Learning Technologies AGM and Brexit

I went to the Learning Technologies (LTG) Annual General Meeting yesterday, only to find my son Alex was there also (we both hold the shares). So we did a joint report which can be found on the ShareSoc Members Network. What follows are a few particularly interesting points from it.

LTG was a workplace digital learning solutions provider up to the beginning of last month when it announced it was to buy PeopleFluent – a cloud based talent management platform. Chief executive Jonathan Satchell described the deal as “transformative” for LTG’s US presence and that is surely the case. He also noted that “learning and talent are closely aligned” with cross-selling opportunities adding possibilities for further growth.

When the formal business was considered the first resolution was to accept the annual accounts and directors report. This had a surprise vote of 56 million proxies against (12%). I asked why the large vote against a resolution that normally gets a high percentage “yes” vote. Chief exec Jonathan Satchell replied that ISS (a proxy advisory firm) had recommended shareholders vote against the resolution on the grounds that there was insufficient disclosure in the Directors remuneration report, and shareholders had not been given a chance to vote on directors’ remuneration. Jon felt the complaint by ISS was overblown, but that LTG had discussed the issue with ISS and will look to improve disclosure next year. Jon noted it was not necessary to hold a vote on remuneration although I pointed out it was preferable to do so and many AIM companies did have remuneration votes. ISS had also noted that the Chairman Andrew Brode was on the remuneration committee, which they didn’t like. Jon did say that Andrew would be more than willing to give this role up and so in the coming year Jon said to expect a change on this committee.

A shareholder asked if the £13.3m Civil Service contract was a one off. Jon replied that there is scope for a one year extension to the contract but at the moment the accounts are based on the contract ending with no extension.

I asked about the PeopleFluent acquisition and questioned the use of a “cash box” transaction as this ignores shareholder votes in prior resolutions. A cash box placing allows a company to issue new shares by bypassing pre-emption requirements – meaning without shareholder approval. It works by a company forming a new subsidiary into which it puts cash via a placing and then buys that shell, paying with shares priced at whatever level it deems suitable. In effect it sidesteps the legal requirements of Company Law, and the resolutions previously passed by shareholders re share issuance.

Jon replied that LTG was up against US private equity and it was felt this was the best way to get the right amount of funds needed in a timely fashion to give the highest quality offer LTG could make. Comment: with the Chairman and CEO holding over 45% of the shares any vote would have surely gone through so it may not be so prejudicial to shareholders interests. But it sets a bad legal precedent as I think such transactions should be made illegal. Apparently Numis, their Nomad/Broker, suggested they do this. Otherwise it was a placing with no open offer which prejudices private shareholders although the discount to the previous share price was minor.]

Jon talked about the recent Pluralsight IPO, a similar US business. The company lost $90m on $160m revenue. Valuation $2Billion. Comment: this is obviously a “hot” sector for investors.

Summary: The enthusiasm of the CEO for the future prospects of the business were very evident and this seems to have been communicated to shareholders in recent weeks. The share price has been motoring upwards so it’s now on a prospective p/e of 44 according to Stockopedia. Certainly the high recurring revenue feature of the PeopleFluent business is positive as I always like companies with high recurring revenues and I said that in the meeting. However there are significant risks in such a major acquisition of a US business where there may be cultural and management style differences. The business also seems to have some difficulties and they have already be making some management changes.

In addition to that the large civil service contract in the UK will probably not be extended – or at most by a year – so historic revenue may not be representative of future revenue, and in addition the change to adopt IFRS 15 (see page 12 of the Annual Report) will impact 2018 financial figures. The corporate governance and the way the placing was done are also negatives. In summary there are a number of negative aspects in this business and potential high risks from the acquisitions that have been made (not just the latest one). The enthusiasm of investors for this business might be ignoring the substantial risks now associated with it so investors should keep a close eye on the progress of the acquisitions and their associated restructuring.

But as always, I learned a lot about this business and the individuals involved from attending the AGM. There were less than a dozen ordinary shareholders at the meeting which is disappointing given the opportunity it provides to quiz the management.

