Babcock Dividend, Ocado Placing, AGM Reform and Why Are People So Angry?

To follow up on my previous blog post about Babcock (BAB) and the possibility of it “skipping” its final dividend, the company issued its Final Results this morning and spelled it out. This is what it said about the dividend: “Given the current level of uncertainty over the impact of COVID-19, the Board has decided to defer the decision on our final dividend for the year ended 31 March 2020. We recognise the importance of the dividend to our shareholders and the Board will keep this under review during the financial year as the impact of COVID-19 becomes clearer”. That is not what Shore Capital suggested at all.

Although the company appears to have met forecasts for last year, and says it has a record order book, the share price has fallen 5% at the time of writing. The market in general is down considerably also though.

Ocado (OCDO) announced an institutional placing yesterday together with an offer via Primary Bid to retail investors. Like the one for Segro I commented on yesterday, this is a fund raising for expansion and is at a relatively small discount and dilution. These arrangements are now becoming common but I still don’t like them. They give private investors very little time to decide whether they wish to take up the offer and they do not know what price is being offered. As a holder of Ocado, this is another one I declined to invest in. Ocado share price is down 5.7% this morning at the time of writing which is exactly the same as the discount in the offer to the previous closing price, i.e. you could pick up shares in the market just as cheaply. I suggest companies should do proper rights issues rather than this dubious method and that the FCA should regulate this area more robustly.

There was a good article in the Financial Times today under the headline “Coronavirus casts doubt on the future of AGMs”. It describes the debate over the reform of AGMs and the use of virtual AGMs. It also covered an initiative by organisation ShareAction who are raising money to fund research into the issue. They quote Catherine Howarth as saying “We hope to co-develop a robust framework for AGMs that would still include shareholder votes and which would also help companies interact with a wider range of their important stakeholders including employees, customers, suppliers and communities”. That may be a worthwhile initiative if it makes AGMs more vibrant and useful than they are now but bearing in mind the funding of ShareAction it may not be a totally unbiased proposal.

What we do not want is AGMs dominated by “stakeholders” with political views as happens already at some companies – such as oil and mining company AGMs with endless complaints from environmental activists or defence industry company AGMs dominated by those who believe the company should not be involved in that industry at all. Companies are not in business to right all the social wrongs in the world, but to provide a financial return to their shareholders. They just need to operate within the laws set by national governments. Company law in the UK already requires the company to take the wider interests of stakeholders such as employees or customers into account and they can be represented at AGMs easily enough now by just buying a few shares – you only need one share to attend an AGM.

The FT article does make some good points about virtual AGMs, one of which I commented upon yesterday (EKF Diagnostics). But it suggests that it might cost £10,000 to hold a “hybrid” meeting at a small company. That is surely a grossly excessive estimate if voting is done on a poll. It’s trivial to set up a Zoom meeting for the number of investors likely to attend such a meeting (only a dozen at EKF).

I don’t often comment on general political or economic issues, but I find the current hysteria about the death of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations over “Black Lives Matter” in the USA and UK totally out of proportion. George Floyd was a very tall and heavy person who it is alleged resisted arrest. He had a past criminal record and was a drug user. The full facts of the case have not yet been revealed and it is way too early to say whether the police used excessive force or not, even if the result was very sad.

As to whether there is wider discrimination against black or coloured people in the USA or the UK is also doubtful. From my experience of working in the USA, there appeared to be very little direct discrimination. Did not Colin Powell become head of the US Army and Secretary of State? Did not Barack Obama become US President? But as in the UK, black people are disadvantaged often by the social and cultural backgrounds of their families. Righting that can only be done by education not by demonstrations or laws. Demonstrations actually make matters worse, and the recent violent ones and attacks on property such as historic statues actually make people less sympathetic to the cause. Meanwhile the failure by the police to stop these events undermines law and order in general, just as happened with the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations.

