A Cautionary Tale from Paul Scott

City AM published an educational story last week which is worth repeating. It covered the investment record of Paul Scott who is very well known in the small cap investment world. He writes very perceptive, and quick, analyses of announcements by smaller companies for Stockopedia with a strong emphasis on the financial accounts. He trained as an accountant and worked for a retailing company as finance director for some years. He then became a professional investor – one might say living off his wits – and reportedly turned £50,000 into more than £5m in a few years. Then the financial crisis hit in 2008/9.

This is what he said in the City AM interview: ““I lost the lot and had to start all over again in the financial crisis. It was horrendous, it ruined my life at the time. I had to sell my house, I lost all my savings, I ended up £2m in debt. It was a catastrophe.”

The article suggests Scott made two mistakes: “One was investing in stocks with low liquidity. The other was gearing up on them through spread-betting. When the crisis hit, he couldn’t get out.”

Now with speculative small-cap stocks again riding high, with valuations not based on current fundamentals such as profits and cash flow, but on their future prospects and for their ability to dominate their markets, it is surely again a time to be wary.

Markets are driven by emotions and once a panic sets in then small cap stocks in particular could become very illiquid. Having a major proportion of your portfolio in such stocks may have done wonders for your investment performance in the last couple of years but it is high risk. That is particularly so if you also gear up, and have an undiversified group of holdings – a portfolio of less than a dozen holdings of such companies is positively dangerous.

So the moral is surely never to hold a company on the premise that you can get out if the market turns sour for shares in that company, or in general. Unless you are sure you want to hold a company for the long term, and can afford to do so (i.e. you have not borrowed money to buy it), you should not buy it in the first place.

In addition never let a few holdings dominate your portfolio. And in particular be very wary of companies where there is little trading (i.e. low liquidity). If your own holding is a multiple of the daily trading volume, you’ll never be able to get out at a fair price if there is a crash.

This is what Paul had to say recently in an interview for Stockopedia: “I’ve learnt all my investing decisions the hard way. 2008 taught me that you need to keep an eye on the exit and you need to consider what will happen to liquidity if there is some sort of awful event. Not necessarily a minor event, but if the financial system starts to cave in again – which it might well do. So for that reason, this time my risk management is much better. I’m keeping the gearing lower than it was and I have a general rule that I want to be able to exit every position I hold within a maximum of two days in a bear market. So I position size accordingly. If something is very small and illiquid, I wouldn’t have more than £30,000 – 40,000 worth of it. If it’s nice and liquid then I’ll have £500,000 of it. I think liquidity is so important.”

I would only comment that when everyone wants to exit, shifting even a relatively small amount of stock in small caps can be damn difficult. Having solely small cap stocks in your portfolio can be a risky strategy when mid to large cap stocks will be much more liquid and less volatile. For example, private investors could easily sell their holdings in HBOS, RBS, Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley even when they were in dire difficulties.

Diversity in individual holdings, and in company size, are both prudent.

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

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Chancellor’s Budget and How It Affects You

What follows is a summary of Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget speech today, and the impact of the tax changes. Private investors were particularly concerned about the impact of tax reliefs in the VCT/EIS schemes following the Patient Capital Review but these are in fact relatively minor (see end of document).

This is a summary of the key points he announced:

