Bad News from Crawshaw and ULS, Ideagen AGM, Victoria Doubts and Other News

The real bad news today is that butchers Crawshaw (CRAW) is going into administration, “in order to protect both shareholders and creditors”. They hope the business will be sold as a going concern but it is unusual for shareholders to end up with anything in such circumstances. The shares have been suspended and the last share price was 2p. It actually achieved a share price of 3425p at its peak in 2005. Revenue have been rising of late but losses have been also.

I never invested in the company although I do recall seeing a presentation by the company when it was the hottest stock in the market but I considered it to be a business operating in a market with no barriers to entry and likely to suffer from competition once the supermarkets had woken up to what it was doing. That’s apart from the difficulties all high street retailers have been facing of late. Well that’s one disaster I avoided at least.

Another AIM stock I do hold is ULS Technology (ULS) who operate a conveyance service platform. A trading statement this morning for the first half year said the revenue is expected to be up 3% and underlying profit up 5%, despite a fall of 4% in the number of housing transactions across the UK market. But the sting in the tail was the mention of a slowdown in mortgage approvals which “may well be short lived but is likely to have some impact on the Group’s second half results”. The share price promptly dropped 20% this morning. It’s that kind of market at present – any negative comments promptly cause investors to dump the shares in a thin market.

One piece of good news for the housing market which I failed to mention in my comments on the budget was that the “Help to Buy” scheme is not being curtailed as some expected, but is extended for at least another two years to 2023.

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Ideagen (IDEA), another company I hold. It was unexciting with only 4 ordinary shareholders in attendance so I won’t cover it in detail. But boring is certainly good these days.

It was the first AGM chaired by David Hornsby who is now Executive Chairman. One pertinent question from a shareholder was “what keeps the CEO awake at night?”. It transpired that the pound/dollar exchange rate was one of them simply because a lot of their revenue is in dollars (their US market seems to be a high growth area also). I suggested they might want a “hard Brexit” when the pound would collapse and improve their profits greatly. But the board somewhat ducked that issue. Note that this business is moving to a SAAS revenue model from up-front licence fees which may reduce organic growth slightly but increase revenue visibility. The point to bear in mind here is that even on a hard Brexit it is unlikely that trade tariffs would impact software income because there are no “goods” exported on a SAAS model.

Another question asked was about financing new acquisitions which the company does regularly. These are generally purchased for cash, and share placings are done to raise the funds required. Debt target revenue is only one times EBITDA so debt tends to be avoided.

It is worth comparing that with Victoria (VCP) a manufacturer of floor coverings who issued a trading statement on the 29th October which did not impress me or anyone else it seems. Paul Scott did a devasting critique on Stockopedia of the announcement. In summary he questioned the mention of a new debt being raised, although it was said that this would be used to repay existing debt, when there were few other details given. He also questioned the reference to reduction in margins to maintain revenue growth. The share price promptly headed south.

The company issued another RNS this morning in response to the negative speculation to reassure investors about the banking relationships, covenants and credit rating.

I have held a few shares in Victoria since the board bust-up a few years back and attended their last AGM in September when I wrote a report on it here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/09/11/brexit-abcam-victoria-and-the-beaufort-case/ . The share price was already falling due to shorters activities and my report mentioned the high level of debt. The companies target for debt was stated to be “no more than 2.5 to 3 times” at the AGM which is clearly very different to Ideagen’s!

I did have confidence in Geoff Wilding, Executive Chairman, to sort out the original mess in Victoria but the excessive use of debt and a very opaque announcement on the 29th has caused a lot of folks to lose confidence in the company and his leadership. Let us hope he gets through these difficulties. But in the current state of the stock market, the concerns raised are good enough to spook investors. It’s yet another previously high-flying company that has fallen back to earth.

One more company in which I have a miniscule number of shares is Restaurant Group (RTN) which I bought back in 2016 as a value/recovery play. That was a mistake as it’s really gone nowhere since with continuing declines in like-for-like sales. At least I never bought many. Yesterday the company announced the acquisition of the Wagamama restaurant chain, to be financed by a rights issue. The market reacted negatively and the share price fell.