Why are people so angry that they feel the need to take part in such demonstrations, including many people who are not black and hence could not have personally suffered from any prejudice? You can see the same problem in the divisive politics of Brexit where rational debate soon flew out of the window and it degenerated into personal slanging matches on social media. In fact social media and national media reporting of news has actually coarsened political life. The BBC in particular has often seemed to be more interested in stimulating outrage to improve their readership or programme viewing and web site clicks than in reporting the facts in a neutral and unbiased way. This is not a useful national broadcasting service. It has become a medium for slanted propaganda and for stimulating social unrest. This is a problem that responsible politicians will need to tackle sooner or later. But in the meantime those such as Sadiq Khan in London seem more interested in stimulating political division over trivia with the objective of gaining a few votes.

As investors, my readers will have to face up to these issues sooner or later because when the social fabric of a country crumbles as the result of poor leadership, sooner or later the economy crumbles also.

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

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Babcock Price Fall, Segro Placing, TR Property and EKF Diagnostics Virtual AGM

I said in a previous blog post “that I tend to avoid FTSE-100 companies as their share prices are driven by professional analysts’ comments, by geo-political concerns, by general economic trends and by commodity prices. You can buy a FTSE-100 company and soon find it’s going downhill because one influential analyst has decided its prospects are not as they previously thought”.

Indeed that is exactly what happened after I made a recent purchase of Babcock International (BAB). Soon after Shore Capital Markets published a note that said it would be skipping its final dividend. The share price promptly fell by 7% on that day even though they claimed to “retain a buy stance” on the shares.

The last announcement by the company covering the subject of dividends on the 6th April simply said “The Board will consider the final ordinary dividend for this financial year ahead of our full year results announcement [due on the 11th June] taking into account developments over the next two months”. Do Shore Capital have inside information or are they just guessing? Or did they consult the company first? If they were given any relevant steer on this matter, the company should have issued a statement on it. Regardless it’s somewhat annoying even if some moderation of the dividend might make some sense and everyone else is cutting them. I would not be too concerned about the loss of dividend because I never buy shares for dividends alone, but I don’t like to suffer capital losses.

Yesterday property company Segro (SGRO) announced a placing “to take advantage of additional investment opportunities”. There was no open offer but private shareholders could participate via Primary Bid if you were willing to accept the price agreed with institutional holders. The shares issued represented 7% of the existing capital and the placing price turned out to be 820p, a discount of 4.5% to the previous close. I declined to participate, mainly because I have enough of their shares already. One has to ask why they could not have done a proper rights issue as there seemed no great urgency in the matter.

Last night I watched a presentation by Marcus Phayre-Mudge, fund manager for TR Property Investment Trust (TRY), on the internet. This tended to simply confirm my view that this is a well-managed fund which is withstanding the Covid-19 epidemic well. It has avoided many of the property sectors most damaged by the virus. It has a pan-European focus when internet retailing in the rest of Europe is still well behind that in the UK. He said “retailing is in an accelerating structural shift” but he does not “believe the end of the office is nigh”. A very useful and informative presentation via PI World even if he got cut off at the end due to some unknown technical issue. You can see a recording of it here: https://www.piworld.co.uk/

This morning I attended the virtual AGM of EKF Diagnostics (EKF), a medical products manufacturer mainly for diagnostic applications. There were about 12 attendees via a Zoom conference call and it worked quite well. Attendees were asked to register and submit questions in advance, although there was time to ask impromptu questions in the meeting also which were invited at the end.

Voting was done on a poll so the results of that were displayed first. The meeting was chaired by CEO Julian Baines.

I submitted a question about their investment in Renalytix AI (RENX) and its progress, which had been recently listed. I suggested progress was slow but the response was that progress had not been slow at all. However the Covid-19 situation has delayed tests in hospitals in the USA.  Progress on approvals is significant and revenues are expected shortly.

There was a question on the ramp-up of sales in McKesson and the answer was they had slowed significantly. But the company overall was only about 10% down on core products. They had seen business coming back on line in May and June.

Another question related to the Longhorn product which was claimed to be “the world’s safest sample collection product” (very relevant to virus sample collection of course). They are selling millions of these tubes in the USA. There is only one competitor who is allegedly infringing their patents – they are speaking to them “robustly” at present.

