The Departure of Sir Martin Sorrell

At last the highest paid and longest serving FTSE-100 CEO has departed from WPP after 33 years. His total pay last year was £48 million, down from the previous year’s “single figure” of £70 million. Sir Martin was certainly perceived to be a “star” businessman, and the financial performance of WPP pleased shareholders for many years. Despite recent problems the Annual Report of the company claims a Total Shareholder Return of 1,006% over the last twenty years as against a measly 241% for the FTSE-100.

Will the company find a suitable replacement manager who can continue to grow the business? Will the company survive in its current form or be broken up? Those are the questions all the media are pontificating upon.

My thoughts on this subject were crystalized by reading the business management classic “Good to Great” on a recent holiday break. First published in 2001, the author Jim Collins reported on research he had undertaken to determine what separated out simply “good” companies from the “great” ones, i.e. those that really offered investors superior returns rather than average ones. He also looked at what turned good companies into great ones, i.e. the crystalizing factors or turning points. It’s well worth reading by investors for that reason alone, even if some of the companies reported on as “great” have subsequently gone bust (e.g. Circuit City), and amusingly Berkshire Hathaway was only rated as “good” at the time so was not included in the analysis.

Management and the quality of the leadership was one of the key factors identified. It seemed that humble, self-effacing leaders were best. They often attributed the company’s success to luck or the other senior management team members. Star managers with high profiles such as Jack Welch at GEC or Lee Iacocca at Chrysler frequently proved to be shooting stars whose achievements rapidly disappeared after they left. In other words, they did not build great companies where their legacy lived on after their departure.

This is one very applicable quote from the book when you are considering director pay in companies: “We found no systematic pattern linking executive compensation to the process of going from good to great. The evidence simply does not support the idea that the specific structure of executive compensation acts as the key lever in taking a company from good to great”. In other words, high pay does not generate exceptional performance in managers, and schemes such as LTIPs which allegedly align managers’ interests with shareholders do not help either.

It’s a book well worth reading for tips on how to identify the companies and their CEOs that are likely to generate great returns for investors.

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

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Low Margin Companies, and McColl’s AGM

Should you invest in companies with low profit margins? Phil Oakley of Sharescope wrote a very interesting article a few days ago which questioned whether they are likely to be good investments. This was one complaint about Conviviality which recently went into administration.

As Phil said, high margins suggest that a company has pricing power and limited competition while low profit margins make a company vulnerable to tough trading conditions or a weak economy. The reason for this is simple. If the overhead costs are relatively fixed but revenues fall even by a small amount, or costs rise, then profits can rapidly disappear. In addition if margins are already tight, then when competitors cut prices to retain volume, a company with low margins can find they simply cannot respond without incurring losses. Low profit margins are often linked to low returns on capital which is always something to avoid.

In essence, companies with low profits margins can be living on a knife edge and hence one needs to be careful about investing in them. A margin of 10% or higher is preferable, and a number of companies I am investing in have operating margins of over 50%. But what about retailers? Their operating margins are often very low. For example, Sainsbury’s is at 1.66% according to Stockopedia, Tesco is at 3.2%, ASOS is at 3.79%, Boohoo at 8.43% and Dunelm at 9.43%. The more specialist the retailer, or the higher the value items of sold, the greater the operating margin should typically be.

Carpetright which has just announced a major restructuring and refinancing was at minus 0.15% a year ago so their recent problems are perhaps no surprise. Likewise Conviviality was at 1.62% although they had both wholesale and retail operations. But ignoring all retailers because they report low profit margins is not a strategy I would follow.

McColl’s Retail Group whose AGM I attended yesterday are a convenience store operator. Their average “basket” size is only £5.62. Their operating margin is only 2.1%. Well at least it’s better than Sainsbury’s and I suspect it’s been low for many years – indeed when I first purchased the shares 2 years ago it was only 2.5%. But if you look at the more conventional valuation metrics it does not look so bad. Prospective p/e of 11.9, dividend yield of 4.7% and like many retailers it generates a lot of cash as it sells its merchandise before it has to pay its suppliers – at least that’s true until they go bust.

