Ted Baker Audit Failure, SRT Marine Big Deals and Population Growth

The bad news this morning for holders of retailer Ted Baker (TED) is that the company has announced an independent review of its inventory. It says it has identified that the value of inventory held on its balance sheet has been overstated. It estimates that the figure is up to £25 million and that it relates to prior years. This looks like yet another audit failure (the auditors are KPMG).

The share price is down 10% today at the time of writing but it’s been falling for a long time so it’s now down well over 80% from its peak at the start of the year. Warnings about its stock holding are not new. This is what the Investors Chronicle had to say in October: “Ted Baker’s stock levels have been a cause for concern. Inventories have grown consistently in recent years, reaching a peak of 37 per cent of revenues at the full year”. For a clothing retailer to hold that much stock seems simply unreasonable. That report came after an unexpected half year loss. I suspect that even worse news may come out in due course.

On Friday an article by Simon Thompson in Investors Chronicle contained a puff for SRT Marine Systems (SRT). This made for interesting reading as I used to hold the stock – sold at 25p in 2012, price now 52p. I sold because of repeated lack of progress and overoptimistic forecasts of big deals in the pipeline. The CEO (he’s still there) seemed to be a perennial optimist and even analysts started to become wary. Revenue and profits jumped around from year to year (big profits in 2019 after losses in 2018) and the share price jumped around similarly. Simply not the kind of company I like to hold.

Has anything changed to cause Simon to tip the share? The basis is a big deal (a “game changing contract worth £31.8 million”) to sell AIS systems for marine surveillance in the Philippines. There are also other similar deals in the pipeline. This is what is says in the recently published Interim Report in which they also reported a major loss: “Most of our system discussions are confidential in nature and usually have a long gestation period due to the nature of a government turning a general idea into a real system with all the necessary regulations, budgets and approvals. Over the last few years, we have followed a very steep learning curve in respect of understanding the realities of the intricacies and complexities of the processes that each of these large contracts must complete prior to SRT being contracted. Whilst predicting timescales remains imperfect, this knowledge now enables us to more accurately characterise system opportunities with regards to their status within a customer’s process and better understand the real time window within which we would expect to be contracted and start implementing an SRT-MDA system. We hope this will reflect in an improving ability to provide market updates on the status of future system contract opportunities”.

Big projects also create big risks though, and soak up working capital. Will they be completed on time and within budget? Will the customers be satisfied and pay on time? I won’t be jumping in to follow Simon Thompson’s tip just yet. I’ll wait to see if the leopard can change its spots.

Another interesting article over the weekend was one by David Miles (Professor of Economics at Imperial College). It was headlined: “Why our rising population will bring with it a decreasing standard of living”. The article argues that with a rising population the country needs to invest more simply not just to maintain the capital asset stock but to cover the demands of the extra population – for housing and transport for example. But the higher the population growth, the less your ability to maintain assets per person unless you raise savings. But that means lower consumption, hence we become individually poorer.

Population growth is certainly a concern of mine, and likewise for many other people who live in the London area. What follows is a article I recently wrote on that subject for another organisation:

London Congestion – It’s Only Going to Get Worse

As anyone who has lived in London for more than a few years probably knows, the population of the metropolis has been rapidly rising. This has resulted in ever worse congestion not just on the roads but on public transport also. The roads are busier, rush hours have extended and London Underground cannot handle the numbers who wish to travel on some lines during peak hours. Even bus ridership has been declining as the service has declined in reliability and speed due to traffic jams.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) has published some projections of future population numbers for the capital and the conclusion can only be that life is going to get worse for Londoners over the next few years.

The current population is about 8.8 million but is forecast to grow to 10.4 million by 2041, i.e. an 18% increase. This increase is driven primarily by the number of births and declining death rates. The relatively high numbers of births in comparison with what one might expect is because London has a relatively youthful population. One can guess this is the case because of the high numbers of migration from overseas which results in a net positive international migration figure while domestic migration to/from the rest of the UK is a net negative, i.e. Londoners are being replaced by immigrants.

But population increase in London does not have to be so. The chart below shows you the trend over the last 100 years and as you can see London has only recently reached the last peak set in 1939. During the 1960s to 1990s the population fell. What changed? In that period there was a policy to reduce overcrowding in London and associated poor housing conditions by encouraging relocation of people and businesses to “new towns”. But when Ken Livingstone took power he adopted policies of encouraging more growth. His successors have continued with those policies and have promoted immigration, e.g. with Sadiq Khan’s “London is Open” policy.

