Johnston Press, TrakM8 and Brexit

Over the weekend, Johnston Press (JPR) was put into administration and immediately sold to a new group of companies controlled by the company’s bondholders. In other words this looks like a typical “pre-pack” administration where a company does not go through a proper administration process with an open sales process but is flogged off to in a fire sale to those who already know the business and see an opportunity to collect a bargain.

Trade creditors will lose their money, shareholders will lose everything and the pension scheme is being dumped – and is likely to need bailing out by the Pension Protection Fund.

One investor in the company who wished to revive the business was Norwegian Mr Ager-Hanssen who on Saturday accused the board of thwarting efforts to turn the group around and a “sham” sales process. He is probably right from my experience of what happens in pre-pack administrations. Pre-pack administrations are an anathema as I have said many times before as they undermine a proper process when a company is in difficulties.

Johnston Press does have some very valuable media titles such as the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post but had managed to accumulate an enormous amount of debt by going on an acquisition spree. It also had a big pension deficit. The company put itself up for sale recently but now states that the offers were insufficient to repay the bonds so the company has concluded the equity is worthless. Or perhaps it was simply an example of where the prospective buyers could see it was cheaper to do it via a pre-pack.

I have never held shares in Johnston Press although I looked at it a few times as a possible “value” play. But high debt is a killer when the market in which a company operates is facing strategic problems. With newspaper circulations dropping, and advertising revenue being impacted by changes to media usage – particularly a move to internet advertising – the company failed to cut its debt rapidly enough while revenue was falling and profits disappeared.

Another disaster area on Friday was AIM-listed Trakm8 (TRAK) whose shares fell by 66% on the day to a new low of 22p. This was after publication of their half-year results and a trading statement. Group revenue fell by 38% and a very large loss was the result. The company provided numerous excuses for this and a very negative short-term outlook. But it suggests the market for the company’s solutions “will be robust in the longer term”. Anyone who believes the latter statement must be an eternal optimist.

I did hold this company’s shares briefly in early 2016 when it was the darling of many private investors and the share price peaked at over 360p but I rapidly became disillusioned with the management. Peculiar acquisitions made subsequently, poor cash flow (rather suggesting profits were a mirage of fancy accounting) and generally over-optimistic statements being issued. Warren Buffett has always emphasised the importance of trust in the management of companies in which he invests, and when I lose trust I sell in short order.

Brexit is a topic one can hardly avoid talking about at present. I gave my personal analysis of the draft withdrawal agreement here (yes I have read it): https://roliscon.blog/2018/11/16/brexit-agreement-is-it-a-fair-deal/ . On reflection it seems to me that Mrs May is attempting to meet the demands of both brexiteers and remainers with a compromise deal that keeps us partly in the EU in many regards. The result is that she has pleased few people – the right wing of her own party, the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn who is stirring the pot like mad to gain political advantage, the DUP who May relies on for votes, and many others. Even her cabinet seems split counting only those who remain. The concept of the “chequers” plan might have made some sense, but the detail of the proposed agreement is simply not acceptable to many people. I suggest she needs to reconsider, sooner rather than later.

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

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Persimmon Departure, Abcam AGM and Over-boarding

Persimmon (PSN) issued an announcement this morning saying that CEO Jeff Fairburn was stepping down at the request of the company because “the Board believes that the distraction around his remuneration from the 2012 LTIP scheme continues to have a negative impact on the reputation of the business and consequently on Jeff’s ability to continue in his role”. They are undoubtedly right there.

To remind readers, their misconceived and uncapped LTIP potentially would have meant bonus shares being awarded to Mr Fairburn worth well over £100 million, and similar large sums to other managers. Part of the potential award was later given up but even so it was the most disgraceful example of how pay has been ramped up by LTIPs in recent years. Another example at Abcam (ABC) is covered below.

Persimmon also issued a third quarter trading statement today which was generally positive. They clearly have a good forward committed sales pipeline and the extension of the help-to-buy scheme was positive news in the budget. But I am still somewhat nervous that the housebuilding market may suffer as interest rates rise. New houses are becoming unaffordable for many people despite the demand for accommodation and growing population.

