Petrol and Diesel Cars Face Extinction

After being preceded by numerous leaks, the Government has finally announced that it is bringing forward the date when sales of new petrol and diesel powered cars are banned to 2030 (see Reference 1 for details). The only exception is that sales of hybrid vehicles will be permitted until 2035. In practice such vehicles will go the same way as the dinosaurs, facing extinction in a few years’ time.

That will not stop such vehicles already purchased from being used after those dates but they may be discouraged in other ways of course (such as by the ULEZ in London).

This is what Allistair Heath (who described himself as “a convert” to electric cars) said in the Daily Telegraph: “The green agenda has triumphed, in the sense that cultural, political, educational and corporate elites, in the US, UK and every European country, are all in favour of decarbonisation. Opponents have been routed, with almost no chance of a way back”. He’s definitely right in that regard. There has been no cost/benefit analysis of these proposals or rational justification given. It’s all about cutting air pollution and saving the planet regardless of the negative consequences of these moves.

To start with the Government is spending £1.8 billion to support the charging infrastructure and other measures required by electrification of all vehicles. That will come out of your taxes. This is far from a trivial matter. In London and other major UK cities one big problem is that many households do not have off-street parking so there will need to be kerbside charging points installed in many streets.

The car industry, one of the major UK exporters, will have to adapt to only producing electric vehicles and much faster than they expected. They may be able to cope with that but will it damage their export capability? Nobody seems to have looked at that issue. The Government says it will create 40,000 extra jobs by 2030, particularly in our manufacturing heartlands of the North East and across the Midlands, but that seems to be very unlikely to be the case. These will not be new jobs surely, just replacing existing ones.

This is what Lord Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, had to say about the new “Green revolution”: “If the Government were trying to damage the economy, they couldn’t be doing it better. Moreover, the job creation mantra is economically illiterate. A programme to erect statues of Boris in every town and village in the land would also ‘create jobs’ but that doesn’t make it a sensible thing to do.”

Does the public demand cuts in air pollution? It was interesting to read some of the response to a recent survey of Lewisham residents where 13% said they suffered from medical conditions as a result of air pollution in their local street. Some of them might be suffering from more pollution because of the closed roads in Lewisham though where a Low Traffic Neighbourhood has been installed and it’s worth pointing out that the majority of air pollution in the borough comes from other sources than transport. In reality diesel and petrol cars contribute only 12% and 6% respectively of all emissions in London and they are falling rapidly.

But a survey by London Councils reported that “The vast majority of Londoners (82%) are concerned about climate change with half of concerned respondents going further saying they are very concerned (40%). Over half of respondents (52%) feel their day-to-day life in London had been impacted by climate change”. Many years of scaremongering over climate change has clearly brainwashed the general public into believing it’s a major threat to their life. The metropolitan elites who can afford to buy electric vehicles (which currently cost a lot more than diesel/petrol ones) can salve their consciences by buying electric vehicles despite the fact that they will have minimal impact on overall levels of air pollution while UK emissions from all sources contribute only 1% to global CO2 emissions and hence cannot have any significant impact.

Will the public accept the ban on the sale of new diesel/electric vehicles and cope with it? Based on public opinion, they are likely to accept it and in reality, with a few exceptions they should be able to cope.

By 2035, electric vehicles are likely to be cheaper and also have longer range, and older vehicles will still be able to be used. If charging points are much more common as they should be in a few years, that will lessen the problems. But there are two problem areas:

Those vehicle owners with no off-street parking might find charging their vehicles problematic. And those who wish to own motorhomes or tow caravans will find electric vehicles have very short ranges.

In summary, the Government’s announcement will impose major costs on people, and on the economy while having little real impact in reality on air pollution or global warming. However, the encouragement of electric vehicles does make sense in some ways but that is already being done by taxation, by subsidies and by measures such as zero emission streets in problem areas in London.

Putting a sharp deadline on sales of some vehicles, particularly hybrid ones in 2035, just seems somewhat irrational when the dangers of air pollution have been grossly exaggerated and there will be significant problems in making the change for some people. More attention needs to be paid to other sources of air pollution and one of the major factors that has caused increases in that is the growth of the population, an issue few politicians seem to want to tackle. Air pollution directly relates to population numbers and density and London is a good example of the negative consequences of allowing unlimited population growth.

Reference 1: DfT Announcement: https://tinyurl.com/y2l4xhcw

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

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Dividend Cut at Elecosoft, Dignity Trading and Public Transport Problems

Many investors are suffering from dividend cuts by companies. The latest one in my portfolio is Elecosoft (ELCO), a company that produces software for the construction sector. In their announcement of the full year results this morning they indicated revenue and earnings were much as forecast to December, and cash flow was good enough to put them in a net cash position.

Normally these results would not have caused any concerns that the dividend would be reduced or cancelled, but not this year. Even though they only previously paid small dividends and half the “cost” as a scrip dividend, this year’s final dividend has been cancelled. This is what the company had to say:

“Proposed Dividend: Elecosoft’s strong trading performance and cash generation in 2019, and, ironically, the strong start to trading in 2020, would normally have warranted the payment of an increased final dividend. However, having regard to the uncertainties created by the Coronavirus situation and the need to conserve our cash resources, the Board has decided to not recommend a final dividend”.