  • The Chancellor said we are on the brink of a technological revolution, we must embrace it. Britain is at the forefront, but we must invest to secure it.
  • Regrettably our productivity performance remains disappointing.
  • Our debt interest is too high. OBR expects debt to peak this year and fall thereafter.
  • He maintained his commitment to fiscal responsibility but will use the headroom to prepare Britain for the future.
  • The strategy is to raise productivity and employment in all sectors of the economy. A white paper will be issued on this within a few days.
  • Following the Patient Capital Review an action plan will be published which commits to more funding of the British Business Bank, including £2.5 billion of Government seed funding (to co-invest with private firms). But there will be some restrictions on EIS tax relief (see later).
  • First year VED on cars that do not meet the latest emission standards will be increased. However there will be no “benefit in kind” from the provision of free electric charging of vehicles at work.
  • There will be more support for maths teaching including specialist schools. More maths for everyone! And there will be a tripling in the number of computing teachers. There will also be more “distance learning” support.
  • Universal credits will be paid more quickly and there will be easier access to advances to overcome complaints in this area.
  • The National Living Wage will rise by 4.4% from April (Comment: this will obviously impact employers of large numbers of low paid staff such as retailers and hospitality firms).
  • The Personal Tax Allowance will rise to £11,850 from April and the Higher Rate Threshold will also increase to £46,300, in line with inflation.
  • Taxes on beer, wine and spirits will be frozen (apart from cheap cider). A Merry Christmas to all. Fuel duty will also be frozen.
  • An additional £10 billion of capital investment will go into NHS frontline services. That includes £7.5 billion this year and next, plus there will be a review of staff pay.
  • There will be more attacks on tax evasion. In addition, the anomaly of the indexation of capital gains for companies (but not individuals) will be removed.
  • The VAT registration threshold will be reviewed but it is not intended to amend it from the current £85,000 level for at least two years.
  • There will be amendments to business rates to help smaller businesses.
  • There will be a review of international taxation arrangements. Royalties paid to low tax countries will be taxed and on-line marketplaces will be jointly liable for the sellers VAT.
  • Councils will have powers to tax empty properties, plus the Government will look at barriers to long tenancy agreements.
  • The Chancellor said house prices are getting out of reach. Successive Governments over decades have failed to meet the demand for housing (comment: surely nobody can dispute that). He committed £45 billion in capital and loans to boost the supply of skills, resources and building land. Plus there will be reforms of the planning process/laws. There will also be an inquiry into why plots with planning approval are not built.
  • Seven new town developments are planned with 1 million new homes in the Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford corridor. The plan is to build 300,000 new homes per year.
  • Stamp duty will be abolished on the homes up to £300,000 in price for first time buyers and the same allowance available for homes up to £500,000 in price.

More details on taxation changes.

Changes additional to those mentioned above include:

  • The IR35 rules allowing contractors to avoid being taxed as employees may be tightened further (to follow through changes in the public sector to the private sector).
  • There will be a consultation on reform of the taxation of trusts to make them simpler, fairer and more transparent (Comment: surely a positive move).
  • Individuals operating property businesses will have the option of using mileage rates to simplify their tax affairs.
  • ISA subscription rates will remain unchanged (£20,000 for 2018-2019).
  • Lifetime allowance for pensions will be increased by inflation to £1,030,000.
  • Carried interest transitional arrangements will be removed with immediate effect (so pity those asset managers who will now pay full capital gains tax rates).
  • The restriction of relief on VCT investments sold within six months where VCTs merge will no longer apply to mergers more than two years after the subscription or where they do so only for commercial reasons. This will avoid a trap that investors can accidentally fall into.
  • VCT and EIS schemes tax relief will need to ensure they are investing in assets subject to “real risk” rather than those simply aiming for “capital preservation”. Certain “grandfathering” provisions that enable VCTs to invest funds under older rules will be removed from April 2018.
  • VCTs will need to invest 30% of new funds raised to be invested within 12 months.
  • VCTs will need to have 80% of their funds as “qualifying” investments (currently 70%) from April 2019, but they will have 12 months to reinvest the proceeds of disposals (currently 6 months). This presumably might enable them to smooth dividend payments somewhat when currently they often have to pay out the result of realisations rapidly.
  • EIS rules will double the limit on the amount an individual can subscribe in a year to £2 million, but any amount over £1 million must go into “knowledge intensive” companies. Comment: I await some simple definition of what they might be. Such companies will also have the limit on annual EIS and VCT investments raised to £10 million

I have only included what seem to be the most significant changes in the above. In general there seems to be a policy to avoid rapid and abrupt changes to taxation (which thwart people from planning their tax affairs) which is to be welcomed.

Whether the VCT and EIS tax changes will have significant impact on those vehicles remains to be seen although some of the changes had already been indicated and threats of major changes that had been rumoured seem to have been avoided. This writer expects that the managers of those funds will adapt as they have already been doing. Encouraging investment in riskier assets may increase the risk profile of those companies but might also increase the returns and a large size and diverse portfolio will provide a hedge against the risks.

The full report on the Patient Capital Review consultation has also been published and is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/661398/Patient_Capital_Review_Consultation_response_web.pdf

I may provide further comments on that after reading.

In summary I view this budget positively with no unexpected surprises or likely perverse outcomes from unintended consequences we have seen from the surprises announced by previous Chancellors. But it would be interesting to get readers comments – please add.

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

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Standard Life UK Smaller Companies and FRC Meetings

Yesterday I attended two meetings in the City of London. Here are brief reports on each.

Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Trust Plc (SLS) held a meeting for investors to “meet the manager” in London as their AGM was in Edinburgh this year – only about 10 people attended the latter so there were more in London. I have held this trust for some years and the manager, Harry Nimmo, who has been with the company for 33 years has been a consistently good performer. The management company has recently merged with Aberdeen and is now called Aberdeen Standard Investments but apparently there have been no significant changes internally as yet. Mr Nimmo’s comments are summarised below.

