Johnston Press, TrakM8 and Brexit

Over the weekend, Johnston Press (JPR) was put into administration and immediately sold to a new group of companies controlled by the company’s bondholders. In other words this looks like a typical “pre-pack” administration where a company does not go through a proper administration process with an open sales process but is flogged off to in a fire sale to those who already know the business and see an opportunity to collect a bargain.

Trade creditors will lose their money, shareholders will lose everything and the pension scheme is being dumped – and is likely to need bailing out by the Pension Protection Fund.

One investor in the company who wished to revive the business was Norwegian Mr Ager-Hanssen who on Saturday accused the board of thwarting efforts to turn the group around and a “sham” sales process. He is probably right from my experience of what happens in pre-pack administrations. Pre-pack administrations are an anathema as I have said many times before as they undermine a proper process when a company is in difficulties.

Johnston Press does have some very valuable media titles such as the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post but had managed to accumulate an enormous amount of debt by going on an acquisition spree. It also had a big pension deficit. The company put itself up for sale recently but now states that the offers were insufficient to repay the bonds so the company has concluded the equity is worthless. Or perhaps it was simply an example of where the prospective buyers could see it was cheaper to do it via a pre-pack.

I have never held shares in Johnston Press although I looked at it a few times as a possible “value” play. But high debt is a killer when the market in which a company operates is facing strategic problems. With newspaper circulations dropping, and advertising revenue being impacted by changes to media usage – particularly a move to internet advertising – the company failed to cut its debt rapidly enough while revenue was falling and profits disappeared.

Another disaster area on Friday was AIM-listed Trakm8 (TRAK) whose shares fell by 66% on the day to a new low of 22p. This was after publication of their half-year results and a trading statement. Group revenue fell by 38% and a very large loss was the result. The company provided numerous excuses for this and a very negative short-term outlook. But it suggests the market for the company’s solutions “will be robust in the longer term”. Anyone who believes the latter statement must be an eternal optimist.

I did hold this company’s shares briefly in early 2016 when it was the darling of many private investors and the share price peaked at over 360p but I rapidly became disillusioned with the management. Peculiar acquisitions made subsequently, poor cash flow (rather suggesting profits were a mirage of fancy accounting) and generally over-optimistic statements being issued. Warren Buffett has always emphasised the importance of trust in the management of companies in which he invests, and when I lose trust I sell in short order.

Brexit is a topic one can hardly avoid talking about at present. I gave my personal analysis of the draft withdrawal agreement here (yes I have read it): https://roliscon.blog/2018/11/16/brexit-agreement-is-it-a-fair-deal/ . On reflection it seems to me that Mrs May is attempting to meet the demands of both brexiteers and remainers with a compromise deal that keeps us partly in the EU in many regards. The result is that she has pleased few people – the right wing of her own party, the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn who is stirring the pot like mad to gain political advantage, the DUP who May relies on for votes, and many others. Even her cabinet seems split counting only those who remain. The concept of the “chequers” plan might have made some sense, but the detail of the proposed agreement is simply not acceptable to many people. I suggest she needs to reconsider, sooner rather than later.

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

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Should You Give Up Fags and Booze, plus Coverage of Babcock and Babylon

The title of this article refers not to your personal habits, but whether investors should give up on holdings in tobacco and drinks companies. Yesterday British American Tobacco (BATS) dropped 10% after the Wall Street journal reported that the US Food and Drug Administration was planning a ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes. They contribute a significant proportion of BATS profits.

Aside from this possible temporary issue, the key question for investors is whether to hold tobacco stocks at all. Apart from the ethics of selling products that kill people (and as a former smoker I am not too concerned about that as many people participate in dangerous behaviour of other kinds despite being warned), the key question is whether you should invest in such companies. With BATS on a prospective p/e of 10 and a yield of 6.7% (according to Stockopedia) it might seem attractive. But the share price has declined from a peak of 5,530p in June 2017 to below 3,000p now.

Smoking in the developed world is falling – down to under 15% of the population in England according to the latest statistics. But it’s still growing in less developed parts of the world such as Africa and the Middle East. However, with more Government intervention and better population education, one has to face up to the fact that it is likely to be a declining market sooner or later. It’s obviously a sector very vulnerable to Government interference which are usually ones to avoid. So I suggest investors should not just give up smoking, they should give up on tobacco companies. Investing in companies operating in declining markets is always tricky as few managements accept the party is over and tend to continue in their same old ways with damaging effects to their health – just like smokers.

