RBS, Shareholder Committees, LTIPs and Weir

It is good news that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) have accepted a requisition for a resolution on a Shareholder Committee at their forthcoming AGM. ShareSoc and UKSA, who jointly promoted this under the leadership of Cliff Weight have issued a press release confirming the resolution has finally been accepted after some legal evasions to try and avoid it.

Shareholder Committees are a way to improve corporate governance at companies and ensure that the views of shareholders (and potentially other stakeholders) are noticed by the directors. It might put a stop to such problems as wildly excessive pay in public companies which non-executive directors have been unable to do – mainly because they are part of the problem.

RBS has an appalling track record of mismanagement and dubious ethics in recent years, from the dominance of Fred Goodwin who pursued a disastrous acquisition and then a right issue (in 2008) that was promoted by a misleading prospectus, to the activities of its Global Restructuring Group (GRG) which is still the subject of regulatory action and law suits, through involvement in the sub-prime lending problems that caused the financial crash to PPI complaints.

A Shareholder Committee might have tackled some of these issues before it was too late. You can read more about the campaign to get one at RBS, and how shareholder committees operate here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/campaign-to-obtain-shareholder-committee-at-rbs/ . I wrote the original note on the subject published there by ShareSoc back in 2011 and I still consider that it would be a step forward in UK corporate governance to have one in all public companies. But there is still strong opposition from boards to the idea mainly apparently on the principle that it might interfere with their decisions. That may be so but only if they are unjustifiable and it would not undermine the “unitary” structure of UK boards.

Shareholders in RBS should make sure they vote for the resolution to appoint one at the AGM, but winning the vote will not be easy. RBS have made it a “Special Resolution” which requires 75% support.

Another aspect of RBS that has concerned investors is the delay in paying out the legal settlement that was agreed over the Rights Issue. This has received a lot of media coverage but the problems faced by the legal firm now handling the settlement, Signature Litigation, should not be underestimated. It appears that they face two problems: 1) confirming the eligible claimants and their shareholdings; and 2) confirming the contracts with “litigation funders” who helped to finance the legal action and their entitlements.

You might think that confirming the shareholders would be easy but it is not. A very substantial number of the claimants will have held shares in nominee accounts (i.e. the shares they subscribed for were not put on their names on the share register of the company). They are quite likely to have subsequently sold the shares due to the collapse in the share price. After 10 years the nominee operator may not be able to confirm their past holding, and if they ever received a contract note or other written confirmation of their holding they may not have printed it out or retained a copy in digital form. Many claimants may have died in the meantime or become senile, or moved house or changed their email address so that would create other problems.

There are two morals to this story: 1) Make sure you always keep accurate records of share transactions, including any contract notes or confirmation of subscriptions; 2) do push for reform of the share registration system so that everyone is on the share register and there is no doubt about who owns what and when the shares were acquired.

As regards the contracts with litigation funders, it is entirely appropriate that Signature Litigation seek to confirm the details of those contracts and that they were appropriate, i.e. that real services or funding was provided and the commission due was fair and reasonable. The fact that these arrangements seem to be difficult to confirm, or at least are taking time, certainly raises some doubts that the campaign and legal action was competently managed all through its duration.

However, as I recently said to a member of the fourth estate, the action group(s) and shareholders involved in this case should be complimented in continuing the fight for ten years against very difficult odds and a ridiculously expensive legal system. I know exactly how difficult these cases are – the Lloyds Bank one is similar and is still in court. To obtain a settlement at all in the RBS case was an achievement, when there was no certainty at all that it would be won.

As regards corporate governance, an interesting item of news today was that from Weir Group Plc (WEIR) who are changing their remuneration scheme to replace LTIPs. That was after losing a “binding” vote on pay two years ago. The new scheme means shares will be awarded (valued at up to 125% of base salary for the CEO per year) with no performance conditions attached, although the board may be able to withhold awards for underperformance. The base salary of the CEO was £650,000 in 2016 while Weir’s share price is still less than it was 5 years ago. The justification for scrapping the LTIPs was that they paid out “all or nothing”, often based on the prices of commodities that directly affect Weir’s profits and share price. They are also changing the annual bonus so that it focuses more on “strategic objectives” rather than “order intake and personal objectives”.

