Ted Baker Audit Failure, SRT Marine Big Deals and Population Growth

The bad news this morning for holders of retailer Ted Baker (TED) is that the company has announced an independent review of its inventory. It says it has identified that the value of inventory held on its balance sheet has been overstated. It estimates that the figure is up to £25 million and that it relates to prior years. This looks like yet another audit failure (the auditors are KPMG).

The share price is down 10% today at the time of writing but it’s been falling for a long time so it’s now down well over 80% from its peak at the start of the year. Warnings about its stock holding are not new. This is what the Investors Chronicle had to say in October: “Ted Baker’s stock levels have been a cause for concern. Inventories have grown consistently in recent years, reaching a peak of 37 per cent of revenues at the full year”. For a clothing retailer to hold that much stock seems simply unreasonable. That report came after an unexpected half year loss. I suspect that even worse news may come out in due course.

On Friday an article by Simon Thompson in Investors Chronicle contained a puff for SRT Marine Systems (SRT). This made for interesting reading as I used to hold the stock – sold at 25p in 2012, price now 52p. I sold because of repeated lack of progress and overoptimistic forecasts of big deals in the pipeline. The CEO (he’s still there) seemed to be a perennial optimist and even analysts started to become wary. Revenue and profits jumped around from year to year (big profits in 2019 after losses in 2018) and the share price jumped around similarly. Simply not the kind of company I like to hold.

Has anything changed to cause Simon to tip the share? The basis is a big deal (a “game changing contract worth £31.8 million”) to sell AIS systems for marine surveillance in the Philippines. There are also other similar deals in the pipeline. This is what is says in the recently published Interim Report in which they also reported a major loss: “Most of our system discussions are confidential in nature and usually have a long gestation period due to the nature of a government turning a general idea into a real system with all the necessary regulations, budgets and approvals. Over the last few years, we have followed a very steep learning curve in respect of understanding the realities of the intricacies and complexities of the processes that each of these large contracts must complete prior to SRT being contracted. Whilst predicting timescales remains imperfect, this knowledge now enables us to more accurately characterise system opportunities with regards to their status within a customer’s process and better understand the real time window within which we would expect to be contracted and start implementing an SRT-MDA system. We hope this will reflect in an improving ability to provide market updates on the status of future system contract opportunities”.

Big projects also create big risks though, and soak up working capital. Will they be completed on time and within budget? Will the customers be satisfied and pay on time? I won’t be jumping in to follow Simon Thompson’s tip just yet. I’ll wait to see if the leopard can change its spots.

Another interesting article over the weekend was one by David Miles (Professor of Economics at Imperial College). It was headlined: “Why our rising population will bring with it a decreasing standard of living”. The article argues that with a rising population the country needs to invest more simply not just to maintain the capital asset stock but to cover the demands of the extra population – for housing and transport for example. But the higher the population growth, the less your ability to maintain assets per person unless you raise savings. But that means lower consumption, hence we become individually poorer.

Population growth is certainly a concern of mine, and likewise for many other people who live in the London area. What follows is a article I recently wrote on that subject for another organisation:

London Congestion – It’s Only Going to Get Worse

As anyone who has lived in London for more than a few years probably knows, the population of the metropolis has been rapidly rising. This has resulted in ever worse congestion not just on the roads but on public transport also. The roads are busier, rush hours have extended and London Underground cannot handle the numbers who wish to travel on some lines during peak hours. Even bus ridership has been declining as the service has declined in reliability and speed due to traffic jams.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) has published some projections of future population numbers for the capital and the conclusion can only be that life is going to get worse for Londoners over the next few years.

The current population is about 8.8 million but is forecast to grow to 10.4 million by 2041, i.e. an 18% increase. This increase is driven primarily by the number of births and declining death rates. The relatively high numbers of births in comparison with what one might expect is because London has a relatively youthful population. One can guess this is the case because of the high numbers of migration from overseas which results in a net positive international migration figure while domestic migration to/from the rest of the UK is a net negative, i.e. Londoners are being replaced by immigrants.

But population increase in London does not have to be so. The chart below shows you the trend over the last 100 years and as you can see London has only recently reached the last peak set in 1939. During the 1960s to 1990s the population fell. What changed? In that period there was a policy to reduce overcrowding in London and associated poor housing conditions by encouraging relocation of people and businesses to “new towns”. But when Ken Livingstone took power he adopted policies of encouraging more growth. His successors have continued with those policies and have promoted immigration, e.g. with Sadiq Khan’s “London is Open” policy.

