New Corporate Governance Code – It Could Be Improved

I commented briefly earlier on the public consultation on a new UK Corporate Governance Code (see here: https://roliscon.blog/2017/12/05/new-corporate-governance-code/ ). I have now submitted a detailed response to the public consultation which you can read here: http://www.roliscon.com/Roliscon-Response-Corporate-Governance-Code.pdf

The main points I made therein are:

  1. I supported the inclusion of Chairmen in the 9-year rule after which they are no longer considered independent. But I think that period should also apply to tenure to avoid directors sticking around for too long.
  2. I am concerned about the wording that promotes diversity of gender, social and economic backgrounds in new board appointments. It appears to conflict with the requirement in law not to show any bias in selection (and quite rightly). Positive discrimination is as just as illegal as negative discrimination.
  3. I doubt that appointing a non-executive director to engage with the workface would be nearly as effective as the other two suggested methods of improving engagement.
  4. I question the approach to executive remuneration. It still does not discourage aggressive bonus schemes such as LTIPs and the ability of boards to retrospectively review awards (e.g. when the pay-outs turn out to be excessive) I consider to be quite unlikely to be effective in practice. The changes in this area are unlikely to stop the ramping up of pay levels to excessive levels.
  5. It perpetuates the myth that when companies need to engage with shareholders they can simply contact a “few major shareholders” to get their views. This does not work in most public companies nowadays because of the very diverse shareholder base, and also ignores all the private shareholders who could be the largest bloc. It should have proposed a more formal process such as a Shareholder Committee and disclosure on who has been consulted.
  6. It does not introduce restrictions on the appointment of directors with no knowledge of the sector in which the company operates. It perpetuates the English preference for “amateurs” versus “professionals”, i.e. assumes those who know less might be wiser.
  7. Likewise, it does not impose restrictions on the number of roles that directors should have.

In summary there are some improvements in the new Code, but more could have been done to improve the Governance of companies and toughen up the Code. Although I do not object to the principle of “comply or explain”, as there are always exceptions that justify some anomalies, I suggest there should be a requirement to provide more specific justifications for such exceptions. The excuses we get at present are often way too weak.

Readers are welcome to submit their own responses to the consultation. The more they receive from individual shareholders, the better. Feel free to “copy and paste” from my own submission.

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

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A Christmas Parable and Productivity

No this is not an examination of how Santa Claus gets around the whole world in one night. But as my last post before Christmas, let me explain how I have automated the sending of Christmas cards over the last thirty years. I am by nature a lazy person, so handwriting and addressing the family’s Christmas cards was a task I chose to tackle with some automation many years ago. The first step was to put friends, family and business contacts into a contact management software product. This enabled me to reuse the same list every year, maintain it with changes easily, and once per year print self-adhesive mailing labels. More latterly I have used an email delivery service to distribute many of my Xmas “cards” electronically which included short newsletters in some years. Only a few cards now get posted to the favoured few or those not on email, thus saving postage costs.

So productivity before Christmas in terms of use of my time has improved enormously, and I can now send out hundreds of “cards” for less expense than the tens sent previously.

The Government is very concerned about the poor productivity of the economy in the UK. It has not been improving, and hence wages are unlikely to rise. The above parable shows it is necessary to do three key things to improve productivity: 1) Invest in new technology (in the above case, several software products); 2) adopt new ways of doing things (i.e. there needs to be cultural changes) and 3) invest time in learning how to use the new technology (education).

Obviously in business terms, such investment tends not to take place when labour is cheap or free (the equivalent of asking your spouse to hand address the cards). But even then there are still benefits from automation such as reducing postage costs, and reducing the environmentally damaging costs of transporting millions of cards around the country.

There was an interesting letter in the Financial Times recently from Andrew Smithers. He said “In the real world investment decisions are made in the interests of management [not of shareholders as in the classic economic model]. As a result of the change in the way managements are paid (that is the bonus culture) they are encouraged to prefer buy-backs to investment. This is the root cause of poor productivity.”