He said they have a discount control policy which is unique to UK smaller companies trusts. They buy back shares if the discount gets about 8%. The investment policy is unchanged and they are not keen on blue-sky or concept stocks. AIM is now a better place than 5 years ago as it is now more broadly based and no longer dominated by mining stocks and blue sky tech stocks.

They have put a new debt facility in place which will ultimately replace their CULS (Convertible Unsecured Loan Stock). The final date for conversion is coming up and investors need to pay attention to that as they are “well in the money”.

The trust shows a ten year CAGR dividend growth of 23.7% and the capital return since 2003 is 851% (plus dividends of course). But there have been some bear markets during his management which one needs to allow for as investors. However, if you had sold the trust after the Brexit vote you would have made a terrible mistake – the company is up 54% since June 2016.

The trust looks for companies that can grow irrespective of the economic cycle, and those with good cash flow and strong balance sheets. Mr Nimmo covered their investment process which is somewhat formulaic using a screening process (I have covered it in past articles) but they do meet investee companies twice a year. They have about 50 holdings in the fund which is a “bottom-up” stock selection actively managed fund.

He mentioned they have 10% in animal care and still hold NMC although as it is now a FTSE-100 stock they have been selling out. They still have a large holding in Abcam and have bought RWS recently. Their second largest holding is First Derivatives where most profits come from outside the UK. They generally do not hold oil/gas/mining stocks and are very light on real-estate [note: I agree with the former and many of my individual holdings overlap with the trusts but I do hold some real estate companies]. An exception though is Workspace who recently produced an excellent set of results with a rapid growth in dividends.

They have also been selling Fevertree as it exceeded 5% of their portfolio value.

I did not manage to stay until the Q&A session as I had to go to a meeting organised jointly by ShareSoc and UKSA with the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). This was a long meeting and I hope one or other organisations will produce a lengthier report on it because it was an exceedingly useful meeting. I will simply highlight a few points of particular interest.

FRC Meeting

The FRC is responsible for audit policy, standard setting and audit quality including investigation and enforcement of past transgressions. So it is a rather important body for those private investors who have come unstuck on an investment because the accounts of the company turned out to be misleading – for example the recent debacle at Carillion was mentioned by one attendee, but I can think of numerous other examples.

The speakers covered the role of audits, both currently and how they might develop in the future (partly as a result of technology changes such as the use of data analytics). After Brexit it is likely there will be a broadly equivalent regime as investors are opposed to “unpicking”.

The FRC reviews about 150 audits every year and grades them into four categories (the reviews are listed on the FRC web site). By 2019 they want 90% to be in the top two ratings which they are not at present. It was noted that KPMG come out worse of the big audit firms. A common reason for audits falling short are lack of professional scepticism.

The FRC also undertakes thematic reviews of particular issues. I raised the issue of the lack of common standards for “adjusted” data commonly reported by companies (such as earnings, or return on capital that I mentioned in previous recent blog posts). The response was it was mandated to explain the definitions of such adjustments but I pointed out this did not help with comparability (e.g. of broker forecasts). The FRC said they will be consulting on this issue shortly, which is good news.

The role of the FRC in “enforcement” was covered. They stressed that their remit does not cover crime, they merely regulate accountants and actuaries although it is of course true that the failure of auditors to identify false accounts is one area they often investigate. It was mentioned that the size of the team on this had grown from 11 people in 2013 to 30 now and they are still looking for more bodies. This really just shows how under-resourced the FRC has been in the past. A total budget of £15m per year was mentioned. Comment: this seems hopelessly inadequate to me bearing in mind the number of public companies (and other organisations) and the number of auditors they have to monitor. It explains partly why complaints to the FRC often seem to disappear into a black hole, or why investigations often take so long as to be pointless. A list of cases under formal investigation is on the FRC web site (See here for that and two linked pages for the full list: https://www.frc.org.uk/auditors/enforcement-division/current-cases-accountancy-scheme which of course will tell you that Globo was commenced in December 2015 and Quindell in August 2015 and have yet to report).

I did suggest to the speaker that the FRC should be a party to the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (as some audit failures involve the crime of fraud) as the Police, the SFO and FCA are, and which has improved their disclosure culture. This might assist those who report failings to get some feedback on the progress of a case. But the FRC argue that their role is not to investigate crime as such and they are inhibited by legislation/regulation on what they can disclose. However it is very clear to me that too often complaints get made to the FRC, but the complainants are not advised of progress and often have no idea on the outcome. This is an issue they will be looking at.

