ADVFN AGM – How to Disenfranchise Shareholders, and OFCOM Interest

I was surprised yesterday to pick up an RNS Announcement from ADVFN Plc (AFN) stating that the company’s Annual General Meeting had taken place on that day and all resolutions were duly passed. I was surprised because as a shareholder in the company (and on the register), I had received no notification of the AGM and no proxy voting form either of course.

In addition there is no notice of the AGM given in any RNS announcement, and there is no information on it on the company’s web site. It’s an easy way to avoid folks from voting or turning up at the AGM – you simply don’t tell anyone about it!

Now admittedly I don’t hold many shares. I only bought a few in early 2017 because ADVFN were peripherally involved in a libel suit I was pursing (settled in the High Court on Thursday to my satisfaction – more on that another time). I thought it would be helpful to attend any General Meetings of the company to learn more about the business.

This might be one of my best investments in 2017. Share price when purchased was 27.4p, share price now is 39.5p (i.e. up 44%). But the price did fall 9% yesterday, so perhaps other folks did attend the AGM and asked some awkward questions. If any readers of this blog did so, a report on the meeting would be helpful.

ADVFN run investment information platforms including a popular bulletin board. Profits have been non-existent for most of the last few years, but revenue was £8.2 million last year so the current market cap of £10.5 million is not totally bonkers. The company also indicated it was now focusing on profits rather than growth so results might improve – or at least they might not run out of cash and need to do more fund raising although the picture is not totally clear. One reason for the share price rise was probably the announcement by the company of a cryptocurrency project, using blockchain technology. The application is for a digital wallet to support a social media cryptocurrency. Although it is not altogether apparent who might use that and what the benefits might be, it appears to possibly be a way to support micropayment services for blog contributions. Any company that can claim involvement in the blockchain/cryptocurrency world gets their share price inflated it seems. It’s another “bubble” just like the Bitcoin price.

There has been a lot of public debate about the problem of “fake news” on social media and the failure to remove abusive content or more generally censor irresponsible stories. Financial bulletin boards and blogs are one part of this world of dubious content often posted by anonymous contributors who frequently get their facts wrong. And sometimes possibly deliberately so.

One interesting comment last week was from the Chairman of OFCOM, the media regulator. Patricia Hodgson said internet businesses such as Google and Facebook are “publishers” and not simply “platforms”. In other words, they might be responsible for their content after all. Ofcom are considering the issues although she indicated it was for Government to decide on any action in this area and OFCOM probably do not have the resources at present to cover it. But businesses such as ADVFN might find they are caught up with any general media regulation even though they have so far avoided interference from financial regulators such as the FCA – why that is so I have never understood.

Freedom of the press is a meritorious policy, but the internet has introduced numerous problems such as “trolls” who abuse folks in public often for dubious motives. Politicians are frequently attacked now (death threats are common for example) so we might see some action from them once the politics of Brexit are out of the way.

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

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Persimmon Directors, IDOX Profit Warning and Transplants

This morning house building company Persimmon announced that Chairman Nicholas Wrigley and Non-Exec Director Jonathan Davie were departing. The company says that both of them recognise that the 2012 LTIP “could have included a cap” and “in recognition of this omission” they have tendered their resignations.

Holders of Persimmon shares like me, or indeed anyone who has followed the debate on excessive executive pay, will be aware of the outrageous pay that has resulted at this and other companies because of the adoption of complex and aggressive LTIPs. Often these schemes have paid out unanticipated amounts, because the directors seemed not to understand their complexities or the possible outcomes. In the case of Persimmon it has meant that as much as 10 per cent of the value of the company has been paid out to the beneficiaries, allowing the CEO to pocket more than £100 million.

Neither of course did the shareholders understand these schemes and hence voted in favour of them regularly. So long as the company financial performance was good, some shareholders considered the payouts were justified. So the Board of Persimmon “believes that the introduction of the 2012 LTIP has been a significant factor in the Company’s outstanding performance over this period, led by a strong and talented executive team”. No mention of the main factors that have driven performance – high house prices supported by interest rates lower than they have been for thousands of years, the rapid growth in households from immigration and other factors, the Governments “help to buy scheme”, and other contributors. When companies are making hay, few shareholders will pay much attention to remuneration schemes or vote against them which is surely an argument for Government intervention in this area.

