Mindless Investment Wins Out?

Last week on-line investment news site Citywire published a report headlined “Tracker fund sales smash records as UK investors pile into passives”. I was the first to add a comment which was “Mindless investment wins out. But at least folks are wising up to open-ended property funds and highly dubious ‘absolute return’ funds”. That generated a number of other comments, mainly from people defending tracker funds.

For example, a couple were: 1) Retail investors, with enough sense to be aware of their limited knowledge of macro-economics & its uncertain effect upon investments, stick to more understandable passives; and 2) Sensible folk realise that indexes will always outperform stockpicker funds in the medium to long-term, give thanks for Samuelson and Jack Bogle and ignore sneers from knowalls.

Let’s take some of those claims. It is certainly true that as the market comprises the whole universe of investors, a general stock market index must reflect the gains and losses of all investors. In other words, if all investors were “active” investors then there would be as many winners as losers. So you cannot achieve outperformance just by deciding to be an active rather than passive investor.

The other problem with active investment is that fund management charges are typically higher than for an index tracking fund. Charges are a major influence over long term returns so an active fund manager has to outperform the index substantially just to offset the higher charges. The flip-side of this is that as index tracking funds do have some charges, plus you may be paying a “platform” charge to hold or invest in them, your investment is bound to underperform the index.

But there are some active investors who do appear to consistently outperform their indices. For example Warren Buffett has done so. The latest example I was reminded of in an email that I received yesterday was the CFP SDL UK Buffettology Fund run by Keith Ashworth-Lord. Below is a chart from their Factsheet dated December 2019 showing the performance of the fund since April 2011 versus a UK All Companies Index and the cumulative performance figures. There appears to be clear outperformance shown.

Buffetology Fund 2019-12-01

Keith has been a promoter of “Business Perspective Investing” for a number of years. I recall reading the Analyst magazine with which he was involved and which alas ceased publication many years ago. That publication influenced my own investment approach. Since 2011 he has run the Buffettology Fund which aims to replicate the principles or Warren Buftett and Charlie Munger. In essence he looks at the business first before attempting to value it and is looking for quality businesses with high barriers to entry. Such companies frequently have superior operating margins, superior returns on capital and superior cash generation.

Now readers will not be surprised to hear that I have been following the same principles also and have recently published a book called “Business Perspective Investing” (see https://www.roliscon.com/business-perspective-investing.html ). I thought it would be interesting to see how the performance of my portfolio since 2011 compared to the Buffettology Fund. The chart below gives you the comparison against the All-Share Index:

Lawson Portfolio 2019-12-01

It looks very similar does it not! Both are nearing a 300% return over the period. The only possible difference is that the chart of my portfolio does not include dividends (i.e. it’s capital only, not total return). Both are focused on UK public company shares but I probably have more smaller companies in the portfolio – and I also have more holdings (85 versus 35 in the Buffettology Fund). But that includes some Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs) that provide minimal capital gains but a lot of tax-free dividends which are not included in the data.

Perhaps you think that otherwise I have the same holdings as Ashworth-Lord in my portfolio? That’s only true to a very limited extent. I only hold 3 of his top ten holdings. So the similarity of performance may relate to holding similar types of companies but not to holding the same companies.

The key point is that both I and Keith Ashworth-Lord have done a lot better than we would have done by simply investing in a FTSE index – about 300% gain instead of 30% in capital terms since 2011.

Have we just been lucky, i.e. is the outperformance likely to continue? It’s very difficult to be certain. John Bogle, whose books are well worth reading, claims there is little evidence of persistent out-performance by fund managers. Managers tend to revert to the mean. This may be because successful managers tend to grow their portfolios as new investors pile in, and the bigger the fund the worse it performs. There are only so many good ideas to pursue.

The other reason why performance tends not to persist is that successful investment strategies can be copied by other investors, thus eroding returns. For example, recently technology-based growth stocks have been seen as the way to make money. Will business perspective investing be replicated by others in future and become too crowded a field? Perhaps but it is not a simple strategy to follow and requires both knowledge and experience.

There have been a number of fund managers with a good track record who have not managed to sustain it. The most recent example is probably Neil Woodford but that is an example of a manager changing his investment strategy. Moving from undervalued medium/large businesses to a ragbag of special situations and early stage companies, some of which were not even listed.

Outperformance does require considerable effort though in analysing companies in depth rather than doing a trivial review of their financial numbers. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a business is essential, and keeping a close eye on it after investing is essential.