London Population Trend

Many Londoners complain about the air pollution in the London conurbation without understanding that the growth in businesses and population have directly contributed to that problem. More people means more home and office heating, more transport (mainly by HGVs and LGVs) to supply the goods they require, more emissions from cooking, and many other sources. The Mayor thinks he can solve the air pollution issues by attacking private car use and ensuring goods vehicles have lower emissions but he is grossly mistaken in that regard. The problem is simply too many people.

Building work also contributes to more emissions substantially so home and office building does not help. But the demand for new homes does not keep pace with the population growth resulting in many complaints that people have to live in cramped apartments or cannot find anywhere suitable to live at all. Likewise new public transport capacity does not keep pace with the increased demand. There is some more capacity on the Underground but only on some lines and not much while Crossrail which might have helped has been repeatedly delayed.

The economy of London is still buoyant.  But all the disadvantages of overcrowding in London mean that Londoners are poorer in many ways. Indeed if Professor Miles is right, they will be cash poorer as well. Those who can move out by using long-distance commuting or relocating permanently thus leaving London to be occupied by young immigrants.

Any Mayor who had any sense would develop a new policy to discourage immigration, encourage birth control and encourage emigration to elsewhere in the UK or the Rest of the World. But I doubt Sadiq Khan will do so because a poorer population actually helps him to get elected. It’s a form of gerrymandering.

If Sadiq Khan wanted Londoners to live in a greener, pleasanter city with a better quality of life then he would change direction. But I fear only intervention by central Government will result in any change.

Go here for more details of the GLA projections of London’s population: https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/projections-documentation

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

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General Election and the Stock Market Impact

We finally have a possible resolution of the impasse in Parliament as a General Election is to be held on December 12th. That’s after the Speaker (not Bercow needless to say) rejected two wrecking amendments to a simple Bill authorising the election. My spirits were elated by this news because it finally means that the uncertainty over Brexit (will we or won’t we depart) may soon be resolved. That uncertainty has been damaging to UK business as their plans were put on hold, and has caused a fall in the pound as the world saw that we were in a political crisis and there was a risk of a hard Brexit. It also meant little other business was getting done in Parliament as the Government had no overall majority.

Now we have the situation that with a large Conservative lead in the opinion polls it seems likely that Boris Johnson will be returned with a Commons majority and will be able to push through his Brexit Withdrawal Bill. That Bill does seem reasonable to me in many regards, as a Brexit supporter. It avoids a “hard”, no-deal Brexit which was certainly going to have some impact on business, although not as much as some people claimed. It also seems likely that the marxist ambitions of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party will be a dead letter for at least a few years.  I expected that the stock market would be lifted by this news but it has not happened. Why?

Perhaps some risks are still perceived. One is that the Brexit Party will split the right-wing vote in individual constituencies thus allowing other parties to win them. Or there could be mix of parties in the resulting Parliament with no overall majority which would put us back at square one. The key is the stance of the Brexit Party where Nigel Farage is opposed to the Withdrawal Agreement as he basically thinks it concedes too much to the EU (over fisheries, future trade, future regulatory alignment, etc). But if he wants to be certain of obtaining Brexit he has to think again and form a pact with the Conservatives. The Brexit Party has already been targeting Labour seats and that is surely a good focus for them leaving the Conservatives to target marginals and traditional Tory seats. As a relatively new Party, the Brexit Party probably does not have the resources to fight all the constituencies effectively in any case. Better to focus on a few. That way the Brexit Party could achieve some seats in Parliament for the first time and have a longer-term future with some say in Government and the future negotiations with the EU. The latter still leaves a lot to be settled under the “Political Declaration” so there is much to be decided.  Otherwise the Brexit Party surely has no future other than as sheep in the wilderness.

But all this complexity is probably lost on most investors, particularly overseas ones who dominate the UK stock market. They probably will not be convinced that the UK has returned to some sanity until a clear election result appears.

But as always I am optimistic. I am betting it will be resolved in a satisfactory way as most voters are fed up with the political gyrations and many of the worse MPs have been destroying their own reputations by repeated “about-faces”. Boris Johnson has to clean out the Augean Stables that are the Houses of Parliament.  To quote: “For the fifth labour, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to clean up King Augeas’ stables. Hercules knew this job would mean getting dirty and smelly, but sometimes even a hero has to do these things”. That’s politics in essence.