The next addictive product to talk about is alcohol which is also vulnerable to Government regulation. Diageo (DGE) is a company with leading brands in the sector. Strong brands can enable companies to earn a superior return on capital and some Annual Reports from the company talk about nothing else. Indeed they have so many brands that they recently announced they were selling off a few of them. Does that make sense? Probably because does one really need multiple gin and whisky brands? Personally I find great difficulty distinguishing the multiple brands of gin now on the market – most of them seem to be marketing gimmicks rather than really different products with different tastes. By the time they are diluted with your favourite tonic such as Fevertree, there’s not much difference. Diageo has one particular strength in that booze sales are less affected by general economic trends just like tobacco. People don’t give up drinking and smoking in a depression so are unlikely to be affected by Brexit, whatever the outcome. But health concerns and Government intervention are still risks – for example Diageo has potential problems in India. But I consider the risks worth taking in Diageo so I do hold a few shares in the stock.

Babcock International (BAB), the defence contractor, is another stock to avoid if you have environmental or social concerns. But that’s not the main reason the share price has been declining of late – the share price is down from a peak of about 860p in June this year to about 600p. The prospective p/e is now 7.3 and the yield about 5% which certainly makes it look cheap.

One reason for the decline is an attack by an investment firm called Boatman Capital. They allege (to quote from their web site): “Babcock has systematically misled investors by burying bad news about its performance. We believe it faces potentially massive exceptional costs, revenue pressure and declining margins”. They also suggested the company’s relationship with the Ministry of Defence had soured. Nobody knows who is behind Boatman and BAB say they are “untraceable” so this looks like yet another of those shorting attacks preceded by a damaging report that mixes up mud-slinging and innuendo with dubious financial analysis and a few real facts that add credibility. BAB issued a response to the Boatman report yesterday which is worth reading. Babcock investors can download the report from the Boatman web site.

Such attacks have been common among smaller cap stocks for some time. Sometimes the attacks have an underlying basis of a few facts, but sometimes they do not. As I have said before, I think this is an area that needs regulation, although how that can be done when often the material is published overseas is not easy to see.

But there is one thing that is certain. Any major Government contractor is vulnerable to changes in Government policy and financial retrenchment. Will the UK Government really be spending more on defence on future? I rather suspect not as other social priorities take precedence.

One of the Government’s priorities is to spend more on healthcare. There was a very interesting report on the activities of a company called Babylon Health in a recent BBC Horizon programme. Babylon, via their app called Babylon which anyone can download, provide an on-line symptom screening and G.P. service. This is an area I have taken an interest in for several years as it has always seemed to be that this is potentially one of the most effective uses of AI and medical technology to improve healthcare. Not that I have ever doubted the wisdom of doctors to diagnose my complex medical problems effectively but I do believe some intelligent assistance might speed diagnosis.

At present Babylon is focused on G.P. services although they are moving into more specialist secondary areas. In London they offer the service under the name “GP-at-hand” with support from the NHS. But some doctors are complaining they are pinching their registered patients which reduces their income in local surgeries, and leaves them with the relatively unhealthy and elderly who don’t have access to on-line services but are more expensive to service.

Babylon do not offer on-line diagnosis at present for legal reasons, which in my view is a pity. They just provide a “triage” service and pass you to a G.P. when required for an on-line video consultation. But would it not save the NHS an enormous amount of money to have patients doing their own diagnosis using an intelligent app? But the current “GP-at-hand” service is a step in the right direction.

Babylon have recently done a study of how their system compares to the diagnostic skills of real G.P.s and they came out of it well – see their report here: https://marketing-assets.babylonhealth.com/press/BabylonJune2018Paper_Version1.4.2.pdf . For some more critical comments on the company and a summary of its history, see http://www.nhsforsale.info/private-providers/babylon-health.html . I fear G.P.s will resist this innovation because the NHS is notorious for its slow take up of technology. As the BBC programme reported, the NHS is now the biggest user of fax machines in the world when most organisations gave up using them years ago and turned to more direct digital channels. This is symptomatic of the NHS’s continuing reliance on paper processes.

Babylon is a British company but it is private equity funded and not a public company. But this is surely the kind of company than should be listed. It’s one of the best applications of AI. Undoubtedly I would have a lot more confidence in medical diagnostic software supported by a trained doctor than I have in self-driving cars. At least you can get a second opinion on the former before you crash.

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

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Persimmon Departure, Abcam AGM and Over-boarding

Persimmon (PSN) issued an announcement this morning saying that CEO Jeff Fairburn was stepping down at the request of the company because “the Board believes that the distraction around his remuneration from the 2012 LTIP scheme continues to have a negative impact on the reputation of the business and consequently on Jeff’s ability to continue in his role”. They are undoubtedly right there.