I did sample some of the restaurants in the RTN portfolio but I don’t recall eating in Wagamama’s so it’s difficult to comment on the wisdom of this move. All “casual dining” chains are having difficulties of late as the market changes, although Wagamama is suggested to have more growth potential. The dividend will be rebased and more debt taken on though. With those reservations, the price does not look excessive. However, while they are still trying to get the original business back to strength does it really make much sense to make an acquisition of another chain operating in the same market? Will it not stretch management further? I will await more details but I suspect I may not take up the rights in this case.

One other item of news that slipped through in the budget announcements was the fact that in future Index-linked Saving Certificates from NS&I will be indexed by Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI). This is likely to reduce the interest paid on them. But it will only affect certificates that come up for renewal as no new issues have been made of late. These certificates are becoming less and less attractive now that deposit interest rates are rising so investors in them should be careful when renewing to consider whether they are still a good buy. I suspect the Chancellor is relying too much on folks inertia.

At least even with the bad news, my portfolio is up significantly today. Is the market about to bounce back? I think it depends on consistent price rises in the USA before the UK market picks up, or a good Brexit deal being announced.

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

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

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

Which Way Is The Market Headed?

Whenever one meets with other investors of late, a question they ask is “”Which way do you think the market is headed?”. One of my sons also asked me that question and I said to him that I had no real clue, although it might continue in the same direction. I give my reasons in this article.

The weekend papers are full of explanations of the recent market declines, and prognostications about the future, by experienced financial journalists. This was no doubt at the behest of their editors who understand that readers are looking for simple answers. When the markets are in rout, the key thoughts of investors are likely to be should I sell, to protect my portfolio value by moving into cash, or should I buy now that shares are becoming cheaper and possible bargains appearing?

FTSE Chart

Having been through more than one boom and bust in my investing career (chart of the FTSE All-Share in that period above showing percentage change in capital value from 1997), I only make predictions about the market in extremis, i.e. when it looks ridiculously expensive or ridiculously cheap. You can see that so far there has only been a minor correction in the last few weeks. Incidentally that chart shows that the FTSE All-Share is up about 70% in that period while my own portfolio is actually up 270% which I track in a similar way.

Some of the influences that are currently being talked about are the trade wars between the USA and other countries, the impact of Brexit, the ending of QE and higher interest rates, the view that shares had become too expensive, and general despondency. When markets are in decline, all news tends to be treated as bad news. So when the US economy is reported as continuing to grow strongly, this is viewed as negative as it means higher interest rates will come in sooner.

The fact of the matter is that markets are driven by expectations and emotions as much as hard facts. It is undoubtedly true that most investors portfolios are showing very healthy returns in the last few years so everyone is holding on to large profits. That is still true even after the carnage of the last few weeks. But just reading a few tweets issued by investors tells you that many are now showing a loss on the year to date. This makes them nervous.

It’s also true that the long, uninterrupted bull run has pulled many people into stock market investment who think it might be an easy way to make money when cash earns little on deposit and the housing or buy-to-let markets are no longer attractive.

There is one truism though. Once markets start moving in a certain direction, then they tend to continue in the same direction, driven by emotion. Just as share prices of individual companies show high short-term correlation, so do share prices in general. They can both be driven by “momentum” traders now that everyone knows that momentum is a key aspect of successful investment strategies.

Just considering the UK market, where most of my readers are probably invested, it’s also true that UK market trends are dictated by US market trends and other international markets over night. What happens in the morning on trading days in the UK tends to follow what happened in the USA the previous day/night. It’s always worth keeping an eye on the S&P 500 to check that – see this web site for a useful chart of a daily view (or longer periods): https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c4dldd02yp3t/sp-500

Will that tell you which way the UK market is headed? Only in the sense that trends tend to persist, until they reverse and are driven by international dynamics. Trying to guess which way it’s headed is a waste of time, and effort.