London Population Trend

Many Londoners complain about the air pollution in the London conurbation without understanding that the growth in businesses and population have directly contributed to that problem. More people means more home and office heating, more transport (mainly by HGVs and LGVs) to supply the goods they require, more emissions from cooking, and many other sources. The Mayor thinks he can solve the air pollution issues by attacking private car use and ensuring goods vehicles have lower emissions but he is grossly mistaken in that regard. The problem is simply too many people.

Building work also contributes to more emissions substantially so home and office building does not help. But the demand for new homes does not keep pace with the population growth resulting in many complaints that people have to live in cramped apartments or cannot find anywhere suitable to live at all. Likewise new public transport capacity does not keep pace with the increased demand. There is some more capacity on the Underground but only on some lines and not much while Crossrail which might have helped has been repeatedly delayed.

The economy of London is still buoyant.  But all the disadvantages of overcrowding in London mean that Londoners are poorer in many ways. Indeed if Professor Miles is right, they will be cash poorer as well. Those who can move out by using long-distance commuting or relocating permanently thus leaving London to be occupied by young immigrants.

Any Mayor who had any sense would develop a new policy to discourage immigration, encourage birth control and encourage emigration to elsewhere in the UK or the Rest of the World. But I doubt Sadiq Khan will do so because a poorer population actually helps him to get elected. It’s a form of gerrymandering.

If Sadiq Khan wanted Londoners to live in a greener, pleasanter city with a better quality of life then he would change direction. But I fear only intervention by central Government will result in any change.

Go here for more details of the GLA projections of London’s population: https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/projections-documentation

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

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Removing Directors, Ventus VCTs, Rent Controls and HS2

Replacing the directors of companies by shareholders can be enormously difficult. Although I have been instrumental in the past in helping that process in several companies, it takes enormous effort and a lengthy timescale to achieve it. ShareSoc director Cliff Weight has published a very perceptive article on the problems of doing so at the Ventus VCTs.

Problems faced by shareholders who are unhappy with the directors of a company are a) communicating with all other shareholders now that many are in nominee accounts and the costly process of writing to shareholders on the register via post (and processing the register into usable format for mailing); b) the existing directors of a company using the resources of the company (i.e. shareholders funds) to campaign actively against any change including the use of expensive proxy advisors to contact shareholders via telephone; c) the role of IFAs who advise their clients or who manage their portfolios and who can influence the shareholder voting; and d) the inertia of institutional investors (or to quote someone from the FT today: about 60% of company investors are passive shareholders and ‘don’t care’).

In the case of the Ventus VCTs, some shareholders are unhappy with the management fees as no new investments are being made by the company and are unhappy with the actions of the directors. They have tabled requisitions for the Annual General Meetings at Ventus VCT and Ventus 2 VCT on the 8th August to remove all the directors and appoint new ones. Of particular concern is the current two-year termination notice on the management agreement which is now being proposed to extend further. It is never a good idea for investment trusts to have long termination periods in contracts with the manager.

You can read Cliff Weight’s blog article here: https://tinyurl.com/y2de9vaa . There is also an article covering this topic in this weeks Investor’s Chronicle under the title “Limits of Influence”. It’s well worth reading.

How to solve these problems? I suggest the following: a) a reform to put all shareholders (including beneficial owners) on the register of companies; b) put shareholders email addresses on the register so that communicating with them can be done at reasonable cost – it’s surely unreasonable in the modern age to only have postal addresses which adds to costs enormously; c) limit how much can be spent on proxy advisors to oppose shareholder requisitions; and d) exclude passive institutional investors who have no interest as owners from voting.

Rent Controls

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is intending to develop proposals for rent controls in London so as to “stabilise” or reduce property rents in London (or make them “more affordable” as he puts it). That’s despite the fact that he has no legal powers to do so and a Conservative government would likely block such proposals. But Jeremy Corbyn supports the idea. The Mayor clearly sees this as a vote winner for his re-election campaign next year as he claims 68% of Londoner’s support rent controls!

