Blancco AGM and Regulatory Landscape

Today I attended the Annual General Meeting of Blancco Technology Group (BLTG). This technology company is now focused on the data erasure market which is surely a growing one. I have commented on this company before (see links below), particularly as the company, and its shareholders, seemed to be a victim of false accounting – an issue that is way too prevalent of late.

The legal framework under which companies, their directors and the regulatory bodies operate just seems to be too weak to bring errant directors and auditors to account. This is not just obvious from this case but from the discussions at the recent ShareSoc/UKSA sponsored meeting with the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). See my previous comments on the Autonomy case in addition. As you will see below, no action seems to be being taken against the former directors of Blancco by the company, although complaints have been made to the FRC and to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) about past events and the latter may still be investigating – but as usual feedback is non-existent. As regards the complaint to the FRC, they have passed the buck to the ICAEW (the regulatory body for accountants) on the basis that it is too small a company to be bothered with.

There were about a dozen shareholders at the Blancco AGM in the City of London. The Chairman, Rob Woodwood, opened the meeting by introducing the board. That included new CEO Matt Jones who joined in March and new CFO Adam Maloney. Rob said the last year was a period of positive change for the company, which one can hardly dispute. He said after a turbulent year, they are on a positive track.

Shareholder Bruce Noble, first queried comments on the impact of currency movements (see page 9 of the Annual Report). The CFO admitted it could perhaps have been explained better.

Bruce then pointed out that the report made it clear that management controls had been avoided in the past as a result of which the accounts were false. This resulted in the management obtaining £400,000 and shareholders losing £135 million. The board responded that investigations were on-going and as result they were unable to comment about what is being done due to “legal privilege”. Both Bruce and I complained that we did not understand that comment, and I said that they were in breach of their legal obligations to answer questions put by shareholders at a General Meeting (see my past articles on similar issues at Abcam and Patisserie). As usual they refused to respond further due to “legal advice” so I suggested they should get better advice.

As I said to the Chairman after the meeting ended, we don’t expect him to disclose their conversations with the FCA or FRC, but there is no reason why they cannot pursue a civil case against the former management if there are justifiable grounds. They need to give reasons if they choose not to do so and simply saying they wish to concentrate on rebuilding the business is not good enough. I suggested I would be voting against his re-election in future (not on the agenda at this meeting) if he failed to take action on this matter.

The above is an abbreviated summary of what was a rather long discussion on this issue.

Bruce Noble also criticised the proposed re-election of Frank Blin, who was Chairman of the Audit Committee when the past events occurred. He asked him to do the “honourable” thing and step down, which Mr Blin refused to do. Bruce also criticised the appointment of PWC to take over from the former auditors (KPMG) when Mr Blin had a previous relationship with PWC and PWC had received criticism about other audits. Mr Blin responded that the relationship mentioned was more than 6 years ago and PWC had been appointed after an open tender process. Another shareholder suggested they might get better attention from a smaller audit firm but Blin responded that they did need a firm that could cover a complex international business particularly their operations in Finland and India. Comment: I don’t think having a smaller audit firm would help – Grant Thornton has had similar problems to larger firms. There is a more general problem with the overall quality of audits which has been recognised in the national media and by many investors.

I questioned the presentation of the income statement in the Annual Report, where “adjustments” are mixed in with normal “reported” figures and confuse the reader. They will look at this issue.

We then had a brief presentation from the new CEO Matt Jones. He is clearly an experienced manager of IT businesses. He said they have good customers and good staff but were spread too thinly. They need to focus more. He will be focusing on those with good growth opportunities, namely ITAD, mobile and enterprise solutions (note: they each represent about one third of current revenue).

There was a question about cash flow and operating margins. The response was that they are making investment this year to increase growth and hence margins will come down this year, but will grow thereafter. It was noted later that the investment will be mainly in R&D and to a lesser extent in sales and marketing. The CFO said the key was to avoid major exceptionals and improve cash flow.

One shareholder raised the issue about reliance on one customer at 11% of turnover but the board expressed no concerns and it might fall slightly this year.

I asked about the competitive landscape. Answer given was the main area for that was in mobile and they are working to improve their offering to meet that.

Another shareholder questioned their presence in 26 countries – are they spreading themselves too thinly? The answer was they are not planning any cut back in the geographic perspective. It transpired later than some of their locations are only very small sales operations, even though the CEO clearly spends a lot of time on planes (incidentally he mentioned he is based in California and works from home with an office above his garage). Modern communications methods assist a great deal.

