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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Euphoria All Around, But Platforms Not Keeping Up

The Conservative General Election Victory has generated large movements in stock prices with utility companies and banks some of the major beneficiaries. National Grid (NG.) rose 4% on Friday as the threat of nationalisation disappeared and Telecom Plus (TEP), which I hold, rose 11%. I sold the former some time ago as the business seemed challenged on a number of fronts and regulation of utilities in general in the UK and hence their likely return on capital seemed to becoming tougher. My view has not changed so although foreign investors might be mightily relieved, I am not rushing into buying utility companies today.

The euphoria seems to have spread to a very broad range of stocks. Even those you would think would be negatively affected by the rise in the pound, which will depress the value of dollar earnings, have risen. This may be because US markets have risen on the prospect of a US/China trade deal which was announced on December 13th.  This might roll back some of the imposed and proposed tariffs on Chinese products to the USA, and cause cancellation of retaliatory Chinese tariffs, but the details are yet to be settled. This may not be a long-term solution though as it will likely still leave the USA with a very large trade deficit with China.

One noticeable aspect of the euphoria infecting markets on Friday morning was the inability of some investment platforms to keep up. According to a report on Citywire, two of the largest operators were affected with AJ Bell suffering intermittent problems due to a four-fold rise in volumes and Hargreaves Lansdown also experiencing problems. Some of the issues apparently related to electronic prices not being quoted by market makers which was reported as a problem by Interactive Investor. This meant that trades had to be put through manually via dealers who became overloaded.

It is very disappointing to see that yet again a moderate rise in volumes caused an effective market meltdown. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) should surely be looking into this as it is their responsibility to ensure the markets and operators therein have robust systems in place. If there is a real market crash, as has happened in the past, retail investors could be severely prejudiced if platforms fail or market makers fail to quote prices.

Eurphoria also seems to have become prevalent in the market for VCT shares in the last couple of years with figures from HMRC showing that the number of new VCT investors claiming income tax relief reached a ten-year high in 2017-18, up 24% over the previous year. The amount invested increased by 33% and in 2018-19 the amount invested increased again by 1.6% to £716 million. The pension changes such as the reduction in the lifetime allowance and new pension freedoms are attributed as the causes. High earners have been flocking to VCTs to mitigate their tax bills it appears.

But the investment rules for VCTs have got a lot tougher so whether they will continue to achieve the high returns seen in the past remains to be seen.

The recently published HMRC report on VCT activity is present here: https://tinyurl.com/vuro5p8

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

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Santa Rally and Maven VCT Merger

After a very strong upward run in my overall portfolio valuation over the last three weeks, it’s down by 1% today. Does that mean the traditional “santa rally” is over? I do get the impression that the rally happens earlier every year. Are folks wising up to the phenomenon or perhaps they are simply getting paid their Christmas bonuses earlier?

Certainly the racy technology stocks were particularly bouyant of late, leading me to sell a few shares in some of my holdings (“top slicing” to keep them not too large a proportion of my overall portfolio). But selling one’s winners is a very dangerous game to play.

Or perhaps the market has been depressed by other bad news such as the fact that your life expectancy has just been cut by up to 3 years by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It seems their previous estimates that 34% of newborn boys would reach 100, and 40% of newborn girls would reach that age were wildly optimistic. Or was it some other bad news that caused markets to fall? Both the S&P500 and the FTSE-100 are both down 0.8% at the time of writing so my portfolio is just mirroring national trends it seems. Perhaps the US/China trade battle is hotting up? Sometimes stock markets are just volatile for no great reason other than investors following other investors.

I received notice of a proposed merger between Maven Income & Growth VCT 4 (MAV4) and Maven Income & Growth VCT 6 (MIG6) today. I hold the former but not the latter.

I am usually in favour of VCT mergers as combining them usually means the overhead costs can be reduced as a percentage of the asset value. Administration and management costs are often high in VCTs so combining portfolios can spread the fixed costs over a bigger portfolio and the costs of a merger can be recovered in a few years. The costs of this merger are high at approximately £408,000 but they expect to recover that in 32 months.

MIG6 was previously named Talisman VCT and so far as I recall had a pretty dismal track record. It was effectively bailed out by Maven when they took over management I believe. It’s difficult to see the performance of it since then because it is not a subscriber to the AIC service.

