Halma AGM and Sophos Capital Markets Day

On Thursday (20/7/2017), I attended the Annual General Meeting of Halma Plc (HLMA). Not exactly a household name so you may not know what they do. In summary, they have a “diversified portfolio of businesses” that are focussed on safety, health and environmental products. Lots of niche businesses in growth sectors and they define their segments as Medical, Infrastructure Safety, Environmental & Analysis, and Process Safety. Revenue last year was £961 million, with post tax profits of £129 million.

What attracted me to this business was the steady, consistent growth over many years and good return on capital (they give as 15.3% Group Return on Total Invested Capital) with good cash flow and moderate gearing. This has been achieved under CEO Andrew Williams who has been in the role since 2005 which must make him one of the longest serving CEOs in a FTSE company. In addition, the Finance Director, Kevin Thompson, has been in the role since 1997 although he is planning to retire in 2018.

Mr Williams gave a short presentation (interesting to note that the Chairman said little and the Annual Report only contains a statement from the CEO, not the Chairman, as would be more normal.

He said that Halma has a simple growth strategy. Focus on growing markets, e.g. healthcare, while looking to acquire businesses with technology or application knowledge. Wrapped around this is a simple financial model – they aim to double earnings every five years, without becoming highly geared or seeking further equity, provided there are similar rates of organic, acquisitive and dividend growth (to quote from the Annual Report – which is a very comprehensive document if somewhat weighty). Yes they do make acquisitions but these seem to be mainly smaller ones that are complementary and easily integrated.

As Mr Williams said, this strategy has “consistently delivered”.

Questions from shareholders were then invited.

I asked whether they hedged against currency fluctuations because I noted that the increase in profits last year (up 16.9% on an “adjusted” basis) included 10.5% that arose from exchange rate movements (Note: pound falling as a result of the Brexit vote when the company is a very international business – clearly it may be that the pound will move in the opposite direction sometime). The answer given by the FD was that they don’t hedge profits in the group structure. I also asked about the possible impact of Brexit. The CEO said as only 10% of company trading was to/from Europe they did not consider it likely to be a significant problem. No plans to counter had apparently been made.

In summary, on a prospective p/e of 25.3 and yield of 1.3% this company does not look particularly cheap but that’s true of most quality businesses in the current bull market. As most of their revenue and profits are from outside the UK, you might look at it as a hedge against Brexit damage but the company is certainly vulnerable to swings in the pound/dollar/Euro exchange rates.

There is a fuller report of this AGM available to ShareSoc Members.

Sophos

One thing I noted when I read the Annual Report of Halma was that the Chairman was also a director at software security company Sophos. They are holding a “Capital Markets Day” on September 6th, the day before their AGM. As I hold the shares, I asked investor relations if I could attend. They suggested it was really only for “analysts” and “institutional investors”. Now this is prejudicial to private investors and I reckon I have enough knowledge of the sector, and a large enough investment portfolio to justify attendance. But they fobbed me of with an offer of being able to attend on-line. Will that happen? We will see. For those who are not familiar with Capital Markets Days, these are much more in-depth reviews of a company than most investors see.

But in the meantime, I complained to Paul Walker who will take it up. I may go to the AGM also to complain.

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

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

 

AIM Rules Review

The London Stock Exchange have published a document entitled “AIM Rules Review”. ShareSoc, including me personally, have criticised the LSE in the past for poor regulation of the AIM market. Many investors view it as a casino because of the numerous problems of fraud, poor disclosures, many delistings or simple bankruptcies in AIM companies. See the ShareSoc campaign page here for more information: https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/campaign-improve-aim-market/

As you can see we made a number of recommendations on how to improve the AIM market, and had meetings with AIM management where we put these proposals forward. The LSE regulates the AIM market but their responsibility lies primarily in ensuring the AIM Rulebook is adhered to and that Nomads meet their responsibilities. Other aspects of the market such as market abuse or false accounting are covered by other regulatory bodies, which many private investors do not understand.

So have any of the ShareSoc proposals been covered in the latest document? In summary, yes they have been. Here’s a quick review:

The AIM Rules Review does emphasise the improved recent performance of the AIM market and the fact that the average size of companies listed on it is growing. That has helped to improve the quality of the market.

