More on the Capital Gains Tax Review

I commented briefly yesterday on the Review of Capital Gains Tax by the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS)  – see https://roliscon.blog/2020/11/12/capital-gains-tax-review-a-missed-opportunity/ where I called it a “missed opportunity” to substantially reform the tax.

The more one looks at their proposals the more some of them appear to become absolutely bizarre. For example I mentioned the proposal that the rebasing of an asset to the current value when it is inherited should be removed – in effect the new owner would have the original cost retained.

This has two implications. Firstly it means that the full value of the same asset is taxed twice – once in IHT when it is inherited, and again when the inheritor subsequently disposes of it in capital gains tax. At least at present, the inheritor only pays tax on the growth in value during their ownership. But if the latter tax is based on the original value rather than the last inheritance, it could go back very many years in time. This is what Tim Stovold of Moore Kingston Smith said in the FT on this issue: “If this change should become law, capital gains could accrue across multiple generations making assets unsaleable due to the astronomical tax liability — a liability that could come home to roost if they were ever sold”.

The second issue with this is that in practical terms it means that an inheritor would need to know not just the value of the asset as fixed by probate, but the value when originally acquired by the deceased. This could be an impossible task because past records are rarely kept with such accuracy and longevity.

The FT published a good article under the headline “What does CGT review mean for investors” where it pointed out other problems with the review’s proposals and quoted a number of people giving negative comments.

One can only conclude that if the Government pushes ahead with these proposals, that one should rearrange one’s financial affairs to hide as much as possible in ISAs and SIPPs, or buy big houses to live in (not subject to CGT) and not invest in company shares or your own businesses. Or alternatively avoid accumulating assets and spend the cash before you die. This surely makes no sense in policy terms!

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

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Capital Gains Tax Review – A Missed Opportunity

The Government Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) has published a first report on its review of Capital Gains Tax. I did actually submit a personal response to their consultation on this subject back in August – see https://www.roliscon.com/Capital-Gains-Tax-Review.pdf. This is one thing I said in that: “It is of course a horribly complex tax with several different rates and numerous exemptions”.

The OTS suggests that Capital Gains Tax rates be more closely aligned with Income Tax rates but it also suggests that if that is done a form of relief for inflationary gains be done. I tend to agree with that proposal as it is certainly an anomaly that income is taxed differently to capital gains (it’s easy to change income into capital gains or vice versa). The lack of indexation relief is also a sore point to anyone who holds shares for long time periods.

There is apparently a particular concern about the owners of small businesses retaining cash in their companies rather than paying it out in taxable dividends. They can then realise it as a capital gain later at a lower rate of tax.

They also recommend reducing the annual exempt amount (currently £12,300) to between £2,000 to £4,000. There is clearly a lot of “tax management” taking place at present where people use up the allowance by deferring or bringing forward disposals. Reducing the allowance to a level where it just reduces some administrative effort (excluding those taxpayers with minimal liabilities) makes sense.

The OTS is also suggesting that the rebasing of an asset to the current value when it is inherited should be removed – in effect the new owner would have the original cost retained.

They also propose changes to Business Asset Disposal Relief and Investors’ Relief including scrapping the latter as it seems to be little used.

All of the above changes would generate very substantial additional revenue for the Government, but only if people did not change their behaviour as they always do of course in response to any demand for more tax. Harmonisation of tax rates makes sense but only if the overall tax taken is unchanged.

It is also unfortunate that the OTS review has ignored suggestions for more substantial changes such as permitting gains to be “rolled-over” as I suggested or the proposals submitted by ShareSoc. They just seem to be tinkering with the details rather than making proposals for substantial reforms to simplify the tax.

But it’s worth pointing out that the Government might ignore their recommendations as tax rates and tax structures are political decisions in essence.

The full OTS report is present here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ots-capital-gains-tax-review-simplifying-by-design

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

Modernisation of Stamp Duty

HMRC have announced a “Call for Evidence” on the “Modernisation of Stamp Taxes on Shares Framework”. If you deal mainly in the shares of public companies you may not know much about this subject – I certainly don’t. But the consultation document is very enlightening – see link below. That’s if you can understand it because this tax seems to be like capital gains tax – horribly complicated as it has been built up over many years and with a large number of exceptions.

It is of course called “stamp duty” because back in time the transfers of title actually had to have a postage stamp affixed to the document as evidence that tax had been paid, or be otherwise “embossed”. Wikipedia has a good account of the history of stamp taxes. In the past it was even applied to patent medicines, gold and silver plate, hats, gloves, solicitors licences, pawnbrokers licences, hair powder, perfumes and cosmetics. Perhaps we should thank that it is only applied to shares and property/land at present.

Here’s what I thought I knew about it before reading (other readers can correct me if I have anything wrong):

Public company shares are almost all cleared through Crest and subject to Stamp Duty Reserve Tax (SDRT) which is collected by the transacting stockbroker from the purchaser at the current rate of 0.5%. But if you are arranging the transfer of certificated shares directly from an existing holder (for example if you are acting as executor for someone who has died holding such shares) then until recently you had to physically visit the Stamp Office or post the transfer document to them so they could physically “stamp” it. The share registrar would not accept the transfer form without it being stamped first. Needless to say, with the Covid-19 epidemic rampaging, HMRC now accept emailed documents and electronic signatures instead which just about gets them into the twenty-first century.