I don’t normally like to challenge the wisdom of management, who may know more than me about the trading position of the company and future revenue, but this does look at first glance to be excessively cautious. That is particularly so bearing in mind they could have paid it as a scrip dividend if they wished to conserve cash. ShareSoc has published some comments and written to the FRC, FCA and BEIS on the problem of dividend cuts suggesting they should issue some guidance. That seems to be a sensible suggestion because at present we don’t know whether this is just management panicking or being simply prudent.

One company that should surely be benefiting from the coronavirus epidemic is funeral provider Dignity (DTY) – I do not hold the shares. More deaths surely mean more business for them. But in their trading update today they show that it is not that simple. The company says the following:

“The absolute number of deaths increased by approximately one per cent to 161,000 from 159,000 in the comparative period last year. Sadly, since the end of the quarter, the UK has witnessed in excess of 20,000 deaths in a single week, the highest since the beginning of 2000. The number of possible incremental deaths as a result of COVID-19 is a matter of substantial speculation. Should 2020 witness a large number of incremental deaths, beyond the 600,000 originally anticipated by the Office for National Statistics, then it is possible that 2021 and 2022 could experience a lower number of deaths than in 2019. The Group will not speculate on the most likely outcome”.

In addition there is the problem that as many people cannot attend funerals, some funerals are being postponed or executors are opting for lower cost funeral packages. Dignity was already suffering from aggressive price competition which had prompted a strategic review before the latest crisis arose.

The company had previously decided to suspend dividend payments. Like Elecosoft they apparently are simply unable to forecast the likely impact of the epidemic on their business. So no guidance for 2020 is being provided.

On Saturday the 9th May Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary, said that only 10% of former public transport capacity will be available in some locations if social distancing is to be maintained. It seems likely that will be so for many months even if people are permitted to go back to work. This will clearly cause major problems in London where almost all commuters use public transport such as trains, the underground and buses.

After the Prime Minister spoke on the 10th May, Mr Shapps issued this tweet: “Speaking this evening the PM was clear – if you’re going back to work in a job that cannot be done from home, please avoid public transport if possible. Go by car, or even better, cycle or walk. To help, we’ve announced more than £2bn in the biggest ever boost to cycling and walking”.

An example of how problematic London transport has become is a report in the Times that says Transport for London (TfL) has asked the Government for £2 billion. To quote: “TfL is down to its last £1bn, which is being burnt at a rate of £21m a day — leaving it less than two months from emptying its coffers and illustrating the intense pressure on local authority finances”. The article suggests the Government will attach some strings to any funding.

Mr Shapps was clearly right to point out the public transport capacity problem, but his apparent remedy to get everyone walking and cycling makes little sense. It is a typical view of politicians who can afford to live in central London. But for the vast majority of London commuters who travel many miles to get to work, it’s simply impractical even if they are keen cyclists.

Mr Shapps also justified his proposals by saying the epidemic is a great health opportunity to encourage active travel with the objective to double cycling by 2025. He also proposes to implement at least one “zero emission” city, and argues that one of the few positives will be improved air quality. He actually said there are “more than 20,000 extra deaths a year attributed to NO2 emissions”.

This figure is nonsense. It repeats the past allegation of 40,000 deaths from air pollution in the UK which has been shown to be simply wrong and a corruption of statistical evidence. In reality, there may be a few months shortening of life expectancy from all air pollution sources, a lot of which cannot be removed such as natural sources. But the figure is essentially uncertain and it is clear there are no deaths directly attributable to pollution. To specifically indicate NO2, which mainly comes from transport, as being the problem is also wrong when the Government advisory body COMEAP could not even agree that NO2 contributed to the negative impact on health of air pollution from particulates.

Mr Shapps clearly knows little about air pollution and its impact on health but is using his ignorance to put a positive spin on his actions in response to the transport crisis.

Just to show how there is no direct correlation between traffic levels and air pollution, this is what the London Air Quality Network (LAQN) recently reported: “Levels of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) has reduced significantly during lockdown, research from King’s College London has found. Concentrations of NO2 have lowered as much as 55% due to less road traffic. However, levels of PM10 and PM2.5 were higher after lockdown than at any other time in 2020, due to easterly winds and pollutants from northern Europe”. The reduction in NO2 is perhaps not surprising when measurements by the LAQN are often taken at the roadside so will be heavily influenced by adjacent traffic. But as particulates (PM10 and PM2.5) are of much greater health concern you can see that Mr Shapps’ spin on the air pollution issue is somewhat misleading. Other UK cities have also shown no direct correlation between traffic reduction from the epidemic and air pollution – at least to date.

The air pollution problem is much more complex than can be solved by encouraging walking and cycling alone.

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

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Ted Baker Audit Failure, SRT Marine Big Deals and Population Growth

The bad news this morning for holders of retailer Ted Baker (TED) is that the company has announced an independent review of its inventory. It says it has identified that the value of inventory held on its balance sheet has been overstated. It estimates that the figure is up to £25 million and that it relates to prior years. This looks like yet another audit failure (the auditors are KPMG).

The share price is down 10% today at the time of writing but it’s been falling for a long time so it’s now down well over 80% from its peak at the start of the year. Warnings about its stock holding are not new. This is what the Investors Chronicle had to say in October: “Ted Baker’s stock levels have been a cause for concern. Inventories have grown consistently in recent years, reaching a peak of 37 per cent of revenues at the full year”. For a clothing retailer to hold that much stock seems simply unreasonable. That report came after an unexpected half year loss. I suspect that even worse news may come out in due course.

