Shareholder Voting and Financial Times Generosity

Anyone using an on-line investment platform will be aware that your shares are normally held in a nominee account (i.e. you do not own them, your broker does – you are only the “beneficial owner”). ShareSoc has long campaigned for reform of this system because it usually results in you not being able to vote your shares at General Meetings, and you are unlikely to be sent information such as Annual Reports. You are effectively disenfranchised and the lack of voting by private shareholders undermines good corporate governance. Platforms can enable you to vote by submitting proxy votes on your behalf, but many do not offer this facility.

Last week the Association of Investment Companies (AIC) published some information that helps you to get a vote. They showed which platforms provide such voting facilities. See https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/press-releases/aic-releases-information-to-help-shareholders-vote-on-platforms for the details. Note though that some may permit it but often without providing an easy to use system of voting.

Ian Sayers of the AIC had this to say: “We need all platforms to offer a simple, online solution that means that shareholders get the information they need on resolutions affecting the company and can exercise their democratic rights at a click of a button. In the meantime, investors should consider whether and how they can vote their shares as part of their decision over which platform to use.”

One can only agree with his sentiment on this. The solution is to reform the laws and regulations in this area, and ideally have all shareholders on the share register of companies. But in the meantime, it’s worth reviewing the AIC list when choosing a platform to use.

Another item of news last week was a report from Reuters that a group of Financial Times journalists have complained about the pay of their CEO John Ridding. He earned £2.55 million pounds in 2017. The group led by an NUJ representative have written to their colleagues around the world saying the pay was absurdly high and that he should give some of it back to lowly paid staff.

Comment: Pay is escalating all over in the business world and this is just another example of outrageous pay inflation among senior management. The journalists’ initiative is to be applauded. As a daily reader of the Financial Times, I also have concerns that the CEO is not doing a great job either than might justify these gazillions. In the last couple of years, since the acquisition of the FT by Nikkei, the content of the paper has substantially changed.

It still publishes very good in-depth analyses of financial issues – for example, the review of accounting and audit standards headlined “Setting Flawed Standards” on Thursday which is well worth reading. But it has taken a very pro-EU and pro-Remainer political stance with numerous articles and published letters with a highly political slant. At the weekends we have to suffer from ex-sports journalist Simon Kuper’s views on that subject. He may know a lot about football but his views on UK politics and those who support Brexit seem very ill-informed.

Coverage of hard news on companies is also now very patchy, with more on the politics of foreign nations and on social issues. The FT needs to get back to reporting on financial matters and cut back on the political polemics.

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

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Voting at General Meetings, Link Asset Services and CentralNic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beaufort Settlement Improved, But…..

It’s good news that PWC have revised their proposals for the administration of Beaufort and the return of client assets. No doubt due to the efforts of ShareSoc and others. But it still leaves many issues that need properly tackling. These are:

  1. The Special Administration Regulations that allow client assets to be used to cover the costs of the administration. Client assets should be ring fenced and they are what they are called – client assets not assets of the broker or bank.
  2. The fact that most investors now have to use nominee accounts and they are therefore not the legal owner of the shares they hold. We need a new electronic “name on register” system and the Companies Act reformed to reflect the realities of modern share trading.
  3. The UK needs to adopt the Shareholder Rights directive as intended, so that those in nominee accounts have full rights. The “beneficial owners” are the “shareholders”, not the nominee account operator.

We must not let these matters get kicked into the long grass yet again due to the reluctance of politicians and the civil service to tackle complex issues.

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

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Shareholder Democracy, RBS, Rightmove AGM and Stockopedia

There is a very good article by City Slicker in this weeks’ edition of Private Eye (No.1469) on the subject of “Apathy in the City”. The article comments on the “disengaged” share owners in Persimmon who failed to vote against the remuneration report, or simply abstained. See my previous blog post on that subject here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/04/25/persimmon-remuneration-institutions-duck-responsibility/

The article highlights the issue that the many private shareholders in the company probably also did not vote (they could have swung the result), because they have effectively been disenfranchised by the nominee system that is now dominant. The writer says “This democratic deficit has been richly rewarding for companies, share registrars and those representing retail investors”, and the result “has been a real diminution in shareholder democracy”. A few more articles of that ilk may sooner or later impress on politicians and the Government that substantial reform is necessary.