To remind readers, their misconceived and uncapped LTIP potentially would have meant bonus shares being awarded to Mr Fairburn worth well over £100 million, and similar large sums to other managers. Part of the potential award was later given up but even so it was the most disgraceful example of how pay has been ramped up by LTIPs in recent years. Another example at Abcam (ABC) is covered below.

Persimmon also issued a third quarter trading statement today which was generally positive. They clearly have a good forward committed sales pipeline and the extension of the help-to-buy scheme was positive news in the budget. But I am still somewhat nervous that the housebuilding market may suffer as interest rates rise. New houses are becoming unaffordable for many people despite the demand for accommodation and growing population.

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of Abcam. This is a company that sells antibodies and other life science products/services. It is operating in a high growth sector. I first invested in the shares of the company in 2006 and it has delivered a compound total return of over 32% per annum to me since based on Sharescope figures. I am therefore happy with the financial performance of the business as I said to the board at the AGM. That’s even allowing for recent declines in the share price as analyst forecasts were reduced and general market malaise affected high-flying technology stocks. But I am very unhappy about two aspects: 1) failure to answer simple questions at the AGM, which is the second time in a week where this problem has arisen (the previous being Patisserie); and 2) the remuneration scheme and revised LTIP.

What follows is a report on the meeting, summarised and paraphrased for brevity. The meeting was held at the company’s Cambridge offices at 2.00 pm, but not even a cup of tea was offered.

The recently appointed new Chairman, Peter Allen, introduced the board and there was then a very brief presentation from CEO Alan Hirzel. He said there were between £5 billion and £8 billion of opportunities for the company to grow which they were focused on. They had doubled revenue in the last 5 years, at 11.5% CAGR. There were lots of opportunities to continue to grow the business. They are now focused on 4 areas: 1) RUO Antibodies which are still growing; 2) Immunoassays where growth was 25% last year; 3) China for RUO tools (China could be as big a market as the USA in a few years and they now have 300 people there and are putting more investment in); and 4) CP&L (Abcam Inside). He said the company needs to invest in technology and IT to achieve their growth goals.

Questions were then invited. I commented on the absolutely massive expenditure on new IT systems. They have spent at least £33 million on the Oracle implementation with another £16 million to go and the project is clearly way behind schedule. This level of costs has even caused analysts to downgrade future profit forecasts. As the former IT manager of a large public company, this seemed disproportionate to me in relation to the size of the business. However much one recognises that IT is the key to the business, this looks like a typical project that is way out of control. Who is responsible for this, are they still with the company, who are the outside contractors and what is the current state of this project?

The Chairman first responded that any answers to shareholder questions could only relate to information already in the public domain. This is simply legally wrong and I will be writing to him on this subject and the other issues below.

However Alan Hirzel did respond and accepted the IT project was over budget and covered the history of the project. It was essential to replace some of the legacy systems which were unmaintainable. Many had been built in-house (even an email system apparently) and they had multiple different HR systems in different countries. HR was the first project completed (partner Hitachi as systems integrator) followed by a communication system (part CRM perhaps – it was not clear) but finance and supply chain (manufacturing) projects were yet to be done. He said the CIO had been replaced and a new system integration partner appointed. He assured me that the project was under control now.

I asked who the new IT contractor was, at which point the Chairman refused to answer as that was not in the public domain. I complained that this was a breach of company law as questions must be answered unless there are good reasons to do otherwise. For example, answers can be refused if it is confidential information, not in the company’s interests to do so or may affect the good order of the meeting. The relevant Regulation is here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2009/1632/pdfs/uksi_20091632_en.pdf (see Section 12).

I can see no reason why my question could not be answered as I said to the Chairman and to their lawyer, neither of whom seemed to be aware of the Regulations or the common law principle about answering questions at general meetings. The Chairman also suggested that they could not disclose some information because they would have to issue an RNS announcement to cover it. This of course only applies to “price sensitive” information and I don’t see how knowing who their IT contractor is would be price sensitive. Very annoying and feeble excuses were being given in essence from someone who is supposed to be a very experienced company Chairman. This is the second time in a week (the other was at Patisserie) where the law on answering questions was ignored which is exceedingly annoying.

After that debate, which I will be following up including with a complaint to the FCA as it is not acceptable for companies to ignore the law, we moved on to the Remuneration Resolutions.