They hope the extra staffing will speed up investigations. The investigation process was discussed, but for example, Carillion had not even been placed under formal investigation as yet. It was suggested by audience members that the FRC was quite ineffective but recent cases such as AssetCo and Healthcare Locums were mentioned as demonstrating strong action and they have issued fines of £12 million in the last year which is the biggest ever. It was mentioned that fines go to the Treasury which is not ideal.

Confusion between the different regulatory bodies (e.g. the FRC, FCA, SFO, etc) was mentioned by attendees and the speakers, not helped by similar three letter acronyms. One attendee suggested that a unified regulatory body would help (such as the SEC in the USA). Comment: I agree at present it is unclear except to experts on who is responsible for what and the accountability of these bodies to the Government or to any democratic body of investors.

The FRC also has an interest in the UK Corporate Governance Code and the Stewardship Code. A consultation on a new Corporate Governance Code is imminent. There was also a session on the role of the Financial Reporting Lab where both ShareSoc and UKSA members have been involved in the past.

I’ll have to stop here because the budget speech by the Chancellor will commence soon and I wish to listen to it as there may be some major changes on investment tax reliefs. I’ll do another blog post later on it.

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

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Brexit, and the Finances of the Young

The national media continue to try to turn news into controversy. Their words are often incendiary and designed to provoke debate and therefore attention – as a means no doubt of promoting their publications. So their headlines become “verbal click-bait”.

As most people now read news on the internet, the publishers could be considered as acting as “trolls”. Here is the definition in Wikipedia of an internet troll: “In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion…….”

Written words are not the only example. Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC has adopted a similar verbal approach in her reporting. It’s not just Labour party members who should be complaining about her hysterical style.

There were a couple of news items this week that caught my attention in this area. There were several comments on the report issued by the FCA on family finances. The report indicated that half of UK adults were “financially vulnerable” and that those in their 20s and 30s were reliant on borrowing (personal loans and credit card debt). It reported that one fifth of 25-34 year olds have no savings at all with many struggling to pay bills. But this was interpreted by some of the media as the new “generational divide”.

But was it not always so? I certainly don’t recall having much in the way of savings at the age of 30 and lived from month to month, sometimes using credit card debt. In other words, I doubt that the situation has been changing over time; although the elderly have become better off lately due to rising state pensions I am not convinced the young have been getting poorer. But the media like to put a “spin” on any news item to grab attention.

As the report shows, the elderly do have more savings as one might expect but they are not evenly distributed. One amusing statement in the report is “A high proportion of retirees do not know how much savings they have”.

It’s a report well worth reading although rather long at almost 200 pages. Here is one useful titbit of information from it: “Around one in five (22%) 45‑54 year olds hold a stocks and shares ISA and the same proportion hold shares or equities directly”. It would have been good to obtain more detail information on that but it just shows there are a lot of shareholders out there.

Another example of media hysteria is the reporting on the Brexit negotiations. Will it be a hard or soft Brexit? Will the bill be £20 billion or £100 billion? Are Tories threatening to quit if there is any compromise, or revolt against the rule of Theresa May? Will Jeremy Corbyn scupper the whole affair by underming the Bill going through Parliament to support it? Who really knows, but it all makes for good headlines.

The Financial Times has become one of the leaders in scare mongering over Brexit with regular articles of a polemic nature by Martin Wolf and Simon Kuper on the topic. The latest example was by Martin Wolf in yesterdays FT. Now I have never thought much of Mr Wolf’s opinions on financial matters since he supported the nationalisation of Northern Rock, but his latest article (headlined “Zombie ideas about Brexit that refuse to die”) is pure hysteria. I don’t mind the occasional editorial opinion piece on Brexit, or some reporting on the potential technical difficulties if not slanted, but this piece was just propoganda in essence. It pointed out all the difficulties associated with a “hard” Brexit where no trade deal is agreed beforehand, but that is well known and most folks do not think that is likely. It certainly did not give a balanced view of the arguments for or against Brexit and what our negotiating stance should be. In reality there is likely to be a compromise of some kind – that is what politics usually ends up being about – compromise after compromise. Indeed it is one of the frustratations of anyone in the political world that achieving revolutions, rather than compromise, is not just difficult but exceedingly time consuming.

It is certainly regrettable that the Financial Times, since its takeover by Nikkei in 2015 has become much more politicised, and there is less factual reporting and more opinion. Perhaps it is just pandering to the views of most of its readers (the London-centric financial players and international businessmen) but if they expect to influence politicians or the wider community they will be disappointed.