As a result, some folks take the stance that they’ll hold their portfolios unchanged through thick and thin. If you are an institutional investor, where you are paid to invest client’s money in shares, not in cash and your earnings depend on portfolio value commissions, you may not have much choice. But private investors do.

My view is that trying to be contrarian in market declines makes no sense except in extremis. Following the trend is sensible, until there are obvious highs and lows where reversals might take place. So I sell on the way down, and buy on the way up, while trying not to over-trade (i.e. not react to short term moves which tend to be expensive in terms of spreads and broking charges). I also take into account the nature of the stocks and any capital gains tax liabilities that might result, i.e. I will sell those showing a loss or hold those where tax would be incurred. That also means I prefer to sell those in my ISAs and SIPPs where tax consequences can be ignored. The current market is also a good time to rationalise my portfolio which has too many stocks in it and is overdiversified.

In relation to the nature of the stocks, those hardest hit by any general market decline are those that are small and speculative so they are the first to go. In a market rout everyone starts looking at whether the company is making real profits, generating cash and paying dividends in the short term, not to a sunlit horizon in the future.

That’s not to say that I have suddenly fallen out of love with growth stocks. But there is good growth and there are speculations. Companies that have good technology, good business models, and are generating good returns on capital are still the ones I like to own. The recent figures from Amazon and Alphabet (Google) were seen as negative because the growth in sales and profits appeared to be slowing – but they are still growing at a very brisk rate in comparison with old economy stocks. They are both now very big companies so at some point growth was likely to slow, but there are many smaller technology companies who can achieve great growth rates irrespective of the overall state of the economy.

At this point I do not see that we are near a turning point, but neither do I try to predict one. Shares look neither ridiculously expensive or ridiculously cheap unlike say back in 2008 for example when doom and gloom pervaded everywhere. There is no good reason to pile back into bonds with short term interest rates still low and the UK and US economies looking healthy.

To track the trend while managing cash I follow a simple rule – if my overall portfolio falls by £10,000 I sell £10,000 worth of shares and put the resulting cash on deposit. That way assuming you have an unleveraged portfolio you can never go bust. If my portfolio and the market start to rise, I’ll move the cash back into shares.

In summary, I am following market trends and in the meantime am just looking to hold good quality companies and buying more where there are suitable buying opportunities, while disposing of the dogs. I don’t try to bet against market trends.

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

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

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

IPOs, Platforms, Growth Stocks and Shareholder Rights

I agreed with FT writer Neil Collins in a previous article when discussing the prospective IPO of Aston Martin (AML) – “never buy a share in an initial public offering” he suggested because those who are selling know more about the stock than you do. We were certainly right about that company because the share price is now 24% below the IPO price.

Smithson Investment Trust (SSON) did rather better on its first day of trading on Friday, moving to a 2% premium. That’s barely enough to have made it worth stagging the issue though. But I think it will be unlikely to outperform its benchmark in the first year simply because as the largest ever investment trust launch it might have great difficulty investing all the cash quickly enough. On the other hand, if the market continues to decline, holding mainly cash might be an advantage.

One company that is lining up for a prospective IPO is AJ Bell who operate the Youinvest investment platform. They reported positive numbers for the year ending September recently but I suspect the IPO may be delayed given recent stock market conditions. One symptom of this is perhaps their rather surprising recent missive to their clients that discouraged some people from investing in the stock market. This is what it said: “In this year’s annual survey we had a small number of customers who identified themselves as ‘security seekers’, which means, ‘I am an inexperienced investor and I do not like the idea of risking my money and would prefer to invest in cash deposits’. If this description sounds like you, please consider whether an AJ Bell Youinvest account is right for you. If in doubt, you should consult a suitably qualified financial adviser”. It rather suggests that a number of people have moved into stock market investment after a long bull run and have not considered the risks of short-term declines in the market.