For a private investor if you don’t wish to do the work of researching individual companies the answer is to invest in a fund or investment trust where the manager follows similar principles and has a long-term track record. Avoid “closet” index trackers, i.e. active funds or trusts whose composition is very similar to their benchmark however much they try to convince you they are pure stock-pickers. You also need to avoid funds/trusts with high management and other overhead charges. You then have a chance of outperforming the relevant index.

If you consider that too risky, and active funds can underperform their index over short periods of time, then a tracker fund or ETF may be the answer for you. You will also avoid the real dogs such as the Woodford Equity Income Fund and some “absolute return” funds. But you certainly need to be aware that investors are currently piling into tracker funds at a record-breaking pace and they accounted for two thirds of fund sales in October. To my mind this is potentially dangerous as people are buying units in these funds without any analysis of the holdings therein, i.e. they are just thoughtlessly buying the index. My original comment on the Citywire article (“Mindless Investment Wins Out”) only refers to the success of fund managers in selling the different types of fund, not to their fund performance!

What has been happening in the last few years is that long-term investment has moved to short-term speculation. When John Bogle started promoting index-tracking and founded the very successful Vanguard business, and for many years after, index tracking was a minority interest among investors. Index tracking funds would have little influence on the index. But is that still the case? There is little evidence to suggest this is so but the return on many large cap shares, which dominate the indices, does seem to be falling. You have to bear in mind that index-tracking funds rarely hold all the shares that make up the index. They can replicate the index by just holding a few of the largest components. So there is a strong herd instinct to invest in the large cap stocks, or disinvest in them.

But large cap stocks, for example those in the FTSE-100, are typically very mature business with low growth prospects and often declining returns on capital.

The length of time that investors hold mutual funds and ETFs has now shortened so the average holding period of a stock ETF is now less than 150 days. They have become tools for short-term traders rather than long-term investors. This has magnified the swings in the market to the benefit of the fund managers and other intermediaries who gain from the higher volumes.

Playing in the large fish pools can therefore be tricky while at the other extreme investing in small or micro-cap stocks can be a triumph of hope over experience. For those reasons, business perspective investing probably works best in mid-cap companies that might be less driven by market trends and share price momentum driven by index trackers.

In conclusion, beware of mindless investment strategies and those who promote them. There are no free lunches in the investment world.

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

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M&G Property Fund Closed and M&C Saatchi Accounting Problems

The really bad news yesterday for many investors was that the £2.5 billion M&G Property Portfolio Fund had been closed to redemptions. This is of course an open-ended fund where sales of units by investors causes the manager to sell some investments to realise cash to meet those redemptions. The fund holds a number of large retail shopping centres in the portfolio which must be particularly difficult to sell at the present time. The fund has seen withdrawals of over £1 billion in the last year and the fund has recently seen “unusually high and sustained outflows”.

Is this another Woodford Equity Income Fund case where investors are going to be locked in for many months and unable to sell their holdings and ultimately lead to a wind-up or substantial write-down of their investments? The simple answer is quite possibly but there is little they can do about it.

The announcement seemed to have a negative impact on many property shares and trusts even those that are not invested in retail assets. The message that investors should learn from this is that holding illiquid investments in open-funded funds is positively dangerous. The FCA did announce new rules in September to ensure investors were warned about the risks of closure in such funds. But to my mind the simple solution should be to ban such funds altogether. If platforms list such funds, then some fools will buy them regardless of warnings.

This not just relates to property funds, where direct holdings of property are always going to be illiquid because selling buildings always takes time, but holdings of unlisted shares which was another problem that Woodford faced. Even big holdings of small cap listed companies can be difficult to shift rapidly. The realisation by investors in the M&G fund that such funds were positively dangerous might of course have contributed to the large redemptions in the last year.

Another item of bad news yesterday was for holders of shares in M&C Saatchi (SAA), the advertising agency. The share price fell by almost 50% on the day, after the company issued a statement on an “Accounting Review and Trading Update”. It seems that the announcement back in August of “accounting issues” has turned into worse news than expected, rising the total adjustments required to £11.6 million (pre-tax). There will also be a bill of £1 million for the associated accounting and legal work.

Trading is more bad news. The company says “Underlying profit before tax, before exceptional costs, is expected to be significantly below the levels expected at the time of the Company’s interim results due to weaker than expected trading in the final quarter of the year and higher than expected central costs”. In addition there will be a restructuring of the UK office which will cost an additional £2.5 million in exceptional charges.

