Should I Buy Smithson Investment Trust?

I am a great fan of Terry Smith and his investment approach. As an investor in his Fundsmith Equity Fund, I have seen annual returns of 21.7% according to ShareScope since I first purchased it in 2014. That fund is a global large cap fund. Terry has now launched a small and mid-cap investment trust based on similar investment principles which is called the Smithson Investment Trust. Subscriptions are being invited here: https://www.smithson.co.uk/

The Fundsmith Equity Fund is an open-ended fund whereas Smithson is a closed-end investment trust so may trade at a premium or a discount to net asset value (NAV). Fundsmith already have another investment trust in their stable – the Fundsmith Emerging Equities Trust (FEET) which was launched in 2014 and had a disappointing initial performance, but it has done better of late. It has consistently traded at a premium to NAV and is now at 1.5%. That is not common for investment trusts and rather shows the confidence investors have in Terry Smith and his team.

Smithson will be following the same investment philosophy as the main Fundsmith fund – namely “Buy good companies, “Don’t overpay” and “Do nothing”, i.e. they will not be active traders and will have a low stock turnover.

The “Owner’s Manual” for Smithson is worth reading. The focus will be on companies with an average market cap of £7 billion, so these are not going to be really small companies. The document argues that small and medium size companies have outperformed larger companies which is probably true in recent times. Hence the investment saying “elephants don’t gallop” originally attributed to Jim Slater.

The Owner’s Manual makes some interesting comments about their preference for companies with intangible assets as opposed to physical ones. To quote: “Intangible assets, on the other hand, are much more difficult to replicate. They are typically not ‘bankable’ in the sense of being able to borrow debt against them and so require more equity and long- term illiquid investment to build them, for which rational investors will demand a high return, all of which is good if this is being attempted by your competitors. And the best thing about investing in listed companies with strong intangible assets is that from time to time the stock market values them as if their high returns will decline in the future, just as other companies’ returns are prone to do.”

They are going to be looking for growth companies, but not extremely fast-growing ones which are often over-priced. They will avoid highly leveraged companies but will look for companies that invest in R&D.

Management charges on Smithson will be 0.9% of the value of the funds managed per annum and there will be no performance fees. This is good news. But it’s somewhat unusual in that it will be based on the market cap of the company, not the normal net asset value. The investment trust form was chosen because it enables the manager to invest in smaller companies without being concerned about liquidity – they won’t need to bail out if investors wish to sell their holding in the trust unlike in open-ended funds which require constant buying and selling.

The portfolio managers will be Simon Barnard and Will Morgan under the supervision of Terry Smith as CIO.

As regards dividends, this is what the prospectus says about dividend policy: “The company’s intention is to look for overall return rather than seeking any particular level of dividend. The Company will comply with the investment trust rules regarding distributable income but does not expect significant income from the shares in which it invests. Any dividends and distributions will be at the discretion of the Board”. So clearly the focus is on capital growth rather than dividends which might be quite small.

One of the key questions is will the shares trade at a discount or not? Small cap investment trusts often do and as the prospectus warns: “A liquid market for the Ordinary Shares may fail to develop”. There is no specific discount control mechanism although the company can buy back shares in the market and there is a provision for a continuation vote if there is a persistently wide discount after 4 years. Smaller company investment trusts often trade at significant discounts but this is more a medium-cap than small-cap trust and Terry Smith’s reputation may result in a premium as with FEET.

If you apply for shares in the IPO you can receive either a paper share certificate, have the shares deposited in a nominee account with Link Market Services Trustees or, if you are already a personal crest member have the shares deposited in your account.

Clearly though there is uncertainty about the future likely performance of the company. I said in a recent blog post that you should never buy in an IPO. To repeat what I said in that “there can be some initial enthusiasm for companies after an IPO that can drive the price higher but the hoopla soon fades”. So personally I think I may wait and see. But I suspect there may be some enthusiasm among retail investors for this offer. Terry Smith now has a lot of fans.

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

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AIC Calls for KIDs to be Suspended

The Association of Investment Companies (AIC) have called for KIDs to be suspended. KIDs are those documents devised by the EU that were aimed at giving basic information on investment funds – and that includes investment trusts which the AIC represents.

It was a typical piece of badly implemented EU regulation even if the motive was worthy. But KIDs give a very misleading view of likely returns from investment funds. Whoever designed the performance rating system clearly had little experience of financial markets, and neither did they try it out to see what the results would be in practice. Similarly, if they had bothered to consult the AIC or other bodies representing collective funds, or experienced investors as represented by ShareSoc, they would have realised how misleading the results might be.