That is indeed one of the key problems. Typical bonus schemes such as LTIPs pay out based on earnings per share which are enhanced by share buy-backs. Just a few years ago for a company to buy its own shares was illegal. Perhaps we should revert to that situation? Alternatively outlaw such bonus schemes.

Another reason why productivity is not improving is that the incentives for the chief executives of public companies to invest for the long term is minimal. Their length of tenure before they retire or move to another company is so short that they would be mad to take risks in adopting new techniques or changing business processes. Indeed their pay is now so high that they don’t need to stick around for more than a few years before they have made enough money to feel secure in a comfortable retirement.

These are the issues the Government needs to tackle if UK productivity is to improve.

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

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Persimmon Directors, IDOX Profit Warning and Transplants

This morning house building company Persimmon announced that Chairman Nicholas Wrigley and Non-Exec Director Jonathan Davie were departing. The company says that both of them recognise that the 2012 LTIP “could have included a cap” and “in recognition of this omission” they have tendered their resignations.

Holders of Persimmon shares like me, or indeed anyone who has followed the debate on excessive executive pay, will be aware of the outrageous pay that has resulted at this and other companies because of the adoption of complex and aggressive LTIPs. Often these schemes have paid out unanticipated amounts, because the directors seemed not to understand their complexities or the possible outcomes. In the case of Persimmon it has meant that as much as 10 per cent of the value of the company has been paid out to the beneficiaries, allowing the CEO to pocket more than £100 million.

Neither of course did the shareholders understand these schemes and hence voted in favour of them regularly. So long as the company financial performance was good, some shareholders considered the payouts were justified. So the Board of Persimmon “believes that the introduction of the 2012 LTIP has been a significant factor in the Company’s outstanding performance over this period, led by a strong and talented executive team”. No mention of the main factors that have driven performance – high house prices supported by interest rates lower than they have been for thousands of years, the rapid growth in households from immigration and other factors, the Governments “help to buy scheme”, and other contributors. When companies are making hay, few shareholders will pay much attention to remuneration schemes or vote against them which is surely an argument for Government intervention in this area.

The company has appointed a new Chairman of the Remuneration Committee, who is Marion Sears. Will policies and practices change as a result? I doubt it because back in 2015 I argued with her at the AGM of Dunelm where she chaired the Remuneration Committee and subsequently exchanged emails on the complexities of the bonus scheme at that company. I also said to her that it was “difficult to understand the implications of the new policy on the overall remuneration of the senior executives and its sensitivity to different scenarios” and argued that the performance targets were not stretching.

I have come to the conclusion that all traditional LTIP schemes are dysfunctional and I therefore vote against them. There are better ways of recognising superior management performance.

IDOX

Another company I have held for a long time is AIM listed software company IDOX. This company was very successful under the leadership of former CEO Richard Kellett-Clarke. Two days ago the company issued a profit warning (not the first) saying that results for the year ending October 2017 will be delayed until next February. The announcement indicated some concerns about revenue recognition, complicated by the “sudden absence” of the CEO, Andrew Riley, on sick leave.

This is the kind of announcement that investors hate. No real details, and no information on when or if Andrew Riley might return. All we know is that the EBITDA forecast is reduced again to approximately £20 million. But at least we know that Kellett-Clarke is back as interim CEO.

There were concerns expressed by me at the last IDOX AGM about revenue recognition, high debtors and the apparent offering of long payment terms to customers (effectively providing them credit). I opined at the time that this was no way to run a software company because even if the customers are credit worthy, projects can run into unforeseen difficulties causing the customers to argue about the bills. I reduced my holding in the company substantially at the time as a result although it’s still one of my bigger holdings. Leon Boros also made negative comments about cash flows at the company and some investors were shorting the stock at the time – they are probably doing so again.

