Lehman Collapse, Labour’s Employment Plans, Audit Reform Ideas and Oxford Biomedica

There was a highly amusing article in today’s FT by their journalist John Gapper explaining how he caused the financial crisis in 2008 by encouraging Hank Paulson, US Treasury Secretary, to resist the temptation to rescue Lehman Brothers. So now we know the culprit. Even more amusing was the report on the previous day that the administrators (PWC) of the UK subsidiary of Lehman expect to be left with a surplus of £5 billion. All the creditors are being paid in full.

Why did Lehman UK go bust then? They simply ran out of cash, i.e. they were cash flow insolvent at the time and could not settle payments of £3bn due on the day after their US parent collapsed. Just like Northern Rock where the assets were always more than the liabilities as also has been subsequently proven to be the case.

Perhaps it’s less amusing to some of the creditors of Lehman UK because many sold their claims at very large discounts to third parties rather than wait. Those that held on have been paid not just their debts but interest as well. So the moral is “don’t panic”.

Lehman’s administration is in some ways similar to the recent Beaufort case. Both done under special administration rules and requiring court hearings to sort out the mess. PWC were administrators for both and for Lehman’s are likely to collect fees of £1billion while employing 500 staff on the project. It may yet take another 10 ten years to finally wind up. Extraordinary events and extraordinary sums of money involved.

An editorial in the FT today supported reform of employment legislation as advocated by Labour’s John McDonnell recently. He proposed tackling the insecurity of the gig economy by giving normal employment rights to workers. I must say I agree with the FT editor and Mr McDonnell in that I consider that workers do have some rights that should be protected and the pendulum has swung too far towards a laissez-faire environment. This plays into the hands of socialists and those who wish to cause social unrest. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested the gig economy was a “reincarnation of an ancient evil” and that it meant many companies don’t pay a living wage so employees rely on state welfare payments. A flexible workforce may give the country and some companies a competitive advantage but it takes away the security and dignity of employment if taken to extremes. The Conservative Government needs to tackle this problem if they wish to be certain of getting re-elected. If you have views on this debate, please add your comments to this blog.

Mr McDonnell also promoted the idea of paying a proportion of a company’s profits to employees – effectively giving them a share in the dividends paid out. That may be more controversial, particularly among shareholders. But I do not see that is daft either so long as it is not taken to extremes. After all some companies have done that already. For example I believe Boots the Chemists paid staff a bonus out of profits even when a public company.

Another revolutionary idea came from audit firm Grant Thornton. They suggest audit contracts should be awarded by a public body rather than by companies. This they propose would improve audit standards and potentially break the hold of the big four audit firms. I can see a few practical problems with this. What happens if companies don’t judge the quality of the work adequate. Could they veto reappointment for next year? Will companies be happy to pay the fees when they have no control over them. I don’t think nationalisation of the audit profession is a good idea in essence and there are better solutions to the recent audit problems that we have seen. But one Grant Thornton suggestion is worth taking up – namely that auditors should not be able to bid for advisory or consultancy work at the same company to which they provide audit services.

Oxford Biomedica (OXB) issued their interim results this morning (I hold the stock). They made a profit of £11.9 million on an EBITDA basis. OXB are in the gene/cell therapy market. What interests me is that there are some companies in that market, at the real cutting edge of biotechnology with revolutionary treatments for many diseases, that are suddenly making money or are about to do so. That’s often after years of losses. Horizon Discovery (HZD) which I also hold is another example. Investors Chronicle recently did a survey of similar such companies if you wish to research these businesses. It is clear that the long-hailed potential of cell and gene therapy is finally coming to fruition. I look forward with anticipation to having all my defective genes fixed but I suspect there will be other priorities in the short term particularly as the treatments can be enormously expensive at present.

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

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AIC Calls for KIDs to be Suspended

The Association of Investment Companies (AIC) have called for KIDs to be suspended. KIDs are those documents devised by the EU that were aimed at giving basic information on investment funds – and that includes investment trusts which the AIC represents.

It was a typical piece of badly implemented EU regulation even if the motive was worthy. But KIDs give a very misleading view of likely returns from investment funds. Whoever designed the performance rating system clearly had little experience of financial markets, and neither did they try it out to see what the results would be in practice. Similarly, if they had bothered to consult the AIC or other bodies representing collective funds, or experienced investors as represented by ShareSoc, they would have realised how misleading the results might be.