Part of the problem here is that the advertising world is changing. Much expenditure is moving to social media such as Google Adwords, Twitter and Facebook where creativity is possibly less important. The M&C Saatchi business model seemed to be to take over or build small teams who ran their own accounting system. The company had lots of different local systems which are only now being merged into a common Oracle cloud-based system. The company also announced a change of auditors to PwC.

As I have said before, and in my book, accounts are not to be trusted and what one needs to look at is the business model and their operational systems. In Saatchi the former was vulnerable to market change and the latter were clearly of poor quality.

Can this company recover to its former glory? Perhaps because it claims it will have net cash of £5 million at the end of December. But looking at the last interim results in June indicates a current ratio of only 1.06. Revenue, and cash seem to be falling so this business seems to be subject to rapid changes. Predicting the outcome is not likely to be easy. One for speculators, or only those who have some very deep and current knowledge of the business would be my conclusion.

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

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Investor Meet Company, Fevertree, Closet Trackers, Politics and the Environment

I recently came across a company called “Investor Meet Company” (see https://www.investormeetcompany.com/ ). They claim to enable individual investors to meet with company directors over the internet, i.e. via a digital web cast. The service is free to investors but there is a small charge to companies who take part.

The company was formed in 2018 by two founders, Marc Downes and Paul Brotherhood, who seem to have lengthy financial backgrounds and the web site looks professional. However, their contract terms are over complex and their privacy policy likewise so I am not rushing to sign up. They also invite you to provide details of companies you are interested in, which may be your holdings, which is not ideal. But if any readers have experience of this service, please let me know.

I mentioned Fevertree (FEVR) in my last blog post and Phil Oakley’s review of the business. Today the company issued a trading statement which was positive – it mentions “acceleration in key growth markets of the US and Europe in the second half”, but UK performance seems to be mixed. Growth in the USA is now expected to be c. 34% which is ahead of previous expectations. But the overall revenue forecast of £266 to £268 million is less than the previous consensus brokers’ forecast. The share price is up 7.8% today though. I may have to look at this business again because US growth is key to the share valuation.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have fined Janus Henderson £1.9 million for running two funds as “closet trackers”, i.e. actually closely tracking an index while charging high fees that are more normal for actively managed funds. This apparently was particularly obnoxious because they did not tell the investors in the funds that they were switched to a passive approach in 2011. The funds affected were Henderson Japan Enhanced Equity and Henderson North American Enhanced Equity. Investors have been paid compensation. Investors in funds need to be very wary that the fund managers of actively managed funds are actually putting in the effort and not sitting back and being a pseudo index tracker while charging high fees.

I watched some of the debate last night between Johnson and Corbyn but as it was so trivial in content I turned it off fairly quickly. I can imagine a lot of people did. The programme producer and compere can be mostly blamed for allowing such bland questions to which one could guess the responses and allowing evasions and irrelevant interruptions. The format of the US presidential debates is so much better.

Rather surprisingly I received a flyer in the post yesterday from an organisation called “Tactical Vote”. If I go to their web site it advises me that the best choice for me is to vote Labour in the Bromley and Chislehurst Constituency. The flyer makes it clear that their agenda is to keep the Conservatives out! But I suspect that they won’t get far in my constituency as Bob Neil had a 10,000 majority last time. If anyone was to switch it might be more likely be to the Brexit Party or the Liberal Democrats but there is not even a Brexit candidate standing so far as I can see. I am all in favour of “tactical voting” in some constituencies but we really need reform of the political system so that we have better representation. A transferable second vote system as we have for London Mayor is relatively simple. Tactical Vote seem to be pursuing a false agenda though; they should call themselves the “Labour Vote Promoters”.

One of the hot political issues, at least so far as the minority parties are concerned as the major parties are more focused on Brexit, the NHS and give-aways in the current General Election is the environment, i.e. how we become carbon neutral by 2050 or a date of your choice. Even the Conservatives wish us all to be driving electric cars, changing our home heating system and changing our way of life in other ways to avoid disastrous climate change. There was an interesting article in today’s Financial Times showing how this is quite pointless because China will soon be emitting more carbon from burning coal than the whole of the EU. They are expanding the number of coal power stations and the result will be to offset global progress in reducing emissions. In 2017 China produced 27% of world CO2 emissions, while the UK produced 1.2%. China’s emissions have been rising while the UK’s are falling so any extreme efforts by the UK are not likely to have much impact on the world scene.