The company has appointed a new Chairman of the Remuneration Committee, who is Marion Sears. Will policies and practices change as a result? I doubt it because back in 2015 I argued with her at the AGM of Dunelm where she chaired the Remuneration Committee and subsequently exchanged emails on the complexities of the bonus scheme at that company. I also said to her that it was “difficult to understand the implications of the new policy on the overall remuneration of the senior executives and its sensitivity to different scenarios” and argued that the performance targets were not stretching.

I have come to the conclusion that all traditional LTIP schemes are dysfunctional and I therefore vote against them. There are better ways of recognising superior management performance.

IDOX

Another company I have held for a long time is AIM listed software company IDOX. This company was very successful under the leadership of former CEO Richard Kellett-Clarke. Two days ago the company issued a profit warning (not the first) saying that results for the year ending October 2017 will be delayed until next February. The announcement indicated some concerns about revenue recognition, complicated by the “sudden absence” of the CEO, Andrew Riley, on sick leave.

This is the kind of announcement that investors hate. No real details, and no information on when or if Andrew Riley might return. All we know is that the EBITDA forecast is reduced again to approximately £20 million. But at least we know that Kellett-Clarke is back as interim CEO.

There were concerns expressed by me at the last IDOX AGM about revenue recognition, high debtors and the apparent offering of long payment terms to customers (effectively providing them credit). I opined at the time that this was no way to run a software company because even if the customers are credit worthy, projects can run into unforeseen difficulties causing the customers to argue about the bills. I reduced my holding in the company substantially at the time as a result although it’s still one of my bigger holdings. Leon Boros also made negative comments about cash flows at the company and some investors were shorting the stock at the time – they are probably doing so again.

Comments on bulletin boards also raise the issue about the restating of accounts at 6PM, an acquisition that IDOX made in December 2016. But this is old news. Reference to accounting restatements at 6PM were made in the offer document (page 15, where it says for example that “the Directors expect that the value of the net assets of 6PM under IDOX accounting policies will be reduced materially”). Indeed 6PM subsequently filed accounts in Malta where they are registered showing substantial losses in 2016 and restating the 2015 and 2014 numbers. I thought the acquisition was a dubious one at the time for various reasons and voted against it. But these adjustments were surely known about earlier in the year so the latest announcement suggests some other problems.

Needless to say, with all these uncertainties and lack of clarification from the company (which we may not get until February it seems), all the likely share buyers have disappeared because it becomes very difficult to value the business. Simply too many unknowns. I will be encouraging the company to clarify the position a.s.a.p., but the “transplant” of the CEO, even on a temporary basis, might provide some reassurance that the problems will be sorted.

On the subject of transplants, one public consultation that is of personal interest to me is the Government’s consideration to change the default on organ donation to be an “opt-out” system as opposed to the current “opt-in” arrangement. In other words, unless you had specifically opted out, then it would be assumed that you had no objection to your organs being used for transplantation. Relatives may still be consulted though.

It is hoped that this will increase the number of transplants that are performed. There are a large number of kidney transplants performed each year, with lesser numbers of liver, pancreas, lung and heart transplants. The NHS says that 50,000 people are alive today who would not otherwise be so as a result (including me of course). But there are still long queues of people awaiting transplants. In the case of kidney patients, the alternative of dialysis reduces quality of life substantially and also reduces life expectancy significantly so it is a very poor alternative. Dialysis just keeps you alive, but a transplant gives you a new and better future.

For my financially informed readers, you also need to bear in mind that transplants save the NHS money because maintaining a kidney transplant patient costs a lot less than looking after dialysis patients.

Scotland, Wales and other countries have introduced opt-out systems already. Go here to respond to the public consultation on the matter: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/introducing-opt-out-consent-for-organ-and-tissue-donation-in-england

I hope readers will support this change to the law.

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

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Stale Directors and the UK Corporate Governance Code

One interesting fact highlighted by the Financial Times today was the impact of the proposed new UK Corporate Governance Code on company Chairmen. It pointed out that the change in the Code to limit the length of service of directors will include their time as Chairmen and will mean dozens of long-standing Chairmen may need to retire.

