Bearbull Also Doubts Reliance on Financial Analysis Alone

The writer Bearbull in the Investors Chronicle made some interesting comments in this week’s edition. He said:

“Talking of research, I might question the way that I dig out investment candidates. My off-the-peg approach focuses on number crunching from a company’s accounts. It uses past performance as the basis for guesstimating a range of per-share valuations – from optimistic to pessimistic – based on both accounting profits and cash flow. I back that up with more spreadsheet work to assess the trends in a company’s efficiency, its productivity and its financial resilience.

The merits of this approach is that it is an efficient way of scanning lots of candidates. Its shortcoming is that it pays insufficient attention to the future, which is where investment returns will come from. True, but the lion’s share of my time spent crawling over any company always comes down to relating the quantitative findings to the question, to what extent is the future likely to be as good as the past, better than or worse than? I don’t think that will change”.

This is very much my own approach. Doing an initial scan of the financials to weed out the worse candidates for investment makes a lot of sense. But the problem with relying on financial analysis alone is that it is not very predictive of the future. In the modern world where markets and businesses are rapidly changing, relying on a study of past accounts is of limited use. Or as I say in my book Business Perspective Investing: “typical ratios used by investors to evaluate and compare companies tell you almost nothing about the future”. That’s assuming you can even trust the accounts of companies which is another dubious proposition of late.

I’ll be covering this more and what investors really need to look at in my presentation at the Mello London event (Tuesday the 12th at 12.55 pm: https://melloevents.com/event/ ).

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

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A Question Answered on Winners and Losers

When I tweeted a mention of my forthcoming presentation on Business Perspective Investing, Andrew responded that he would be interested in a list of my winners and losers over the years and lessons learnt. So here’s some of them.

Health warning: this is not a recommendation to buy, sell or otherwise speculate in these companies. Some of the companies have been sold, or been delisted due to takeovers or other reasons. The notes are only a very trivial analysis of the reasons I purchased them. I will not be advising of future changes to my shareholdings and I have not included relatively new purchases for the same reason.

I give the company name, the year first purchased and the compound annual return (including dividends) reported by Sharescope up to the current date, or when sold. Note that I rarely purchase large holdings at once, but tend to buy more over time if the performance is good. If the performance is poor they are sold so the losses are minimised.

Most of the winning companies show consistent growth in revenue, operate in growing markets, have a high return on capital, positive cash flow, some intellectual property (IP) and competent management. Many of the companies have exploited the internet to provider a quicker or lower cost service.

Some of the Winners:

4Imprint (2016: 31.0%). A simple business distributing promotional merchandise, sold over the internet.

AB Dynamics (2015: 74.6%). Automotive technology gaining from the need for improved testing requirements and automated vehicle needs.

Abcam (2006: 31.1%). Distributor and producer of antibodies and proteins used in medical research, sold over the internet.

Accesso (2012: 32.0%). Visitor attraction software and services. Consolidator in a diverse sector.

Bioventix (2014: 39.3%). Producer of antibodies for medical diagnostics.

Boohoo (2014: 108.8%). On-line clothes retailer. Benefiting from changing shopping habits.

Delcam (2003: 26.3%). Computer aided design software for manufacturing.

Diploma (2015: 28.6%). Specialised technical products in life sciences, seals and controls.

DotDigital (2011: 33.2%). Email and other business marketing services.

Fevertree (2017: 89.4%). Producer/distributor of drinks and mixers. Great marketing and strong branding with outsourced manufacturing.

GB Group (2003: 31.6%). Identity checking internet services, benefiting from the need for quicker ID checks.

Ideagen (2012: 36.0%). Software for GRC applications. Driven by both organic growth and acquisitions, higher regulatory demands and strong sales management.

Judges Scientific (2010: 25.6%). Producer of scientific instruments. Organic and acquisition growth and emphasis on buying small companies that are cheap that can deliver a high return on capital.

Moneysupermarket (2011: 19.6%). Internet price comparison services.