On Friday an article by Simon Thompson in Investors Chronicle contained a puff for SRT Marine Systems (SRT). This made for interesting reading as I used to hold the stock – sold at 25p in 2012, price now 52p. I sold because of repeated lack of progress and overoptimistic forecasts of big deals in the pipeline. The CEO (he’s still there) seemed to be a perennial optimist and even analysts started to become wary. Revenue and profits jumped around from year to year (big profits in 2019 after losses in 2018) and the share price jumped around similarly. Simply not the kind of company I like to hold.

Has anything changed to cause Simon to tip the share? The basis is a big deal (a “game changing contract worth £31.8 million”) to sell AIS systems for marine surveillance in the Philippines. There are also other similar deals in the pipeline. This is what is says in the recently published Interim Report in which they also reported a major loss: “Most of our system discussions are confidential in nature and usually have a long gestation period due to the nature of a government turning a general idea into a real system with all the necessary regulations, budgets and approvals. Over the last few years, we have followed a very steep learning curve in respect of understanding the realities of the intricacies and complexities of the processes that each of these large contracts must complete prior to SRT being contracted. Whilst predicting timescales remains imperfect, this knowledge now enables us to more accurately characterise system opportunities with regards to their status within a customer’s process and better understand the real time window within which we would expect to be contracted and start implementing an SRT-MDA system. We hope this will reflect in an improving ability to provide market updates on the status of future system contract opportunities”.

Big projects also create big risks though, and soak up working capital. Will they be completed on time and within budget? Will the customers be satisfied and pay on time? I won’t be jumping in to follow Simon Thompson’s tip just yet. I’ll wait to see if the leopard can change its spots.

Another interesting article over the weekend was one by David Miles (Professor of Economics at Imperial College). It was headlined: “Why our rising population will bring with it a decreasing standard of living”. The article argues that with a rising population the country needs to invest more simply not just to maintain the capital asset stock but to cover the demands of the extra population – for housing and transport for example. But the higher the population growth, the less your ability to maintain assets per person unless you raise savings. But that means lower consumption, hence we become individually poorer.

Population growth is certainly a concern of mine, and likewise for many other people who live in the London area. What follows is a article I recently wrote on that subject for another organisation:

London Congestion – It’s Only Going to Get Worse

As anyone who has lived in London for more than a few years probably knows, the population of the metropolis has been rapidly rising. This has resulted in ever worse congestion not just on the roads but on public transport also. The roads are busier, rush hours have extended and London Underground cannot handle the numbers who wish to travel on some lines during peak hours. Even bus ridership has been declining as the service has declined in reliability and speed due to traffic jams.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) has published some projections of future population numbers for the capital and the conclusion can only be that life is going to get worse for Londoners over the next few years.

The current population is about 8.8 million but is forecast to grow to 10.4 million by 2041, i.e. an 18% increase. This increase is driven primarily by the number of births and declining death rates. The relatively high numbers of births in comparison with what one might expect is because London has a relatively youthful population. One can guess this is the case because of the high numbers of migration from overseas which results in a net positive international migration figure while domestic migration to/from the rest of the UK is a net negative, i.e. Londoners are being replaced by immigrants.

But population increase in London does not have to be so. The chart below shows you the trend over the last 100 years and as you can see London has only recently reached the last peak set in 1939. During the 1960s to 1990s the population fell. What changed? In that period there was a policy to reduce overcrowding in London and associated poor housing conditions by encouraging relocation of people and businesses to “new towns”. But when Ken Livingstone took power he adopted policies of encouraging more growth. His successors have continued with those policies and have promoted immigration, e.g. with Sadiq Khan’s “London is Open” policy.

London Population Trend

Many Londoners complain about the air pollution in the London conurbation without understanding that the growth in businesses and population have directly contributed to that problem. More people means more home and office heating, more transport (mainly by HGVs and LGVs) to supply the goods they require, more emissions from cooking, and many other sources. The Mayor thinks he can solve the air pollution issues by attacking private car use and ensuring goods vehicles have lower emissions but he is grossly mistaken in that regard. The problem is simply too many people.

Building work also contributes to more emissions substantially so home and office building does not help. But the demand for new homes does not keep pace with the population growth resulting in many complaints that people have to live in cramped apartments or cannot find anywhere suitable to live at all. Likewise new public transport capacity does not keep pace with the increased demand. There is some more capacity on the Underground but only on some lines and not much while Crossrail which might have helped has been repeatedly delayed.

The economy of London is still buoyant.  But all the disadvantages of overcrowding in London mean that Londoners are poorer in many ways. Indeed if Professor Miles is right, they will be cash poorer as well. Those who can move out by using long-distance commuting or relocating permanently thus leaving London to be occupied by young immigrants.

Any Mayor who had any sense would develop a new policy to discourage immigration, encourage birth control and encourage emigration to elsewhere in the UK or the Rest of the World. But I doubt Sadiq Khan will do so because a poorer population actually helps him to get elected. It’s a form of gerrymandering.

If Sadiq Khan wanted Londoners to live in a greener, pleasanter city with a better quality of life then he would change direction. But I fear only intervention by central Government will result in any change.

Go here for more details of the GLA projections of London’s population: https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/projections-documentation

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

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Removing Directors, Ventus VCTs, Rent Controls and HS2

Replacing the directors of companies by shareholders can be enormously difficult. Although I have been instrumental in the past in helping that process in several companies, it takes enormous effort and a lengthy timescale to achieve it. ShareSoc director Cliff Weight has published a very perceptive article on the problems of doing so at the Ventus VCTs.