The document received says that “both companies have investments in predominantly the same unlisted private companies (with only 2 exceptions as at the date of this document)….”. But looking at the individual holdings in the two companies in their last annual reports gives me some doubts. They have different year end dates and there is clearly some overlap but they don’t appear to be identical.

I can see why the merger might be in the interests of Maven as the manager, and in the interests of investors in MIG6, but I see little benefit for MAV4 shareholders so I will probably vote against it. But if other investors have any views on this merger, please let me know.

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

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Mello Event, ProVen and ShareSoc Seminars and Lots More News

It’s been a busy last two days for me with several events attended. The first was on Tuesday when I attended the Mello London event in Chiswick. It was clearly a popular event with attendance up on the previous year. I spoke on Business Perspective Investing and my talk was well attended with an interesting discussion on Burford Capital which I used as an example of a company that fails a lot of my check list rules and hence I have never invested in it. But clearly there are still some fans and defenders of its accounting treatment. It’s always good to get some debate at such presentations.

On Wednesday morning I attended a ProVen VCT shareholder event which turned out to be more interesting than I expected. ProVen manages two VCTs (PVN and PGOO), both of which I hold. It was reported that a lot of investment is going into Adtech, Edtech, Fintech, Cybersecurity and Sustainability driven by large private equity funding. Public markets are declining in terms of the number of listed companies. The ProVen VCTs have achieved returns over 5 years similar to other generalist VCTs but returns have been falling of late. This was attributed to the high investment costs (i.e. deal valuations have been rising for early stage companies) in comparison with a few years back. Basically it was suggested that there is too much VC funding available. Some companies seem to be raising funds just to get them to the next funding round rather than to reach profitability. ProVen prefers to invest in companies focused on the latter. Even from my limited experience in looking at some business angel investment propositions recently, the valuations being suggested for very early stage businesses seem way too high.

This does not bode well for future returns in VCTs of course. In addition the problem is compounded by the new VCT rules which are much tougher such as the fact that they need to be 80% invested and only companies that are less than 7 years old qualify – although there are some exceptions for follow-on investment. Asset backed investments and MBOs are no longer permitted. The changes will mean that VCTs are investing in more risky, small and early stage businesses – often technology focused ones. I suspect this will lean to larger portfolios of many smaller holdings, with more follow-on funding of the successful ones. I am getting wary of putting more money into VCTs until we see how all this works out despite the generous tax reliefs but ProVen might be more experienced than others in the new scenario.

There were very interesting presentations from three of their investee companies – Fnatic (esports business), Picasso Labs (video/image campaign analysis) and Festicket (festival ticketing and business support). All very interesting businesses with CEOs who presented well, but as usual rather short of financial information.

There was also a session on the VCT tax rules for investors which are always worth getting a refresher on as they are so complex. One point that was mentioned which may catch some unawares is that normally when you die all capital gains or losses on VCTs are ignored as they are capital gains tax exempt, and any past income tax reliefs are retained (i.e. the five-year rule for retention does not apply). If you pass the VCT holdings onto your spouse they can continue to receive the dividends tax free but only up to £200,000 worth of VCT holdings transferred as they are considered to be new investments in the tax year of receipt. I hope that I have explained that correctly, but VCTs are certainly an area where expert tax advice is quite essential if you have substantial holdings in them.

One of the speakers at this event criticised Woodford for the naming of the Woodford Equity Income Fund in the same way I have done. It was a very unusual profile of holdings for an equity income fund. Stockopedia have recently published a good analysis of the past holdings in the fund. The latest news from the fund liquidator is that investors in the fund are likely to lose 32% of the remaining value, and it could be as high as 42% in the worst scenario. Investors should call for an inquiry into how this debacle was allowed to happen with recommendations to ensure it does not happen again to unsuspecting and unsophisticated investors.

Later on Wednesday I attended a ShareSoc company presentation seminar with four companies presenting which I will cover very briefly:

Caledonia Mining (CMCL) – profitable gold mining operations in Zimbabwe with expansion plans. Gold mining is always a risky business in my experience and political risks particularly re foreign exchange controls in Zimbabwe make an investment only for the brave in my view. Incidentally big mining company BHP (BHP) announced on Tuesday the appointment of a new CEO, Mike Henry. His pay package is disclosed in detail – it’s a base salary of US$1.7 million, a cash and deferred share bonus (CDP) of up to 120% of base and an LTIP of up to 200% of base, i.e. an overall maximum which I calculate to be over $7 million plus pension. It’s this kind of package that horrifies the low paid and causes many to vote for socialist political parties. I find it quite unjustifiable also, but as I now hold shares in BHP I will be able to give the company my views directly on such over-generous bonus schemes.