However if you want to save the world and cut your heating bills (the latter is a more practical objective) I suggest looking at product called Radbot from Vestemi. The company was founded by a long-standing business contact of mine. It’s basically an intelligent radiator valve that monitors when a room is occupied and adapts to your usage.

Apart from that point, I consider there is so much misinformation being spread around about climate change and the impact of CO2 emissions that it is impossible to comment on the subject intelligently enough to refute much of the nonsense in a short blog article. But I do think it might be helpful to reduce the population of the UK which is just getting too damn crowded and leading to housing shortages, congestion on the roads and in public transport and other ills. That would be a better way of reducing emissions.

Part of the problem is that the NHS has become very good at keeping people alive despite what some politicians believe, while immigration has boosted numbers as well. You can see this in the latest forecasts for London’s population which is likely to grow by 18% to 10.4 million by 2041. See https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/projections-documentation for more details.

Those are the issues politicians should be talking about.

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

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Woodford Fund and Trust News

The good news for investors in the Woodford Patient Capital Trust (WPCT) is that Schroders are taking over management of the portfolio.  The share price promptly jumped upwards on the news (up about 29% at the time of writing), but speculators need to be wary. Although the trust is still at a large discount to the Net Asset Value, I looked at the portfolio yesterday and was not impressed.

These are the top ten holdings by value: Rutherford Health, Benevolent AI, Atom Bank, Oxford Nanopore, Industrial Heat, Immunocore A Pref, Kymab B Pref, Mission Therapeutics, Ratesetter and Autolus. There may be some value in there but actually judging it, or confirming it, is far from easy.

One issue not raised in the recent BBC Panorama programme on Woodford was that of the naming of the Woodford Equity Income Fund. Such funds typically focus on paying high dividends to investors and to do so they invest in high dividend paying companies. They therefore tend to hold boring large cap companies. But the Woodford fund, which is now being wound up, was very different. It did have some high dividend paying holdings in the fund but not necessarily large cap ones and it also had a number of early stage companies that were unlisted. This was not a typical “Equity Income” fund. Investors might feel they were misled in that regard by the name.

For a more typical “equity income” fund, look at City of London Investment Trust (CTY) who are holding their Annual General Meeting today at 2.30 pm. You may be able to watch the AGM on-line, or see a recording later, by going to https://www.janushenderson.com/en-gb/investor/ . Their top ten holdings at the year end were: Shell, HSBC, Diageo, BP, Unilever, Prudential, Lloyds Bank, RELX, BAT and Rio Tinto.

But these were the top ten holdings in the Woodford Equity Income Fund: Barratt Developments, Burford Capital, Taylor Wimpey, Benevolent Ai, Provident Financial, Theravance Biopharma, Countryside Properties, Oxford Nanopore, Ip Group and Raven Property Convertible Pref 6.5%. That’s a very different kind of portfolio.

The AIC definition of an equity income fund primarily says that typically the company will have a yield on the underlying portfolio ranging between 110% and 175% of that of an All-Share Index (World or UK). It says nothing about the riskiness of the companies being invested in nor their size when income investors are typically looking for security of income. Surely the definition of an equity income fund needs revisiting and more information provided to investors. The latter is of course now taking place as new direct investors have to confirm they have read the KID on the fund when doing so on-line but do they read them and understand them?

Postscript: The broadcast on-line video of the City of London IT AGM as definitely promised in the notice of the meeting could not be found when required and after contacting Janus Henderson I am still awaiting a call back 24 hours later to tell me where a recording might be. This is really not good enough.

Postscript 2 (4 days later): A recording of the presentation by Job Curtis at the City of London AGM and the business of the meeting is present here: https://www.janushenderson.com/en-gb/investor/investment-trusts-live/ .

As regards Woodford Patient Capital Trust, it has been pointed out to me that one aspect I did not mention and which might affect an investors view of the valuation was the high level of debt in the company. The gearing has grown as some equity holdings were disposed of and this may be another problem for Schroders.

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

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Panorama on Woodford – Expletives Deleted?

Panorama covered the Woodford debacle last night and the issue of conflicts of interest in fund managers. They tried door-stepping Neil Woodford to ask him some questions, but he just walked past them. I think the questions would have been rhetorical anyway, such as “why did he make so many duff bets on companies” and “why should he have made millions while investors in his funds lost money”?

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) came in for a lot of criticism for not intervening sooner and allegedly not enforcing the rules concerning the liquidity of holdings in open-ended funds.

