A Bad Day in the Market, but Good News from Unilever and BEIS

It was a bad day in the market yesterday, with the FTSE All-Share falling over 1%. This seems to have been driven by a sell off in bonds. Equity prices are usually linked to bond prices simply because as bond yields rise from a fall in bond prices, it becomes more attractive to hold bonds relative to equities. That particularly applies to shares that are “bond proxies”, i.e. ones bought because of their high yields for income seeking investors.

These changes have been driven by the realisation that the US economy is booming. The Federal Reserve has already raised US interest rates and is therefore likely to do so again if the US economy continues to race ahead. But a booming US economy is of course good news for many companies. Higher interest rates may mean that some companies pay more on their debt but that it a longer-term impact and many “new economy” companies do not have any debt.

When markets are falling in general, there is no place to hide. My over-diversified portfolio, mainly in UK small cap stocks, fell about 1%. Not every share declined but the majority did. It affected particularly highly rated, go-go stocks such as Fevertree (FEVR) which was down 8% yesterday. I am glad I now only have a nominal holding in the company. But also affected were many investment trusts which I hold as their typical low liquidity compounded by a few private investors panicking drove down the prices. Some fell more than the underlying shares they hold.

Property companies have also been affected as interest rates have an impact on their business model, despite the fact many have locked in low rates on long-term debt. Safestore (SAFE) for example was down 3.9% yesterday (I hold it).

The share price declines spread like a contagion to many other stocks who should be positively affected by a booming US economy and not impacted by higher interest rates. The rise in interest rates is hardly a surprise though it has been well signaled in advance in both the US and UK. It was unrealistic to expect the historically exceptional low interest rates to continue forever.

My reaction when there is carnage in the stock market is to stand back and wait to see whether it develops into a trend or is simply a short-term blip. There can be buying opportunities if the reaction to economic news is too severe. But interest rates are nowhere near low enough yet to cause me to abandon the stock market and move into bonds. I feel there is more destruction to come in the latter. 

Unilever and Enfranchising Nominee Shareholders

Today we have some good news from Unilever. They have backed down on their proposal to merge their dual legal structure. The announcement said “We have had an extensive period of engagement with shareholders and have received widespread support for the principle behind simplification. However, we recognise that the proposal has not received support from a significant group of shareholders and therefore consider it appropriate to withdraw”.

There was opposition from both individual shareholders and institutions in the UK and there was a risk that they might fail on the Court hearing vote to gain enough support. It’s always good when shareholders make their voice heard, although it still leaves the issue that shareholders in nominee accounts were likely to be disenfranchised.

The good news in that regard is that I have received a letter today from the BEIS Department which says “BEIS is sponsoring a project by the Law Commission to examine the UK system of intermediated securities”. I will try and find out more, but don’t get too excited – it might not report before 2020!

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Tesla, Unilever, EasyJet IT Write-Offs and Cash Holdings

The big news today is that the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have charged Tesla CEO Elon Musk with securities fraud. This charge relates to his comments on Twitter that he would likely be taking Tesla private. To quote from the SEC complaint: “Musk’s statements, disseminated via Twitter, falsely indicated that, should he so choose, it was virtually certain that he could take Tesla private at a purchase price that reflected a substantial premium over Tesla stock’s then current share price, that funding for this multi-billion dollar transaction had been secured, and that the only contingency was a shareholder vote. In truth and in fact, Musk had not even discussed, much less confirmed, key deal terms, including price, with any potential funding source”. Mr Musk vigorously rejected the charges, as did the company.

The full SEC complaint is here: https://www.sec.gov/litigation/complaints/2018/comp-pr2018-219.pdf

Comment: it is of course the oldest trick in the book if you are unhappy with the share price of your company to announce a potential bid from yourself or a third party. Making such an announcement via Twitter, if that was the motivation which has yet to be proven, would certainly be something new though. Making any announcements via Twitter is exceedingly risky and Tesla’s advisors must be tearing their hair out over this sequence of events. Who else if anyone reviewed the tweets before they were sent? Probably nobody I suspect. And anyone who uses Twitter will know it’s very easy to let typos, grammar errors and Spoonerisms creep in. Such important announcements should only be issued by the proper regulatory news channels. Elon Musk should have known better.