Ilika (IKA) – a company now focused on developing solid state batteries. Such batteries have better characteristics than the commonly used Lithium-Ion batteries in many products. Ilika are now developing larger capacity batteries but it may be 2025 before they are price competitive. I have seen this company present before. Interesting technology but whether and when they can get to volumes sufficient to generate profits is anybody’s guess.

Fusion Antibodies (FAB) – a developer of antibodies for large pharma companies and diagnostic applications. This is a rapidly growing sector of the biotechnology industry and for medical applications supplying many new diagnostic and treatment options. I already hold Abcam (ABC) and Bioventix (BVXP) and even got treated recently with a monoclonal antibody (Prolia from Amgen) for osteopenia. One injection that lasts for six months which apparently adjusts a critical protein – or in longer terms “an antibody directed against the receptor activator of the nuclear factor–kappa B ligand (RANKL), which is a key mediator of the resorptive phase of bone remodeling. It decreases bone resorption by inhibiting osteoclast activity”. I am sure readers will understand that! Yes a lot of the science in this area does go over my head.

As regards Fusion Antibodies I did not like their historic focus on project related income and I am not clear what their “USP” is.

As I said in my talk on Tuesday, Abcam has been one of my more successful investments returning a compound total return per annum of 31% Per Annum since 2006. It’s those high consistent returns over many years that generates the high total returns and makes them the ten-baggers, and more. But you did not need to understand the science of antibodies to see why it would be a good investment. But I would need a lot longer than the 30 minutes allowed for my presentation on Tuesday to explain the reasons for my original investment in Abcam and other successful companies. I think I could talk for a whole day on Business Perspective Investing.

Abcam actually held their AGM yesterday so I missed it. But an RNS announcement suggests that although all resolutions were passed, there were significant votes against the re-election of Chairman Peter Allen. Exactly how many I have been unable to find out as their investor relations phone number is not being answered so I have sent them an email. The company suggests the vote was because of concerns about Allen’s other board time commitments but they don’t plan to do anything about it. I also voted against him though for not knowing his responsibility to answer questions from shareholders (see previous blog reports).

The last company presenting at the ShareSoc event was Supermarket Income REIT (SUPR). This is a property investment trust that invests in long leases (average 18 years) and generates a dividend yield of 5% with some capital growth. Typically the leases have RPI linked rent reviews which is fine so long as the Government does not redefine what RPI means. They convinced me that the supermarket sector is not quite such bad news as most retail property businesses as there is still some growth in the sector. Although internet ordering and home delivery is becoming more popular, they are mainly being serviced from existing local sites and nobody is making money from such deliveries (£15 cost). The Ocado business model of using a few large automated sites was suggested to be not viable except in big cities. SUPR may merit a bit more research (I don’t currently hold it).

Other news in the last couple of days of interest was:

It was announced that a Chinese firm was buying British Steel which the Government has been propping up since it went into administration. There is a good editorial in the Financial Times today headlined under “the UK needs to decide if British Steel is strategic”. This news may enable the Government to save the embarrassment of killing off the business with the loss of 4,000 direct jobs and many others indirectly. But we have yet to see what “sweeteners” have been offered to the buyer and there may be “state-aid” issues to be faced. This business has been consistently unprofitable and this comment from the BBC was amusing: “Some industry watchers are suggesting that Scunthorpe, and British Steel’s plant in Hayange in France would allow Jingye to import raw steel from China, finish it into higher value products and stick a “Made in UK” or “Made in France” badge on it”. Is this business really strategic? It is suggested that the ability to make railway track for Network Rail is important but is that not a low-tech rather than high-tech product? I am never happy to see strategically challenged business bailed out when other countries are both better placed to provide the products cheaper and are willing to subsidise the companies doing so.

Another example of the too prevalent problem of defective accounts was reported in the FT today – this time in Halfords (HFD) which I will add to an ever longer list of accounts one cannot trust. The FT reported that the company “has adjusted its accounts to remove £11.7 million of inventory costs from its balance sheet” after a review of its half-year figures by new auditor BDO. KPMG were the previous auditor and it is suggested there has been a “misapplication” of accounting rules where operational costs such as warehousing were treated as inventory. In essence another quite basic mistake not picked up by auditors!