I said the following: “Remuneration also seems to be out of control. Although the CEO seems to be generally doing a good job, his pay last year was £1.8 million. This is also out of proportion to the revenue and profitability of the business. Not only that but his basic pay has been increased by 22%, and the maximum award under the LTIP increased from 150% to 400% of base salary. This is obscene and totally unnecessary. Such highly geared schemes promote risky behaviour as we saw with bankers in the financial crash of 2008. I always vote against remuneration policies where the maximum award under LTIPs is more than 100% of base salary and I will be doing the same here. I encourage my fellow shareholders to do likewise”.

There was a response from Louise Patten, chair of the Remuneration Committee to the effect that they could be “traduced” for underpaying rather than overpaying (“criticised” I think she meant). A review had shown that the CEO was underpaid in comparison with market rates in the sector. The LTIP was only a temporary measure as a new policy would be adopted in 3 years’ time.

I also asked whether they had received representations on the subject of remuneration from proxy advisory services and fund managers. She indicated there had been but mainly focused on other issues than the LTIP (in fact they got only 67.1% FOR the Remuneration Report, and 86.7% for the Remuneration Policy which are very low numbers). I said I had no objection to an increase in base pay if justified, but the LTIP was an example of how pay is ratcheting up and it sets a very bad precedent that other companies will follow to have a 400% bonus maximum. I have of course argued with Ms Patten before on the remuneration schemes at this company to no effect, so I chose to vote against her and her two colleagues on the Remuneration Committee but she still collected most of the proxy votes. No other shareholders in the meeting, other than my son Alex who holds the shares also, voted against the remuneration resolutions or the directors which rather demonstrates that when shareholders are happy with a company’s financial performance, they will vote for anything.

There were few other questions from shareholders at the meeting, but after the formal part had finished I asked the Chairman why he only managed to achieve 79.6% of votes in support of his appointment. He said this was because of complaints of “over-boarding”, i.e. that he had too many roles. In fact he has 4 other Chairman roles and one other non-executive directorship which I certainly think is too many and is contrary to ShareSoc’s guidelines. He argued that it was no problem and he did not agree with the current attitude of some proxy advisory services. I disagreed. The duties of directors are more onerous than ever, particularly if the job is to be done properly. Even small difficulties at a company can create a lot of extra work. One of course only has to look at Patisserie Holdings and their recent difficulties where Luke Johnson had lots of other commitments and failed to pick up what appears to be a massive fraud executed by the finance director. Peter Allen seems to think that all he has to do is turn up for a few board meetings each year, let the executive directors get on with business and do not much else. But Abcam is becoming a large company where the Chairman’s role is much more significant than that.

I voted against the Chairman anyway because I think Chairman should be familiar with company law and how to handle questions at meetings. Good ones do of course know how to answer questions without giving out sensitive information or avoiding direct answers but it is certainly not good for the Chairmen to start an argument with a shareholder in a meeting on any subject. Some Chairmen need to take a lesson in how to handle awkward folks like me who are not easily ignored.

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

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Arron Banks on Leave.EU, Smithson and Patisserie

The Andrew Marr interview of Arron Banks was all good knock-about stuff but there was no knock-out blow inflicted. Andrew Marr was interviewing Arron Banks about his £8 million funding of the Leave.EU campaign. The Electoral Commission have recently asked the National Crime Agency (NCA) to investigate the matter as they apparently do not believe his story about the source of the funding. The suggestion has been made that the funding came from Russian sources or from a company registered in the Isle of Man (Rock Holdings) which would not have been permitted under electoral law.

You can watch the full interview here: https://order-order.com/2018/11/04/arron-banks-marr-interview-full/

Mr Banks made it clear that the money came from Rock Services Ltd and strenuously denied it came from other sources. Andrew Marr suggested Rock Services was a “shell” company and that neither that company nor Mr Banks had sufficient financial resources to cover the £8 million in funding.

It is of course a simple matter to look at the accounts of Rock Services Ltd at Companies House (it’s free to do so – go here: https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/search?q=rock+services+ltd ).

Rock Services Ltd hardly looks like a “shell” company which is normally used to describe a company with no revenue and no assets apart from possibly some cash. Rock Services had Turnover of £50 million for the year ending December 2017 but little in the way of profits or net assets. But it did have fixed assets of over £1 million. This is hardly a “shell” company in the normal usage of the word. The “Strategic Report” says the company’s “principal business activity is that of performing a recharge function for services for the Group and other related parties”. The profit of the company is generated from service charges added to costs and salary recharges.

