Soporific Webinars, Property Market, Portfolio Performance, and It Helps to be Older.

I attended three on-line company meetings yesterday – AGMs and results presentations. I have to admit that I fell asleep watching one of them which shows how soporific many of these events are. It does not help when the presenters read from a script that they have rehearsed beforehand which causes them to drone on. There is much less spontaneity than in a physical meeting.

The other common failure is that they show presentation slides at the same time that are not easily readable. That would be OK if the slides just contained bullet points in large type or graphics that reinforced the points the speaker was making but they frequently contain masses of small font text that are barely readable on a small laptop screen.  If hybrid meetings are going to be the norm in future, then more attention needs to be paid to how to do them well.

One of the presentations was by Equals CEO Ian Strafford-Taylor who had gone to his office in the City on the day. Surprisingly he said he had not managed to get a seat on the tube and there were queues at sandwich shops. So it seems life might actually be returning to City offices.

Perhaps it was coincidence but the share price of Schroder REIT (SREI) rose by 2.6% on the day and has been rising steadily since it bottomed out last July. The trust holds a mixed portfolio of commercial property. This morning the trust gave an update on rent collection which said “The Company has collected 88% of rents due on the 25 March 2021 for the quarter ending June 2021, after allowing for agreed rent deferrals.  This is ahead of the equivalent date in the previous quarter.  The breakdown of collection rates between sectors is 98% for industrial, 96% for office, 83% relating to ancillary uses and 51% relating for retail and leisure.  The Company remains in active dialogue with tenants for all rents due to be paid and expects to recover a significant portion of the outstanding amount”.

Clearly the retail sector is still one in difficulties, but the discount to NAV of SREI shares as reported by the AIC is 26% so I think there is value there if one has the patience to wait some time.

I don’t know how readers portfolios are faring of late but mine seems to be zooming up in valuation – up over 60% since the low point of the start of the pandemic in March 2020 (that’s ignoring dividends received and cash movements). There is clearly a lot of enthusiasm among retail investors for stock market investment. Is the market becoming irrational and over-valued? I would not like to say. But as a dedicated trend follower I have had some difficulty in keeping up (I tend to buy more when share prices are rising and vice versa).

It was interesting to see a report from Interactive Investor (II) who published the chart below of the performance of their clients in the first quarter of the year. Clearly there is a benefit in being old when it comes to stock market investing!

They report “all age categories trailed the FTSE World Index, which was up 4.09%, while the FTSE All Share did even better after a poor 2020, up 5.19%”. They also say though that “the average interactive investor customer portfolio – in median terms – is up 32.09% over the year to end March 2021, ahead of the FTSE All Share”.

They explain these results by saying “The outperformance of the 65 plus age group could be in part due to lower cash weightings in a rising market, and their low exposure (in median average terms) to tech stocks like Apple, Tesla or Amazon, which had a shaky Q1. No tech stocks appeared in the top 10 holdings by value (in median average terms), amongst the over 65s”.

In a quarter in which the FCA warned that some younger investors are taking on board too much risk this does not seem to be an overall trend amongst Interactive Investor customers. They have a high weighting in investment trusts but less in individual technology stocks.

But as Alliance Trust (ATST) reported at their AGM yesterday, I have underperformed global stock market indices because I don’t have big holdings in the mega technology stocks such as Tesla or Apple. They are held by some investment trusts I hold but they tend to be under-weight in them like ATST. I am not unhappy to be under-weight in very large tech stocks which certainly look to be in bubble territory to me.

I hold the stocks mentioned above.

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

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Scottish Investment Trust Review

This article first appeared on the ShareSoc blog.

One of my contacts has asked me to look at the Scottish Investment Trust (SCIN). This is a self-managed global investment trust which seems to have the same problems that Alliance Trust had before they had a revolution. Namely persistent under-performance. As a result, it is trading at a discount of 10.4% to the net asset value despite doing considerable share buy-backs in the last few months, presumably to try and control the discount. But as we saw at Alliance Trust, which was also self-managed prior to the revolution, share buy-backs rarely solve the discount problem if investors have become disillusioned with the company.