Transfers of private company shares (or public company shares not in Crest – I recall there are a few), have to go through the same process. In the past this meant large deals could be delayed from completion while awaiting stamping.

But some shares are exempt from stamp duty. You don’t pay stamp duty on shares where the company is registered in a foreign country (outside the UK). But Wikipedia says this: “A unique feature of SDRT, compared to other purely domestic taxes in the United Kingdom, is that more than 40% of the annual intake is collected from outside the UK, thus creating an annual inflow of approx. £1.5 billion from foreign investors to the UK government”. This appears to relate to transfers of offshore (i.e. non-UK) investors, primarily US fund managers who operate depositary receipt or clearing schemes on which a higher rate of SDRT is paid.

The UK may be the only country that penalizes its investors for buying British companies – buying in a market outside of the UK isn’t subject to a charge, and neither are investments in bonds issued by corporations or the government.

However shares in AIM listed companies are also not subject to stamp duty as it was abolished in 2014 – with one exception – those of AIM companies that are “dual listed”, i.e. also listed on another recongized public exchange.

Certificated shares are also exempt in the following circumstances:

  1. shares that you receive as a gift and that you do not pay anything for (either money or some other consideration)
  2. shares that your spouse or civil partner transfers to you when you marry or enter into a civil partnership
  3. shares held in trust that are transferred from one trustee to another
  4. transfers that a liquidator makes as settlement to shareholders when a business is wound up
  5. shares held as security for a loan that are transferred back to you when you repay the loan
  6. transfer to the beneficiaries of a trust when the trust is being wound up
  7. shares that someone leaves to you in their will
  8. shares transferred to you when you get divorced, or when your civil partnership is dissolved
  9. certain types of loan capital
  10. shares valued at less than £1,000.

Such transfers still need “stamping” but with exemption claimed.

To quote from the consultation document: “Some of the most common Stamp Duty reliefs which customers claim relate to companies: intra-group relief; acquisition relief and reconstruction relief. Because the reliefs exist only in Stamp Duty and not in SDRT, anyone subject to SDRT who wants to claim those reliefs has to convert the share certificate into paper form from electronic form and submit that instrument for stamping under Stamp Duty. This creates administrative costs for both the customer and HMRC”; or complex work-arounds.

Note that Stamp Duty and SDRT are two separate taxes with slightly different rules. This undoubtedly creates confusion. HMRC does not have powers to enforce collection of stamp duty (but it does for SDRT) and there is nothing in legislation to say who is liable to pay it. However an unstamped instrument cannot be used as legal evidence.

There is another very big exemption from stamp duty and that is for “intermediaries” such as market makers. To quote from a 2015 paper by Prof. Avinash Persaud which is definitely worth reading (see link below):

“Comparing tax revenues and turnover suggests that a little more than a third of total turnover in UK equities; 37% is subject to the tax, and 63% of turnover is between tax-exempt parties. The principal exemption or relief from stamp duties on share transactions is a share purchase by an intermediary. The intention of this relief is that entities that provide liquidity to financial markets, by standing ready to buy or sell securities from others and accepting an obligation to trade when requested during the trading day, should be tax exempt. The intention of market makers is not to hold on to the security or make money from doing so but rather to facilitate trade; hence the payment of stamp duty is deemed inappropriate. Turnover between genuine market makers is significant, but it is a far cry from 63% of turnover. Prior to the advent of High Frequency Trading (HFT), approximately 20% of turnover used to be driven by market makers.

It is clear that in the UK, the intermediary exemption from stamp duty is being abused. It has become stretched to include activity that was not strictly intended by the law. The balance of the turnover of exempt parties, which is not genuine market making, is largely made up of High Frequency Trading (HFT) and the non-market making activities of intermediaries. Most significant is the turnover generated by intermediaries hedging in the share markets their end-customers’ activity in Contracts for Differences (CfDs), Financial Spread Bets (FSBs) or other derivative instruments. This is certainly not market making”.

A way for private investors to avoid stamp duty on share transactions is to use Contracts for Difference (CFDs) or Spread Bets. These are considered to be “derivatives” but why should they be exempt?

This raises the whole question as to why some transactions are exempt while others not. Why should professional investors not incur the tax while private investors do so? And why should derivatives such as CFDs be exempt? And why should high frequency traders be exempt? What is the logic behind these rules as they tend to encourage speculation as opposed to long-term investment.

But it seems that HMRC are not of a mind to consider the principles of these taxes, just some of the administrative issues.

For more information, see https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/call-for-evidence-modernisation-of-the-stamp-taxes-on-shares-framework ; and

Persaud Paper: http://www.stampoutpoverty.org/live2019/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Closing-the-loophole.pdf

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

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Capital Gains Tax Reform? Surely Long Overdue

Last week the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) announced a review of Capital Gains Tax. They have invited evidence and there is a simple on-line survey you can complete on the subject (see link below). As someone who occasionally pays capital gains tax, I give you my views on the subject below.