Brexit: I have not said much on the hot topic of Brexit of late although it’s no secret that I am generally in favour of it. The regulations that have come out of Europe such as MIFID II, the Shareholder Rights Directive and GDPR might have had good intentions behind them but in practice the detail regulations that result have been horribly complex and bureaucratic. The result has been very high costs imposed on many businesses and often with ineffective results. The key problem has been bureaucrats in Brussels with little knowledge of the real world and the business environment in the UK designing regulations without adequate consultation (or ignoring feedback submitted) and producing gobbledygook which few people understand. GDPR had positive objectives but the law of unintended consequences has resulted in people receiving hundreds of pointless emails.

The latest example of ridiculous claims of the cost of Brexit was the statement by Jon Thompson the head of HMRC that the “maximum facilitation” (Max Fac) option could cost UK businesses as much as £20 billion per year. This is apparently based on the cost of filling out customs declarations (200 million per annum at a cost of £32.50 each, plus other form filling according to the FT). This seems to assume that forms are filled out manually when in reality that can be done by computer software surely. Business might also look to reduce the costs by bulking up orders, or simply choosing not to export or import, i.e. to do business in different ways or with different people.

Whether Max Fac is a sensible option it’s difficult to say without a lot more evidence but staying in the Customs Union simply to avoid a hard border in Ireland does not seem to make sense because it means our trading policies and practices will be dictated by the EU. That’s not what people voted for in Brexit. People voted for political and governmental independence. Many people accept there may be some extra cost involved as a result but scare stories about the costs are not helpful.

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

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More Regulation of Social Media?

In a couple of previous blog posts I have commented on the problems of social media and internet blogging sites, particularly with regard to how they affect the financial world, and what might be done about it. I suggested the Government hold a public inquiry into the whole area, but it seems they are not waiting. Such inquiries can take years so perhaps that is a good thing.

Yesterday the Sunday Times reported that the Government’s Media and Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, was intending to introduce laws to control on-line bullying and harassment. He is quoted as saying: “The overall goal it to make Britain the safest place to be online as well as the best place to start and grow a digital business. We are committing to legislate on internet safety, potentially including a statutory code of conduct to make sure that we tackle bullying and harassment, which is a problem across social media but particularly for children. It will also include transparency reports so we know what bad behaviour is happening on social media and looking at the advertising that happens online”.

He is apparently suggesting that the technology platforms that support social media would be responsible for the content which is a major step forward and that penalties for ignoring the law would be severe. His major concern seems to be focused on children (he has some young ones of his own), but obviously such legislation could have a very wide scope.

The Government is rightly recognizing the seriousness of the problem so this is surely a positive move.

There are more details given here in a press release: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-laws-to-make-social-media-safer

This section in the document published in response to a green paper makes it clear that it will not just cover individuals such as children but business activity also:

“The code is intended to make it easier for people to report bullying content by providing guidance to social media providers as to policies they should have in place for removing this content. The Digital Economy Act 2017 section 103 sets out that the code of practice should only cover conduct which is directed towards an individual. However, we have set out additional guidance, not required under section 103, stating that the code of practice should also apply to conduct directed at groups and businesses, as users can be upset by content even if it’s not directed towards them individually.  

Examples of online bullying that will be addressed by the code include, but are not limited to:

  • Threats of harm made to individual(s);
  • Threats to share images (‘outing’);
  • Impersonation;
  • Posting personal information including information that can locate an individual(s);
  • Posting text or images to bully, insult, intimidate or humiliate an individual(s);
  • Posting an image of the individual(s) used without consent;
  • Posting false information about someone;
  • Nasty or upsetting comments;
  • Sending repeated unwanted messages to an individual(s);
  • Trolling – deliberately offensive or provocative online posts;
  • Flaming – brief, heated exchange between two or more people;
  • Dog-piling

It is clear therefore that this will be quite broad-based legislation that might well inhibit some of the commentary published in the financial sector.

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

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Elecosoft AGM, British Land, Apple, Social Media and GDPR

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Elecosoft (ELCO) as a shareholder. Elecosoft produce software products for the building/construction industry. It’s a fairly new purchase of mine so I thought I would go along and get an impression of the company and its management.