Comment: as readers may be aware, I regularly vote against LTIPs on the basis that I am not convinced they drive good performance and tend to pay out ludicrously large amounts. The new scheme might ensure that directors do hold significant numbers of shares, which is a good thing, but with minimal performance conditions this looks like a simple increase in base salary, in reality a more than doubling for the CEO. Looking at the history of remuneration at Weir this looks like a case of wishing to continue to pay out the same remuneration by changing the remuneration scheme when past targets were not achieved.

They really have not learned much from past mistakes have they? This would be another company where it would be good to have a Shareholder Committee to bring some reality into the minds of the directors.

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

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Conviviality – More Bad News, and IQE

I commented on the profit warning from Conviviality (CVR) on the 9th of March and the dangers of share tipping. Today the news is even worse. They have overlooked a payment of £30 million to HMRC due at the end of the month, so their cash flow forecast is blown asunder. They will breach their banking covenants unless some short-term funding is obtained to fill the hole. Meanwhile the shares have been suspended, and the dividend that was due to be paid on Friday has been cancelled.

I hope my previous comments dissuaded some investors from picking up these “bargain-basement” shares, but not all it seems. One of the punters was Stockopedia commentator Paul Scott. To quote his latest comment on it: “What can I say? It’s total incompetence”. It seems he was persuaded that the situation regarding banking covenants was OK after reading a positive broker note. But it seems likely the broker was relying on what the company told them.

I think there is one thing to remember when investing in companies and that is always to ask the question “do you trust the management”. Any announcements by companies should be always doubted unless the management have built up a track record of delivering on their promises and giving you the unvarnished truth. Regrettably, comments from brokers and other company promoters are never trustworthy in the modern financial world. When folks are being paid to say the right thing, or are financially motivated to do so, then whatever they say is likely to be dubious, or not the whole truth.

I have not commented on events at IQE before (I have never held the shares because it’s a sector I don’t like). But there was an interesting article by the Editor of Techninvest on the subject in the last edition (this is a publication focused on small cap technology companies and always worth reading). He commented negatively on shorting efforts by two companies while they published analyses of IQE’s accounts – effectively saying they were dubious. The company then issued a strong rebuttal and the shares bounced back. The shorters did not it seems consult IQE management before publishing, a pretty basic journalistic principle, particularly if you are going to publish negative allegations. The editor of Techinvest suggests scepticism should be exercised “given the vested interests involved”. I completely agree. One of the dangers of the modern internet is that folks can publish damaging stories with impunity, to their financial advantage. The Government and regulatory authorities surely need to tackle this issue sooner or later.

Whether the claims about the accounts of IQE have any basis in fact I would not like to comment upon. It would only stimulate more debate to no purpose when the real truth may be unknowable at this time. Investors should consider my comment above. Do you trust the management?

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

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Voting Shares via Link Asset Services – It’s Infuriating!

For reasons not worth explaining, I have three Personal Crest accounts for one of the companies in which I hold shares. If I had not opted in for electronic communication, I would therefore have received three identical copies of their Annual Report, three AGM Notices, and three paper proxy voting forms.

So to save the postman some effort, and the company some money, I opted out of paper communications, i.e. opted in to electronic communication, for two of the holdings, just leaving one in paper as I prefer to read annual reports on paper.

The result this year was one complete set of paper documents, and two single page letters for the others giving me the date of the meeting and pointing to a web site where it was claimed I could “log-in” to their share portal and vote. Why they could not include a paper proxy form with those letters, which would have simplified matters, I do not know. I am not registered for the Link (formerly Capita) share portal and don’t wish to do so. I just wished to vote.

The first problem was that when I typed in the company’s name to their portal software, their software could not find it. The company has an apostrophe in its name and I had to type that in to find. So that is stupidity number one.

It then insisted I needed to register – that’s stupidity number 2 when all I wanted to do was vote. Why could they not use the same system as Equiniti who have a much simpler system? I have surely spoken in the past to Capita about this issue and still they have not fixed it.

So I phoned Link and asked them to send me a paper proxy voting form. They refused to do so. The lady I spoke to said I can only vote personal crest holdings via my Crest sponsor. Even after consulting her supervisor, she insisted that was the case. They are simply wrong as I vote my Crest holdings via post all the time, and as I have pointed out they sent me a voting form for the single “paper” holding I have which I have used.