The article also points out how the EU Shareholder Rights Directive, one of the few good things to come out of the EU bureaucracy in my opinion, is being misinterpreted by the UK Government to suggest beneficial owners are not shareholders.

To get the message across I have written to my M.P. on the subject of Beaufort and the substantial financial losses that thousands of investors will suffer there as a result of the use of nominee accounts compounded by the current insolvency rules. If anyone would like a copy of my letter to crib and send to their own M.P., just let me know.

In the meantime the AGM at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is due on the 30th May. The RBS board has opposed the resolution put forward by ShareSoc and UKSA to establish a “shareholder committee”. That would be a step forward in corporate governance in my view and shareholders would be wise to vote in favour of that resolution (no.27). I do hold a few shares in the company but will be unable to attend the AGM in Edinburgh so if anyone would like a proxy appointment from me so that you can attend and voice your own views on the subject, please let me know. You would at least have the pleasure of seeing the buildings created in Gogarburn by empire builder Fred Goodwin for RBS.

The RBS Annual Report is a 420 page document which must make it one of the heaviest UK Plc Annual Reports. The motto on the cover is quite amusing. It reads “Simple, safe and customer focussed” – perhaps it means they intend to get back to that because RBS was none of these things during the financial crisis that almost bankrupted the business.

One aspect that City Slicker criticizes in the aforementioned article is the low “turn-out” of voters at AGMs, i.e. the low percentage of shareholder votes cast even including “votes withheld”. A third were not voted at Persimmon. That is not untypical at AGMs in my experience although institutional voting has improved in recent years. It’s often the private investors now who don’t vote due to the difficulty, or downright impossibility of voting shares held in nominee accounts.

But there was no such problem at Rightmove Plc on the 4th May. About 85% of votes were cast. As a holder I could not attend in person, but Alex Lawson has written a report which is on the ShareSoc Members Network. One surprising result though was that long-standing Chairman Scott Forbes got 39% of votes against his re-election and Remuneration Committee Chairman Peter Williams got 37% against. I voted against the latter, against the Remuneration Report and did not support the re-election of Scott Forbes either. With 12 plus years of service, it is surely time to look to board succession planning and a new Chairman. The board is to look into why they got so many votes against the two resolutions which is certainly unusual.

To conclude I see that blogger/journalist Tom Winnifrith is having yet another go at mild-mannered Ed Croft of Stockopedia after a spat at the UK Investor Show over a trivial matter. Since then Tom has been attacking Ed over “recommendations” given by Stockopedia in his usual rottweiler manner. As a user of Stockopedia and other stock screening services, I don’t expect absolutely all the positively rated stocks to be great investments. I know that some will be dogs because either the accounts are fraudulent, the management incompetent or unexpected and damaging events will appear out of the blue. So for example, Globo’s accounts fooled many people including me until late in the day so any system that relied just on analysis of the financial numbers would be likely to mislead. But stock screens rely on the laws of averages. The fact that there will be one or two rotten apples in the barrel does not mean that stock screens cannot be a useful tool to quickly scan and dispose of a lot of “also-rans” in the investment world. They can quickly highlight the stocks that are worthy of more analysis, or prompt dismissal.

Winnifrith seems unable to differentiate between meritorious causes that deserve the full power of his literary talents and those where his imitation of a sufferer from Tourette’s syndrome where he heaps abuse on innocent victims goes beyond the bounds of reason. Stockopedia provides a useful service to investors. Let us hope that the saying there is “no such thing as bad publicity” applies in this case.

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

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Beaufort Administration, Intercede and the Mello Conference

Yesterday I attended the first day of the 2-day Mello investor conference in Derby. There were lots of good presentations and some interesting companies to talk to. One hot topic of conversation was the collapse of Beaufort which was forced into administration (see two previous blog posts on the topic for details). There are apparently many people affected by it. There are a number of major issues that have arisen here:

  • The administrators (PWC) have suggested it might cost as much as £100 million to wind up the company and return assets to clients which seems an enormously large figure when the assets held are worth about £550 million. The costs will be taken out of the clients’ funds and as a result there will hundreds of larger clients who will suffer substantial loses (those with assets of less than £50,000 may be able to claim against the Financial Services Compensation Scheme – FSCS – but larger investors will take a hair-cut).
  • The assets (mainly shares) were apparently held in nominee accounts. Surely these were “segregated” accounts, i.e. not available to be treated as assets of the failed business? Most brokers who use nominee accounts will have wording in their contracts with their clients that cover this with often fine words that conceal the underlying reality that if there is any “shortfall” then the clients may be liable. But regardless, PWC are saying that because this is a “Special Administration” they have the right to take their fees out of the client assets/funds.
  • There will be a Creditors’ Meeting as required by all administrations but will the creditors be able to challenge the arrangements put in place by PWC and the costs being incurred? From past experience of such events I think they may find it very difficult. Administrators are a law unto themselves. It is alleged that there were offers from other brokers to take over the assets of Beaufort and their clients very quickly and at much lower cost, but that offer has been ignored. Investors need to ask why.
  • Note that the Special Administration regime was introduced during the financial crisis to enable the quick resolution of problems in financial institutions such as banks. This is where it is necessary to take prompt action to enable a company to continue trading and the clients not to be prejudiced. But in this case it seems we are back to the previous state where client assets are frozen for a lengthy period of time while the administrator runs up large bills at the clients expense.
  • I said only recently that the insolvency regime needs reform after the almost instant collapse of both Conviviality and Carillion. There may not have been a major shortfall in Beaufort and it might have been able to continue trading. But the current Administration rules just provide large, and typically unchallengeable, fees for the administrators who give the impression of having little interest in minimising costs. The result is the prejudice of investors in the case of a broker’s collapse, or of shareholders in the collapse of public companies.
  • Can I remind readers that part of the problem is the widespread use of nominee accounts by stockbrokers. I, ShareSoc and UKSA have long campaigned for reforms to reduce their use and give shareholders clear title and ownership after they purchase shares. In the meantime there are two things you can do: a) Avoid using nominee accounts if at all possible (i.e. use certificated trading or personal crest accounts so your name is on the share register); b) if you have to use a nominee account, make sure you are clear on the financial stability of the broker and that you trust the management. It would not have taken a genius to realise that some of the trading practices of Beaufort might raise some doubts about their stability and reputation.

I do suggest that investors who are affected by the collapse of Beaufort get together and develop a united front to resolve not just the problems raised by this particular case, but the wider legal issues. Forceful political representation is surely required.

See this web site for more information from PWC: https://www.pwc.co.uk/services/business-recovery/administrations/beaufort/beaufort-faqs.html

An amusing encounter at the Mello event was with Richard Parris, the former “Executive Chairman” of AIM listed Intercede (IGP). He was talking in a session entitled “The importance of the right board of directors” and he conceded that “separation of roles” is important, i.e. presumably he would do it differently given the chance. Richard, the founder of the company, has recently stepped down to a non-executive role, they have a new Chairman, and even Richard’s wife who was operations manager has departed. While I was in the session, there was even an RNS announcement saying the “Chief Sales Officer” had resigned (I am still monitoring the company despite having sold all but a nominal holding years back).

Richard pointed out to me that the pressure put on the company over his LTIP package back in 2012 meant that his share options are worthless as the performance targets put in place were not achieved. Well at least he is still talking to me and has joined ShareSoc as a Member apparently. Sometimes time can heal past disputes, and as I said, shareholder activism does work!

But it is regrettable that RBS are recommending voting against a resolution proposing a shareholder committee at their upcoming AGM. Perhaps not surprising, but a shareholder committee could avoid confrontation over such issues as remuneration and would be a better solution that confrontation.

I hope the Mello event becomes a regular feature of the investment calendar.

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

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More Annoyance from Link Asset Services

I have complained before about the services from the registrar Link Asset Services that frustrate shareholders from voting – see https://roliscon.blog/2018/03/14/voting-shares-via-link-asset-services-its-infuriating/

The latest example is on another company where Link sent a paper copy of the Annual Report out, and a Notice of the AGM, but no paper proxy voting form. They suggest in a covering letter that I can either vote on-line using their “share portal” or request a paper proxy form.

For those of us who do not wish to sign up for their share portal, and just want to vote our shares (which are on the register), this is exceedingly frustrating. It’s just another way that shareholders are being discouraged from voting, and the exercise of their rights made more difficult.

I have written to the Company Secretary suggesting they fire Link Asset Services and switch to using another registrar who can provide a better service. Unless Link have a change of mind on this issue.