The CEO said they have adequate sales/marketing staff and productivity is improving.

Lastly a question was raised as to the apparent votes from large shareholder M&G who abstained on some of the resolutions. Does the board know why? The answer was no, and it was not clear whether they had even been asked why although the Chairman did say he had been in communication with them and other large shareholders. Could it be I wonder that they were also unhappy with the openness of the board and their apparent failure to pursue past wrongdoing?

In conclusion, it does seem that the Chairman and the rest of the board are at least taking sensible steps to rebuild the company. The new executives seem to be good appointments but we will have to wait and see whether they can actually produce the goods. In the meantime, investor confidence in the company may take time to rebuild but even so it’s still quite highly rated on the normal financial ratios. My concern is that revenue growth does not seem particularly high for this kind of business and the current valuation. But there is certainly business opportunities to pursue given the growing populations of IT and phone equipment that need erasure or disposal at some point.

https://roliscon.blog/2018/01/15/sharesoc-takes-up-blancco-complaints/ https://roliscon.blog/2017/12/20/lse-general-meeting-and-blancco-agm/

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

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Bioventix AGM, Babcock Attack and FCA Measures on CFDs

On Thursday (6/12/2018) I attended the Annual General Meeting of Bioventix Plc (BVXP) at Farnham Castle. There were about a dozen ordinary shareholders present. Bioventix develop antibodies for use in blood tests. Their Annual Report contains a very good explanation of the business.

This AIM company had revenue of £7.9 million last year and post-tax profits of £5.6 million. They did that with only 15 staff. Total director pay was £362,000 even though CEO Peter Harrison’s pay went up by 54% – but no shareholders even mentioned that. With consistent growth, good dividends and high return on capital, there’s not much to complain about here.

There is a copy of the last presentation the company gave to investors here: https://www.bioventix.com/investors/overview/ which gives you more information on the company.

I won’t cover the meeting in detail but there were a few points worth mentioning:

Peter explained that the Vitamin D antibody market is “plateauing”, i.e. unlikely to show the same growth as historically. The key product for future revenue growth is their new Troponin test for which there are high hopes, but take-off seems sluggish. This is a marker for heart attacks and is used to check when someone turns up in A&E with chest pains whether they are having a heart attack or some other problem, the former being much more serious of course and needing rapid treatment. The new Troponin test is faster and more accurate which helps speedy and more accurate diagnosis. However adoption of it to replace the older test is slow. This seems to be because hospitals are slow to change their “protocols”. There is also some competition but it is not clear how the company’s product stands against that in terms of sales. It would seem more education and promotion of the new product is required but Bioventix is reliant on the blood-testing machine partner (Siemens) to promote it and it seems there is little financial advantage in doing so to them – the new product is no more expensive than the old. That you might think makes it easy for customers to convert to the new, but also provides little motivation for the supplier to promote. However, NICE and others are promoting the new tests. That’s a summary of what Peter explained to the shareholders with my deductions.

It would certainly be of advantage to patients if the new test was adopted. Might have saved me hanging around in A&E for most of the night a few years back just awaiting confirmation I had not had a heart attack.

There are other antibodies in the R&D pipeline although it can take 5 years from R&D commencement to product sales, even if the product is adopted. All R&D is written off in the year incurred though.

There were questions on cash and special dividends which the company sometimes pays. The business is highly cash-generative but they like to keep about £5 million in cash on the balance sheet and no debt so that they can take up any acquisition or IP opportunities.

On Friday (7/12/2018), there was an interesting article in the Financial Times on the attack on Babcock International (BAB) by Boatman Capital Research – a typical type of attack by an anonymous blogger probably combined with shorting. The article quoted an investor as saying “Boatman made some valid points…..but there were whopping inaccuracies which seemed calculated to drive the share price down”. For example, the article mentioned claims about overruns on a contract to build a dry dock at Devonport – there is no such contract.

Babcock has been trying to find out who Boatman Capital are, but with no success at all. The organisation or its owners cannot be located, and their web site is anonymised. So Babcock cannot even sue the authors. They may well be located overseas in any case which would make it even more difficult. Babcock share price has been falling as a result and is down 20% since the Boatman report was published. See the FT report here: https://www.ft.com/content/c2780d6e-f942-11e8-af46-2022a0b02a6c

Comment (I do not hold Babcock shares): The Boatman report seems to be the usual mixture of a few probable facts, mixed with errors and innuendo as one sees in such shorting attacks. There have been a few examples where such reports did provide very important information but because of the approach the writers of such reports take it is very difficult to deduce whether the content is all true, partially true, or totally erroneous and misguided. The shorter does not care because they can do the damage regardless and turn a profit.