The meeting was held in the City of London at the convenient time of 12.00 noon and there were about 20 shareholders present. That’s more than I expected given the size of the business (market cap only £56 million). The share price has been rising recently after the company now seems to be growing rapidly after a period of relative stagnation. But like many software companies they capitalize a lot of software development which will not please some investors. They do have substantial recurring revenue from maintenance contracts which is an aspect of software businesses I always like. The company issued a positive trading update on the morning of the AGM.

The Executive Chairman, John Ketteley, is a former merchant banker apparently. He commenced by welcoming attendees to the 78th Annual General Meeting of the company (did I hear that right?), and that he found that easy to remember as he was also 78 years old. Yes this is a somewhat unusual leader for a software business.

The Chairman then launched straight into the formal business of the meeting without inviting questions – not a good sign – so I had to interrupt him. Questions should be taken first.

I asked why the company was requiring shareholders to “opt-in” specifically to receive a cash dividend rather than a scrip dividend. I have never seen this before in any company. The answer given was because those in nominee accounts had difficulty in taking up scrip dividends instead of receiving cash. But I had to tell him that as some of my holding was in a SIPP I had queried how they were going to handle this option and was advised that they took up the cash option for all investors in such cases, which rather defeats what the Chairman was trying to achieve. Some shareholders, like me, tend to prefer cash dividends as otherwise it can get complicated keeping track of one’s holdings. Only those with large direct holdings (not in tax free ISAs or SIPPs) are likely to want to take a scrip dividend.

There were a few questions from other shareholders. Might the company consider moving to the main market from AIM (or moving back as it turned out)? The Chairman saw no benefit in doing so and two shareholders say they would be definitely opposed. There are good tax and other benefits for shareholders from being on AIM. Another question was on moving to SAAS platforms – it seems some of their software is still PC based, but new development is moving to the web.

I would not say the Chairman handled the meeting particularly well despite his experience. Perhaps his age is showing. I did speak to him directly after the meeting and asked about the high number of management changes in the last year and whether he was considering retiring. He indicated that he needed to rebuild the team and that he was now very confident he had a good team in place. But succession planning does not seem to be a priority.

But it was a useful and interesting AGM, as many are. They often turn out to be more interesting than expected. There was also a goody bag of useful kit – a baseball cap (something us baldies can always use as I said to the Chairman), a UBS Memory Stick and a Notebook.

Let’s now consider two companies at the other extreme in terms of size. Firstly British Land (BLND) – a property company with a market cap of about £7 billion. This company has a large portfolio of City offices and retail stores. I first invested in this company in December 2015 when I bought a few shares at 795p on the basis that the falling prices of property companies due to fears over Brexit were overdone. The share price is now 695p so not exactly a great initial purchase!

But the share price has been recovering and in fact taking into account dividends received I am now at breakeven after some more purchases when it became even cheaper. But it has certainly been a poor investment in comparison with other property companies I hold (e.g. big warehouse providers). Any company with an interest in the retail sector has suffered and British Land has been selling such properties. That has reduced their income and impacted profits.

But I do like to have some more defensive large cap stocks in my portfolio to offset the more speculative small cap stocks such as Elecosoft (I run a “barbell” portfolio in essence). When I first purchased British Land it offered a yield of 3.6% and was at a discount to net asset value of 10%. The prospective yield is now 4.4% and the discount is over 25% even after recent share price rises, which is unusual for a property company.

British Land seemed to adopt a defensive stance although City centre office values have not been declining as expected. The company has been reducing debt with LTV (loan to value) now down at 28% based on the full year results published yesterday. Perhaps the lesson here was not to buy shares that start to look cheap unless they become really, really cheap. But non-executive director Preben Prebensen just spent £140,000 on buying shares so perhaps the future is looking brighter.

Apple Inc (AAPL) is the largest company in the world with a market cap of $919 billion. That’s still ahead of Amazon. I don’t hold Apple directly although some indirectly in the investment trusts I hold. Some people have questioned whether Apple can continue to grow and maintain its profit margins when a lot of the revenue comes from iPhone sales. Surely the mobile phone market is now quite mature with everyone having one (indeed some of us have two) and new models not providing much in terms of new features?