Aaron Banks has been running motor insurance companies for many years and is involved in a group of companies which includes Rock Services, Rock Holdings and UK registered Eldon Insurance. I vaguely recall he was involved in a company called Brightside I held shares in from 2012/2014 which was publicly listed before being taken over. The accounts of Eldon Insurance can also be read at Companies House and indicate revenue of £77 million and profits of £1.8 million in 2017. Another substantial company in the Group is Southern Rock Insurance which is based in Gibraltar. You can see a complete list of group companies and their transactions through Rock Services Ltd on page 15 of their accounts.

In summary the allegation that Mr Banks or his UK companies did not have the financial resources to make the donation to Leave.EU is not reasonable, and Andrew Marr and his researchers should have looked into the background more before making the allegations he made.

As Mr Banks said in the interview, other donations were made to the remain campaign from subsidiaries of foreign companies. Why were they not being investigated? It certainly looks like a witch-hunt to me. It would seem to be more about politics than election regulation.

Note that Companies House is an invaluable source of information on companies and their directors. All investors should be familiar with it. It can be useful in other ways – for example I recently obtained a bid from a company to provide web site development work. That was done from the email address of a company that was different to that from which they suggested would do the billing. When I looked the former company up at Companies House it had actually changed name a couple of years ago and under its latest name had got appallingly bad references on the internet. Needless to say I decided not to do business with them.

Smithson Investment Trust (SSON) is now trading at a remarkable premium to net asset value of 7.4% according to the AIC after its recent IPO. Bearing in the mind the state of the market and the fact that it can hardly have yet invested the money raised (one might call it a “shell” company), it would seem investors are putting a high premium on the name of Terry Smith and his involvement in this trust. There must be investors out there who are purchasing shares at that premium to maintain this “discount” but that seems very unwise to me when most investment trusts have historically traded at a discount. The reason for this is quite simple – investment trusts incur costs in management and administration which reduces the yield and returns on the underlying shares they hold. Investors can always buy the underlying shares directly to avoid those costs. In the recent bull market and recognition of late of the merits of investment trusts, some have been trading at small premiums but a premium of 7.4% when the company has no track record and will be mainly holding cash seems somewhat unreasonable.

As I said when reviewing the IPO, it may be best to wait and see what transpires for this trust.

Patisserie (CAKE) and the recent General Meeting have been covered in several previous blog posts. I have previously mentioned that I was not happy that Luke Johnson did not answer my questions – he ruled them out along with a lot of others. When can a Chairman refuse to answer questions in a General Meeting? It was always judged to be matter of common law that questions should be answered but that has now actually been put into a Regulation.

I have written to Mr Johnson and my letter includes these paragraphs:

  1. As regards the conduct of the General Meeting, I suggest you not only handled it badly as Chairman but that refusing to answer my questions was a breach of The Companies (Shareholders’ Rights) Regulations 2009. There are valid grounds on which you can refuse to answer questions at General Meetings but the reason you gave for not answering mine (refusal to answer any questions that might prejudice the investigations) was not a valid one.
  2. Holding a meeting a 9.00 am is also not good practice. This note published by ShareSoc (and partly written by me) gives guidance on how to run general meetings, and includes references to the law on the subject: https://www.sharesoc.org/How_To_Run_General_Meetings.pdf

If you study the aforementioned regulations, you will see that the directors can refuse to answer questions that would require disclosure of confidential information or “if it is undesirable in the interests of the company or the good order of the meeting that the question be answered”. That may be quite broad but it hardly covers the questions I posed and the answers to my questions would certainly not have prejudiced any investigations.

I have therefore asked him to answer the questions in my letter. He may have other things on his mind, but all company directors should be aware of the law, or take legal advice when required.

Shareholders should not allow directors to ignore their responsibility to answer reasonable questions.

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

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Patisserie General Meeting – No Excitement But Few Questions Answered Either

I attended the General Meeting of Patisserie Holdings (CAKE) this morning at the ungodly time of 9.00 am – presumably chosen to deter attendance. An announcement earlier from the company will also have deterred attendance as it said no questions on past events would be answered so as not to prejudice investigations by “multiple regulators and authorities”. But there were about 20 shareholders present, including some institutional representatives.