Comments on bulletin boards also raise the issue about the restating of accounts at 6PM, an acquisition that IDOX made in December 2016. But this is old news. Reference to accounting restatements at 6PM were made in the offer document (page 15, where it says for example that “the Directors expect that the value of the net assets of 6PM under IDOX accounting policies will be reduced materially”). Indeed 6PM subsequently filed accounts in Malta where they are registered showing substantial losses in 2016 and restating the 2015 and 2014 numbers. I thought the acquisition was a dubious one at the time for various reasons and voted against it. But these adjustments were surely known about earlier in the year so the latest announcement suggests some other problems.

Needless to say, with all these uncertainties and lack of clarification from the company (which we may not get until February it seems), all the likely share buyers have disappeared because it becomes very difficult to value the business. Simply too many unknowns. I will be encouraging the company to clarify the position a.s.a.p., but the “transplant” of the CEO, even on a temporary basis, might provide some reassurance that the problems will be sorted.

On the subject of transplants, one public consultation that is of personal interest to me is the Government’s consideration to change the default on organ donation to be an “opt-out” system as opposed to the current “opt-in” arrangement. In other words, unless you had specifically opted out, then it would be assumed that you had no objection to your organs being used for transplantation. Relatives may still be consulted though.

It is hoped that this will increase the number of transplants that are performed. There are a large number of kidney transplants performed each year, with lesser numbers of liver, pancreas, lung and heart transplants. The NHS says that 50,000 people are alive today who would not otherwise be so as a result (including me of course). But there are still long queues of people awaiting transplants. In the case of kidney patients, the alternative of dialysis reduces quality of life substantially and also reduces life expectancy significantly so it is a very poor alternative. Dialysis just keeps you alive, but a transplant gives you a new and better future.

For my financially informed readers, you also need to bear in mind that transplants save the NHS money because maintaining a kidney transplant patient costs a lot less than looking after dialysis patients.

Scotland, Wales and other countries have introduced opt-out systems already. Go here to respond to the public consultation on the matter: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/introducing-opt-out-consent-for-organ-and-tissue-donation-in-england

I hope readers will support this change to the law.

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

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Abcam AGM, Cambridge Cognition, Ultra Electronics, Wey Education and IDOX

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Abcam (ABC) in Cambridge as I often do as I have held the stock since 2006. Share price then (adjusted for consolidation) was about 50p and it’s now about 950p so I like most investors in the company, I am happy. Alex Lawson will be doing a full write-up of the meeting for ShareSoc so I will only cover a few points herein.

One shareholder expressed concern about the rising costs. The company is clearly making heavy investments in new infrastructure and more management. Although revenue was up 26.5% last year, earnings per share were only up 11.8% (unadjusted) and operating margin has been falling. Also Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) has been falling – only 12.3% last year when it used to be in the high teens.

Apart from opening a new building next year, they are implementing an Oracle Cloud software solution to replace their historic purpose-built legacy software systems. The total cost of that project is £44 million (see page 23 of the Annual Report) when profits last year were only £42 million post tax. In other words, all of last years profits could be taken to be consumed by this project. This project has been running for some time and I have asked questions about it in previous years. This year I asked: “is the project on schedule and on budget”. I did not get a straight answer. But it was said that initial cost estimates have expanded, and additional modules been added (for example warehouse management). It should “go live” in the current financial year. From those and other comments made, I got the impression that this is a typical IT project that is too ambitious and costs are escalating while delays have arisen. Those “big bang” IT projects rarely go according to plan, but management are often suckers for them.

Now it may be arguable that older systems need replacing (for example, the CEO mentioned it was impossible to bill in Swiss francs that at least one customer would prefer), and maintaining old code was clearly proving to be difficult. The massive investment in this area alone may be justified by the company’s ambitions to “double the 2016 scale by 2023 by investing in operating capabilities” as the CEO mentioned. The expectation is that growth will improve revenues and hence margins in due course.

One more way that costs have been rising is increased pay for management. CEO’s pay alone up from £614k to £1,378k in the last year (“single figure remuneration). In addition, I commented negatively on the fact that the LTIP target had been adjusted for the “scale and complexity of the transformational programme” of the new ERP system implementation, i.e. costs are much higher than expected so the LTIP target has been made easier to achieve!

