Abcam Interims, Brexit Amusement and Superdry

Abcam (ABC) published their Interim Results this morning (4/3/2019). The share price promptly dropped 20% although it has recovered half of that at the time of writing. What was the reason for the price drop? A major profit warning, totally unexpected results or other issues? None that I could see. Before giving you my analysis, you may care to read what I said about the company after attending their last AGM – see https://roliscon.blog/2018/11/07/persimmon-departure-abcam-agm-and-over-boarding/ .

I expressed concerns about the cost and delays to the major Oracle ERP system which they are building to replace legacy systems. Clearly over budget and running late. I was also not impressed by the failure to answer questions by the Chairman.

The latest results did not seem exceptional to me – the IT project is still bogged down it seems with financial and procurement modules only “on-track for implementation in Summer 2019” but that’s hardly surprising. There is one more major module to do after that. Revenue growth was 10.8% which is better than they achieved for the whole of last year but slightly less than forecast for the full year.

Perhaps the major concern for investors was the decline in net margins although gross margins were up. Clearly administrative expenses are up, partly as the result of a move of their headquarters to a new site in Cambridge and product development costs have apparently increased.

One amusement was that it was mentioned that they are opening a new distribution facility in Holland to avoid any disruption post Brexit. This generated a question in the on-line analyst presentation (which you can see a recording of on their web site) on the cost, and the answer mentioned the new “HQ”. That was rapidly corrected to “Logistics Centre”, but the costs were not indicated as being of significance.

Another negative was the mention of a new banking facility of £200 million when they don’t seem to be particularly short of cash. This might be used for “future corporate transactions” and it was made clear they are looking for acquisitions.

A further issue is no doubt the typical bad habit of referring to “adjusted figures”. What does that mean? Here is what it says: “Adjusted figures exclude systems and process improvement costs, costs associated with the new Group headquarters, amortisation of acquired intangibles, the tax effect of adjusting items, and in respect of the six months ended 31 December 2017, one-off tax arising from new US tax legislation”. It sounds like there is a lot thrown in there that might be dubious.

One only has to look at the cash flow figures to see what is happening. Overall cash decreased by £7.8 million after £11.9 million spent on acquisitions. Purchases of “property, plant & equipment” and “intangible assets” almost doubled. Clearly costs have been ramped up as part of the aggressive growth strategy pursued by CEO Alan Hirzel since he joined. That required a major rebuild of internal systems and facilities which is proving costly.

The shares are still highly rated after this hiccup which looked somewhat of an over-reaction to me, but we seem to be in one of those markets where the share prices of companies can collapse on the hint of possible problems even though overall market trends are up. Investors are nervous.

Another company that has suffered sharp share price declines in recent weeks has been Superdry (SDRY), a retailing and brand company. Last Friday the company announced the requisition of a General Meeting to appoint two new directors, including founder Julian Dunkerton who left the board last year. He and another founder, James Holder, are clearly unhappy with recent events which includes more than one profit warning and a 65% drop in the share price. Between them the founders hold almost 30% of the shares and it looks like this is shaping up for a big proxy battle. The company has rebuffed any return of Mr Dunkerton or the appointment of an experienced independent non-executive director suggested by the founders.

Such a prompt rebuff with the likely costs that will be involved in a proxy battle as a result never seems a good idea to me. It tends to destroy any chance of an amicable resolution.

I may write more on this situation after obtaining more information on the key issues which seem to be other than the difficulties faced lately by many clothing retailers.

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

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Cloudcall Placing, Patisserie News, Brexit and Momentum Investing

I reported a week ago on a “Capital Markets Day” at Cloudcall (CALL) – see https://roliscon.blog/2019/01/18/cloudcall-investor-meeting-sophos-rpi-and-brexit/ . There was much discussion on whether the company should raise more finance, via debt or equity. I suggested they needed more equity. This morning they announced a placing of 2.4 million shares at 100p to raise (the share price last night was 109p. It represents about 10% dilution for other shareholders. The placing was completed in minutes so they had clearly lined up existing investors in advance. The cash will be invested (i.e. spent) on sales and marketing.

But they are also refinancing and extending their debt facility. Let us hope they don’t have to use it.