It is very obvious that they know less about voting systems and registration than I but I will be educating the next manager at Link I speak to – there should be a call back tomorrow. If they cannot figure out any other way to solve this problem, I will tell them to convert all three holdings to “paper communication”. That should please my local council who make money from selling the waste paper of residents.

This is a typical example of the obstruction faced by private shareholders when they try to vote their shares. And don’t even talk to me about the abomination that is the nominee system that defeats most people. It is simply not good enough that in the modern age that we have such unintelligent IT systems and customer relations staff who do not seem to know their job.

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

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The Dangers of Share Tipping, Alliance Trust and AIM Regulation

Share tipping is a mug’s game. Both for the tipsters and their readers. More evidence of this was provided yesterday.

Investors Chronicle issued their “Tips of the Week” via email during the day. It included a “BUY” recommendation on Conviviality (CVR). Unfortunately soon after the company issued a trading statement which said the forecast EBITDA for the current year (ending 30th April) will be 20% below market expectations. Conviviality is a wholesaler, distributor and retailer of alcohol and it seems there was a “material error in the financial forecasts” in one part of the business and that margins have “softened”.

The share price dropped by almost 60% during the day and fell another 10% today at the time of writing. This puts the business based on the new forecasts on a prospective p/e of less than 6 and a dividend yield of over 10% (assuming it is held which may be doubtful). Is this a bargain?

Having had a quick look at the financial profile I am not sure it is. Although net debt of £150 million may not be too high in relation to current revenues or profits, their net profit margin is very small and their current ratio is less than 1, although this is not unusual in retailers who tend to pay for goods after they have sold them.

(Postscript: Paul Scott of Stockopedia made some interesting comments on Conviviality including the suggestion that they might be at risk of breaching their banking covenants and hence might have to do another placing. Certainly worth reading his analysis before plunging into the stock. He also commented negatively on the mid-day timings of the announcements from Conviviality and Fulham Share which I agree with, unless there was some compulsive reason to do them – perhaps they were aware of the Investors Chronicle commentary being issued).

Another tip Investors Chronicle gave yesterday was on Fulham Shore (FUL) which they rated a SELL on the grounds that “growth looks unsustainable”. They got that one right. The company issued a trading statement on the day which also said EBITDA would be below market expectations. Their London restaurants are simply serving fewer customers. The share price dropped 17% on the day. This looks to be symptomatic of the problems of restaurant chains – Prezzo are closing a number of outlets which I was not surprised at because from my visits it seemed rather pedestrian food at high prices. Restaurant Group also reported continuing negative like-for-like figures recently, perhaps partly because of price cutting to attract customers back. Restaurants are being hit by higher costs and disappearing customers. Boring food from tired formulas is no longer good enough to make money.

Another announcement yesterday was results from Alliance Trust (AT.). This is a company that I, ShareSoc, some investors in the trust and hedge fund Elliott Advisors spent a lot of effort on to cause a revolution a couple of years ago so it’s good to see the outcome has been beneficial. Total shareholder return was 19.1% which was well ahead of their benchmark. There was a lot of doubt expressed by many commentators on the new multi-manager investment strategy adopted by the board of directors and the involvement of Elliott, who were subsequently bought out, but it has turned out very well.

The only outstanding issue is the continuing problems at Alliance Trust Savings. They report the integration of the Stocktrade business they acquired from Brewin Dolphin has proved “challenging”. Staff have been moved from Edinburgh to Dundee and the CEO has departed. Customer complaints rose and they no doubt lost a lot of former Stocktrade customers such as me when they decided to stop offering personal crest accounts. So Alliance have written down the value of Alliance Trust Savings by another £13 million as an exceptional charge. No stockbrokers are making much money at present due to very low interest rates of cash held. It has never been clear why Alliance Trust Savings is strategic to the business and it’s very unusual for an investment trust to run its own savings/investment platform. Tough decisions still need to be taken on this matter.

AIM Regulation. The London Stock Exchange has published a revised set of rules for AIM market companies – see here: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-rules-for-companies-march-2018-clean.pdf .