The basic problem is that with the internet it is easy to propagate “fake news” and get it circulated so rapidly that the company cannot respond fast enough, and regulators likewise – the latter typically take months or years to do anything, even if they have a channel they can use. We really need new legislation to stop this kind of market abuse which can just as easily involve going long on a stock as going short. Contracts for Difference (CFDs) are one way to take an interest in a share price without owning the underlying stock and hence are ideal for such market manipulations.

Which brings me on to the next topic. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has announced proposals to restrict the sales of CFDs and Binary Options to retail investors. Most retail investors in CFDs lose money – see my previous comments here on this subject: https://roliscon.blog/2018/01/14/want-to-get-rich-quickly/ . The latest FCA proposals are covered here: https://www.fca.org.uk/news/press-releases/fca-proposes-permanent-measures-retail-cfds-and-binary-options

You will note it contains protections to ensure clients cannot lose all their money and positions will be closed out earlier. But leverage can still be up to 30 to 1. The new rules might substantially reduce losses incurred by retail investors, the FCA believes.

But it still looks like a half-baked compromise to me. If the FCA really wants to protect retail investors from their own foolishness, then an outright ban would surely be wiser. At best most CFD purchasers are speculating, not investing, and I cannot see why the FCA should be permitting what is essentially gambling on stock prices. It creates a dubious culture, and the promotion of these products is based on them being a quick way to riches when in reality it’s usually a quick way to become poorer.

You only have to look at the accounts of publicly listed CFD providers to see who is making the money – it’s the providers not the clients. Those companies seem to be mainly saying the new rules won’t have much impact on them. That is shame when they should do and shows how the FCA’s solution is a poor, half-baked compromise.

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

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Acquittals Over Tesco Fraud

Yesterday (6/12/2018) was another sad day for those who would like to stop false accounts being published by public companies. Two former executives of Tesco who had been charged with their involvement in the inflating of Tesco’s profits by including supplier credits were discharged by the court on the basis that they had no case to answer. The judge, Sir John Royce, said the case was so weak that it should not be put to a jury.

It appears that the problem was proving that the defendants, John Scouler and Christopher Bush, knew about the false accounting or were the cause of it. This is despite the fact that Tesco, the company, entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) with the SFO over the case, and the company agreed with the FCA to compensate affected shareholders who relied on the false accounts.

A DPA does not include any admission of guilt, so it seems we now have the situation where nobody is to be held personally liable for these events.

Was this a trivial technical offence committed by a low-level employee? Not exactly. Tesco plc made an exceptional charge of £235m in respect of the DPA of £129m, the expected costs of an FCA compensation scheme of £85m, and related costs.  The profit figure of Tesco was reduced by £250 million in one quarter alone.

Auditors PwC also escaped any censure over their audits of the accounts of Tesco after an investigation by the Financial Report Council (FRC).

In summary we now have the situation where a major fraud on investors took place by the publication of false accounts but nobody is held accountable. Not until UK law is tightened considerably will such events no longer happen. Directors should be held strictly liable for the publication of false accounts on their watch, and auditors likewise. It is simply not good enough when everyone can evade responsibility by saying “nobody told me”.

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

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KIDs and New Bank Claim Platform

The rules for the production of KIDs (Key Information Documents) laid down by the EU have been severely criticised because they may give investors very misleading views on likely future returns from funds. This is because their estimate of future returns are based on short-term historic data. This has caused many fund managers of investment trusts to suggest that they should be ignored and investors look at the other data that the companies publish to get a better view of likely future returns. This writer certainly ignores the KIDs for the investment trusts I hold.

One anomaly is that KIDs are now only required for investment trusts not open-ended funds such as OEICs. Implementation for the latter was delayed and a decision has been made to delay them again. This is what the Association of Investment Companies (AIC) just said about this: “The expected delay to KIDs for UCITS funds is welcome but leaves investors in non-UCITS funds out in the cold.  Recent EU proposals to reform KIDs do not address their fundamental failings and will either do no good or make matters worse.  Investors now face being misled by KIDs for years to come. As the EU appears unwilling or unable to protect non-UCITS investors, the FCA should take the lead and warn investors not to rely on these documents.  It should ensure that the misleading information in KIDs does not pollute other areas of the market, for example by prohibiting it from being used in financial promotions and in search filters on websites.”