My old sparring partner T** W** was interviewed in his new home in Wales – looks like he has a renovation project on his hands. I don’t like to mention his name in case it attracts readers to follow him when they might find his use of language somewhat offensive. But in this interview there were no expletives which is unusual for him – perhaps the BBC deleted them.  They also interviewed some investors in the Woodford funds and one of them definitely had her expletives deleted.

The programme also covered the issue of the conflicts of interest in fund managers such as the fact that as their fees are based on the value of funds under management, there are strong incentives to grow the assets and also an incentive to manipulate the share prices. For example, without suggesting that Woodford specifically did these things, if a fund manager buys more of a listed stock in the market then that can raise the price, particularly when the stock is a small cap one and relatively illiquid. In the case of unlisted stocks, investing at a higher price than any previous trades causes the whole company to be revalued upwards (see BVCA valuation rules). There is clearly the possibility of perverse incentives here.

The programme also mentioned the case of Mark Denning an investment manager for Capital Group who allegedly had been trading in stocks on his personal account that were also held by the fund he managed. He denies it, but clearly such activity could enable “front-running” of trades and other abuses. The Panorama programme argued that there was in essence very little oversight of fund managers.

In summary the BBC programme was a good overview of the issues and T** W** made a useful contribution. The FCA should certainly be tightening up on the oversight of open-ended funds and their managers, and should be reviewing the liquidity rules even if they are bound by the EU Directives in that regard at present.

As the FCA never acts quickly, which is of course part of the problem, in the meantime investors might like to consider what I said in my recent book in the chapter on Trusts and Funds. I repeat some excerpts here:

“A key measure of the merit of a fund is its long-term performance against similar funds or its benchmark”. [Woodford’s funds, after he set up his new management company. never demonstrated that].

“One issue to examine is whether a fund manager has a consistent and effective process for selecting investments if they are an active manager. It is important that they are not simply making ad-hoc decisions about investments however experienced they are”. [See my comments on City of London Investment Group in a previous blog post for an example].

“To judge whether a fund manager is competent it helps to look at the underlying companies in which they invest. Are they investing in companies that show a high return on capital while being on relatively low P/Es and with significant growth in earnings or are they investing in shares that appear to be simply cheap? Are they picking companies that are of high quality – in other words displaying the characteristics covered in the first few chapters of this book?” [Anyone looking at the holdings of the Woodford Equity Income Fund or Patient Capital Trust would have realised that many of the holdings were speculative].

One issue not raised in the BBC programme was that of the naming of the Woodford Equity Income Fund. Such funds typically focus on paying high dividends to investors and to do so they invest in high dividend paying companies. They therefore tend to hold boring large cap companies. But the Woodford fund was very different. It did have some high dividend paying holdings in the fund but not necessarily large cap ones and it also had a number of early stage companies that were unlisted. This was not a typical “Equity Income” fund. Investors might feel they were misled in that regard by the name.

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

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Woodford, Buffett Bot and FRC Survey

There was a very good article in the FT on Saturday on the “rise and fall of a rock star fund manager”, i.e. Neil Woodford. Essential reading for those who have lost money in his funds. A tale of hubris and obstinate conviction it seems. They report that lawyers are looking at a possible claim for investors but I cannot see any obvious grounds. But lawyers like to chase ambulances. Panorama are also covering the Woodford debacle on Monday.

That well-known phrase “Where are the customers’ yachts” comes to mind. While Woodford and his associates have made millions from his management company, the customers have lost money. That is an issue that the FCA might wish to consider but I cannot think of any immediate solution.

Another article in Saturday’s FT was on a Buffett “App” which would imitate the value investing style of Warren Buffett. Neil Woodford was once known as Britain’s answer to Buffett in the deadwood press but that is now being forgotten of course. This new App from Havelock London is aimed to imitate the investing style that is claimed to be the source of Buffett’s above average long-term performance.  They claim that App will focus on long-term value rather than short term performance which is the approach of most such “quant” investors. This was the marketing pitch of Woodford’s Patient Capital Trust in essence as you can tell from the name.

But in my view this whole approach that you can pick out sound investments by clever analysis of the historic financial numbers or of other metrics is simply misconceived. I have explained why this is so in my book “Business Perspective Investing (see https://www.roliscon.com/business-perspective-investing.html ). One reason why Buffett was so successful, which is obvious if you read about his career, is that he looked carefully at the business models of the companies in which he invested and such matters as the barriers to competitor entry. Yes you can cover some of his analysis by looking at return on capital or other metrics of a company, but that’s only half of the story. You need to understand the business from the perspective of a business analyst.