It is of course a horribly complex tax with several different rates and numerous exemptions. I need to employ an accountant to work out my self-assessment tax returns when I don’t consider my affairs particularly complex – I am mainly invested in listed shares, although I do have a few EIS and VCT investments. My accountants use specialist software to do the calculations, not generally available to retail investors and even that seems to be prone to complex misunderstandings.

This also puts a great burden on HMRC in terms of administration when it brings in less than 1% of tax revenues. Plus there is an enormous amount of effort put in by investors and their advisors to avoid paying the tax (there are lots of ways to do so). Indeed one could argue that the current Capital Gains tax regime was invented by accountants as a “make work” project due to the complexity of the rules.

Should the tax be scrapped altogether as some people have suggested? I don’t think so for the following reason: It is very easy to convert income into capital gains, or vice versa. I recall this was done many years ago by the Beatles when instead of receiving royalties they sold the revenue stream from music royalties as an asset. But even private investors can do this – for example by investing in investment trusts that roll up the income and don’t pay it out in dividends. Another example is that of Venture Capital Trusts which are often effectively converting capital gains into tax free dividends. Or of course investors can simply avoid trading in individual shares and invest in trusts or funds which are not taxed on their individual holdings and realisations thereof.

It is therefore irrational to have different rates for capital gains and income which is currently the arrangement.  That’s clearly one simplification that could be made, although investors will be furious if they have to pay more tax as a result.

But one big problem is the lack of indexation of capital gains which was scrapped some years ago by Gordon Brown and replaced by allowances. This means that you pay tax not on the real change in the value of a share, but on that created simply by inflation when the shares are worth no more in reality. This may not seem a major issue in a period of low inflation, but with money being printed like it is going out of fashion by Governments, high inflation might well return. Even a low rate of inflation over many years can result in a very large tax bill, and even worse, you may not have the option to retain the holding. A takeover bid for a company can effectively force a sale. Indexation should be reinstated as it was not difficult to take it into account in your tax returns.

Capital Gains Tax also distorts investment decisions. For example, you might hold on to a shareholding longer than you otherwise would because you know a large tax bill will result. So your portfolio may end up containing a lot of companies with poor prospects and their market share prices might remain higher than they otherwise would be, i.e. the market in the shares is distorted.

It also causes sales of shares to take place when they might not be best timed, simply to use up capital gains tax allowances in the current tax year. Or even to anticipate changes to tax rates and allowances by decisions from new Chancellors or new Governments.

The existing arrangements encourage the use of investment trusts and funds rather than personal investors holding individual shares. This has had a negative impact on the stock market as investment decisions are now made by fund managers rather than real owners. It has also meant that much of the profits generated by public companies end up in the hands of the fund manager rather than the end investor who rake off 1%, 2% or more per annum which can often be a very high proportion of the real return generated by companies. It also has a negative influence on corporate governance as fund managers have little interest in controlling the pay of directors for example. In effect we have a lot of absentee owners.

These defects might be considered an argument for scrapping CGT altogether but that is unlikely. However, an alternative proposal would be to reform it so that a rollover of investments did not incur tax. In other words, if you reinvested the proceeds from a sale of shares or other assets into new assets within a period of time then no tax would be payable. If no net profit is actually realised, why should investors pay tax?

Do people even care about paying tax on their profits when they die? Capital gains tax liability currently disappears on death and that might need to be changed if rollover was permitted but there is also interaction with Inheritance Tax here which would also need to be reconsidered.

Property is taxed at different rates, although the property you live in is exempt. This has of course encouraged people to invest in a home as an asset for their retirement. This has powered the house price bonanza in recent years and encouraged people to occupy bigger houses than they need. Although encouraging home ownership is meritorious, it is not clear why gains from owning a home should be tax free. Reforming this could be a political hot potato although a “roll-over” provision and other exemptions could mitigate the adverse consequences.

Capital Gains Tax has always had a negative impact on business creators although there are allowances that reduce their liability when a business is sold. Much tax planning activity is prompted by such outcomes which typically undermines the tax take. Another related issue is that high capital gains tax rates encourage wealthy entrepreneurs to move to countries where capital gains taxes are lower or even zero. We lose their expertise and also they spend their money in other countries as a result.

In summary Capital Gains Tax is ineffective, generates relatively little in tax from very few individuals and is a disincentive to entrepreneurial activity. It can result in tax being paid on purely inflated share prices and when no actual cash is realised as the profits are soon reinvested. It does of course discourage therefore new investment and distorts the stock market.

In my opinion, capital gains tax needs a complete overhaul. If you agree, or disagree, please add some comments to this article. I’ll ponder those before making a full submission to the OTS review.

OTS Capital Gains Tax Review: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/ots-capital-gains-tax-review-call-for-evidence-and-survey

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

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Taking Cash From ISAs and IHT Reclaims

If like me you have been selling shares in your ISA during the market crash, you may now have a lot of cash sitting idle in your ISA. Most brokers pay no interest to you on it but prefer to collect it themselves. But now we are into the new tax year, there is a solution to this. Take the cash out and put it on deposit into a high interest current account. You will get over 1% interest.

