Gamma Communications AGM and FCA News

I have received the Annual Report and Notice of the Annual General Meeting for Gamma Communications (GAMA). Despite the fact that this company specialises in electronic communications and actually say in their Annual Report that “This year we have adopted a digital first approach reflecting how we operate as a business”, they expect me to physically attend the AGM in central London at 10.00 am on the 19th May. There is no electronic attendance via web cast or hybrid meeting supported. This is a waste of my time for what is likely to be a routine event. I have written to the Chairman to complain.

Their registrar Link Group also failed to include a proxy voting form with the AGM Notice so I had to use my own. This is a repeated failing recently by Link Group which undermines shareholder democracy. They seem to be trying to force everyone to register for their electronic voting system. I don’t mind voting electronically but that should be provided by a simpler system such as that used by Computershare.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have published a press release that says “The FCA has finalised rules requiring listed companies to report information and disclose against targets on the representation of women and ethnic minorities on their boards and executive management, making it easier for investors to see the diversity of their senior leadership teams”. They have simply gone ahead and implemented new rules that were the focus of a public consultation which I severely criticised – see https://roliscon.blog/2021/08/06/diversity-but-at-what-cost/ . What feedback did they get to the public consultation? They have not said and no report has been published on it. I have asked for more information to see what support they got for these proposals which I consider to be political gestures which will have no benefit but add a lot of costs to listed companies.

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

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Warren Buffett Letter and Culture

Warren Buffett has published the latest Berkshire Hathaway letter to shareholders (see https://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2021ltr.pdf ). As usual it makes for an amusing and educational missive including his comment on the $3.3 billion the company paid in taxes. He says “I gave in the office” is an unassailable assertion when made by Berkshire shareholders.

The company improved its per share value by 29.6% in 2021 which was slightly ahead of the S&P 500 with dividends included. That’s a big improvement on the previous two years when Berkshire lagged the index.

What has been one of the key reasons for the success of the company over the last 55 years? I would suggest culture is one. A culture of honesty, integrity and rational behaviour if you read the latest and prior newsletters.

Meanwhile the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors (CIIA) have published a report entitled “Cultivating a Healthy Culture” (see https://www.iia.org.uk/policy-and-research/research-reports/cultivating-a-healthy-culture/ ). It suggests based on research among its members that culture is important and that 66% believe that the UK Corporate Governance Code should be strengthened in regard to the responsibilities of company directors. The Financial Times reported this as one of the causes of several company collapses in recent years such as at BHS, Carillion, Greensill and Patisserie Valerie. But if you read the reporting on this issue there is discussion of Environmental, Social and Governance issues (ESG) and equality issues as if adding those to the Governance Code might assist.

Yes I suggest culture is important but the key question to ask when looking to invest in a company from my experience is simply this “Is the Management Competent and Trustworthy?” (that’s a quote from my book on investing). If you don’t trust the management walk on by. And if you are holding shares in a company and news comes out that undermines your confidence in the directors, then sell the shares. Don’t wait for them to reform.

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

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A Bumper Edition of Investors Chronicle

Over the Christmas period we were treated to a bumper edition of the Investors’ Chronicle. And I have to say that this magazine has improved of late under the editorship of Rosie Carr. Whether she has a bigger budget or is just picking better writers I do not know but she certainly deserved the job after working for the magazine for many years.

I’ll pick out a couple of interesting articles from the latest edition:

“What does it cost to be an effective private investor” by Stephen Clapham. He comments that “private investors are, in my experience, not nearly willing enough to invest in tools and education to improve the performance of their portfolios”. I would agree with that. They tend to rely on broker/platform recommendations, newspaper articles, or tips from bulletin boards instead of doing their own research using the tools that are available.

Stephen mentions services such as SharePad, Stockopedia, VectorVest and Sentieo. I am not familiar with the last two but I use both SharePad/Sharescope and Stockopedia as they provide slightly different functionality. Plus I use spreadsheets to record all transactions and dividends and to monitor cash. This enables me to manage several different portfolios held with multiple platforms/brokers comprising 80 different stock holdings with some ease. I have been doing this since my portfolios were much smaller and less complex so I would recommend such an approach even to those who are starting to invest in equities.