It also imposes costs on investment managers and on brokers who have to ensure their clients have read the KID before investing – even if they are already holding the fund/shares or have invested in it previously. This means for on-line brokers we now get a tick box that we have to click on which is simply tedious. I just click on them automatically because if I intend to buy an investment trust there is a great deal of information available elsewhere in the UK and the KID does not add anything of use in my opinion.

I think KIDs should be scrapped rather than just suspended. They serve little useful purpose and just add a costly bureaucratic overhead. This is the kind of nonsense that Brexit supporters are keen to get rid off when we do finally get out of the EU monster. But will we if Mrs May gets her way?

The AIC press release is here if you want more information: https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/press-releases/aic-calls-for-kids-to-be-suspended

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

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Brexit, Abcam, Victoria and the Beaufort Case

Another bad day for my portfolio yesterday after a week of bad days last week when I was on holiday. Some of the problems relate to the rise in the pound based on suggestions by Michel Barnier that there might actually be a settlement of Brexit along the lines proposed by Theresa May. This has hit all the companies with lots of exports and investment trusts with big holdings in dollar investments that comprise much of my portfolio. But a really big hit yesterday was Abcam (ABC).

Abcam issued their preliminary results yesterday morning. When I first read it, it seemed to be much as expected. Adjusted earnings per share up 27.1%, dividend up 17.1% and broker forecasts generally met. The share price promptly headed downhill and dropped as much as 32%, which is the kind of drop you see on a major profit warning, before recovering to a drop of 15.2% at the end of the day.

I re-read the announcement more than once without being able to identify any major issues or hidden messages that could explain this drop. The announcement did mention more investment in the Oracle ERP system, in a new office and other costs but those projects were already known about. Indeed I covered them in the last blog post I wrote about the previous Abcam AGM where I was somewhat critical of the rising costs (see https://roliscon.blog/2017/11/15/abcam-agm-cambridge-cognition-ultra-electronics-wey-education-and-idox/ ). The Oracle project is clearly over-budget and running behind schedule. A lot of these costs are being capitalised so they disappear from the “adjusted” figures.

The killer to the share price appears to have been comments from Peel Hunt that the extra costs will reduce adjusted earnings by 9% based on reduced margins. The preliminary results announcement did suggest that the adjusted EBITDA margin would likely be 36% as against the 37.8% that was actually reported for last year. Revenue growth of 11% is expected for the current year so even at the reduced margin that still means profits will grow by about 5%. That implies only a slight reduction in adjusted e.p.s. on my calculations which implies a prospective p/e of about 34. That may be acceptable for such a high-quality company with an enviable track record (which is why it is one of my larger holdings) but perhaps investors suddenly realised that the previous rating was too high and vulnerable to a change of sentiment. That realisation seems to be affecting many highly rated go-go growth stocks at present.

The excessive IT project costs are of concern but if the management considered that such investment (£33 million to date) was necessary I think I’ll take their word on it for the present. At least the implementation of the remaining modules is being done on a phased approach which suggests some consideration has been given to controlling the costs in the short term.

I attended the AGM of another of my holdings yesterday – Victoria (VCP). They manufacture flooring products such as carpets, tiles, underlay and also distribute synthetic flooring products (I think that means laminates etc). There was a big bust-up at this company back in 2012 in which I was involved. The company was loss making at the time but some major shareholders decided they wanted a change or management and lined up Geoff Wilding who is now Executive Chairman. After an argument over his generous remuneration scheme and several general meetings, it was finally settled. After meeting Geoff I decided he knew more about the carpet business and what was wrong with the company than the previous management and therefore backed him – a wise decision as it turned out. Since then, with aggressive use of debt, he has done a great job of expanding the business by acquisition and this has driven the share price up from 25p to 760p. Needless to say shareholders are happy, but there were only about half a dozen at the AGM in London.

I’ll cover some of the key questions raised, and the answers, in brief. I asked about the rise in administration costs. This arises from the acquisitions and investment in the management team apparently. I also questioned the high amortisation of acquisition intangibles which apparently relates to customer relationships capitalised but was assured this was not abnormal. This is one of those companies, a bit like Abcam, where the “adjusted” or “underlying” figures differ greatly to the “reported” numbers so one has to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is happening. It can be easier to just look at the cash flow.