Problems faced by shareholders who are unhappy with the directors of a company are a) communicating with all other shareholders now that many are in nominee accounts and the costly process of writing to shareholders on the register via post (and processing the register into usable format for mailing); b) the existing directors of a company using the resources of the company (i.e. shareholders funds) to campaign actively against any change including the use of expensive proxy advisors to contact shareholders via telephone; c) the role of IFAs who advise their clients or who manage their portfolios and who can influence the shareholder voting; and d) the inertia of institutional investors (or to quote someone from the FT today: about 60% of company investors are passive shareholders and ‘don’t care’).

In the case of the Ventus VCTs, some shareholders are unhappy with the management fees as no new investments are being made by the company and are unhappy with the actions of the directors. They have tabled requisitions for the Annual General Meetings at Ventus VCT and Ventus 2 VCT on the 8th August to remove all the directors and appoint new ones. Of particular concern is the current two-year termination notice on the management agreement which is now being proposed to extend further. It is never a good idea for investment trusts to have long termination periods in contracts with the manager.

You can read Cliff Weight’s blog article here: https://tinyurl.com/y2de9vaa . There is also an article covering this topic in this weeks Investor’s Chronicle under the title “Limits of Influence”. It’s well worth reading.

How to solve these problems? I suggest the following: a) a reform to put all shareholders (including beneficial owners) on the register of companies; b) put shareholders email addresses on the register so that communicating with them can be done at reasonable cost – it’s surely unreasonable in the modern age to only have postal addresses which adds to costs enormously; c) limit how much can be spent on proxy advisors to oppose shareholder requisitions; and d) exclude passive institutional investors who have no interest as owners from voting.

Rent Controls

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is intending to develop proposals for rent controls in London so as to “stabilise” or reduce property rents in London (or make them “more affordable” as he puts it). That’s despite the fact that he has no legal powers to do so and a Conservative government would likely block such proposals. But Jeremy Corbyn supports the idea. The Mayor clearly sees this as a vote winner for his re-election campaign next year as he claims 68% of Londoner’s support rent controls!

Some of my readers probably invest in buy-to-let properties so such proposals will worry them considerably. On the other hand, those who rent houses or flats in London are undoubtedly concerned about the cost of renting and the rapid rise in rents in London. Some are being forced out of London or have to move to smaller properties.

But rent controls never work and create all kinds of negative side-effects, or unintended consequences. When I moved to London in the 1960s, rent controls were in place and had been since 1945 in various forms (there is good coverage of the history of rent controls in London on Wikipedia). In the 1960s, unfurnished properties were almost impossible to find or were horribly expensive as landlords had withdrawn from the market. Rachmanism to force tenants out of rent controlled properties was also rife and what property there was available for rent on the market was often in very poor condition because landlords simply could not justify spending money on maintenance. We definitely do not want to return to the 1960s despite Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to put us there!

Rent controls are not the answer, as many studies of such schemes has shown. The Mayor needs to do more to tackle the housing problem in London by ensuring more home are built, encouraging movement of people out of London, and discouraging new immigration into the capital from elsewhere. But you can read the Mayor’s press release here if you wish to learn more about his plans: https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/to-tackle-affordability-crisis

HS2 and Brexit

The latest report that HS2 may cost an extra £30bn, meaning it could cost as much as £85bn in total, surely makes it even less justifiable. Enabling a very few people to save a few minutes on the train journey time from London to Birmingham at that cost makes no sense, although there might be more justification for expanding capacity and speed on routes in the North of England. However, it would surely be much better to spend that kind of money on an improved road network where the benefits are much greater. The Alliance of British Drivers has just published an analysis of road expenditure versus taxation which includes a comparison of road versus rail expenditure. It’s well worth reading – see here: https://www.abd.org.uk/road-investment-and-road-user-taxation-the-truth/ .

Now the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) have recently suggested that a “no-deal” Brexit would blow a £30bn hole in the public finances. Even if you accept that is true, and many do not, there appears to be a simple solution therefore. Cancel HS2 just to be on the safe side.

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

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Tesco and Barclays Legal Cases; Rent Controls and Telford Homes

A few events transpired last week which I missed commenting on due to spending some days in bed with a high temperature. Here’s a catch-up.

The remaining prosecutions of former Tesco (TSCO) executives for the accounting scandal in 2014 that cost the company £320 million and resulted in the company signing a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) and paying a big fine has concluded. The defendants were found not guilty. The prosecutions of other executives were previously halted by the judge on the grounds that they had no case to answer. Under the DPA, Tesco were also forced to compensate affected shareholders.

Everyone is asking why Tesco agreed to the DPA, at a cost of £130 million, when it would seem they had a credible defense as no wrongdoing by individuals has been confirmed. The defendants were also highly critical of the prosecution on flimsy evidence that destroyed their health and careers. This looks like another example of how the UK regulatory system is ineffective and too complicated. The only winners seem to be lawyers.

Another case that only got into court last week was against former Barclays (BARC) CEO John Varley and 3 colleagues. This relates to the fund raising by the company back in 2008 – another example of how slow these legal cases progress in the UK. This case is not about illegal financial assistance given to Qatari investors as one might expect, those charges were dropped, but about the failure to disclose commissions paid to those investors as part of the deal and not publicly disclosed. The defendants deny the charges.