You can put the cash back into your ISA without losing the tax reliefs so long as you do it within the same tax year (i.e. before April 2021). It is worth checking with your broker or platform provider that their systems support this though – mine certainly does.

If you expect the market to rebound quickly, you may not consider it worth bothering to do this, but the economic news and company results are surely going to be depressing for the next few months. Or as an article in the Financial Times said today: “The UK economy is heading for a recession that is forecast to be deeper than the 2009 financial crisis and one of the most severe since 1900; the coronavirus pandemic has seen consumer demand collapse and many businesses forced to close or significantly reduce operations”. Government moves to stimulate the economy may help but it still uncertain when business will get back to normal so holding cash in an interest paying account makes a lot of sense until the picture is clearer.

There was another interesting point raised in an article in the FT today under the headline “Wealthy seek inheritance tax rebates”. There may have been a number of deaths of elderly and wealthy relatives when stock markets were much higher. Inheritance Tax applies to the value of assets at the date of death, but it can take many months to obtain probate and for an executor to realise the assets. Shares may now be at a lower value so the tax is excessive. But for listed shares you can claim a rebate from HMRC. There is a similar provision for property.

Readers who are exposed to this problem should read the FT article and take professional advice on the subject.

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

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No Budget Surprises from Rishi Sunak

Budget box 3

Chancellor Rishi Sunak just delivered his first budget speech. Bearing in mind how short a time he has had in the job, it’s perhaps not odd that there are no great surprises or revolutions in it.

There are a number of short term measures to counter the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic on top of the recently announced cut in bank base rate from 0.75% to 0.25% which is surely more of a political gesture than anything because such changes take time to have any impact on the real economy.

There will be a long-term review of business rates but there will be short-term relief for retail and leisure businesses to counter the epidemic impact. The Chancellor is also committing £175 billion to improve economic growth.

The National Insurance threshold will be raised to help the low paid and the planned increase in spirit duty has been cancelled. Fuel duty will remain frozen, when many people expected it to be raised. However red diesel tax relief will be abolished for most sectors other than farmers (it’s news to me that anyone else could use it legally).

Entrepreneurs tax relief will be reformed as widely forecast as it costs the exchequer £2 billion. The lifetime limit will be reduced from £10 million to £1 million. Will that deter entrepreneurs from setting up new businesses? I doubt it.

Twenty-two thousand civil servants will be moved out of London with new Treasury offices in the regions. That will come as a shock to many. Will the Chancellor come under attack from his civil servants like Priti Patel one wonders? But it is surely a positive move to offset the excessive London-centric nature of the economy and the pressure on housing in the South-East.

Some £27 billion will be invested in the strategic road network, including on the A303 that passes Stonehenge.

VAT on digital publications will be abolished so you’ll be able to buy my book “Business Perspective Investing” even cheaper from Amazon – but it’s damn cheap already so I think this may have limited impact except to some educational publishers. It is sensible reform though to align it with paper books.

There is more funding for housing which may help housebuilders and their suppliers and a more general reform of the planning system is forecast. There will be a stamp duty surcharge though for non-UK residents which might affect expensive homes in London but that was widely tipped as something the Chancellor was expected to implement.

For those only aspiring to afford such homes, HMRC is being given more funding to tackle tax avoidance. But the pension tax relief taper relief limit will be raised to £200,000 which may assist many high earners such as NHS consultants. More money is also being given to the NHS although it is not clear whether that and the promise of 40 new hospitals were new commitments or the old ones rehashed.

A closer study of the red book which covers the budget details is required to see if there are any surprises in the small print (see https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/budget-2020 ).

Postscript: One announcement snuck in behind the budget is a consultation on changes to the calculation of RPI by the UK Statistics Authority – see https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/consultation-on-the-reform-to-retail-prices-index-rpi-methodology-2/ .

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

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Objections to Pay at Diploma and the Cost of Zero Carbon

My previous blog post covered the subject of criticism by Slater Investments of many current pay schemes. That at Diploma (DPLM) is a typical example. But at their Annual General Meeting yesterday, which I unfortunately was unable to attend in person as a shareholder, there was a revolt.

The votes cast as disclosed in an RNS statement today were 20% against their new Remuneration Policy and 44% against their Remuneration Report. I voted against both of them of course personally. The board has acknowledged the concerns of shareholders and they will consult further with shareholders plus provide an update within six months.

What is wrong with their remuneration scheme? First pay is simply too high. Over £1 million last year for the CEO when profits were only £62 million and that does not include any LTIP benefits as he is recent joiner. But the CFO got £1.6 million in total. The CEOs pay scheme includes base salary, pension, short term bonus of up to 125% of base (90% achieved) and an LTIP that awards up to 250% of base salary. The Remuneration Report consists of 14 pages when Slater suggests a maximum of two would be sensible. I could go on at length of this subject but in essence the remuneration scheme at Diploma is simply unreasonable and too generous. It displays all the faults that Slater complained about.