It now includes a requirement for AIM companies to declare adherence to a Corporate Governance Code. At present there is no such obligation, although some companies adhere to the QCA Code, or some foreign code, or simply pick and choose from the main market code. I and ShareSoc did push for such a rule, and you can see our comments on the review of the AIM rules and original proposals here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/aim-rules-review/ and here is a summary of the changes published by the LSE: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-notice-50.pdf (there is also a marked up version of the rule book that gives details of the other changes which I have to admit I have not had the time to peruse as yet).

In summary these are positive moves and the AIM market is improving in some regards although it still has a long way to go to weed out all the dubious operators and company directors in this market.

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

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Beaufort, OFGEM and National Grid

As a postscript to my last blog post on the administration of Beaufort, an interesting article was published by the FT this morning. They had clearly had a chat to administrators PWC. The article reports that the 14,000 investors affected will get no more than 85p in the £1 invested and that no money would be returned for at least a month.

PWC said that that Beaufort’s own funds were very limited and therefore clients will have to cover the cost of recouping their own money and assets. It seems it is a “complicated” administration and there are a number of challenges including assessing the accuracy of financial records. In other words, it’s a typical such mess where the administrators will run up enormous bills sorting it out. As I said in the last blog post, “past experience of similar situations does not inspire confidence”.

It will be months if not years before PWC can sort out who owns what and in the meantime the assets will be frozen. But anyone thinking of taking legal action over the alleged fraudulent practices of the company might find it not worth doing because the cupboard is bare, unless they can target individuals and their assets. Meanwhile there have already been 600 complaints to the Financial Ombudsman apparently but investors might find share dealing by “sophisticated” investors is not covered, and neither are they by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

The energy market regulator OFGEM issues a press release this morning. Here is some of what it said: “Ofgem proposes significantly lower range of returns for investors. Tougher approach would deliver savings of over £5 billion to consumers over five years.

Ofgem has today set out proposals for a new regulatory framework from 2021 which is expected to result in lower returns for energy network companies and significant savings for consumers.

This includes a cost of equity range (the amount network companies pay their shareholders) of between 3% and 5%, if we had to set the rates today. This is the lowest rate ever proposed for energy network price controls in Britain. Ofgem also proposes to refine how it sets the cost of debt so that consumers continue to benefit from the fall in interest rates.”

This is very negative news for National Grid (NG.), but surprisingly the share price has risen today. It is possible that analysts and institutional investors were expecting it to be worse, so it’s a “relief” rally. Meanwhile some chatter on twitter from private investors talks about how cheap the shares are on fundamentals. That may be one view, but just look at 2021, when Corbyn and John McDonnell might be in power and to me there look to be very substantial risks. If equity investors are getting less than 5% return, then in any nationalisation the valuation of the equity could be very low even if the Government pays a “fair” price – which no recent Government did on nationalisations. They used totally artificial valuation rules to come out with the figure the politicians wanted. Investors should not trust politicians, but I think we all know that.

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

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FCA Action, Shareholder Rights and Beaufort

Better Finance, the European representative body for retail investors have issued a couple of interesting announcements this morning. The first compliments the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for their action over “closet index trackers”. They are investment funds that pretend to be active managers and charge the higher fees that normally apply to such funds, while in practice they hug their benchmark index. Other European regulators have been less than prompt in taking action on this problem it transpires.

It’s not quite as positive as that though as although a number of UK asset managers have voluntarily agreed to compensate investors in such funds at a cost of £34 million, and enforcement action may be taken against others for misleading marketing material, this appears to be a voluntary scheme rather than a formal compensation arrangement.

Which are the funds complained about? I could not find any published list. But back in 2015, the Daily Telegraph reported the following as being the worse ones: Halifax UK Growth, Scottish Widows UK Growth, Santander UK Equity, Halifax UK Equity Income and Scottish Widows UK Equity Income – all bank controlled business you will note.

The second report from Better Finance was on the publication of the final draft of the EU Shareholder Rights Directive. This was intended to improve the rights of individual shareholders but is in reality grossly defective in that respect. Even if implemented into UK law, it will not improve the rights for UK investors. Indeed it might worsen them. For example Better Finance said this: “Important barriers to cross-border shareholder engagement within the EU virtually remain in place, since intermediaries will by and large still be able to charge higher fees to shareholders wanting to exercise their cross-border voting rights (admittedly subject to certain conditions) and beneficial owners of shares in nominee and omnibus accounts will still not have any voting rights (with the exception of very large shareholders), to name but two of the remaining issues.”