As the article mentions, half the members of ShareSoc have a portfolio of over £1m and may be representative of private investors so they may be making profits of well over £50,000 per year from their investments, particularly of late. A few hundred pounds per year to help them manage their portfolios and do research should not be rejected if it helps them to improve their portfolio returns by just a fraction of one percent, which it should surely do.

Altogether the article is a good summary of what a private investor should be using in terms of services to help them.

The other interesting article is entitled “The Generation Game” by Philip Ryland. It highlights the declining performance of UK stock markets since the 2008-09 financial crisis. He shows graphically how the FTSE-100 has fallen way behind the S&P 500 and the MSCI World Index. It makes for pretty depressing reading if you have been mainly investing in UK large cap stocks in the FTSE-100.

It reinforces the message that if you want a decent return from your equity investments you need to include overseas markets in your holdings and small and mid-cap companies in the UK. That is what has worked in the last few years and I expect it to continue to be the case.

Why? Because the growth is present in those companies while the FTSE-100 is dominated by dinosaurs with no growth. Technology stocks are where growth is now present when there are few in the FTSE-100. In fact the market cap of Apple now exceeds the whole of the FTSE-100.

The UK has become particularly unattractive for technology stock listings due to excessive regulation and over-arching corporate governance rules that divert management time. Meanwhile the UK economic environment still relies a great deal on cheap labour provided often by immigrants while our education system fails to encourage technical skills.

The Government has taken some steps to tackle these issues but not nearly enough while politicians have spent time on divisive arguments about how to deal with the Covid epidemic and about trivia such as Christmas parties and redecoration of the Prime Ministers apartment.

There are of course bright spots in this economic gloom and generalising about the state of the country is always going to lead to mistaken conclusions. We are probably no worse than most countries if you examine their politics and the UK economy does seem to be relatively healthy.

But the key message is that if you want to make real money investing in equities you need to be selective and not just follow the crowd, i.e. don’t just rely on index trackers.

Those are my thoughts for investment in the New Year.

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

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Restoring Trust in Audit and Corporate Governance

As it’s Friday afternoon with not much happening, and I have completed my latest complaint about the time it’s taking to complete a SIPP platform transfer, I decided to have a look at the public consultation on “Restoring Trust in Audit and Corporate Governance” from the BEIS Department.

This is a quite horrendous consultation on the Government’s proposals to improve audit standards and director behaviour as foretold in the Kingman and Brydon reviews, with proposals for a new regulatory body (ARGA). That’s after a growing lack of confidence in the accounts of companies by investors after numerous failures of companies, and not just smaller ones. I call the consultation horrendous because it consists of over 100 questions, many of them technical in nature, which is why BEIS have given us until the 8th of July to respond presumably.

I won’t even attempt to cover all the questions and my views on them in this brief note. But I would encourage all those who invest in the stock market, or have an interest in improving standards in corporate reporting, to wade through the questions and respond to the on-line consultation (see link below). Otherwise I fear that only those with a professional interest as accountants or as directors of public companies will be responding. The result might be a biased view of what is needed to improve the quality of financial information provided to investors.

The general thrust of the proposals do make sense and it would be unfortunate if the proposals were watered down due to opposition from professional accounting bodies and company directors.

But there is one aspect worth commenting upon. Some parts of the proposals appear to believe that standards can be improved by imposing more bureaucracy on auditors and company directors. This might add substantial costs for companies in terms of higher audit fees and more management time consumed, with probably little practical benefit.

We need simple rules, but tougher enforcement.

The audit profession appears to be already seeking to water down some of the proposals according to a recent article in the FT which reported that accountants were seeking leniency on “high risk audits”. That’s where they take on auditing a company for the first time which may prove difficult, particularly where corporate governance is poor. This looks like yet another attempt by auditors to duck liability for not spotting problems which has been one of the key problems for many years.

BEIS Consultation: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/restoring-trust-in-audit-and-corporate-governance

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

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Long Serving Directors and Maven VCT

I have long complained about directors serving on boards for longer than 9 years. The UK Corporate Governance Code (which you can easily find on the web) says any director who serves for more than 9 years cannot be considered “independent” and there should be a majority of independent directors.