More bad news from Patisserie (CAKE). A report in the Guardian, based on sight of the information sent to bidders by the administrator, suggests that the accounts were false as far back as 2014. That’s when the IPO on AIM took place. In addition, sales in established stores had fallen by 4% in the last two years and the remaining 122 stores were on course to make a £2 million loss in the year to September 2019.

The Guardian report mentioned a number of possible bidders for some of the outlets, but generally few of them. So the chance of a major realisation for the benefit of creditors in such a “fire sale” process seems unlikely.

Brexit. After last night’s votes in the Commons, the battle lines between Theresa May and the EU look to be drawn up. She is getting near a clear mandate from Parliament which will help in the battle with EU bureaucrats and politicians who are adamant they won’t renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. But they will have to if they don’t want the UK to exit without one, which would threaten a lot of EU country exports. Come March 28th, it will be time for a face-saving compromise – no change to the Withdrawal Agreement – just the addition of a codicil providing alternatives to the Backstop.

Momentum Investing. Are investors falling out of love with Momentum Investing? Momentum investing has been one of the most attractive investing strategies in the last few years. If a share price was going up, you just bought more, regardless of fundamentals. There were many academic studies showing that it was a very effective strategy. In ten years of rising shares prices, it was relatively foolproof. But when share prices are going down, as in the last part of 2018, it does of course work in reverse. You have to sell shares as the prices drop.

Just reviewing a few model portfolios run by investment magazines and on-line portals suggests to me that momentum investing is no longer working as the 5 year and longer returns generated are worse than the market as a whole. The moral is that there are no simple solutions to achieving superior investment returns. Once everyone is aware of a successful strategy, its benefits disappear as they are traded away.

It looks like we will have to revert to the hard work of doing financial and business analysis of companies rather than simply following shooting stars.

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

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FCA Views of the Financial Landscape

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have published a document entitled “Sector Views” giving their annual analysis of the UK financial landscape and how the financial system is working – see https://tinyurl.com/yc492lkt . For retail investors there is a chapter on “Retail Investments” which is particularly worth reading.

But we also learn that the “FCA continues to plan for a range of scenarios regarding Brexit” which is good to hear. I somehow doubt it will be settled tomorrow in Parliament – I continue to forecast March 28th. We otherwise learn that cash is still king as a payment method with 40% of payment transactions, albeit falling; that 44% of consumers say nothing would encourage them to share their financial data (that has been encouraged by recent regulatory changes); that car insurance premiums are rising even though mine just fell which very much surprised me; that the ageing population presents a considerable challenge for pension savings and that mortgage borrowers are getting older (39% will have mortgages maturing when they are older than 65).

Cash ISA subscriptions continue to exceed Stock/Share ISAs by a wide margin, although the number of new cash ISA subscriptions fell last year. But only one third of the UK population hold any form of investment product. It looks like the rest are replying on pensions, state support or housing wealth to keep them in retirement.

They claim the investment platforms market is working well “in many respects” despite the fact that their use of nominee accounts for investors has disenfranchised retail investors. You can send them some comments on that via an email to sectorviews@fca.org.uk . But they do at least highlight the difficulty of switching platforms and they note that comparing pricing is also difficult.

Assets under management by the investment management sector grew to £9.1 trillion in 2017 with 20% managed for retail investors. The proportion of passively managed assets rose to 25% which continues the past trend.

Overall this review shows the size and complexity of the UK financial sector. At 36% of European Assets Under Management, it is much larger than any other European country. The next largest is France at 18% and Germany is only 9%. Let us hope it stays that way after Brexit.

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

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Market Bouncing Up or Down – Sophos, Greggs, Apple and Fundsmith

 

After a dire market performance before Xmas, we seem to be back to the good times in the last 3 days. Is it time to get back into the market for those who moved into cash as the market fell down and down and down in the autumn? Rather early to generalise I suggest although I have been picking up some shares recently.

One which I purchased a small holding in was Softcat (SCT). Yesterday it issued a trading update simply saying that trading was strong and they are materially ahead of where they expected to be at this stage in the year. The share price promptly jumped by 20%. I no doubt should have bought more. But there was a wider rise, no doubt driven by a rise in US markets and effectively ignoring the political turmoil in the UK.