Vetting new listings. One proposal we made was that new listings should be vetted by an independent panel because many investors considered some of the new listings in the past to be very dubious businesses. They have not taken this up directly but are proposing to formalise the “early notification process”. In addition, they propose to give more guidance to Nomads (whose role it is to perform due diligence on prospective listings) on what they need to take into account. For example, the “good” character of directors or managers, the corporate structure and business model, risky contractual arrangements and “related party” interests. This looks to be one way to tackle past problems, but one suggestion I would make is to add to that list the “regulatory structure and upholding of the rule of law in the countries where the candidate is listed or operates”. For example, it has proved very difficult to pursue fraud in China, and even Greece creates difficulties in that regard.

Free float. One concern they cover is the issue of low free floats which is a concern of some investors. For example, many of the companies that have turned out to be problem ones are those where there is an executive Chairman who holds a majority of the stock (or their close relations or associates do). This gives that person enormous power to prejudice minority shareholders, ignore the views of other board members and ultimately commit major frauds. The LSE’s response on this issue though is simply that the LSE would like to understand the position on new applications and the Nomad’s consideration of it. That surely is open to abuse, but the LSE does ask whether more specific free float rules should be brought in (the LSE document is a public consultation one so you can submit your own comments).

Minimum Fundraising. They also propose the introduction of a minimum fundraising rule and pose some questions on that. This would help to ensure institutional involvement in a company.

Composition of Boards. They mention this, but give no specific suggestions. That is surely an omission when ShareSoc made some specific suggestions in that regard.

Disclosure and Corporate Governance Codes. The document covers the issue that AIM companies can avoid any adherence to a specific corporate governance code. ShareSoc suggested a specific code should be available and applied by all AIM companies. The LSE asks a question on this at least.

Education and Breaches of the AIM Rulebook. The LSE asks how the market, particularly individual investors, can be further educated as to what the LSE can and cannot do. A good question indeed, which I will ponder.

Breaches of the AIM Rules. But one issue we raised with AIM management was the failure to enforce the existing Rules, or penalise and publicise those who break them. Indeed the document spells out how poor this has been by giving some statistics. There were 93 recorded breaches or where “education” was required, but only 16 warning notices or private censures/fines issued on average over the last three years. There were zero public censures apparently. They do ask a question about possibly imposing automatic fines on breaches of the AIM Rules, and invite suggestions for other changes. I will have some, but the basic problem is “self-regulation” and the resulting unwillingness to take tough action. Both firmer rules on penalties and a cultural change is required.

In summary, this Discussion Paper on the AIM Rules is a useful step in the right direction and does appear to tackle some of the issues about AIM that I and ShareSoc raised. It is though only a discussion paper and hence that does not mean necessarily that action will be taken. In some regards it is still quite weak but regrettably AIM management have an uphill battle to get change adopted when many market participants consider everything in the garden is rosy. However, it is surely necessary to improve the reputation of AIM if the market is to attract more listings and reduce the number of complaints from investors.

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

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

First blog post

This blog is written by Roger W. Lawson and covers topical news and comment on investment (particularly stocks and shares), on corporate governance, on company management, on economics, on transport, on art, on events in London and on local and national politics. It will also cover anything else that I feel may be of general interest to my readers or where I have a burning desire to discuss a topic.

As some readers may know, I have been writing articles and blog posts on stock market investment for many years, more recently mainly for ShareSoc – an organisation for private investors. I will continue to do so as I support the objects of ShareSoc, therefore you may find similar blog posts on their web site as appear here.

This blog may cover a wider remit though in that I won’t shy away from controversial issues as much as a “responsible” national organisation has to do. In this case you are simply getting my personal opinions, but I will of course always try to get the facts straight to support any stance. If that offends some people then so be it. One cannot produce interesting and lively articles while pandering to the sensitivities of everyone in this world.

It will also cover some other areas of interest to me than stock market investment.

I hope you find it a good read.  Review what it says in the “About” section for more background information.

Roger Lawson