They are therefore companies that you need to keep a close eye on to see that margins are not falling, and that revenue on a like-for-like basis is not declining. That’s particularly so when we have a bad patch of weather affecting footfall as we had recently, or where they are vulnerable to erosion from internet retailers. Are McColl’s in that regard? Probably not because 60% of their customers live within 400 meters of their local shop and they provide both fresh/chilled food and services such as a post office. The company is looking to “engage” even more with their customers who typically visit very frequently.

It was a useful AGM with a number of good questions from the audience (less than 10 shareholders attending at the company’s head office in Essex). One question related to the success of the acquisition of 290 stores from the Co-Op which have now been fully integrated but the CEO rejected a suggestion the stores were below targets and said the deal “met the business case”.

However one problem the company has faced in the last year is the collapse of supplier Palmer and Harvey. The business was closed by the administrator almost immediately so McColl’s had to make alternative arrangements very rapidly. This resulted in analysts forecasts of profits being reduced from £54m to £50m according to the CFO. In future they will be reliant to a large extent on Morrisons who they have done a deal with to retail products under the Safeway name. It seems to me that these two companies might become so closely linked that sooner or later it might make sense for Morrisons to acquire the business. Morrisons sold off their own convenience store chain in 2015 which was losing money and not easy to scale up.

One shareholder complained about the remuneration arrangements – a typical complex scheme including LTIPs. He said “why do people need a bonus to do their job?”. The Chairman said there is competition for talent. I also discussed this with the CFO after the formal meeting closed and suggested there were better solutions to incentivise staff.

I also talked to the Company Secretary about the problems with voting via Link Asset Services (see previous blog post on that topic).

One unusual aspect of this AGM was the issuance of the Minutes of the last AGM and request for shareholders to approve. Companies normally do minute their AGMs but don’t publish them.

The votes were taken on a poll with the results only announced later in the day. About 13% of votes were against the Remuneration Policy, against the Chairman and Rem. Comm. Chair Georgina Harvey and over 18% against share allotment and pre-emption resolutions. Plus 13% against company share purchases and the change of notice of General Meetings. These are unusually high figures and the board has committed to look into the reasons why and report back. Note that Klarus Capital hold over 11% of the company having bought the stake held by former Chairman James Lancaster.

My conclusions about this company: The management seem to be making the right decisions but they do need to improve the profit margin and return on capital. However it seems one reason for the deal with Morrison’s was to obtain “improved commercial terms” so that suggests they recognize this. Moving into growing segments such as “food-on-the go” and out of declining ones such as newspapers and tobacco should help as will store refurbishments and the addition of a few more stores.

The share price of McColls has been picking up recently from a low point. But like a lot of my holdings it seems to be somewhat volatile of late. Is that as a result of the holiday period with lower trading volumes, a tax year end effect, or investors being nervous about war in Syria? Will it be war or no war? Investors never like binary bets. Perhaps Donald Trump should get on the hot-line to Russia and negotiate an alternative scenario. After all he has written a book called “The Art of the Deal” so he should know how to finesse a face saving way out of the problem.

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

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Alliance Trust, Katherine Garrett-Cox and Perverse LTIPs

I have previously commented positively on the outcome of the “revolution” that took place at Alliance Trust (ATST) as reflected in their latest accounts which were recently published. That revolution resulted in the departure of former CEO Katherine Garrett-Cox who resigned in February 2016.

The latest Annual Report shows that she is still being paid large amounts though. For example, total “single figure” remuneration for the 2016 calendar year is given as £1,305,000 and was £832,000 for 2017.

She is likely to be paid still more in future as she is still entitled to LTIP and performance share awards that will vest in 2020. The pay-outs will depend on the positive performance of the company which has been achieved since her departure, which she obviously will have had little influence over. Certainly not by 2020.

Now she may be contractually entitled to these payments under her contract or as might have been agreed to ensure her timely departure, but is it fair and reasonable for her to claim such amounts? Some shareholders think not and are writing to her to suggest that she might like to consider waiving her entitlement or donating the value to charity.