Another company issuing a trading update yesterday was Greggs (GRG). They reported total sales up by 7.2% in the year and like-for-like sales up by 4.2% in the second half. The share price rose over 6% yesterday and it rose again this morning. CEO Roger Whiteside has done a remarkable job of turning around this company from being a rather old-fashioned bakery chain to a fast “food-on-the-go” business. New products have been introduced and new locations opened. The latest product initiative which got a lot of media coverage was vegan sausage rolls, now combined with “vegan-friendly” soup in a meal deal for just £2.25! A good example of how new management with new ideas can turn a boring and financially under-performing one into a growth story. But this comment of Lex in the FT is worth noting: “The positives, like the mycoprotein, are baked in. At almost 20 times forward earnings, the stock rating is well above the long-term average. Investors should wait for this dish to cool before taking a bite”. I remain a holder.

There have been lots of media comment on the profit warning from Apple with questions about whether we have hit “peak i-Phone”. Sales in China are slowing it seems and folks everywhere are not upgrading as frequently as before. Apple phone users may be loyal but they are now tending to upgrade after 3 years rather than 2.

Having just recently upgraded from a Model 6 to an 8, I can see why. The new phone is slightly faster but battery life has not significantly changed. Phone prices have gone up and I could not justify the even higher priced models. Software functionality is of course identical anyway.

Apple is the sort of company I do not invest directly in for two reasons. Firstly it’s very dependent on one product – iPhones are more than 50% of sales revenue. Secondly, all electronic hardware is vulnerable to being leapfrogged by competitors with newer, better products. With growing price competition in smartphones, particularly from low-cost Chinese producers, the world is surely going to get tougher for Apple.

Hargreaves Lansdown have reduced their recommended fund list down from 85 funds to 61 and it’s now called the Wealth 50, but Fundsmith Equity Fund is still not included even though it was one of the best performing funds last year. But they have kept faith in the Woodford Equity Income Fund which is most peculiar given its recent performance. It seems they think the big bets that Neil Woodford has been making on companies and sectors will come good in the long term, as they have in the past. We will see in due course no doubt.

But their reluctance to recommend Fundsmith seems to be more about the discounts on charges that some fund managers give them, which they do pass onto customers of course. It’s worth pointing out that the lowest cost way to invest in the Fundsmith Equity Fund can be to do it directly with Fundsmith rather than via a stockbroker or platform. That’s in the “T” class with an on-going charge of 1.05% which achieved an accumulated total return of 2.2% last year, beating most global indices and my own portfolio performance.

Indeed one commentator on my fund performance reported in a previous blog post suggested that an alternative to individual stock picking was just to pick the best performing fund. Certainly if all of my portfolio had been in Fundsmith last year rather than just a part then I would have done better. But that ignores the fact that my prior year performance was comparable and having a mix of smaller UK companies helped to diversify while Fundsmith is subject to currency risk as it is mainly invested in large US stocks. Backing one horse, or one fund manager, is almost as bad as buying only one share. Fund managers can lose their touch, or have poor short-term performance, as we have seen with Neil Woodford. Incidentally the Fundsmith Annual Meeting for investors is on the 26th February if you wish to learn more. Terry Smith is always an interesting speaker.

Stockopedia have just published an interesting analysis of how their “Guru” screens performed last year. Very mixed results with an overall figure worse than my portfolio. For example “Quality Composite” was down 19.7% and Income Composite was down 13.9%, with only “Bargain” screens doing well. It seems to me that screens can be helpful but relying on them alone to pick a few winning stocks which you hold on for months is not a recipe for assured success. It ignores the need to do some short-term trading as news flow appears, or to manage cash and market exposure based on market trends. As ever it’s worth reiterating that there is no one simplistic solution to achieve good long-term investment performance without too much risk taking.

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

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Review of the Year – I’ve Seen Worse

It’s that time of year when I review my overall share portfolio performance. My main objective is to outperform the FTSE All-Share every year using a balanced and diverse portfolio which I did manage to achieve again last year. But I showed an overall loss, including dividends, of minus 5.0%. The FTSE All-Share capital value index was down 12.6% on the year and taking into account dividends that suggests a total return of minus 8.3%.

When I say a balanced portfolio, there are few traditionally defensive stocks in there, and no index tracking funds. The emphasis is on small to mid-cap stocks with hardly any FTSE-100 shares.

The first half year was good, but the last few months of 2018 were particularly bad for many shares that were technology focused or had any pretense of aiming for growth. That’s not to say that there were not a few gainers, but with a large portfolio the numerous losers offset the few shares that rose. You might say that “growth” shares have gone ex-growth as investors put bigger discounts on a gloomier future in general.