I can possibly provide some light on this having just upgraded from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone 8. They look and weigh the same. I only changed because of contract expiry and a concern that the battery was wearing out, but in fact I think the poor battery life was down to using a smartwatch which connects via bluetooth. The new phone has very similar battery life. Perhaps the camera is a wee bit better, but then I don’t use it a great deal. So in essence, I think I have wasted my money in upgrading. This surely brings into question how long Apple can continue to grow unless some of their other products take off. Their smartwatch has not been as successful as might have been expected – smartwatches still seem to be a minority interest.

Finally let me say some more on the issue of the abuses in social media which I covered in a previous blog post. Just to clarify one point, when I suggested a Government inquiry into social media, I was not necessarily advocating more legislation. I think laws can be very ineffective in mandating or enforcing social norms. For example, one existing problem is that libel laws are pretty useless to most people – only the wealthy can afford to pursue libel cases and even if they do, enormous costs end up being paid to lawyers while the resulting remedy may be ineffective. Making them criminal offences would be no more likely to be effective partly because the police have no resources to enforce most existing laws.

I think there needs to be an inquiry into the causes of the breakdown in social norms about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. The fact that folks can post garbage anonymously is one issue to look into. Is education a solution perhaps? Or perhaps another solution might be to enable “trusted” reviews to be invoked – for example Wikipedia seems to be good at ensuring reasonably accurate and responsible public information and commentary even though in essence there is complete freedom for anyone to post there. Moderation of posted material is obviously advantageous which some platforms do not do, or do in a very limited way. Simply the publication of a “standard” or set of norms for public forums (as Wikipedia also has of course) might assist. A combination of approaches might be the solution, and perhaps more research into the causes is required. Those are the issues that a public inquiry might look into and provide some recommendations upon.

At present there is a focus on making the national press more responsible (the Leveson inquiry and its recommendations) while ignoring the new world of social media, blogging sites and other forums. They need to be embraced also as there is no longer a firm dividing line between media. Perhaps a social media regulator is required to take responsibility for and provide guidance in this area, as the Information Commissioner does for Data Protection? But with a lighter touch than we are getting with the GDPR rules which seem to be another example of excessive regulation from the EU which is unexpectedly imposing major costs on even the smallest organisations. I am not convinced the new rules will stop the spam that we all receive.

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

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Shareholder Democracy, RBS, Rightmove AGM and Stockopedia

There is a very good article by City Slicker in this weeks’ edition of Private Eye (No.1469) on the subject of “Apathy in the City”. The article comments on the “disengaged” share owners in Persimmon who failed to vote against the remuneration report, or simply abstained. See my previous blog post on that subject here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/04/25/persimmon-remuneration-institutions-duck-responsibility/

The article highlights the issue that the many private shareholders in the company probably also did not vote (they could have swung the result), because they have effectively been disenfranchised by the nominee system that is now dominant. The writer says “This democratic deficit has been richly rewarding for companies, share registrars and those representing retail investors”, and the result “has been a real diminution in shareholder democracy”. A few more articles of that ilk may sooner or later impress on politicians and the Government that substantial reform is necessary.

The article also points out how the EU Shareholder Rights Directive, one of the few good things to come out of the EU bureaucracy in my opinion, is being misinterpreted by the UK Government to suggest beneficial owners are not shareholders.

To get the message across I have written to my M.P. on the subject of Beaufort and the substantial financial losses that thousands of investors will suffer there as a result of the use of nominee accounts compounded by the current insolvency rules. If anyone would like a copy of my letter to crib and send to their own M.P., just let me know.

In the meantime the AGM at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is due on the 30th May. The RBS board has opposed the resolution put forward by ShareSoc and UKSA to establish a “shareholder committee”. That would be a step forward in corporate governance in my view and shareholders would be wise to vote in favour of that resolution (no.27). I do hold a few shares in the company but will be unable to attend the AGM in Edinburgh so if anyone would like a proxy appointment from me so that you can attend and voice your own views on the subject, please let me know. You would at least have the pleasure of seeing the buildings created in Gogarburn by empire builder Fred Goodwin for RBS.

