Equals Trading, Bango Results, Finablr Suspension, Baronsmead VCT and Closing the Stock Market

As share prices of almost every share on the market collapses, should all trading be suspended? The argument for this is that as the impact of the coronavirus on the economy is not certain, although it looks more dire every day, shares cannot be valued with any certainty. Indeed there seems to be no hiding place as there never is in a bear market – almost all share prices have fallen. The editor of the FT thinks the market should not be closed and I agree with her. Closing the market is very prejudicial to private shareholders, particularly those who absolutely need to move into cash even if it means some sell into an unrealistic market – but that is their choice. If the market closes you have no choice. If there was to be a closure, it should only be for a few days as at the start of World War II.

I have been trend following in the market as I have mentioned before but it has proved difficult to keep up in the last few days. At least brokers’ systems seem to be robust this time around.

The major sectors affected by the virus, or soon will be, are hospitality businesses, hotels, pubs, entertainment venues and airlines. One symptom is that I just cancelled our holiday in June as I am supposed to be hibernating for 12 weeks according to the Prime Minister and I doubt the epidemic will have passed by June. But you can see that there will be many staff lay-offs in such businesses and airlines are already asking to be bailed out by the Government because if airplanes don’t fly they cannot cover their aircraft lease costs.

Meanwhile the virus is causing businesses to get their staff to work from home, including one of my brokers. Payment company Equals Group (EQLS) issued a statement this morning giving their response to the virus and a trading update. They say they have 50% of their staff working remotely in shifts and can move to 100% when required. As regards trading, group revenues to the end of February were up 33% but there has been a marked slowdown in travel cash and retail card revenues in the last week due to the adverse impact on travel. But corporate revenues are still robust so far and account for the majority of revenues. Clearly the business will be impacted to some extent so they are cutting costs to conserve cash. The share price had anticipated this and had already fallen a long way in previous days and weeks – it fell again today.

Another company in the payments sector is Finablr (FIN) which announced yesterday that the shares were suspended. The company suggests that problems with liquidity are making it difficult to manage the business. They have also discovered some cheques dating back to before their IPO which have been used as security for the benefit of third parties – a small matter of $100 million is involved! The CEO has resigned and the board is looking for a new one. This company was founded by B.R.Shetty who also founded NMC Health and whose accounting and financing arrangements are also under scrutiny. It looks like Finablr is yet another financial disaster I have managed to avoid to look on the bright side. I would not bet on shareholders recovering anything. Temporary suspensions very frequently turn into permanent ones.

Another company that operates in the mobile commerce and payment sector is Bango (BGO) who issued their final results today. Group revenue was up 41% and they say “Adjusted EBITDA” for the year was a positive £0.45 million. However cash declined because of the large expenditure on intangible assets and there was still an overall financial loss. They expect the “payments business to continue to grow exponentially” and they forecast the coronavirus to have a positive impact on End User Spend as from experience they see consumer spending rise during “stay-at-home” periods such as Ramadan and Christmas. The share price rose slightly today by the time of writing this note, but investors are still unsure about the future of the company it seems. Investors are either taking their money off the table altogether or moving out of businesses likely to be impacted by self-isolation and quarantining and this is having a very wide impact.

My portfolio is now over 25% in cash which is very unusual but I am picking up the odd few shares in companies where the panic seems overdone – in none of the sectors likely to be affected that are mentioned above though.

One of the few companies I hold whose share price rose in the last 2 days has been Ocado (OCDO) as the popularity of on-line ordering and delivery rises. Getting delivery slots with them is now difficult for customers and other supermarkets are having similar problems and when you do get a delivery a lot of items are missing. There is clearly some panic buying going on for certain items which may subside if logistics turns out not to be a major problem after all. But surely all the workers who pack and delivery from supermarkets are going to be affected if the virus becomes rampant, even if they are in the younger and healthier group.

I mentioned some issues at the Baronsmead Venture Trust (BVT) AGM in a previous blog post (see https://roliscon.blog/2020/02/27/venture-capital-trusts-the-baronsmead-vct-agm-and-political-turmoil/). I wrote to the Chairman of the company, Peter Lawrence, after the meeting and have received a response. He confirms that the chart of returns in the last ten years in the Annual Report on page 3 was wrong. It showed a decline in NAV Total Return in 2018 when there was in fact an increase and the 2019 point was also wrong– a corrected graphic is below.