When the UK Corporate Governance Code was drafted this principle of avoiding long-serving directors was introduced and I consider it a very sound principle. But investment trusts (including Venture Capital Trust) continue to ignore this rule. An extreme example of this is that of Maven Income & Growth VCT 4 (MAV4).

In the latest Annual Report (the AGM is on the 12th May), it appears that two of the five directors (Malcolm Graham-Wood and Steven Scott) were first appointed to the board in 2004 and another director (Bill Nixon) is a managing partner of the fund manager. Clearly a breach of the Code therefore and the explanation given to excuse this is feeble (see page 57 of the Annual Report).

I did raise this issue before the last AGM and got a response that the FRC considers compliance with the AIC Code as sufficient, but I have never seen any official pronouncement on this. As the AIC represents the fund managers effectively and certainly not the shareholders in trusts, it is hardly an unbiased body either.

No action was taken to refresh the board since the last AGM so we have the same cosy arrangement continuing. I have therefore voted against the aforementioned directors and also against the Chairman, Peter Linthwaite, for allowing this situation to persist. I recommend other shareholders do the same.

The company’s AGM is being held in Glasgow but no shareholders are permitted to attend and no alternative on-line or hybrid meeting is being provided. All you can do is submit written questions so here again the board is avoiding accountability to shareholders in a proper manner.

This is clearly a good example of how investment trusts (particularly VCTs) can become poodles of the fund manager and ignore good corporate governance principles.

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

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Seminar on Woodford Legal Case

Yesterday evening I attended a webinar hosted by ShareSoc on a proposed legal action over the substantial losses suffered by investors in the Woodford Equity Income Fund (WEIF). It was chaired by Mark Northway and Cliff Weight with other speakers being Boz Michaelowska from legal firm Leigh Day and David Ricketts. The latter is a financial journalist who has written a book entitled “When the Fund Stops” which covers the past events at the Woodford funds and which will be published in the New Year. It is already available to pre-order.

Leigh Day have identified a case against Link Fund Solutions, the Authorised Corporate Director (ACD) for the fund and which is part of a large financial group (Link).  Leigh Day’s investigations lead it to believe that Link allowed WEIF to hold excessive levels of illiquid or difficult-to-sell investments, and that this caused investors significant loss. In doing so, they consider Link breached the rules of the FCA Handbook and failed to properly carry out the management function of the Woodford Equity Income Fund.

This writer never personally held any of the Woodford funds, but having been involved in two previous large legal actions (over Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland), it was interesting to hear about this one. ShareSoc is endorsing and supporting the Leigh Day case and is providing a discussion forum for investors – see https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/woodford-campaign/ . They are taking up other issues not covered by the legal claim such as the failure of regulation to prevent the collapse of WEIF.

Some 600,000 investors were affected by the closure and wind-up of WEIF and have lost very substantial sums of money – over 25% of what they invested based on some calculations over a few years, in a period when the stock market was otherwise booming. As much as £1 billion in losses were suffered. The decline and eventual closure of WEIF was driven by investment in small cap, often unlisted, companies which proved very difficult to sell and could be considered unwise investments to begin with.

Leigh Day seem to be putting together a sound legal structure required for such an action – a Group Litigation Order, with after the event insurance to protect claimants with a “no win, no fee” financial structure and support from litigation funders. The latter and the associated costs mean that claimants, even if the case is won, will only receive about 70% of the proceeds, even assuming Link can pay which is not clear.

However, investors in WEIF have little to lose from supporting this legal claim although Leigh Day have not yet disclosed the details of their claim.

Note that they are not at present pursuing Neil Woodford, nor his fund management company, nor Hargreaves Lansdown who actively promoted the Woodford funds. Nor are they pursuing a case over investment in the Woodford Patient Capital Trust now taken over by Schroder (NAV down 73% in the last 5 years).

But there are several other legal firms mounting cases over the Woodford funds who might be covering other claims. As I experienced in the past legal cases in which I was involved, lawyers are keen to get involved as they see potential fees of several millions of pounds in the pipeline from pursuing such cases.