Some of my readers probably invest in buy-to-let properties so such proposals will worry them considerably. On the other hand, those who rent houses or flats in London are undoubtedly concerned about the cost of renting and the rapid rise in rents in London. Some are being forced out of London or have to move to smaller properties.

But rent controls never work and create all kinds of negative side-effects, or unintended consequences. When I moved to London in the 1960s, rent controls were in place and had been since 1945 in various forms (there is good coverage of the history of rent controls in London on Wikipedia). In the 1960s, unfurnished properties were almost impossible to find or were horribly expensive as landlords had withdrawn from the market. Rachmanism to force tenants out of rent controlled properties was also rife and what property there was available for rent on the market was often in very poor condition because landlords simply could not justify spending money on maintenance. We definitely do not want to return to the 1960s despite Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to put us there!

Rent controls are not the answer, as many studies of such schemes has shown. The Mayor needs to do more to tackle the housing problem in London by ensuring more home are built, encouraging movement of people out of London, and discouraging new immigration into the capital from elsewhere. But you can read the Mayor’s press release here if you wish to learn more about his plans: https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/to-tackle-affordability-crisis

HS2 and Brexit

The latest report that HS2 may cost an extra £30bn, meaning it could cost as much as £85bn in total, surely makes it even less justifiable. Enabling a very few people to save a few minutes on the train journey time from London to Birmingham at that cost makes no sense, although there might be more justification for expanding capacity and speed on routes in the North of England. However, it would surely be much better to spend that kind of money on an improved road network where the benefits are much greater. The Alliance of British Drivers has just published an analysis of road expenditure versus taxation which includes a comparison of road versus rail expenditure. It’s well worth reading – see here: https://www.abd.org.uk/road-investment-and-road-user-taxation-the-truth/ .

Now the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) have recently suggested that a “no-deal” Brexit would blow a £30bn hole in the public finances. Even if you accept that is true, and many do not, there appears to be a simple solution therefore. Cancel HS2 just to be on the safe side.

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

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Paying Illegal Dividends, Burford Capital, Woodford Patient Capital Trust and Zero Carbon Objective

A group of investors including Sarasin, Legal & General, Hermes and the UK Shareholders Association (UKSA) has written to Sir Donald Brydon who is undertaking a review of the audit market. They have yet again raised the question of whether the International Financial Accounting Standards (IFRS) are consistent with UK company law. In particular they question whether profits are sometimes being recognised, thus allowing the payment of illegal dividends. The particular issue is whether profits can arise on certain transactions under IFRS from transactions between parent and subsidiary companies or by the use of “mark to market” accounting. The problem is “unrealised profits” that might turn into cash in the future, but may not.

This may appear a somewhat technical question, but it can in practice lead to over-optimistic reporting of profits, leading to excessive bonus payments to managers, and the general misleading of investors. Actually calculating when a dividend can be paid as dividends are not supposed to be paid out of capital is not easy and is not self-evident to investors. The published accounts do not make it obvious. Regular mistakes are made by companies requiring later “whitewash” resolutions to be passed by shareholders. The ICAEW has previously rejected complaints on this issue but it is surely an area that requires more examination.

Incidentally I was reading a book yesterday entitled “White Collar Crime in Modern England” (from 1845-1929) which is most enlightening on common frauds that arose when limited companies became popular – many of the frauds still persist. In the “railway mania” of the 1840s it was common to set up companies and raise the capital to build a railway when the chance of it operating profitably was low. To keep the share price high, and the directors in jobs, dividends were paid out of capital. To quote from the book: “unscrupulous directors could easily pay dividends out of capital undetected – projecting a false image of profitability and enticing further investment in their lines”. That was an era when auditors did not have to be accountants and were often simply the directors’ cronies. Standards and regulations have improved since then, but there are still problems in this area that need solving.

There was an interesting discussion on Twitter recently on Burford Capital (BUR) with regard to their accounting methods. Not that I am an expert on the company as I do not hold shares in it, it but as I understand it they recognise the likely future settlements from the litigation funding cases they take on. In other words, they estimate future cash flows based on projections of likely winning the case and the possible settlements. As I said on Twitter, lawyers will often tell you a case is winnable but they will also tell you the outcome of any legal case is uncertain.