There were several other questions and answers of no great significance, but it was certainly a useful meeting and a good example of how any small/medium company could run a virtual AGM very easily. Why do they not do so?

My thanks to EKF for running such an event, which took less than 30 minutes in duration.

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

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Discounted Share Issues at Learning Technologies and Whitbread, plus Trump Media Regulation

Companies are vying to undertake placings at present, to shore up their balance sheets in the face of the coronavirus epidemic. With many businesses closed, or suffering very substantial reductions in revenue, they can hardly be blamed for wanting to raise some cash. But private shareholders are disgruntled when they cannot take part in such fund raising, either by the use of a rights issue, or the inclusion of an “open offer” in a placing.

Let’s look at two recent examples – one I hold a few shares in, namely AIM listed Learning Technologies (LTG) and the other being Whitbread (WTB).

Yesterday LTG announced a placing when the market closed. This morning the details are provided. The shares were issued at a discount of 7.6% to the previous closing price and the dilution of existing shareholders was 9.6%. The directors participated including Chairman Andrew Brode and CEO Jonathan Satchell when private shareholders could not as there is no open offer.

That may not be a massive discount but it still rankles. However the shares could be bought in the market at near the placing price this morning. But my main concern is that the justification for the placing given by the company does not make much sense. They say that “The Company believes the current macroeconomic conditions present opportunities to accelerate future growth and gain further share of the $370 billion corporate learning market. The learning industry is highly fragmented and management believes high quality assets previously tracked, and potentially others that were not, are now becoming available at valuation levels that are highly compelling”.

Times are so tough it seems that you can now pick up some companies cheaply seems to be the argument. Does that make any sense? Not to me. Acquisitions are best made for strategic reasons, i.e. they are complementary business-wise and have good prospects, not simply because they are cheap. If they are also particularly cheap now because business prospects are much worse, that’s no reason to buy them surely?

The LTG announcement also refers to the “robust liquidity position” based on substantial facilities and refers to “further cash preservation” measures it has available. Is this perhaps hinting at some other reasons for the placing?

The other company worth mentioning is Whitbread. This company is now focused primarily on their budget hotel chain, Premier Inn. You can see why they may need the cash as both business and tourist travel has ground to a halt.

They said on the 21st May that “All restaurants and the vast majority of hotels closed in the last week of March 2020” and “Decisive action taken to reduce cash outflows and further enhance liquidity, including significant reductions in capital expenditure and discretionary spend, voluntary pay cuts for Board and management team and use of UK and German Government support packages”. They also announced a full rights issue to raise £1 billion.

They put a gloss on this by saying “The purpose of the Rights Issue is to ensure that Whitbread emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic in the strongest possible position to take advantage of its long-term structural growth opportunities and win market share in both the United Kingdom and Germany”, but they also said this which really spells out the main reason: “Actions Whitbread has taken have ensured its business can withstand a prolonged period of closures and/or low demand.  However, given Whitbread’s high fixed and semi-variable costs, its balance sheet will be impacted by material cash outflows during the period when its hotels and restaurants are closed or operating at low occupancy levels as a result of UK Government measures and/or social distancing”.

You can see why the rights issue is a heavily discounted one – a discount of 47% to the market price on the 20th May to encourage people to take up the shares, based on one new share for every two held. It also indicates how large investors view the issue. They need a lot of encouragement to subscribe.

Now anyone who remembers the RBS rights issue back in 2008 which was also a heavily discounted one will recall what a disaster that was. Such issues are to be treated with caution. In the case of Whitbread, it’s simply a bet that the business can reopen in the next few months and that customers will return. Readers can make their own judgement on that, but the company certainly seems to be taking the necessary steps to survive. However investors should remember that just because you already have some money invested in a company, it is not a reason to put more in. You should just judge it on whether buying the new shares at the price offered makes sense given the prospects for the business. Let the institutions and index tracking funds worry about maintaining their percentage stake.

An interesting item of news last night was that Donald Trump has signed an Executive Order” seeking to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law enables social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, et al, to avoid responsibility for what appears on their sites because they are not treated as “publishers”. The law in the UK is similar.