The AIC reported performance figures show a share price total return of -9.2% over one year and -3.1% over 3 years. That compares with global sector returns of +52.2% and +108.4% respectively. Only over 5 and 10 years do they match the sector figures. In other words, recent performance is the issue. This performance is surprising bearing in mind that 34% of their portfolio is in North America which should have been a recipe for success last year.  

What’s their investment strategy? Their last interim report spells it out. They have a “High conviction, global contrarian investment approach”. In more detail they say: “We are contrarian investors. We believe markets are driven by cycles of emotion rather than dispassionate calculation. This creates profitable investment opportunities. We take a different view from the crowd. We seek undervalued, unfashionable companies that are ripe for improvement. We are prepared to be patient. We back our judgement and run a portfolio of our best ideas, selected on a global basis. Our portfolio is unlike any benchmark or index and we fully expect to have differentiated performance. Our approach will not always be in fashion but we believe it delivers above-average returns over the longer term, by which we mean at least five years”.

This kind of comment makes me very skeptical. This looks like a “pick the cheap dogs because the fundamentals will eventually pay off” kind of approach. But I never found that worked. The dogs tend to remain dogs. Being a contrarian in the investment world can be very dangerous.  

Terry Smith of Fundsmith has been attacking the concept of chasing “value stocks”, i.e. those that look cheap on fundamentals. I believe he is quite right. The stocks with a high return on capital, good cash generation and sales growth are the ones that are more successful even when a recession hits.

I have not looked at the SCIN investment portfolio in detail but I would certainly question some of their holdings. I would suggest investors need to tackle the board on this, and ask whether their investment managers are really making good investment decisions. Such substantial underperformance over as long as 3 years certainly raises doubts.

This is what the Chairman said in the last Annual Report: “Global markets continued this year to be dominated by a momentum style of investing which seemingly pays scant regard to valuation, and is an anathema to our value-focused style of investing. To have kept pace with global markets this year, our portfolio would have required a proportionately large exposure to a very small number of companies that we believe are greatly overvalued and a lot less exposure to the names which we consider offer the best potential for long-term gains. This influence, unfortunately, has been a hallmark of markets during the five years since we adopted our contrarian approach and has become greater in more recent years. The result is an extreme divergence between the most and least expensive parts of the market. Such extremes have, historically, proved unsustainable and we believe that a new phase for markets is overdue, one that may favour those who, like us, do not follow the crowd.

Notwithstanding our lack of exposure to what we consider irrationally priced momentum driven investments, there were two particularly advantageous decisions made during the year. The first was our Manager’s decision to take pre-emptive action to preserve capital at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis by selling out of some of the companies we believed would be most impacted. The second was a large exposure to gold miners, which participated strongly in the recovery. Unfortunately, the benefits of these decisions were masked in the second half of the year as markets rewarded stocks deemed impervious to the challenges facing the real economy, such as information technology stocks. In contrast we invested in companies we believed would be less impacted by the travails of the real economy, but were considered dull in the feverish monetary environment created by central bank support, which has fueled momentum investing.

Our contrarian approach explicitly aims to take a different view from other managers and invest without regard to index composition in order to avoid the herding around popular investments that is an inherent trait of active management. We therefore expect our portfolio, and its returns, to be unlike any index”.

It would appear that they adopted the new investment style five years ago which might be identified as when under-performance took off. If an investment strategy does not work, how long should you persist with it? Not many years in my experience. It’s too easy to hold the dogs longer than you should.

Shares magazine have this week published a list of 15 global trusts and gave their 5-year share price total return performance. SCIN came bottom with a total return of 43% whereas the best was Scottish Mortgage at 476%. What a difference! Scottish Mortgage might be exceptional because of their big bets on technology companies, including some unlisted companies but Alliance achieved 106% and Witan 79%. Monks achieved 272% which reminds me that I used to hold it years ago but sold due to consistent poor performance – they had the same investment philosophy as SCIN but they changed it in 2015 after a change in individual fund managers and after I sold the shares. They have been on a roll every since. Does that suggest that patience can eventually be rewarded? No it suggests to me that less patience would have been preferable.

One problem with self-managed funds, even if it does enable a low charging structure, is that it can be difficult to fire the fund managers. A multi-manager approach now followed by Alliance and Witan is I suggest a better option.

