Lax Regulation (Globo, GRG) and Japanese Trust AGM

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

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

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

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

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

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

JPMorgan Japan Smaller Companies Trust

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

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

Japan's Structural Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hedging Against Brexit

As we edge towards an abrupt Brexit as agreement with the EU has turned into a game of chicken, it’s worth considering some options. Or as my M.P. Bob Neill said about divorce on Twitter “the current system of divorce creates unnecessary antagonism in an already difficult situation” (he was talking about personal divorce in the UK as head of the Justice Committee but our EU divorce is looking very similar – acrimony is the word for it).

Perhaps the Prime Minister will find a way through to a sensible settlement now she is reported to have personally taken charge of the matter. But as investors we should not rely on such a chance.

One solution is simply to move your share investments into companies that are listed overseas and do most of their business elsewhere than the UK. Don’t wish to buy overseas companies directly? Simply buy one of those “global” investment trusts or trusts focused on particular sectors – Europe, the USA, China, India, et al. Or ensure you invest in UK companies with large exposure to overseas markets other than the EU – there are lots of those.

One aspect that caught my attention this week was the suggestion that the UK should stockpile food and medicines to ensure there were no shortages. But taking food alone, fresh food does not generally keep for very long unless you have a refrigerated warehouse. Even then there are limits. As one supermarket chief was reported as saying in the FT today that it was “ridiculous” and showed “complete naivety”. The reason is simply that supermarkets and their suppliers operate “just in time” systems where deliveries often depend on overnight shipping of goods from Europe. Likewise car manufacturers and other engineering companies rely on complex supply chains that depend on the same “just in time” processes and very quick delivery times. There is a solution to this problem which is to store more items. Non-perishable goods can be stored for a very long time to provide a buffer to the flows of goods. One hedge tactic might therefore be to invest in warehousing companies – Segro and Tritax BigBox REITs come to mind (I own them), although Lex in the FT suggested today that “optimism is already baked in” to the share price of Segro after their interim results announcement. The share prices of those companies have been driven by the internet shopping boom where goods are held in warehouses rather than shops, and rapid delivery is essential. More warehouse demand caused by Brexit might add another wave of warehouse building and increase rents.

When it gets nearer the date next March for Brexit, perhaps we should be doing some personal hoarding of French cheese, Dutch salami and German sausages to guard against short-term supply chain disruptions, but I doubt I will be panicking. UK producers can gear up and many other suppliers in the rest of the world will suddenly find they are much more price competitive. Tariffs on imports of food from outside the EU can currently be very high (e.g. an average of 35% on dairy products which is why you don’t see much New Zealand or Canadian cheese in the shops lately – see https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/bns/BN213.pdf for details).

That does not mean of course that food will be much cheaper as the UK Government might impose some tariffs to protect our own farmers, but you can see that it is quite possible that the supply chains will rapidly adapt once we are outside the EU regime. But long haul supply lines will require more warehousing and more dock facilities.

Or our Government could take the Marie Antoinette approach to food shortages – “let them eat cake” she said, or “let them buy British products” instead perhaps. Was that not a past Government campaign which could be revived? Such “Buy British” campaigns ran in the 1960s and 1980s to inform my younger readers. I am of course joking because so far as I recall they had little public impact. They did not have any influence on the preference to buy German or Japanese cars, although many of the latter are now made in the UK. But in a new post-Brexit world we should expect some surprises and the need to change our habits.

One joker suggested we might need to eat more non-perishable food, i.e. tinned peaches rather than fresh. But that just shows that there are ways around every problem. If the current heat wave persists we will of course be able to grow our own peaches. But betting on the weather is as perverse as betting on the outcome of Brexit. All I know is that we are likely to survive it. Hedging your bets is the best approach.

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

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Brexit – Good or Bad?

Prime Minister Theresa May convinced her ministerial colleagues to back her Brexit vision, but now our Brexit negotiators David Davis and Steve Baker have resigned and there are grumblings from the “hard” Brexit wing of the Conservative Party. Like no doubt many Brexit supporters I am somewhat puzzled by this outcome mainly because it is not at all clear what the plan is in detail, nor what the ramifications are. But it’s worth reading the letter sent by Mrs May in response to David Davis’s resignation letter. It included these words:

“At Chequers on Friday, we as the Cabinet agreed a comprehensive and detailed proposal which provides a precise, responsible, and credible basis for progressing our negotiations towards a new relationship between the UK and the EU after we leave in March. We set out how we will deliver on the result of the referendum and the commitments we made in our manifesto for the 2017 general election:

  1. Leaving the EU on 29 March 2019.
  2. Ending free movement and taking back control of our borders.
  3. No more sending vast sums of money each year to the EU.
  4. A new business-friendly customs model with freedom to strike new trade deals around the world.
  5. A UK-EU free trade area with a common rulebook for industrial goods and agricultural products which will be good for jobs.
  6. A commitment to maintain high standards on consumer and employment rights and the environment.
  7. A Parliamentary lock on all new rules and regulations.
  8. Leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.
  9. Restoring the supremacy of British courts by ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK.
  10. No hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
  11. Continued, close co-operation on security to keep our people safe.
  12. An independent foreign and defence policy, working closely with the EU and other allies.