Comment: this long-running saga seems to stem from the Government’s annoyance over Barclays avoidance of participation in the refinancing of banks at the time. Lloyds and RBS ended up part-owned by the Government, much to the disadvantage of their shareholders. Barclays shareholders (I was one at the time) were very pleased they managed to avoid the Government interference, precipitated by the Government actually changing the capital ratios required of banks. Barclays were desperate for the Qatari funds of at least one £ billion with one Barclays manager saying “They’ve got us by the balls….”.

Will this case conclude with a conviction, after a few millions of pounds spent on lawyers’ fees? I rather doubt it. And even if a guilty verdict is reached, how severe will be the likely penalty? Bearing in mind that the damage suffered by investors as a result seems minimal, i.e. it’s purely a technical breach of the regulations, it seems both pointless and excessive to pursue it after ten years have elapsed. Again the only winners seem to be lawyers.

One amusing aspect of this case was the grim “mug-shots” of 3 of the defendants attending court that appeared in the Financial Times. It was clearly a cold day and one of them was wearing a beanie hat. Is this the new sartorial style for professional gentlemen? Perhaps so as my doctor turned up wearing one to attend my sick-bed. Clearly I may need to revise by views on what hats to wear and when.

One has to ask: Are the cases of Tesco and Barclays good examples of English justice? Prosecutions after many years since the events took place while the people prosecuted have their lives put on hold, their health damaged and with potentially crippling legal costs. This is surely not the best way of achieving justice for investors. Justice needs to be swift if it is to be an effective deterrent and should enable people to move on with their lives. Complexity of the financial regulations makes high quality justice difficult to achieve. Reform is required to make them simpler, and investigations need to be completed more quickly.

Investors might not have noticed that London Mayor Sadiq Khan is going to include a policy of introducing rent controls in his 2020 election manifesto. Rent controls have never worked to control rents and in the 1950s resulted in “Rackmanism” where tenants were bullied out of controlled properties. It also led to a major decline in private rented housing as landlords’ profits disappeared so they withdrew from the market. That made the housing shortages in the 1960s and 70s much worse. The current housing shortage in London would likely be exacerbated if Sadiq Khan has his way as private landlords would withdraw from the market, leaving tenants still unable to buy although it might depress house prices somewhat.

But the real damage would be on the construction of new “buy-to-let” properties which would fall away. Institutions have been moving into this market in London and construction companies such as Telford Homes (TEF) have been growing their “build-to-rent” business in London.

Sadiq Khan is proposing a policy that he would require Government legislation to implement, which with the current Government he would not get. No doubt he is hoping for a change in that regard. Or is it simply his latest political gambit to get re-elected? In the last election he promised to freeze public transport fares as a vote winner, so he clearly has learnt from that experience. But he’s probably already damaging the private rented sector.

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

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Two AGMs (Accesso and Foresight VCT) in one day

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Accesso (ACSO) in Twyford at the somewhat early time of 10.00 am with the result that I got bogged down in the usual rush hour traffic on the M25. What a horrendous road system we have in London! A symptom of long term under-investment in UK road infrastructure.

Accesso provides “innovative queuing, ticketing and POS solutions” to the entertainment sector (e.g. theme parks) although they have been spreading into other application areas. The business has been growing rapidly under the leadership of Tom Burnet who moved from being CEO to Executive Chairman a while back.

Tom opened the meeting by introducing the board, including new CEO Paul Noland who is based in the USA where they now have 5 offices apparently. He also covered that morning’s trading statement which was positive and mentioned deals with Henry Ford Health System and an extension to an existing agreement with Cedar Fair Entertainment. Expectations for the year remain unchanged. Questions were then invited – I have just covered a few below.

I raised a concern about the low return on capital in the company (now less than 5% irrespective of how one cares to measure it). I suggested the reasons were large increase in administrative expenses (up 43% last year) and the cost of acquisitions. Did the board have any concerns about this? Apparently not. The reason is partly the acquisitions and the costs might come down as they rationalise operations but they are in no rush to do so.

The Ford deal was mentioned and Tom said this is one deal where the acquisition of TE2 has provided the technology to assist closure. This is what the company said about TE2 when they bought it: The Directors of accesso believe that TE2’s cloud-based solution offers market-leading personalisation capabilities and data orchestration technologies which capture, model and anticipate guest behaviour and preferences not only pre- and post-visit online, but in the physical in-venue environment.  Personalisation is achieved via many heuristics, including machine-learning-based recommendations, in order both to enhance guest experiences and to provide actionable analytics and insights to the operations, retail and marketing organisations.”. I am sure all readers understand that. Hospital systems are clearly one target for this technology.

The vote was taken on a show of hands so far as I could tell, although the announcement the next day of the votes suggested it was done on a poll which is surely wrong. But there were significant numbers of votes (over 2 million) against several directors and against share allotment resolutions. I asked why and was told it was because of a proxy advisory service recommending voting against, allegedly because of some misunderstanding. The answer to my question seemed somewhat evasive though.

In summary, shareholders are clearly happy with the progress of the company but with a prospective p/e of 41 (and no dividends), a lot of future growth is clearly in the share price. Corporate governance seems rather hit and miss.

I then drove into London to the offices of Foresight in the Shard, again journey time a lot more than it should have been due to road closures, lane removal for cycle lanes, etc, etc. Interesting to note a large hoarding on the elevated section of the A4 inviting anyone who had a complaint against RBS and the GRG operation to contact them.