Rightmove (2012: 21.2%). On-line estate agency portal. Benefiting from network effects and being the market leader.

Safestore (2018: 29.5%). Self-storage property company. Growing need to store personal and business items.

Segro (2016: 26.1%). Property company specialising in warehousing. A growing sector from internet distribution need.

Tracsis (2013: 17.1%). Software for rail operators.

Victoria (2012: 74.8%). Floor covering manufacturer led by charismatic manager.

Some of the Losers:

Blancco Technology (2016: -34.1%). IT product erasure and diagnostics. Dubious and inaccurate accounts.

Patisserie Holdings (2017: -100%). Totally fraudulent accounts led by Executive Chairman who failed to watch the detail I suggest.

As you can see, the industries in which the successful companies operate are quite varied but there is a strong focus on “newer technology” companies providing internet services or software. Although technology has been a hot sector in recent years, that has been so for most of my investing life and I expect it to continue. Note how my prejudices against certain sectors are reflected in the above list. Although I have invested in a few mining and oil producers over the years, they were generally not successful investments. Likewise financial businesses with minor exceptions.

The per annum returns may not appear spectacular but it is the high returns over many years that makes them an outstanding investment (or “ten baggers” as some are – for example Abcam has compounded at over 30% per annum for thirteen years). It may be unable to continue to do so but the company still has ambitious growth plans.

The high performing companies listed tend to be smaller ones but my portfolio does hold some larger FTSE-100 and FTSE-250 companies. The more successful ones of those don’t achieve such high returns as the companies listed above but typically more in the 10% to 20% per annum range. I also hold a number of investment trusts and funds which have similar returns. But the lower returns on those are compensated for by the lower risks associated with them.

Some of the companies have changing performance over time. For example Accesso was a strong performer until recently. I tend to top-slice companies when they become over-rated by the market or there are significant changes in the business, and try to buy when they are still cheap.

Andrew also asked “if people didn’t put as much time into it as you, do you think they can make it work?” Effort in any game is rewarded. Likewise the more experience you have the better you get. That usually means some time commitment is required. But whether you spend a lot of time or little, the key is to use the time effectively and not try to research everything in absolute detail. There is more information available than you can hope to handle in the modern world. Experience tells you what is important of course and what can be ignored. My book “Business Perspective Investing” just suggests what is important to look at, and what is not.

Note that I will be giving some overall portfolio performance information at my presentation next Tuesday (the 12th November at the Mello London event).

Incidentally ShareSoc/UKSA have published their joint submission to the consultation on “Intermediated Investments” from the Law Commission. It is very similar in content to my own but even more detailed on the problems of nominee accounts and how they should be fixed. It’s well worth reading. See here:

https://www.sharesoc.org/sharesoc-news/sharesoc-uksa-response-law-commission-review-of-intermediated-securities-call-for-evidence/

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

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RNS Announcement Emails, Mello Presentation and NHS Politics

Many private investors like me have been using a service from Investegate to deliver new RNS announcements via email. But recently, and not for the first time, delivery of such announcements has been delayed, or they have not been delivered at all. This can be positively dangerous – for example I only realised that I had missed seeing one after the share price of a company I held rose sharply. Missing bad news can be even more traumatic.

After complaining to Investegate and getting no response I decided to change to another service. The London Stock Exchange offer a similar free service (see https://www.londonstockexchange.com under Email Alerts). It appears to work reliably so I recommend it.

Many readers will be aware of the Mello events that attract many private investors to company presentations and for networking. Mello London is a 2-day event in Chiswick on the 12th and 13th of November (see: https://melloevents.com/event/ ). I will be giving a talk on Business Perspective Investing based on my recently published book on the Tuesday at 12.55pm. So please come along and learn more about why financial analysis is not the most important aspect of selecting companies in which to invest.