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of Abcam. This is a company that sells antibodies and other life science products/services. It is operating in a high growth sector. I first invested in the shares of the company in 2006 and it has delivered a compound total return of over 32% per annum to me since based on Sharescope figures. I am therefore happy with the financial performance of the business as I said to the board at the AGM. That’s even allowing for recent declines in the share price as analyst forecasts were reduced and general market malaise affected high-flying technology stocks. But I am very unhappy about two aspects: 1) failure to answer simple questions at the AGM, which is the second time in a week where this problem has arisen (the previous being Patisserie); and 2) the remuneration scheme and revised LTIP.

What follows is a report on the meeting, summarised and paraphrased for brevity. The meeting was held at the company’s Cambridge offices at 2.00 pm, but not even a cup of tea was offered.

The recently appointed new Chairman, Peter Allen, introduced the board and there was then a very brief presentation from CEO Alan Hirzel. He said there were between £5 billion and £8 billion of opportunities for the company to grow which they were focused on. They had doubled revenue in the last 5 years, at 11.5% CAGR. There were lots of opportunities to continue to grow the business. They are now focused on 4 areas: 1) RUO Antibodies which are still growing; 2) Immunoassays where growth was 25% last year; 3) China for RUO tools (China could be as big a market as the USA in a few years and they now have 300 people there and are putting more investment in); and 4) CP&L (Abcam Inside). He said the company needs to invest in technology and IT to achieve their growth goals.

Questions were then invited. I commented on the absolutely massive expenditure on new IT systems. They have spent at least £33 million on the Oracle implementation with another £16 million to go and the project is clearly way behind schedule. This level of costs has even caused analysts to downgrade future profit forecasts. As the former IT manager of a large public company, this seemed disproportionate to me in relation to the size of the business. However much one recognises that IT is the key to the business, this looks like a typical project that is way out of control. Who is responsible for this, are they still with the company, who are the outside contractors and what is the current state of this project?

The Chairman first responded that any answers to shareholder questions could only relate to information already in the public domain. This is simply legally wrong and I will be writing to him on this subject and the other issues below.

However Alan Hirzel did respond and accepted the IT project was over budget and covered the history of the project. It was essential to replace some of the legacy systems which were unmaintainable. Many had been built in-house (even an email system apparently) and they had multiple different HR systems in different countries. HR was the first project completed (partner Hitachi as systems integrator) followed by a communication system (part CRM perhaps – it was not clear) but finance and supply chain (manufacturing) projects were yet to be done. He said the CIO had been replaced and a new system integration partner appointed. He assured me that the project was under control now.

I asked who the new IT contractor was, at which point the Chairman refused to answer as that was not in the public domain. I complained that this was a breach of company law as questions must be answered unless there are good reasons to do otherwise. For example, answers can be refused if it is confidential information, not in the company’s interests to do so or may affect the good order of the meeting. The relevant Regulation is here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2009/1632/pdfs/uksi_20091632_en.pdf (see Section 12).

I can see no reason why my question could not be answered as I said to the Chairman and to their lawyer, neither of whom seemed to be aware of the Regulations or the common law principle about answering questions at general meetings. The Chairman also suggested that they could not disclose some information because they would have to issue an RNS announcement to cover it. This of course only applies to “price sensitive” information and I don’t see how knowing who their IT contractor is would be price sensitive. Very annoying and feeble excuses were being given in essence from someone who is supposed to be a very experienced company Chairman. This is the second time in a week (the other was at Patisserie) where the law on answering questions was ignored which is exceedingly annoying.

After that debate, which I will be following up including with a complaint to the FCA as it is not acceptable for companies to ignore the law, we moved on to the Remuneration Resolutions.

I said the following: “Remuneration also seems to be out of control. Although the CEO seems to be generally doing a good job, his pay last year was £1.8 million. This is also out of proportion to the revenue and profitability of the business. Not only that but his basic pay has been increased by 22%, and the maximum award under the LTIP increased from 150% to 400% of base salary. This is obscene and totally unnecessary. Such highly geared schemes promote risky behaviour as we saw with bankers in the financial crash of 2008. I always vote against remuneration policies where the maximum award under LTIPs is more than 100% of base salary and I will be doing the same here. I encourage my fellow shareholders to do likewise”.