That pro-Brexit supporter Tim Martin, CEO of JD Wetherspoon (JDW) has been pontificating on the iniquities of the UK Corporate Governance Code (or “guaranteed eventual destruction” as he renames it) in the company’s latest Trading Statement as the AGM is coming up soon. For example he says “There can be little doubt that the current system has directly led to the failure or chronic underperformance of many businesses, including banks, supermarkets, and pubs” and “It has also led to the creation of long and almost unreadable annual reports, full of jargon, clichés and platitudes – which confuse more than they enlighten”. I agree with him on the latter point but not about the limit on the length of service of non-executive directors which he opposes. I have seen too many non-execs who have “gone native”, fail to challenge the executives and should have been pensioned off earlier (not that non-execs get paid pensions normally of course. But Tim’s diatribe is well worth reading as he does make some good points – see here: https://tinyurl.com/yz3mso9d .

He has also come under attack for allowing pro-Brexit material to be printed on beer mats in his pubs when the shareholders have not authorised political donations. But that seems to me a very minor issue when so many FTSE CEOs were publicly criticising Brexit, i.e. interfering in politics and using groundless scare stories such as supermarkets running out of fresh produce. I do not hold JDW but it should make for an interesting AGM. A report from anyone who attends it would be welcomed.

Another company I mentioned in my talk on Tuesday was Accesso (ACSO). The business was put up for sale, but offers seemed to be insufficient to get board and shareholder support. The latest news issued by the company says there are “refreshed indications of interest” so discussions are continuing. I still hold a few shares but I think I’ll just wait and see what the outcome is. Trading on news is a good idea in general but trading on the vagaries of guesses, rumours or speculative share price movements, and as to what might happen, is not wise in my view.

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

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What Were the Real Returns from VCTs over 24 Years?

I wrote a previous blog article on the merits of Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs) but I thought it worthwhile to actually do some analysis of the capital and dividend returns from some of my historic holdings of such companies. This is not at all easy because most VCTs have been through restructuring or mergers over the years and actually identifying all the dividends received was not easy because I only started using Sharescope after some years which automatically records the dividends and gives the overall returns. But Stockopedia does provide historic dividends for all prior years and all past capital events and dividends were taken into account.

Due to this complexity and effort involved I have only managed to analyse Northern Venture Trust (NVT) which I first purchased in 1995 and British Smaller Companies VCT (BSV) first purchased in 1997. Note that there were later additions of shares in those companies also.

But it is interesting to note that the overall returns, including dividends, on those companies were 3.6% per annum and 2.6% per annum. That’s ignoring the zero tax on the dividend income and the initial income tax relief (and capital gains roll-over relief originally available but no longer). More on this later.

How have these companies performed in capital terms? Both quite badly, managing to both generate a capital loss of 28% and 26% respectively over the years. You can see from these numbers that the capital is effectively turned into dividends and that without the tax reliefs they would not have been good investments, particularly after taking account of inflation over the many years they were held.

However the capital losses are effectively wiped out by the income tax reliefs available. Assuming that was 30% (it was both higher and lower historically), the per annum total return increases to 5.5% for NVT and 3.9% for BSV. Those returns were less than that achieved by investing in the FTSE-100. The compound annual return of the FTSE 100 over the last 25 years was 6.4% with dividends reinvested. Again most of those returns came from dividends rather than capital appreciation.

But the VCT returns (which are mainly obtained via dividends) ignore the fact that the dividends for those are tax free whereas those from the FTSE-100 would be taxed at high rates. Currently that is 32.5% for Higher Rate taxpayers but the rates have varied in the last 25 years so it’s difficult to work out the exact impact. But one can estimate that the benefit of the VCT dividends being tax free probably raises the total return to be similar if not greater than that from investing in the FTSE-100.

Note that I have ignored the capital gains roll-over relief on VCTs that was available on my early investments. It was only a roll-over relief so it can come back and hit you later anyway.

These calculations show how important the tax reliefs on VCTs are to investors. Without the up-front income tax relief and the dividend tax relief, they would not be good investments. That is particularly so bearing in mind the risks of VCT investment – although they have diversified portfolios of smaller companies, some have performed quite badly in the past. The VCTs mentioned happen to be two of the more successful ones. Future Chancellors please note.

VCTs have been very successful at stimulating investment in smaller companies which has contributed to the vibrancy of the UK company in recent years so any withdrawal of reliefs would be very negative.