I have previously criticised the Government’s commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions on the grounds of cost. Well known author Bjorn Lomborg has published a good article on this subject in the New York Post. Almost no Governments making similar promises are willing to publish any real cost-benefit analysis. The only nation to have done this to date is New Zealand: the economics institute that the government asked to conduct the analysis found that going carbon neutral by 2050 will cost the country 16% of GDP. If the small nation follows through with the promise, it will cost at least US$5 trillion with negligible impact on temperatures. Just imagine what the cost will be in the UK, for a much bigger economy! See this article for more information:  https://nypost.com/2019/12/08/reality-check-drive-for-rapid-net-zero-emissions-a-guaranteed-loser/

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

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The Political Manifestos and their Impacts on Investors

Here are some comments on the manifestos of the major political parties, now that they are all available. I cover specifically how they might affect investors, the impact of tax changes and the general economic impacts. However most readers will probably have already realised that political manifestos are about bribes to the electorate, or to put it more politely, attempts to meet their concerns and aspirations. However in this particular election, spending commitments certainly seem to be some of the most aggressive ever seen.

Labour Party: I won’t spend a lot of time on this one as most readers of this blog will have already realised that financially it is very negative for the UK economy and for investors. It’s introduced with the headline “It’s time for real change”, but that actually seems to be more a change to revert to 1960s socialism than changes to improve society as a whole. It includes extensive renationalisation of water/energy utility companies and Royal Mail, part nationalisation of BT Group and confiscating 10% of public company shares to give to employees. It also commits to wholesale intervention in the economy by creating a £400 billion “National Transformation Fund”. That appears to include a commitment to revive declining industries, i.e. bail-outs of steel making companies one presumes.  It includes promises to invest in three new electric battery gigafactories and four metal reprocessing plants for steel and a new plastics remanufacturing industry “thus creating thousands of jobs”. This is very much old school socialism which expected that direct intervention in the economy could create new industries and new jobs, but it never really worked as Governments are inept at identifying where money should best be invested. Companies can do that because they have a keen interest in the return that will be made while civil servants do not.

The best comment on the BT proposals was in a letter to the FT by the former head of regulator OFTEL Sir Bryan Carsberg. He said his memory was clear about the shortcomings of BT before privatisation even if many other people do not remember. The lack of competition meant that the company had no incentive to improve efficiency or take advantage of new technological developments. Monopolies are always poor performers in essence.

Trade union law will have the clock turned back with a new Ministry of Employment Rights established. Incredibly there is a commitment to “introducing a legal right to collective consultation on the implementation of new technology in workplaces”. Clearly there are some Luddites in the Labour Party. The more one reads their manifesto, the more it reminds you of years gone by. This writer is old enough to remember the Harold Wilson speech on the “white heat of a scientific revolution” by which he intended to revitalise the UK economy. It only partly happened and at enormous cost. In the same speech he also said that there was “no room for Luddites in the Socialist Party” but that has changed apparently. The manifesto includes a very clear commitment to “rewrite the rules of the economy”. A rise in the minimum wage might also damage companies.

The cost of financing all the commitments is truly enormous, and that is not even taking account of the £58 billion just promised to restore pension commitments lost to some women due to rises in their pension age which is not in the manifesto. Taxes will need to rise substantially to finance all the commitments – that means increases in corporation tax which may damage business, and rises in capital gains tax to equalise it with income tax plus higher rates of income tax for high earners.

But the real damage to UK investors will be the wholesale intervention in the economy in the attempt to create a socialist paradise. And I have not even covered the confusion and contradictions in Labour’s Brexit policy which is downplayed in their manifesto.

Conservative Party: The other main parties are all focusing on Brexit so the Conservative’s title headline in their manifesto is “Get Brexit Done – Unleash Britain’s Potential”.  In comparison with the other parties it is relatively fiscally conservative with no major changes to taxation but some commitments on spending.

Many of their commitments, such as on longer-term social care funding, are subject to consultation but there are some short term increases in that, and for education, for the Police and for the NHS.

Immigration will be restricted by introducing an Australian-style points-based system. This might impose extra costs on some sectors of the economy, but may result in more investment in education/training and more capital investment. This might well increase productivity which is a major problem in the UK.

There is a commitment to invest £100 billion in additional infrastructure such as roads and rail. That includes £28.8 billion on strategic and local roads and £1 billion on a fast-charging network for electric vehicles. Compare that though with the cost of £81 billion now forecast in the manifesto for HS2 a decision on which is left to the Oakervee review.

It is proposed to “review and reform” entrepreneurs tax relief as it is not apparently meeting objectives. There will be further clampdowns on tax evasion and implementation of a Digital Services Tax already planned for 2020.

Reforms are planned to insolvency rules and the audit regime which must be welcomed, but details of what is planned are minimal. They also plan to “improve incentives to attack the problem of excessive executive pay and rewards for failure”. It will be interesting to see how that is going to be done in reality.

There is a plan to create a new independent “Office for Environmental Protection” which will introduce legal targets including for air pollution. This could be very expensive for both companies and individuals. The Government has already committed to a “net zero” carbon target by 2050 but Cambridge Professor Michael Kelly has said that the cost of decarbonising the economy has been grossly underestimated. He has suggested the cost should run into trillions of pounds. But again there are few details in the manifesto on how these commitments will be implemented in practice. Nobody really knows what is the real cost of such a policy.