There was a response from Louise Patten, chair of the Remuneration Committee to the effect that they could be “traduced” for underpaying rather than overpaying (“criticised” I think she meant). A review had shown that the CEO was underpaid in comparison with market rates in the sector. The LTIP was only a temporary measure as a new policy would be adopted in 3 years’ time.

I also asked whether they had received representations on the subject of remuneration from proxy advisory services and fund managers. She indicated there had been but mainly focused on other issues than the LTIP (in fact they got only 67.1% FOR the Remuneration Report, and 86.7% for the Remuneration Policy which are very low numbers). I said I had no objection to an increase in base pay if justified, but the LTIP was an example of how pay is ratcheting up and it sets a very bad precedent that other companies will follow to have a 400% bonus maximum. I have of course argued with Ms Patten before on the remuneration schemes at this company to no effect, so I chose to vote against her and her two colleagues on the Remuneration Committee but she still collected most of the proxy votes. No other shareholders in the meeting, other than my son Alex who holds the shares also, voted against the remuneration resolutions or the directors which rather demonstrates that when shareholders are happy with a company’s financial performance, they will vote for anything.

There were few other questions from shareholders at the meeting, but after the formal part had finished I asked the Chairman why he only managed to achieve 79.6% of votes in support of his appointment. He said this was because of complaints of “over-boarding”, i.e. that he had too many roles. In fact he has 4 other Chairman roles and one other non-executive directorship which I certainly think is too many and is contrary to ShareSoc’s guidelines. He argued that it was no problem and he did not agree with the current attitude of some proxy advisory services. I disagreed. The duties of directors are more onerous than ever, particularly if the job is to be done properly. Even small difficulties at a company can create a lot of extra work. One of course only has to look at Patisserie Holdings and their recent difficulties where Luke Johnson had lots of other commitments and failed to pick up what appears to be a massive fraud executed by the finance director. Peter Allen seems to think that all he has to do is turn up for a few board meetings each year, let the executive directors get on with business and do not much else. But Abcam is becoming a large company where the Chairman’s role is much more significant than that.

I voted against the Chairman anyway because I think Chairman should be familiar with company law and how to handle questions at meetings. Good ones do of course know how to answer questions without giving out sensitive information or avoiding direct answers but it is certainly not good for the Chairmen to start an argument with a shareholder in a meeting on any subject. Some Chairmen need to take a lesson in how to handle awkward folks like me who are not easily ignored.

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

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Arron Banks on Leave.EU, Smithson and Patisserie

The Andrew Marr interview of Arron Banks was all good knock-about stuff but there was no knock-out blow inflicted. Andrew Marr was interviewing Arron Banks about his £8 million funding of the Leave.EU campaign. The Electoral Commission have recently asked the National Crime Agency (NCA) to investigate the matter as they apparently do not believe his story about the source of the funding. The suggestion has been made that the funding came from Russian sources or from a company registered in the Isle of Man (Rock Holdings) which would not have been permitted under electoral law.

You can watch the full interview here: https://order-order.com/2018/11/04/arron-banks-marr-interview-full/

Mr Banks made it clear that the money came from Rock Services Ltd and strenuously denied it came from other sources. Andrew Marr suggested Rock Services was a “shell” company and that neither that company nor Mr Banks had sufficient financial resources to cover the £8 million in funding.

It is of course a simple matter to look at the accounts of Rock Services Ltd at Companies House (it’s free to do so – go here: https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/search?q=rock+services+ltd ).

Rock Services Ltd hardly looks like a “shell” company which is normally used to describe a company with no revenue and no assets apart from possibly some cash. Rock Services had Turnover of £50 million for the year ending December 2017 but little in the way of profits or net assets. But it did have fixed assets of over £1 million. This is hardly a “shell” company in the normal usage of the word. The “Strategic Report” says the company’s “principal business activity is that of performing a recharge function for services for the Group and other related parties”. The profit of the company is generated from service charges added to costs and salary recharges.

Aaron Banks has been running motor insurance companies for many years and is involved in a group of companies which includes Rock Services, Rock Holdings and UK registered Eldon Insurance. I vaguely recall he was involved in a company called Brightside I held shares in from 2012/2014 which was publicly listed before being taken over. The accounts of Eldon Insurance can also be read at Companies House and indicate revenue of £77 million and profits of £1.8 million in 2017. Another substantial company in the Group is Southern Rock Insurance which is based in Gibraltar. You can see a complete list of group companies and their transactions through Rock Services Ltd on page 15 of their accounts.