The directors got an average of 18% against their re-election at the last AGM so clearly there is a strong demand for some change from investors.

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

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The Advantages of Investment Trusts

The AIC has issued a video which spells out some of the advantages of investment trusts over open-ended funds. They spell out that with most investment products you don’t have a say, but with investment trusts you do because you can vote on important decisions about how your company is run and what it invests in. You can also attend the Annual General Meeting (AGM) to meet, and question, the board directors and the investment manager. Investment companies also have independent boards of directors.

You may think that all of this is theoretical and in practice shareholders have little influence. But that is not the case. When push comes to shove, shareholders can change the fund manager and even the board of directors. I have been involved in several campaigns where this actually happened – not just in smaller companies such as in VCTs but at Alliance Trust. The outcome is usually positive even if a revolution does not actually take place.

But attending AGMs is now only available as an on-line seminar using various technologies. I have attended several in the last few weeks of that nature, and they are less than perfect in some regards. Technology is not always reliable and follow up questions often impossible. But they do save a lot of time in attending a physical meeting and they are certainly better than nothing. I look forward to when AGM events can return in a “hybrid” form where you can attend in person or via a webinar.

The AIC video is available from here: https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/videos/your-investment-company-having-your-say

Brexit

I see my local M.P. Sir Bob Neill, is one of the troublemakers over the Internal Market Bill. He gave a longish speech opposing it as it stands in the Commons. But I was not convinced by his arguments. Lord Lilley gave a good exposition of why the Bill was necessary on BBC Newsnight – albeit despite constant interruptions and opposing arguments being put by the interviewer (Emily Maitlis). A typical example of BBC bias of late. Bob Neill is sound in some ways but he has consistently opposed departure from the EU and Brexit legislation. To my mind it’s not a question of “breaking international law” as the unwise Brandon Lewis said in Parliament but ensuring the principles agreed by both sides in the Withdrawal Agreement are adhered to. Of late the EU seems to be threatening not to do so simply so they can get a trade agreement and fisheries agreement that matches their objectives.

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

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FCA Seminar and Property Funds Rule Change

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is consulting on a rule change for open-ended property funds. The problem of such funds holding illiquid investments in direct property are well known. If investors want to sell when property goes out of favour, the funds simply cannot sell their underlying holdings fast enough. It can take months to do so when investors in the funds expect their cash immediately. Or as the FCA puts in, there is a mismatch between the liquidity offered to investors in the funds, and the liquidity of the fund’s holdings.

This problem has resulted in the funds having to be “suspended” or “gated” to stop redemptions, and many still are after the March crash this year.

The FCA’s solution is to require investors to give notice before they can get their cash – potentially up to 180 days. But this would probably mean that investors would not be able to hold such funds in ISAs, unless their rules are changed. Needless to say, investors who currently do so are not going to be best pleased as they would have to sell them.

This is a very simplistic solution to a long-standing problem, and to my mind may not solve the problem as disposing of property can take longer than 180 days if you want to obtain a fair value for it. Permitting illiquid investments of any kind to be held in open-ended funds is simply wrong.

Such funds should be wound up, or converted to investment trusts which is surely not impossible. Meanwhile I won’t personally be responding to this consultation as I am not so daft to hold such funds, only property investment trusts.

See the FCA press release here for details: https://www.fca.org.uk/news/press-releases/fca-consults-new-rules-improve-open-ended-property-fund-structures  and for how to respond to the consultation.

Yesterday the FCA presented at a seminar hosted by ShareSoc and UKSA as a webinar. Mark Seward was the speaker from the FCA but he did not cover the above issue at all (he is responsible for “Enforcement and Market Oversight”).

He did cover the outcome of the Redcentric case where grossly misleading accounts were published. He said the investors had “purchased a lemon”. They did not fine the company, but the company is compensating the shareholders affected and 3 former executives are awaiting trial. He explained the reasons for the FCA’s actions which seemed reasonable to me (I never held the shares though – those more familiar with the case might have a different view). He also mentioned the Burford case and the legal decision re disclosure of trading data and made some uncalled for derogatory remarks about the comments made on it by some ShareSoc members.

