee set at £385,000 per year and the non-executives get a base fee of £62,500 with other additions for sitting on various committees. Indeed the odd thing is that the total fees paid to non-executive directors were £986,000 last year. Surely that means the new limit it not enough and the limit was breached by a wide margin last year? Perhaps not because the limit excludes any additional fees for serving on committees or for acting as chairman which presumably can be set at whatever the board thinks are reasonable. In reality it’s a limit voted upon by shareholders that can be easily side-stepped. It’s surely worth asking for justification at the AGM! So I’ll be voting against the change to the Articles even though most of the revisions are sensible.

The registrar in this case is Equiniti. They sent me a paper proxy voting form but no paper Annual Report, which is somewhat annoying as reading a 186 page report on-line is not easy. I’ll have to request a paper one. But at least they provide an easy on-line voting system unlike some others I could mention – I am still on correspondence with Link Asset Services (Capita as was) on that subject.

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

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RBS Sale and Blackrock Smaller Companies AGM

The Government is selling off another tranche of its holding in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). By selling another 8% it will reduce its holding to 62% of the company. The Government (or “taxpayers” as some described them) will face a loss of about £2 billion on what it originally paid for the shares. There were howls of protest from some politicians. John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, said “There is no economic justification for this sell-off of RBS shares. There should be no sale of RBS shares full-stop. But particularly with such a large loss to the taxpayers who bailed out the bank”.

I think he is suffering from the problem of “loss aversion”, i.e. a reluctance to sell a losing investment rather than looking at the current value of the bank and its prospects. The market price is surely the best indicator of the value of the company – it’s what willing buyers will pay, and what sellers consider a fair price. One aspect to consider is that the value of the business may be depressed because nobody likes to buy shares in companies where there is one dominant controlling shareholder and particularly so if that shareholder is a government. The only way the UK Government can solve that problem is to reduce its holding in stages, as they are doing. Forget the prospective loss on the share sale. Better to accept the price offered and reinvest the proceeds in something else. The Government has lots of things where it needs more cash – the NHS, Education, Defence, Brexit plans, you name it.

Mr McDonnell may be particularly unhappy as he hopes to take power at the next General Election and RBS is one of the few remnants of the past Labour government’s major stakes in UK banks. After Gordon Brown nationalised Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, they took effective control of RBS, and to a large extent Lloyds. Only Barclays managed to escape by doing a quick deal with middle-east investors which has been the subject of legal action, only recently thrown out by the courts. For any socialist, particularly of the extreme left like Mr McDonnell, the ability to tell banks what to do is an undoubted objective. Banks tend to reduce lending when the economy worsens and their clients start to have difficulties but the claim is often that such reduction in lending compounds the economic woes.

Yesterday I attend the Annual General Meeting of Blackrock Smaller Companies Trust Plc (BRSC). What follows are some brief highlights. This company has a good track record – some 15 consecutive years of outperforming its benchmark by active management. So much for passive index investing. It has been managed by Mike Prentis for many years assisted by Roland Arnold more recently. The share price rose by 25% last year but the discount to NAV has narrowed recently to about 6% so some might say it is no longer a great bargain. The company does not have a fixed discount control mechanism and has traded at much higher discounts in the past.

It’s a stock-pickers portfolio of UK smaller companies, including 43% of AIM companies and 143 holdings in total. Many of the holdings are the same companies I have invested in directly, e.g. GB Group who issued their annual results on the same day with another great set of figures.

Mike Prentis gave his key points for investing in a company as: strong management, a unique business with strong pricing power, profitable track record, throwing off cash, profits convert into cash and a strong balance sheet. They generally go for small holdings initially, even when they invest in IPOs, i.e. they are cautious investors.

When it came to questions, one shareholder questioned the allocation of management fees as against income or capital (25% to 75% in this company). He suggested this was reducing the amount available for reinvestment. But he was advised otherwise. Such allocation is now merely an accounting convention, particularly as dividends can now be paid out of capital. But he could not be convinced otherwise.