In summary the allegation that Mr Banks or his UK companies did not have the financial resources to make the donation to Leave.EU is not reasonable, and Andrew Marr and his researchers should have looked into the background more before making the allegations he made.

As Mr Banks said in the interview, other donations were made to the remain campaign from subsidiaries of foreign companies. Why were they not being investigated? It certainly looks like a witch-hunt to me. It would seem to be more about politics than election regulation.

Note that Companies House is an invaluable source of information on companies and their directors. All investors should be familiar with it. It can be useful in other ways – for example I recently obtained a bid from a company to provide web site development work. That was done from the email address of a company that was different to that from which they suggested would do the billing. When I looked the former company up at Companies House it had actually changed name a couple of years ago and under its latest name had got appallingly bad references on the internet. Needless to say I decided not to do business with them.

Smithson Investment Trust (SSON) is now trading at a remarkable premium to net asset value of 7.4% according to the AIC after its recent IPO. Bearing in the mind the state of the market and the fact that it can hardly have yet invested the money raised (one might call it a “shell” company), it would seem investors are putting a high premium on the name of Terry Smith and his involvement in this trust. There must be investors out there who are purchasing shares at that premium to maintain this “discount” but that seems very unwise to me when most investment trusts have historically traded at a discount. The reason for this is quite simple – investment trusts incur costs in management and administration which reduces the yield and returns on the underlying shares they hold. Investors can always buy the underlying shares directly to avoid those costs. In the recent bull market and recognition of late of the merits of investment trusts, some have been trading at small premiums but a premium of 7.4% when the company has no track record and will be mainly holding cash seems somewhat unreasonable.

As I said when reviewing the IPO, it may be best to wait and see what transpires for this trust.

Patisserie (CAKE) and the recent General Meeting have been covered in several previous blog posts. I have previously mentioned that I was not happy that Luke Johnson did not answer my questions – he ruled them out along with a lot of others. When can a Chairman refuse to answer questions in a General Meeting? It was always judged to be matter of common law that questions should be answered but that has now actually been put into a Regulation.

I have written to Mr Johnson and my letter includes these paragraphs:

  1. As regards the conduct of the General Meeting, I suggest you not only handled it badly as Chairman but that refusing to answer my questions was a breach of The Companies (Shareholders’ Rights) Regulations 2009. There are valid grounds on which you can refuse to answer questions at General Meetings but the reason you gave for not answering mine (refusal to answer any questions that might prejudice the investigations) was not a valid one.
  2. Holding a meeting a 9.00 am is also not good practice. This note published by ShareSoc (and partly written by me) gives guidance on how to run general meetings, and includes references to the law on the subject: https://www.sharesoc.org/How_To_Run_General_Meetings.pdf

If you study the aforementioned regulations, you will see that the directors can refuse to answer questions that would require disclosure of confidential information or “if it is undesirable in the interests of the company or the good order of the meeting that the question be answered”. That may be quite broad but it hardly covers the questions I posed and the answers to my questions would certainly not have prejudiced any investigations.

I have therefore asked him to answer the questions in my letter. He may have other things on his mind, but all company directors should be aware of the law, or take legal advice when required.

Shareholders should not allow directors to ignore their responsibility to answer reasonable questions.

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

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Brexit Prevarication, The Company, Sarbanes-Oxley and Patisserie Holdings (CAKE)

Prevarication definitions: delaying giving someone an answer, or avoiding telling the whole truth. Theresa May’s suggestion for an extension of the Brexit transition period surely smacks of prevarication and all sides of the Brexit debate saw it for what it was. The result is some furious back-peddling by the Prime Minister. Putting off decisions usually does not make them any easier. It is not at all clear what the PM’s strategy is here. Was she perhaps hoping to put off Brexit negotiations until after the next election when she might have a bigger majority and will not have to rely on the DUP? As the EU has been saying, she needs to spell out what arrangements the UK wants and preferably ones that are likely to be acceptable to the EU – otherwise gear up now for a hard Brexit.