VCTs are a tricky area for investors in that corporate governance is not always good and management costs are high, particularly due to excessive performance fees. I feel the managers often do better than the investors in such trusts. But VCTs, at least the better ones, do have a place in the portfolios of higher rate taxpayers.

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

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Are VCTs Worth the Risks, and 40-Year Mortgages?

The FT Money supplement on Saturday ran a big article on Venture Capital Trusts which was headlined “Are VCTs worth the risks for higher earners?”. As a long-standing investor in such companies, having first invested in some in 1995 soon after they were launched, it made for interesting reading.

It seems that wealthy investors are flocking to these funds due to the generous tax breaks and now there are few other good alternatives so the amount invested in them reached near record levels in the last tax year. The article suggests that performance can be volatile but that’s not my experience – at least in terms of share prices. I now hold over 15 different VCTs. Some have certainly performed better than others over the years and in the early years of VCTs there were some absolute stinkers as fund managers seemed to lack experience of investing in early stage companies and investors focused primarily on the tax reliefs that were even more generous than now.

But in recent years, a portfolio of VCT shares would likely be less volatile than a portfolio of FTSE shares. This is for two reasons. First the managers of these trusts try to smooth out the dividend returns which are a big component of the returns from these trusts and secondly the valuations of unquoted companies in which they mainly invest are driven by trade prices of companies rather than stock market hysteria. When stock markets plunge on depresssion, or spike upwards on euphoria, as seen recently in the impact of Brexit politics, VCT share prices can remain very stable.

VCTs do have major tax benefits. They offer 30% tax relief on the amount invested and all dividends are tax free. Capital returns are also tax free after 5 years but the chance of much capital growth is low. In reality capital is often turned into dividends as such trusts can pay out the profits on realisations while ignoring the losses. In effect capital invested (at a 30% tax discount in real terms) is recycled into tax-free dividends so investors need to reinvest the income generated regularly into new share offerings. VCTs therefore do regular new share issues to meet that demand and maintain or grow their assets under management.

It’s not difficult for an investor who puts the maximum £200,000 a year into a VCT portfolio to after a few years be generating a tax-free income of over £30,000 a year based on the current dividend yields. Grossed up at 40% for higher-rate taxpayers that’s equivalent to an income of £50,000 per annum. However as the FT article suggests it might be unwise to hold more than 10% of your overall investment portfolio in VCTs.

What have been the real returns from such trusts? The AIC gives figures for most VCTs and they give the overall share price total return from “Generalist” VCTs over the last ten years as 157%. For example a couple of such better trusts I invested in 24 years ago and still hold returned 207% and 201% over the last ten years. But those figures grossly under-estimate the real returns achieved by investors because they ignore the tax reliefs.

There are risks of investing in such trusts the biggest being the chance that any future Government would change the tax reliefs, perhaps even retrospectively affecting current holdings. But VCTs have been very successful in developing a vibrant small company investment scene. Growing small companies is the key to developing employment in the UK economy. The other big risk is that the recent change in VCT rules mean they might be investing in more-risky earlier-stage companies rather than “asset-backed” or “management buy-out” ones. How that pans out remains to be seen and many VCTs have said that dividend returns might be more volatile in future. But what I have seen so far gives me hope that past mistakes will not be repeated.

How do you pick the best VCTs in which to invest? Certainly look at their track record by using the AIC web site. Don’t invest in any newcomers until they have proven their investment experience over more than 5 years, i.e. they have been through more than one investment cycle – there are plenty of established VCTs so why bother with newbies?

Secondly look at their management and overhead costs which can be very high in VCTs. They usually have management performance fees that can be both very generous and impossible to comprehend due to complexity. Particularly avoid those that are based on dividend payouts as dividends can be paid out by VCTs even when there are losses being made on their investments. In other words, managers can be paid a performance fee even though they are reporting overall losses!

Thirdly beware of glowing prospectuses covering past performance written by VCT managers, particularly where the company has been subject to restructuring in the past or a limited time period is selected for the performance figures. Some VCTs seem able to raise more equity even though they have poor performance records simply because of recommendations by IFAs and other promoters. Inexperienced investors in this sector tend to look at the tax reliefs and the “name” on the fund rather than the important factors. Those who bought into the Woodford funds will know the latter syndrome well.