It’s interesting to read what Burford say in their Annual Report under accounting policies where it spells it out: “Owing to the illiquid nature of these investments, the assessment of fair valuation is highly subjective and requires a number of significant and complex judgements to be made by management. The exit value will be determined for each investment by the contractual entitlement, the underlying risk profile of the litigation, a trial or an appellate outcome or other case events, any other agreements in respect of settlement discussions or negotiations as well as the credit risk associated with the investment value and any relevant secondary market activity”.

The auditors no doubt scrutinise the reasonableness of the estimates but any outside investor in the shares of the company will have great difficulty in doing so.

Neil Woodford’s Equity Income Fund has a big holding in Burford Capital. I commented on the Woodford Patient Capital Trust yesterday here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/06/11/woodford-patient-capital-trust-is-it-an-opportunity/ and suggested the Trust made a mistake in naming the Trust after him. It makes it more difficult to fire the manager for example. But the FT reported this morning that the Trust has indeed had conversations about doing just that. Woodford’s firm has a contract that only requires 3 months’ notice which is a good thing. At least they can keep the “Patient Capital” moniker because investors in this trust have already had to wait a long time for much return and it could take even longer to improve its performance under a new manager. But as Lex in the FT said, “patience is now in short supply” so far as investors are concerned.

Another major item of news yesterday was soon to be ex-Prime Minister May’s commitment to enshrine in law a target for net zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2050. This is surely a quite suicidal path for the UK to follow when most other major countries, including all the big polluters, will be very unlikely to follow suit. Even Chancellor Philip Hammond has said it will cost about £1 trillion. It will effectively make the UK completely uncompetitive in many products with production and jobs shifting to other countries. We might become the first really “de-industrialised” country which is not a lead that many will follow, and it will actually be practically very difficult to achieve if you bother to study what is required to achieve zero emissions. It will completely change the way we live with the transport network being a particular problem (trains, planes and road vehicles).

As I have said before, if we really want to cut air pollution and CO2 emissions, then we need to reduce the population as well as rely on such wheezes as electrification of the transport and energy systems. Mrs May’s last act as Prime Minister might be to commit the UK to economic suicide. It might not be a good time to invest in UK manufacturing companies.

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

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AB Dynamics, Self-Driving Cars and Global Warming

AB Dynamics (ABDP) published some very positive interim results this morning. Revenue up 60%, pre-tax profit up 95% and it looks like it should easily meet analysts forecasts for the full year. The share price is up 9% so far today, at the time of writing. I hold the stock.

The company specialises in testing systems for major car manufacturers including a range of driving robots, soft vehicle and pedestrian targets and driving simulators. This is just what is needed to test the new Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicles (“self-driving” vehicles) that all car manufacturers are now investing a large amount of money in developing.

For example Elon Musk of Tesla recently predicted that his cars will have self -driving capability by mid-2020 – they just need the software upgrading to achieve that he claims. He also promised a fleet of “robo-taxis” by the same date. These claims were greeted by a lot of skepticism and quite rightly. This is what ABDP had to say on the subject in today’s announcement: “There will be many phases to the development of fully autonomous vehicles and we foresee extended periods of time before they can satisfy a significant part of society’s mobility requirements.  There remain significant barriers to adoption including technical, ethical, legal, financial and infrastructure and these challenges will result in the incremental implementation of ADAS systems over many years to come. The ongoing regulatory environment and consumer demand for safety are also driving technological advancements in global mobility requirements and this provides a highly supportive market backdrop to the Group’s activities”.

As an active member of the Alliance of British Drivers, I can tell you that they are very wary of self-driving vehicles. None of the vehicles under test offer anything like the reliability needed for fully-automated operation and expecting human operators to take over occasionally (e.g. in emergencies where the vehicle software cannot cope), is totally unrealistic. In other words, even “level 3” operation for self-driving vehicles which requires drivers to take over when needed is fraught with difficulties and offers little advantage to the user because they have to remain awake and alert at all times, something not likely to happen in reality.

But even if that future is unrealistic, ABDP should still find a big market for testing of Autonomous Emergency Braking (“AEB”) and other ADAS systems.