He covered the emergency measures introduced by the FCA for the Covid-19 epidemic which he said enabled the UK markets to raise 3 times more capital than any other European market in the first half of the year. But Mark Northway raised the issue of the problems of private investors participating in these fund raisings. I would also have liked to see the issue raised of companies not providing access to AGMs nor any other means for shareholders to talk to the directors while the epidemic rages.  

Another issue discussed was the outright refusal of the FCA to provide any information on the progress of an investigation. This is exceedingly frustrating for investors as it means after a complaint is made, there is no apparent action for many months if not years. When many of the facts are reasonably well known and in the public domain already (as in the Redcentric case, or in other cases such as those of Globo or Patisserie) this can appear quite unreasonable.

Mark Seward suggested that no regulatory body (for example, the Police) discloses anything about their investigations, partly because the evidence might disappear if they did. But this is simply not true. The Police often inform victims of crimes about the progress of a case, sometimes albeit on a confidential basis. Victims and the police are also entitled to follow the “Code of Practice for Victims of Crime” published by the Government which the police have to adhere to (but not the FCA who are specifically excluded for no good reason).

The seminar was not altogether a waste of time, but could have had a much sharper agenda.

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

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Tech Stocks Bubble Bursting? And Is Stockpicking a Waste of Time?

The bubble in technology stocks seems to be bursting. There were a couple of interesting articles published in Shares Magazine and in the Financial Times this week. The first was headlined “Tech Stock Mania”. It suggested investors had been piling into technology stocks in volumes not seen since the dotcom bubble of 1993/2000 which I well remember. That was an age when the market valuations of such companies became totally detached from reality and the fundamentals on which you value companies. The mantra was that growth was everything to capture market share in the brave new computer software and internet world. Is it different now?

Technology stocks have been attractive of late because revenue growth is still there and the avoidance of personal contact has driven the need for more digitization and for new software products. Shopping has moved decisively to the internet and video tools and social media have become more widely used. Zoom’s share price has risen by 260% since the start of 2020 and electric car maker Tesla almost as much making the company the most valuable car producer in the world, even though they produce relatively few cars. There was a general rise in all the big technology shares this year until a sell-off in mid-July. It appeared that the increase in valuations was being driven by momentum as investors bought in response to share price rises, which is a great merry-go-round if you can jump on and off at the right point. Just looking at the vertiginous charts of some of these companies can spook you. It’s not that I am a great follower of charts, but when I see a rise in the share price faster than any growth in sales or profits, then this tells me that the market is getting over-excited.

I am of course a great believer in the merit of technology companies where growth can be achieved but past technology giants did not always grow for ever – IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle are good examples. Management errors in not keeping up with technology and market changes are usually the cause, i.e. they collapse like empires from their own internal weaknesses.

I have to admit to recently selling a few shares in the large investment trusts that invest in technology companies – you can guess which they are. The private investors and institutions who buy the shares in such trusts may have even less real view of what is happening in the real world and hence their share price discounts have shrunk to zero or are even negative.

The mega-cap technology stocks such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook now represent more than a fifth of the US stock market according to an article in the FT. That is surely a dangerous level of concentration. Investors seem to think that such companies are not just defensive because of their near-monopoly control of certain markets, but that they still have growth opportunities. They may be right but there is a limit to how much you should pay for any business when the valuation is founded on future growth. Sometimes the growth disappears as markets become saturated and the valuation then crashes as valuations are a discounted calculation of future earnings.

The big winners from the technology boom have been stock-pickers. But Chris Dillow wrote an article for Investors Chronicle a week ago that was headlined “The Impossibility of Long-Term Stockpicking”. It argued that because few listed stocks survive for many years on the market, you are wasting your time stock-picking. Also only 1.3% of shares accounted for all the rise in global markets between 1990 and 2018 according to academic research. The three companies that accounted for 6% of it were Apple, Microsoft and Amazon which were never sure bets if you look at their history.

Mr Dillow therefore argues that as you have no hope of picking the winners you might as well buy an index tracking fund, and you would have done better to hold cash than invest in small cap stocks on AIM.