The FT suggests 67 of FTSE-100 chairmen will be affected, and there will be another 48 chairmen of FTSE-250 companies according to an analysis by the FT and Manifest. The reason for the 9-year rule for non-executive directors is simply because they cannot be considered “independent” after that length of time.

One aspect that the FT did not mention was the prevalence of such long-standing chairmen on the boards of investment trusts. Without doing a formal check, I found two in my holdings very easily. Anthony Townsend who actually “rejoined” the board of Finsbury Growth & Income in 2005 and John Scott who was on the board of Scottish Mortgage for 16 years until he retired in June. Investment Trusts seem to exhibit this symptom of permitting investment world grandees to serve for many years both as chairman and ordinary non-executive directors quite often. This has been condoned by the AIC (a trade body for investment companies) who seem to believe that length of service is no handicap. They have even suggested that such companies are not bound by the UK Corporate Governance Code in this area in the past. Will they try to take the same stance on this issue one wonders?

Will this change in the Code, if adopted, lead to a loss of highly experienced directors to the disadvantage of investors? Not likely. I suggest it will just result in a game of musical chairs where they simply move to another company when the clock would be reset. But it might at least give a hint to those too long in service to consider retirement.

It is surely a positive change as I have seen too many directors hang around for too long. They may not show actual signs of dementia (although one of the Chairmen of one my holdings did before retiring), but they are not always as sharp as they could be. Regrettably the generally aged shareholders who turn up at the AGMs of companies are averse to voting against such directors even when the issue is raised. So perhaps the boards affected by this problem of the Code change might simply choose to ignore it on a “comply or explain” excuse – I can volunteer the words they could use because I see them regularly. But that would be a pity.

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

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Brexit Bill – How It’s Worked Out

Here is an explanation of how the EU calculates the Brexit Bill, forwarded to me anonymously:

Mr Dave Davis is at the golf club returning his locker key when Mr Barnier, the membership secretary sees him. “Hello Mr Davis”, says Mr Barnier. “I’m sorry to hear you are no longer renewing your club membership, if you would like to come to my office we can settle your account”. “I have settled my bar bill” says Mr Davis.. “Ah yes Mr Davis”, says Mr Barnier, “but there are other matters that need settlement”

In Mr Barnier’s office Mr Davis explains that he has settled his bar bill so wonders what else he can possibly owe the Golf Club? “Well Mr Davis” begins Mr Barnier, “you did agree to buy one of our Club Jackets”. “Yes” agrees Mr Davis “I did agree to buy a jacket but I haven’t received it yet”. “As soon as you supply the jacket I will send you a cheque for the full amount”. “That will not be possible” explains Mr Barnier. “As you are no longer a club member you will not be entitled to buy one of our jackets”! “But you still want me to pay for it” exclaims Mr Davis. “Yes” says Mr Barnier, “That will be £500 for the jacket. “There is also your bar bill”. “But I’ve already settled my bar bill” says Mr Davis. “Yes” says Mr Barnier, “but as you can appreciate, we need to place our orders from the Brewery in advance to ensure our bar is properly stocked”.. “You regularly used to spend at least £50 a week in the bar so we have placed orders with the brewery accordingly for the coming year”. “You therefore owe us £2600 for the year”. “Will you still allow me to have these drinks?” asks Mr Davis.

“No of course not Mr Davis”. “You are no longer a club member!” says Mr Barnier.

