Beaufort Administration, Intercede and the Mello Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Which Is The Cheapest Platform?

Many investors do not research which trading platforms (a.k.a. on-line stockbrokers) are the cheapest before they sign up with them. Neither do all platforms offer the same facilities – for example all the different types of ISAs and allow investment in both funds and investment companies or direct shares. Retail investors tend to depend on which name they remember from advertising, from friends’ recommendations and other sources. But now the Association of Investment Companies (AIC) has provided a useful comparison tool.

The AIC represents investment companies and has issued the following press release about the launch of their new platform comparison tool: https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/press-releases/aic-launches-platform-comparison-tool-on-its-website

This is an exceedingly useful tool and shows that the platform charge on several platforms can be as high as over £3,000 p.a. or as low as less than £100 p.a. for a portfolio valued at £1 million invested solely in open-ended funds. In other words, an enormous range!

They also have separate tables for investments in investment trusts so you can compare those charges against open-ended fund portfolios, or a mix. Funds are often more expensive. You might notice they don’t give the cost of directly investing in shares, but these would be the same as investment trusts as they are simply listed company shares.

They don’t include transaction costs on trading which is worth bearing in mind though. The volume of trading as well as the size of portfolio affects the overall costs.

Surely you don’t need reminding that minimising what you pay to platforms is one of the key ways to maximise long-term investment performance as they can seriously erode your returns. If you are looking for a new stockbroker, it would be worth reviewing this comparison tool first because although service quality is important there is little correlation between cost and service. Some of the lowest cost brokers provide very good service in my experience so one wonders why there is such a price difference in this market. One reason might be the difficulty investors have in switching brokers that reduces competition in this market.

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

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FCA Action, Shareholder Rights and Beaufort

Better Finance, the European representative body for retail investors have issued a couple of interesting announcements this morning. The first compliments the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for their action over “closet index trackers”. They are investment funds that pretend to be active managers and charge the higher fees that normally apply to such funds, while in practice they hug their benchmark index. Other European regulators have been less than prompt in taking action on this problem it transpires.

It’s not quite as positive as that though as although a number of UK asset managers have voluntarily agreed to compensate investors in such funds at a cost of £34 million, and enforcement action may be taken against others for misleading marketing material, this appears to be a voluntary scheme rather than a formal compensation arrangement.

Which are the funds complained about? I could not find any published list. But back in 2015, the Daily Telegraph reported the following as being the worse ones: Halifax UK Growth, Scottish Widows UK Growth, Santander UK Equity, Halifax UK Equity Income and Scottish Widows UK Equity Income – all bank controlled business you will note.

The second report from Better Finance was on the publication of the final draft of the EU Shareholder Rights Directive. This was intended to improve the rights of individual shareholders but is in reality grossly defective in that respect. Even if implemented into UK law, it will not improve the rights for UK investors. Indeed it might worsen them. For example Better Finance said this: “Important barriers to cross-border shareholder engagement within the EU virtually remain in place, since intermediaries will by and large still be able to charge higher fees to shareholders wanting to exercise their cross-border voting rights (admittedly subject to certain conditions) and beneficial owners of shares in nominee and omnibus accounts will still not have any voting rights (with the exception of very large shareholders), to name but two of the remaining issues.”

Let us hope that the UK Government and the FCA take more positive steps to improve the rights of UK investors which have been undermined by the use of nominee accounts and other market practices adopted in recent years.

Another recent news item from the FCA was about the forced administration of Beaufort Securities and Beaufort Asset Clearing Services. Beaufort specialised in promoting small cap companies such as those listing or listed on AIM to private investors. But the US Department of Justice investigated dubious activities in relation to US shares and has charged the firm and some individuals involved with securities fraud and money laundering. These allegations appear to be about typical “pump and dump” schemes where share prices are ramped up by active trading of the shares by the promoters of companies, such that the prices of the shares sold to investors bear little relation to fundamental value, and then the insiders sell their shares leaving private investors holding shares which the market rapidly revalues downwards. On twitter one person published charts showing the share prices of companies that Beaufort promoted to investors and it does indeed look convincing evidence of abusive practices.

These kinds of share promotions by “boiler rooms” staffed by persuasive salesmen were very common a few years back and they seem to be coming back into favour as there are a number of other companies promoting small cap or unlisted stocks to investors. Regulations might have been toughened, and such companies are more careful to ensure investors are apparently “sophisticated” or can stand the possible risks and losses, but the FCA still seems slow to tackle unethical practices. Should it really have taken US regulatory authorities to take down this company? The FCA has been aware of the market abuse in the share trading of AIM shares for some time but no action has been taken. It’s just another example of how small cap shares, and particularly the AIM market, attracts individuals of dubious ethics like bees to a honeypot.

If you have invested via Beaufort in stocks, are your holdings likely to be secure? As they may be held in a nominee account it rather depends on the quality of the record keeping by Beaufort. Past experience of similar situations does not inspire confidence. It can take years for an administrator to sort out who owns what and in the meantime the assets are frozen. The administrators are PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC).

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

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Hargreaves Lansdown and Fund Charges

There was a good article published yesterday by Phil Oakley of Sharescope on Hargreaves Lansdown (HL). Why are they so profitable a business when, as Terry Smith said, they seem to be in essence a “distributor” operating in a highly competitive field with few barriers to entry? The answer, apart from their high-quality customer service, is the level of charges they make on investment in funds (unit trusts and OEICS, not investment trusts which are treated as shares).

Investors in SIPPs via HL might be paying several thousands of pounds per year on larger portfolios (e.g. £3,000 on £1m and more on larger amounts), when investors would only pay £200 for a similar portfolio in shares. Other platforms also charge more for funds, but are substantially cheaper even so.

Why do they charge so much more for funds than shares? Phil questioned whether there is any more administration as a result.

But you can see why HL and other platforms promote funds so aggressively rather than direct investment in shares or in investment trusts (and bear in mind that there are usually equivalent investment trusts for most OEICs, often even managed by the same managers).

HL seems to be a company that it is better to be an investor in than a customer. Customers are suffering from the syndrome of buying something that they are sold that is in the seller’s interests, rather than standing back and deciding what they want, who they wish to buy it from and what price they wish to pay. In other words, investors are not “shopping around” for the best deal.

For that reason when HL adopted their new platform charges, I closed my account and moved my SIPP portfolio elsewhere. But it’s not a thing to be done lightly as it takes a lot of time and hassle to do so as disgruntled customers of Barclays are finding out. An example of the FCA not ensuring there is a competitive market by guaranteeing rapid transfers as they should be doing.

Now many readers might say, but I don’t have a large portfolio – just a few tens of thousands in value. And I get the same high-quality service for relatively little money. Firstly you need to bear in mind that overall portfolio charges are a significant drag on investment returns. As your portfolio grows, the bigger the drag.

HL may be vulnerable to losing their larger customers, who are clearly the most profitable ones, to competitors who could cream off the big hitters by various marketing tactics. Having a number of different stockbroking accounts, in general I find the administration is fine and they seem to compete on price to a large extent rather than facilities or service. Their focus is on attracting new investors who wish to start investing rather than converting existing investors from other platforms. Perhaps it’s the difficulty of persuading clients to move their accounts that inhibits them and reduces the competitiveness of the market for stockbroking services.

HL might therefore be vulnerable to regulatory change if the FCA tacked this issue vigorously and other platforms got their marketing act together.

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

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