I note that the NHS is likely to be a political football in the coming General Election. As a heavy user of the NHS for the last 30 years during which it has kept me alive, I consider this is a grave mistake. The NHS is not a perfect service and could do with some more money as the UK spends relatively less on healthcare in comparison with other countries. But the service has improved enormously over the last 30 years regardless of the political party or parties that were in power. One of the most damaging aspects has been constant change and reorganisation driven by political dictates and concerns to improve efficiency. It’s also been slow to adopt new technology such as IT software because it is so monolithic and bureaucratic a body. When it did commit to a major IT project for patient records and associated systems it wasted £10 billion or more on an ultimately abandoned project. More diversity and local decision making are needed in the NHS. But I see no chance of it being threatened by any trade deal with the USA or by our exit from the EU.

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

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Mothercare Downfall – A Breakdown in Trust?

Mothercare (MTC) have announced that its two UK operating subsidiaries are going into administration. The company services over 1,000 stores worldwide, and apart from the UK they report a profit. But losses in the UK more than offset profits in the rest of the world if you read the last annual report. The share price has fallen 30% today at the time of writing.

There were clear warning signs here. For example this is what it says in the Annual Report published in May under “What went wrong” after mentioning “an acceleration of events”: “the difficult situation was further fuelled by a fracture in the relationship between the non-executive and operating executives, a break-down in trust with key shareholders and the appointment of an array of increasingly expensive professional advisers”. That’s a very unusual thing to actually say to shareholders! It hardly inspires confidence does it.

It is also noticeable that even if overseas sales were profitable, there were declines in like-for-like sales both there and in the UK. And needless to point out perhaps that this is one company that is most likely to have been affected by changing shopping habits. Do mothers with children or young babies really want to be dragging them around the High Street? No they will order what they need on-line. A quick look at the Mothercare web site says they do offer free delivery on orders over £50 but why bother when other on-line sites will do it for much less.

Mothercare has always had a great “brand” but has never seemed able to turn it into a profitable business – at least in the UK.

Note that only the UK operations have gone into administration but it’s difficult to see how the parent holding company is going to avoid major problems as a result as debts are probably secured against all the assets and there may be substantial intercompany debts.  And what about the pension scheme and the sale and leaseback of the head office which means future costs? I have not researched the company enough to advise further but almost everything I read in the Annual Report puts me off the business.

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

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Exchange Market Size in Stockopedia and BHP plus RIO

I noticed that the share prices of BHP Group (BHP) and Rio Tinto (RIO) jumped this morning – at least for these behemoths of the FTSE-100 they moved substantially at 2.8% and 3.4% respectively. I only noticed because I recently purchased some of the shares in each company.

These are of course very large mining companies so they are dependent on the price of metals and metal ore, particularly iron ore. The last time I looked at these companies was two or three years ago when they were laden down with debt and had poor returns on capital. But they have certainly had a change of heart since then and seem to be more focused on generating real profits and cash flow rather than building ever bigger holes in the ground. Debt has been cut substantially in both companies.

With the profits mainly coming from overseas, they are a good hedge against any form of Brexit, and yields are high for those who like dividends. I am not a great fan of commodity-based businesses where predicting future prices of the products is not easy and they typically go through boom and bust cycles as such companies all invest in new production capacity at the same time as prices go up. Soon after when all the new capacity comes on stream there is a bust of course. But I made a small exception in this case.

But why the share price jump this morning? Are investors moving from growth to value as other commentators have suggested? Have value shares such as BHP and RIO suddenly started to look attractive, as they did to me? Or has Nigel Farage’s impossible demands for a deal with the Conservatives to ensure Brexit over the weekend suddenly encouraged investors to look for Brexit hedges?

Stockopedia have released an updated version of their “New” software. It now includes the Exchange Market Size (EMS) which is a useful parameter to look at when trading in company shares, particularly smaller ones. Note that Exchange Market Size was previously called Normal Market Size.  It is the maximum size in terms of share trade volume at which a market maker is obligated to adhere to their quoted share prices. It is a very good indicator of the liquidity in the shares and how easy they will be to trade. When trading electronically on most retail platforms, this is a useful number to know as it will affect whether you can trade automatically, have to set a limit order or get a dealer to trade for you. In addition, any trade bigger than the EMS might be done at prices higher or lower than you expect.