Incidentally the company still has a large amount of debt because that has been raised to finance acquisitions in addition to the use of equity placings. In response to another question it was stated that the policy is to maintain net debt to EBITDA at a ratio of no more than 2.5 to 3 times. But earnings accretion is an important factor.

Geoff spent a few minutes outlining his approach to acquisitions and their integration which was most revealing. He talked a lot of sense. He will never ever buy a failing company. He wants to buy good companies with enthusiastic management. Thereafter he acts as a coach and wants to avoid disrupting the culture. He said a lot of acquisitions fail as people try to change everything wholesale. One shareholder suggestion this was leading to a “rambling empire” but the CEO advised otherwise.

The impact of Brexit was raised, particularly as there is nothing in the Annual Report on the subject. Were there any contingency plans? Geoff replied that if it is messy it will help Victoria as a lot of carpet is made on the continent and a fall in sterling will also help. He suggested they have lower operational gearing than many people think but obviously they might be affected by changing customer confidence. The CEO said that Brexit is on his “opportunity list”, not his “problem list”.

A question arose about the level of short selling in the stock which seems to have driven down the share price of late. Geoff suggested this was a concerted effort by certain hedge funds but he was confident the share price will recover.

Clearly Geoff Wilding is a key person in this company so the question arose about his future ambitions. He expects to do 2, 3 or 4 acquisitions per year and life would be simpler if he didn’t do so many. He tends to live out of a suitcase at present. But he still hopes to be leading the company in 5 year’s time.

In summary this was a useful meeting and I wish I had purchased more shares years ago but was somewhat put off by the debt levels.

Lastly, there was a very interesting article by Mark Bentley on the Beaufort case in the latest ShareSoc newsletter (if you are not a member already, please join as it covers many important topics for private investors). It seems that the possible “shortfall” in assets was only 0.1% of the claimed assets with only three client accounts unreconciled. But administrators PWC and lawyers Linklaters are racking up millions of pounds in fees when the client assets could have been transferred to other brokers in no time at all and at minimal cost. An absolute disgrace in essence. Be sure you encourage the Government, via your M.P., to reform the relevant legislation to stop this kind of gravy train in future.

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

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The Market, Dunedin and Standard Life Smaller Companies Merger, and Aston Martin IPO

Is it not depressing when you go away for a week’s holiday and your portfolio falls every day in that time? I do monitor any exceptional movements while on vacation but try to avoid trading. It just seemed to be a general downward trend and reviewing the movement over that week my portfolio is down 1.73% while the FTSE All-Share is down 1.72%. So that is what I had already surmised.

Those stocks that seemed to have become overblown did fall and there were some like Scottish Mortgage Trust (SMT) were hit by specific news – in their case the events at Tesla. But the fall in my portfolio last week was less than it went up the previous week. I feel not quite so depressed now I have done the analysis.

Anyway, I am back from holiday now and on my desk is a proposed merger of Dunedin Smaller Companies Investment Trust (DNDL) and Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Investment Trust (SLS). I need to take a decision on this as I hold the latter.

DNDL is smaller than SLS and following the merger of DNDL’s manager, Aberdeen Asset Management, with Standard Life the merged manager now has two trusts with a similar focus. SLS has a superior performance record – 100.7% net asset value total return versus 68.9% for DNDL over the last 5 years. The merged trusts would be managed by Harry Nimmo who has managed SLS for some years.

The directors argue that the merger makes sense because it will result in reduced on-going costs and improved liquidity in the shares, although they don’t quantify either claim. There is no immediate change proposed to the fund management charges on SLS. DNDL will be paying the costs of both parties if the merger goes through.

It no doubt makes sense for the manager to merge these trusts. Not much point in having two trusts in the same stable with a similar focus and they will save on management costs. It also makes some sense for DNDL holders but does it for SLS shareholders?

Enlarging a trust or fund can degrade future returns particularly in small cap funds. This is because buying larger quantities of smaller company shares is more difficult and exiting is also difficult. In other words, the manager may find they cannot be as nimble as before. Alternatively the number of companies in the fund has to grow and we surely know that this is a recipe to reduce returns as there are only so many “good ideas” out there. The more companies in a portfolio, the more likely it is to approximate to a tracker fund.

Therefore, I think I will vote against this merger for that reason.