One of the problems with a hard Brexit would be the likely tariff barriers to both exports and imports. The economy might quickly adapt to those but it was interesting reading a book named “The Company” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge – I am doing some research on the way joint stock companies developed to see how we got to where we are, which the book covers well. One interesting paragraph covers what happened after the first world war when protectionism rose and the US and UK introduced tariff barriers on certain goods. That is why Ford and GM set up car plants in the UK which was a strategy to get around those barriers. So if we have a hard Brexit, we might see the same response – UK companies will set up European subsidiaries and vice-versa. Smart businessmen are experts at getting around political problems!

The book “The Company” is highly recommended as an easy read on the development of companies, but it is not very complimentary about the amateur UK management in comparison with the professional managers of big US, German, Japanese, etc, companies. Competent and well-trained professional management seems to be a lot more important than particular legal or corporate governance structures.

Another section of the book covers the debacles of Enron and Worldcom which were massive frauds hidden by defective auditing (which also caused the collapse of Anderson) after which a new Act was passed in the USA – the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. This required not just rotation of audit partners, but to quote from the book: “The law also requires CEOs and chief financial officers to certify the accuracy of their financial reports, and it creates a new crime of securities fraud, making it punishable by up to twenty-five years in jail”. It also enabled claw-backs of executive compensation for misconduct.

Although there has been some criticism of Sarbanes-Oxley in the USA for adding onerous obligations on companies, and hence adding to costs, perhaps that was a result of the way it was implemented that was over-zealous. But surely it is this kind of legislation that is required in the UK if we are to clean up the financial reporting and auditing of companies after so many recent failures. Making the publishing of false accounts a criminal offence with severe penalties would be a good starting point.

One such recent example is of course the small company Patisserie Holdings. There was an interesting article in Shares Magazine this week where the Editor pointed out that the case was similar to that of Tesco. In 2017 the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) forced that company to compensate certain shareholders for publishing false accounts on which basis they had invested. See https://www.fca.org.uk/publication/final-notices/tesco-2017.pdf for the FCA Notice on the matter. This decision was based on the fact that it was considered to be market abuse to make false announcements, and hence a false market was created. Although Patisserie is an AIM company, it is probably covered by the same market abuse regulations. So this issue might be a question for the General Meeting of Patisserie on the 1st November. Will Patisserie need to provide for such financial compensation before the FCA forces them to, which could be substantial if the alleged financial fraud had been going on for many months? The answer might not just interest past investors but those who are purchasing shares in the placings.

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

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Insolvency Regime Changes – A Step Forward

There’s nothing like issuing a major Government announcement on the Sunday of an August bank holiday weekend to get good media coverage is there? But as it’s raining and I have nothing much else to do, I have read the announcement and here is a summary:

The announcement is entitled “Insolvency and Corporate Governance – Government Response” (see https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/insolvency-and-corporate-governance ). It is the Government’s response to past public consultations on how to tackle some of the perceived problems when companies get into difficulties or go bust. Such examples as House of Fraser (see my past blog posts on that subject where I called for reform of pre-pack administrations), Carillion, BHS, et al.

It aims to tackle issues around company director actions when a company gets into difficulties but one of the main proposals is very significant. That is that the Government intends to introduce a “Moratorium” scheme where a company can hold off its creditors for up to three months while it seeks to develop a restructuring proposal. Although a Moratorium will be a court process and will be supervised by a “Monitor” who is likely to be an insolvency practitioner, the directors of the company will remain in control albeit with some limitations.

Representatives of secure creditors (e.g. bank lenders) did not seem to like this idea at all based on their responses to the consultations, but it’s not quite as generous as first appears. Apart from the “monitoring” requirement to protect the interests of creditors, the initial period of a Moratorium will only be 28 days and can only be extended to 3 months if justified, and the company must be able to meet the normal insolvency rule that current obligations must be capable of being met as they become due during the Moratorium. But it is surely a step in the right direction in that it will provide more chance of those businesses that are not pure basket cases of being rescued to the advantage of trade creditors, pensioners and shareholders. That’s as opposed to the present situation where a pre-pack administration can instantly dump everyone except the secured creditors with massive damage to everyone else.