Note that investors might also consider a complaint to the Financial Ombudsman which might be an alternative route to redress.

Comment: The ShareSoc seminar provided a very clear exposition of the legal case and past events. It is good to see that ShareSoc is not backing off from involvement in legal claims where they have examined the case carefully and have some assurance that it is being well managed.

My view is that investors in WEIF should support the Leigh Day claim and should register their interest, but they need to be aware that such legal actions are always uncertain and can take many years to come to a conclusion. But if the case focusses on the role of Authorised Corporate Directors (ACDs) that might ensure that they take more care in future to monitor the activities of individual fund managers.

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

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Regulating Consumer Investments and Company Register Reform

 The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have launched a consultation on the Consumer Investment Market. They consider it a priority to reduce the harm that many consumers suffer from fraud in this sector. The FCA has this to say:

“We have made significant improvements to this market to protect consumers. But there are over 5,000 financial adviser firms and more than 27,000 individual advisers acting as intermediaries between the consumer and their investment. Dominated by small firms, these complex chains of interdependent products and services – some of which are beyond our regulatory remit – make it easy for bad actors to ‘hide’ and challenging for us to oversee. The consumer investment market is not working as well as it should. Too often consumers receive lower returns than they should because of unsuitable products with high fees. Too often there have been scams and scandals in this market leading to consumer loss. Too often consumers leave their savings in cash because they don’t have confidence in the alternatives. That’s why we have made Consumer Investments a priority in our current Business Plan”. They also say:

“Some of the most serious harms we see relate to investments outside our regulatory perimeter and online scams, many based overseas. We have limited powers and capabilities in this space, in particular in our ability to deal with online promotions”. This is now a major problem that the FCA has been particularly poor at dealing with as Mark Taber regularly points out.

The “Call for Input” document only has 38 complex questions so I suspect they are unlikely to get many responses from real consumers, but those interested in financial markets may care to read it. See here:  https://www.fca.org.uk/publications/calls-input/consumer-investments

The Government BEIS Department consulted previously on modernising Companies House who maintain the register of companies. The Government’s response to the consultation has now been published. You can read it here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/corporate-transparency-and-register-reform

Company registration, and the identification of company directors is clearly a very essential element in preventing frauds of all kinds, but has been woefully inadequate in the past. The identify of directors is not checked and Companies House even has very limited abilities to query new applications. So you could probably set up a company called Mickey Mouse Ltd with the sole director named as Mickey Mouse. Indeed I did check to see if there was such a company registration. Yes there is a company of that name, although the sole director’s name is different.  

The report even says: “There are benefits to the UK’s fight against crime: these reforms will increase the accountability of those few that transgress. As noted, the volume of economic crime in the UK is immense and growing. It accounts for almost one third of all crime experienced by individuals. The Home Office estimates that the social and economic cost of fraud to individuals in England and Wales is £4.7 billion per year and the social and economic cost of organised fraud against businesses and the public sector in the UK is £5.9 billion.

We will be able to trace and challenge those who misuse companies through the improved information on those who set up, own, manage and control companies. In partnership with others, our improved analytical capacity will use this information to detect suspicious activity earlier and hold those responsible to account”.

The recommendation to tighten up on the identities of directors has been generally supported so that is likely to be progressed. The ability to suppress some personal information will also be enhanced to improve security over that.

In general I suggest company directors and shareholders should welcome the proposals as a step forward in modernising Companies House, but you may care to review the details.

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

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Northern 2 VCT AGM – A Totally Undemocratic Affair

I attended the Northern 2 VCT Annual General Meeting yesterday via Zoom. This was a most disappointing event.

There were three directors physically present and Tim Levett gave an overview of the company’s new investments and the top ten holdings. But when it came to the formal business they took a show of hands vote which is totally meaningless when only the directors were permitted to be present.

They did show the proxy counts, so they may have won a poll vote anyway but that is not the point. It should have been a poll vote.