But what alternatives were there for DNDL shareholders? The company could have changed the manager to avoid the conflict of interest. Or simply wound up if it was too small to be viable. Perhaps a wider international focus when SLS is UK focused would be another alternative.

Luxury car maker Aston Martin is to float on the market. I agree with Neil Collins comments in the FT this weekend – “never buy a share in an initial public offering”. He suggested those who are selling know more about the stock than you do. Car companies, particularly of niche brands, are notoriously tricky investments. Aston Martin has been bust as many as seven times according to one press report. As Mr Collins also said “The private equity vendors are dreaming of a £5 billion valuation for a highly geared business with a decidedly unroadworthy past”.

Car companies exhibit all the worst features of technology businesses. Product reliability issues (which was a bugbear for Aston Martin for many years), very high cost of new model production, Government regulatory interference requiring major changes for safety and emissions, competitors leapfrogging the technology with better products, and sensitivity to economic trends. In a recession few people buy luxury vehicles or they simply postpone purchases – so it’s feast or famine for the manufacturers.

There can be some initial enthusiasm for companies after an IPO that can drive the price higher but the hoopla soon fades. Footasylum (FOOT) was a recent example but McCarthy & Stone (MCS) was another one where investors found that the market proved more challenging than expected.

Resist the temptation to buy IPOs!

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

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Return Versus Risk and Tips from Terry Smith

There was an interesting article by Fundsmith founder Terry Smith in the Financial Times on Saturday under the heading “Think globally and add a dash of small caps”. His articles are usually full of wisdom.

In this case he first tackled the issue that the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM) tells you that your returns relate to how much investment risk you are willing to take on. This might be seen as common sense – why would anyone take more risks if they did not get a better return? But based on an academic study of actual stock market returns, low risk seems to give better returns. This is a persistent anomaly.

But my reservation on this truth is that risk was measured by the volatility of the share price, which is a conventional way to calculate the risk of an individual share. But it simply does not tell you the major risks that a company faces. It only tells you about the level of variability in the share price over the short term, or the amount of speculation there is in the stock. For example, it will not tell you that the company operates in a market that is rapidly changing or the company’s products are subject to technological obsolescence. There are many risks that are simply not reflected in conventional risk metrics which only a study of the market in which the company operators and its business model will reveal the truth about.

Terry also discussed the other conventional wisdom that asset allocation is responsible for most of the returns one obtains – he quoted a figure of 91.5% from another academic study. He said this has led “a large portion of the investment industry to focus almost exclusively on asset allocation”. That’s as opposed to the choice of individual assets.

Mr Smith also criticized the parochial approach of many investors who only invest in their home markets (e.g. UK listed shares for UK investors even though many such companies have very international businesses). He went on to suggest a portfolio of global large-cap stocks plus some small/mid-cap stocks can “achieve the seemingly impossible feat of generating additional return whilst reducing risk”. This is because such a portfolio that might comprise 35% of small cap stocks is more likely to be near the “efficient frontier” for which investment professionals aim.

He concluded by saying that “we should all manage equity portfolios on a global basis and add an element of small-cap exposure”. That might be a puff to some extent for his Fundsmith fund, which I hold – perhaps suggesting Fundsmith could provide one element in this strategy. But it is certainly an approach I have found to be a wise one.

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

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Steps Down With Immediate Effect – Diploma and IDOX

The phrase “stepped down with immediate effect” is used by companies to announce the instant departure of a director. It usually simply means they have been fired. It is of course frequently bad news as it often follows past uninspiring events and it means that the company has to scratch around for a replacement or ask another director to step into the breach.

This week I saw such announcements on a couple of my holdings. The first was Diploma Plc (DPLM) where the CEO Richard Ingram was the victim. The announcement also said “the Board believes that a change in the CEO is in the best interests of the Company and its shareholders”. The surprising aspect here was the Mr Ingram had only joined the company a few months ago and the trading announcement issued on the same day was positive. Mr Ingram had been recruited to replace long-serving CEO Bruce Thompson who retires at the end of September. Clearly the recruitment process seems to have failed but there is always a high chance of failure when recruiting a senior position from outside. John Nicholas, the Chairman, is taking over on an interim basis rather than Mr Thompson. Better to admit a mistake sooner rather than later.

The share price initially dipped on the morning of the announcement, but then rose as much as 4% during the day. Clearly some investors saw it as good news.

