Sophos, Interquest and the Government

Yesterday I missed the Sophos (SOPH) AGM due to having a clashing engagement, but I noticed that in the announcement of the voting results that there were substantial votes against the Remuneration Report (29.8% against) and also high votes against most of the directors. One only needs to glance at the Remuneration Policy to see why.

The maximum bonus opportunity is 200% of salary, and the maximum LTIP award is 500% of salary in normal circumstances and up to 750% in exceptional circumstances. So total incentive payments can reach nearly 10 times normal salary. That’s the kind of scheme I always vote against.

For what is actually a relatively small company that has never reported an annual profit, the actual pay figures are way too high – CEO got a base salary of $695,000 last year and total single figure remuneration of $2.32 million. Other directors, even the non-execs, have similar generous pay figures. It might be a rapidly growing company in a hot sector (IT security) but I am beginning to regret my purchase of a few shares.

Although I missed the AGM, I did “attend” the previous days Capital Markets Day. I was refused physical access but anyone could log into the web cast of the event. Not quite the same thing but it was exceedingly boring with a lot of the time spent on the wonders of their technology rather than important business questions. Is it not despicable though that companies and their PR advisors try to keep such events solely to institutional investors?

Interquest (ITQ) is an AIM listed company that received an offer for the company from some of the directors but they only got 58% committed support. That’s not enough to delist the company under the AIM Rules which requires 75% so the offer was abandoned. What did the directors do then? They notified their Nomad of termination of their contract and subsequently said they would be unlikely to appoint another Nomad within the one month period allowed. This means the shares will automatically be suspended from AIM and subsequently delisted if no Nomad is appointed.

The moral is that if directors or anyone else control 58% of the company then minority shareholders are in a very difficult position because they will have the ability to do lots of things that prejudice the minority shareholders – for example pay themselves enormous salaries. A legal action for prejudice of a minority is available but as my lawyer said yesterday, these are complex cases, as I well know from having run one myself in the past, and successfully (we were discussing my past legal cases). It’s difficult enough in a private company, and even more so in a public one. In summary, having an AIM Rule about delistings may not help if one cannot win a vote of shareholders on other matters that require just 50%.

Having control of a public company in the effective hands of a concert party of a few people is something to be very wary about, and something all AIM company investors should look at.

Government policy on tackling excessive pay levels for the directors of public companies has taken a step backwards this week. Tougher measures which Theresa May threatened have been watered down, and the core of the problem – the fact that Remuneration Committees consist only of directors, whose appointment and pay is controlled by other directors, has not been tackled. In addition, the potential to control pay by votes at General Meetings has been undermined by the disenfranchisement of private shareholders as a result of the prevalence of the nominee system and the dominance of institutional voters who have little interest in controlling pay.

Another bit of news from Government sources this week is that the hope of some change in shareholder rights that might have improved private shareholder voting is fading away after a decision to postpone yet again the issue of “dematerialisation”. The staff involved in that project have been moved and expertise will be lost. This is likely to be the result of both lack of interest in tackling a difficult and complex problem, and the need to put in effort on Brexit matters at the BEIS Department.

Will we ever get a proper shareholder system where everybody is on the share register and automatically gets full rights, including voting rights? It remains to be seen but I will certainly continue to fight for that. Without it we will never get some control over public companies and their directors. I suggest readers write to their Members of Parliament about this issue.

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

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

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

 

Northern Rock 10 Years After

Both the Times and Financial Times covered the tenth anniversary of the nationalization of Northern Rock today. Dennis Grainger is still fighting to get some compensation for shareholders from the nationalization and says the Government stands to make billions of pounds profit from the bank after paying zero compensation to shareholders. He is undoubtedly right that the Government will turn a good profit on these events, as they always planned to do.

He and others such as Pradeep Chand described in an article in the FT Weekend supplement lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Was the bank a basket case, or do they have a genuine grievance? The fact that they and other investors are still fighting for compensation ten years later tells you how aggrieved they feel. Mr Grainger hopes to put his case to Theresa May.

Incidentally the shareholders in Bradford and Bingley (B&B), led by David Blundell, are also still fighting a similar case over the nationalization without compensation of that company. The same legislation was used to do so.

As I was involved in the campaign and subsequent legal case, let me give you a few simple facts about the case:

Northern Rock was not balance sheet insolvent, but ran out of cash after a run on the bank by depositors (driven by media scare stories) and their inability to raise more money market funds (nobody was lending to anyone else at the time).

This would normally have caused the Bank of England to step in as “lender of last resort” to provide liquidity but then Governor Mervyn King declined to do so because of the “moral hazard” risk. That was a fatal mistake not likely to have been made by his predecessors.

The then Labour Government subsequently passed legislation to nationalise the bank and ensured there was no independent and fair valuation of the shares by writing the Nationalization Act with wording that ensured an abnormal and artificial valuation process which guaranteed a zero valuation. So the ensuing claims that it was a “fair and independent” valuation are nonsense. The Treasury is reported as repeating that claim in the FT article today.

In reality Labour politicians decided to ensure that two large hedge funds who had invested in the company and were willing to support it should get nothing because they were the kind of people they hated. Smaller shareholders in Northern Rock were not recognized as being of importance.

The nationalization legislation used against Northern Rock and B&B ensures that if the Government has lent any sum of money to a bank, then they can nationalize it without compensation. This made UK banks untouchable by many foreign lenders or investors with dire consequences later for other banks such as RBS. In the case of B&B they even concealed that they had lent it money until much later so as not to scare investors. Incidentally while that legislation is still available to the Government, that is one reason why I won’t be buying shares in UK banks – it increases their risk profile very substantially.