The RBS Annual Report is a 420 page document which must make it one of the heaviest UK Plc Annual Reports. The motto on the cover is quite amusing. It reads “Simple, safe and customer focussed” – perhaps it means they intend to get back to that because RBS was none of these things during the financial crisis that almost bankrupted the business.

One aspect that City Slicker criticizes in the aforementioned article is the low “turn-out” of voters at AGMs, i.e. the low percentage of shareholder votes cast even including “votes withheld”. A third were not voted at Persimmon. That is not untypical at AGMs in my experience although institutional voting has improved in recent years. It’s often the private investors now who don’t vote due to the difficulty, or downright impossibility of voting shares held in nominee accounts.

But there was no such problem at Rightmove Plc on the 4th May. About 85% of votes were cast. As a holder I could not attend in person, but Alex Lawson has written a report which is on the ShareSoc Members Network. One surprising result though was that long-standing Chairman Scott Forbes got 39% of votes against his re-election and Remuneration Committee Chairman Peter Williams got 37% against. I voted against the latter, against the Remuneration Report and did not support the re-election of Scott Forbes either. With 12 plus years of service, it is surely time to look to board succession planning and a new Chairman. The board is to look into why they got so many votes against the two resolutions which is certainly unusual.

To conclude I see that blogger/journalist Tom Winnifrith is having yet another go at mild-mannered Ed Croft of Stockopedia after a spat at the UK Investor Show over a trivial matter. Since then Tom has been attacking Ed over “recommendations” given by Stockopedia in his usual rottweiler manner. As a user of Stockopedia and other stock screening services, I don’t expect absolutely all the positively rated stocks to be great investments. I know that some will be dogs because either the accounts are fraudulent, the management incompetent or unexpected and damaging events will appear out of the blue. So for example, Globo’s accounts fooled many people including me until late in the day so any system that relied just on analysis of the financial numbers would be likely to mislead. But stock screens rely on the laws of averages. The fact that there will be one or two rotten apples in the barrel does not mean that stock screens cannot be a useful tool to quickly scan and dispose of a lot of “also-rans” in the investment world. They can quickly highlight the stocks that are worthy of more analysis, or prompt dismissal.

Winnifrith seems unable to differentiate between meritorious causes that deserve the full power of his literary talents and those where his imitation of a sufferer from Tourette’s syndrome where he heaps abuse on innocent victims goes beyond the bounds of reason. Stockopedia provides a useful service to investors. Let us hope that the saying there is “no such thing as bad publicity” applies in this case.

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

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They Do Things Differently in the USA

Former Autonomy CFO Sushovan Hussain has been found guilty of 16 counts of fraud in a Federal Court in California. He was convicted on all 16 counts of wire and securities fraud. This case was based on allegations of false accounting to ramp up the value of the Autonomy business prior to its acquisition by Hewlett-Packard. The latter subsequently wrote down most of the $10.3 billion cost of that acquisition.

More background on this case is given in a previous blog post here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/02/26/autonomy-legal-case-and-revenue-recognition/

Although Autonomy was a UK public company, and the Serious Fraud Office did look at the case they decided to do nothing. However a civil action against Mr Hussain and the former Autonomy CEO, Mike Lynch (who was not indicted in the US case), is still being pursued in the English courts. This decision will clearly strengthen that action.

The US prosecutor suggested in court that the accounts were a façade and eventually proved to be an “unsustainable Ponzi scheme”. Mr Hussain is apparently likely to appeal the verdict, but he faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years – sentencing will take place on Friday.

How different to the UK where prosecutions for fraud based on false accounting almost never take place. Questions were raised about the accounts of Autonomy by investors and a whistle blower also raised issues before the sale to H/P but the UK authorities did nothing. The FRC did announce an investigation into the accounts of Autonomy in 2013. It is still listed as a “current” case on their web site, i.e. no report and no conclusions as yet. Why the delay?

This case demonstrates the typical sloth and inaction of the UK regulatory authorities in comparison with the USA. The FCA/FRC are both very ineffective, and the recent events regarding the Aviva preference shares and the collapse of Beaufort show how ineffective those bodies are in protecting the interests of investors. It’s a combination of a defective legal system and a culture of inaction and delay that permeates these organisations. Well at least that is my personal view.