The article is well worth reading but I am not convinced. My investment portfolio has done better than the FTSE-Allshare over the last 20 years. It might apply to unsophisticated investors that an index tracker may give a good return with minimal effort but you do have to take into account the management charges. You also need to consider what index to follow – global index tracker of large companies perhaps? If so you will have significant exposure to currency risk and the fact that large companies generally underperform. You still have to make some investment decisions and they won’t be any easier than studying individual companies.

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

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Babcock Price Fall, Segro Placing, TR Property and EKF Diagnostics Virtual AGM

I said in a previous blog post “that I tend to avoid FTSE-100 companies as their share prices are driven by professional analysts’ comments, by geo-political concerns, by general economic trends and by commodity prices. You can buy a FTSE-100 company and soon find it’s going downhill because one influential analyst has decided its prospects are not as they previously thought”.

Indeed that is exactly what happened after I made a recent purchase of Babcock International (BAB). Soon after Shore Capital Markets published a note that said it would be skipping its final dividend. The share price promptly fell by 7% on that day even though they claimed to “retain a buy stance” on the shares.

The last announcement by the company covering the subject of dividends on the 6th April simply said “The Board will consider the final ordinary dividend for this financial year ahead of our full year results announcement [due on the 11th June] taking into account developments over the next two months”. Do Shore Capital have inside information or are they just guessing? Or did they consult the company first? If they were given any relevant steer on this matter, the company should have issued a statement on it. Regardless it’s somewhat annoying even if some moderation of the dividend might make some sense and everyone else is cutting them. I would not be too concerned about the loss of dividend because I never buy shares for dividends alone, but I don’t like to suffer capital losses.

Yesterday property company Segro (SGRO) announced a placing “to take advantage of additional investment opportunities”. There was no open offer but private shareholders could participate via Primary Bid if you were willing to accept the price agreed with institutional holders. The shares issued represented 7% of the existing capital and the placing price turned out to be 820p, a discount of 4.5% to the previous close. I declined to participate, mainly because I have enough of their shares already. One has to ask why they could not have done a proper rights issue as there seemed no great urgency in the matter.

Last night I watched a presentation by Marcus Phayre-Mudge, fund manager for TR Property Investment Trust (TRY), on the internet. This tended to simply confirm my view that this is a well-managed fund which is withstanding the Covid-19 epidemic well. It has avoided many of the property sectors most damaged by the virus. It has a pan-European focus when internet retailing in the rest of Europe is still well behind that in the UK. He said “retailing is in an accelerating structural shift” but he does not “believe the end of the office is nigh”. A very useful and informative presentation via PI World even if he got cut off at the end due to some unknown technical issue. You can see a recording of it here: https://www.piworld.co.uk/

This morning I attended the virtual AGM of EKF Diagnostics (EKF), a medical products manufacturer mainly for diagnostic applications. There were about 12 attendees via a Zoom conference call and it worked quite well. Attendees were asked to register and submit questions in advance, although there was time to ask impromptu questions in the meeting also which were invited at the end.

Voting was done on a poll so the results of that were displayed first. The meeting was chaired by CEO Julian Baines.

I submitted a question about their investment in Renalytix AI (RENX) and its progress, which had been recently listed. I suggested progress was slow but the response was that progress had not been slow at all. However the Covid-19 situation has delayed tests in hospitals in the USA.  Progress on approvals is significant and revenues are expected shortly.

There was a question on the ramp-up of sales in McKesson and the answer was they had slowed significantly. But the company overall was only about 10% down on core products. They had seen business coming back on line in May and June.

Another question related to the Longhorn product which was claimed to be “the world’s safest sample collection product” (very relevant to virus sample collection of course). They are selling millions of these tubes in the USA. There is only one competitor who is allegedly infringing their patents – they are speaking to them “robustly” at present.

There were several other questions and answers of no great significance, but it was certainly a useful meeting and a good example of how any small/medium company could run a virtual AGM very easily. Why do they not do so?

My thanks to EKF for running such an event, which took less than 30 minutes in duration.