For those opposed to Brexit and still clutching at straws, the National Institute of Social Research (NIESR) has reported that they expect UK GDP to be 3.5% lower in ten years’ time under the proposed deal. But the Treasury and the Governor of the Bank of England do not agree. It depends on the terms of any free trade agreement that is negotiated with the EU. I am sceptical that there is likely to be any negative impact. Economic forecasts of just one or two years ahead are notoriously unreliable. Ten-year forecasts are simply incredible. The latter cannot take account of unexpected events and economic trends, and tend to ignore the adaptability of businesses. I suspect a more positive outlook for the country might stimulate more confidence in business and investment therein and offset any minor other impacts. In essence a Government with a good majority and a unity of purpose is the key. Perhaps readers should consider tactical voting to ensure that happens.

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

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Population Trends and Productivity

One of the key factors that affects the wealth of the population of the UK is labour productivity. It also has a big influence on the value of UK companies in which many of my readers have a strong interest.  Only by improving productivity can we become richer in essence. But even the Government recognises that this country has a big problem at present because productivity is not improving, unlike in some of our competitors.

Some relevant information on this issue recently came to light in the pages of the FT. First the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that population growth is slowing due to worsening life expectancy. But it’s still expected to grow by 3 million to 69.4 million by mid-2028. It also concludes that it is migration that is driving UK population growth and as the post-war baby boomers die that impact will strengthen.

Of the UK countries, England is expected to grow population more rapidly, rising by 10.3% to 2043, and I can guess where most of that will settle – London and the South-East no doubt based on recent past trends.

Now you may have concerns about that in terms of the “liveability” of the area. It will worsen the pressure on the public transport network and congestion on the road network. It will also increase air pollution substantially as air pollution directly relates to the business and travel activity of the population and the number of homes. But a letter from Professor Nicholas Oulton in the same FT pointed out that the growth of hours worked in the UK, largely fueled by migration, has reduced our productivity growth to near zero. He says the flip side of the UK’s job miracle is the productivity disaster [unemployment is at record lows].

This is not just a debate for economists though, because Brexit will enable the UK to restrict immigration from Europe which is currently unrestrained and has led to 18% of the workforce now being foreign born. That ready supply of both skilled and unskilled labour provides a disincentive for UK companies to invest in more machinery or IT systems and explains both the poor productivity growth and lack of capital investment. We have just been creating a lot of low-paid jobs.

The recent uncertainty over Brexit has also created difficulties for many businesses who are generally horrified by yet more delays in Parliament over concluding the matter. This is becoming an even more important issue than whether it is a hard or soft Brexit. So what should the Prime Minister do now that his Bill debate timetable was voted down thus making it very difficult to achieve his desired exit on October the 31st? I suggest he needs to either agree a very short delay with the EU together with some agreement from the Labour Party and others that wrecking amendments will not proliferate – I do not consider it totally unreasonable that more time was required to debate the Brexit Biill. Or he needs to get a General Election agreed. It seems that may just be possible.

But it is important to get Brexit completed if the UK is to tackle the problem of low productivity and hence low wages driven by excessive immigration.

It is the low and poor growth in wages for most of the population that is also driving the social unrest in the country which is an issue that cannot be ignored.

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

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How Long Will You Live?

There was an interesting article recently published by Schroders on life expectancy. This can be quite critical to making investment decisions when you retire, if not before, or if you are living off your capital. It included the chart below which has been issued by the ONS.

How male life expectancy changes over time.

For example, a 60-year old man now has a 1 in 4 chance of living to 93 and a 1 in 10 chance of reaching 98. As you can see from the chart, once you get past 70, the chances of you living to a ripe old age substantially increases. This is probably because if you have reached 70 then you are either made of strong stuff or have been looking after yourself well. Or you have good doctors.

Of course within these figures there is a large variation in individuals so betting on the numbers can be tricky. But don’t ask your doctor for an estimate – from my experience they tend to be pessimistic to avoid disappointing the patient and their relatives. Being wealthy seems to help with life expectancy though, and you probably know all the unhealthy lifestyle choices that reduces it.

However it is a truism that you might live longer than you were expecting from this data and ensuring you have enough income to last out if you are self-investing means you almost certainly need to invest in the stock market as that is probably the only way to ensure your savings will not be eroded by inflation in the long term. That is particularly the case with current annuity rates which make no sense to use at present because of the very low rates imposed by Government manipulation of bond rates.

In summary it’s best to be conservative and minimise your erosion of capital. But those following the debates on Brexit in Parliament and on television of late may have lost the will to live, which is of course one of the most damaging factors in life expectancy. I hope the situation gets sorted out soon.