An interesting article was published on another platform operator, Hargreaves Lansdown (HL.), in this week’s Investors Chronicle. Phil Oakley took apart the business and showed where it was generating most of its profits – and it is undoubtedly highly profitable. Apart from the competitive advantage of scale and good IT systems it enjoys, it also benefits from promoting investment in funds, and running its own funds in addition. The charging structure of funds that it offers means it makes large amounts of money from clients who invest mainly in funds – for example £3,000 per annum on a £1 million SIPP portfolio. Other platforms have similar charging structures, but on Youinvest Mr Oakley suggested the charges on such a portfolio might be half.

His very revealing comment was this: “It is not difficult to see how this is not a particularly good deal for customers. It’s the main reason why I don’t own funds at all”. That goes for me also in terms of investing in open-ended funds via platforms.

Hargreaves Lansdown has been one of those typical growth stocks that do well in bull markets. But with the recent market malaise it has fallen 20% in the past month. Even so it is still on a prospective p/e of over 30. I have never invested in the stock because I was not convinced that it had real barriers to competition and always seemed rather expensive. Stockbroking platforms don’t seem greatly differentiated to me and most give a competent and reliable service from my experience. Price competition should be a lot fiercer in this market than it currently appears to be.

Almost all growth stocks in my portfolio have suffered in the last few weeks as investors have moved into cash, or more defensive stocks such as property. One favourite of private investors has been Renishaw (RSW) but that has fallen 35% since July with another jerk down last week. The company issued a trading statement last week that reported revenue growth of 8% but a decline in profits for the first quarter due to heavy short-term investment in “people and infrastructure”. According to a report in the FT Stifel downgraded the company to a “sell” based on signs that demand from Asian electronics and robotics makers has weakened. But has the growth story at this company really changed? On a prospective p/e now of about 20, it’s not looking nearly as expensive as it has done of late. The same applies to many other growth companies I hold and I still think investing in companies with growing revenues and profits in growing markets makes a lot more sense than investing in old economy businesses.

Shareholder rights have been a long-standing interest of mine. It is good to see that the Daily Mail has launched a campaign on that subject – see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/money/markets/article-6295877/We-launch-campaign-savers-shares-online-fair-say-company-votes.html .

They are concentrating on the issue of giving shareholders in nominee accounts a vote after the recent furore over the vote at Unilever. But nominee account users lose other rights as well because they are not “members” of the company and on the share register. In reality “shareholders” in nominee accounts are not legally shareholders and that is a very dubious position to be in – for example if your stockbroker goes out of business. In addition it means other shareholders cannot communicate with you to express their concerns about the activities of the company which you own. The only proper solution is to reform the whole system of share registration so all shareholders are on the share register of the company. Nominee accounts only became widespread when it was necessary to support on-line broking platforms. But there are many better ways to do that. We just need a modern, electronic (i.e. dematerialised) share registration system.

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

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

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

Brexit Prevarication, The Company, Sarbanes-Oxley and Patisserie Holdings (CAKE)

Prevarication definitions: delaying giving someone an answer, or avoiding telling the whole truth. Theresa May’s suggestion for an extension of the Brexit transition period surely smacks of prevarication and all sides of the Brexit debate saw it for what it was. The result is some furious back-peddling by the Prime Minister. Putting off decisions usually does not make them any easier. It is not at all clear what the PM’s strategy is here. Was she perhaps hoping to put off Brexit negotiations until after the next election when she might have a bigger majority and will not have to rely on the DUP? As the EU has been saying, she needs to spell out what arrangements the UK wants and preferably ones that are likely to be acceptable to the EU – otherwise gear up now for a hard Brexit.

One of the problems with a hard Brexit would be the likely tariff barriers to both exports and imports. The economy might quickly adapt to those but it was interesting reading a book named “The Company” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge – I am doing some research on the way joint stock companies developed to see how we got to where we are, which the book covers well. One interesting paragraph covers what happened after the first world war when protectionism rose and the US and UK introduced tariff barriers on certain goods. That is why Ford and GM set up car plants in the UK which was a strategy to get around those barriers. So if we have a hard Brexit, we might see the same response – UK companies will set up European subsidiaries and vice-versa. Smart businessmen are experts at getting around political problems!