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

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Lack of Transparency at the FRC

The Financial Times ran an interesting article on Friday (13/4/2018) headlined “FRC criticised over transparency”. It reported that the Financial Reporting Council answered only 6 out of 52 Freedom of Information requests since 2013. Atul Shah, Professor of Accounting at the University of Suffolk, was reported as saying: “This shows that there is a real problem within the soul of the FRC. It is a public regulator and not a private members’ club, and it has clear duties of transparency, accountability and reliability which it has been avoiding over many years”. He went on to say they have been fobbing of public queries over a long period and that it was really shocking.

How can they reject so many requests? Because only certain parts of their operations are covered by the Freedom of Information Act and they can claim they cannot comment on on-going investigations.

The Local Authority Pension Funds Forum (LAPFF) sent a long submission to the public consultation on the Corporate Governance Code echoing many of those complaints and adding others and saying that the FRC suffers from “internal cultural problems”. They are clearly very unhappy with the activities of the FRC. The FRC has seen fit to respond with a 5-page rebuttal letter which they have published on their web site.

I have of course covered this issue of the culture and processes of the FRC in two previous blog posts which are here: https://roliscon.blog/2017/12/10/brexit-hbos-globo-and-the-frc/ and here: https://roliscon.blog/2017/11/22/standard-life-uk-smaller-companies-and-frc-meetings/

My view is that although the FRC is under-resourced, the approach that it takes should be reformed. Too many times major accounting and audit issues take years to investigate, and often simply result in no action. For smaller companies, complaints can disappear into a black hole with no response being received at all to complaints. Reform is required.

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

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Conviviality Fire Sale

Conviviality (CVR) has now gone into administration, and the ordinary shares are probably worthless (they were suspended some days ago and are likely to remain so). The administrators have already sold the major parts of the business in “pre-pack” administration deals. That’s where arrangements are made to dispose of assets in advance of the appointment of administrators by the prospective administrators before they have in fact been appointed. Is that legal you may ask? Yes it is because of a past legal case however perverse the result might be.

It’s interesting to look at the deals done by the Conviviality administrators:

  1. Retail chains Bargain Booze and Wine Rack have been sold to Bestway for £7 million.
  2. The wholesale division comprising the former businesses of Mathew Clark and Bibendum has been sold to C&C (owners of Magners Cider) for £1, although it seems the new owners have taken on some of the debts owed.

Matthew Clark was bought by C&C for £200 million three years ago and Bibendum was bought for £60 million in 2016. You can see why I call this a “fire sale” when the administrator seems to have lined up buyers in just a few days and disposed of these businesses at a value that seems to be a great bargain for the buyers.

One of the problems with administrations is that often the administrators have an objective to sell the business absolutely as soon as possible. This is to protect their own financial interests it frequently appears to me as much as it is to protect the jobs of employees and maintain a business as a “going concern”. Administrators can only get paid out of the cash that is present in the business or can be collected. That’s why nobody wanted to take on the administration of Carillion and it went straight into liquidation.

Administrators have an obligation to market a business for sale but can that be done adequately and the best price obtained when the deal has clearly been done in just a few days? That obviously does not allow any time for the normal due diligence on a substantial deal so the buyers won’t have paid anywhere near the normal market price for the assets.

In summary, the buyers of the assets get a great deal, the jobs get preserved (at least to some extent), the bankers to the company often get their loans back and the administrators get well paid while minimising their risks. But the previous owners of the business (the ordinary shareholders) get left with nothing. Is that equitable?

In effect the current legal structure, and particularly the pre-pack arrangements, enable the rapid dismantling of a business when it might have been recoverable if the company had been able to have more time to refinance the business and stave off its creditors for just a few weeks.

This is why I argue that the current UK insolvency regime needs reform. It destroys companies in short order when ordinary shareholders have often invested in the company to grow the business in the past. In the case of Conviviality it only listed on AIM in 2013 and did subsequent placings to finance its expansion.

The reason for the invention of “administration” in the insolvency regime was to enable a more measured wind-up, disposal or restructuring of a business rather than a liquidation. But insolvency practitioners (i.e. administrators) seem to have changed it into a short-cut to wind-up. Reform is surely needed.

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

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