This GM was to approve the second tranche of share placings and I expected it to be voted through which it was on a poll by more than 90% of shareholders. To remind you this company was on the brink of going into administration after the board discovered the accounts were false and the claimed cash on the balance sheet non-existent. In fact it was stated in the meeting that net debt was more like £9.8 million rather than as previously stated. Executive Chairman Luke Johnson kept the company alive by giving it an interest-free loan and arranging an emergency placing. As I said in the meeting, I considered the company had no better alternative to the actions taken having been involved in other similar problem situations before. I think shareholders (including me) are very lucky that Mr Johnson chose to take the steps he did. Mr Johnson reiterated there was no viable alternative several times in the meeting because there was no time to arrange anything else. He indicated later that he had not participated in the placings because he did not want shareholders to think he was acquiring shares cheaply and hence his interest in the company will now be diluted (he’s now down to 28%).

However there were several shareholders who expressed their unhappiness at the turn of events as one might have expected. There was one particularly vociferous shareholder who suggested that shareholders will lose 88% of their value as a result of the placings and that there should have been a rights issue instead. The shareholder said it was immoral, and unfair.

Mr Johnson opened the meeting by thanking shareholders for the messages of support he had received in the recent dark days. The board was doing everything it can to safeguard the company. There was potential fraud and a miss-statement of the accounts. Those errors are likely to have affected previous annual accounts.

He said that regulatory authorities including the SFO were investigating so he could not comment further. He believed it was a business worth saving and he had committed to reduce his other activities (in response to a question later he said he no other roles now).

Chris Boxall from Fundamental Asset Management asked if those supporting the placings had access to more information that others, i.e. other than that publicly disclosed? The answer was no. Comment: they must have faith in Luke Johnson because with so little information available it is very unclear what the future profitability of the business might be and there are big potential liabilities.

In response to other questions he said current trading had not been affected, although two sites had been closed. They are recruiting new staff when asked about management changes.

I tried to ask two questions:

  1. Is it possible the company could become liable to compensate shareholders for the “market abuse” related to the issue of false accounts [on which basis some investors will have purchased shares]? This is surely a similar situation to the case of Tesco where the FCA instructed the company to pay compensation. Shareholders taking up the placing shares might be interested in the answer. Mr Johnson refused to answer the question.
  2. Have you appointed lawyers to pursue claims against the former finance director (Chris Marsh) in respect of the fraud or to recover the value of share bonuses paid to him and the CEO (Paul May) on the basis of the false accounts? Mr Johnson refused to answer that question also.

Note that as this was a General Meeting there was no good reason not to answer those questions as they could not possibly prejudice the investigations by the legal authorities. This is an abuse of company law and I will be making a complaint about it.

What can shareholders do at this point? Not a lot but just await the results of the investigations and possible subsequent actions by the legal authorities. This might take many weeks, months if not years from past experience. The shares will remain suspended for the present. But I suggest shareholders should do the following:

  1. Write to Luke Johnson requesting that the company takes all possible legal steps to recover loses to the company that have resulted from the fraud from those who perpetrated the likely fraud, and in addition take steps to recover the value of shares issued to former and current directors under share option schemes that were based on the false profits that had been declared. In addition the company should examine the role of the auditors as it appears that they may have failed to pick up the accounting errors and failed to check all relevant bank balances and hence there may be a claim against them. Note: it is a lot easier for the company to sue former directors or auditors than it is for shareholders, however much they may wish to forget about it and move on.
  2. Write to the Financial Conduct Authority stating you were induced to invest in the shares of the company based on false accounts and encourage them to pursue legal actions against those at fault accordingly. In addition as this was a case of market abuse (similar to that at Tesco), request that the company be forced to compensate the affected investors accordingly. You should also encourage them and the SFO to move as fast as possible in their investigations as they are not known for speed in such matters.

So that’s a summary of the meeting held on a gloomy wet day in London – which probably matched the mood of the shareholders present. There were members of the press there getting their views no doubt for publication in the media later.

To look on the bright side, as I have an enormously diversified portfolio I found on exiting the meeting that my overall portfolio had risen more that morning than my potential losses on Patisserie simply as the overall market picked up. I may therefore be more sanguine than others. There is a lesson there of sorts for investors, but I also consider myself relatively lucky.

As someone said to me in the meeting, this was a company where there were no warning signs that investors could easily pick up in respect of the accounts. Investors cannot blame themselves for investing in what appeared to be a sound, profitable company from the accounts. Fraudulent accounts can fool even the most experienced investors.

Picture below is of Patisserie café in King’s Cross station take on my way to the General Meeting.

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

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Patisserie Cafe 2018-11-01

Yu Group Crashes, Patisserie Holdings LTIPs and Audit Quality

The latest example of defective accounts in small cap companies is Yu Group (YU.) who announced this morning that accrued income had not been recognised correctly, that trade debtors need impairing and gross margins will not be as expected. The result will be a £10 million reduction in profitability when compared with current market expectations so there will be a loss for the current financial year. The shares are down over 80% at the time of writing.