But if Elon Musk was forced to step down from Tesla, which might be the outcome, would it matter? I suspect not. The merit of Tesla as a company is in the technology in the cars which is still ahead of most potential electric car competitors. I have driven a Tesla Model S and it is a very good car indeed. But unfortunately my wife thinks I don’t need to buy expensive, flash cars to impress people any more so I’ll have to wait for the cheaper Model 3 to become available in the UK.

Unilever and Shareholder Voting

Unilever is planning to consolidate the two arms of the business in Holland, and drop the dual listing. UK shareholders would end up holding shares listed only in Holland, and as a result the dividends would be subject to Dutch withholding tax which is currently at the rate of 15%. Such taxes always cause problems although sometimes they can be refunded by submitting claims to do so. There is also the possibility that the withholding tax will be dropped. Another difficulty is that as Unilever is in the FTSE100, any funds running a FTSE-100 tracker would have to sell the shares. The Investors Chronicle ran a longish article on this subject and suggested it was a “no-brainer” for UK shareholders to vote against it.

But it seems that might be easier said than done. According to a report on Citywire, any shareholders in nominee accounts (i.e. in ISAs, SIPPs or other broker accounts – which means most UK shareholders now) will have to “rematerialize” their shares if they want to vote them, i.e. convert them to a paper share certificate. The company is not accepting votes submitted by nominee operators. Dematerialising shares is typically a costly and time-consuming process and is actually impossible to do if the shares are in an ISA or SIPP which have to be held in nominee form. This is truly outrageous news and any shareholders holding Unilever shares who wishes to oppose the move by the company should complain to the FCA, your Member of Parliament, the Company Chairman Marijn Dekkers, and anyone else you can think of.

[Postscript: the issue here seems to be the votes for the Court Hearing where the number of individual voters is taken into account. But for the shares held by a nominee operator, which may represent many thousands of underlying beneficial owners, only one vote would be counted even if it was submitted as there is only one holding on the register. ]

It has been reported that a number of institutions might oppose the unification of the company but it would certainly help to get retail shareholders voting.

Incidentally I attended a meeting today with Link Asset Services (one of the largest registrars) where the problem of retail shareholders not voting was discussed. I’ll write a separate blog post on that later.

EasyJet

If you recall, I mentioned previously the large expenditure on a “big-bang” IT project at Abcam which is clearly over-budget and over-time. That might have contributed to the 35% share price drop immediately after their recent preliminary results announcement. Now EasyJet have made a similar announcement today in their trading update. To quote: “…easyJet has now made the decision to change its approach to technology development through better utilisation and development of existing systems on a modular basis, rather than working towards a full replacement of our core commercial platform.  As a result of this change in approach, we are recognising a non-headline charge of around £65 million relating to IT investments and associated commitments we will no longer require. EasyJet will continue to invest in its digital and eCommerce layers that will enable it to continue to offer a leading innovative, revenue enhancing and customer friendly platform.”

That £65 million is no small sum and just shows you how IT is so critical to how businesses are managed in the modern world. Similar problems arose at TSB where they attempted to replace their old Lloyds systems with completely new software which was allegedly not adequately tested. But any IT professional will tell you that you cannot test and anticipate all the problems in a diverse customer environment ahead of going live with new technology. The NHS was another prime example of a “big-bang” approach to IT system development that ended up costing the Government, and us as taxpayers, at least £10 billion (that’s not a typo – it was ten billion and more). Evolution rather than revolution is the way to develop IT systems as EasyJet and Abcam seem to be learning, the hard way.

Cash Holdings

I suggested in a previous blog post that a newly available easy-access deposit account might be a suitable place to move cash from your stockbroking account to get a decent rate of interest rather than none. The problem of course is that most retail investors have most of their money in ISAs and SIPPs and taking cash out is problematic.