At least Louise Patten (acting Chairman now after departure of Murray Hennesey for a proper job, and Chair of the Remuneration Committee) admitted later that LTIPs are often problematic but institutions like them. LTIPs at Abcam have rarely paid out, and management at many companies seem not to value them highly. There are better bonus scheme alternatives.

I also spoke briefly to a representative of Equiniti, the company’s registrar, about the difficulty of voting electronically. He is to look into it. Amusing to see the company slogan on his business card is “Our mission is making complex things simple”, exactly the opposite of my experience!

In the morning I also visited Cambridge Cognition (COG) who have offices in the village of Bottisham east of Cambridge. Although their offices are in what appear to be wooden huts, they are well furbished. The company specialises in cognitive health (brain function). Sixty per cent of its revenue comes from clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies, thirty per cent from research institutes and academia and ten per cent from healthcare and consulting.

On clinical trials they do about 15 deals a year so by their nature they are lumpy one-off deals. Total revenue was £6.8 million last year. Before last year revenue was flat but it grew last year and is forecast to grow this year.

A lot of pharma companies are actively researching alzheimers and other degenerative brain diseases, and developing products to assist – as the population ages such diseases are becoming more prevalent. Cambridge Cognition’s technology relies on historically well validated studies. The company provides a lot of consulting support in clinical trial sales.

Such deals include 30 to 40% of software which is billed and paid for on normal 30+ days terms, with the services paid for as provided. One issue that arose is that their accountants are likely to require them to change so as to allocate the software revenue over future periods due to IFRS 15 because they host the software. This is the same problem that Rolls-Royce have tripped up on, and it is also an issue at Ultra Electronics (ULE) according to a report in the FT yesterday. That company also issued a profit warning on Monday and the share price fell 19.5% on the day. I used to hold it but not of late. The FT writer suggested it was time to “exit”. Cambridge Cognition did suggest though that they would not need to restate last years accounts, and the change might actually smooth their revenue figures. IFRS 15 is an important correction to historic aggressive revenue recognition policies in some companies.

Otherwise Cambridge Cognition have some interesting technology – for example using smart watches to monitor brain function during the day, and using speech recognition to perform analysis. Whether these can be turned into profitable markets remains to be seen. One of the original ideas in the company was to provide their software on i-Pads for general practitioners to use in diagnosis but that never took off due to changes in purchasing arrangements in the NHS who of course are notoriously difficult to sell to (and budgets of late for technology seem to have been cut). If anyone wants more background on Cambridge Cognition you are welcome to contact me.

A few weeks ago I purchased a minute number of shares in Wey Education (WEY). Minute because although it looks an interesting business I thought the share price was way too high on any sensible fundamental view. This morning the company announced a share placing to make an acquistion. This will be at 22p which is a 33.3% discount to the price on the 14th November according to the company. Clearly advisors and institutions took the same view as me on the previous share price. Has the share price collapsed this morning as a result? It’s down but not by much so far. Wey Education does look like one to monitor (which is why I bought a few shares) but I think I’ll stand back from the speculation for the present while the market is so twitchy.

This looks like one of those hot technology stocks that are all the rage of late (the company provides education over the internet as an alternative to school attendance). But investors are clearly getting more nervous about many of those stocks in the last few days – it’s no longer “keep buying on momentum” as some share prices have fallen back from their peaks (Abcam is one example), so it’s now sell, sell, sell. And if a company indicates that the outcome for the year will not be as good as the optimistic broker forecasts suggest, as IDOX did mid-afternoon yesterday, then the share price gets hammered. Announcements mid-afternoon of this nature are never a good idea. Interesting to note that Richard Kellett-Clarke is to remain on the board after all as a non-executive. He was previously CEO. That might inspire more confidence in the business as these kinds of hiccups did not occur during his regime.

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

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Johnston Press, Blancco Technology and Intercede

Companies in difficulties always make for interesting reading, and here’s a brace of them.