Another investor congratulated the board on removing the performance fee. Shareholders were clearly happy, and nobody commented on the fact that the Chairman, Nicholas Fry had been on the board since 2005 and the SID, Robert Robertson, had also been there more than 9 years – both contrary to the UK Corporate Governance Code. The latter did collect 5% of votes against his re-election, but all resolutions were passed on a show of hands.

I was positively impressed on the whole.

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

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Should Trust Managers Attempt to Unseat the Board in a Dispute over Fees?

Investment trust directors should be independent of the manager. But sometimes the latter appear to think otherwise. Such is the case at Invesco Perpetual Enhanced Income Ltd (IPE), an investment company that invests in high yield bonds and other assets. It is managed by Invesco Perpetual. The latter have resigned as fund manager after a dispute over fees it is alleged. They have now also requisitioned a general meeting of the company to remove the trust’s Chairman, Donald Adamson, and director Richard Williams and to appoint two new directors. The two new directors who are proposed are currently directors of Aberdeen funds which is an odd coincidence – see below.

Invesco hold 17 percent of the shares and are supported by two other large institutional investors but a lot of the shareholders in this trust are private individuals.

The dispute over fees arose apparently because the trust wished to reduce the level of fees, and possibly remove the performance fee. The AIC gives the “ongoing charge plus performance fee” of 2.16% which is surely high for what is primarily a bond fund. Performance fees in trusts are also, and quite rightly, becoming unpopular with investors.

Historically the performance of this trust looks good but the company says it has received attractive offers from well qualified alternative managers. However the key question is whether it is morally right for a fund manager to challenge the board of directors in this way. How is that in shareholders’ interests and clearly there is a conflict of interest here. What is in the best interests of shareholders is surely for the board to decide, not the fund manager.

I have come across this situation once before some years ago when Aberdeen attempted to thwart the change of fund manager of a Venture Capital Trust (VCT) where the shareholders (including me) had caused a revolution that resulted in a change of board after a quite dire performance track record. I was not best pleased with that attempt although it was unsuccessful and the manager was changed.

My view is that fund managers should not interfere in this way and the FCA should introduce rules to ensure that trusts are truly independent and not poodles of the manager (a common problem in VCTs for example). The directors should be independent and threats to try and remove them by the fund manager should be treated with contempt. I hope shareholders in this trust will vote against the requisition.

Brewin Dolphin, a leading retail broker, has supported the board in resisting Invesco’s desire to retain a performance fee. Guy Foster, Head of Research, has been quoted in Citywire as saying Invesco should “leave the board to continue working to reduce fees and shore up the uncovered distribution for the benefit of shareholders”. Let us hope other retail brokers take the same stance.

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

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Two AGMs (Accesso and Foresight VCT) in one day

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Accesso (ACSO) in Twyford at the somewhat early time of 10.00 am with the result that I got bogged down in the usual rush hour traffic on the M25. What a horrendous road system we have in London! A symptom of long term under-investment in UK road infrastructure.

Accesso provides “innovative queuing, ticketing and POS solutions” to the entertainment sector (e.g. theme parks) although they have been spreading into other application areas. The business has been growing rapidly under the leadership of Tom Burnet who moved from being CEO to Executive Chairman a while back.

Tom opened the meeting by introducing the board, including new CEO Paul Noland who is based in the USA where they now have 5 offices apparently. He also covered that morning’s trading statement which was positive and mentioned deals with Henry Ford Health System and an extension to an existing agreement with Cedar Fair Entertainment. Expectations for the year remain unchanged. Questions were then invited – I have just covered a few below.

I raised a concern about the low return on capital in the company (now less than 5% irrespective of how one cares to measure it). I suggested the reasons were large increase in administrative expenses (up 43% last year) and the cost of acquisitions. Did the board have any concerns about this? Apparently not. The reason is partly the acquisitions and the costs might come down as they rationalise operations but they are in no rush to do so.