There are though firm commitments to review the Fixed Term Parliament Act, to retain the “first past the post” voting system, to improve voter identification and reduce fraud, and to avoid Judicial Reviews being used to undermine political democracy. They also commit to review the workings of Parliament – this might lead to a written constitution which this writer thinks is sorely needed to avoid a repeat of recent events which led to gridlock in Parliament and allegedly partisan decisions by both the Speaker and the Supreme Court.

With promises not to increase income tax, VAT or National Insurance (a “triple-tax lock” in addition to the expensive triple lock on pensions which will be retained) this is generally a positive manifesto for most investors and apart from the issues mentioned above should be positive for the economy. A Conservative Government might also restore confidence in overseas investors which may well account for the recent pick-up in the stock market indices as the Conservatives look like they are heading for a significant majority. Such an outcome will also remove some of the uncertainty, if not all, over Brexit which will give more confidence to UK businesses to invest in the future.

In summary the Conservative manifesto is likely to please many and displease few (apart from those opposed to Brexit) so it could be seen as a “safe bet” to avoid any last-minute popularity reversal as happened at the last general election.

The minority parties are losing votes in the polls as they always do when a general election looms and the public realise that there are only two likely candidates for Prime Minister – in this case Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. Is that a question of whom the public trusts? This was an issue raised in one of the recent panel debates but I think nobody trusts any politicians nowadays. It is more a question of whom the voters personally like as regrettably hardly anyone reads the manifestos.

But here’s a brief view of the minority parties’ platforms:

Brexit Party: Their manifesto (or “Contract with the People” as they prefer to call it), is definitely sketchy in comparison with the two main parties and is many fewer pages in length. They want, unsurprisingly, a “clean-break Brexit”, and they want a “political revolution” to reform the voting system.

They would raise £200 billion to invest in regional regeneration, the support of key sectors of the economy, the young, the High Street and families. Note the traditionally socialist commitment to support “strategic industries”. The £200 billion would be raised by scrapping HS2, saving the EU contribution, recovering money from the EIB and cutting the foreign aid budget, although I am not sure that adds up to £200 billion.

They would scrap Inheritance Tax and scrap interest on student loans and cut VAT on domestic fuel which will all be quite significant costs. They also promise more investment in the NHS but so do all the other parties – at least there is a consensus on that point.

The Liberal Democrat Party:  They have clearly decided their vote winning approach will be a commitment to stop Brexit, i.e. revoke Article 50. They have a strong endorsement of “green” policies and propose a new tax on “frequent-flyers”. That might include Jo Swinson herself it seems as she has taken 77 flights in 18 months according to the Daily Mail.

Two unusual commitments are to legalise cannabis and freeze all train fares (rather like the freeze in London on bus and Underground fares which has resulted in a £1 billion deficit in TfL finances, but even more expensive no doubt).

Corporation Tax would revert to 20% and Capital Gains tax will be unified with income tax with no separate allowances so private investors would certainly be hit.

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) are focusing on another referendum for an independent Scotland as usual, an unrealistic proposition as no other party is supporting that and it would be make Scotland much poorer, plus a ragbag of populist commitments. They clearly oppose Brexit.  As most readers will not find an SNP candidate standing in their local constituency I shall say no more on the subject. You can also go and read their manifesto on the web where it is easy to find all the party manifestos. Likewise for the Welsh and Irish leaning parties.

In summary, this election is somewhat of a no-brainer for investors unless they feel that the Boris Johnson version of Brexit is going to be very damaging for the UK economy, in which case they have a simple choice – vote LibDem or SNP as Labour’s position is too confusing. Alternatively they can play at “tactical voting” to get the party they want info power. There is more than one tactical voting web site to advise you which is the best alternative option but be wary – they seem to be run by organisations with a preconceived preference.

If readers consider I have missed out anything important from this analysis, please let me know.

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

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BT Nationalisation and Promises, Promises

We are clearly in a run up to a General Election when politicians promise all kinds of “free” gifts to the electorate. The latest promise, even before the manifestos have been published, is the Labour Party’s commitment to give everyone in the UK free broadband. This would be achieved by simply nationalising BT Group (BT.A) apparently.

I just had a quick look at the cost of this commitment. BT actually receives over £15 billion annually according to the last accounts from Consumers and from Openreach. There is some profit margin on that of less than 20% which might be discounted, but there are many households who do not yet have a fibre connection so that would be an additional cost to be covered by the Government.

In addition there would probably be some cost of nationalising BT Group and paying compensation to shareholders. The current market cap of the company is about £19 billion. They might get away with paying £10 billion up front but the annual cost of at least £12 billion to maintain the network would be an enormous burden on the state. They might be able to raise that by taxing multinationals or others but it still makes no sense.

I am not a BT shareholder currently although I am one of their customers. I also remember how dreadful the service from BT was before it was nationalised. It may not be perfect now in comparison with some of their competitors but nationalised industries such as telecoms, the railways, the motor industry, the coal industry, shipbuilding, the gas/electric/water utilities and about 40 others were all abject failures. They typically lost money and provided diabolical service.  The young who are voting socialist may not remember but Jeremy Corbyn should do so.