40-Year Mortgages

In the same edition of FT Money there was another interesting article on the growth of 40-year mortgages. Over 50% of mortgage product offerings now offer such terms. As house prices have risen, buyers have apparently looked to reduce their mortgage costs by repaying the capital over a longer period. When mortgage interest rates are so low the focus is more on the capital repayments it seems.

This might make sense if there was any certainty over the future value of property and interest rates over the next 40 years but another article in the FT on Saturday tells you that is a dangerous assumption. People are obviously expecting to repay these long-term mortgages by selling their house and downsizing when they retire. But house prices do not always go up. They can stagnate over very long periods or drop sharply in the short-term. Hence the FT showed how house prices in Dublin fell by nearly 50% from their peak in 2012.

I suggest 40-year mortgages are positively dangerous and should come with a “health” warning. This looks like another “mis-selling” scandal unregulated by the FCA which will come home to roost in the future. When you borrow money, you should pay it off as soon as possible. A house you buy to live in should be considered to be just that – an operating cost not an investment, and cutting your operating costs should always be a priority.

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

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City of London IT, Equals Interims, Paypoint CEO, Downing One VCT and Parliamentary Pandemonium

Having been away on holiday in the North of England last week, this is a catch up on news that impacted my portfolio.

I received the Annual Report for City of London Investment Trust (CTY) which is one of my most boring holdings. This is large cap equity growth/income trust managed for many years by Job Curtis and I have held since 2011 – it seems longer. Total return last year was 2.7% which beat most of the comparable indices. But a look at the overall return (including dividends) on my holdings in Sharescope shows an annual return of 15.0% which is very pleasing. It has reduced its management overheads to a cost of 0.39% (the “on-going” charge).

It is particularly worthy of note that the Chairman, Philip Remnant, says this in the Annual Report: “In February 2019 the AIC published an updated Code of Governance which largely mirrors the provisions of the UK Corporate Governance Code issued by the FRC save that the strict nine year cap on the Chairman’s tenure contained in the FRC’s code has been disapplied by the AIC. I see no reason why the rules which apply to the length of time which the chairman of an investment company can server should be more relaxed than those that apply to other listed companies, and so I will be stepping down as Chairman during 2020”.

I completely agree with Mr Remnant and have raised this point at AGMs of a number of trusts where directors are permitted to hang on for much too long. The AIC should not pretend that investment trusts are exempt from the UK Corporate Governance Code.

Equals (EQLS), formerly called FairFX, issued their interim results on the 26th September. Revenue was up by 21.4% and Adjusted EBITDA up by 78% but EPS was down. The share price fell, although the Chairman bought some shares soon afterwards.

However as reported on at the AGM (see https://tinyurl.com/y5j58dd6 ) there is a large amount of software development work being capitalised at this company and as expected, it went up in the half year. Another £4.8 million to be exact. That is a very large amount of development work and suggests either a very large team or an expensive one. It does raise doubts in my mind, and possibly others, about the accounts.

Paypoint (PAY) reported a “temporary leadership change” on the 26th September. CEO Patrick Headon is taking a leave of absence to receive treatment for a medical condition and he is expected to be absent for 3 months. The share price barely moved during the week but these kinds of reports which give no details can often conceal worse news. I recall the recent events at Wey Education where Executive Chairman David Massie received some open-heart surgery and subsequently died. Shareholders were not informed of this problem until he resigned and this was a significant problem for the company. I suggest there should be some clear rules developed on when medical incapacity needs to be reported to shareholders, and what level of detail is provided so that investors can judge the risks and possible impacts.

Downing One VCT (DDV1) issued a circular concerning the raising of up to £40 million in additional equity. This is justified so as to increase the size of the company to better cover the fixed running costs and to enable the company to make new investments and diversify its portfolio.

It always surprises me how Venture Capital Trusts can often raise more money even when they have a very patchy performance record. According to the AIC, this VCT achieved a NAV total return of 9.4% over the last 5 years. I won’t be increasing my holding in this company therefore by subscribing for it. However, how should I vote on the fund raising? Should I support it on the basis of pulling in more suckers to support the overhead costs? Or oppose it on the basis that giving more cash to the manager will hardly improve performance in the short term and simply give more fees to a poorly performing fund manager?

They are also proposing to introduce a Performance Incentive Fee – 20% of gains subject to a hurdle rate. But performance fees do not improve performance so I always oppose them. I hope other shareholders will do the same.