It’s worth pointing out that investment trusts are a peculiarly British approach to providing funds to retail investors. In effect the EU has adopted rules that prejudice investment trusts and if our future financial rules are aligned with the EU that prejudice will continue after March 2019.

Incidentally I was somewhat baffled by the furore in Parliament over disclosure of the legal advice on Brexit. The previous legal advice on Brexit was 43 pages long. The new “full” legal advice is 6 pages and does not appear to contain more information. It’s just an executive summary which highlights a few issues. So many MPs and the media are just stirring and creating dissension in my view for no good reason. Perhaps they simply have not read both documents like me.

Neil Mitchell, who has been fighting the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) over their actions over the pre-pack administration of Torex Retail for years, has launched a judicial review against the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) over their failure to disqualify certain executives of RBS involved in the activities of the Global Restructuring (GRG) at RBS. This is the group that is alleged to have connived in destroying good small companies for the benefit of RBS. It looks a difficult judicial review to get even past the first hearing by a judge to me for more than one reason from my knowledge of such cases, but I am no lawyer.

He has also launched a new Claims Management company to pursue legal claims against RBS and other banks on behalf of those aggrieved by what happened in the bank financial crisis and the activities of banks in general. The new platform has a web site here: www.banksclaimsgroup.com . Anyone who thinks they have such a claim needs to look very carefully about how this new group is to be run and financed. There are lots of lawyers keen to earn fees from pursuing such claims but whether they have a realistic prospect of success is often ignored. Also just because folks feel they have a grievance does not mean they have a winnable legal case. And as we have seen from the RBOS Shareholders Action Group, often any awards when won are can be largely diverted to litigation funders and others.

But Neil Mitchell certainly has much knowledge and experience that might be of assistance to others.

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

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Bellway AGM for Early Risers Only

Should Annual General Meetings of companies be held at reasonably convenient locations and on convenient dates and times so that as many shareholders as possible can attend? Most private shareholders certainly think so. But Bellway (BWY) seem to be taking the opposite approach.

Their 2016 AGM was at the very sensible and easily achievable time of 2pm in the afternoon so all shareholders hoping to attend could actually meet the directors and ask questions. They could travel from all over the country and even have time for lunch!

But this year’s AGM kicks off at 8.30 am on Wednesday 12 December 2018 at Jesmond Dene House Hotel, Jesmond Dene, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 2EY.

So what changed….Do directors at Bellway not want shareholders any more….maybe the huge remuneration at housebuilders and recent furore at Persimmon has made directors devise cunning plans to avoid awkward questions and attention from the media.

This anti-shareholder mindset seemed to set in last year with an early morning start at 9.30 am in Newcastle but still six shareholders made it through the doors. That must have been too many for the directors because this year they have moved it even earlier. They have moved it closer to breakfast for those who like to vote whilst eating their cornflakes.

Here’s hoping that the 2019 AGM is not held at 7.30am and that at least one shareholder will make it through the early morning fog on the Tyne !!

But it is simply not acceptable for boards to take this approach. There are too few shareholders attend AGMs already without deliberately making it difficult for them. I suggest that perhaps the UK Corporate Governance Code should be modified to include coverage of when and where AGMs should be held and other aspects of how they are run (such as the answering of questions which I covered in a previous article).

Thanks to David Stredder for notes on the above events.

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

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Autonomy, FRC Meeting, Retailers and Brexit Legal Advice

The big news last Friday (30/11/2018) was that former CEO Mike Lynch has been charged with fraud in the USA over the accounts of Autonomy. That company was purchased by Hewlett Packard who promptly proceeded to write off most of the cost – see this blog post for more information: https://roliscon.blog/2018/06/02/belated-action-by-frc-re-autonomy/. As this was a UK company, are we anywhere nearer a hearing in the UK over the alleged “creative accounting” that took place at the company and the failure of the auditors to identify anything amiss? That’s after 8 years since the events.

As I was attending a meeting held by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) for ShareSoc and UKSA members yesterday, I thought to review the past actions by the FRC on this matter. In February 2013 they announced an investigation but it took until May 2018 to formally announce a complaint against auditors Deloitte and the former CFO of Autonomy Sushovan Hussain who has already been convicted of fraud in the USA. On the 27th November, the action against Hussain was suspended pending his appeal against that conviction, but other complaints were not. But why the delay on pursuing the auditors?