This is consistent with the mandate of the referendum and with the commitments we laid out in our general election manifesto: leaving the single market and the customs union but seeking a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement; ending the vast annual contributions to the EU; and pursuing fair, orderly negotiations, minimising disruption and giving as much certainty as possible so both sides benefit.

What exactly are the moaners complaining about if that deal can be achieved? Their concerns seem to be focused on points 5 and 6 above. Will adopting common product standards (or whatever EU standards they might determine subject to UK Parliamentary consent) really hobble the UK and make it difficult for us to negotiate trade deals with other countries? I do not see why – it just means that exporters to the UK will need to comply with UK/EU regulations just as UK exporters to the USA now have to comply with US products rules and regulations. What is so difficult or damaging about that?

Note that only industrial and agricultural products are covered by these proposals. Services are not so such matters as financial regulations where the EU has been particularly inept will presumably fall into abeyance unless we decide to conform. But such phrases as “A commitment to maintain high standards on consumer and employment rights and the environment” do need explaining more – does this mean we have to accept EU regulations or what in those areas?

With those reservations otherwise my view is that if Mrs May can achieve her objectives this would look to me to be a reasonable outcome as it will meet the main objectives desired by Brexiteers. Sovereignty and the ability to lay down our own laws and regulations in most areas and in a democratic way will be returned to us. Would anyone care to explain to me why it is otherwise?

But whether these proposals can be agreed with the EU is another matter of course. Perhaps David Davis has resigned because he sees the impossibility of getting their agreement to this “fudge”. The borderless objective in Ireland looks particularly problematic. We need a clearer explanation of how that might work in practice.

My conclusion therefore is that this might be a way forward, but the game of Brexit negotiations is a long way from being concluded.

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

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Book Review: Debtonator by Andrew McNally

Now here’s a book well worth reading on your summer holidays. It’s called Debtonator by Andrew McNally. Indeed if you are taking a long-haul flight to your holiday destination, you might be able to read it in one sitting. Like all good books it is short at only 98 pages excluding notes and index, and the format is small as well. But there is an enormous amount of information embodied in there.

It covers the problems caused by excessive debt in the modern world. The author explains how the balance of company finance has moved from equity to debt which has had many negative effects. He links the rise in income inequality, a major social concern in leading economies, to the excessive use of debt and the discouragement of investment in equities by Governments and pension regulators. The housing market is another example of the distortion created by too much debt at very low cost, engineered by Government and central banks.

The author suggests we need to move to an equity financed, rather than a debt financed economy and proposes how that could be achieved. Reform of the tax system is one aspect of achieving that.

He is also scathing about the current costs of equity investment for retail investors due to high “intermediation” with too many people taking a cut of the real investment returns before they arrive in the hands of the beneficial owners. That’s despite his apparent long career in the investment industry.

The book is a very good summary of what is wrong with the modern financial system. But it also gives the reader some tips on how to become one of the wealthy few rather than the impecunious many. You need to take a direct stake in the real economy where companies are generating real returns, and minimize the costs imposed by advisors, brokers, platform operators and all the other gougers who erode the returns.

In summary one of the best books I have read lately on the defects in the modern financial world. A little gem of erudite analysis.

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

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Scottish Mortgage Investor Meeting

Yesterday I went to the meeting for investors held by Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (SMT) in London. This was a useful event as they normally hold their AGMs in Scotland. Needless to say this company’s name is now grossly misleading as it does not invest in mortgages nor in Scotland but is a “global” investment trust. It has a great track record in the last few years and has a focus on growth companies. Their top 10 investments are Amazon, Alibaba, Illumina, Tencent, Tesla, Baidu, Kering, Inditex, Netflix and Ferrari which gives you a good idea of their focus. Here are some of the words of wisdom from manager James Anderson:

He finds the stock market ever more puzzling. Investors think daily headlines help you to invest but there is no correlation. Comment: I think he is saying ignore the political gyrations and such matters as Brexit. He suggested that people way cleverer than us get the world wrong and referred to the work of Hans Rosling and that of Hendrik Bessembinder who reported that 0.4% of all US stocks created half the wealth. Comment: Anderson implied that the key was to pick a few of those really successful growth companies because they will have the biggest impact on overall returns.