“Next is your restaurant bill” continues Mr Barnier. “In the same manner we have to make arrangements in advance with our catering suppliers”. “Your average restaurant bill was in the order of £300 a month, so we’ll require payment of £3600 for the next year”. “I don’t suppose you’ll be letting me have these meals either” asks Mr Davis. “No, of course not” says an irritated Mr Barnier, “you are no longer a club member!” “Then of course” Mr Barnier continues, “there are repairs to the clubhouse roof”. “Clubhouse roof” exclaims Mr Davis, “What’s that got to do with me?” “Well it still needs to be repaired and the builders are coming in next week”, your share of the bill is £2000″. “I see” says Mr Davis, “anything else?”. “Now you mention it” says Mr Barnier, “there is Fred the Barman’s pension”. “We would like you to pay £5 a week towards Fred’s pension when he retires next month”. “He’s not well you know so I doubt we’ll need to ask you for payment for longer than about five years, so £1300 should do it”. “This brings your total bill to £10,000” says Mr Barnier. “Let me get this straight” says Mr Davis, “you want me to pay £500 for a jacket you won’t let me have, £2600 for beverages you won’t let me drink and £3600 for  food you won’t let me eat, all under a roof I won’t be allowed under and not served by a bloke who’s going to retire next month!” “Yes, it’s all perfectly clear and quite reasonable” says Mr Barnier. “Piss off!” says Mr Davis

Comment: Now you can understand what the Brexit bill negotiation is about, but it does depend of course on the membership terms when you sign up to join a club. Did anyone read the small print?

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

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ULS Technology, Keystone Law and Collusion on IPO Pricing

Yesterday I attended an interim results presentation by ULS Technology (ULS). They have been listed on AIM for a couple of years and have grown both from organic increases in revenue and from acquisitions which is often a good formula. They operate in the legal conveyancing and estate agency market where volumes have not been great of late – it seems house prices have made it difficult for folks to move plus changes to stamp duty and buy-to-let taxes have deterred transactions. But they seem to be prospering regardless.

I first became interested in this company, and acquired some shares, when I noticed that Geoff Wicks have become a director. He has also just been made Chairman. Geoff used to be CEO of Group NBT which was one of my most successful technology investments and he did a great job of sorting out and then growing a failing dotcom business.

I did perhaps amuse the CEO of ULS, Ben Thompson, by noting that I don’t really like companies with unmemorable three letter acronym names (ULS, NBT for example). Investors can never recall what they do. ULS used to be called United Legal Services but needed a new “umbrella” name so came up quickly with ULS. Should have used a branding consultancy I suggest. Unless you are a really big company, like IBM or BAE, establishing name recognition for such “brands” is hard work.

So ULS it is for the present, but understanding what they do and how they make money is not necessarily easy. Attending the seminar helped with understanding that. In summary, ULS aim to make house moving easier by making conveyancing easier, quicker and lower costs. They use web technology to support that. So if you are looking for a conveyancing solicitor they can help, and they have partnerships with other businesses in the house buying space such as mortgage brokers/lenders so that their service is offered when required. For example, Lloyds Bank is one of their largest partners. In addition they have a specialist comparison web site for when you are looking for an estate agent (includes price and performance comparisons).

For the conveyancing service they get paid by solicitors to which customers are referred, who pay 5 days after the legal completion with a fixed fee (does not vary with house price cost). The customer saves on paperwork such as filling out multiple forms. The customer introducers are many small mortgage brokers, large financial networks and others such as Moneysupermarket.com and Home Owners Alliance. They do seem to have some competitors but these are generally smaller in size and have nowhere near the same size of “panel” containing solicitors to which referrals are sent. The market generally for conveyancing services is still very old fashioned and dominated by “cottage industry” firms. ULS have only 2.6% of the conveyancing market but have a desire to become much larger. It certainly seems a market that is ripe for technical disruption.

Estateagent4me.com is their estate agency comparison site where you can search for agents and select on the basis of: the Fees they will charge; Average time to sell a property like yours; How close they might get to achieving an asking price; and How successful they are at selling similar homes. I asked whether they had received any legal threats from Purplebricks who apparently were not happy at all about some reviews that were published on their service, but it seems they have not.

The company expects to grow by: 1) Organic growth; 2) M&A (already done some of those); 3) Future new product development. They are not rushing to move outside the UK although there might be opportunities there. In essence they seem to be aiming for a conservative, profitable growth strategy which is often the kind of company I like, rather than betting the farm on a very rapid expansion as per Purplebricks. Return on capital is what matters, not empire building at huge cost.

There were a number of good questions from the audience of private investors (organised by Walbrook) but I’ll only cover one that arose. The accounts show a very low “current ratio” because the current liabilities, particularly the “Trade and other payables” figure is high at £7.8 million. This does include two earn-out payments due from past acquisitions of £5.2 million and taking those out makes the ratio look more reasonable. It would seem they do have a credit facility lined up to cover those payments, but this will add to the gearing of the company of course, at least temporarily even if operating cash flow is positive as it appears to be. They may wish to raise more equity also I suspect, particularly if other acquisitions are contemplated.

