Hybrid AGMs and British Land

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

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

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

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

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Shareholder Democracy, RBS, Rightmove AGM and Stockopedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beaufort Administration, Intercede and the Mello Conference

Yesterday I attended the first day of the 2-day Mello investor conference in Derby. There were lots of good presentations and some interesting companies to talk to. One hot topic of conversation was the collapse of Beaufort which was forced into administration (see two previous blog posts on the topic for details). There are apparently many people affected by it. There are a number of major issues that have arisen here:

  • The administrators (PWC) have suggested it might cost as much as £100 million to wind up the company and return assets to clients which seems an enormously large figure when the assets held are worth about £550 million. The costs will be taken out of the clients’ funds and as a result there will hundreds of larger clients who will suffer substantial loses (those with assets of less than £50,000 may be able to claim against the Financial Services Compensation Scheme – FSCS – but larger investors will take a hair-cut).
  • The assets (mainly shares) were apparently held in nominee accounts. Surely these were “segregated” accounts, i.e. not available to be treated as assets of the failed business? Most brokers who use nominee accounts will have wording in their contracts with their clients that cover this with often fine words that conceal the underlying reality that if there is any “shortfall” then the clients may be liable. But regardless, PWC are saying that because this is a “Special Administration” they have the right to take their fees out of the client assets/funds.
  • There will be a Creditors’ Meeting as required by all administrations but will the creditors be able to challenge the arrangements put in place by PWC and the costs being incurred? From past experience of such events I think they may find it very difficult. Administrators are a law unto themselves. It is alleged that there were offers from other brokers to take over the assets of Beaufort and their clients very quickly and at much lower cost, but that offer has been ignored. Investors need to ask why.
  • Note that the Special Administration regime was introduced during the financial crisis to enable the quick resolution of problems in financial institutions such as banks. This is where it is necessary to take prompt action to enable a company to continue trading and the clients not to be prejudiced. But in this case it seems we are back to the previous state where client assets are frozen for a lengthy period of time while the administrator runs up large bills at the clients expense.
  • I said only recently that the insolvency regime needs reform after the almost instant collapse of both Conviviality and Carillion. There may not have been a major shortfall in Beaufort and it might have been able to continue trading. But the current Administration rules just provide large, and typically unchallengeable, fees for the administrators who give the impression of having little interest in minimising costs. The result is the prejudice of investors in the case of a broker’s collapse, or of shareholders in the collapse of public companies.
  • Can I remind readers that part of the problem is the widespread use of nominee accounts by stockbrokers. I, ShareSoc and UKSA have long campaigned for reforms to reduce their use and give shareholders clear title and ownership after they purchase shares. In the meantime there are two things you can do: a) Avoid using nominee accounts if at all possible (i.e. use certificated trading or personal crest accounts so your name is on the share register); b) if you have to use a nominee account, make sure you are clear on the financial stability of the broker and that you trust the management. It would not have taken a genius to realise that some of the trading practices of Beaufort might raise some doubts about their stability and reputation.

I do suggest that investors who are affected by the collapse of Beaufort get together and develop a united front to resolve not just the problems raised by this particular case, but the wider legal issues. Forceful political representation is surely required.

See this web site for more information from PWC: https://www.pwc.co.uk/services/business-recovery/administrations/beaufort/beaufort-faqs.html

An amusing encounter at the Mello event was with Richard Parris, the former “Executive Chairman” of AIM listed Intercede (IGP). He was talking in a session entitled “The importance of the right board of directors” and he conceded that “separation of roles” is important, i.e. presumably he would do it differently given the chance. Richard, the founder of the company, has recently stepped down to a non-executive role, they have a new Chairman, and even Richard’s wife who was operations manager has departed. While I was in the session, there was even an RNS announcement saying the “Chief Sales Officer” had resigned (I am still monitoring the company despite having sold all but a nominal holding years back).

Richard pointed out to me that the pressure put on the company over his LTIP package back in 2012 meant that his share options are worthless as the performance targets put in place were not achieved. Well at least he is still talking to me and has joined ShareSoc as a Member apparently. Sometimes time can heal past disputes, and as I said, shareholder activism does work!

But it is regrettable that RBS are recommending voting against a resolution proposing a shareholder committee at their upcoming AGM. Perhaps not surprising, but a shareholder committee could avoid confrontation over such issues as remuneration and would be a better solution that confrontation.

I hope the Mello event becomes a regular feature of the investment calendar.

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

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Persimmon Remuneration – Institutions Duck Responsibility

Most folks are aware of the absolutely outrageous pay levels at Persimmon Plc (PSN) and the perverse LTIP scheme that permitted them. Today was the day of their Annual General Meeting when shareholders had the opportunity to express their displeasure. Some did but a lot of investors (no doubt institutional ones) did not. The results of the vote on the Remuneration Report were:

VOTES FOR: 74.5 million, AGAINST: 70.2 million, ABSTAINED: 64.8 million.

Because of the very large number of abstentions (votes withheld), the resolution was passed by 51.5% to 48.5% of votes cast.

Is this not a sorry reflection on the corporate governance standards in the UK when such a blatantly perverse remuneration scheme is not censored by a vote against? The excuse that last year’s pay was simply a reflection of a previously approved remuneration policy is a very poor one. When the outcome was so appalling, it should have been consigned to the garbage heap by a vote against.

This is the kind of behaviour by UK company directors and institutional investors that might well lead to a socialist Government in due course who will have a mandate to deal with this problem in a more vigorous manner than the current Government.

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

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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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