The fact that the share price of BT only dropped by 1% today (at the time of writing) just shows you how much credibility investors attach to this promise. It also surely shows how desperate the Labour Party is to win some more votes as they are now trailing well behind in the opinion polls.

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

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Mello Event, ProVen and ShareSoc Seminars and Lots More News

It’s been a busy last two days for me with several events attended. The first was on Tuesday when I attended the Mello London event in Chiswick. It was clearly a popular event with attendance up on the previous year. I spoke on Business Perspective Investing and my talk was well attended with an interesting discussion on Burford Capital which I used as an example of a company that fails a lot of my check list rules and hence I have never invested in it. But clearly there are still some fans and defenders of its accounting treatment. It’s always good to get some debate at such presentations.

On Wednesday morning I attended a ProVen VCT shareholder event which turned out to be more interesting than I expected. ProVen manages two VCTs (PVN and PGOO), both of which I hold. It was reported that a lot of investment is going into Adtech, Edtech, Fintech, Cybersecurity and Sustainability driven by large private equity funding. Public markets are declining in terms of the number of listed companies. The ProVen VCTs have achieved returns over 5 years similar to other generalist VCTs but returns have been falling of late. This was attributed to the high investment costs (i.e. deal valuations have been rising for early stage companies) in comparison with a few years back. Basically it was suggested that there is too much VC funding available. Some companies seem to be raising funds just to get them to the next funding round rather than to reach profitability. ProVen prefers to invest in companies focused on the latter. Even from my limited experience in looking at some business angel investment propositions recently, the valuations being suggested for very early stage businesses seem way too high.

This does not bode well for future returns in VCTs of course. In addition the problem is compounded by the new VCT rules which are much tougher such as the fact that they need to be 80% invested and only companies that are less than 7 years old qualify – although there are some exceptions for follow-on investment. Asset backed investments and MBOs are no longer permitted. The changes will mean that VCTs are investing in more risky, small and early stage businesses – often technology focused ones. I suspect this will lean to larger portfolios of many smaller holdings, with more follow-on funding of the successful ones. I am getting wary of putting more money into VCTs until we see how all this works out despite the generous tax reliefs but ProVen might be more experienced than others in the new scenario.

There were very interesting presentations from three of their investee companies – Fnatic (esports business), Picasso Labs (video/image campaign analysis) and Festicket (festival ticketing and business support). All very interesting businesses with CEOs who presented well, but as usual rather short of financial information.

There was also a session on the VCT tax rules for investors which are always worth getting a refresher on as they are so complex. One point that was mentioned which may catch some unawares is that normally when you die all capital gains or losses on VCTs are ignored as they are capital gains tax exempt, and any past income tax reliefs are retained (i.e. the five-year rule for retention does not apply). If you pass the VCT holdings onto your spouse they can continue to receive the dividends tax free but only up to £200,000 worth of VCT holdings transferred as they are considered to be new investments in the tax year of receipt. I hope that I have explained that correctly, but VCTs are certainly an area where expert tax advice is quite essential if you have substantial holdings in them.

One of the speakers at this event criticised Woodford for the naming of the Woodford Equity Income Fund in the same way I have done. It was a very unusual profile of holdings for an equity income fund. Stockopedia have recently published a good analysis of the past holdings in the fund. The latest news from the fund liquidator is that investors in the fund are likely to lose 32% of the remaining value, and it could be as high as 42% in the worst scenario. Investors should call for an inquiry into how this debacle was allowed to happen with recommendations to ensure it does not happen again to unsuspecting and unsophisticated investors.

Later on Wednesday I attended a ShareSoc company presentation seminar with four companies presenting which I will cover very briefly:

Caledonia Mining (CMCL) – profitable gold mining operations in Zimbabwe with expansion plans. Gold mining is always a risky business in my experience and political risks particularly re foreign exchange controls in Zimbabwe make an investment only for the brave in my view. Incidentally big mining company BHP (BHP) announced on Tuesday the appointment of a new CEO, Mike Henry. His pay package is disclosed in detail – it’s a base salary of US$1.7 million, a cash and deferred share bonus (CDP) of up to 120% of base and an LTIP of up to 200% of base, i.e. an overall maximum which I calculate to be over $7 million plus pension. It’s this kind of package that horrifies the low paid and causes many to vote for socialist political parties. I find it quite unjustifiable also, but as I now hold shares in BHP I will be able to give the company my views directly on such over-generous bonus schemes.

Ilika (IKA) – a company now focused on developing solid state batteries. Such batteries have better characteristics than the commonly used Lithium-Ion batteries in many products. Ilika are now developing larger capacity batteries but it may be 2025 before they are price competitive. I have seen this company present before. Interesting technology but whether and when they can get to volumes sufficient to generate profits is anybody’s guess.

Fusion Antibodies (FAB) – a developer of antibodies for large pharma companies and diagnostic applications. This is a rapidly growing sector of the biotechnology industry and for medical applications supplying many new diagnostic and treatment options. I already hold Abcam (ABC) and Bioventix (BVXP) and even got treated recently with a monoclonal antibody (Prolia from Amgen) for osteopenia. One injection that lasts for six months which apparently adjusts a critical protein – or in longer terms “an antibody directed against the receptor activator of the nuclear factor–kappa B ligand (RANKL), which is a key mediator of the resorptive phase of bone remodeling. It decreases bone resorption by inhibiting osteoclast activity”. I am sure readers will understand that! Yes a lot of the science in this area does go over my head.