This is of course yet another example of how LTIPs and other performance schemes in public companies lead to perverse outcomes.

P.S. Would anyone like a proxy appointment to enable them to go to the Persimmon AGM on the 25th April in York – and harass them about the wonders of their LTIPs? I can supply if you telephone 020-8295-0378.

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

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RBS, Shareholder Committees, LTIPs and Weir

It is good news that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) have accepted a requisition for a resolution on a Shareholder Committee at their forthcoming AGM. ShareSoc and UKSA, who jointly promoted this under the leadership of Cliff Weight have issued a press release confirming the resolution has finally been accepted after some legal evasions to try and avoid it.

Shareholder Committees are a way to improve corporate governance at companies and ensure that the views of shareholders (and potentially other stakeholders) are noticed by the directors. It might put a stop to such problems as wildly excessive pay in public companies which non-executive directors have been unable to do – mainly because they are part of the problem.

RBS has an appalling track record of mismanagement and dubious ethics in recent years, from the dominance of Fred Goodwin who pursued a disastrous acquisition and then a right issue (in 2008) that was promoted by a misleading prospectus, to the activities of its Global Restructuring Group (GRG) which is still the subject of regulatory action and law suits, through involvement in the sub-prime lending problems that caused the financial crash to PPI complaints.

A Shareholder Committee might have tackled some of these issues before it was too late. You can read more about the campaign to get one at RBS, and how shareholder committees operate here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/campaign-to-obtain-shareholder-committee-at-rbs/ . I wrote the original note on the subject published there by ShareSoc back in 2011 and I still consider that it would be a step forward in UK corporate governance to have one in all public companies. But there is still strong opposition from boards to the idea mainly apparently on the principle that it might interfere with their decisions. That may be so but only if they are unjustifiable and it would not undermine the “unitary” structure of UK boards.

Shareholders in RBS should make sure they vote for the resolution to appoint one at the AGM, but winning the vote will not be easy. RBS have made it a “Special Resolution” which requires 75% support.

Another aspect of RBS that has concerned investors is the delay in paying out the legal settlement that was agreed over the Rights Issue. This has received a lot of media coverage but the problems faced by the legal firm now handling the settlement, Signature Litigation, should not be underestimated. It appears that they face two problems: 1) confirming the eligible claimants and their shareholdings; and 2) confirming the contracts with “litigation funders” who helped to finance the legal action and their entitlements.

You might think that confirming the shareholders would be easy but it is not. A very substantial number of the claimants will have held shares in nominee accounts (i.e. the shares they subscribed for were not put on their names on the share register of the company). They are quite likely to have subsequently sold the shares due to the collapse in the share price. After 10 years the nominee operator may not be able to confirm their past holding, and if they ever received a contract note or other written confirmation of their holding they may not have printed it out or retained a copy in digital form. Many claimants may have died in the meantime or become senile, or moved house or changed their email address so that would create other problems.

There are two morals to this story: 1) Make sure you always keep accurate records of share transactions, including any contract notes or confirmation of subscriptions; 2) do push for reform of the share registration system so that everyone is on the share register and there is no doubt about who owns what and when the shares were acquired.

As regards the contracts with litigation funders, it is entirely appropriate that Signature Litigation seek to confirm the details of those contracts and that they were appropriate, i.e. that real services or funding was provided and the commission due was fair and reasonable. The fact that these arrangements seem to be difficult to confirm, or at least are taking time, certainly raises some doubts that the campaign and legal action was competently managed all through its duration.

However, as I recently said to a member of the fourth estate, the action group(s) and shareholders involved in this case should be complimented in continuing the fight for ten years against very difficult odds and a ridiculously expensive legal system. I know exactly how difficult these cases are – the Lloyds Bank one is similar and is still in court. To obtain a settlement at all in the RBS case was an achievement, when there was no certainty at all that it would be won.