Baronsmead Venture Trust Corrected Chart 2020--03-17

It always surprises me that there are so many errors in Annual Reports that shareholders find easy to spot when the directors have not. This seems to be a particular problem in VCTs – perhaps too many jobs and not enough time allocated to each role with some VCT board directors considering their directorship a sinecure that requires little thought or effort. I suspect those are the problems. Perhaps they need reminding to read the Annual Report in detail before approving it!

Mr Lawrence rejected my complaint about the lack of time allocated to public questions at the AGM Meeting (only 15 minutes) and also rejected my complaint about the length of time he has been on the board which is contrary to the UK Corporate Governance Code. I will send him a stiff reply. To my mind this looks like one of those VCTs where a revolution is long overdue. It needs a fresh board and a good examination of the investment policy, the fund manager and the fees paid to the manager.

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

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The Great Crash – Lessons from History

The stock market is falling and it may continue to do so, with the odd bounce along the way. The reason is partly because when confidence is destroyed that investing in shares is bound to make you money, which has been a rule for the last ten years, then it takes a real change of heart to move the market in the opposite direction. Confidence, or lack of it, is contagious just like the coronavirus which has probably contributed to the market collapse. The classic example of a market crash is still the 1929 collapse on Wall Street. That was so extreme that it wiped many people out and prompted a number of suicides. It was not until 1932 that the market stabilised and many years after that until it recovered to its previous levels. Or for 2020’s speculators in the words of Al Jolson: “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.

The 1929 crash was created by cheap money where everyone was buying on margin and there were pyramid schemes of trusts that invested in other trusts. Even shoe shine boys were giving share tips and people were drawn into the stock market who had no financial experience at all. When the markets started to fall, margin calls were invoked which drove the market down further. Banks that had lent money for punters to invest in the market went bankrupt when the margin calls were not paid. One result was economic collapse and a fierce depression in the USA which echoed around the world in the 1930s. The real world of business activity mirrored the stock market which is not always the case. That was partly due to poor Government responses.

One very amusing slim volume on the Wall Street crash is a book entitled “Caught short!” written in 1929 after the initial crash by Eddie Cantor. He describes himself in the book as a comedian, author and victim. It’s recommended to those who need some light relief from the recent debacle.

Cantor was both “in the market, and under it” as he says. After one of the worst market days he was too frightened to go home so he checked into one of New York’s largest hotels and asked for a room on the nineteenth floor. The desk clerk asked him if it was for “sleeping or jumping”.

This time around the Bank of England has reacted to the collapse of the market and concerns over the economy from the virus impact so that after a long period of very cheap money it is making it even cheaper. We are again at the lowest bank base rate in history in the UK and other countries are also doing things to boost their economies which may transfer into their stock markets.

But will that revive confidence in the stock market? Only for a short time I suspect because shares, particularly US ones, still do not look particularly cheap. And bear in mind that most markets including the UK’s are highly correlated with the USA’s.

How the actions of Governments will work out remains to be seen, but hopefully they have learned something from previous market crashes. The only difference from 1929 is that the speed of trading in the market and the volumes of trades have increased exponentially. We also have many more index-tracking funds which promote herding behaviour. These two factors might not help.

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

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It’s Not the End of the World, But It Is a Bear Market

After the Chancellor’s statement yesterday in which he did a good job of scaring everyone about the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic, and news coverage of the spread of the virus overnight, the UK stock market was in freefall this morning. That was not helped by sharp falls in the US and Far East markets overnight.

A bear market is when folks dump shares irrespective of a company’s prospects or earnings and is driven by herd following in index funds and others. When does a bear market end?  After many months and when shares start to look very, very cheap on fundamental ratios such as earnings or dividend yields. That is clearly some way off yet.

To have that happen the public do also need to have confidence that the virus epidemic is over and that only a few old folks like me have died or are likely to die as a result. That is at least a few weeks away. But the market recovery may start to take place as soon as there is the first sign that the world is not going to end after all, which it will certainly not.

Moving into cash is one possible short-term reaction but the Bank of England have undermined that strategy by reducing interest rates to record lows. AJ Bell Youinvest have just announced that they will not be paying interest on cash in clients’ accounts any more. Other brokers (not many anyway) and banks will no doubt follow to cut their interest rates on deposits. But if there is an economic recession then holding cash, or simply spending it, is not a bad idea until the economy revives. Now is the time to cash in your shares and buy a new car or a house extension! Or for the altruists, now is the time to donate money to charity, particularly as the tax-year end is coming up.