Extinction Rebellion and their supporters who have been blocking London’s roads lately seem to want to remove all vehicles from our roads in the cause of reducing CO2 emissions which they claim is the cause of global warming (or “climate change”). I won’t even attempt to cover the latter claims although it’s worth stating that some dispute the connection and that climate change is driven by natural phenomena and cycles. But three things are certain:

  1. Reducing carbon emissions in the UK alone will have negligible impact on world CO2 emissions. China, the USA and other developing countries dominate the sources of such emissions and China’s are still growing strongly due to their heavy reliance on coal-fired power stations for electricity generation. China now produces more CO2 emissions than the USA and EU combined and is still building new coal-fired power stations. The UK now runs much of the time with no use of coal at all and rising energy contribution from wind-power and solar although gas still provides a major source.
  2. Environmental policies in the UK and Europe have actually caused many high energy consumption industries to move to China and other countries, thus enabling the UK to pretend we are whiter than white but not solving the world problem.
  3. A typical example of this approach is the promotion of electric vehicles. A recent article in the Brussels Times suggested that in Germany electric vehicles generate more CO2 over their lifespan than diesel vehicles. The reason is primarily the energy consumed in battery production – for example a Tesla Model 3 battery might require up to 15 tonnes of CO2 to manufacture. Electric car batteries are often manufactured in locations such as China although Tesla produces them in the USA.

In summary the UK and other western countries are being hypocrites and environmental campaigners are demonstrating in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons. The real problem is too many people in this world wanting to move to a high energy consumption lifestyle as we have long enjoyed in the western world. Population control is the only sure way to limit air pollution or CO2 emissions but nobody is willing to face up to that reality. In the meantime we get a lot of virtue signaling from politicians but a failure to tell the public the facts of energy consumption and production. Energy consumption is still growing world-wide and will continue to do so due to demographic changes and the desire for western lifestyles.

Finally just one comment on the Extinction Rebellion demand for a “people’s assembly” or “citizen’s assembly” as it is sometimes called. Is not the parliamentary democracy that we have at present such a system? Or is it simply a case that they want unelected people to decide on future policies? It has been suggested that such an assembly would be chosen at random from the population which hardly seems a very practical idea to me. This demand is a classic example of how muddled the thinking actually is of Extinction Rebellion supporters.

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

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Labour’s Plans For Confiscation of Shares and Rail System Renationalisation

Jeremy Corbyn made it clear in a speech last night that the rich will be under attack if Labour gets into power. John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, will present his plans today to give 10% of shares in all larger companies to employees over a period of years. The Daily Telegraph described it as a Marxist plot to control businesses while Carolyn Fairburn of the CBI attacked it as a “new tax that adds to the impression that Labour sees business as a bottomless pit of funding”. The proposal seems to be based on setting up a trust for employees into which the shares would be deposited and from where dividends would be paid to employees.

Comment: It will certainly dilute existing shareholders so readers of this blog might find they and the pension funds that invest in shares are proportionally poorer. Although it sets a bad principle, if the numbers being proposed are enacted it might not have a major impact on companies or investors. Enabling employees to have a financial interest in the profits of a company is quite a sensible idea in many ways. But it might simply encourage companies to take their business elsewhere. If they are registered in another country, how will the UK Government enforce such legislation?

Last week Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, announced a review of the privatised rail system. That follows the recent problems with new timetables where the regulator concluded that “nobody took charge”. John McDonnell said that he could renationalise the railways within five years if Labour wins the next election – it’s already a manifesto commitment. Perhaps he thinks he can solve the railway’s problems by doing so but this writer suggests the problem is technology rather than management, although cost also comes into the equation.

The basic problem is that the railways are built on inflexible and expensive old technology. There has never been a “timetable” problem on the roads because there are no fixed timetables – folks just do their own thing and travel when they want to do so.

Consider the rail signalling system – an enormously expensive infrastructure to ensure trains don’t run into each other and to give signals to train drivers. We do of course have a similar system at junctions on roads – they are called traffic lights. But they operate automatically and are relatively cheap. Most are not even linked in a network as train signals are required to be.

Trains run on tracks so they are extremely vulnerable to breakdowns of trains and damage to tracks – even snow, ice or leaves on the line cause disruption – who ever heard of road vehicles being delayed by leaves? A minor problem on a train track, often to signals, can quickly cause the whole line or network to come to a halt. Failing traffic signals on roads typically cause only slight delays and vehicles can drive around any broken-down cars or lorries.

