Miton UK Smaller Companies Fund In Decline

There was an interesting article published a couple of days ago by Citywire on the problems at the LF Miton UK Smaller Companies Fund. The fund is managed by well known investor Gervais Williams and Martin Turner and focuses mainly on AIM listed companies. Performance in 2019 was dire with the fund losing 14% when the sector was up 25%. Over the last 18 months this open-ended fund has shrunk by 75% as investors bailed out.

In the Citywire article Gervais is quoted as giving some positive comments including “The stocks in the fund are particularly undervalued on a relative and absolute basis, with an overall price-to-book ratio of 1.1 times, for example, versus 2.2 times for the FTSE AIM All-Share index”. A quick look at the portfolio gives me some doubts though.

The top holdings are Aquis Exchange, Kape Technologies, CentralNic Group, Totally, Corero Network Security, Kromek Group, Amino Technologies, Frontier IP, Hydrogen Group and Reabold Resources. I have held CentralNic and Corero in the past but not currently. Corero who operate in the digital security (DDOS) sector has been a consistent disappointment over many years with repeated placings required. Perhaps some of these business are undervalued and may turn into winners in due course, but the problem with holding small caps in an open-ended fund is that a hiccup in the overall fund performance causes investors to sell the fund and that means the fund manager has to sell some of the relatively illiquid shares to meet redemptions. That drives the share prices down.

This is similar to the problem Woodford had but in a slightly different form. The Miton holdings are at least listed but probably quite illiquid, i.e. low normal share volume and selling the size of holding that Miton might have would be difficult. But it’s similar in that the managers seem to have lost their touch at share picking.

The situation works in reverse of course if the fund grows in size after a positive period. Folks pile in and the share prices of the shares the fund invests in are driven up.

One has to question whether this kind of fund should be an open-ended fund rather than an investment trust. The bigger the fund grows (it’s now still £57 million in size), the more dangerous the situation becomes.

But for private investors, one way to avoid this “herding” problem is to invest directly in small cap shares rather than in a fund. Any individual investor may have such a small holding that one can move in and out of the shares without moving the share price too much. Or if you still wish to invest in small cap open-ended funds, make sure you jump on the bandwagon when it’s going up and bail out as soon as there are any performance hiccups.

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

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FinTech Valuations, EU Harmonisation and Fundsmith Report

I received an interesting item from Sharepad/Sharescope by Jeremy Grime this morning. It was headlined “Culture in Payments” but the interesting part was the coverage of the valuations of Fintech companies. It listed some of the recent takeover transactions of such companies where the valuations ranged from multiples of 1.1 to 7.8 times revenue (Source: W.H.Ireland), but many of them were on more than 7 times. Profits are not even mentioned! One example was UK listed company Earthport, taken over at 7.3 times revenue by Visa when it had been consistently loss making.

The article also mentions three small such UK listed companies – Alpha FX (AFX), Argentex (AGFX) and Equals Group (EQLS) and explains how they seem to be evolving from being primarily suppliers of foreign exchange to evolving into banks. I have an interest in one of those companies and another in the sector, but some of  the valuations seem to be way too high to me. There are clearly a lot of share speculators betting on their future, but not all are likely to be successful. Maybe they are just looking further ahead than me (source of the word “speculator” is Latin “speculatus”, the past participle of the verb speculari, which means “to spy out” or “to examine” but it tends to now mean acting without looking).

Chancellor Sajid Javid has put the cat among the pigeons over the weekend by suggesting on Friday in an FT interview that UK businesses need to prepare for divergence from EU rules. He said “There will not be alignment, we will not be a rule taker, we will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union”. This may create potential difficulties for large importers/exporters from/to the EU, such as auto manufacturers, aerospace companies, pharmaceutical companies and food/drink suppliers. It is also somewhat inconsistent with the “political declaration” which was part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Perhaps this is just a negotiating position. I hope so because some harmonisation on goods might surely be preferable to ease trade flows, even if we depart to some extent from EU financial regulations and other rules. However, just to give you one example where harmonisation might be objected to, the EU is mandating Intelligent Speed Adaptation (ISA) for all new cars from 2022. Many UK drivers consider this unreasonable as speed limits are often inappropriate and there are a number of technical objections to it. Exporting compliant vehicles to the EU should not be difficult for car manufacturers but for German manufacturers if the UK drops that rule then problems may arise. The devil is in the detail on harmonisation. The answer is surely to agree harmonisation on technical standards where there is an obvious benefit to both parties, but not where the regulations attempt to dictate policies in the UK, or how our citizens behave.