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

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Scottish Mortgage Investment Policy and LSE RNS Announcements

The Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (SMT) have issued their Annual Report and AGM Notice. Readers who hold this trust will not need reminding that it has shown a remarkable performance over the last few months. That’s when the stock market has been decimated by the Covid-19 epidemic and the share prices of many other similar trusts and of the companies they hold have fallen sharply.

Last year SMT achieved a total share price return of 12.7% to the end of March and in the current year it achieved a share price increase of 23% to the 12th May. How has it achieved this return? Primarily by holding “hot” stocks like Tesla, Amazon.com, Illumina, Tencent and Alibaba to name the top five holdings. Over a third of the current holdings are unlisted ones. They claim the flexibility to invest in such companies “has been an important driver of returns over the last decade”. I do not dispute that but they are now proposing to change the “investment policy” of the company to raise the maximum amount that can be invested in such companies from 25% to 30%, based on the proportions when invested (that is why they have managed to already exceed that figure).

Is this a good idea? Should investors support it? Bearing in mind the travails of Neil Woodford where the funds he managed had large numbers of unlisted holdings, is it wise one has to ask?

Personally, I do not think it is and will be voting against. I am not suggesting that Baillie Gifford, nor the individual fund managers they employ, will make the same mistakes as Woodford. Just that valuing unlisted companies is a different matter to that of listed companies where there is always a market price. In addition unlisted holding are very illiquid in nature. Disposing of them can be very difficult. Private equity investment trusts often trade at a considerable discount to their net asset values for those reasons, while SMT currently trades at a premium of 2%.

Retaining the existing limit would prevent more unlisted investments being made, unless some of the unlisted holdings are disposed of, but that may be no bad thing given the current market enthusiasm for them.

I also note that Prof. John Kay is retiring from the board after serving since 2008. Much as I admire the wisdom of Prof Kay, I welcome this change. I hate to see directors of trusts serving more than 9 years and ignoring the UK Corporate Governance Code, as they so often do.

LSE RNS Announcements. I use the London Stock Exchanges free service to deliver RNS announcements via email. This morning it suddenly changed to a new format without prior notice. The first such notice I received was not in the best format in several ways. Wasted space in a right-hand margin, and no way to print just the announcement text and not the excess.

The second announcement I received just led me into an incomprehensible dialogue. I have sent them a couple of complaints.

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

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Recent Annual Reports and Trust Discounts

After the news over the weekend, it’s clearly going to be another very bad day on stock markets. One rare riser initially was Ten Entertainment Group (TEG) despite the fact that they announced this morning that all their bowling venues had been closed but they made some positive comments about their cash balances and Government support which might have helped.

As per guidance issued by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) it has delayed publication of its Preliminary Financial Results for two weeks as many other companies will be doing. This seems unfortunate to me as a company could just give only a limited outlook statement in there and issue separate trading statements as the crisis developments. But there is no reason to delay the historic figures for the last year.

The AIM Regulator (the LSE) has also announced that in response to the epidemic it is making the rules around suspension of listings more flexible. It is also permitting Nomads not to do site visits to new clients. See https://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/inside-aim-newsletter/inside-aim-coronavirus.pdf for details.

Clearly all companies affected by the closure of all public entertainment venues such as pubs, bowling alleys and cinemas are going to suffer greatly. Although they might get some financial relief from the Government, a close examination of their balance sheets and debt will be essential. Some might request suspension of their shares until their financial position becomes clearer. Property companies seem to have been badly hit simply because independent valuers are having difficulty valuing commercial properties as the market is frozen. Retailers with physical stores are also closing them, apart from supermarkets who are doing well due to panic buying and the shift from eating out to eating in as restaurants close. But they seem to be having difficulties adapting their supply chains and coping with the new demands for on-line ordering.

With preliminary announcements being delayed, the AGM season might be delayed also. Companies might have difficulty holding physical meetings and venues might become unavailable, particularly in London. We might see companies holding small meetings in their own offices instead as they won’t expect many people to turn up – I certainly won’t be attending as I am one of those people being told to stay at home for 12 weeks. Some larger companies may try and provide a live on-line stream of the meeting such as Alliance Trust (ATST) who just issued their Annual Report which I would certainly encourage them to do, preferably with some way to submit questions.