The cost of changes to a rail line are simply enormous, and the cost of building them also. For example, the latest estimate for HS2 – the line from London to Birmingham is more than £80 billion. The original M1 was completed in 1999 at a cost of £26 million. Even allowing for inflation, and some widening and upgrading since then the total cost is probably less than £1 billion.

Changes to railway lines can be enormously expensive. For example, the cost of rebuilding London Bridge station to accommodate more trains was about £1 billion. These astronomic figures simply do not arise when motorways are revised or new service stations constructed.

Why invest more in a railway network when roads are cheaper to build and maintain, and a lot more flexible in use? At present the railways have to be massively subsidised by the Government out of taxation – about £4 billion per annum according to Wikipedia, or about 7.5p per mile of every train journey you take according to the BBC. Meanwhile road transport more than pays for itself and contributes billions to general taxation in addition from taxes on vehicle users.

So here’s a suggestion: scrap using this old technology for transport and invest more in roads. Let the railways shrink in size to where they are justifiable, or let them disappear as trams did for similar reasons – inflexible and expensive in comparison with buses.

No need to renationalise them at great expense. Spend the money instead on building a decent road network which is certainly not what we have at present.

Do you think that railways are more environmentally friendly? Electric trains may be but with electric road vehicles now becoming commonplace, that justification will no longer apply in a few years’ time, if not already.

Just like some people love old transport modes – just think canals and steam trains – the attachment to old technology in transport is simply irrational as well as being very expensive. Road vehicles take you from door-to-door at lower cost, with no “changing trains” or waiting for the next one to arrive. No disruption caused by striking guards or drivers as London commuters have seen so frequently.

In summary building and managing a road network is cheaper and simpler. It just needs a change of mindset to see the advantages of road over rail. But John McDonnell wants to take us back to 1948 when the railways were last nationalised. Better to invest in the roads than the railways.

It has been suggested that John McDonnell is a Marxist but at times he has denied it. Those not aware of the impact of Marxism on political thought would do well to read a book I recently perused which covered the impact of the Bolsheviks in post-revolutionary Russia circa 1919. In Tashkent they nationalised all pianos as owning a piano was considered “bourgeois”. They were confiscated and given to schools. One man who had his piano nationalised lost his temper and broke up the piano with an axe. He was taken to goal and then shot (from the book Mission to Tashkent by Col. F.M. Bailey).

Sometimes history can be very revealing. The same mentality that wishes to spend money on public transport such as railways as opposed to private transport systems, or renationalising the utility companies such as National Grid which is also on the agenda, shows the same defects.

The above might be controversial, but I have not even mentioned Brexit yet. Will the Labour Party support another referendum as some hope and Corbyn is still hedging his bets over? I hope not because I think the electorate is mightily fed up with the subject. In politics, as in business, you should take decisions and then move on. Going back and refighting old battles is not the way to succeed. All we should be debating is the form of Britain’s relationship with the EU after Brexit.

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

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GB Group, Social Media, Rightmove and Alliance Trust

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of GB Group (GBG) in Chester. An absolutely horrendous road journey both there and back mainly due to road works as far as I can tell. But my satnav took me on the M25, M11, A14, M6, M54 and numerous minor roads on the way there from south-east London, and the M6, A50, M1, A14, M11, M25 and other minor roads on the way back. A typical example of how the UK road network is not fit for purpose while we spend £56 billion on HS2 (that’s the Government’s estimate – it could be a lot more) to transport a few wealthy business people and politicians from London to Birmingham.

It’s also a good reason for introducing on-line AGMs, hybrid ones preferably, as someone just posted on the ShareSoc blog. Total journey time to get to/from Chester: 10 hours, meeting duration: one hour.

GB Group is an AIM-listed supplier of identity verification solutions. There has been a rapidly growing demand for quick, on-line ID verification by all kinds of financial institutions as well as by investigatory bodies such as the police. GB have exploited this demand well by both organic growth and acquisitions. Revenue up 37% last year, and adjusted profits up 55%.

There were half a dozen ordinary shareholders at the meeting and I’ll just cover some of the questions and points of note. The announcement by the company in the morning did not cover current trading but just some positive items of news. It mentioned a change in “branding strategy” to talk about “solutions” rather than “products” with a new single, focused brand of “Loqate” for their location intelligence businesses. I asked the Chairman, David Rasche, whether this means they will rename the company also (I never have liked the “GB Group” name because it is very unmemorable and not therefore a good brand)? But he said not in the short term. Same answer as given the last time I asked this question two or three years back. Regret I do not like poor names for companies as investors can easily forget who they are. But it does not necessarily seem to have an impact on share performance.