Let us hope that the UK Government and the FCA take more positive steps to improve the rights of UK investors which have been undermined by the use of nominee accounts and other market practices adopted in recent years.

Another recent news item from the FCA was about the forced administration of Beaufort Securities and Beaufort Asset Clearing Services. Beaufort specialised in promoting small cap companies such as those listing or listed on AIM to private investors. But the US Department of Justice investigated dubious activities in relation to US shares and has charged the firm and some individuals involved with securities fraud and money laundering. These allegations appear to be about typical “pump and dump” schemes where share prices are ramped up by active trading of the shares by the promoters of companies, such that the prices of the shares sold to investors bear little relation to fundamental value, and then the insiders sell their shares leaving private investors holding shares which the market rapidly revalues downwards. On twitter one person published charts showing the share prices of companies that Beaufort promoted to investors and it does indeed look convincing evidence of abusive practices.

These kinds of share promotions by “boiler rooms” staffed by persuasive salesmen were very common a few years back and they seem to be coming back into favour as there are a number of other companies promoting small cap or unlisted stocks to investors. Regulations might have been toughened, and such companies are more careful to ensure investors are apparently “sophisticated” or can stand the possible risks and losses, but the FCA still seems slow to tackle unethical practices. Should it really have taken US regulatory authorities to take down this company? The FCA has been aware of the market abuse in the share trading of AIM shares for some time but no action has been taken. It’s just another example of how small cap shares, and particularly the AIM market, attracts individuals of dubious ethics like bees to a honeypot.

If you have invested via Beaufort in stocks, are your holdings likely to be secure? As they may be held in a nominee account it rather depends on the quality of the record keeping by Beaufort. Past experience of similar situations does not inspire confidence. It can take years for an administrator to sort out who owns what and in the meantime the assets are frozen. The administrators are PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC).

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

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Running Out of Gas, and InvestorEase to Close

Media reports suggest that National Grid is running out of gas, and having to pay industrial users to stop consuming it. This is due to the exceptionally cold weather spell. But National Grid has also been running out of shareholders because of fears over possible nationalisation. The share price is down by 33% on its peak in 2016. As I have probably said before, the threat of nationalisation has undoubtedly spooked international investors who now dominate the holdings of UK public companies.

It seems Macquarie analysts have suggested that investors should encourage utility companies to move their domicile to another country. Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has said “Transferring asset holdings overseas in pursuit of higher compensation shows total contempt for the British Public”, but I think she complains too much. Surely moving the registration of a holding company would not be effective? The Government could just take control of the assets and bearing in mind principles set by other recent laws and legal judgements, just pay what they wanted. It would all be justified as being “in the national interest” even under EU law if that still applied.

One would have to pick the domicile carefully to gain much benefit. For example, National Grid has substantial assets in the USA so they could possibly keep those out of reach by demerging the relevant part of their business. But that only provides limited protection to current investors.

I have not personally held National Grid for some time because of the political risk and am not invested in other utility companies either. If those companies wish to avoid the risks of a Labour Government and their current policies, they might find it wise to look at other ways of thwarting damage to their shareholders interests.


InvestorEase is a share portfolio management software product which I have used for the last 20 years. The current owner (Financial Express) has announced they are closing the service at the end of May on the basis that it is no longer economic to continue with it.

This is disappointing as although I also use ShareScope, there are some features in InvestorEase that are not easily replicated in the former. InvestorEase is also quicker and easier to use than ShareScope which has so many options that configuration is complex (SharePad from the same company is not a viable alternative either from my knowledge of it). But it’s hardly surprising that FE decided to close InvestorEase as the developer who maintains the software has clearly been having difficulty and losing interest of late.

I also have a portfolio in Stockopedia, but again I am not sure that will give a good solution. I need a product/service that enables maintenance of multiple portfolios with large numbers of holdings and transactions, plus a consolidated view on demand. The other reason I am running more than one such product is because I like to have a back-up in emergencies and by duplicating entries in the two products I can spot any obvious errors easily.

So any suggestions for good alternative solutions for the private but semi-professional investor would be welcomed.

Or perhaps anyone who might have an interest in taking on the product, which has suffered from total lack of marketing in recent years, should contact Financial Express.

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

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