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

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Words of Wisdom from Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett has published his latest annual letter for investors in Berkshire Hathaway (see http://berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2018ltr.pdf). These letters are always worth reading for their insight into how a successful stock market investor thinks. I’ll pick out a few highlights:

Berkshire’s per share book value only rose by 0.4% in 2018 but he assigns that to the need to write down $20.6 billion on his investment holdings in unlisted companies due to new GAAP accounting rules using “mark-to-market” principles. He is not happy about that change.

He expects to make more purchases of listed securities as there are few prospects for mega-sized acquisitions. But that is not a market bet. He says “Charlie [Munger] and I have no idea as to how stocks will behave next week or next year”. He just buys shares in attractive businesses when their value is more than the market price.

At the ages of 88 and 95 for Warren and Charlie, they are not considering downsizing and becoming net consumers as opposed to capital builders. He quips “perhaps we will become big spenders in our old age”.

He comments on “bad corporate behaviour” induced by the desire of management to meet Wall Street expectations. What starts as an innocent “fudge” can become the first step in a full-fledged fraud. If bosses cheat in this way, subordinates will do so likewise.

He criticises the use of debt which he uses only sparingly. He says “at rare and unpredictable intervals, credit vanishes and debt becomes financially fatal”. It’s a Russian roulette situation in essence.

He’s still betting on the commercial vibrancy of the USA to produce investment returns in the future similar to the past. He calls the nations achievement since 1942, when he first invested, to be “breathtaking”. An S&P index fund would have turned his $114.75 into $606,811. But if it was a tax-free fund it would have grown to $5.3 billion. He also points out that if 1% of those assets had been paid to various “helpers” (he means intermediaries), then the return would have been only half that at $2.65 billion. He is emphasising the importance of avoiding tax if possible, and minimising what you are paying in charges.

But if you panicked at the rising debts in this world and invested in gold instead the $114.75 would only be worth $4,200. Clearly Warren believes in investing in companies and their shares as not just a protection against inflation but as the better investment than “safe” assets. He suggests the USA has been so successful economically because the nation reinvested its savings, or retained earnings, in their businesses.

The moral for private investors is no doubt that you should not spend all your dividends but at least reinvest some of them, or encourage companies to reinvest their earnings rather than pay them out as dividends. But you do need to invest in companies that reinvest their earnings to obtain a good return.

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

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John Murphy, Branding, Fevertree, Downsizing, McCarthy & Stone & the Motor Industry

In yesterday’s Financial Times there was an article on John Murphy, my ex-brother-in-law. It covers his “downsizing” which in his case means moving from three houses (Tuscany, Suffolk and Islington) to one in London. Although I rarely meet him nowadays as he divorced my sister many years ago, he has an interesting history. He developed the first large branding and trade mark consultancy (Interbrand) and I worked with him briefly in it. He taught me the importance of strong branding and protectable trade marks. He subsequently was involved in the re-establishment of Plymouth Gin and claims to have started the whole fashion for gin which was otherwise a declining market at the time. Charles Rolls, one of the founders of Fevertree (FEVR), worked with John at Plymouth and that company is another good example of how important strong branding is in consumer products. The FT article is here: https://www.ft.com/content/c48fcdec-3071-11e9-8744-e7016697f225

On the subject of downsizing, I visited the latest McCarthy & Stone (MCS) “retirement living” development in Chislehurst recently – Shepheards House. It’s recently been completed and is not far from where I and my wife currently live. And very nice it is too. A 2-bedroom apartment costs £552,000 but the big problem would be downsizing to fit all our offices (3 including two “work rooms” for my wife), books and art into the one apartment. They have limited storage space in them. My wife suggests we would need two of them. Don’t think we are yet old enough to justify doing this and the economics of two of them don’t work.

Just reviewing the latest share price of McCarthy & Stone, which I held briefly, it’s still only about half the price at which it did an IPO in 2016. With the housing market in London and the South-East declining that is not going to make life easier for the company, although they seem to have sold the apartments in Shepheards House very rapidly. Profits were down last year and build costs are increasing which combined means the shares are looking relatively cheap now. It’s a typical problem with IPOs – the sellers know when it’s a good time to sell.

There was a good article on the UK motor industry in the main section of the FT yesterday under the headline “forced into the slow lane”. Apart from the mention of the impact of Brexit, which the FT has been repeatedly promoting with negative articles and editorial in the last few months, much to my annoyance, it does explain why the motor industry is facing difficulties.