Also interesting to note when I stopped for fuel at a service station on the M4 that at the desk they were serving Greggs food and coffee as well as taking payment for fuel. I know that Greggs have kiosks in some motorway service areas but this is perhaps a new initiative to expand their market. It’s rather like the small Costa coffee outlets that are in all kinds of places. I am a shareholder in Greggs but this was news to me. Obviously I need to get out more to see what is happening in the real world.

The visit to Foresight was to attend the AGM of Foresight VCT (FTV) one of my oldest holdings. Effectively I have been locked in after originally claiming capital gains roll-over relief. It’s also one of the worst of my historic Venture Capital Trust holdings in terms of overall performance over the years.

I did not need to tell them again how dire the performance of the company had been over the last 20 years because another shareholder did exactly that. But I did query whether the claimed total return last year of 6.5% given by fund manager Russell Healey in his presentation was accurate. It was claimed to be so. Perhaps performance is improving but I am not sure I want to stick around to see the outcome.

One particularly issue in this company is the performance fee payable to the manager which I wrote about in my AGM report and on the Sharesoc blog last year. You can see why the manager has such plush offices as they have surely done very nicely out of this and their other VCTs over the years while shareholders have not, and will continue to do so.

Several shareholders raised questions about the reappointment of KPMG bearing in mind that in Foresight 4 VCT the accounts were possibly defective and a dividend might have been paid illegally. But the board seemed to know nothing about this matter. KMPG got about 6 hands voting against their reappointment and the board is going to look into the matter.

The above is just a brief report on the meeting as I understand Tim Grattan may produce a longer one for ShareSoc.

To conclude, both AGMs were worth attending as I learned a few things I did not already know. For example it seems my holding in Ixaris, an unlisted fintech company where Foresight have a holding, may be worth more than I thought. But I still think their valuation is a bit optimistic.

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

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London Plan Published

I mainly comment on financial matters, but if you live or work in London you should pay attention to the “London Plan” that Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently published. Indeed if you live in other large conurbations you might wish to review it also because the policies he is promoting might spread elsewhere.

What’s the London Plan? It’s a document that sets the “spatial development” strategy for London over the next few years and has legal implications for planning developments, housing construction, transport infrastructure, and many other aspects of our lives.

The Mayor makes it plain that London needs to cope with the rapidly expanding population and business activity. The population of London might reach 10.5 million by 2041 he says (currently 8.8 million). That means a lot more houses have to be built (66,000 per annum he says) and support for more workplaces.

In addition it has major implications for transport infrastructure while at the same time he wants to clean up London’s air. He wants to make London a “zero carbon” city by 2050, although no doubt he will be long gone by then. As part of this he aims to reduce “car dependency” (an emotive and inaccurate phrase disparaging people who have made a rational or personal choice about how they travel when you don’t see this said about those who rely on cycles for their daily travel needs).

Why has the population of London grown so rapidly in recent years and continues to do so? Page 12 of the Plan explains why. It says 40 per cent of Londoners were born outside the UK, and the city is now home to 1 million EU citizens, no doubt attracted by the vibrant London economy. This has put a major strain on housing, transport, social services and other infrastructure (incidentally an unbelievable 1.2 million Londoners are apparently “disabled”).

This state of affairs has come about because of national policies on immigration with no effective policies to distribute that more widely across the country compounded no doubt by a desire by some politicians to improve their chances of being elected.

Specifically looking at transport, the Mayor’s target is for 80% of all journeys to be made by walking, cycling and public transport (that of course includes the 14% of Londoners who are disabled!). It’s currently 64%. This is going to mean an aggressive set of policies to reduce car use – hence the campaign against the Mayor’s Transport Strategy which supports the London Plan run by the Alliance of British Drivers – see http://www.freedomfordrivers.org/against-mts.htm

The Mayor highlights the health inequalities in London, with deprived areas of London having reduced life expectancies (as much as 15 years for men and 19 years for women) surely an astonishing statistic. What is the reason for this? Poor housing conditions are certainly one, but lack of daily activity is allegedly another so the Mayor wants us all to be walking and cycling.

The Mayor does have plans to improve public transport including proposals for Crossrail 2 and extension of the Bakerloo line but these proposals will do relatively little to soak up the increased demand, and with no proposals of significance to improve the road network, hence no doubt the need to encourage us all to walk or cycle.

The Mayor’s plans to support the need for more housing include targets for every London borough (for example over 2,000 new homes every year in Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Greenwich, Hounslow, Newham, Southwark, and Tower Hamlets). This includes high concentration developments in locations with good public transport access levels (PTALs), particularly inner London boroughs. Outer London boroughs might see a relaxation of planning regulations to allow more “in-fill” developments including building on back gardens as the Conservatives promptly complained about. There will be more encouragement for smaller builders, more efficient building techniques and “proactive” intervention in London’s land market (more “compulsory purchase” perhaps).

One aspect of transport infrastructure that the London Plan covers is that of parking provision for new housing, office or shop developments. It wants most developments to be “car free” (i.e. no parking provision), particularly those with high PTAL levels. The details of what this means in practice are not clear, but it looks like the intention is to reduce parking provision substantially, thus resulting in more on-street parking and obstruction.