Small cap stocks of all kinds were depressed – for example the share prices of two small cap investment trusts (Standard Life UK Smaller Companies and Blackrock Smaller Companies Trust) were down by 18.2% and 7.5%. They both have good long-term track records with well respected managers but an emphasis on UK stocks did not help.

Would it have helped to skew my portfolio to overseas markets? No. That was in fact done by purchasing a number of investment trust holdings but they were some of the worst holdings in the portfolio in the second half.

I did sell down a number of shares in the portfolio as I manage the exposure dynamically to follow overall trends. That means I am now over 20% in cash which is unusual for me as I tend to prefer to be fully invested in shares. But am I looking to rush back into the market? No simply because I am wary that UK share prices will not recover until the Brexit issue is settled and the US market, which we tend to follow, may not recover quickly either. I never act based on economic predictions anyway – I just follow the trends.

It might feel that we have been through a bear market of late but really it’s only been a relatively small correction to date, driven by investor confidence that has been undermined by political events and trade wars.

Looking back a minus 5% return might be considered disappointing but I had minus 17% in 2008, after which there was unbroken series of positive returns with a very good one in 2017. Most of the 2017 high fliers fell back to earth in 2018 though.

One question that investors should always ask themselves is “should I forget stock-picking of individual shares and just buy an index-tracking fund?”. That would save a lot of effort in researching individual companies and monitoring them. The answer is clear in my case. Looking at the last ten years I only underperformed the FTSE All-Share in one year and in some years was way ahead. So I would be a lot poorer if I just relied on an index-tracker.

I am not convinced that stock picking, particularly among small to medium cap shares by someone with a little experience, cannot produce positive returns. In other words, it is not a perfect market in reality. No doubt there are also some investors who have done better than me with more focused portfolios but all I know is that diversity does protect against disasters that are unfortunately all too common in the investment world.

Two things I should probably have paid more attention to were a) running a trailing stop-loss (one that is adjusted to take account of share price rises; and b) being more aggressive in dumping my losers. The latter is something I consistently fail to do but some small cap stocks are very illiquid so getting out of a biggish holding at a reasonable price when the spreads widen can be both difficult and expensive.

Were there any major disasters in my portfolio this year? There are frequently one or two in every year. This year the only big one was Patisserie but only relatively so as it was not one of my bigger holdings. I avoided most of the really big crashes in “hot” shares such as Fevertree by avoiding buying them at their peaks.

Overall a disappointing year so like most stock market investors are probably feeling, “I must try harder”. But don’t we say that to ourselves every year?

As a born optimist, and with buoyant economies in the UK and USA, I am looking forward to the future with some confidence as ever.

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

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Market Trends, Interest Rates, and Yu Group Accounts

Yesterday was another dismal day in the markets. The US fell significantly allegedly caused by the rise in interest rates announced by the Federal Reserve and the UK market followed it down this morning. The US rate rise was widely expected although perhaps slightly lower estimates for US economic growth had an impact. But when the markets are in a bear mood, excuses for selling abound. Meanwhile the Bank of England has announced today that their base rate will remain at 0.75%. The UK market recovered somewhat after it’s early fall, even before that announcement at 12.00 am. Did it leak one wonders, or is it those city high fliers with big bonuses stimulating the market before it closes for Xmas? Or was it the news from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) that a de-merger was to take place? Many market trends are unexplainable so I won’t say any more on that subject.

The general state of markets was highlighted in a recent press release from the Association of Investment Companies (AIC). They represent investment trusts and reported that the industry’s assets hit an all-time high of £189 billion in September but pulled back subsequently. At the end of November the average investment company returned 1.3% over the prior year they said, but that suggests that when the year ends most will be lucky to show any return at all. Investors who manage to beat zero for 2018 should consider themselves either lucky or wise.

But the good news the AIC reported was that many investment trusts, 37 of them, have reduced fees in 2018. Even better news was that 9 of them abolished performance fees which I believe is a good move for investors. There is no evidence that performance fees improve investment managers’ performance and they just lead to higher fees. Needless to point out that the lack of returns in 2018 might have encouraged the trend to cut performance fees!