Meanwhile the national media seem to have decided the Chancellor’s budget is an inflationary one of the spend-spend-spend variety. Why should the Government not borrow money for some required investment in infrastructure when it can borrow money at such low interest rates?

But how much influence do the Chancellor or the Governor of the Bank of England have over the real-world economy? Not a lot in essence when it is mainly driven by external factors and public sentiment.

While this plays out, I will not be dumping shares indiscriminately but I will be exiting those companies that may be particularly badly hit by the virus, if I have not already. That includes travel and holiday companies, airlines, entertainment venues, pubs and hotels, high street retail operations where footfall will decline, etc. But I may buy those companies where the share price has fallen because of the general rout when their income is not obviously threatened – for example because they have long-term contracts or guaranteed repeat business.

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

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No Budget Surprises from Rishi Sunak

Budget box 3

Chancellor Rishi Sunak just delivered his first budget speech. Bearing in mind how short a time he has had in the job, it’s perhaps not odd that there are no great surprises or revolutions in it.

There are a number of short term measures to counter the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic on top of the recently announced cut in bank base rate from 0.75% to 0.25% which is surely more of a political gesture than anything because such changes take time to have any impact on the real economy.

There will be a long-term review of business rates but there will be short-term relief for retail and leisure businesses to counter the epidemic impact. The Chancellor is also committing £175 billion to improve economic growth.

The National Insurance threshold will be raised to help the low paid and the planned increase in spirit duty has been cancelled. Fuel duty will remain frozen, when many people expected it to be raised. However red diesel tax relief will be abolished for most sectors other than farmers (it’s news to me that anyone else could use it legally).

Entrepreneurs tax relief will be reformed as widely forecast as it costs the exchequer £2 billion. The lifetime limit will be reduced from £10 million to £1 million. Will that deter entrepreneurs from setting up new businesses? I doubt it.

Twenty-two thousand civil servants will be moved out of London with new Treasury offices in the regions. That will come as a shock to many. Will the Chancellor come under attack from his civil servants like Priti Patel one wonders? But it is surely a positive move to offset the excessive London-centric nature of the economy and the pressure on housing in the South-East.

Some £27 billion will be invested in the strategic road network, including on the A303 that passes Stonehenge.

VAT on digital publications will be abolished so you’ll be able to buy my book “Business Perspective Investing” even cheaper from Amazon – but it’s damn cheap already so I think this may have limited impact except to some educational publishers. It is sensible reform though to align it with paper books.

There is more funding for housing which may help housebuilders and their suppliers and a more general reform of the planning system is forecast. There will be a stamp duty surcharge though for non-UK residents which might affect expensive homes in London but that was widely tipped as something the Chancellor was expected to implement.

For those only aspiring to afford such homes, HMRC is being given more funding to tackle tax avoidance. But the pension tax relief taper relief limit will be raised to £200,000 which may assist many high earners such as NHS consultants. More money is also being given to the NHS although it is not clear whether that and the promise of 40 new hospitals were new commitments or the old ones rehashed.

A closer study of the red book which covers the budget details is required to see if there are any surprises in the small print (see https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/budget-2020 ).

Postscript: One announcement snuck in behind the budget is a consultation on changes to the calculation of RPI by the UK Statistics Authority – see https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/consultation-on-the-reform-to-retail-prices-index-rpi-methodology-2/ .

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

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Market Crash and Abcam Impact from Coronavirus

This morning my stock market portfolio was a sea of red – down 5.6% at the time of writing at 9.30 am.  Not only have most shares fallen, but spreads have widened so it’s not even easy to pick up those shares that are now undervalued at a fair price. I think the answer here is to wait until the immediate panic is over before making any more decisions to buy or sell.

The major impacts on shares have been the threat of the coronavirus Covid-19, where the reality of the possible economic impact is finally sinking in, and the other has been the oil share price decline. It might be only short term but the impact of Covid-19 on China and northern Italy is clearly going to be substantial.

I don’t actually hold any oil company shares and it was just propitious that I said on February 14th when discussing electric vehicles that one should “sell BP and Shell perhaps”. The price of oil is down over 25% since Friday and the share prices of BP and Shell are down 16% and 18% respectively today at the time of writing. These declines have a major impact on the FTSE-100. Does that make them a bargain? Perhaps to dividend seeking investors but these are companies whose share prices are driven by oil/gas prices so they are not the kinds of companies I like to own.