The Mayor concludes his near 500-page tome on the subject of the “Funding Gap”. By this he means the gap between the public sector funding required to support London’s growth (and his plans) and the money currently committed. In other words, he wants more money, including a bigger share of taxation collected from Londoners. For example, he repeats his call for control of Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) which any right-thinking person should surely oppose. Yes the Mayor wants more money and more power. Unfortunately the establishment of directly elected Mayors such as Mr Khan has resulted in empire building of the worst kind. They are effectively dictators within their realms with no effective democratic constraints on their policies and negligible public accountability.

In summary, it is not clear that the building of lots of new homes (which of course will emit more pollutants, particularly during constructions, more than offsetting any reduction from restraining car use), of a fairly low standard in dense conurbations, is going to improve the quality of life for Londoners. It is undoubtedly the case that more new homes are needed in London but building new homes without complementary improvements to the transport infrastructure, which has consistently lagged behind the growth in London’s population, does not make much sense.

As is already seen in the statistics, older London residents are moving out and being replaced by immigrants. Some readers might wish to consider doing the same given the outlook for the quality of life in London. Simply reacting to the population growth in London without trying to constrain it, or divert it elsewhere, is surely a mistake.

You can submit your comments on the London Plan to the public consultation by going here: https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/planning/london-plan/new-london-plan/comment-draft-london-plan . Please be sure to do so. 

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

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National Grid, Johnston Press, Crown Place VCT, Lloyds Bank, LoopUp and Brexit

I had a busy day yesterday, but let me first comment on the news today. National Grid (NG.) published their half year results this morning. They reported “Adjusted operating profit, excluding timing up 4%….” but statutory earnings per share were down by 12%. What exactly does “adjusted for timing” mean? I have no idea because the announcement does not explain it in any sensible way. For example, it says under “UK Timing”: “Revenues will be impacted by timing of recoveries including impacts from prior years”. Why are these revenues not being booked in the relevant period? Why are they not being recognised as revenues in the period concerned? Looks like a simple “fudge” to me as “adjustments” to reported figures in accounts often are. Many analysts seem to have a negative view of the stock, and I am coming to the same conclusion. I sold some of my holding in the company this morning.

I have previously mentioned the requisition of an EGM at Johnston Press (JPR), but the company has rejected this on the basis that it is “not valid”. It seems this is because the shareholder who requested it holds their shares in a nominee account (i.e. are not on the register). Yet another example of the obstruction caused by the use of nominee accounts. Changes to the law in this area are required to fully enfranchise all shareholders. See the ShareSoc Shareholder Rights campaign for more information: https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/shareholder-rights-campaign/

Yesterday morning I attended the AGM of Crown Place VCT, managed by Albion Capital. No excitement there. Just a competently managed VCT and a well run AGM with a presentation from one of their investee companies (PayAsUGym) who have developed an innovative business selling gym sessions. Crown Place made a total return of 14% last year and currently provide a tax free dividend yield of 6.9% which is covered twice by earnings. The expense ratio is 2.4% which is certainly better than many of the VCTs I hold. Previously this company had a strong focus on “asset-based” investments but they are now restricted by the new rules for VCTs so they are moving into more “exciting” fields. There are also concerns about further rule changes or removal of tax reliefs in the budget next Wednesday. Investors in tax incentivised vehicles seem to be getting nervous.

After lunch with representatives of AGMInfo, I filled an hour or so before the ShareSoc AGM by dropping into the Lloyds Bank legal action nearby which I have mentioned in previous blog posts. On the witness stand was former CEO of Lloyds TSB Eric Daniels being cross examined by the littigants QC. He gave a confident performance and was clearly well prepared. He said he was “bitterly disappointed” over the need to raise £7 billion in capital and was also disappointed that they would end up more highly capitalised than other banks. It was clear from his other comments that there was a certain momentum to go through with the deal (the acquisition of HBOS) and that they did not revisit the benefits of the transaction at every turn (e.g. as more information came out of the due diligence work for example).

He disclosed that in a conversation with the FSA there were real concerns that they could lose the vote of shareholders. This could be because there were views that HBOS could remain independent, although the Government had already indicated that it was promptly going to be nationalised if no rescue deal could be done; and because Lloyds TSB shareholders might vote against it.

The case continues. Lloyds Bank and the former directors continue to say that the claims have no merit of course.

It was then onto the ShareSoc AGM. Again no great excitement there. Mention was made of a possible merger with UKSA and as a former director of both I spoke in favour of that. Spreading the fixed costs over two organisations of a similar size makes a lot of sense. It should never have been necessary to set up a rival organisation to UKSA, but interesting to note that ShareSoc has more members now so my efforts in recent years were not in vain.

The ShareSoc AGM was followed by one of their company presentation seminars. Of interest to me (being current holders) were the two by LoopUp (LOOP) and Ideagen. I reported on Ideagen recently on coverage of their AGM so will only cover LoopUp herein. The presentation by their joint CEO Steve Flavell was slick but it was more a sales pitch for the product/service to customers than one to investors. The issue of them having two joint CEOs was raised in a question later.

The emphasis was on the simplicity of the service, so anyone could take it up easily and quickly. This is the major USP as there are lots of other conferencing products around. Most interesting was his explanation that they leapfrogged the “chasm” by ignoring the early adopters (who often like techy products) by aiming straight for the “mainstream majority”. His reference to “Crossing the Chasm” is from a book of that name by Geoffrey Moore which is essential reading for all sales/marketing executives in the software field, or investors in early stage technology companies likewise. Just had a chat with an Uber driver about this book – he has a degree in marketing – that’s the modern world for you. It will be a great shame if Sadiq Khan manages to put Uber out of business – might miss out on intelligent conversations with cab drivers. I read the book when it first came out back in the 1990s and Mr Flavell had read it also. I highly recommend the book. LoopUp is clearly a sales/marketing driven organisation but the technology is sophisticated enough to make it all look simple.