The Chairman did suggest they would answer questions submitted prior to the event, but they did not specifically respond to the comments I submitted in advance. These were:

A – There are too many directors on the board who have served for more for more than 9 years. Too long! [in fact there are three out of five with more than 9 years which is contrary to the UK Corporate Governance Code unless reasons are given.  They did refer to the AIC Code but I do not accept that this should be used and it is simply not good enough for other directors to simply say they consider them independent. Is length of service a problem? I certainly think so. One only has to consider the recent case of Wirecard where the 75-year-old Mr Matthias had been Chairman for more than a decade until recently. Would such a massive fraud have taken place if the board had been regularly revived? In investment trusts it is particularly problematic as the directors can build very close and inappropriate relationships with the fund managers].

B – There is no clear statement of total return for the year in the Annual Report, and percentage change over the prior year). [There was no reference to this at all by the directors, but on my calculation it was -3.9% last year. That’s actually better than some other VCTs. Many VCTs had to mark down the valuations of some of their early stage businesses, but as the results were only to the end of March, there may be worse news to come].

Despite the use of Zoom, there was no interaction with the audience whatsoever with no opportunity to ask supplementary questions. I have no idea even how many shareholders attended.

A quite disappointing event and not how to run an AGM even bearing in mind the current restrictions.  

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

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Electronic AGMs and Voting

Several companies in which I hold shares are proposing to adopt new Articles of Association at their Annual General Meetings. These typically are amended to enable the holding of “virtual”, i.e. electronic ones, or “hybrid” meetings where a physical venue (or multiple ones) are also used. They can do that legally at present under the emergency regulations put in place by the Government but they are clearly anticipating a more common use of such capabilities now that everyone is more practised in using video conferencing.

But finding out what the proposed new Articles actually are is often not easy. I simply could not find the one for JPM European Smaller Companies Trust anywhere so I sent them an email. No response to date.

In the case of Telecom Plus, the AGM notice points you to their investor web site for the new articles, but they were difficult to find there and the changes were not clear. This is where they can be found if you scroll down far enough: https://uw.co.uk/investor-relations

You will find the changes very unclear and convoluted. They look like they were written in a hurry. This paragraph is particularly problematic: “59.1 Each Director shall be entitled to attend and speak at any general meeting of the Company. The chairman of the meeting may invite any person to attend and speak at any general meeting of the Company where he considers that this will assist in the deliberations of the meeting.”

This does not give shareholders the absolute right to speak at a General Meeting as is the current position in Company Law so far as I understand it. The Chairman clearly has the right under the proposed new Articles to invite shareholders to speak, or not. That is not the same thing.

So I will be voting against the new Articles.

You might think the wording of a company’s Articles is a very technical matter of little concern. But in reality it can be a quite critical issue when important votes are required or a company is in difficulties.

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

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Learning Technologies and Ten Entertainment AGMs

I “attended” the on-line Annual General Meeting of Learning Technologies Group (LTG) today. This was run using the GoToWebinar software. There did not appear to be many people on the call as only one shareholder asked a question. Perhaps this was because you had to register for the event in advance using your Investor Code – which only those on the register would have, not those in nominee accounts. This is deeply unsatisfactory.

The meeting was initially chaired by Andrew Brode who spoke some platitudes before handing over to the CFO Neil Elton. Brode’s comments were the same as published in an RNS announcement this morning I believe but he did thank shareholders for their support of the recent share placing.

Mr Elton reviewed the financial results from last year and said that the company had achieved compound annual growth of 61% per annum since listing. Net debt at the end of May was £4.5 million, and there was strong operating cash flow. The return on capital employed increased to 16.4% last year. But the final dividend payment had been delayed.

CEO Jonathan Satchell then covered the progress on corporate governance. He mentioned the “measures taken to shore up the balance sheet” which is what I suggested the placing was really for in a previous blog post. He suggested that was because the economic crisis could get much worse later this year.

On governance he said they go further than the AIM regulation requirements. All directors are up for re-election and there is a vote on remuneration. [Comment: these are certainly good points]. He also discussed diversity in the workforce and new initiatives in this area will be announced.

The company has increased the number of products sold per client. They have only 10-11% exposure to Covid affected sectors. They are currently bidding for a “gargantuan” contract for the Royal Navy. They expect a result before the year end.