Another shareholder asked whether new Data Protection regulations would help or hinder the company. The answer was in principle it helps. The CEO said it was neutral in the short term but positive longer term.

I also asked where the future growth of the business would come from. The answer was from geographic expansion with Asia being a strong opportunity for the Loqate sector, and from acquisitions. With cash on the balance sheet rising they clearly could afford some acquisitions. They have very good penetration in some sectors (e.g. over 50% of id verification in the UK gaming sector) but lower in many others so there is room for organic growth.

When it came to the votes on resolutions (by a show of hands) I voted against the Remuneration Report and a new “Performance Share Plan”. The latter enables grants of options over 100% of employees’ salary each year, subject to performance conditions which are primarily eps based. It transpired that only 84% of shareholders voted FOR the Remuneration Report and even less for the Share Plan. Why was that I asked? It transpired that this was because ISS recommended opposition mainly because more than 10% of the company’s share capital is now under option to staff which breaches guidelines. I told the Chairman later that I voted against simply because I considered the pay scheme too complex and too generous. He justified it on the basis of the growth in the company and the need to match market levels. Difficult for shareholders to complain too much given the performance of the company over recent years (it’s one of my “ten baggers”).

After the AGM we had a demonstration of some of their software and how it can confirm postal and email addresses, phone number and other information on individuals and who they are connected to. I had seen this before but this time they even showed how they can map a person’s location by the social media tweets they post, e.g. on Facebook, Twitter and lots of others. That’s a good reminder if you have not already reviewed and tightened up your security settings in Facebook et al that you should do that pronto. GB Group obviously have limitations on who they supply information to, and they help to ensure that you are not going to be subject to “impersonation” fraud, but social media seem to have no limits on personal information and privacy.

Hence of course the recent scandal about Facebook’s activity which helped to wipe off $120 billion in its market cap yesterday as sales growth slowed. Most peculiar is the number of advertisements that Facebook has been running in the national press pointing out their failings and how they are going to reform. It included one that spelled out the enormous number of fake accounts it was removing – 583 million in the 1st quarter apparently. More to the point perhaps why did they allow such fake accounts to start with? Why don’t they use a service like GB Group provides to stop people from even registering such accounts?

I have long advocated that people should only use their genuine name on internet posts and have adhered to that principle for some years (apart from where I am posting on behalf of an organisation). I do not see why anyone should be allowed to send anonymous communications or create accounts in fictitious names. If you are not willing to be attributed as the author of something, you should not be allowed to use a false name.

A possible cause of the problems at Facebook is the dominance of CEO Mark Zuckerberg who is both Chairman and Chief Executive which is never a good idea. In addition he has majority voting power in the shares because of the dual class share structure. This is surely bad corporate governance and might have contributed to their lax approach to privacy as it’s likely to be difficult to argue policy with him.

On the subject of privacy, interesting to note that Huawei, a Chinese supplier of IT infrastructure, has been classified as a national security risk in a recent report (reference the National Cyber Security Centre). As I use a Huawei smartwatch does that mean there is a risk of people reading my personal emails, tweets and text message and breaching my privacy? Perhaps one can get too paranoid about security.

Rightmove Plc (RMV) is another company in which I hold shares. They announced interim results this morning which were unsurprising, and also a 10 for one share split. The share price is currently about 4900p (i.e. £49). They are calling a general meeting to approve that. I will vote against as I never see any point in rebasing a share price. It only fools the ignorant but at some cost to the company, and confusion among investors.

Alliance Trust (ATST) also announced interim results yesterday (I still hold a few shares after the bust-up there a couple of years ago). One interesting point in the announcement was the mention of “expressions of interest” in Alliance Trust Savings – their investment platform. The strategic advantage of having an investment trust own a savings platform was never really clear now that the platform market is so diverse so disposal was always likely to be considered. They claim an “improvement in operational performance” for the division but whether they will be able to recoup the current book value of the division seems questionable. Might have to “bite the bullet” on this one, surely better sooner than later.