Also yesterday a legal firm named Keystone Law Group Plc listed on AIM. I think this is only the second of two commercial legal firms to list (Gateley Holdings, GTLY, was the first). Keystone promptly went to a premium over the listing price. I’ll have to read the IPO Prospectus which is available on the company’s web site under AIM Rule 26. Keystone are different to many law firms in that most of their solicitors are effectively freelances and they only get paid when the client pays (yes they are part of the new “gig” economy). The prospectus should make interesting reading as I have been a client of theirs in a libel action I have been pursuing of late which you should hear more about very soon. But buying shares in new IPOs is generally something to avoid.

Meanwhile the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) FCA has accused fund managements of colluding on IPOs. The regulator alleges Artemis, Newton, River and Mercantile and Hargreave Hale shared the prices they were willing to pay for shares. This story should run and run as it attacks the informal nature of conversations in the City of London about deals under consideration. But colluding on pricing is a breach of competition law as anyone in business should surely know.

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

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Budget Feedback, the Patient Capital Review and Productivity

My last post was on the Chancellors Budget which was written quickly but seems to have covered most of the important points. Perhaps one significant item missed was the additional liability of foreign investors for capital gains tax on property sales, although institutional investors may be exempt. This might have some impact but as the details are not yet clear, it remains to be seen what.

Otherwise the media feedback on the budget was generally positive although there was a big emphasis on the poor economic forecast for growth that the Chancellor announced. The OBR has substantially reduced growth forecasts which is one reason why debt will not be falling as quickly as previously indicated and future tax revenues will likewise be lower. Part of the problem is a failure to improve productivity. This also means that average wages in real terms may not grow as expected.

Why did I not comment on this? Because firstly economic forecasts (the OBR or anyone else’s) are notoriously unreliable, and secondly it makes little difference to most UK investors. It might suggest it would be wiser to invest more in overseas companies than UK ones, but in reality many UK companies have major revenues and profits from abroad. In any case, a lot of investors have already hedged their portfolios against the possible damage of a “hard Brexit” by adjusting their portfolios somewhat.

My experience is that investing based on country economic forecasts is very questionable. Good companies do well irrespective of the state of the general economy.

Patient Capital Review

On Budget day the Government (HM Treasury) also published their consultation response to the “Patient Capital Review” – or “Financing Growth in Innovative Firms” as it is officially called. You can find it on the internet. This review was aimed to review incentives to invest in early stage companies with a view to promoting more investment in such companies as part of the attempt to improve productivity in the UK economy. It potentially had significant impacts for investors – for example on the EIS and VCT tax reliefs. What follows is an attempt to bring out the key points:

The review considered not just the tax incentives, and whether they were effective, but whether more direct investment (supported directly or indirectly by the Government) should be undertaken. They got more than 200 written responses to the original consultation on this subject (see mine here: http://www.roliscon.com/Roliscon-Response-to-Financing-Growth-in-Innovative-Firms.pdf ), plus some on-line responses and they also used a panel of industry experts.

Although they have not published all the responses or broken them down in detail, one gets the impression that most respondents considered that the VCT/EIS regime was generally effective in stimulating investment in early stage companies and that there were few abuses. But the Treasury had expressed concern about some of the investments made in EIS/VCT companies which were often focussed more on “asset preservation” than in funding new growing businesses. So the rules are being tightened in that regard – see below.

A personal note: having invested in two EIS schemes that promoted country pubs the asset preservation capability might have made for a good sales pitch by the promoters but they subsequently turned out to be very poor investments even after the generous EIS tax reliefs. One is being wound up with the assets being sold for much less than purchased while the other one only made any money after it turned into a bailiff business subsequent to a shareholder revolt. The Government’s policy of ensuring a focus on “riskier” investments might actually be good for the investors as well as the economy! It will avoid inexperienced investors getting sucked into dubious investments by sharp promoters who can make even lemons sound attractive because of the generous tax reliefs.