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

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GKN and Melrose – The Reality

Melrose has won the battle to take control of GKN although the Government might yet step in to halt the takeover. On what grounds is not exactly clear. Never having held shares in either company, I thought it worth looking at the facts rather than the hyperbole surrounding this deal as there seemed to be some myths being propagated.

Is GKN a key business in the UK’s engineering and technology infrastructure based on a long history of innovation? Or is it a financially poorly performing conglomerate that was vulnerable to a bid?

It has been said that GKN produced Spitfires in the Second World War but in reality they did not develop the plane but were just one of several assembly plants that were subcontracted to produce it in volume, In the 1960s I well remember the company under the name Guest, Keen and Nettlefold and in Birmingham they had large factories producing nuts and bolts. Hardly high-tech engineering even at that time. Later they did make a success of car parts production particularly with constant velocity joints (CVJs) as used in the Mini and other front wheel drive vehicles. But they are now proposing to split off the driveline business and merge it with another company. They plan to focus on the aerospace business. You can see a “polished” version of the history of the company here: https://www.gkn.com/en/about-gkn/history/ . In reality a long history of dubious diversifications, followed by later rationalisations.

The recent financial performance has been disappointing. Reported earnings per share in 2017 were the same as five years previously with a trough in between. Dividends in that period grew slowly and at the current share price equate to about 2% yield. Return on assets a measly 5.6% last year, and even that was an improvement on previous years. Although the financial prospects based on analysts’ forecasts might be slightly improving, is it not simply a case that institutional investors might have become disillusioned with the management in recent years and seen an opportunity in the Melrose bid to improve the financial returns?

There will no doubt have been some activity by share traders, arbitrageurs and hedge funds of late who might have influenced the outcome. But that’s capitalism in action. Holders, even long-term ones, sell to higher bidders.

Personally I oppose any suggestion that short-term holders should not be allowed to vote, and the use of other “poison-pill” mechanisms that can defeat takeovers. If I purchased a share in a company last week, I want to be able to vote it! I may not have known that a bid was coming and how I vote will depend on the arguments put by both sides. Clearly in this case GKN simply lost the argument.

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

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Aviva Preference Shares – FCA Announcement

Readers who take any notice of financial affairs will be aware of the furore over the threat by Aviva to redeem their preference shares by a “share cancellation” process – they claimed that is a different legal process, even though the shares were described as “irredeemable”. The shares concerned dropped in price to a significant extent because their high coupon interest rate meant they were trading at a premium when cancellation would have meant redemption at the original par value. Aviva have reconsidered the matter, but the interesting aspect today was a response from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to a letter from the Treasury Select Committee. You can read it here: https://www.investegate.co.uk/financial-conduct/rns/fca-response-to-tsc-on-aviva-plc-preference-shares/201803280704471964J/

It basically gives lots of reasons why they cannot yet respond to some of the questions as they are still looking into the issues, but in response to Question 4 they seem not to concede that they should be involved in “the resolution of the legal questions”. In other words, they would be quite happy to leave it to an enormously expensive law suit by investors to resolve the key questions.

They do not seem to accept that they have an overriding objective to ensure a fair market for securities and that investors should not be prejudiced by small print, concealed or opaque legal terms and other sharp practices.

The response to Question 6, seems to try and excuse the problem by saying the shares were issued more than two decades ago and the FCA has taken subsequent action “in order to restrict the retail distribution of regulatory capital instruments….”. This is surely not an adequate excuse. The shares concerned were and are publicly traded and there is nothing stopping any investor (at least a “sophisticated” one) from trading in them. But even sophisticated private investors and some institutions were caught out by the unexpected threat from Aviva.

The FCA is again proving to be toothless in the face of seriously unethical practices. In other words, they are not doing their job competently and should be reformed in my personal opinion. I believed the FCA adopted an objective of more “principle-based regulation” a few years back but now seem to have abdicated that responsibility and are quite happy to let lawyers argue over the wording of a prospectus while ignoring the ethical issues. Just as they did with the RBS and Lloyds cases. It’s simply not good enough to issue the kind of response they have to the Treasury Select Committee.

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

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Voting Shares via Link Asset Services – It’s Infuriating!

For reasons not worth explaining, I have three Personal Crest accounts for one of the companies in which I hold shares. If I had not opted in for electronic communication, I would therefore have received three identical copies of their Annual Report, three AGM Notices, and three paper proxy voting forms.