The book “The Company” is highly recommended as an easy read on the development of companies, but it is not very complimentary about the amateur UK management in comparison with the professional managers of big US, German, Japanese, etc, companies. Competent and well-trained professional management seems to be a lot more important than particular legal or corporate governance structures.

Another section of the book covers the debacles of Enron and Worldcom which were massive frauds hidden by defective auditing (which also caused the collapse of Anderson) after which a new Act was passed in the USA – the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. This required not just rotation of audit partners, but to quote from the book: “The law also requires CEOs and chief financial officers to certify the accuracy of their financial reports, and it creates a new crime of securities fraud, making it punishable by up to twenty-five years in jail”. It also enabled claw-backs of executive compensation for misconduct.

Although there has been some criticism of Sarbanes-Oxley in the USA for adding onerous obligations on companies, and hence adding to costs, perhaps that was a result of the way it was implemented that was over-zealous. But surely it is this kind of legislation that is required in the UK if we are to clean up the financial reporting and auditing of companies after so many recent failures. Making the publishing of false accounts a criminal offence with severe penalties would be a good starting point.

One such recent example is of course the small company Patisserie Holdings. There was an interesting article in Shares Magazine this week where the Editor pointed out that the case was similar to that of Tesco. In 2017 the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) forced that company to compensate certain shareholders for publishing false accounts on which basis they had invested. See https://www.fca.org.uk/publication/final-notices/tesco-2017.pdf for the FCA Notice on the matter. This decision was based on the fact that it was considered to be market abuse to make false announcements, and hence a false market was created. Although Patisserie is an AIM company, it is probably covered by the same market abuse regulations. So this issue might be a question for the General Meeting of Patisserie on the 1st November. Will Patisserie need to provide for such financial compensation before the FCA forces them to, which could be substantial if the alleged financial fraud had been going on for many months? The answer might not just interest past investors but those who are purchasing shares in the placings.

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

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

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

Fishing Republic, Pattiserie and Smithson Trust

Fishing Republic (FISH) shares have been suspended and it looks like it’s run out of money with folks unwilling to finance it further. A new CEO was about to join but now is not. I have never held shares in this company so I just had a quick look at the history of its listing on the AIM market.

It listed in 2015 with an initial market cap of £2.7 million – yes it always was a small business. The share price rose as high as 46p as it went for growth, but was 5.22p when suspended. The last interim results looked terrible – loss of £2.5 million on revenue of £3.4 million. The company suggested its problems were down to competitive pressures and tough market conditions, but it looks to me more a simple case of mismanagement. Was there really a big market for fishing tackle where fishing enthusiasts would pay good money for such kit in any case?

This is probably going to be just the latest poor-quality business, or ones with unrealistic ambitions, to disappear from the AIM market which has been shrinking. It’s now down to 937 companies when it was nearly 1,700 in 2007. That near halving in the number of companies has probably improved the overall quality of the market with an emphasis on larger companies now. That’s probably good for investors.

Hindsight always makes the problems look obvious of course. In the case of Patisserie Holdings (CAKE) I have seen it said that the cakes were boring, the shops often empty and it seemed odd that they could make good profits in such a competitive sector. The first two I discounted because that was not my experience of visiting their cafes (I always try to sample the wares of companies I invest in). As regards the latter issue, we await more information, but Whitbread have just flogged off their Costa coffee chain for an enterprise value of £3.9 billion, representing a multiple of 16.4 times FY18 EBITDA. That’s a rich price for a similar business in a competitive sector with no obvious barriers to entry is it not?

Shareholders in Patisserie Holdings can attend the General Meeting at 9.0 am on the 1st November to approve the second share placing, and ask some questions. That’s a very inconvenient time for many shareholders and is certainly not “best practice”.