On the support for new investment front, the Government is taking these steps:

  • Establishing a new £2.5 billion Investment Fund incubated in the British Business Bank with the intention to float or sell once it has established a sufficient track record. By co-investing with the private sector, a total of £7.5 billion of investment will be supported.
  • Significantly expanding the support that innovative knowledge-intensive companies can receive through the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) and Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs) while introducing a test to reduce the scope for and redirect low-risk investment, together unlocking over £7 billion of new investment in high-growth firms through EIS and VCTs.
  • Investing in a series of private sector fund of funds of scale. The British Business Bank will seed the first wave of investment with up to £500m, unlocking double its investment in private capital. Up to three waves will be launched, attracting a total of up to a total of £4 billion of investment.
  • Backing first-time and emerging fund managers through the British Business Bank’s established Enterprise Capital Fund programme, supporting at least £1.5 billion of new investment.
  • Backing overseas investment in UK venture capital through the Department for International Trade, expected to drive £1 billion of investment.
  • Launching a National Security Strategic Investment Fund of up to £85m to invest in advanced technologies that contribute to our national security mission.

In addition the Pensions Regulator will clarify guidance on inclusion of venture capital, infrastructure and other illiquid assets in portfolios and HM Treasury will encourage defined contribution pension savers to invest in such assets.

Entrepreneur’s Relief rules will be changed to reduce the disincentive to accept more outside investment, and the Government will also look at a guarantee programme modelled on the US “Small Business Investment Company”.

They will also work with the Intellectual Property Office on overcoming the barriers to high growth in the creative and digital sector. What this implies is not clear. Does that mean they are suggesting introducing software patents perhaps?

Several gaps in the investment market for early stage or follow-on funding were identified but one telling comment from the expert panel was this: “…the UK venture capital market has historically delivered poor returns; this results in less capital being attracted to the asset class, which in turn results in less talent being attracted to the patient capital sector; this then depresses returns, completing the circle”. But they did suggest this could be fixed.

There apparently were many comments on the importance of the EIS/SEIS schemes for funding innovative businesses – for example: “EIS and SEIS incentives have been particularly effective at stimulating investment and are extremely valuable to bioscience investors”. But I suspect that has been of more benefit to companies raising capital than it has been in terms of achieving long-term positive returns for investors. It is a pity not more evidence was provided on that.

The Treasury response is to double the annual investment limit to £2 million for EIS investors, so long as any amount over £1 million is invested in knowledge-intensive companies. Also the annual investment limit for knowledge-intensive firms will be doubled from £5 million to £10 million for EIS and VCT companies, and a new fund structure for such firms will be consulted upon. There will also be more flexibility on how the “age limit” is applied for companies applying. Question: what is a knowledge-intensive company? The answer is not given in the Treasury’s response.

A “principles-based” test will be introduced for all tax-advantaged venture capital schemes. This will ensure that the schemes are focussed “towards investment in companies seeking investment for long-term growth and development”. Tax motivated investments where the tax relief provides most of the returns to investors will be ruled out in future. There must be “a risk to capital” for firms to qualify. Detailed guidance will be published on this and there are some examples given in the response document, although it is far from clear from those what the rules might be. Comment: as this is going to be “principle-based” rather than based on specific rules it looks like a case of the Treasury saying “we can’t say what is objectionable now but we will know when we see it”. This might create a lot of uncertainty among VCT and EIS fund managers and company advisors.

The rules for VCT investments will also be tightened up with the following changes:

  • from 6 April 2018 certain historic rules that provide more favourable conditions for some VCTs (“grandfathered” provisions) will be removed
  • from 6 April 2018, VCTs will be required to invest at least 30% of funds raised in qualifying holdings within 12 months after the end of the accounting period
  • from Royal Assent of the Finance Bill, a new-anti abuse rule will be introduced to prevent loans being used to preserve and return equity capital to investors. Loans will be have to be unsecured and will be assessed on a principled basis. Safe harbour rules will provide certainty to VCTs using debt investments that return no more than 10% on average over a five year period
  • with effect on or after 6 April 2019 the percentage of funds VCTs must hold in qualifying holdings will increase to 80% from 70%
  • with effect on or after 6 April 2019 the period VCTs have to reinvest gains will be doubled from 6 months to 12 months

Comment: these changes would not seem to cause great difficulties for VCT managers and should not affect the returns to investors. Some of the changes might be helpful. The feedback from VCT managers is awaited.