The Financial Report Council (FRC) have just published a survey on “The Future of Corporate Reporting” (see   https://www.frc.org.uk/news/october-2019/future-of-corporate-reporting-survey ). As the announcement says: “Respondents views will inform the FRC’s project which seeks to make recommendations for improvements to current regulation and practice and develop “blue sky” thinking. A key aim of the project is to challenge the FRC to think more broadly in responding to the recommendation by Sir John Kingman to promote greater “brevity, comprehensibility and usefulness in corporate reporting” moving forward”. So this is something all investors who read company reports should look at. It should take no more than 15 minutes to complete they assure us. I completed it in not much longer.

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

Woodford and Hargreaves Lansdown, Rosslyn Data AGM and Brexit

To follow up on my previous blog post over the collapse of Woodford Investment Management and how to avoid dud managers, the focus has now turned in the national media upon Hargreaves Lansdown (HL.). Investors who have lost a lot of money, and now won’t be able to get their cash out for some time, are looking for who to blame. Neil Woodford is one of course, but what about investment platforms such HL?

The Woodford Equity Income Fund was on the HL “best buy” list for a long time – indeed long after its poor performance was evident. They claimed at a Treasury Committee that Woodford had displayed similar underperformance in the past and had bounced back. But that was when he had a very different investment strategy so far as one can deduce.

The big issue though that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) should be looking at is the issue of platforms favouring funds that give financial incentives – in this case via providing a discount to investors and hence possibly generating more revenue when better performing funds such as Fundsmith refused to do so. HL have not recommended Fundsmith in the past, despite it being one of the top performing funds.

It is surely not sensible for fund platforms to be recommending funds unless they have no financial interest in the matter whatsoever. Indeed I would suggest the simple solution is for platforms to be banned from recommending any funds or trusts, thus forcing the investor to both get educated and make up their own minds. Such a rule might spawn a new group of independent retail investor advisors which would be surely to the good.

Today I attended the Annual General Meeting of Rosslyn  Data Technologies (RDT). This is an IT company that I bought a few shares in a couple of years ago as an EIS investment. It was loss-making then, and still is but is getting near break-even.

There were only about half a dozen shareholders present, but they had lots of questions. I only cover the important ones here. New Chairman James Appleby chaired the meeting reasonably well, but left most of the question answering to others.

Why did company founder Charles Clark step down (as announced today)? Reason given was that he had set up another company where there was  a potential conflict of interest.

I asked about the Landon acquisition that was announced in September. How much revenue would this add?  They are not sure but maybe £0.5 million. Bearing in mind they only paid £48,750 for the assets and client list from the administrator, that seems to be me a remarkably good deal. But it later transpired that they have outstanding contracts (pre-paid) which they have to finish so that might be another £250,000 of costs. However, that’s still cheap and by rationalising some of the costs they should quickly turn Langdon profitable. It was suggested that Langdon had been mismanaged with over-expansion and too many staff which is why it went bust – only a few of the staff have been taken on. Note that the impact of this acquisition is not yet in broker’s forecasts.

It was noted that RDT is currently broadly on track for analysts forecasts but it has been a slow start to the year. Deals are slipping into the second half. Decision timescales in major corporates seem to be stretching out at present.

One shareholder, who said “I am talking too much – a daft old man”, which it is difficult to disagree with as he asked numerous questions, some not very intelligent, asked whether they were charging enough for their services. There was a long debate on that issue, but it was explained that competitors were charging less.

There were also concerns about the slow rate of revenue growth (only 8.3% last year). Comment: this company is clearly not operating in a hot, high-growth sector of the market. But it does seem to be competently managed and if they can do acquisitions like Langdon that are complementary then profits should grow.

Altogether a useful AGM.

Brexit has of course made many UK companies nervous about new projects. At the time of writing the latest position appears to be that the EU and Boris have agreed a deal. Most Conservatives like it, but the DUP does not and Labour, LibDems and SNP will all seem likey to vote against it in Parliament. The last group all seem to be playing politics to get what they individually want, but not a general election which on current opinion polls might result in a big Conservative majority. Most people are very frustrated that this group are blocking support of Brexit so we can close down the issue and move on when there seems to be no overall public support for another referendum or cancelling Brexit altogether.

But even given this messy situation, I am hopeful that it will be resolved in one way or the other soon. But then I am the perpetual optimist. I am investing accordingly.

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

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