One company I do own is Abcam (ABC) who published their interim results this morning. Revenue up 11% but adjusted profits down 20% with the share price down 7% after a sharper initial drop this morning. They report a £3 million revenue reduction from the Covid-19 virus from its early spread in China. But the broader China activity is now returning although still below pre-outbreak levels. The supply chain has been largely unaffected to date.

Cash generated from operations increased but free cash flow is down slightly mainly because of high levels of expenditure still being applied to “new ERP systems and processes” which is capitalised and which I have commented negatively on in the past. Well at least that expenditure is down from last year.

Notwithstanding the short-term impact of the virus, they give a positive outlook statement – “pleased with progress, strong fundamentals, confident in our future prospects, attractive long-term dynamics” are some of the phrases used. I think we might see a lot of similar statements from companies over the next few months. But adjusted earnings per share forecasts for this year are surely going to be downgraded somewhat at Abcam.

I am also not optimistic that the UK, USA or other western economies are going to avoid a widespread outbreak of the disease which will disrupt our lives and economy even if it is a relatively short-term impact.

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

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Jack Welch Obituary and Coronavirus Impact

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE) has died at the age of 84. He turned the company around from a slumbering US corporate giant into a much more profitable business that awarded shareholders handsomely. His management style was of the “slash and burn” variety with jobs being reduced and anyone rated as underperforming being fired. This was similar to the management style of Fred Goodwin at Royal Bank of Scotland and with what they might consider tough but required decisions being made. In both cases their legacies proved to be toxic with successors facing difficulties.

Both had a large media presence and big egos. But is that what you want in a CEO? And do the ends always justify the means? Certainly Jack Welch showed that the ability of management is probably the key factor in the success of a business but the cult of personality that surrounds such leaders and the decisions they make often makes for difficulties in management succession. For investors, such managers tend to make good short-term returns but you need to know when to bail out while humble and more sensitive managers can be better long-term bets.

As I write this stock markets are zooming up after large falls in the last week. Your portfolio is probably down substantially like mine, but is this recovery a “dead cat bounce” or a realisation that the Covid-19 virus impact might be lower than anticipated?  I have no more great wisdom to impart than others on the future impact nationally or worldwide but it does seem to me that we might well see a major pandemic. Some industries such as travel and entertainment venues might see much reduced revenue for a short period of time and supply chains will be disrupted in many markets. I don’t think it will really hit home in the UK as it has done in China until people you know start dying. The fact that it may be mostly fatal to the elderly or those with poor immune systems (like me incidentally) may be little comfort. As with the 1918 flu pandemic, the long-term economic impact may be small but there may be short term disruption.

It was interesting reading the announcement this morning from 4Imprint (FOUR) whose shares I hold. Their final results were very good and the share price is up 20% at the time of writing. But this is a company that sells promotional products and most of the manufacturing takes place in China. This is what the company had to say: “Impact on the business has so far been minimal, reflecting the timing of the inventory cycle of our domestic suppliers. However, the situation is very fluid and if production restrictions in China persist, the potential for disruption of our supply chain increases”. They go into a lot more detail in their operational review which is quite helpful. But they have not estimated the possible impact on reduce sales volumes if there is a general impact on the economy of the USA which is their major sales market.

In essence I think it is way too soon to judge the likely impact so having sold some shares (not those of 4Imprint though) in the face of the declining markets I don’t plan to rush back into the markets in a big way and particularly I will be avoiding shares that may be vulnerable. Companies with longer term or recurring revenues are a better bet as usual because they should be able to survive short-term economic disruption. Property companies may be a good bet as they mostly have long-term leases spanning multiple years when the virus impact may only last a few months before everyone has survived it or died even if there is a global pandemic.

On that positive note, I think it’s best to close before I get seduced into giving share tips.

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

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Venture Capital Trusts, the Baronsmead VCT AGM and Political Turmoil

Yesterday (26/2/2020) I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Baronsmead Venture Trust (BVT) held at Saddlers Hall in the City of London. It was reasonably well attended. I will just report on the major issues:

The Net Asset Value Total Return for last year I calculate to be -2.7% which is certainly disappointing. Note that it is annoying that they do not provide this figure in the Annual Report which is a key measure of the performance of any VCT and which I track for all my VCT holdings. I tried to get in a question on this issue but the Chairman (Peter Lawrence) only allowed 15 minutes for questions which is totally inadequate so I will be writing to him on that subject.

The company does give a chart on page 3 of the Annual Report showing the NAV Total Return for the last ten years. There was also a fall in 2018 according to that chart although I am not sure it is correct as my records show a 6.9% Total Return. I will query that as well.