Firstly Johnston Press (JPR), a publisher of newspapers. That includes many local ones but also the Yorkshire Post and the Scotsman who cover national business news – the latter is particularly good on the travails of those big banks registered in Scotland such as RBS and Lloyds. The company had more operating losses than revenue last year, debt is way too high and dividends have been non-existant for years. Local newspapers have been shrinking as advertising revenue has moved elsewhere and traditional national newspapers have also been battered by the availability of free news on the internet. It is clearly operating in a sector in sharp decline.

Now it has become the subject of an attempted revolution by its largest shareholder, Norwegian Christen Ager-Hanssen who holds 20% of the equity. He wishes to replace some, if not all, the directors and called an EGM to do so. Removal of the Chairman of Johnston is proposed and the appointment of Alex Salmond, former First Minister in Scotland, and experienced newspaper executive Steve Auckland.

Apparently they feel confident of winning a vote, and would have been even more aggressive in removing directors if the company did not have a “poison pill”. One of their issued bonds includes a provision that if new directors form a majority of the board but were not appointed by the existing directors the debt could become immediately repayable. The company would have little hope of doing that. Mr Ager-Hansen says this mechanism is a “breach of fiduciary duties” and is consulting lawyers as to whether action could be taken against the directors. This writer certainly agrees that this arrangement was and is morally dubious and the sooner the Chairman of Johnston Press Camillia Rhodes, goes then the better. Shareholders should vote accordingly.

Whether a new management team can revive such an ailing business, even if editorial policy and management improves (which is one of the issues apparently) is surely doubtful.

Blancco Technology Group (BLTG) has been in turmoil for a couple of years. Results for the year to June were published today. They changed the nature of the business to focus on software for “erasure” and “mobile phone diagnostics” and new management was put in place a couple of years ago. But today’s announcement makes grim reading. The Chairman, Rob Woodward, spells it out to begin with by saying: “2017 has been a year of substantial challenges for the Group, with the business performing far below our expectations”, But he does say: “However, the underlying strengths of Blancco remain in place and I am confident that these, together with the significant number of remedial actions we are taking, will restore a sustainable growth trajectory and build long-term shareholder value”.

But the detail makes for horrific reading. For example: “During April the Group undertook a review of cash flow forecasts and identified anticipated pressure on the cash position of the Group.  This pressure was caused by the non-collection of £3.5 million of outstanding receivables relating to a sale booked in June 2016 and a sale booked in December 2016, and costs associated with past acquisition activity, including earn-outs and M&A advisory fees”; and “On 4 September 2017 the Group announced the reversal of two contracts totalling £2.9 million booked as revenue during June 2017, following a number of matters being brought to the Board’s attention”. As a result the 2016 accounts have been restated. In addition, the new interim CFO, Simon Herrick, was appointed interim CEO and the former CEO departed.

Last year’s accounts were full of adjustments and the complexity compounded by the number of disposals and acquisitions. This year is not much different, and they even report “adjusted cash flows”. I always thought cash was cash, but apparently not. But the share price perked up somewhat – up 30% at 72p at the time of writing after a long decline. The company does seem to have some interesting technology but whether all the problems have now been revealed we do not know. The Chairman is sticking around after previously announcing his departure but they are still looking for a new CEO.

I would not care to predict the future for this business. But one question worth asking is “what were the auditors doing last year?”. Revenue recognition is often a problem in this kind of company and it looks like a case of sales proving to be fictitious when some questions were asked about them. This is yet another example of the audit profession falling down on the job which we have seen so many times before. Shareholders in Blannco should consider asking for the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to undertake an investigation into the audits of this company. The auditors last year were KPMG.

Intercede (IGP) issued a profit warning yesterday in a Trading Update. A large order for its identity software solution that was expected will not now be received until the next financial year. Other orders are also apparently being delayed. As a result, revenue growth this year will be below market expectations. The share price fell yesterday and today and is 34p at the time of writing.