Yu Group are a utility supplier to SMEs and listed on AIM in 2016. It would seem likely that these problems go back into past years. The auditors are KPMG.

The latest announcement from Patisserie Holdings (CAKE), after a note published in the FT yesterday on directors’ share options and their exercising is a clarification of the LTIPs. It ends by saying that “The Company, as part of the on-going investigation, is seeking to understand why the grant of options relating to 2015 and 2016 have not been appropriately disclosed and accounted for in its financial statements”. So that looks like another bit of bad news as one might expect now that everyone is looking very carefully at the past reporting by this company. But this is surely another matter that should have been picked up in the last audit.

It’s not just small companies that have audit problems. BHS and Carillion are recent examples of large companies where the reported accounts were suspect. How to improve the quality of audits? One big issue in my view is the fact that audits are often priced as low as possible to get the business. Companies tender for audit services and they are likely to pick the lowest cost bid, thereby relying on regulations to ensure that the standard is acceptable. Most company directors believe their internal systems are good and their staff trustworthy, so why should they spend a lot of money on an independent review of same? Meanwhile audit firms use audits as a loss-leader to build a client relationship that enables them to obtain much more lucrative consultancy work.

One change that would improve matters would be to ban audit firms from taking on non-audit work from the same client.

Another improvement would be to have someone else than the directors appoint the auditors. It has been suggested that an independent body be set up to do that, but perhaps the best solution is to have shareholders select and appoint the auditors via a shareholder committee. Shareholders have the most interest in seeing accurate accounts published and shareholder committees have many other advantages, as has been advocated by ShareSoc of late.

Regulation only ensures adherence to high standards if the penalties for getting anything wrong are severe. But that is not the case at present. Very few cases of defective accounts ever result in the auditors being severely penalised because they have numerous possible excuses for not discovering what was wrong. The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) needs to get tougher and be less dominated by the audit profession.

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

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Meeting with Link Asset Services

I recently attended a meeting with Link Asset Services who claim to be the largest UK share registrar. In addition to me there were two senior managers from Link and two ShareSoc directors (Mark Northway and Mark Bentley). ShareSoc and I do of course have a long-standing interest in ensuring shareholders can and do vote their shares at General Meetings. Other matters discussed were the problems created by nominee accounts, in the Shareholder Rights Directive (SRD), in the Central Securities Deposit Regulation (CSDR), in dematerialisation, and many other issues related to shareholder’s rights. I hope that rather technical, long-winded sentence does not put you off reading this note because there were many important issues discussed.

We first discussed one of the personal issues I had raised with Link – namely the issue of paper proxy voting forms not being issued by many companies. See previous blog post on that subject at one company here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/09/20/worldwide-healthcare-trust-agm-but-no-proxy-voting-form/ . One of the reasons we are getting poor corporate governance and wildly excessive director pay in some companies is because private shareholders generally do not vote at General Meetings.

It was explained that one reason for this change is that it does actually increase the percentage of shareholders who vote. It seems if investors receive a paper proxy card, they often put it aside to deal with later but never do, or perhaps can’t be bothered to go to a post box. Link’s experience is that investors are more likely to vote when prompted to do so by email (even more so, if SMS can be used).

Link gave us some figures on proxy voting which as we already knew are astonishingly low. For shareholders on the register only 5.5% actually voted in the last year, out of 5.6 million holders. The percentage of shares that were voted was much higher at 63% but that is probably because institutional investors do vote more reliably.

The low turnout of individual shareholders I would guess is for a number of reasons. Some think they have no influence on the outcome which will be determined mainly by institutional shareholders so don’t vote except on critical events, those on the register may be long-standing holders of one or two paper share certificates, but the big problem by far now is the number holding their shares in nominee accounts where the broker does not provide an easy to use proxy appointment system. More on this issue later.

I did express an aversion to using the Link app (SignalShares) to vote but was assured it was easy to use and I would still get paper annual reports if requested. However, I have since tried to register for the app and as a Personal Crest member it’s damn difficult. It asks several questions which were difficult to answer. It not just requires your Investor Code (which will be on dividend payments, IF the company pays a dividend). But it also asks for your Crest Id, which no Personal Crest member normally ever needs to know and I could not easily find, and your Crest Member Account Number and I have no idea what that is at all. So I gave up. I still feel that paper proxy voting forms should therefore be sent to shareholders, particularly Personal Crest Members. If a Notice of a General Meeting is being posted, as is legally required, it’s not much more cost to include a proxy voting form.