On the current valuation, the company has obviously a long way to go to grow into that valuation. Questions were raised about whether growth could be accelerated (revenue only up 39% in 2016m and 44% in the interims this year). But I expressed scepiticsm on attempts at a faster growth rate to Flavell after the meeting.

The Financial Times continue to publish anti-Brexit stories and editorial every day. My letter to the editor on the dubious bias, which they published, has obviously had no impact whatsoever. Tim Martin, CEO of JD Wetherspoon, had a lot to say about the subject of the impact of Brexit on food costs in his latest trading statement. He accused the media, and the Chairman of Sainsburys and that of Whitbread, and the head of the CBI, for completely distorting the facts. Rather than food prices rising after Brexit, he suggests they will fall. For his arguments see:

https://www.investegate.co.uk/wetherspoon–jd–plc–jdw-/rns/fy18-q1-trading-update/201711080700068513V/

My conclusion is quite simply that some foods might become more expensive, others might become cheaper, and home-produced products might also be cheaper; plus the Government might be able to save a lot of money on contributions to subsidising inefficient farmers. But that of course means that food buying habits might change as consumers react to price changes. Is that a bad thing? Readers can ponder that question.

Whether the Chairmen or CEOs of public companies should be making comments on essentially political issues, one way or the other, is also a question to consider. I suggest that might best be left to bloggers like me. Sainsburys and Whitbread (Costa, Premier Inns) might find they disaffect half their customers while having minimal impact on public opinion.

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

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Interest Rates and the Gig Economy

You probably don’t need to be told that interest rates are at their lowest for several centuries, if not in recorded history. The fact that the Bank of England is making noises about possibly raising base rate could just be a way to try and rein back inflation (a higher base rate, or prospect of it, causes the pound to rise and that makes imports cheaper – and import costs have been one of the factors in inflation rising). But unemployment is also at its lowest level for 40 years which usually indicates a booming economy and the prospect of higher inflation to come.

Inflation is now at 2.9% measured by the C.P.I., or 3.9% based on R.P.I. which a lot of us like to use instead. Now to me the really astonishing item of news last week was that the large City of London Investment Trust managed to borrow £50 million at a fixed rate of 2.94% for 32 years (I do hold some of their shares). That’s must be one of the best deals ever surely, and shows how investment trusts have the advantage of being able to gear up by borrowing money – and why not when interest rates are so low?

In reality, the lender is not even getting a real positive rate of interest at current inflation rates, and is also betting that it won’t get any worse for the next 32 years. Astonishing, and just shows how the world economy is awash with cash.

Another couple of interesting items of news last week were that Deliveroo lost £129 million in 2016 according to accounts filed at Companies House, on revenue of £129 million. In other words, for every pound paid by customers, they lost a pound. It’s raised $472 million from investors to achieve this wonderful business model (source: FT).

Deliveroo use “self-employed” bike couriers to deliver restaurant meals. Another exponent of this “gig-economy” model is Uber who received the bad news last week that Transport for London were terminating their license to operate in London. More information on that in this blog post I wrote for the ABD: https://abdlondon.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/uber-kicked-out-of-london/ . In there I praised the merits of the service and suggested people sign the petition against it (which is rapidly heading for a million signatures).

But one reason that it is so low cost is because like Deliveroo, Uber loses money in a big way at present. To quote from one report on its financials, “Uber is cheap because the company is heavily subsidising each trip” where it was suggested that Uber’s losses as a percentage of revenue were 129% in the last quarter of 2016. Like Deliveroo, revenue is rising rapidly though.

Do we mind if these companies lose money hand over fist? If they are fool enough to do so in the race to dominate a new market why not let them. But the long term viability of both when there are obviously lots of competitors providing similar services does raise doubts about these businesses, even if London Mayor Sadiq Khan relents over Uber’s license.

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

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A Vision in a Dream, After Coleridge

The following manuscript has recently come to light, perhaps written by an acolyte of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Roger Lawson

<A Fragment>

In London did Sadiq Khan

A stately Transport Strategy decree:

Where the Thames, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

   Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and tower blocks girdled round;

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many a conker tree;

And here were roads ancient as the Romans,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down among the City streets!

A savage place! As Mammon rampaged free

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By women wailing for West End shopping!

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:

And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Fifty miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through East End industry and London’s suburbs,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a polluted North Sea;

And ’mid this tumult Sadiq heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying air pollution doom!

   The shadow of the dome of the GLA

   Located nigh the sacred river;

   Where was heard the mingled pleas

   From politicians left and right.

It was a miracle of rare device,

An un-costed Transport Strategy at the behest of Sadiq!

    A damsel with a dulcimer

   In a vision once I saw:

   It was an East European maid

   And on her dulcimer she played,

   Singing of Mount Street Mayfair.

   Could I revive within me

   Her symphony and song,

   To such a deep delight ’twould win me,

That with music loud and long,

I would build anew that dome,

Upon a new democratic model!

With freedom to ride the roads at will,

And all should cry, Beware the wrath of Khan!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

<End>

The Alliance of British Drivers’ comments on Sadiq Khan’s London Transport Strategy are present here: http://www.freedomfordrivers.org/against-mts.htm . Please register your opposition.

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

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