Lastly I covered the latest Fundsmith Equity Fund Annual Report in a previous blog post (see https://roliscon.blog/2020/01/18/another-good-year-for-fundsmith/ ). It’s now available from this web page: https://www.fundsmith.co.uk/docs/default-source/analysis—annual-letters/annual-letter-to-shareholders-2019.pdf? and is well worth reading.

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

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Another Good Year for Fundsmith

Terry Smith has issued his latest report to investors on the performance of the Fundsmith Equity Fund. It contains some of his usual acerbic comments on the financial world which I cover below.

Total Return on the fund last year was 25.6% and that beat the MSCI World Index benchmark which was only up 22.7%. As Fundsmith is one of my bigger holdings, that helped to contribute to my own portfolio performance although my overall gain was better. But that compares with the previous year when Fundsmith was well ahead of my portfolio which has more small cap stocks in it. Undoubtedly investors in Fundsmith will be happy with this continued good performance and the fund has continued to attract new investors so is now the largest UK retail equity fund. Many people have concerns that the fund is now so large that returns may drop away but Terry Smith continues to confound them.

The top five contributors to outperformance were Microsoft, Estee Lauder, Facebook, Paypal and Philip Morris with the detractors being 3M, Colgate Palmolive, Clorox, Brown-Forman and Reckitt Benckiser. Terry continues his management style which he defines as buying good companies, not overpaying and then doing nothing. He also likes to invest in companies with a good Return on Capital Employed (ROCE), good margins and good cash conversion. These are good lessons for all stock market investors.

He derides “value investing”, i.e. buying apparently cheap stocks and the alleged rotation from growth into value. He says “most of the stocks which have valuations which attract value investors have them for good reason – they are not good businesses”. He argues that returns from stock market investment come from the growth in company earnings and the compounding of reinvested retained capital, not from buying cheap companies.

He clearly does not intend to change his investment style and makes some critical comments on the Woodford debacle which he assigns to a change in investment strategy with Woodford moving into illiquid small cap stocks in an open-ended fund.

Fundsmith are holding the Annual Shareholders Meeting on the 25th February for those who wish to question Terry on his management, or on why he is not reducing the fund management charges given the growing size of the fund, although they are not expensive in comparison with some actively managed funds.

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

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Slater Investments Warns on Pay, and Flybe Bail-Out

Slater Investments has issued a warning to companies of their “dissatisfaction with the framework of directors’ remuneration in most public companies”. Slater Investments run a number of funds managed by Mark Slater and others with a focus on growth companies.

The letter complains about a “relentless ratcheting of terms and conditions which have meant the interests of directors and investors have grown steadily further apart”. Specifically it complains about the award of nil-cost options which they see as a one-way bet and they also don’t like the hurdles that are set which are often simply e.p.s. rather than total return.

They also don’t like the quantum of pay awards and say: “It has become customary for executive directors to receive a handsome salary, plus the same again in cash bonus and a similar amount in nil cost options – year in, year out. Is a good salary not enough to get directors out of bed in the morning and to diligently work their allotted hours? A bonus should be determined by the return received by investors”. This is a similar complaint to my own made a week ago.

They plan to vote against remuneration reports which are longer than two pages [Comment: that means most of them at present], and vote against any schemes with nil cost options and against unresponsive members of the remuneration committee. Mark Slater and his firm are to be congratulated on taking a stand on this matter. I hope other fund managers will follow his example.

To read the letter sent to companies, go here: https://tinyurl.com/wu9jh9q

The UK Government is bailing out airline Flybe. It was obviously running out of cash and was saved from administration by the Government deferring passenger duty tax payable, a possible Government loan and more cash from the owners. Is this a good thing?

Flybe operates a number of short-haul flights in the UK and the rest of Europe. Some UK airports are apparently dependent on its operations. Is it really essential to maintain these operations when roads and rail links provide alternative transport options in most cases, albeit somewhat slower perhaps? State aid to failing companies has a very poor record in the UK – the motor industry was a good example of that. One of the few good things about the EU is its tough rules on state aid. I hope that the UK will not diverge from its principles now we are departing from the EU.