It’s not just Honda’s decision to close Swindon, which has nothing to do with Brexit, as a Honda executive spelled out, but there is a general malaise in the industry which is also affecting German car manufacturers. The abrupt policy change over diesel vehicles, which has made them unsaleable to many people, has tripped up many manufacturers such as JLR and the fact that the EU has now negotiated a tariff-free trade deal with the EU means that Japanese car manufacturers no longer need to bother with manufacturing in Europe. That is particularly so when their markets in the Far East are growing while Europe is shrinking (Honda’s production at Swindon has been declining).

Vehicle sales have been dropping in the UK in what is a notoriously cyclical industry. It’s one of those products that does wear out, but new purchases can always be put off for some months if not years if there is uncertainty about technological change. With vehicles lasting longer than they ever did, there is no reason for buyers to acquire new vehicles at present.

Perhaps the Government should ask Tesla or other new electric car manufacturers if they want a ready-made facility and reliable workforce that will become available soon? In a couple of years’ time, the market for vehicles may well pick up.

But John Murphy’s decision to stop owning a car as part of his downsizing is a sign of the times also. When I first knew him, he owned the revolutionary Citroen DS and subsequently owned Bentleys. It must be quite a change for him.

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

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AssetCo, Patisserie, Stockpiling, Warehouses, Sheds, Brexit and Venezuala

A week ago, an award of damages of £21 million plus interest and costs was made against Grant Thornton for their breach of duty when acting as auditors of AssetCo Plc (ASTO) in 2009/10. See https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Comm/2019/150.html for the full judgement. I understand Grant Thornton may appeal. These are the key sentences in the judgement: “It is common ground that in those years the senior management team at AssetCo behaved in a way that was fundamentally dishonest. During the audit process management made dishonest statements to GT, provided GT with fabricated and massaged evidence and dishonestly misstated reported profits, and provided GT with flawed and dishonest forecasts and cash flow projections. Outside of the audit process, management were engaged in dishonestly ‘overfunding’ assets (i.e. misleading banks as to the costs of new purchases etc so as to borrow more than was permitted), misappropriating monies, dishonestly under-reporting tax liabilities to HMRC, concluding fraudulent related party transactions and forging and backdating documents. GT accepts that it was negligent in a number of respects as the company’s auditor in failing to detect these matters…”

In 2012, AssetCo (ASTO) was forced to make prior period adjustments for 2010 that wiped more than £235m off its balance sheet. AssetCo was, and still is, an AIM listed company now operating in the fire and emergency services sector.

This is undoubtedly a similar case to Patisserie (CAKE). According to a report by Investors Champion, former Chairman Luke Johnson suggests it “has possible relevance for a claim against Grant Thornton” and he will be pushing the administrators to instigate similar action. Let us hope it does not take as long at ten years and millions of pounds in legal costs which administrators may be reluctant to stand.

According to a report in the FT, manufacturers are stockpiling goods at a record rate in anticipation of supply chain disruption from Brexit. Importers are also stockpiling goods – for example Unilever is storing ice-creams and deodorant such as its Magnum ice-cream bars which are made in Germany and Italy. There is also the increasing demand for warehousing by internet retailers, even for smaller “sheds” to enable them to provide next day or even same day delivery.

Big warehouses are one of the few commercial property sectors that has shown a good return of late and I am already stacked up with two of the leaders in that sector – Segro (SCRO) and Tritax Big Box (BBOX). On the 31st January the Daily Telegraph tipped smaller company Urban Logistics REIT (SHED) for similar reasons and the share price promptly jumped by 7% the next day wiping out the discount to NAV.

There has been much misinformation spread about Nissan’s decision to cancel manufacture of a new car model in the UK. They denied it was anything to do with Brexit. This was to be a diesel-powered model and as they pointed out, sales of diesel vehicles are rapidly declining in the UK. The same problem has also hit JLR (Jaguar-LandRover). One aspect not taken into account in many media stories was that Japan has just concluded a free trade deal with the EU. Japanese car manufacturers no long need to build cars in Europe to avoid punitive tariffs. Where will the new vehicle now be made? Japan of course!

There has been lots of media coverage of the politics of Venezuela and its rampant inflation. A good example of how damaging extreme socialism can be to an economy. Over twenty-five years ago it had a sound economy and I had a business trip scheduled to visit our local distributor there. But at the last minute the trip was cancelled after a number of people were killed in riots over bus fares. I never did make it and I doubt I will ever get there now.

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

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