SMT therefore tries to identify businesses that are focused on growth markets with great potential – at least 40% per annum. Typically they are also run on a completely pragmatic basis.

Anderson thinks that deflation is highly likely in the next few years as companies they are investing in are reinventing the world. For example healthcare may become a lot cheaper as diagnostics improves and reduces the burden of expensive late stage interventions in cancer and heart disease.

Catherine Flood talked about the companies they are invested in and about the biotechnology sector where genome mapping is creating major opportunities. They have a rising number of private companies in their portfolio.

In response to questions, Anderson said they sold Apple two years ago because growth prospects seemed limited and had reduced their holding in Facebook for other reasons. He also questioned whether the kind of investment strategy following by Warren Buffett will continue to work in future as markets get disrupted by new companies using innovative technology. We may be facing a different world in future where “value” is less important.

As regards their large number of holdings in Chinese companies, Anderson was not worried about the political risks in China and expected China to become the dominant world economy in the near future. They are leading in technology in some areas (e.g. NIO in electric cars).

Overall this was an educational presentation as we got some understanding of the investment strategy of the company which clearly has worked well when economies have been buoyant and markets have been heading consistently upwards. The share price is at a premium to assets of 3.6% at present so might be vulnerable to a correction if there is any hiccup in the global economy. There was no mention of cash flows, return on capital or other “fundamental” measures of value in companies which tells you something does it not. But if you wish to invest in global growth companies, this is certainly one investment trust to consider.

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

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Tungsten, RedstoneConnect, Proactis, LoopUp, Mello and productivity

ITesterday there was an announcement by Tungsten Corporation (TUNG) that there was press speculation about a possible requisition of a general meeting to remove some of the directors, including the Chairman and CEO, and appoint others. This is likely to come from Odey Asset Management supported by other large investors the company understands. Their combined holdings could give them a good chance of winning any vote, or at least it would be a hard-fought proxy battle.

It would seem that the former CEO Edi Truell is involved in this initiative. It would be most unfortunate in my view if he returns to this business (and I did purchase a very few shares in the company after he departed which I still hold). Richard Hurwitz has done a good job in my view of turning this company from a financial basket case with very substantial annual losses into a sounder one. Revenue has been rising and costs have been cut although profits have been longer to appear than hoped. However the company does report that EBITDA was at breakeven for the first four months of the calendar year. It’s at least heading in the right direction now so I am unlikely to be voting for any such requisition.

I attended the Mello event at Hever yesterday and was hoping to get an update from Mark Braund on RedstoneConnect (REDS) where he was due to present. But his presentation was cancelled. Now we know why because an announcement this morning from the company said he was leaving. Perhaps he wants a new challenge. This was another basket case of a company where Mark turned it around in the two years he has been there. So some investors may not be pleased with his departure and the share price predictably dropped on the news. The new CEO will be Frank Beechinor who is currently the Chairman. He is also Chairman of DotDigital and clearly has experience of running IT companies so it’s probably a good choice. A new non-executive Chairman has been appointed (Guy van Zwanenberg).

The Mello event, organised by David Stredder of course, was held near Hever Castle in deepest Kent. I know some of the roads in the area as I live nearby but even so managed to get lost. Not the ideal location. But it was a useful event otherwise. I did an interview for Peter of Conkers Corner and sat on the panel covering the Beaufort case. Videos of both are likely to be available soon, and I will tweet links to them when they appear.

A company that did present at Mello was Proactis (PHD) with CEO Hamp Wall doing the talking. I was unsure of the potential future growth for the company as I thought the market for procurement software might be quite mature (i.e. most likely users had such a product/service). But not so it seems, particularly in the USA and their target vertical segments. Hamp spoke clearly and answered questions well. He is clearly an experienced IT sales/marketing manager. He said he was surprised though that the share price fell over 40% recently when they announced the loss of two of their largest customers. He thought it might fall 15%. I agreed with him that it seemed excessive. But the market does not like surprises.

Today I attended the AGM of LoopUp Group (LOOP) who sell conferencing software. They recently merged with a competitor named MeetingZone and it looks likely to double revenue and more than double profits if things go according to plan. The joint CEOs made positive noises about progress. The company is chaired by heavyweight Chairperson Lady Barbara Judge CBE which is somewhat unusual for this kind of company – at least heavyweight in terms of past appointments if not lightweight in person.

Tim Grattan was the only other ordinary shareholder present and may do a fuller report for ShareSoc. A disappointing turnout for a very informative meeting as both I and Tim asked lots of questions.