The FRC event was useful in many ways in that it gave a good overview of the role of the FRC – what they cover and what they do not cover which is not easy for the layman to understand. They also covered the progress on past and current enforcement actions which do seem to have been improving after previous complaints of ineffectiveness and excessive delays. For example PWC/BHS was resolved in two years and fines imposed are rising rapidly. But they still only have 10 case officers so are hoping the Kingman review of the FRC will argue for more resources.

It was clear though that audit quality is still a major problem with only 73% of FTSE-350 companies being rated as 1 or 2A in the annual reviews when the target is 90%. The FRC agreed they “might be falling short” on pursuing enforcement over poor quality audits. So at least they recognise the problems.

One useful titbit of information after the usual complaints about the problems of nominee accounts and shareholder rights were made (not really an FRC responsibility) was that a white paper on the “plumbing” of share ownership and transactions will be published on the 30th January.

There were lots of interesting stories on retailing companies yesterday. McColl’s Retail Group (MCLS) published a very negative trading update which caused the shares to fall 30% on the day. Supply chain issues after the collapse of Palmer & Harvey are the cause. Ted Baker (TED) fell 15% after a complaint of excessive hugging of staff by CEO Ray Kelvin. This may not have a sexual connotation as it seems he treats male and female staff similarly. Just one of the odd personal habits one sees in some CEOs it seems. Retail tycoon Mike Ashley appeared before a Commons Select Committee and said the High Street would be dead in a few years unless internet retailers were taxed more fairly. He alleged the internet was killing the High Street. But there was one bright spark among retailers in that Dunelm (DNLM) rose 14% after a Peel Hunt upgraded the company to a “buy” and suggested that they might be able to pay a special dividend next year. There was also some director buying of their shares.

Before the FRC meeting yesterday I dropped in on the demonstrations outside Parliament on College Green. It seemed to consist of three fairly equally balanced groups of “Leave Means Leave” campaigners, supporters of Brexit and those wishing to stay in the EU – that probably reflects the composition of the Members in the House across the road. You can guess which group I supported but I did not stay long as it was absolutely pelting down with rain. There is a limit to the sacrifices one can make for one’s country.

But in the evening I did read the legal advice given to Parliament by the attorney-general (see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/761153/EU_Exit_-_Legal_position_on_the_Withdrawal_Agreement.pdf

Everyone is looking very carefully at the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement that cover the Northern Ireland backstop arrangements. The attorney-general makes it clear that the deal does bind the UK to the risk of those arrangements continuing, although there is a clear commitment to them only lasting 2 years when they should be replaced by others. There is also an arbitration process if there is no agreement on what happens subsequently. However, he also makes it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement is a “treaty” between two sovereign powers – the UK and the EU.

Treaties between nations only stick so long as both parties are happy to abide by them, just like agreements between companies. But they often renege on them. For example, the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939 was a notorious example – Hitler ignored it 2 years later and invaded Russia. Donald Trump has reneged on treaties, for example the intermediate nuclear weapons treaty last month. Similarly nations and companies can ignore arbitration decisions if they choose to do so.

What happens after 2 years if no agreement is reached and the UK insists on new proposals re Northern Ireland? Is the EU going to declare war on the UK? We have an army but they do not yet have one. Are they going to impose sanctions, close their borders or refuse a trade deal? I suspect they would not for sound commercial reasons.

Therefore my conclusion is that the deal that Theresa May has negotiated is not as bad as many make out. Yes it could be improved in some regards so as to ensure an amicable future agreement but I am warming to it just like the Editor of the Financial Times recently. He did publish a couple of letters criticising his volte-face when previously he has clearly opposed Brexit altogether, but changing one’s mind when one learns more is just being sensible.

Note: I have held or do hold some of the companies mentioned above, but never Autonomy. Never did like the look of their accounts.

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

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Majestic Wine, Brexit, Proxy Voting and Inheritance Tax Simplification

Majestic Wine (WINE) issued their interim results yesterday (22/11/2018). I no longer hold the shares but I am a customer of theirs. The financial results were disappointing with adjusted earnings down 63% and reported profit turned into a loss from a £1.5 million profit in the previous half year. Their explanation is increased marketing expenditure particularly on Naked Wines. Revenue overall was up 5.4% but what is the point in generating more revenue at a loss? As a customer I seem to be receiving fewer marketing communications from the company. No pre-Christmas promotion so far for example. Does this explain part of their difficulty?