That is based on the fact that they do not monitor, edit, or have control over what people post on such sites, and it might be very difficult to do so practically. But in reality they have been intervening in that way more and more. President Trump has raised the issue apparently because they edited a couple of his tweets to add “fact-check” links. Mr Trump only has 80 million followers on Twitter!

In reality these social media sites do monitor what is posted to remove or block some content. I recently had the need to complain to a financial blogger about some comments posted on an article on his site and it was very clear that he had been reviewing all such comments before they appeared, i.e. he was moderating the blog comments. In such circumstances it is difficult to see how someone could claim not to be the “publisher”.

In the financial world, it is quite important that what is published is accurate and responsible and I agree with Donald Trump. Social media sites cannot have it both ways – they are either moderating their sites or they are not, and it they are then they are publishers. In that case they have to take responsibility for all content, not just some of it. But if they are not moderating then the readers had better beware and there needs to be some other way to prevent or discourage libellous comments or market abuse from taking place.

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

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Ten Entertainment Placing and Porvair AGM Arrangements

Ten Entertainment (TEG) did a placing yesterday. It was done at 155p to raise £5 million and represented about 5% dilution. Although I hold some of the shares I was not too unhappy because I only have 50 shares left worth less than £100 having sold most of my holding at 270p and higher. I suspect this is one of many placings we are going to see in the near future to enable companies to strengthen their balance sheets and avoid going bust. TEG runs bowling alleys which are now closed so as I pointed out yesterday, valuing such companies is getting very difficult.

Porvair (PRV) another of my now miniscule holdings have made an announcement about their Annual General Meeting (AGM). It’s now going to be held in their offices in the remote location of Kings Lynn. Although the company points out that under its Articles the company cannot hold virtual meetings, it advises shareholders not to attend in person. Instead they are asking shareholders to vote via proxy and are planning to provide a conference call facility to enable shareholders to ask questions.

This seems to be an eminently wise approach that should be adopted by other companies until the virus epidemic is over. I will certainly not be attending any physical meetings for the foreseeable future being one of those quarantined on the basis I am exceptionally vulnerable. It’s equivalent to being on gardening leave, which I did some of yesterday.

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

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Profit Warnings at XP Power and Ted Baker, plus Mercia Placing

A number of profit warnings this morning. The most interesting to me was at XP Power (XPP) although I do not hold it. It was interesting because as a former IT Manager it is a good example of how to screw up a business by poor IT management.

In this case their problem is an implementation of a new SAP Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. The announcement this morning says that some short-term disruption to shipments “will result in revenues and adjusted profits before tax for 2019 being below current market consensus”. However they say the outlook for 2020 is unchanged. The fact that this may be only a temporary situation and that investors look ahead is no doubt why the share price has not fallen but has actually risen slightly at the time of writing.

As I said in my recently published book: “Many businesses fail, or perform badly, because their internal systems and operations are defective. Reliable and effective IT systems are enormously important in the modern world….”. It is something that investors do need to look at and when a company says it is implementing a new ERP system you need to be wary. Just look at the costs of a failure of new IT systems at Abcam for example.

Ted Baker (TED) issued another profit warning (I do not hold it). The share price has dropped another 15%. They report that “trading over November and the Black Friday period was below expectations, with lower than anticipated margins and sell through”. They anticipate that difficult trading conditions will continue. This looks like another casualty of the problems on the High Street, but even their e-commerce sales fell slightly. That result is even after more promotional activity which has cut margins. The dividend has been suspended and costs are being cut.

It’s worth commenting on the placing by Mercia Asset Management (MERC) to partly fund the acquisition of NVM Private Equity and for other purposes. Mercia invests in smaller unlisted companies, in other words it’s a private equity investor. I do not hold the shares although I did invest alongside them in an EIS company back in 2013. It was a start-up fintech business which is now moribund so both they and I have written it off, but I don’t hold that against them. It just proves how risky such investments can be and hence the difficulty of valuing the investments they hold. This kind of investment company deserves to trade at a substantial discount to their claimed NAV in my view (as do most VCTs which are similar companies).