It also imposes costs on investment managers and on brokers who have to ensure their clients have read the KID before investing – even if they are already holding the fund/shares or have invested in it previously. This means for on-line brokers we now get a tick box that we have to click on which is simply tedious. I just click on them automatically because if I intend to buy an investment trust there is a great deal of information available elsewhere in the UK and the KID does not add anything of use in my opinion.

I think KIDs should be scrapped rather than just suspended. They serve little useful purpose and just add a costly bureaucratic overhead. This is the kind of nonsense that Brexit supporters are keen to get rid off when we do finally get out of the EU monster. But will we if Mrs May gets her way?

The AIC press release is here if you want more information: https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/press-releases/aic-calls-for-kids-to-be-suspended

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

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Productivity, Sage, Sophos and Investment Trust Discounts

There was an interesting article last week in Investors Chronicle where Bearbull attempted to analyse the variations between company productivity. Productivity, or the lack of it in the UK, is one of the big issues weighing on the minds of politicians of late. Is the productivity of UK companies getting better or worse was one of the questions he attempted to answer.

For investors, productivity is surely one thing we should look at when deciding in which companies to invest. Those businesses that get the most out of the capital they employ (measured by Return on Capital, or ROCE), and also get the most out of their employees, are surely the ones most likely to be successful and generate the profits and dividends we like as investors.

But one needs to combine the two because obviously employees can be traded off against capital. By investing in more automation, employees can be reduced. But there is also the problem that businesses vary in nature. So natural resource companies such as oil producers can have large revenues and profits generated by relatively few staff, while retailers generate equivalent profits from much larger staff numbers.

Bearbull had a stab at producing a combined productivity index for a range of large cap companies, but as the results were still very wide ranging ended up focusing on whether their productivity was increasing or decreasing. Results were still varied.

There is a way to make use of such figures and that is to compare companies in the same business sector. For example software companies employ a lot of staff, but generally little capital apart from their past investment in developed software or in acquisitions. One way I used to look at companies in the software industry when I worked in it was to look at the revenue and profits per employee and I still find those useful measures. They can tell you a lot about the nature of the business.

It’s informative for example to compare two of the larger UK software businesses – Sage (SGE) and Sophos (SOPH). Sage has recently been the subject of a downgrade by analysts at Deutsche Bank and the shares have been heading south for some time as competition from new entrants into the accounting software space seems to be increasing. But at least they are making profits. Sophos is in the hot IT security sector but is still reporting operating losses.

But it’s interesting to look at their sales per employee – that was £124,320 in the case of Sage (13,795 employees) and £116,975 in the case of Sophos (3,187 employees) from the latest Annual Reports that are available. In other words, very similar. Operating profits per employee were £25,154 at Sage while Sophos reported a loss of £8,000 per employee.

The big difference was in average employee costs which were £57,194 at Sage and £95,387 at Sophos. The latter is a very high figure which helps to explain why they are losing money.

Sophos looks to be an example of where the directors and employees are taking most of the profits leaving very little for shareholders – indeed a negative return to them.

Investment Trust Discounts

I mentioned in a previous article the high share price discount to Net Asset

Value at RIT Capital Partners which encouraged me to sell the shares. The discount was actually a premium of 6.8% which I reported although I am advised it had actually been even higher in the recent past.

It is common knowledge with anyone who invests in investment trusts that discounts have narrowed in the last year with popular trusts now often on premiums. The dangers of buying trusts that trade at a high premium was recently evidenced by the fall in the share price of the Independent Investment Trust (IIT). As reported by Citywire recently, the share price unwound by 10.9% in one week after the premium shrank from a peak of 20% in June. It’s now only 6.2% but that’s still too high in my view.

The company performed exceptionally well in 2017 (NAV up 53%) but even so this is surely a case of investors expecting “past performance to be indicative of future performance” when every health warning on stock market investments tells you the contrary. The long-term performance record is good but there is a limit to the price one should pay for anything.

You can track the company’s performance, and the discount it trades at on the Association of Investment Companies (AICs) web site. There are many other relatively high performing investment trusts that still trade at a discount.

Why should investment trusts trade at a discount? Because just looking at the income they produce, if the management and administration charges reduce their income by 1%, when their yield was otherwise 5%, then the share price should be at a discount of 20% because otherwise people can buy the individual holdings of the company directly and increase their income in that proportion. That ignores the relative proportion of dividends paid out of income versus capital growth. Of late we have had lots of capital growth but that is not always the case. If the market starts to go down then share price premiums on investment trusts could well collapse.

A particular problem with investment trusts, and the reason why discounts, or premiums, can sometimes become extreme, is the relatively low volume of share trading even in large trusts, i.e. there is low liquidity. Buyers are often long-term holders with few active traders speculating in the shares. This problem tends to worsen in the summer months when many investors are on holiday so one needs to be wary of trading such shares in that period.

I hold none of the companies mentioned above, for the avoidance of doubt.

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

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