It was of course difficult to get away from events in Parliament and Brexit issues while on holiday. But I did manage to read a book in the hotel library – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon – just a part of it of course as it’s a multi-volume book. Gibbon was a Member of Parliament in the 1770s but disliked the place which he called “Pandemonium”. Nothing changes it seems.

As regards the decision of the Supreme Court over Prorogation, having read the full Judgement of the Court, I do not find it particularly surprising. People do tend to jump to conclusions about court judgements, often declaring they are biased, when a full reading often shows that the judges are not so perverse as imagined. I fear the advice of the Attorney General on prorogation was defective in that it cannot be purely at the whim of the prime minister to suspend Parliament for a long period of time and without good reason.

It was also unnecessary as Boris Johnson has other options to ensure that Brexit takes place on the 31st October as he wishes. Most investors are surely now of the same view of many of the public that we need to get this matter settled. Delaying resolution by a further extension of the Brexit date or by another referendum would simply cause more uncertainty and difficulty for businesses and for investors. Businesses cannot plan adequately and the value of the pound is dropping while investors are nervous. None of these things are helpful to investment returns.

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

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Edge Performance VCT Sorted

The Edge Performance VCT (EDGH and EDGI) I have long considered to be a basket case of the first order. VCTs are typically owned only by private shareholders but I am always astonished by how those shareholders put up with dire performance and excessive management costs over many years. But in the case of Edge they have finally taken action – namely removed all but one of the directors at the AGM and voted down other resolutions. It was not even apparently necessary to call a poll as the resolutions were defeated on a show of hands vote according to the RNS announcement of the result, but the proxy votes were clearly of the same mind.

The sole remaining director is now apparently considering what to do next. See this report by ShareSoc on the meeting: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/vcts/edge-another-vct-problem-case/

I would suggest the answer is simple: ask for volunteers with relevant experience from the shareholders to serve as directors before deciding on any future plans.

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

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Ventus VCT AGMs – A Disappointing Result, National Grid and Sports Direct

I have mentioned previously the attempt by a shareholder in the Ventus VCTs (VEN and VEN2) to start a revolution, i.e. replace all the directors and appoint new ones. See https://tinyurl.com/y6e5fafo . Nick Curtis was the leader of the revolt but at the AGMs on the 8th August the required resolutions were narrowly defeated with one exception. This was after the boards of these companies paid a proxy advisory service £38,000 to canvas shareholders, which of course shareholders will be paying for as it is a charge on the companies.

There is a report on the meetings by Tim Grattan in the ShareSoc Member’s Area which gives more details. One surprising bit of information that came out was that the performance incentive fee payable to the manager would be paid in perpetuity even if the management agreement is terminated. This is an outrageous arrangement as it would effectively frustrate any change of manager, i.e. it’s a “poison pill” that protects the status quo.

In addition the performance fee calculation is exceedingly complex, and allegedly double counts the dividends because it is based on the sum of total return and dividends. It seems to be yet another incomprehensible performance fee arrangement which I have often see in VCTs.

Comment: I think the existing directors deserve to be removed solely for agreeing to such arrangements. I have repeatedly advocated that performance fees in investment trusts (including Venture Capital Trusts) are of no benefit to shareholders and typically just result in excessive fees being paid to fund managers. There is no justification for them. Fund managers say that they are essential to retain and motivate staff, but I do not know of any VCT where the fund manager has voluntarily given up the role because of inadequate fees being paid even though some of them have had quite dire performance.

The boards of these VCTs are reflecting on the outcome. Let us hope that they decide it is time to step down and appoint some new directors who need to be truly independent of the manager. The candidates for the board put forward by Nick Curtis are a good starting point.

If the board does not respond appropriately, then I think shareholders should pursue the matter further with another requisition for an EGM to change the directors. It can take time to educate all the shareholders in such circumstances so perseverance is essential in such campaigns.

The Financial Times had more lengthy coverage on National Grid (NG.) and its power outage last week, which I covered in a previous blog post. It seems the company is blaming the power failures on the regional distribution operators for cutting the power to the wrong people, e.g. train line operators rather than households. But they suggest otherwise. Meanwhile an article on This is Money suggests that the increased sales of electric vehicles will cause the grid to be overloaded by 2040, even though sales of such vehicles are well behind those in some other countries. They were only 2.5% of sales in the UK in 2018, versus 49% in Norway. Surely what the UK needs is more back-up capacity based on batteries, gas turbines or like the Dinorwig pumped storage power station in North Wales. That can bring large amounts of capacity on-line in seconds and is well worth a visit if you are on holiday in the area.