I have had problems with registering for voting services with other registrars so I still feel it is unsatisfactory to remove paper proxy voting forms. Suggesting you can phone up to get one if necessary is not a satisfactory solution. Just time wasting. Even if I could manage to register for their app, that would still leave the problem of having multiple accounts and multiple log-ins for different holdings. It’s just too complicated. I might have to use my own form as I have previously suggested if Link and the companies that employ them persist with this approach – see https://www.roliscon.com/proxy-voting.html . Link stated that they were perfectly happy with this (as they are legally required to do), as long as the form was filled in clearly.

If all the registrars could get together and provide a common electronic voting system for all share holdings that was easy to use, and register for, then I would welcome it. But at present it’s a dog’s breakfast of a system.

Other matters discussed with Link were:

Impact of Brexit. One issue here is that companies listed on the Irish stock exchange are currently registered within the Crest system but that would no longer be approved if the UK exits, particularly on a “hard” Brexit. There may need to be an alternative clearance system put in place for Irish listed companies.

Dematerialisation: Nothing is happening, as usual no progress it seems. It would be required if we had stayed within the EU or agree regulatory compliance of financial services with them, but the Government has other things on its mind at present.

Ensuring all shareholders in nominee accounts are enabled to vote via their nominee operator. This requires a simple change to the Companies Act which again is not likely to happen in the near future. Note that some brokers do provide an easy to use service in this regard – e.g. the Share Centre with their own system and others via Broadridge. But investors still have difficulties with AIM companies and knowing when a vote is due. It was suggested it would be helpful if registrars or nominee operators could advise shareholders when a vote was due via email. Even those nominee operators who don’t offer a voting service legally have to do so for ISA accounts under the ISA regulations. It was agreed that it was key to getting people to vote that they be notified by email or text message when a vote was due, although personally I would not be keen on text messages.

An alternative is for all nominee accounts to be uploaded to the share register before a vote takes place and then registrars could solicit votes from everyone. But there are potential timing issues here.

Improving voting turn-out. Another reason why many shareholders do not vote, in addition to the reasons given above, is because they do not understand the resolutions on AGM agendas, or cannot easily decide how to vote. For example, Remuneration Reports can now run to many pages. Will private shareholders spend the time to read that part of the Annual Report and understand it? Unlikely particularly as many will not even see the Annual Report. ShareSoc is working on an initiative to tackle this problem which is for them to provide a proxy advisory and voting service that will actually vote an investor’s shares based on ShareSoc recommendations if they register for the service.

The impact of the CSDR. This is being implemented in UK law. The problems at Beaufort were discussed and the fact that nominee holdings are generally “pooled”, i.e. undesignated and hence there are no individual holdings recognised in the Crest system. This means there can be problems when a broker collapses because the shares held by clients may not have been recognised in the pooled share registrations. In fact this did not seem to be a significant problem at Beaufort whose records were generally accurate but has been at other failed brokers. There needs to be some regular reconciliation of client holdings to pooled Crest holdings it was suggested. Needless to say this would not be a problem if designated (i.e. personal named) accounts were used, which are supported by Crest already. One aspect that might help is that one of the new CSDR regulations (38.5 was mentioned) requires an account to be designated if the client requests it. But will the brokers even tell their clients about this?

The trend in share registration was discussed. The numbers of individual shareholders on share registers is not falling apparently, which contradicts what I was told by one broker a few years ago when he said that dematerialisation will not become a problem as soon all paper share certificates will disappear. That appears not to be the case. We do need dematerialisation, i.e. a new electronic share registration system. But Personal Crest members are declining rapidly as brokers are now actively discouraging the use of that system and withdrawing it.

Attendance at General Meetings. Not only are the number of proxy votes submitted by shareholders low but attendance at AGMs is also low. In small cap companies there are often no ordinary shareholders present – and that’s not just companies who hold their AGMs at inconvenient times or inconvenient locations. It was generally agreed that “hybrid” AGMs were the way to go, i.e. having both a physical meeting and on-line interactive web-cast where you can ask questions. In the short-term just web-casting an AGM can be helpful to some investors.

Regulation of share registrars was discussed. This is something I have advocated recently. Registrars are a key component in the UK financial system so it is odd that they are not regulated. I suggested that possibly some informal code of practice could be developed – perhaps sponsored by ICSA – as a step in the right direction.

In summary it was a useful meeting and no doubt some of these issues will be discussed in future meetings.

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

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