A legal case was pursued to the Supreme Court on the nationalization (a Judicial Review), but they would not overturn the will of Parliament. A claim to the European Court of Human Rights was submitted but they refused to even hear the case which was very unexpected as they had ruled in other nationalization cases that fair compensation should be given.

Those are the key facts and all the other mud that was slung at Northern Rock claiming it was a dubious business by a concerted campaign of disinformation was most unfortunate, and basically inaccurate.

A company that cannot meet its debts when they become due, and is hence cash flow insolvent, can be argued to be worth little. But there was funding available to Northern Rock (it was trading for months after the “run” and before it was nationalized). But salvage law sets a good precedent for what is fair compensation when someone rescues a sinking ship. The same should have applied to a sinking bank.

So in summary, I support the efforts of Dennis Grainger and others to get compensation to the ordinary shareholders out of the profits that have accrued to the Government as a result.

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

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

Corporate Governance Reform and Pay – No Revolution

Yesterday the Government published its response to the consultation on the green paper entitled “Corporate Governance Reform”. The paper aimed to tackle some of the perceived problems in UK public companies and Theresa May hoped that it would tackle “the unacceptable face of capitalism” demonstrated by outrageous pay levels in some companies as she described it.

Has it done that? Well most of the responses from the media suggested not with comments such as “watered down” being printed as tougher binding votes on pay have been dropped (possibly because of legislative log-jams in Parliament), and workers on boards not supported. However, we do have a commitment to publish pay ratios of employees to directors – not that this writer thinks that will help much.

If you read the full Government response (present here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/640631/corporate-governance-reform-government-response.pdf ), you can see that the Government has responded in many detail ways to the consultation responses. As in UK politics in general, particularly when your party has a narrow majority and many other problems on their minds, no revolutions are advocated. Just minor improvements, and more red tape, are the order of the day.

Not that I expected any great result from the matters being considered in the consultation. This is what I said in my personal response to the consultation back in February:

“As regards director pay, the document makes clear that despite more obligations on companies on reporting and voting on pay introduced in 2013, not a lot has changed in reality. Although there is widespread public concern about pay levels, the paper notes that the average vote in favour of remuneration reports was 93% (see page 19) and only one binding vote has been lost. I certainly support further significant reform in this area. The key problem is that remuneration of directors is still decided by the same directors and there is very little external input from shareholders, employees or other stakeholders before it is put to a vote at an AGM – but this is too late and institutions hate voting against directors’ wishes. 

In addition, retail shareholders have little say and are effectively disenfranchised because of the widespread use of the nominee system. A substantial reform of this area of company law and the activities of stockbrokers and company registrars needs to be undertaken to fix that problem. All shareholders (including beneficial owners in nominee accounts) should be on the share registers of companies with full rights as members of the company including voting, information and other rights.

Shareholder Committees are a core part of the solution to the problems of corporate governance. There are many other aspects of corporate governance that can be improved. However, without Shareholder Committees, and concomitant reform to restore the rights of individual shareholders, other amendments to corporate governance are unlikely to produce meaningful change.”

NONE OF THESE THREE POINTS HAS BEEN TACKLED IN THE GOVERNMENTS RESPONSE.

There are some detailed proposals to encourage more “engagement” between boards and their shareholders plus employees which might be welcome, but whether they will have any real impact is very doubtful. So long as directors can ignore you, some will do so – a typical recent example is Sports Direct.

ShareSoc/UKSA have issued a joint press release which is very critical of the Government’s response particularly about the proposal that the Investment Association keeps a register of “infringements”. John Hunter is quoted as saying: “Asking the Investment Association to keep a register of ‘baddies’ has all the authority and credibility of appointing foxes to keep a register of poor builders of chicken coops!” 

One has to agree with ShareSoc and UKSA that this is a very disappointing outcome. It looks a classic case of Government civil servants and politicians having little understanding of how companies work and the dynamics of boards, as usual, and have listened to the fat cats in preference to others.

In summary, TOO TIMID is my final comment.

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

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

FT Article on Small Investor Voting

Yesterday in the FTMoney supplement, FT writer Aime Williams explained how small investors could influence companies. But unfortunately it misled readers on some points. I have sent Aime the following communication:

“I read your article entitled “Small investors stand up and be counted” in this weekend’s FT with interest. It is good that the article shows how private investors can have an impact on companies, and it will no doubt encourage people to attend AGMs.

But the comments from Richard Stone of the Share Centre are to say the least, somewhat inaccurate. The 2006 Companies Act did help to enfranchise those in nominee accounts in relation to giving them the ability to vote, but to say that ‘investors in nominee accounts have had the same rights as direct shareholders since the 2006 Companies Act’ is simply wrong. For example, Members of the company (i.e. those on the share register) have the ability to challenge a poll, or apply to a court to object to a change from a public to a private company. Those rights are lost if you are only a beneficial owner in a nominee account. That has been confirmed in past legal cases.

There is also the problem that there is no legal obligation for brokers to enfranchise investors except in the case of ISA accounts, and most stockbrokers do not even inform their clients of that fact or make it practically easy for them to vote. The Share Centre does but many do not. In addition there are difficulties with AIM companies.

In reality the widespread adoption of nominee accounts rather than investors being on the share register of a company has fatally undermined shareholder democracy and the vast majority of retail investors now do not vote.

The documents on this web page, which I wrote, spell out the facts about the nominee system and shareholder rights: https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/shareholder-rights-campaign/

It is still true that we need a complete reform of the existing system so that shareholders in companies, however they hold their shares, are given the ability to vote and to attend General Meetings, without artificial barriers. We also need regulations to ensure that they can vote easily and that Companies and Brokers inform everyone entitled to vote or attend meetings when the time arises to do so. Only then will shareholder democracy be restored.”

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

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