NVM manage the Northern VCTs (NVT and NTV) which I do hold so I have an interest thereby in the acquisition. I have no objection to that acquisition and it certainly looks a sensible strategic move for Mercia as it will grow their assets under management very considerably and provide a much more stable source of income. However, the placing to fund this acquisition, which as usual private investors were not able to participate in, was done at a 23% discount to the pre-announcement share price. This kind of large discount does not give me confidence in the management that minority shareholders will not get screwed again in the future.

This placing also received severe criticism from Simon Thompson in Investors Chronicle. He has previously tipped the shares partly on the basis that there was value here because of the high discount to NAV. Well he is now disillusioned because the placing was at a discount of 40% to NAV, with a large dilution of existing shareholders! He recommends voting against the placing at a General Meeting on the 20th December and I cannot disagree with him.

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

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City of London IT, Equals Interims, Paypoint CEO, Downing One VCT and Parliamentary Pandemonium

Having been away on holiday in the North of England last week, this is a catch up on news that impacted my portfolio.

I received the Annual Report for City of London Investment Trust (CTY) which is one of my most boring holdings. This is large cap equity growth/income trust managed for many years by Job Curtis and I have held since 2011 – it seems longer. Total return last year was 2.7% which beat most of the comparable indices. But a look at the overall return (including dividends) on my holdings in Sharescope shows an annual return of 15.0% which is very pleasing. It has reduced its management overheads to a cost of 0.39% (the “on-going” charge).

It is particularly worthy of note that the Chairman, Philip Remnant, says this in the Annual Report: “In February 2019 the AIC published an updated Code of Governance which largely mirrors the provisions of the UK Corporate Governance Code issued by the FRC save that the strict nine year cap on the Chairman’s tenure contained in the FRC’s code has been disapplied by the AIC. I see no reason why the rules which apply to the length of time which the chairman of an investment company can server should be more relaxed than those that apply to other listed companies, and so I will be stepping down as Chairman during 2020”.

I completely agree with Mr Remnant and have raised this point at AGMs of a number of trusts where directors are permitted to hang on for much too long. The AIC should not pretend that investment trusts are exempt from the UK Corporate Governance Code.

Equals (EQLS), formerly called FairFX, issued their interim results on the 26th September. Revenue was up by 21.4% and Adjusted EBITDA up by 78% but EPS was down. The share price fell, although the Chairman bought some shares soon afterwards.

However as reported on at the AGM (see https://tinyurl.com/y5j58dd6 ) there is a large amount of software development work being capitalised at this company and as expected, it went up in the half year. Another £4.8 million to be exact. That is a very large amount of development work and suggests either a very large team or an expensive one. It does raise doubts in my mind, and possibly others, about the accounts.

Paypoint (PAY) reported a “temporary leadership change” on the 26th September. CEO Patrick Headon is taking a leave of absence to receive treatment for a medical condition and he is expected to be absent for 3 months. The share price barely moved during the week but these kinds of reports which give no details can often conceal worse news. I recall the recent events at Wey Education where Executive Chairman David Massie received some open-heart surgery and subsequently died. Shareholders were not informed of this problem until he resigned and this was a significant problem for the company. I suggest there should be some clear rules developed on when medical incapacity needs to be reported to shareholders, and what level of detail is provided so that investors can judge the risks and possible impacts.

Downing One VCT (DDV1) issued a circular concerning the raising of up to £40 million in additional equity. This is justified so as to increase the size of the company to better cover the fixed running costs and to enable the company to make new investments and diversify its portfolio.

It always surprises me how Venture Capital Trusts can often raise more money even when they have a very patchy performance record. According to the AIC, this VCT achieved a NAV total return of 9.4% over the last 5 years. I won’t be increasing my holding in this company therefore by subscribing for it. However, how should I vote on the fund raising? Should I support it on the basis of pulling in more suckers to support the overhead costs? Or oppose it on the basis that giving more cash to the manager will hardly improve performance in the short term and simply give more fees to a poorly performing fund manager?