It is interesting to look at the discounts to NAV of the share price of that trust and other similar large trusts. According to the AIC, their discount was 17.5% at the weekend, and others were Brunner on 17.5%, F&C on 19.3%, Monks on 12.6% and Witan on 15.6%. These are much higher discounts than such trusts have traded on of late. When private investors have lost faith in the stock market, the discounts tend to rise, although some of the discount can be accounted for by the delay in reporting.  There may be some bargains in investment trusts in due course as private investor sentiment tends to lag financial news.

One company that just distributed their Annual Report and which I hold is property company Segro (SGRO). They had a good year last year although the share price is down 28% from its peak in February due to the general malaise in the property sector as open-end funds close to redemptions and run out of cash. I won’t  be attending their AGM but I will certainly be submitting a proxy vote which all shareholders should do anyway. I will be voting against their remuneration report simply because the total pay of executive directors is too high. The remuneration report consists of 27 pages of justification and explanation, which is way too long and is a good example of how both pay and pay reporting has got out of hand of late.

With bonuses, LTIPs and pension benefits, the total pay of the 4 executive directors (“single figure” report) was £20.4 million. They also wish to change the Articles of the company to raise the limit on the total pay of non-executive directors to £1 million so I will be voting against that also. I would encourage shareholders to do the same.

Lastly for a bit of light relief as it looks like we might have a major recession this year, I mentioned the book “Caught Short!” by comedian Eddie Cantor on the 1929 Wall Street crash in a previous blog post. Now Private Eye have repeated one of his comments in October 1929 after John D. Rockefeller (probably the richest person in the world at the time) said “during the past week, my son and I have for some days been purchasing sound common stocks”. This was seen as an attempt to calm the market in a world where a few very wealthy investors could influence financial markets. Eddie Cantor’s response was “Sure, who else has any money left”. I hope readers do not feel the same.

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

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Edinburgh IT Fires Manager and Grant Thornton Fined

The Edinburgh Investment Trust (EDIN) has fired fund manager Invesco. This company is an equity income trust focused primarily on the UK, although it also has an objective to increase the Net Asset Value per share in excess of the growth in the FTSE All-Share Index. But in the last few years it has signally failed to achieve that objective. According to the AIC it has fallen behind the sector average in growth in net asset value per share in all of the last year, the last 3 years and the last five years. In the last year alone the total return was 7.0% versus 15.6% for the sector. In other words, it’s a pretty abysmal record.

The company is appointing Majedie Asset Management as the new manager. This is what the company had to say about the reason for the change: “As detailed in the Interim Results announcement also published today, the Company has experienced another period of weak investment performance. This extends the period of underperformance relative to the Company’s benchmark to over three years and is a major disappointment for the Board as well as our shareholders. The Board understands that all good conviction fund managers experience periods of underperformance and a focus on long-term results requires shareholders sometimes to bear bouts of relative weakness especially during times when the fund manager’s style is out of favour. However, your portfolio has suffered from a number of stock specific issues: that is to say large falls in prices of stocks held in the portfolio, the cause of which is specific to each stock rather than resulting from broad market movements. Collectively these stocks have been a significant contributor to the weak performance of the Company and increasingly has led the Board to question the effectiveness of the investment process”.

These are the top ten holdings in the trust: BP, British American Tobacco, Legal & General, Next, Shell, Tesco, BAE Systems, Roche, British Land and Derwent London.

Comment: Firing an investment manager does not happen very often, but certainly the board of the company seems to have given the manager quite long enough to show that improvement was taking place. Shareholders will question whether they allowed the underperformance to go on way too long.

Grant Thornton has been fined £650,000 by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) after identifying various failures in an audit on an unnamed company in 2016. They refuse to disclose which company was involved.

Grant Thornton has been involved in a number of poor or defective audits, such as at Patisserie Holdings, Vimto, Globo and Salford University. The FRC claims that “We promote transparency and integrity in business” on its web site so why should we not be told the company concerned? It is surely not in the public interest to conceal the name of the company. They clearly still have a “cultural” problem about how they handle investigations.

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

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Technology and Media Leads the Way, and the Renew Party

The Association of Investment Companies (AIC) have just issued an interesting press release. It gives the top performing investment companies and sectors for the year to date under the headline “Technology and Media Leads the Way”.