He then discussed the recent LMS acquisition – they have great hopes for the future of this business which they hope to make a market leader by adding other similar acquisitions.

He discussed the recent share placing. The reason for it was that they did not feel they could use surplus funds for acquisitions as there may be a liquidity crisis later this year.  He expected the core business to return to growth next year.

Questions were then invited but as none had been received at this point, we went to the formal business with votes on a poll. The poll counts were then read out, as all proxy votes has previously been received. All resolutions were passed but I noted that two directors received relatively low votes in favour. That include Andrew Brode with only 90.8% FOR.

Questions were then invited and one shareholder suggested that private shareholders could be included in placings by using such organisations as Primary Bid. Andrew Brode responded that the way it was done was based on advice from their joint brokers. Shareholders could buy shares in the market afterwards at a tiny premium, he suggested.

[Comment: Primary Bid is one solution but it is far from ideal with shareholders being given minimal time to take up any offer and possibly being downsized as well. It is also only fortuitous that the shares could be picked up for near the placing price in the market later. There did not appear to be any real urgency to get the placing done so an open offer alongside should have been done. Regrettably there are too many such placings of late].

This “virtual” AGM worked reasonably well, but you could not see who else was attending and there was no real interaction with shareholders present. Also Andrew Brode’s speech was difficult to hear at times. This was not a good alternative to a physical AGM.

Note: the above report may be inaccurate because it’s even more difficult to make notes of a virtual meeting than it is in a physical one. Sometimes it was not even clear which director was speaking for example.

Another recent AGM of an AIM company was that of bowling alley operator Ten Entertainment (TEG) for which I hold all of 50 shares. I sold almost all my holding before they had to close all their venues. This was another company that did a placing recently but it is hardly surprising in this case that it was required to keep the business afloat until they can get back into operation.

I don’t think this company even offered virtual attendance at their AGM so only the poll results were subsequently announced. They collected over 20% of votes against both the Remuneration Policy and Remuneration Report and two directors including the Chairman also collected substantial votes Against. The company is to review its remuneration policy which I certainly did not like when I looked at it.

Virtual and Hybrid AGMs, and a solution

I have been discussing with other ShareSoc members how virtual and hybrid AGMs should operate – indeed how AGMs should generally function in future as it is quite possible that virtual or hybrid options may become the norm even after the epidemic has passed. For instance companies such as TEG are changing their articles to permit them in the long term even after the temporary authorisation to permit them has lapsed.

But it is clear that there are good and bad practices while attendance at a physical AGM is still clearly advantageous so it would be a shame if that is excluded in future. For example it gives you the opportunity to have informal discussions with directors before and after the meeting as well as with other shareholders which you can never do at virtual AGMs. It also gives some of us the rare opportunity to get out of our home offices – we are all suffering from cabin fever at present!

One somewhat archaic practice that is likely to disappear is the “show of hands” vote. This was always useful and appreciated by shareholders because it firstly allowed AGMs to be concluded rapidly if there was no significant opposition to resolutions, and secondly it allowed you to easily see the overall opinion of shareholders at the meeting. If there was any doubt of shareholders views, a poll can be called by the Chairman, or by shareholders. A poll often means that the vote outcome is not declared until much later – too late to ask about any opposition. If that tactic is used I always ask the question in the meeting of “were there any significant proxy votes against any of the resolutions” as the proxy votes are known well before the meeting.

But with hybrid meetings (those where a physical meeting is combined with a virtual one), I can see a number of practical difficulties with allowing a show of hands vote (and checking who is voting), so I think that will go the way of the dinosaurs.

I suggest also that presentations to shareholders, and discussion thereon, should preferably be separated out into a previous virtual event – sometime after the Annual report is issued and Notice of the AGM has been issued but before the proxy vote deadline. This would enable shareholders (and others as such as non-shareholders and nominee holders) to become informed before they vote. The formal AGM with voting on a poll could then be held later (as a hybrid meeting).

Does this idea make any sense to readers?

But it is clear that it would help to standardise the actual process for virtual meetings and the software that might be used for them – or at least to those that can support the facilities that are needed.

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

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