They are also proposing to introduce a Performance Incentive Fee – 20% of gains subject to a hurdle rate. But performance fees do not improve performance so I always oppose them. I hope other shareholders will do the same.

It was of course difficult to get away from events in Parliament and Brexit issues while on holiday. But I did manage to read a book in the hotel library – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon – just a part of it of course as it’s a multi-volume book. Gibbon was a Member of Parliament in the 1770s but disliked the place which he called “Pandemonium”. Nothing changes it seems.

As regards the decision of the Supreme Court over Prorogation, having read the full Judgement of the Court, I do not find it particularly surprising. People do tend to jump to conclusions about court judgements, often declaring they are biased, when a full reading often shows that the judges are not so perverse as imagined. I fear the advice of the Attorney General on prorogation was defective in that it cannot be purely at the whim of the prime minister to suspend Parliament for a long period of time and without good reason.

It was also unnecessary as Boris Johnson has other options to ensure that Brexit takes place on the 31st October as he wishes. Most investors are surely now of the same view of many of the public that we need to get this matter settled. Delaying resolution by a further extension of the Brexit date or by another referendum would simply cause more uncertainty and difficulty for businesses and for investors. Businesses cannot plan adequately and the value of the pound is dropping while investors are nervous. None of these things are helpful to investment returns.

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

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AB Dynamics Placing, and Metro Bank Troubles

AB Dynamics (ABDP) announced a placing to raise £5 million this morning. The money will be used to finance potential acquisitions, add production capacity and meet working capital requirements. This company provides vehicle testing systems and has been rapidly expanding recently. The share price has also been rising like a rocket in the last few weeks and on fundamentals the company is now very highly rated – prospective p/e for the current year is 47. So perhaps the company just saw this as a good opportunity to raise some money.

The new shares are being placed at 2200p though which is a discount of 13% to the share price last Friday. However although this is being done via a placing to institutional investors there is also an “open offer” for those such as private shareholders who cannot participate in the placing. This is the way to do such things and as a holder of the shares I will probably take up the open offer just so as to avoid dilution, although I don’t consider the price as particularly attractive. The share price dipped first thing this morning on the news but has subsequently recovered most of that fall.

Metro Bank (MTRO) has been in trouble since the start of the year when it disclosed it had wrongly risk-weighted some of its loans which meant its capital ratio was wrong. Metro is one of the so-called “challenger banks” that aim to tackle the dominance of the big high-street banks in the UK. The company did a placing to raise another £350 million last week to shore up its balance sheet.

But depositors have been spooked by the news and apparently there were queues of customers withdrawing money from branches in West London recently. Is this another run on a bank, as happened at Northern Rock? Where a falling share price and collapsing confidence in the bank caused depositors to panic? The FT ran an editorial saying it was not similar but it looks very much so to me. Although the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) now protects deposits up to £85,000 that will not help many retail customers and the delays in obtaining compensation will encourage depositors to move all of part of their funds elsewhere and promptly. Corporate clients have no such protection anyway. When confidence in a bank is lost, even if it is technically solvent, depositors don’t hang around.

Here’s a good quote from eminent Victorian author Walter Bagehot: “Every banker knows that if he has to prove he is worthy of credit…in fact his credit has gone” (in another letter in the FT today).

From my experience of trying to open an account with Metro Bank recently, I have doubts about the quality of this business anyway. I gave up in the end. Needless to say I don’t hold shares in Metro. But all banks are becoming exceedingly difficult to deal with. My long-standing (over 50 years) bank recently made me visit a branch to prove who I was. There was a letter complaining about the service from banks in the FT on the 15th May. It suggested that “something has gone badly wrong” with frontline bank service. I had similar problems with a business account at HSBC who proved impossible to talk to other than by visiting one of their branches – and even then they were unable to resolve difficulties. It is extremely annoying that banks are becoming paranoid about KYC and security checks so that they won’t even talk to you on the telephone about simple queries.

If any readers can recommend a bank who acts more reasonably and sensibly, let me know.

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

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