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

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Good Growth and Why the London Plan is Strategically Flawed

NHS in crisis (queues in A&E, operations postponed and delays getting to see your GP), road network suffering from worse congestion, overcrowded trains and underground in London, air pollution still a problem, not enough schools to accommodate growing numbers of children and simply not enough houses to meet the demand for homes. These are simply symptoms of too many people and not enough infrastructure.

For those concerned about the future of one of the major financial capitals of the world, namely, London, here’s an editorial I wrote for the Alliance of British Drivers on the subject of the “London Plan” – on which there is a recently launched public consultation:

The population of the UK has been growing rapidly and particularly in London and the South-East. The latest figures from TfL show that the number of trips by London residents grew by 1.3% in 2016, up by 19.7% from the year 2000. The population of London grew by 21.4% in that period.

Forecasts for the future are for it to grow from the level of 8.8 million people in 2016 to 10.8 million in 2041 according to the Mayor’s London Plan, i.e. another 22%.

More people means more housing demand, more businesses in which they can work, more shops (or more internet shopping deliveries) to supply them, more transport to move them around and more demand on local authorities to supply services to them.

In addition more people means more air pollution – it’s not just transport that generates air pollution and even if every vehicle in London was a zero emission one we would still have major emissions from office and domestic heating, from construction activities, and from many other sources.

The London Plan and Mayor Sadiq Khan talk about “good growth” but unfortunately the exact opposite is likely to be the case. It will be “bad” growth as the infrastructure fails to keep up with population growth even if we could afford to build it.

In London we have not kept up with the pace of population growth for many years and the future will surely be no different.

London residents have suffered from the problems of past policies which condoned if not actually promoted the growth of London’s population. Indeed Mayor Khan insists London should remain “open” which no doubt means in other language that he is opposed to halting immigration – for example he opposes Brexit and any restrictions on EU residents moving to London which has been one source of growth in the population in recent years.

There are of course several policies that wise politicians might adopt to tackle these problems. Restrictions on immigration and the promotion of birth control are two of them that would limit population growth. China is a great example of how a public policy to discourage children has resulted in dynamic economic growth whereas previously China suffered from population growth that outpaced the provision of resources to support them – result: abject poverty for much of the population; that is now receding into history.

The other answer is to redistribute the population to less crowded parts of the country. It is easier and cheaper to build new infrastructure and homes in less populous parts of the country than London. Back in the 1940s and 1950s there was a national policy to encourage businesses and people to move out of London into “New Towns” such as Bracknell, Basildon, Harlow, Stevenage, Milton Keynes and even further afield.

Government departments that were based in central London were moved to places such as Cardiff or the North of England. The population of London fell as a result.

One way to solve the problems of traffic congestion and demand for housing in London would be to encourage redistribution. This could be encouraged by suitable planning policies, but there is nothing in the proposed London Plan to support such measures. In the past, businesses and people were only too happy to move to a better environment. Businesses got low cost factories and offices. People got new, better quality homes and there were well planned schools and medical facilities.

Despite the attitude of many non-residents to the New Towns, most of those who actually live in them thought they were a massive improvement and continue to do so. It just requires political leadership and wise financial policies to encourage such change.

These are towns with few traffic congestion or air pollution problems even though some of them are now the size of cities – for example Milton Keynes now has a population of 230,000.

It is worth pointing out that past policies for New Towns and redistribution of London’s population were supported by both Labour and Conservative Governments. But we have more recently had left-wing Mayors in London (Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan) who adopted policies that seemed to encourage the growth in the population of London for their own political purposes, thus ignoring the results of their own policies on the living standards of Londoners. So we get lots of young people living in poor quality flats, unable to buy a home while social housing provision cannot cope with the demand.

The Mayor’s London Plan is an example of how not to respond wisely to the forecast growth in the population of London. His only solution to the inadequate road network and inadequate capacity on the London Underground or surface rail is to encourage people to walk, cycle or catch a bus. But usage of buses has been declining as they get delayed by traffic congestion and provide a very poor quality experience for the users.

The London Plan should tackle this issue of inappropriate population growth. The rapid population growth that is forecast is bound to be “Bad Growth”, not “Good Growth” as the London Plan suggests. Population growth and its control should underpin every policy that needs to be adopted in the spatial development strategy of London.

For more background on the London Plan, see: https://abdlondon.wordpress.com/2018/01/07/london-plan-abd-submits-comments/

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

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