So to save the postman some effort, and the company some money, I opted out of paper communications, i.e. opted in to electronic communication, for two of the holdings, just leaving one in paper as I prefer to read annual reports on paper.

The result this year was one complete set of paper documents, and two single page letters for the others giving me the date of the meeting and pointing to a web site where it was claimed I could “log-in” to their share portal and vote. Why they could not include a paper proxy form with those letters, which would have simplified matters, I do not know. I am not registered for the Link (formerly Capita) share portal and don’t wish to do so. I just wished to vote.

The first problem was that when I typed in the company’s name to their portal software, their software could not find it. The company has an apostrophe in its name and I had to type that in to find. So that is stupidity number one.

It then insisted I needed to register – that’s stupidity number 2 when all I wanted to do was vote. Why could they not use the same system as Equiniti who have a much simpler system? I have surely spoken in the past to Capita about this issue and still they have not fixed it.

So I phoned Link and asked them to send me a paper proxy voting form. They refused to do so. The lady I spoke to said I can only vote personal crest holdings via my Crest sponsor. Even after consulting her supervisor, she insisted that was the case. They are simply wrong as I vote my Crest holdings via post all the time, and as I have pointed out they sent me a voting form for the single “paper” holding I have which I have used.

It is very obvious that they know less about voting systems and registration than I but I will be educating the next manager at Link I speak to – there should be a call back tomorrow. If they cannot figure out any other way to solve this problem, I will tell them to convert all three holdings to “paper communication”. That should please my local council who make money from selling the waste paper of residents.

This is a typical example of the obstruction faced by private shareholders when they try to vote their shares. And don’t even talk to me about the abomination that is the nominee system that defeats most people. It is simply not good enough that in the modern age that we have such unintelligent IT systems and customer relations staff who do not seem to know their job.

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

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Running Out of Gas, and InvestorEase to Close

Media reports suggest that National Grid is running out of gas, and having to pay industrial users to stop consuming it. This is due to the exceptionally cold weather spell. But National Grid has also been running out of shareholders because of fears over possible nationalisation. The share price is down by 33% on its peak in 2016. As I have probably said before, the threat of nationalisation has undoubtedly spooked international investors who now dominate the holdings of UK public companies.

It seems Macquarie analysts have suggested that investors should encourage utility companies to move their domicile to another country. Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has said “Transferring asset holdings overseas in pursuit of higher compensation shows total contempt for the British Public”, but I think she complains too much. Surely moving the registration of a holding company would not be effective? The Government could just take control of the assets and bearing in mind principles set by other recent laws and legal judgements, just pay what they wanted. It would all be justified as being “in the national interest” even under EU law if that still applied.

One would have to pick the domicile carefully to gain much benefit. For example, National Grid has substantial assets in the USA so they could possibly keep those out of reach by demerging the relevant part of their business. But that only provides limited protection to current investors.

I have not personally held National Grid for some time because of the political risk and am not invested in other utility companies either. If those companies wish to avoid the risks of a Labour Government and their current policies, they might find it wise to look at other ways of thwarting damage to their shareholders interests.

InvestorEase

InvestorEase is a share portfolio management software product which I have used for the last 20 years. The current owner (Financial Express) has announced they are closing the service at the end of May on the basis that it is no longer economic to continue with it.

This is disappointing as although I also use ShareScope, there are some features in InvestorEase that are not easily replicated in the former. InvestorEase is also quicker and easier to use than ShareScope which has so many options that configuration is complex (SharePad from the same company is not a viable alternative either from my knowledge of it). But it’s hardly surprising that FE decided to close InvestorEase as the developer who maintains the software has clearly been having difficulty and losing interest of late.

I also have a portfolio in Stockopedia, but again I am not sure that will give a good solution. I need a product/service that enables maintenance of multiple portfolios with large numbers of holdings and transactions, plus a consolidated view on demand. The other reason I am running more than one such product is because I like to have a back-up in emergencies and by duplicating entries in the two products I can spot any obvious errors easily.

So any suggestions for good alternative solutions for the private but semi-professional investor would be welcomed.

Or perhaps anyone who might have an interest in taking on the product, which has suffered from total lack of marketing in recent years, should contact Financial Express.

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

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