As regards corporate governance, an interesting item of news today was that from Weir Group Plc (WEIR) who are changing their remuneration scheme to replace LTIPs. That was after losing a “binding” vote on pay two years ago. The new scheme means shares will be awarded (valued at up to 125% of base salary for the CEO per year) with no performance conditions attached, although the board may be able to withhold awards for underperformance. The base salary of the CEO was £650,000 in 2016 while Weir’s share price is still less than it was 5 years ago. The justification for scrapping the LTIPs was that they paid out “all or nothing”, often based on the prices of commodities that directly affect Weir’s profits and share price. They are also changing the annual bonus so that it focuses more on “strategic objectives” rather than “order intake and personal objectives”.

Comment: as readers may be aware, I regularly vote against LTIPs on the basis that I am not convinced they drive good performance and tend to pay out ludicrously large amounts. The new scheme might ensure that directors do hold significant numbers of shares, which is a good thing, but with minimal performance conditions this looks like a simple increase in base salary, in reality a more than doubling for the CEO. Looking at the history of remuneration at Weir this looks like a case of wishing to continue to pay out the same remuneration by changing the remuneration scheme when past targets were not achieved.

They really have not learned much from past mistakes have they? This would be another company where it would be good to have a Shareholder Committee to bring some reality into the minds of the directors.

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

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Persimmon Pay and Rightmove Results

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

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

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

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

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

Rightmove Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Government To Review Share Buy-Backs

The BEIS Department of the Government has announced a review of share buy-backs. That’s where the company buys its own shares in the market, a practice that used to be illegal but is now very widespread.

Business Secretary Greg Clark said: “…there are concerns that some companies may be trying to artificially inflate executive pay by buying back their own shares. This review will examine how share buyback schemes are used and whether any action is required to prevent them from being abused.”

If a company buys back its shares, then it will increase the earnings per shares (EPS) because the same profits will be spread over fewer shares. But EPS is often an element in the calculation of performance related bonuses, e.g. in LTIPs. So effectively management can earn bonuses by simply deciding to buy back shares rather than really improving the underlying performance of the business.

Obviously cash has to be used to buy back the shares, and another concern is that this is money that should be used to develop new products, services or markets. In other words, it contributes to the lack of investment in the UK economy. In extremis companies can borrow money (i.e. gear up) to provide the funds to cover the buy-back which increases the risk profile of the company.

There is also the suspicion that some companies undertake large scale buy-backs to support their share price, often encouraged by institutional investors who wish to exit. The directors always deny this, but one can see the sub-conscious motive to “clear-up a share over-hang” that may be present. In practice, share buy-backs may benefit shareholders who are departing more than they benefit shareholders who remain.

In theory, if a company cannot find a good use for surplus cash, i.e. cannot reinvest it in the business profitably, then buying in shares where the per share intrinsic value of the company is more than the market share price should make sense. But determining what is the “intrinsic value” is not at all easy.

There are also tax issues to consider. Some investors think it’s best to retain the cash in the business because paying it out in dividends might incur more tax, and sooner, than the capital value growth that might otherwise be obtained.

You can see there are many complex issues around this topic that could fill a book, or at least a pamphlet. But here are some comments on the approach I take:

  1. I always vote against share buy-backs unless there are very good justifications given by management (and that’s about 1 in 20 votes in practice).
  2. The only general exception I make is investment companies (e.g. investment trusts) where it does make logical sense and can be used to control wide discounts.
  3. I prefer management to reinvest in growing the business if they have surplus cash (and as I rarely invest in no-growth businesses, you can see why the above rules are easy to apply).

If the advisors to the Government determine that share buy-backs are being undertaken for the wrong motives, what could they advise the BEIS to do about it? Reading the minds of directors about their motives for share buy-backs will not be very practical. If they simply wish to stop the abuses related to incentive schemes they could insist that all such schemes (including all share options) should be adjusted for the buy-back – they often are not at present. But would it not be simpler just to revert to the old regime and outlaw them except for investment companies? I do not recall it created any major practical problems.

If a company’s shares consistently trade below “intrinsic value” then someone will buy them sooner or later – after all many people believe in the perfect market hypothesis and it’s probably true to a large extent – particularly with large cap companies where share buy-backs are the most common. So simply banning share buy-backs should not create significant problems.