Their “adjustments” that enabled them to report adjusted profits are, shall we say, interesting. It includes an adjustment for “en primeur” orders where title has not passed to the customer as it has not even shipped from the supplier so cannot be recognised as a sale. They also throw in a whole mass of acquisition and restructuring costs in their adjustments.

Needless to say, they are burning cash at a great rate, including putting more into inventory (see below), so I am not convinced they have a sound strategy. The share price dropped on these results despite the announcement being full of positive comments about the future.

One might call this “reporting dissonance” where the fine phrases and positive comments about future prospects do not match the hard financial facts.

Brexit

One interesting comment in the Majestic results was that they are stockpiling wine above their normal levels “to mitigate any supply chain Brexit disruption in March 2019”. That should really annoy the chattering classes in London if their booze supplies are disrupted and they cannot obtain their favourite tipples.

But we do now have an expanded (7 pages to 26) publication explaining the proposed UK’s relationship with the EU after the Withdrawal Transition period. You can find it here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/progress-on-the-uks-exit-from-and-future-relationship-with-the-european-union .

You’ve probably heard the phrase “gesture politics” which refers to how politicians make grandiose gestures with little real impact. This “Political Declaration” as it is called is surely one of the grandest of all gestures. It commits neither side to anything very specific although there are lots of fine words in there.

But it does cover some areas that I complained about in the Withdrawal Agreement. It’s the kind of political statement that is aimed to appeal to all sides of the political debate in the UK over Brexit plus EU bureaucrats and politicians. But it does not resolve clearly and unambiguously the issue of no border controls in Northern Ireland and our future trading relationship with the EU, or the Gibraltar issue that Spain is complaining about. Mrs May might just get where she wants to be at this rate, but whether she can do enough to win the support of the electorate, and even more importantly, the votes in Parliament, remains to be seen.

Proxy Voting

As a past shareholder in US companies, I always used to think their proxy voting system worked well. But apparently not according to an article in the FT this week. Under the headline “SEC urged to shake up proxy voting system” it reported that it was expensive, complex and prone to error. It actually took two months to calculate if a proxy vote on a board appointment at Procter & Gamble was won or lost. I was aware that the US system was prone to “over-voting” where more shares are voted that the company has in issue, but just as in the UK the turnout of retail investors in the vote is now very low at 29%. Companies, or people fighting a proxy battle, cannot get through to the end investors or beneficial owners and lending of shares by institutional investors also causes many shares not to be voted.

In summary the system is too complex and prone to error. The SEC is to undertake a review on how it could be improved. We surely need a similar initiative in the UK and the solution is a well-designed electronic system where every shareholder is on the register of a company, including those holding shares in nominee accounts.

Inheritance Tax

I mentioned in a previous article that the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) is looking at Inheritance Tax. They got a lot of submissions to their public consultation apparently and have now published a “first” report on the subject. See: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/office-of-tax-simplification-inheritance-tax-review . Here are some initial comments:

It is surprising to read that the average amount of tax paid, as a percentage of an estates value, increases up to the £2 million level and then levels off at about 20%. But if your estate is worth more than £8 million then the percentage decreases. In other words, the very wealthy pay less tax. These figures are explained by high levels of exempt transfers to spouses but particularly for the rich, the extensive use of reliefs. This is surely a case of the very wealthy employing clever tax advisors while the middle classes whose wealth can reside mainly in expensive houses find it more difficult to avoid. This just demonstrates that the tax is not exactly rational nor equitable.

The OTS received many negative comments about the complexity of IHT returns and these on the issue of Lifetime Gifts:

  • The various gift rules and exemptions can be complex and confusing and are not always well understood, especially those relating to the tapering of the tax rate for gifts given in the seven years before death.
  • The financial limits for the various exemptions have not kept pace with inflation (it being recognised that increases would have an Exchequer cost).
  • For many, it is difficult to either maintain or reconstruct records of lifetime Gifts.

The complexity of the Inheritance Tax forms that executors are expected to complete is acknowledged as an issue and the recommendation is that these should be replaced by a digital system. Pending such a system being implemented the current paper forms should be changed and the guidance that is provided simplified.

At present inheritance tax must be paid within 6 months but forms only need to be returned within 12 months. There is also the problem of having to pay the tax before the assets may have been realised. All the OTS says on these issues is that HMRC should explore potential solutions.

They also suggest some possible simplifications of the IHT regulations for Trusts. But in general this report only suggest relatively modest changes to the administration of estates rather than a proper simplification of this area of taxation. Perhaps there will be more in future reports.

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

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