For ISAs, you may not realise that you can actually take cash out of a “flexible” ISA (which most ISAs are such as Stock & Share ISAs or Cash ISAs) and put it back in later. This was a recent change to the ISA regulations. However you can only do that within the same tax year without affecting your ISA allowance.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Voting at General Meetings, Link Asset Services and CentralNic

CentralNic (CNIC) have announced that the proxy voting forms they sent out to shareholders on the register for their forthcoming General Meeting were invalid as it omitted a signature block. So they have sent them out again. As a shareholder in the company, I spotted the error and simply wrote by name and date on the bottom of the form and signed it. That should suffice.

It is a little known fact that you don’t actually need to use the proxy form issued by the company or their registrar so long as your instructions are clear. Which prompts me to talk about the conversation I have been having with Link Asset Services (formerly Capita) about proxy voting.

I complained to them when I received a notice of an AGM by post but no paper proxy voting form. They said I needed to specifically request a paper proxy form or use their on-line portal. The latter is tedious to use and not nearly as simple when you just want to cast votes as the system used by Equiniti. It transpired that on Link’s interpretation of the Companies Act they no longer need to send out proxy voting forms as only the notice of the meeting is legally required. This appears to be correct. This is what I said in a letter to their Operations Director after the exchange of several letters:

“I will continue to submit my proxy votes by post whether you supply a form to do so or not. Where you have not supplied one, I will use my own – I attach a copy of what I will be using. If you have any objections to receiving my proxy votes in that way, please let me know. I do not see how you can legally object as it meets the requirements of the Companies Act.

I note your comments about the low percentage of shareholders who submit proxy votes, and the even lower percentage who do so in physical form [6% and 3.8% reportedly]. The latter may simply be because you and companies are now obstructing those who do not wish to vote on-line by not issuing paper proxy forms!

Overall the low percentage of shareholders voting suggests to me that registrars and companies are not doing enough to both encourage voting and making it easy for shareholders to do so. This is a major concern because shareholder voting is a key part of ensuring good corporate governance in listed companies. The Government recognized this only recently by ensuring there are binding votes on remuneration for example, but obviously if shareholders do not vote then governance is undermined.

It is of course unfortunate that there is a financial incentive for both you and companies to deter shareholder votes as they undoubtedly cost money to process, particularly if they are submitted on paper. But that is not a good justification for adopting the recent changes that Link Asset Services has adopted.

In your letter you rightly point out that registrars are not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. I will be writing to them to encourage them to take on such regulation as it seems totally inappropriate to me that this area of financial markets and corporate governance is not regulated. The FCA should lay down regulations about what Registrars can and cannot do so that voting is maximized regardless of financial considerations.”

I also noted that the Link Asset Services on-line portal does not meet the requirements of the Companies Act for an “electronic address”.

I am writing to both the FCA and the BEIS department asking them to start regulating registrars so as to clarify their responsibilities under the Companies Act and so that voting is encouraged. If necessary the Companies Act should be amended to ensure voting is maximised.

So that anyone can use the generic proxy voting form I have devised I have made it available on my web site here: http://www.roliscon.com/proxy-voting.html

There is also a version you can use where you wish to instruct your stockbroker to vote your shares that are held in a nominee account. Most will do so although there may be a charge and remember that for ISA accounts they have a legal obligation to do so under the ISA regulations.

Please let me know if you have any comments on the use of these forms. If there is sufficient usage they can be made more digitally enabled in future.

Private shareholders do need to vote to make sure that your voice is heard. So please use the forms I have supplied to ensure your votes are recorded for all General Meetings.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Stopping Another Beaufort Case

Readers are probably aware of the administration of stockbroker Beaufort, how PwC are running up enormous bills to the disadvantage of creditors and how they also claimed to be able to charge the bills against client assets under the Special Administration Rules. See here for more information if you are not familiar with this debacle: https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/beaufort-client-campaign/

I hope all stock market investors have already written to their Members of Parliament on this topic, not just to get the Special Administration Rules changed but to get a proper and full reform of the share ownership system in the UK. If you have not, please do so now.

But another way to get the Government’s attention is to get enough people to sign a Government e-petition. One of the people affected by the Beaufort case has created just such a petition which is now present here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/222801 . Please sign it now!