Other interesting news is the recent events at Sports Direct (SPD). After problems with the last audit and getting the results out, Grant Thornton have announced that they do not wish to continue as auditors. All of the big four audit firms have refused to tender for the audit and other small firms have also declined it seems. Corporate governance concerns at the company seem to be one issue.

A UK listed company does require an audit so what does the company do if there are no volunteers for the role? The FRC is being consulted apparently on how to resolve this problem. Needless to say, these issues are having a negative effect on the company’s share price.

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

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ProVen VCT AGM Report

I commented on the results of ProVen VCT before their AGM on my blog. I said: “Total return to shareholders was 10.3% last year, but the fund manager did even better. Of the overall profits of the company of £18.6 million, they received £7.7 million in management fees (i.e. they received 41% of the profits this year). That includes £5.6 million in performance fees. Studying the management fee (base 2.0%) and the performance fee, I find the latter particularly incomprehensible. I will therefore be attending the AGM on the 3rd July to ask some pointed questions and I would encourage other shareholders to do the same. I am likely to vote against all the directors at this company”.

I did attend the AGM on the 3rd July in London, but so far as I could tell there were only two other ordinary shareholders present. No presentations and it was a hot day in London that might have deterred some from attending. In essence picking a summer day for an AGM and not providing any special reason for them to attend is a good way to put off shareholders from doing so.

But I did meet with the Chairman, Neal Ransome, and two representatives of the fund manager before the AGM commenced to go through the performance fee figures. The performance incentive fees are based on a very complex calculation which is essentially based on the growth in net assets of the fund plus dividends paid out, i.e. on Total Return. The manager gets 20% of any excess over a hurdle rate. The hurdle rate is the higher of a 25% uplift on initial net asset value or the initial net asset value compounded by base rate plus 1% per annum. That is on top of a “base” fee of 2.0% of net assets per annum payable to fund manager Beringea.

If one is going to have a performance incentive fee, that is not an unreasonable system. But I had already told Neal that I considered all performance incentive fees should be scrapped and a simple base fee used instead (as for example Amati AIM VCT use and other VCTs used before performance fees became common). Performance fees do not improve performance because managers have a good incentive to perform to the best of their ability anyway – if they do and the fund grows they get higher fees.

One complication in the calculation of the performance fees is that they are actually calculated separately on each of seven tranches of the funds that have been raised on previous years. There is also an additional PIF performance fee related to two specific investments. In essence, the calculation is so complex that no investor in the shares of this company could ever work it out or check that it is reasonable. I hope the auditors can do so.

The reason for the exceptionally high performance fee last year was explained as being due to the very high dividends paid out, which primarily were driven by the exceptional realisations during the year. Plus some “catch-up” from previous years having passed the hurdles. VCTs cannot generally hold on to cash because the VCT rules require them to reinvest the cash quickly which can be very difficult to do so and shareholders like the tax-free dividends anyway.

Investors have done reasonably well from this VCT (comparing them with generalist VCTs reported by the AIC), but over the last 10 years the average percentage of the year end net asset value represented by overall management and administration fees is 5.5% so the manager has done very well indeed.

The AGM was a fairly trivial event with only I and one other shareholder asking any questions. I voted against the reappointment of Malcolm Moss as I don’t like fund manager representatives on boards of trusts and told the board so – he was not present in person. All the directors should be independent in trusts which he is clearly not.

I asked whether there was any difficulty with the new VCT rules which requires a focus on earlier stage companies. Response was no but there was lots of money in the market so there was lots of competition for new deals and so pricing tends to be high.

I also asked about two of the holdings that suffered large write downs. Due to reduced market multiples on retail and ecommerce companies and underperformance respectively was given as the explanation.

Another shareholders asked about a possible merger of the two ProVen VCTs but it was said there are advantages in keeping them separate – for example it enables shareholders to sell from one trust and immediately reinvest in the other when if they did that in the same trust they would lose tax reliefs.

All resolutions were passed on a show of hands vote, with no significant proxy votes against any of the resolutions except for the remuneration report (4.9% against).

Are shareholders likely to revolt over the high levels of fund management fees at this company? I doubt it, but I think the directors should tackle this issue because the fees are unreasonable. The relatively good performance of the fund manager, which may be partly from chance, tends to end up in the hands of the manager rather than the shareholders. But if the fund underperforms it’s only the shareholders that will suffer.

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

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