Tim advised me after I mentioned the Foresight 4 VCT fund raising that it was odd that no mention was made in the prospectus of the alleged illegal payment of a dividend. Is this not a “risk factor” that should have been declared he asked? That company and its manager seem to be turning a blind eye to that problem.

There was an interesting letter from Peter Ferguson in the Financial Times today. It covered the issue of a declining productivity growth in the UK and other countries aired in a previous article by Martin Wolf. This is certainly of concern to the Government and should be to all investors because only by increasing productivity can we get richer. Mr Ferguson suggested one cause was the negative impact of increasing regulation. He suggested it has three impacts: 1) more unproductive people appointed to monitor and enforce the regulations, 2) more compliance officers, and 3) less productivity as a result in companies due to sub-optimal practices. Perhaps fortuitously I am invested in a company that sells risk and compliance solutions. It’s certainly a growth area and there may be some truth in this argument. Has MIFID II reduced productivity in the financial sector with few benefits to show for it? I think it has.

But Rolls-Royce are going to improve the productivity in their business at a stroke. They just announced they are going to fire 4,600 staff. But are any of them risk and compliance staff?

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

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RBS Sale and Blackrock Smaller Companies AGM

The Government is selling off another tranche of its holding in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). By selling another 8% it will reduce its holding to 62% of the company. The Government (or “taxpayers” as some described them) will face a loss of about £2 billion on what it originally paid for the shares. There were howls of protest from some politicians. John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, said “There is no economic justification for this sell-off of RBS shares. There should be no sale of RBS shares full-stop. But particularly with such a large loss to the taxpayers who bailed out the bank”.

I think he is suffering from the problem of “loss aversion”, i.e. a reluctance to sell a losing investment rather than looking at the current value of the bank and its prospects. The market price is surely the best indicator of the value of the company – it’s what willing buyers will pay, and what sellers consider a fair price. One aspect to consider is that the value of the business may be depressed because nobody likes to buy shares in companies where there is one dominant controlling shareholder and particularly so if that shareholder is a government. The only way the UK Government can solve that problem is to reduce its holding in stages, as they are doing. Forget the prospective loss on the share sale. Better to accept the price offered and reinvest the proceeds in something else. The Government has lots of things where it needs more cash – the NHS, Education, Defence, Brexit plans, you name it.

Mr McDonnell may be particularly unhappy as he hopes to take power at the next General Election and RBS is one of the few remnants of the past Labour government’s major stakes in UK banks. After Gordon Brown nationalised Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, they took effective control of RBS, and to a large extent Lloyds. Only Barclays managed to escape by doing a quick deal with middle-east investors which has been the subject of legal action, only recently thrown out by the courts. For any socialist, particularly of the extreme left like Mr McDonnell, the ability to tell banks what to do is an undoubted objective. Banks tend to reduce lending when the economy worsens and their clients start to have difficulties but the claim is often that such reduction in lending compounds the economic woes.

Yesterday I attend the Annual General Meeting of Blackrock Smaller Companies Trust Plc (BRSC). What follows are some brief highlights. This company has a good track record – some 15 consecutive years of outperforming its benchmark by active management. So much for passive index investing. It has been managed by Mike Prentis for many years assisted by Roland Arnold more recently. The share price rose by 25% last year but the discount to NAV has narrowed recently to about 6% so some might say it is no longer a great bargain. The company does not have a fixed discount control mechanism and has traded at much higher discounts in the past.

It’s a stock-pickers portfolio of UK smaller companies, including 43% of AIM companies and 143 holdings in total. Many of the holdings are the same companies I have invested in directly, e.g. GB Group who issued their annual results on the same day with another great set of figures.

Mike Prentis gave his key points for investing in a company as: strong management, a unique business with strong pricing power, profitable track record, throwing off cash, profits convert into cash and a strong balance sheet. They generally go for small holdings initially, even when they invest in IPOs, i.e. they are cautious investors.

When it came to questions, one shareholder questioned the allocation of management fees as against income or capital (25% to 75% in this company). He suggested this was reducing the amount available for reinvestment. But he was advised otherwise. Such allocation is now merely an accounting convention, particularly as dividends can now be paid out of capital. But he could not be convinced otherwise.

Another investor congratulated the board on removing the performance fee. Shareholders were clearly happy, and nobody commented on the fact that the Chairman, Nicholas Fry had been on the board since 2005 and the SID, Robert Robertson, had also been there more than 9 years – both contrary to the UK Corporate Governance Code. The latter did collect 5% of votes against his re-election, but all resolutions were passed on a show of hands.

I was positively impressed on the whole.

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

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