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

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Response to Financing Growth Review

The Government is currently consulting on “Financing Growth in Innovative Firms” (otherwise known as the Patient Capital review). It covers the perceived problems in building world-beating companies from a small size in the UK, and the ways the Government provides support to early stage companies. That typically means the VCT, EIS and SEIS schemes with their associated tax reliefs and other possible “support” programmes where the Government funds them directly.

Anyone who invests in this area, directly or indirectly, should respond to the public consultation – the deadline is the 22nd September to do so. That is particularly so because reading between the lines it seems that some folks in the Government feel the tax reliefs are too generous and even suggest that investment would take place even without the tax reliefs. But my view is very different – I certainly would be very unlikely to invest in VCT and EIS funds without generous tax relief. They frequently generate dismal investment returns and have very high management fees plus administration costs. In reality, the historic record has been very patchy and the tax reliefs only help to offset the duds (which were difficult to identify in advance).

As someone who has experience of this sector both as an investor and a director of companies needing to raise capital, I have put in a personal submission on the topic. It is present here: Financing-Growth

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

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Barclays Stockbroking Complaints

Several newspapers and on-line news services have reported this week on the debacle at Barclays. They launched a new “Smart Investor” site to replace their Barclayshare share trading service. The complaints range from failure to advise new account log-in details, support service uncontactable, old features missing (or perhaps simply moved elsewhere and not easily found in some cases), higher charges (fees restructured), to some account types or share holdings being no longer permitted.

Barclays have integrated it with their on-line bank account service which probably makes sense, but they clearly got some basic things wrong with this kind of migration which are:

  1. Beta testing of the new software on real customers must have been limited in scope, if done at all.
  2. All clients were moved at the same time and forcibly. No parallel running, no options for clients to choose when to migrate, etc.
  3. If possible, avoid “big bangs”. Changes to systems should be done gradually and in stages to avoid massive new learning processes by clients.

When will IT teams learn that folks get “habituated” to software and get very unhappy when it’s changed, even when the new system works well and has more features (and in Barclays case, it obviously had some problems). It’s like moving the products on the shelves of supermarkets so the customers can’t find their favourite foods any more. Now Paypal did a similar migration recently, and the new menus were hopeless to begin with, but they allowed you to drop into the old menus for some time. So only some minor cursing was the result. But Barclays may lose some of their 200,000 stockbroking clients from this debacle it seems.

Stockbroking platforms are really important to get right as they involve large value transactions by often sophisticated traders but there have been several examples over the years of new platforms failing to meet the basic needs of clients.

What do you do when this happens? Move your account to someone else? If only it was that simple.

From several experiences of doing this, all I can say is that you won’t have much difficulty finding someone to take it on, but the process often takes months with endless hassles along the way.

Indeed I have complained to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) about this in the past – see https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/stockbroker-transfers-more-evidence-of-unreasonable-delays/

Anyone who meets this problem should also complain to the FCA and encourage them to tackle it. If you can switch a bank account in 7 days (and that’s mandated), why not a stockbroking account?

The complexity partly arises from the use of nominee accounts and the problems with funds rather than direct shareholdings, but these difficulties are surely fixable if we had a decent share and fund registration system and stockbrokers were motivated to get the issue sorted out. Needless to point out that stockbrokers don’t like to make it easy to switch so won’t do so unless pushed because they like to lock their clients in (hence the use of nominee accounts also of course).

In the meantime, if you do decide to switch you may find it easier to move all your holdings into cash first – but you need to be wary about the tax implications of doing so.

This FCA web page tells you how to complain about Barclays new service, and about delays in transfers, here: https://www.fca.org.uk/consumers/how-complain . But if you wish to complain about the general lack of action on broker transfers, you could write to David Geale, Director of Policy, FCA, 25 The North Colonnade, London, E14 5HS.

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

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AIM Rules – Response to Consultation

The London Stock Exchange (LSE) is currently undertaking a consultation on the AIM Market Rules (see http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-discussion-paper-july-2017.pdf ).

Anyone can respond to this and the deadline is the 8th September. Those who invest in AIM shares will be aware of some of the past problems in AIM companies and tightening up some of the Rules that apply to AIM companies may surely help to improve the quality of the market. For example, it covers new rules that might help AIM to be more selective in regard to the companies that list on the market.

I have submitted a response to this consultation which is here: http://www.roliscon.com/Roliscon-Response-AIM-Rules-Review.pdf

Investors in AIM should do likewise, otherwise the responses will be dominated by Nomads and company promoters.

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

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