The main reason for the decline in the return was a disappointing result from the listed company holdings – mainly AIM shares. However it was noted that there was an upturn after the year end and it is now up 17.2%. Major AIM company losses last year were in Crawshaw and Paragon Entertainment – both written off completely now – and a bigger loss in Staffline which was one of their major holdings. However they did realise some profits on Ideagen and Bioventix which were still their largest AIM holdings even so at the year end.

There was criticism from two shareholders about the collapse in Staffline with one asking why they did not exit from Staffline and Netcall (another loser) instead of following them down, i.e. they should have invoked a “stop-loss”. The answer from Ken Wotton who manages the listed portfolio was that there were prospects of recovery and they had sold some Staffline in the past so were still making 4 times the original cost. Comment: Losing money on an AIM portfolio in 2019 is not a great result – certainly my similar portfolio was considerably up last year. They seem to be selling the winners while holding onto the losers – not a sound approach. However it would certainly have been difficult to sell their large holding in Staffline after the company reported accounting/legal problems. Selling such a stake in an AIM company when there are no buyers due to uncertainty about the financial impact is simply impossible at any reasonable price.

One shareholder did question the poor returns from AIM companies when they might have made more from private equity deals. The certainly seem to have ended up with a rag-bag of AIM holdings which could do with rationalising in my opinion. The fact that the new VCT rules will impose more investment in early stage companies may affect the portfolio balance over time anyway.

Robin Goodfellow, who is a director of another VCT, asked why they are holding 20% in cash, and paying a management fee on it. Effectively asking why shareholders should be paying a fee on cash when the manager is paid to invest the cash in businesses. The Chairman’s response was basically to say that this is the deal and he did not provide a reasoned response. This is a typical approach of the Chairman to awkward questions at this company and I voted against his reappointment for that and other reasons. The Chairman is adept at providing casual put-downs to serious questions from shareholders as I have seen often in the past.

Another reason to vote against him was the fact that he has been a director of this company and its predecessor before the merger since 1999 (i.e. twenty-one years). Other directors are also very long serving with no obvious move to replace them. This is contrary to the UK Corporate Governance Code unless explained and likewise for the AIC Corporate Governance Code which says “Where a director has served for more than nine years, the board should state its reasons for believing that the individual remains independent in the annual report”. There is no proper justification given in the Baronsmead Annual Report for this arrangement.

I have complained to the Chairman in the past about them ignoring the UK Corporate Governance Code in this regard so that’s another item to put in a letter to him.

All resolutions were passed on a show of hands.

ShareSoc VCT Meeting

In the afternoon I attended a meeting organised by ShareSoc for VCT investors – they have a special interest group on the subject. VCTs have generally provided attractive and reasonably stable returns (after tax) since they were introduced over twenty years ago and I hold a number of them. In the early days there were a number of very poorly performing and mismanaged funds and I was involved in several shareholder actions to reform them by changes of directors and/or changes of fund managers. Since them the situation has generally improved as the management companies became more experienced but there are still a few “dogs” that need action.

Current campaigns promoted by ShareSoc on the Ventus and Edge VCTs were covered with some success, although they are still “works in progress” to some extent. But they did obtain a change to a proposed performance fee at the Albion VCT.

However there are still too many VCTs where the directors are long serving and seem to have a close relationship with the manager. Baronsmead is one example. It is often questionable whether the directors are acting in the interests of shareholders or themselves. There are also problems with having fund managers on the boards of directors, with unwise performance incentive fees and several other issues. I suggested that ShareSoc should develop some guidelines on these matters and others and there are many other minor issues that crop up with VCTs.

There also needs to be an active group of people pursuing the improvements to VCTs. Cliff Weight of ShareSoc is looking for assistance on this matter and would welcome volunteers – see https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/vct-investors-group/ for more information on the ShareSoc VCT group.

Political Turmoil Ongoing

Apart from the disruption to markets caused by the Covid-19 virus which is clearly now having a significant impact on supply chains and consumption of alcohol as reported by Diageo, another issue that might create economic chaos is the decision by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ditch the political declaration which the Government previously agreed as part of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, i.e. that part which was not legally binding.

The Government has today published a 36 page document that outlines its approach to negotiations on a future trade deal and its ongoing relationship with the EU – see https://tinyurl.com/tlhr3pk . It’s worth a read but there are clearly going to be major conflicts with the EU position on many issues and not just over fish! Needless to say perhaps, but the Brexit Party leaders are happy.

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

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