Not only that but the average return of 1.3% by investment companies beat that of the average of open funds who showed a loss of 2.6% and the FTSE All-Share with a loss of 6%. Perhaps this is because there are more specialist or stock-picking investment trusts as opposed to the many open-ended index trackers and heavy weighting in a few large cap dominated sectors in the FTSE. That shows the merits of investment trusts (I hold a number but very few open-ended funds).

Coming up to Xmas and the New Year, it’s worth warning investors about share trading in small cap stocks and investment trusts though. Both often have low liquidity and this is exacerbated over the holiday season as active investors take a break. The result is that such stocks can spike or decline on just a few trades. Might be a good time to take a holiday from following the markets even for us enthusiastic trend followers.

Yu Group (YU.) is the latest AIM company to report fictitious financial accounts. Yu Group is a utility supplier to businesses and only listed on AIM in March 2016, reached a share price peak of 1345p in March 2018 and is now 68p at the time of writing, i.e down 95% – ouch!

An announcement by the company yesterday, following a “forensic investigation” of its past accounts, reported more bad news including serious deficiencies in the finance function. They are now forecasting an adjusted loss before tax of between £7.35 million and £7.85 million for the year ending December 2018, but that excludes lots of exceptional costs including possible restatement of prior year accounts. Future cash flow is also called into question. In summary it’s yet another dire tale of incompetent if not downright fraudulent management in AIM companies which it seems likely the auditors did not spot. The FCA and FRC should be investigating events at this company with urgency. The AIM Regulatory and NOMAD system has also again failed to stop a listing or what clearly has turned out to be a real dog of a business.

Let us hope that the mooted changes to financial regulation in the UK bear some fruit to stop these kinds of disasters in future years. Risks of business strategy failures and general management incompetence we accept as investors. Likewise general economic trends, even Brexit risks, and investor emotions driving markets to extremes we accept as risks. But we should not need to accept basic accounting failures.

On that note, let me wish all my readers a Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

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

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It’s Not Just Blood on the High Street – ASOS et al

The trading statement this morning (17/12/2018) from ASOS (ASC) has caused the share price to fall by 40% at the time of writing. Other internet retailers such as Boohoo (BOO) fell in sympathy.

ASOS reported that revenue was up by 14% over the previous year, but warned that they “experienced a significant deterioration in the important trading month of November and conditions remain challenging. As a result, we have reduced our expectations for the current financial year”.

In effect the previous forecast sales growth for the year of 20 to 25 percent has been reduced to circa 15% (last year it was 25%). In addition margins are down which they blame on a “high level of discounting and promotional activity across the market” which they have reacted to by increasing their own level of promotional activity with more discounting and clearance sales.

They blame the weakening in consumer confidence driven by economic uncertainty plus unseasonably warm weather in the last three months. Weather is normally blamed by retailers for poor footfall in their shops so why should it affect internet retailers? It’s because it allegedly has reduced the average selling price of items purchased. But the really interesting aspect is that it is not just the UK that has suffered. Trading in France and Germany has also become “more challenging” with more promotional activity therefore required.

Note that I do not hold either ASOS or Boohoo although I have done in the past. Before this profit warning, ASOS was on a prospective p/e of 36 for the current financial year according to Stockopedia which I considered rather fanciful even given the high growth rates. Estimates will now be revised down substantially, the company is cutting capital expenditure which is always a negative sign, and they “continue to anticipate returning to a free cash flow positive position in FY20”. In other words they are still burning cash.

So it would seem that the dire stories about trading on the High Street is not just caused by the move to internet shopping. Both High Street and internet traders have been hit by declining consumer confidence, with the former also damaged by high business rates and increased staff costs.

There has been no Santa Claus rally in share prices as normally expected this year. It may be too soon to judge the outcome of all retail sales over the Xmas period but this news does suggest that there will be no Santa Claus effect there either. One has to question whether internet retailers such as ASOS will ever return to the heady 25% annual growth rates. There are too many companies getting in that game because there are no significant barriers to entry. Internet retail start-ups are spending money on marketing on the basis that they will make money sooner or later, but will they? Competition to the likes of ASOS and Boohoo can only increase.

A similar trend is being seen in the on-line estate agent market (Purplebricks et al) where competition is growing, some are giving up after running up losses, and nobody is making money due to high levels of marketing expenditure so as to grab market share.

These are markets where I have no urge to dabble in the shares of such companies at present.

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

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