This morning there was a similar announcement this morning from IDOX (IDOX). Long-serving CFO Jane Mackie has resigned and leaves the board with immediate effect. That’s perhaps not greatly surprising as she was the CFO in the period when IDOX had to back-track on some rather aggressive revenue recognition practices. A new CEO has recently been appointed so a change in CFO was not surprising. However Ms Mackie is not actually leaving the company until February 2019 which certainly gives the company plenty of time to find a replacement.

The share price of IDOX has fallen by 1.8% today at the time of writing, but I rather judge this as positive news so it might recover I suspect in due course unless there is other news announced. The departure of a finance director sometimes means they have just given some unexpected bad news to the board. I do recall in my early career to suddenly finding my finance director boss was departing for that very reason after a stormy board meeting. He was rather easy going so it was great to be junior to him, but that character defect did not impress the board.

Let us hope that is not the situation at IDOX.

It is unfortunate for investors that such announcements tend to be somewhat cryptic in nature. Often a “settlement agreement” with the departing individual has yet to be proposed or agreed so they don’t want to prejudice the legal negotiations by saying more. But of course they might well inform their major investors while private investors are left guessing.

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

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Whitewash at Gordon Dadds AGM, and Insolvency Warnings

I attended the Annual General Meeting of law firm Gordon Dadds Group (GOR) this morning. The company was tipped as a buy in Investors Chronicle on the 3rd August so I bought a few shares. It’s always good to go to the AGMs of new investments to get an impression of the management and ask a few questions. This is one of only three listed legal firms (the others being Gateley and Keystone which I do not hold).

This AGM was very unusual in that both on the “show of hands” vote and the proxy vote counts, there were no votes against at all, i.e. exactly zero on all resolutions. That is exceedingly unusual for a public company. As I said to the Chairman, he managed to achieve that by not having a share buy-back resolution on the agenda as I normally vote against such resolutions. Likewise no resolution to change to 14 days notice of general meetings. I congratulated him on that and a well run AGM where questions were taken first before the formal business.

There were about a dozen shareholders present, some of whom might have been staff. I questioned the increase in overheads in the last year – they are working to bring that down but it was increased as they “set up to expand” – and the high debtors. Although they bill work in progress monthly, it seems their corporate clients are slow payers. Another shareholder asked how work in progress was valued, and it’s at cost apparently. Otherwise I did not pick up any concerns although the legal market does seem fragmented and it is not clear to me how they are differentiated from others although they do have some specialisations. One might see it as a market ripe for consolidation with too many small firms and Gordon Dadds seem to have acquisition ambitions.

The company only listed on AIM a year ago so it’s early days as yet.

Interesting that the national media failed to pick up on the changes to the insolvency regime announced by the Government last Sunday. Perhaps not surprising on a Bank Holiday weekend although I covered it here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/08/26/insolvency-regime-changes-a-step-forward/

Perhaps private investors were not concerned because they think they can bail-out before such events unlike institutional shareholders who frequently have such large holdings that they can’t place them on the market at any price. But you cannot always do so. I have been caught twice in over twenty years of investing by unexpected administrations of retailing companies who often appear to have lots of revenues and positive cash flows. But a retail market turn-down can catch them unawares when they have high fixed costs (staff and property rentals). The result is often a cash flow problem when quarterly rent payments are due, or an unexpected tax bill appears, or suppliers’ insurers simply get nervous and withdraw cover.

A simple ratio to look at to pick up businesses at risk of insolvency is the Current Ratio which I like to see above 1.4. Remember business only go bust when they run out of cash. However, retailers often pay their suppliers after they have sold the goods to their customers so the Current Ratio is not a reliable measure for retailers. Likewise it tends to be unreliable when looking at software companies where they might have deferred support revenue in their current liabilities which should really be ignored as it will never be paid.

The Current Ratio is easy to calculate (it’s Current Assets divided by Current Liabilities). A better measure but a more complex one is the Altman Z-Score. This was very well covered in this week’s Investors Chronicle where it was argued that it was also a good measure of the overall performance of companies. It’s not foolproof in terms of predicting insolvency but it’s certainly a good warning indicator – the big problem is that accounting figures on which it is calculated are often out of date.

The Z-Score can be obtained from a number of sources as it’s a bit tedious to calculate it yourself – for example Stockopedia display it on their company reports.

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

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