But directors of companies will need to act more in advance to ensure that a Moratorium is of help. To encourage them to do so the Government hopes to improve shareholder stewardship by identifying means to help the actions of institutional shareholders and others to escalate their concerns about the management of a company by its directors.

In addition the Government wishes to improve board directors effectiveness and training including raising awareness of their legal duties when making key decisions, and developing a code of practice for board evaluations. Comment: it is certainly the case that in smaller public companies the directors often seem to be unaware of their legal obligations and this sometimes extends to larger companies. I have argued in the past that all public company directors should have some minimal education in company law and their other responsibilities when acting as a director.

One issue examined was the payment of dividends by companies when companies were apparently in a weak condition such as having substantial pension liabilities or were paying dividends shortly before they went bust. Whether a company can pay dividends is governed by the calculation of whether it has “distributable reserves”, but that is a calculation that only the company and its auditors might be able to do. It’s not obvious from the published accounts. The Government is to work with interested parties on a possible alternative mechanism.

There were also concerns expressed that some companies are now paying dividends only as “interim dividends” which can escape approval by shareholders at Annual General Meetings. The Government has asked the Investment Association to report on the prevalence of the practice and they will take further steps to ensure that shareholders have an annual say on dividends if the practice is widespread and investor pressure proves insufficient.

In summary, I welcome all of these proposals as a step forward in rectifying some of the defects in the existing insolvency regime. The slight concern is that companies will be reluctant to enter a “Moratorium” due to the adverse publicity it might generate and the costs involved so we will have to see whether that turns out to be the case or not. But almost any restructuring solution is better than a formal administration or liquidation.

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

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Lax Regulation (Globo, GRG) and Japanese Trust AGM

Globo was one of those AIM companies that turned out to be a complete fraud. Back in December 2015 the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) announced an investigation into the audits of the company by Grant Thornton (GT). Even the cash reported on the balance sheet in the consolidated accounts of the parent company proved to be non-existent (or had been stolen perhaps). I have previously complained about the slow progress and the lack of any information on this investigation.

But former shareholders need no longer hold their breath – the FRC have announced that they have dropped the investigation on the basis that there is no realistic prospect of a finding of “misconduct” by Grant Thornton UK. It would seem that GT relied on the audits of the subsidiary companies in Greece and elsewhere over which the UK authorities have no jurisdiction.

There may be on-going investigations by other bodies including a review of the activities of GT in Greece but this makes it appear that the chance of action is fading away. Not that shareholders were ever likely to recover their losses. It is disappointing that the FRC have not taken a tougher line on this matter as questions about the accounts of Globo were publicly raised a long time before it went bust, and I even spoke to some staff of Grant Thornton UK at a Globo meeting telling them they needed to examine their accounts carefully. One would have thought that they would have done a very thorough examination of the subsidiary audits, but it seems not so.

I was about to submit my comments on the Kingman “Review of the Financial Reporting Council” – all ten pages of it – but will now have to amend it to include more criticism. I’ll publish it on the Roliscon web site a.s.a.p.

Another example of regulatory inaction is the announcement that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) will not be doing anything about the past activities of the Global Restructuring Group (GRG) at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). After a review they found no evidence that RBS artificially distressed firms for their benefit (that’s not what the complainants say) although they did find inappropriate treatment of customers. But the FCA decided they could do nothing because some parts of the activities of GRG were unregulated and action against the senior management had little hope of success. So the perpetrators are off the hook.

I received an interesting newsletter from White & Case, one of the leading commercial law firms, which summarized the latest report from the FCA on their enforcement activities. It was headlined “FCA Enforcement – More cases, increased costs, fewer fines” which put the report in context. The number of “open cases” has doubled in two years while the number of staff has remained the same, i.e. more work but no more resources. Enforcement action has slowed down, probably for that reason, and fines have also dropped. Only 16 fines were imposed in the last year.

JPMorgan Japan Smaller Companies Trust

Yesterday I attended the AGM of JPMorgan Japan Smaller Companies Trust (JPS) which turned out to be a more interesting meeting than I anticipated. This is one of my Brexit hedges – pound falling means any overseas investment is likely to be a good one, and I always like small cap funds.