I first commented on Intercede back in 2011 when ShareSoc ran a campaign against the remuneration scheme in the company. The share price then was about 60p. It briefly went over 200p in 2014, on hopes of real growth in revenue and profits but then steadily declined before this latest announcement. In reality this company is a consistent under-performer. It operates in what should be a hot sector (personal id security) but never seems able to capitalise on its interesting technology in a growing market. Change is made difficult as Richard Parris runs it as “Executive Chairman”, assisted by his wife who is also employed in the business. An example of a “lifestyle” business, not uncommon on AIM, where the directors extract signficant sums while the business goes nowhere in particular.

This company would probably be worth a lot more than the current market cap to a trade buyer who could exploit the technology and improve the sales and marketing. What’s the chance of that happening? Not much I would guess.

Note: the writer has trivial holdings in Blancco and Intercede.

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

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Lloyds Litigation, Collective Redress, and CLIG AGM

I went to the High Court in London this morning to hear the grilling of witnesses in the case brought by shareholders over the acquisition of HBOS by Lloyds. But I was disappointed to find when I got there that the first session was to be held in private – presumably the judge wants to discuss some legal issues with counsel for both sides. So I went to the AGM of City of London Investment Group (CLIG) instead where I hold shares.

The aforementioned legal case will be running for some weeks yet to hear various witnesses – it’s being held in Court 15 at the Rolls building in Fetter Lane if anyone cares to drop in. I shall try to visit another day when I am in London.

This was the first opportunity I had to attend the Lloyds hearing but the national media have reported the opening submissions by the respective QCs. To remind you this is a case where disgruntled former Lloyds TSB shareholders are suing the former directors (Sir Victor Blank, Eric Daniels, Truett Tate, et al), and Lloyds Banking Group as a company, over the takeover of HBOS in 2008. This resulted, directly or indirectly, in a massive share price decline and the cessation of dividends. The commercial loan book of HBOS turned out to be very poor quality, and Lloyds had to take on more capital to meet its capital ratio requirements.

What’s the legal basis of the claim? Simply that the prospectus issued to Lloyds TSB shareholders at the time was defective. Among other things that it failed to disclose the true position of HBOS and the fact that the company had received emergency funding in the form of secret loans from the Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve and Lloyds. A prospectus needs to be honest, not misleading and not omit significant information. The litigant’s QC, Richard Hill, said that “shareholders were indeed mugged”. He also argued that Lloyds was under pressure from the Government to conclude the deal, otherwise HBOS would have had to be nationalised because it was on the verge of collapse, when the directors of Lloyds loyalties should have been to their shareholders.

The defendents QC argued the claims have no merit because it was in the best interest of shareholders. In addition, that they would have voted for it regardless if they had been aware of the aforementioned loans. Bearing in mind that a lot of institutional investors held both Lloyds and HBOS, you can understand that point perhaps. The usual defence of the directors having taken expert advice on the matter from a host of advisors has been invoked, but how they can overcome the defective prospectus argument remains to be seen.

Now one topical item of news today is the disclosure that the EU is looking at establishing a pan-European framework for collective redress. See this press release from shareholder representative organisation Better Finance for more details: http://betterfinance.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/documents/Press_Releases/en/Financial_services_users/PR_-_COLLECTIVE_REDRESS_-_231017.pdf

There are many difficulties in the way of shareholders pursuing litigation or enforcement action over investment abuses. One just has to look at the HBOS/Lloyds case and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) cases to see how difficult and expensive they are. The RBS case, which was a similar claim over the prospectus issued in 2008, has recently been settled. But only a minority of shareholders affected are likely to get compensation, and it will only be a small proportion of their losses. Legal and other costs will consume a large proportion. One only has to look at the time these cases have taken to get into, or near, a Court (nine years) that tells you there is something seriously defective in the process. Many of the claimants are likely to have died in the meantime as the shares of these banks were typically purchased by pensioners for retirement income.