The Ford deal was mentioned and Tom said this is one deal where the acquisition of TE2 has provided the technology to assist closure. This is what the company said about TE2 when they bought it: The Directors of accesso believe that TE2’s cloud-based solution offers market-leading personalisation capabilities and data orchestration technologies which capture, model and anticipate guest behaviour and preferences not only pre- and post-visit online, but in the physical in-venue environment.  Personalisation is achieved via many heuristics, including machine-learning-based recommendations, in order both to enhance guest experiences and to provide actionable analytics and insights to the operations, retail and marketing organisations.”. I am sure all readers understand that. Hospital systems are clearly one target for this technology.

The vote was taken on a show of hands so far as I could tell, although the announcement the next day of the votes suggested it was done on a poll which is surely wrong. But there were significant numbers of votes (over 2 million) against several directors and against share allotment resolutions. I asked why and was told it was because of a proxy advisory service recommending voting against, allegedly because of some misunderstanding. The answer to my question seemed somewhat evasive though.

In summary, shareholders are clearly happy with the progress of the company but with a prospective p/e of 41 (and no dividends), a lot of future growth is clearly in the share price. Corporate governance seems rather hit and miss.

I then drove into London to the offices of Foresight in the Shard, again journey time a lot more than it should have been due to road closures, lane removal for cycle lanes, etc, etc. Interesting to note a large hoarding on the elevated section of the A4 inviting anyone who had a complaint against RBS and the GRG operation to contact them.

Also interesting to note when I stopped for fuel at a service station on the M4 that at the desk they were serving Greggs food and coffee as well as taking payment for fuel. I know that Greggs have kiosks in some motorway service areas but this is perhaps a new initiative to expand their market. It’s rather like the small Costa coffee outlets that are in all kinds of places. I am a shareholder in Greggs but this was news to me. Obviously I need to get out more to see what is happening in the real world.

The visit to Foresight was to attend the AGM of Foresight VCT (FTV) one of my oldest holdings. Effectively I have been locked in after originally claiming capital gains roll-over relief. It’s also one of the worst of my historic Venture Capital Trust holdings in terms of overall performance over the years.

I did not need to tell them again how dire the performance of the company had been over the last 20 years because another shareholder did exactly that. But I did query whether the claimed total return last year of 6.5% given by fund manager Russell Healey in his presentation was accurate. It was claimed to be so. Perhaps performance is improving but I am not sure I want to stick around to see the outcome.

One particularly issue in this company is the performance fee payable to the manager which I wrote about in my AGM report and on the Sharesoc blog last year. You can see why the manager has such plush offices as they have surely done very nicely out of this and their other VCTs over the years while shareholders have not, and will continue to do so.

Several shareholders raised questions about the reappointment of KPMG bearing in mind that in Foresight 4 VCT the accounts were possibly defective and a dividend might have been paid illegally. But the board seemed to know nothing about this matter. KMPG got about 6 hands voting against their reappointment and the board is going to look into the matter.

The above is just a brief report on the meeting as I understand Tim Grattan may produce a longer one for ShareSoc.

To conclude, both AGMs were worth attending as I learned a few things I did not already know. For example it seems my holding in Ixaris, an unlisted fintech company where Foresight have a holding, may be worth more than I thought. But I still think their valuation is a bit optimistic.

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

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Shareholder Democracy, RBS, Rightmove AGM and Stockopedia

There is a very good article by City Slicker in this weeks’ edition of Private Eye (No.1469) on the subject of “Apathy in the City”. The article comments on the “disengaged” share owners in Persimmon who failed to vote against the remuneration report, or simply abstained. See my previous blog post on that subject here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/04/25/persimmon-remuneration-institutions-duck-responsibility/

The article highlights the issue that the many private shareholders in the company probably also did not vote (they could have swung the result), because they have effectively been disenfranchised by the nominee system that is now dominant. The writer says “This democratic deficit has been richly rewarding for companies, share registrars and those representing retail investors”, and the result “has been a real diminution in shareholder democracy”. A few more articles of that ilk may sooner or later impress on politicians and the Government that substantial reform is necessary.