The UK stock market seems to have stabilised somewhat after recovery in the US. It’s always worth having a quick look at the S&P 500 to see how it is trending if you wish to know where the UK market is going to go. This should bode well for the launch of the Smithson Investment Trust which raised its fund-raising limit and will be the biggest ever UK investment trust launch at £822 million. Dealings will commence on the 19th October, but best to wait and see how it performs longer-term in my view. There’s obviously some short-term enthusiasm for another fund from the Terry Smith stable regardless of having no track record.

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

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

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

Patisserie – Hidden Overdrafts but Where’s the Other £18 Million?

The Sunday Times ran some articles on Patisserie Holdings (CAKE) today including an interview with Chairman Luke Johnson. It seems the one big hole in the accounts was hidden overdrafts with Barclays and HSBC totaling £9.7 million. But where’s the rest of the £28 million that was claimed to be held as cash in the interim balance sheet?

Mr Johnson is quoted as saying “There was criticism that I was stretched too thin – fair criticism”. He has promised to reduce his commitments and will even stop writing his column for the Sunday Times.

There is currently speculation about the value of the company and what the share price might be when listing is restored. It’s not difficult to work out what the earnings might be from Mr Johnson past comments about current trading, but there will be one enormous write-down likely in the Annual figures which may well be reported late with previous years restated. The big unknown is what else is unknown. Also existing shareholders may sell in droves as once investors lose confidence in management, they often dump their shares as a way of forgetting the trauma. It might take a long time, even years, to restore confidence in the company and it’s very unlikely to trade on a p/e of 25 which is what it was at before the suspension.

Forecasting likely earnings and hence the share price in future is a mug’s game at this point in time so I will not even attempt to do so. Any new investors keen to pick up the stock will simply be speculating. Those who already hold the stock will need to consider carefully whether they want to wait long enough for a possible recovery.

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

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

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

Another Good Article from Terry Smith on Dividends

As usual, there were some very perceptive comments from Terry Smith of Fundsmith on dividends and income funds in FT Money on Saturday (6/10/2018). Many investors want income – for example to finance spending in retirement – so they invest in high dividend paying stocks. Some simply think that reinvested dividends will enable them to grow their portfolio value but this is a poor result in reality. As Terry explains it would be better if the companies retained the earnings and reinvested them. The maths shows the negative impact of the tax you pay on the dividends.

Terry bemoans the fact that income funds outsell all other types by some margin, even though in reality many have only a yield that is slightly higher than the average. Needless to point out perhaps that the funds he runs are not income funds. But that does not destroy the wisdom of what he is saying.

All that matters is total return. If a company can reinvest the generated profits with a good return, there is no good reason to pay them out as dividends; as Warren Bufftet’s Berkshire Hathaway has never done with great results. Retained earnings compound even faster if no dividends are paid.

A personal investor can always sell a few shares to generate a cash income if necessary, and generally at a lower tax rate than they would pay on dividends.

Companies can usually find projects or acquisitions that can generate good returns. There are a few exceptions of course. Incompetent managements who pursue mirages or make disastrous acquisitions are examples, but those are the kinds of companies you should be selling not buying anyway.

Today the stock market is falling yet again, with growth stocks badly hit. There can be a tendency to hold on to those boring defensive and high-yielding stocks in a market rout. But that is a mistake. For the same reason you probably should not have bought them in the first place, don’t hold on to them. A yield of 4%, 5% or higher does not offset the risk of share price decline. Just consider when you are cleaning out your portfolio today to get rid of the duds that won’t be generating high and growing profits in the future. That’s all that matters.

Incidentally I had a letter published in the Financial Times today on the subject of Brexit, which was very kind of them as I effectively criticised their editorial policies. It was headlined “Please – no more letters from moaning Remainers” and was in response to two previous letters from clearly biased correspondents. You can find it on the FT web site.

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

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

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