The problem is the UK has no direct equivalent of a US “class action”, or the arrangements for collective cases as operates in Holland. There are “Group Litigation Orders” in the UK, but these are not directly equivalent and the Lloyds and RBS cases have relied on a representative group of litigants. Many other European countries have similar problems. So this initiative looks potentially useful, although if Brexit proceeds, the UK might miss out on participating in this concept, albeit that it might be many years before it progresses into reality because changing legal systems in a country can be complex and is often resisted by vested interests. Simplifying legal processes is not always in the interests of lawyers for example.

The complexity and length of the legal processes, and the difficulty in raising funds to finance such cases, as evidenced by the Lloyds and RBS cases, surely demonstrates that reform is necessary. But it will be interesting to see the outcome of the Lloyds case.

Just brief coverage of the CLIG AGM follows. There were about half a dozen shareholders present, but the company was also holding a seminar for investors (current and potential) in the afternoon so I presume most people would have gone to that instead.

CLIG is an investment company that specialises in holding closed end investment companies (e.g. investment trusts), with a large exposure to the far-east. The CEO is long standing director Barry Oliff who is finally planning to retire in a couple of years time, so one question raised was about succession planning – it is in motion apparently. As one shareholder intimated, it will be important to maintain the culture that Barry Oliff has established where there is great openness about the performance of the company (comprehensive disclosure of the business model and the likely outcome of profit trends). Barry even tells shareholders at what price he will be selling some of his large shareholding and when.

This company regularly gets substantial votes against its Remuneration Report, and it was no different this year. Two million proxy votes against, no doubt by institutions prompted by proxy advistors because they have a bonus scheme which does not follow the normal rules. It is more group performance related, than individual person related. They choose to be “different”. Barry explained that he thought individual targets provided the wrong incentives and that group bonuses encourage staff and customer retention. Another director said it was more like a traditional “partnership”.

Anyway the shareholders are probably happy because the share price has increased over the last year and the dividend (already high) has been increased for the first time in five years.

As I intimated in another recent blog post, it is always useful to attend AGMs, and this one was no different. According to a report in the FT, a number of US companies are moving to “virtual” AGMs, but are getting some objections from shareholders. Surely the best solution is to combine the physical meeting with an on-line equivalent so you get the best of both worlds. A virtual on-line meeting can be usefui for those shareholders who have difficulty in attending in person, but certainly actually meeting the directors is more useful in many ways.

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

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Abcam, Voting and Non-Executives

I am a long-standing holder of Abcam (ABC) and have been very happy with my investment – a compound annual return of 33% p.a. since I first purchased the shares in 2006 according to Sharescope. But the notice of this year’s AGM (to be held in Cambridge as normal) has made me unhappy for other reasons.

Firstly, I tried to vote. Rather than use the paper proxy voting form (I am on the register so I get one) I thought it would be easy to do so electronically using the Equiniti ShareVote service. Even though there were no obvious instructions on the paperwork, I found the web site, entered the required three pieces of id information, and pressed submit. But it would not accept it because I have a pop-up blocker turned on. Grrr…..

Why do companies and their registrars make it so difficult to vote? They will be wasting money now because I will use the pre-paid voting card instead.

I then studied the resolutions:

  • Remuneration too high and the usual horribly complex mix of bonuses and LTIPs – but I told them that at the 2015 AGM. The only saving grace is that as an AIM company they don’t need to disclose all the information or have a vote on it, so it was good of them to do so. But I will be voting against the Remuneration Report.
  • What also attracted my attention is the presence of three non-executive directors (other than the former CEO) who are all women. One is the Chair of the Remuneration Committee so she gets a vote against for that reason alone. But all three have numerous other jobs/roles which exceed the ShareSoc guidelines and some seem to have little relevant experience of the markets in which Abcam operates. So I am voting against all three. Now I know that experienced female non-executives to fill public company boards are in short supply now that everyone wants to be “gender” balanced, so such ladies can line up numerous jobs with ease. But this is simply not good enough.

This is of course the result of the “box ticking” syndrome to keep the institutional shareholders and proxy voting advisors happy. But no non-executive director can do a good job if they have more than 4 or 5 positions.

I think I will have to attend the AGM again this year to make some of the above points.

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

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