As regards Fusion Antibodies I did not like their historic focus on project related income and I am not clear what their “USP” is.

As I said in my talk on Tuesday, Abcam has been one of my more successful investments returning a compound total return per annum of 31% Per Annum since 2006. It’s those high consistent returns over many years that generates the high total returns and makes them the ten-baggers, and more. But you did not need to understand the science of antibodies to see why it would be a good investment. But I would need a lot longer than the 30 minutes allowed for my presentation on Tuesday to explain the reasons for my original investment in Abcam and other successful companies. I think I could talk for a whole day on Business Perspective Investing.

Abcam actually held their AGM yesterday so I missed it. But an RNS announcement suggests that although all resolutions were passed, there were significant votes against the re-election of Chairman Peter Allen. Exactly how many I have been unable to find out as their investor relations phone number is not being answered so I have sent them an email. The company suggests the vote was because of concerns about Allen’s other board time commitments but they don’t plan to do anything about it. I also voted against him though for not knowing his responsibility to answer questions from shareholders (see previous blog reports).

The last company presenting at the ShareSoc event was Supermarket Income REIT (SUPR). This is a property investment trust that invests in long leases (average 18 years) and generates a dividend yield of 5% with some capital growth. Typically the leases have RPI linked rent reviews which is fine so long as the Government does not redefine what RPI means. They convinced me that the supermarket sector is not quite such bad news as most retail property businesses as there is still some growth in the sector. Although internet ordering and home delivery is becoming more popular, they are mainly being serviced from existing local sites and nobody is making money from such deliveries (£15 cost). The Ocado business model of using a few large automated sites was suggested to be not viable except in big cities. SUPR may merit a bit more research (I don’t currently hold it).

Other news in the last couple of days of interest was:

It was announced that a Chinese firm was buying British Steel which the Government has been propping up since it went into administration. There is a good editorial in the Financial Times today headlined under “the UK needs to decide if British Steel is strategic”. This news may enable the Government to save the embarrassment of killing off the business with the loss of 4,000 direct jobs and many others indirectly. But we have yet to see what “sweeteners” have been offered to the buyer and there may be “state-aid” issues to be faced. This business has been consistently unprofitable and this comment from the BBC was amusing: “Some industry watchers are suggesting that Scunthorpe, and British Steel’s plant in Hayange in France would allow Jingye to import raw steel from China, finish it into higher value products and stick a “Made in UK” or “Made in France” badge on it”. Is this business really strategic? It is suggested that the ability to make railway track for Network Rail is important but is that not a low-tech rather than high-tech product? I am never happy to see strategically challenged business bailed out when other countries are both better placed to provide the products cheaper and are willing to subsidise the companies doing so.

Another example of the too prevalent problem of defective accounts was reported in the FT today – this time in Halfords (HFD) which I will add to an ever longer list of accounts one cannot trust. The FT reported that the company “has adjusted its accounts to remove £11.7 million of inventory costs from its balance sheet” after a review of its half-year figures by new auditor BDO. KPMG were the previous auditor and it is suggested there has been a “misapplication” of accounting rules where operational costs such as warehousing were treated as inventory. In essence another quite basic mistake not picked up by auditors!

That pro-Brexit supporter Tim Martin, CEO of JD Wetherspoon (JDW) has been pontificating on the iniquities of the UK Corporate Governance Code (or “guaranteed eventual destruction” as he renames it) in the company’s latest Trading Statement as the AGM is coming up soon. For example he says “There can be little doubt that the current system has directly led to the failure or chronic underperformance of many businesses, including banks, supermarkets, and pubs” and “It has also led to the creation of long and almost unreadable annual reports, full of jargon, clichés and platitudes – which confuse more than they enlighten”. I agree with him on the latter point but not about the limit on the length of service of non-executive directors which he opposes. I have seen too many non-execs who have “gone native”, fail to challenge the executives and should have been pensioned off earlier (not that non-execs get paid pensions normally of course. But Tim’s diatribe is well worth reading as he does make some good points – see here: https://tinyurl.com/yz3mso9d .

He has also come under attack for allowing pro-Brexit material to be printed on beer mats in his pubs when the shareholders have not authorised political donations. But that seems to me a very minor issue when so many FTSE CEOs were publicly criticising Brexit, i.e. interfering in politics and using groundless scare stories such as supermarkets running out of fresh produce. I do not hold JDW but it should make for an interesting AGM. A report from anyone who attends it would be welcomed.

Another company I mentioned in my talk on Tuesday was Accesso (ACSO). The business was put up for sale, but offers seemed to be insufficient to get board and shareholder support. The latest news issued by the company says there are “refreshed indications of interest” so discussions are continuing. I still hold a few shares but I think I’ll just wait and see what the outcome is. Trading on news is a good idea in general but trading on the vagaries of guesses, rumours or speculative share price movements, and as to what might happen, is not wise in my view.

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

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