But the income and capital gains tax reliefs for investors are basically unchanged, as is Business Property Relief on “unlisted” companies such as AIM stocks which were both mooted as being under consideration. As I wrote in my previous blog post on the budget, at least the Chancellor and the Treasury seem to have minimised the changes which is always helpful for investors. Being unable to plan many years ahead because of taxation rules and levels continually changing has been a major problem for investors. So on that score alone, the budget is to be welcomed.

As regards Entrepreneurs’ Relief, the government is concerned that the qualifying rules of Entrepreneurs’ Relief should encourage long-term business growth. The rules will therefore be changed to ensure that entrepreneurs are not discouraged from seeking external investment through the dilution of their shareholding. This will take the form of allowing individuals to elect to be treated as disposing of and reacquiring their shares at the then market-value. The government will consult on the technical detail. Comment: this seems to be yet another complication to taxation rules which is unfortunate.

Productivity

These changes to the tax incentivised schemes, and the Government investment in funds, may assist to improve the productivity of the UK population by focussing on high growth technology businesses. One cannot improve productivity by employing more coffee bar baristas, and such jobs are always likely to remain low paid. The budget change to increase the National Living Wage (the Minimum Wage) from next April will also promote improvement in productivity as it will make employers consider investment in automation rather than simply employing more staff.

There is also investment in infrastructure committed to in the budget, which might assist. Is it not the case that productivity is reduced because of the distances and time wasted in commuting in the South-East of England? The transport network (road or rail) is truly abysmal in the UK and has been getting worse. This means that folks are tired before they even get into work. The encouragement of commuting by cycle also surely results in tired and unproductive staff. It might be fashionable, and good for their health in the long term, but is it good for the economy? Unfortunately the housing market has been made more inflexible in recent years in some respects so people cannot move nearer to their workplace. Stamp duty increases have deterred moving to reduce travel costs, and higher house prices in some areas have not helped. For example, this writer recently met someone who lives in Southampton when his employer was based in Oxford – he could not afford to move. The reduction in stamp duty for first-time buyers in the Budget is not going to make a big difference to these problems.

So overall the Budget changes are more “nudges” in the right direction to improve the economy, while not being revolutionary. The Government’s tax base is not undermined and investors tax planning not significantly affected, so Philip Hammond may find he is in the job longer than expected after all.

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

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Chancellor’s Budget and How It Affects You

What follows is a summary of Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget speech today, and the impact of the tax changes. Private investors were particularly concerned about the impact of tax reliefs in the VCT/EIS schemes following the Patient Capital Review but these are in fact relatively minor (see end of document).

This is a summary of the key points he announced:

  • The Chancellor said we are on the brink of a technological revolution, we must embrace it. Britain is at the forefront, but we must invest to secure it.
  • Regrettably our productivity performance remains disappointing.
  • Our debt interest is too high. OBR expects debt to peak this year and fall thereafter.
  • He maintained his commitment to fiscal responsibility but will use the headroom to prepare Britain for the future.
  • The strategy is to raise productivity and employment in all sectors of the economy. A white paper will be issued on this within a few days.
  • Following the Patient Capital Review an action plan will be published which commits to more funding of the British Business Bank, including £2.5 billion of Government seed funding (to co-invest with private firms). But there will be some restrictions on EIS tax relief (see later).
  • First year VED on cars that do not meet the latest emission standards will be increased. However there will be no “benefit in kind” from the provision of free electric charging of vehicles at work.
  • There will be more support for maths teaching including specialist schools. More maths for everyone! And there will be a tripling in the number of computing teachers. There will also be more “distance learning” support.
  • Universal credits will be paid more quickly and there will be easier access to advances to overcome complaints in this area.
  • The National Living Wage will rise by 4.4% from April (Comment: this will obviously impact employers of large numbers of low paid staff such as retailers and hospitality firms).
  • The Personal Tax Allowance will rise to £11,850 from April and the Higher Rate Threshold will also increase to £46,300, in line with inflation.
  • Taxes on beer, wine and spirits will be frozen (apart from cheap cider). A Merry Christmas to all. Fuel duty will also be frozen.
  • An additional £10 billion of capital investment will go into NHS frontline services. That includes £7.5 billion this year and next, plus there will be a review of staff pay.
  • There will be more attacks on tax evasion. In addition, the anomaly of the indexation of capital gains for companies (but not individuals) will be removed.
  • The VAT registration threshold will be reviewed but it is not intended to amend it from the current £85,000 level for at least two years.
  • There will be amendments to business rates to help smaller businesses.
  • There will be a review of international taxation arrangements. Royalties paid to low tax countries will be taxed and on-line marketplaces will be jointly liable for the sellers VAT.
  • Councils will have powers to tax empty properties, plus the Government will look at barriers to long tenancy agreements.
  • The Chancellor said house prices are getting out of reach. Successive Governments over decades have failed to meet the demand for housing (comment: surely nobody can dispute that). He committed £45 billion in capital and loans to boost the supply of skills, resources and building land. Plus there will be reforms of the planning process/laws. There will also be an inquiry into why plots with planning approval are not built.
  • Seven new town developments are planned with 1 million new homes in the Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford corridor. The plan is to build 300,000 new homes per year.
  • Stamp duty will be abolished on the homes up to £300,000 in price for first time buyers and the same allowance available for homes up to £500,000 in price.

More details on taxation changes.

Changes additional to those mentioned above include:

  • The IR35 rules allowing contractors to avoid being taxed as employees may be tightened further (to follow through changes in the public sector to the private sector).
  • There will be a consultation on reform of the taxation of trusts to make them simpler, fairer and more transparent (Comment: surely a positive move).
  • Individuals operating property businesses will have the option of using mileage rates to simplify their tax affairs.
  • ISA subscription rates will remain unchanged (£20,000 for 2018-2019).
  • Lifetime allowance for pensions will be increased by inflation to £1,030,000.
  • Carried interest transitional arrangements will be removed with immediate effect (so pity those asset managers who will now pay full capital gains tax rates).
  • The restriction of relief on VCT investments sold within six months where VCTs merge will no longer apply to mergers more than two years after the subscription or where they do so only for commercial reasons. This will avoid a trap that investors can accidentally fall into.
  • VCT and EIS schemes tax relief will need to ensure they are investing in assets subject to “real risk” rather than those simply aiming for “capital preservation”. Certain “grandfathering” provisions that enable VCTs to invest funds under older rules will be removed from April 2018.
  • VCTs will need to invest 30% of new funds raised to be invested within 12 months.
  • VCTs will need to have 80% of their funds as “qualifying” investments (currently 70%) from April 2019, but they will have 12 months to reinvest the proceeds of disposals (currently 6 months). This presumably might enable them to smooth dividend payments somewhat when currently they often have to pay out the result of realisations rapidly.
  • EIS rules will double the limit on the amount an individual can subscribe in a year to £2 million, but any amount over £1 million must go into “knowledge intensive” companies. Comment: I await some simple definition of what they might be. Such companies will also have the limit on annual EIS and VCT investments raised to £10 million

I have only included what seem to be the most significant changes in the above. In general there seems to be a policy to avoid rapid and abrupt changes to taxation (which thwart people from planning their tax affairs) which is to be welcomed.

Whether the VCT and EIS tax changes will have significant impact on those vehicles remains to be seen although some of the changes had already been indicated and threats of major changes that had been rumoured seem to have been avoided. This writer expects that the managers of those funds will adapt as they have already been doing. Encouraging investment in riskier assets may increase the risk profile of those companies but might also increase the returns and a large size and diverse portfolio will provide a hedge against the risks.

The full report on the Patient Capital Review consultation has also been published and is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/661398/Patient_Capital_Review_Consultation_response_web.pdf

I may provide further comments on that after reading.

In summary I view this budget positively with no unexpected surprises or likely perverse outcomes from unintended consequences we have seen from the surprises announced by previous Chancellors. But it would be interesting to get readers comments – please add.

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

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