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

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Quindell, Carillion and Brexit

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) have announced that they have fined audit firm Arrandco (formerly RSM Tenon) £750,000 and the Audit Partner Jeremy Filley £56,000 in relation to the audit of the financial statements of Quindell for the 2011 accounts. They also “reprimanded” both parties and Tenon had to pay £90,000 in costs. Both parties admitted liability. Two of their errors were a “failure to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence and failure to exercise sufficient professional scepticism”. In other words, quite basic failings. The FRC is still looking into other issues that do not affect those parties.

So after seven years shareholders in Quindell have finally seen some action. But the penalties are hardly sharp enough to cause the targets any great suffering. Quindell which was primarily a claims management company, and a favourite of many private investors, had accounts that were in essence grossly misleading. For example, the FRC reported in 2015 that the restatement of its accounts in 2013 turned a post-tax profit of £83 million into a loss of £68 million. Revenue recognition of future contracted profits was one issue.

Now I never held Quindell despite having looked at it more than once. One thing that put me off was talking to someone about the previous involvement of Rob Terry, CEO of Quindell, in Innovation Group. The FT have a good article on his previous career here: https://www.ft.com/content/62565424-6da3-11e4-bf80-00144feabdc0 . I also did not like the look of the accounts at all and the recognition of revenues. Paul Scott, that well-known commentator on small companies, said yesterday: “…its accounts were fairly obviously highly suspect. Excessive debtors, excessive capitalisation into intangible assets, and a flurry of acquisitions to muddy the waters, are the usual give-aways of fake profits, so these dodgy companies are really terribly easy to spot.”

In essence, just a little background research combined with some understanding of accounting, would have put off most investors. But both private and professional investors (even institutions were fooled by Quindell) do not put in the work, or get carried away by the management and company promoters. Rob Terry has yet to be brought to account for the events at Quindell.

There was an interesting letter in the Financial Times yesterday signed by a number of people including Martin White of UKSA. It said the blame for Carillion’s demise was causing fingers to be pointed in all directions, but most are missing the real culprit – namely that faulty accounts appear to have allowed Carllion to overstate profits and capital. This enabled them to load up on debt while paying cash dividends and big bonuses to the management.

One problem again was recognition of future revenue from signed contracts, but the letter says “anticipated revenues from long-term contracts cannot count as distributable capital, and foreseeable losses and liabilities need to be taken into account”. Carillion effectively reported profit that was “anticipated”. They suggest KMPG’s audit should be investigated as I also said in a previous blog post.

The letter writers suggest that faulty standards mean that today accounts cannot be relied upon and the results for all stakeholders can be devastating. Indeed the fall-out from Carillion is going to be really horrendous with potentially thousands of small to medium size businesses that relied on sub-contract or supply work from Carillion likely to go bust. The letter writers suggest that Carillion is yet another “canary in the coal mine”. Perhaps when MPs get deluged with letters from disgruntled business owners and their out of work employees, they will actually get down and demand some reform of the accountancy and insolvency professions.

Incidentally I never held Carillion either probably because it was mainly in the “construction” sector which I avoid because of low margins, unpredictable and “lumpy” revenue and high risks of projects or contracts going wrong. It also had the Government as a major customer which can be tricky. So from a “business perspective”, such companies are bound to be risky investments.

Another good letter in yesterday’s FT was on the subject of Brexit from Dr Ian Greatorex. It said “For too long, some FT contributors have peddled the line that Brexit is the result of a “populist” backlash that might be reversed”. He restated the “remainers” causes for why they think they lost the vote, but then said “The main reason I voted to leave, often based on FT reports over the years of reported EU mess-ups, was that I believed EU institutions lacked proper democratic control and were complacently trying to create an ever-deeper political union against the instincts of the average voter………”. It’s worth reading and good of the FT to publish a more sober letter on the subject than they have been doing for some months. Perhaps the FT have finally realised that not all their readers are so opposed to Brexit and that the reason a number of educated and intelligent people supported it was for factors other than the possible trade difficulties that will need to be overcome.

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

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