The Special Administration rules that apply to financial institutions (banks and stockbrokers for example) are helpful in many ways and were well conceived following the banking crisis in 2008. But rule 135 which allows client assets to be filched by an administrator, even when they are held in trust, seems to have been snuck in without notice and without consultation. It means anyone who holds shares in a nominee account (as most people do nowadays) is at risk of substantial losses if the broker goes bust. That’s a more common occurrence than most people realise mainly because most brokers operate in a highly competitive and low margin market.

SO MAKE SURE YOU SIGN THE PETITION TO ENSURE YOUR ASSETS ARE SECURE

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Protecting Yourself Against Administrations

Investors now know that when your stockbroker goes into administration, your assets are not secure (or “ring fenced” as your contract with them often says) because they can be seized under the Special Administration Regulations by the administrator to pay their costs. This has become clear from the Beaufort case. That means many investors are facing losses because Beaufort client accounts, like most stockbroking accounts now, were nominee accounts with the shares registered in the name of Beaufort.

There are two possible ways to protect your assets: 1) Hold your shares in the form of paper share certificates – not the most convenient format for trading and expensive to do so even if you can find a broker still willing to handle them; or 2) Hold your shares in a personal crest account, i.e. a “Sponsored Crest” account where your broker acts as the sponsor but the shares are registered in your name and traded electronically.

Some doubts arose in my mind about whether the latter would actually provide the protection required. For example, would an administrator be able to transfer the shares into their name, or stop the transfer of the account and hence the holdings to another broker? So here are the answers provided by Killik & Co who. It provides some reassurance:

In order for a participant to change Sponsor, CREST require:  

  • For those Participants that are already Sponsored, 3 letters as follows – – One from the existing Sponsor stating they are happy for the Participant(s) to move away from them on a set date. – One from the Participant(s) requesting to move Sponsors on a set date. – One from the new Sponsor stating they are happy to take over sponsorship of the Participant on a set date.
  • However, our understanding is that, where the Sponsor is in administration, a letter is not required by the existing Sponsor.  We believe it would be possible therefore, for the sponsored member to instruct another Sponsor to take on the sponsorship of the account.  Note that CREST is not a custodian or a depository and the shares are actually held by the Sponsor, but in the name of the legal owner. 

Regarding the question of the ability of the administrator to issue instructions on the stocks or transfer them into their own nominee name, our understanding is that the administrator has no rights over the securities held in the name of the legal owner as specified on the legal register. 

This information is provided by Killik & Co to the best of their knowledge and belief. For more information contact Gregory Smith on 0207-337-0409.

There are few brokers that still offer personal crest accounts (Killik & Co are one of them), but that still leaves the problem that ISAs and SIPPs have to be held in nominee accounts. Until the administration legislation is reformed, the only solutions for them are to open multiple broker accounts so that no one of them contains assets worth more than £50,000 (the limited covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme) or to pick a broker which is large enough and with a balance sheet that is strong enough that it is unlikely to go into administration. Having multiple broker accounts can be wise for other reasons than the risk of administration even if it can make life very complicated and possibly less secure – for example IT meltdowns in financial services companies are not uncommon (RBS and TSB are examples). It can be very frustrating not to be able to trade even for a few minutes (as happened this morning with the LSE due to a technology problem) let alone days or even weeks as Beaufort clients are suffering.

It is perhaps unfortunate that these risks might make for an anti-competitive stockbroking market. Folks may be very reluctant to sign up with new brokers who have a limited track-record.

But we really do need some reform of the insolvency rules to stop administrators grabbing client assets, a new electronic “name on register” system that protects ownership to replace the nominee system (something I have been campaigning on for years), and the ability to hold ISA and SIPP holdings in our own name.

ShareSoc are running a campaign on the Beaufort case (see https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/beaufort-client-campaign/ ) and have also asked anyone who is concerned about this issue, as all stock market investors should be, to write to their M.P.s. Please do so. Only that way will we get political action on these issues. ShareSoc can provide a template letter you can use.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.