The Technology and Media Sector was up 34%, compared with an overall average of 14% for all investment companies (excluding VCTs) in share price total return. The top performing company was Blackrock Throgmorton Trust (THRG) which is a UK smaller and mid-cap companies focused trust. It is up 49%. A quick review of how they achieved their stellar performance indicates derivatives although several other smaller company trusts were listed in the top ten.  The Blackrock web site says this: “Derivatives may be used substantially for complex investment strategies. These include the creation of short positions where the Investment Manager artificially sells an investment it does not physically own. Derivatives can also be used to generate exposure to investments greater than the net asset value of the fund / investment trust. Investment Managers refer to this practice as obtaining market leverage or gearing”.

Dan Whitestone, Manager of BlackRock Throgmorton Trust, is quoted in the AIC press release as saying: “As we have long argued, stock and industry specific outcomes can triumph over the volatility created by macro, political and economic events. This certainly held true in 2019, which has been a strong year for the trust in absolute and relative terms, aided by positive contributions from both long and short positions. The management teams of the companies the trust invests in have played a key part in helping deliver value and wealth creation for shareholders, not just this year but over the course of many years.

The premium for genuine secular growth is high, as we remain within an era of low inflation, low interest rates and weaker growth. However, we see many companies with solid business models, that have enormous growth potential, are all too often dismissed by the market as expensive. Conversely, many so-called value shares are under significant pressure from the structural changes wrought by technological disruption, resulting in fundamental changes in distribution, manufacturing and customer behaviour.

Throgmorton aims to identify and own, for the long term, the exciting, fast-growing companies that we believe are truly differentiated and disruptive and taking full advantage of the structural changes reshaping industries. Our belief is that the stock market persistently undervalues these companies, which have strong balance sheets, and have been able to heavily invest ahead of their peers. Combined with solid management teams, dominant market positions, and a compelling product offering, investing in these companies can lead to years of dramatic compound growth, regardless of the wider political or economic environment.”

I can probably agree with most of what he says, but am not sure about the use of derivatives. I’m happier with the three other UK smaller companies trusts in the top ten list who all achieved more than 40% share price total return, one of which I hold. Does the cleverness of Throgmorton result in better long-term performance? It might do so if you look at the 10-year performance figures in the UK smaller companies AIC sector where it is beaten by only one other company – the Rights & Issues Investment Trust (RIII), although they seem to have a more variable performance. I may have a closer look at Throgmorton. This is definitely one where a read of their Annual Report will be essential (all 114 pages of it).

You can read the full AIC press release here: https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/press-releases/top-performing-investment-company-sectors-over-2019

Investing in UK smaller companies rather than the rest of the world probably requires you to have confidence in the UK economy after Brexit. Which brings me onto the subject of politics.

The Renew Party

I was interested to receive a flyer through my door just now for the Renew Party. Bromley & Chislehurst is one of only four constituencies where they are putting up candidates. The Renew Party have an interesting manifesto including political reform.

This is what it says on their web site:  “Our system of politics rewards adversaries, not collaboration. These systems need radical reform to get the best, in candidates and in MPs. Whilst vigorous debate is critical to the evolution of our society, it does not need to become personal, crude and nasty…….. We support electoral reform to make representation in parliament proportional to the number of votes cast for each party. This means the abolition of the first-past-the-post voting system”.

That’s something I would vote for, but unfortunately their General Election platform also supports staying in the EU, which may be arguable, and delivering a “People’s Vote”, i.e. another referendum which is a profoundly daft idea. So they are not going to gain my vote this time.

Neither are the Labour Party who delivered a leaflet that referred to “Tory cuts” to the NHS. It’s simply not true – the real expenditure on the NHS has gone up. Indeed the service from the NHS has improved enormously over the 25 years I have been an active user of it. See https://fullfact.org/health/spending-english-nhs/ for the facts. I sent their candidate a complaint about her grossly misleading leaflet but she did not respond. Regrettably there seems no way to easily get such gross distortions by politicians stopped.

Other candidates are from the Christian People’s Alliance, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party (no Brexit Party runner). It may not be a difficult choice.

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

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