Why is bailing out failing companies a bad idea?  For several reasons. First because it effectively subsidizes poor companies which then compete with profitable companies to their disadvantage. Second, it rarely works because a bad business usually remains a bad business. For example, Flybe has been perennially unprofitable and had to be rescued via a takeover in March 2019 when it was delisted. You can see the financial track record of the company on this Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flybe

Airlines are one of those businesses that I avoid. They suffer from the business model problem that they are always trying to maximise passenger loading as the economics of airlines means they need to fly the planes full to make money. This means they cut prices to fill volume when business is bad, but their competitors do the same (and their competitors can be other transport modes on short-haul flights such as buses or trains).

It has been suggested that the worlds’ airlines have never overall made money since the airplane was invented. I can quite believe it.

I see no good economic reason why the Government should bail out Flybe in the way proposed. If it owns some profitable routes, other airlines will take them on. There might be merit in reviewing air passenger duty in general which is a tax on travel that does not apply to other transport modes, or perhaps in providing some specific funding to unprofitable routes as suggested in the FT if there are good arguments for doing so and with onerous conditions attached. But the principle should be “no money unless the business is restructured forthwith with some certainty that it can be made profitable”.

Otherwise the danger is “moral hazard” as Lord King mentioned when refusing to bail out Northern Rock, not that I think he was particularly wise in that case. It is suggested that it just encourages the directors of companies to believe they will be rescued regardless of their incompetence. The threat of no more assistance ensures directors take more care it is argued and provides an example to others. Banks may be rescued with cash that the Government prints to shore up their balance sheet, but putting cash into airlines is typically just used to fund operating losses.

Businesses that are subject to Government regulation are always tricky to invest in. If they are not subsidising the competitors, they are restricting competition by regulation. Which one of my US contacts was explaining to me a couple of weeks ago as one reason for the demise of PanAm.

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

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NMC Health Attacked and Open-Ended Funds Holding Illiquid Assets

Yesterday Muddy Waters, the same organisation who recently attacked Burford Capital, published a highly negative report on NMC Health (NMC). The share price fell 33% on the day. Muddy Waters, and owner Carson Black, are effectively saying the accounts of NMC are fraudulent. A quick review of their report suggests the key issues are undisclosed related-party transactions, the purchase of assets at wildly inflated prices and the under-reporting of debt.

As with other similar “shorting attacks”, the dossier is long and complex enough to make any quick analysis of whether it is all true, or whether some of it is true, or whether the whole thing is a fiction, impossible to resolve. NMC published a fairly brief statement this morning saying the company had already responded in the past 12 months to many of the allegations but they suggest the claims are “unfounded, baseless and misleading, containing many errors of fact, and will respond in detail in due course”.

NMC run hospitals and other healthcare services in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and elsewhere. It is registered in England and holds its AGMs in London.

This is what I had to say about such shorting attacks in a previous article: “One of the problems in most shorting attacks is the mixture of possibly true and false allegations, which the shorter has not even checked with the target company, along with unverifiable claims and innuendo. The shorter can make a lot of money by such tactics while it can take months for the truth or otherwise of the allegations to be researched and revealed. By which time the shorter has long moved on to other targets. Shorting is not wrong in essence, but combining it with questionable public announcements is surely market manipulation which is covered by the law on market abuse”.

I still think those who publish allegations that are likely to move share prices should at least give the company the opportunity to comment on the accuracy of the allegations before they publish. A few days grace should suffice with possible suspension of the shares until the allegations are investigated by the company and the FCA.

Readers will no doubt be aware of the problem of open-ended investment funds holding illiquid assets such as property or private equity shares. Investors of funds can sell their shares on a daily basis, but the fund manager who has to meet such redemptions cannot sell the assets of the fund to do so in any sensible time frame. They may hold some cash but if a stampede for the exit occurs then they cannot hope to meet the demand and hence have to close the fund to redemptions.

The Bank of England have published a Financial Stability Report that suggests such funds are creating a systemic risk and unfair outcomes for investors. They make various suggestions to solve the problem which includes making redemption notice periods reflect the time need to sell the required portion of a fund’s assets. For property funds this might mean many months delay. They also suggest a pricing mechanism to impose discounts on those investors who want a quick exit, but that might simply encourage investors to dump their holdings sooner rather than later, thus exacerbating a “run” on the fund.

Are these suggestions workable? I doubt it and they would certainly be confusing for retail investors. Why introduce such complexity when the answer is simply to ban open-ended funds from holding more than a very limited proportion of illiquid assets. Investors have a good alternative in investment trusts which have no such problems.

The Bank of England’s Report is present here: https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/-/media/boe/files/financial-stability-report/2019/december-2019.pdf (see page 75 for the coverage of open-ended funds).

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

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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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