This trust has a good track record – NAV up 27.8%, 20.8% and 12.2% in the last three years so it is well ahead of its benchmark. Not knowing much about the Japanese market the presentation from the fund managers (via video from Japan) was particularly interesting. Equity markets in Japan have been buoyed by QE activities from the Bank of Japan – apparently they have not just been buying bonds but also equities in the stock market! But the economy is facing major structural challenges from an ageing and declining population. This was one slide they presented:

Japan's Structural Challenge

However, the managers are not too concerned because they ignore “macro” trends when investing anyway. They clearly think they can still achieve good results because of a focus on specific areas of the market, e.g. healthcare, employee benefits (staff are being paid more as they become in short supply), robot appliances, etc. Also corporate governance is improving, albeit slowly, which is of benefit to minority shareholders.

The other interesting issue that arose at this AGM was the proposed new dividend policy. They changed the Articles at the meeting to allow the company to pay dividends out of capital and also proposed a resolution to adopt a new dividend policy of 1% of assets per quarter, i.e. 4% dividend yield per annum when it was nil last year. This prompted a vigorous debate among shareholder attendees with complaints about it meaning shareholders will be paying more tax, often on unwanted dividends. The retiring Chairman, Alan Clifton, said the board had proposed this because they were advised that this would help to make the company’s shares more attractive to investors. The shares are currently on a persistent wide discount of about 11% and it was hoped this would close the discount. Also as most private shareholders now hold their shares in ISAs and SIPPs, there would be no tax impact on them. I pointed out direct shareholders could always sell a few shares if they wished to receive an “income” but there are obviously many small shareholders who do not understand this point or prefer to see a regular dividend payment. At least the above summarized the key points in the debate.

When it came to the show of hands vote on the resolution, it looked to me as though there were more votes AGAINST than FOR. The Chairman seemed to acknowledge this (I did not catch his exact words), but said that the proxy votes were overwhelmingly in favour. He then moved on to the other resolutions. I suggested he needed to call a poll, which of course nobody fancied because of the time required even though it would be legally the correct thing to do. So instead it was suggested that perhaps the count of hands was wrong so that vote was taken again – and narrowly passed this time. My rating as a trouble maker has no doubt risen further.

Anyway, I actually abstained on the vote on that resolution because I am in two minds on the benefit. As Alan Clifton pointed out, the impact of a similar change at International Biotechnology Trust (IBT) where he was also Chairman was very positive. My only comment to him was I thought 4% was a bit high. The board will no doubt review the impact in due course, but it seems likely that it will have a positive impact on the discount as the shares will immediately look more attractive to private investors.

In conclusion, what I expected to be a somewhat boring event turned out to be quite interesting. That is true of many AGMs. Japan might have more difficult “structural” challenges even than the UK, with or without Brexit. As regards the regulatory environment covered in the first part of this article I suggest the laws and regulations are too lax with too many loopholes. I think they need rewriting to be more focused on the customers or investors interests.

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

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GB Group, Social Media, Rightmove and Alliance Trust

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of GB Group (GBG) in Chester. An absolutely horrendous road journey both there and back mainly due to road works as far as I can tell. But my satnav took me on the M25, M11, A14, M6, M54 and numerous minor roads on the way there from south-east London, and the M6, A50, M1, A14, M11, M25 and other minor roads on the way back. A typical example of how the UK road network is not fit for purpose while we spend £56 billion on HS2 (that’s the Government’s estimate – it could be a lot more) to transport a few wealthy business people and politicians from London to Birmingham.

It’s also a good reason for introducing on-line AGMs, hybrid ones preferably, as someone just posted on the ShareSoc blog. Total journey time to get to/from Chester: 10 hours, meeting duration: one hour.

GB Group is an AIM-listed supplier of identity verification solutions. There has been a rapidly growing demand for quick, on-line ID verification by all kinds of financial institutions as well as by investigatory bodies such as the police. GB have exploited this demand well by both organic growth and acquisitions. Revenue up 37% last year, and adjusted profits up 55%.

There were half a dozen ordinary shareholders at the meeting and I’ll just cover some of the questions and points of note. The announcement by the company in the morning did not cover current trading but just some positive items of news. It mentioned a change in “branding strategy” to talk about “solutions” rather than “products” with a new single, focused brand of “Loqate” for their location intelligence businesses. I asked the Chairman, David Rasche, whether this means they will rename the company also (I never have liked the “GB Group” name because it is very unmemorable and not therefore a good brand)? But he said not in the short term. Same answer as given the last time I asked this question two or three years back. Regret I do not like poor names for companies as investors can easily forget who they are. But it does not necessarily seem to have an impact on share performance.