The article also points out how the EU Shareholder Rights Directive, one of the few good things to come out of the EU bureaucracy in my opinion, is being misinterpreted by the UK Government to suggest beneficial owners are not shareholders.

To get the message across I have written to my M.P. on the subject of Beaufort and the substantial financial losses that thousands of investors will suffer there as a result of the use of nominee accounts compounded by the current insolvency rules. If anyone would like a copy of my letter to crib and send to their own M.P., just let me know.

In the meantime the AGM at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is due on the 30th May. The RBS board has opposed the resolution put forward by ShareSoc and UKSA to establish a “shareholder committee”. That would be a step forward in corporate governance in my view and shareholders would be wise to vote in favour of that resolution (no.27). I do hold a few shares in the company but will be unable to attend the AGM in Edinburgh so if anyone would like a proxy appointment from me so that you can attend and voice your own views on the subject, please let me know. You would at least have the pleasure of seeing the buildings created in Gogarburn by empire builder Fred Goodwin for RBS.

The RBS Annual Report is a 420 page document which must make it one of the heaviest UK Plc Annual Reports. The motto on the cover is quite amusing. It reads “Simple, safe and customer focussed” – perhaps it means they intend to get back to that because RBS was none of these things during the financial crisis that almost bankrupted the business.

One aspect that City Slicker criticizes in the aforementioned article is the low “turn-out” of voters at AGMs, i.e. the low percentage of shareholder votes cast even including “votes withheld”. A third were not voted at Persimmon. That is not untypical at AGMs in my experience although institutional voting has improved in recent years. It’s often the private investors now who don’t vote due to the difficulty, or downright impossibility of voting shares held in nominee accounts.

But there was no such problem at Rightmove Plc on the 4th May. About 85% of votes were cast. As a holder I could not attend in person, but Alex Lawson has written a report which is on the ShareSoc Members Network. One surprising result though was that long-standing Chairman Scott Forbes got 39% of votes against his re-election and Remuneration Committee Chairman Peter Williams got 37% against. I voted against the latter, against the Remuneration Report and did not support the re-election of Scott Forbes either. With 12 plus years of service, it is surely time to look to board succession planning and a new Chairman. The board is to look into why they got so many votes against the two resolutions which is certainly unusual.

To conclude I see that blogger/journalist Tom Winnifrith is having yet another go at mild-mannered Ed Croft of Stockopedia after a spat at the UK Investor Show over a trivial matter. Since then Tom has been attacking Ed over “recommendations” given by Stockopedia in his usual rottweiler manner. As a user of Stockopedia and other stock screening services, I don’t expect absolutely all the positively rated stocks to be great investments. I know that some will be dogs because either the accounts are fraudulent, the management incompetent or unexpected and damaging events will appear out of the blue. So for example, Globo’s accounts fooled many people including me until late in the day so any system that relied just on analysis of the financial numbers would be likely to mislead. But stock screens rely on the laws of averages. The fact that there will be one or two rotten apples in the barrel does not mean that stock screens cannot be a useful tool to quickly scan and dispose of a lot of “also-rans” in the investment world. They can quickly highlight the stocks that are worthy of more analysis, or prompt dismissal.

Winnifrith seems unable to differentiate between meritorious causes that deserve the full power of his literary talents and those where his imitation of a sufferer from Tourette’s syndrome where he heaps abuse on innocent victims goes beyond the bounds of reason. Stockopedia provides a useful service to investors. Let us hope that the saying there is “no such thing as bad publicity” applies in this case.

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

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