Another shareholder asked whether new Data Protection regulations would help or hinder the company. The answer was in principle it helps. The CEO said it was neutral in the short term but positive longer term.

I also asked where the future growth of the business would come from. The answer was from geographic expansion with Asia being a strong opportunity for the Loqate sector, and from acquisitions. With cash on the balance sheet rising they clearly could afford some acquisitions. They have very good penetration in some sectors (e.g. over 50% of id verification in the UK gaming sector) but lower in many others so there is room for organic growth.

When it came to the votes on resolutions (by a show of hands) I voted against the Remuneration Report and a new “Performance Share Plan”. The latter enables grants of options over 100% of employees’ salary each year, subject to performance conditions which are primarily eps based. It transpired that only 84% of shareholders voted FOR the Remuneration Report and even less for the Share Plan. Why was that I asked? It transpired that this was because ISS recommended opposition mainly because more than 10% of the company’s share capital is now under option to staff which breaches guidelines. I told the Chairman later that I voted against simply because I considered the pay scheme too complex and too generous. He justified it on the basis of the growth in the company and the need to match market levels. Difficult for shareholders to complain too much given the performance of the company over recent years (it’s one of my “ten baggers”).

After the AGM we had a demonstration of some of their software and how it can confirm postal and email addresses, phone number and other information on individuals and who they are connected to. I had seen this before but this time they even showed how they can map a person’s location by the social media tweets they post, e.g. on Facebook, Twitter and lots of others. That’s a good reminder if you have not already reviewed and tightened up your security settings in Facebook et al that you should do that pronto. GB Group obviously have limitations on who they supply information to, and they help to ensure that you are not going to be subject to “impersonation” fraud, but social media seem to have no limits on personal information and privacy.

Hence of course the recent scandal about Facebook’s activity which helped to wipe off $120 billion in its market cap yesterday as sales growth slowed. Most peculiar is the number of advertisements that Facebook has been running in the national press pointing out their failings and how they are going to reform. It included one that spelled out the enormous number of fake accounts it was removing – 583 million in the 1st quarter apparently. More to the point perhaps why did they allow such fake accounts to start with? Why don’t they use a service like GB Group provides to stop people from even registering such accounts?

I have long advocated that people should only use their genuine name on internet posts and have adhered to that principle for some years (apart from where I am posting on behalf of an organisation). I do not see why anyone should be allowed to send anonymous communications or create accounts in fictitious names. If you are not willing to be attributed as the author of something, you should not be allowed to use a false name.

A possible cause of the problems at Facebook is the dominance of CEO Mark Zuckerberg who is both Chairman and Chief Executive which is never a good idea. In addition he has majority voting power in the shares because of the dual class share structure. This is surely bad corporate governance and might have contributed to their lax approach to privacy as it’s likely to be difficult to argue policy with him.

On the subject of privacy, interesting to note that Huawei, a Chinese supplier of IT infrastructure, has been classified as a national security risk in a recent report (reference the National Cyber Security Centre). As I use a Huawei smartwatch does that mean there is a risk of people reading my personal emails, tweets and text message and breaching my privacy? Perhaps one can get too paranoid about security.

Rightmove Plc (RMV) is another company in which I hold shares. They announced interim results this morning which were unsurprising, and also a 10 for one share split. The share price is currently about 4900p (i.e. £49). They are calling a general meeting to approve that. I will vote against as I never see any point in rebasing a share price. It only fools the ignorant but at some cost to the company, and confusion among investors.

Alliance Trust (ATST) also announced interim results yesterday (I still hold a few shares after the bust-up there a couple of years ago). One interesting point in the announcement was the mention of “expressions of interest” in Alliance Trust Savings – their investment platform. The strategic advantage of having an investment trust own a savings platform was never really clear now that the platform market is so diverse so disposal was always likely to be considered. They claim an “improvement in operational performance” for the division but whether they will be able to recoup the current book value of the division seems questionable. Might have to “bite the bullet” on this one, surely better sooner than later.

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

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