This number can be very small for some AIM stocks. For example on Bango (BGO) which I hold it is currently only 3,000 shares (less than £4,000 in value) when the EMS for BHP and RIO is more equivalent to £20,000 in value.

The new Stockopedia software version has other improvements although I still seem to be having problems with the Stock Alerts feature that I use every day. Perhaps there are still some issues that have yet to be fixed but you can still revert to the old version.

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

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Law Commission Error on Segregated Accounts

In a previous blog post on the Law Commission’s consultation on Intermediated Securities I queried their claim that all investors in nominee accounts had the option to use a segregated account (i.e. a “designated account” where your name is on the share register, not just the nominee operator’s). They claim this is mandated by an EU regulation. This is extremely important because a simple “pooled” nominee account that most stockbrokers use does not give you clear ownership of the shares. If the broker goes bust and has not properly recorded who owns what (as is often the case), you may have difficulty recovering your shares. It also means that the company you own shares in cannot communicate with you and neither can anyone else.

HAVING YOUR NAME AND CONTACT DETAILS ON THE SHARE REGISTER IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!

I have now actually looked into the true position with three different stockbrokers I use for ISA and SIPP accounts. This is what they said (in summary, edited for brevity):

  1. We are planning to offer segregated accounts and we expect this to be available mid-next year.
  2. We are working on implementing this with the expectation it will be an option for account holders next year, but it will be considerably more expensive than our current fees.
  3. These requirements come into effect as soon as the CSD, in our case Euroclear, receives its authorisation from the regulator Bank of England as a CSD – this is expected to be Q1-2020. We will offer segregated accounts when obliged to do so. Charges will be materially higher than for a pooled nominee account given the additional processing and operational costs involved.

In summary therefore, they concede it is legally required but they are not rushing to implement it and they will be deterring people from using that option by high and unjustified charges. In essence this is disgraceful.

I will be making this plain to the Law Commission.

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

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The Vultures are Circling – Woodford, Carpetright et al

With the demise of the Neil Woodford’s empire and the winding up of the Woodford Equity Income Fund, investors are looking for whom to blame – other than themselves of course for investing in his funds. One target is Hargreaves Lansdown (HL.) and other fund platforms who had it on their recommended or “best buy” lists, including long after the fund’s problems were apparent. Now lawyers are only too glad to help in such circumstances and at least two firms have suggested they can assist.

One is Slater & Gordon. They say they are investigating possible claims against HL. and that “We’re concerned to establish if there was any actionable wrongdoing or conflict of interest by Hargreaves Lansdown in continuing to include Woodford funds on their ‘Best Buy’ Lists if it had concerns as to their underlying investments. We’ll also be looking at the price achieved when buying and selling instruments, such as ordinary shares, on the Hargraves Lansdown platform and whether or not this represents Best Execution”. You can register your interest here: https://tinyurl.com/yyrhbfb3

Another legal firm looking at such a claim is Leigh Day who say they already have 500 investors interested in pursuing a case. See https://tinyurl.com/y6r2buav for more information.

Having been involved in a number of similar legal cases in the past, my advice is that there is no harm in registering an interest but do not pay money up front and certainly not until the basis of any legal claim is clear. In addition bear in mind that it would be very expensive to pursue such a claim and lawyers may be willing to do so simply in anticipation of high fees when there is no certainty of winning a case. How is the case to be financed is one question to ask? Funding such cases by private investors alone (the majority of HL. clients) is likely to be difficult so “litigation funding” is likely to be required which can be expensive and erode likely returns. Insurance to cover the risk of losing the case is also needed and expensive.

Yesterday saw news announcements from three companies I have held in the past but all sold some time ago. The most significant was from Carpetright (CPR) which I last sold in 2010 at about 800p. It’s been downhill ever since. The Daily Telegraph ran an article today suggesting that this was a zombie company and that it was a good time of year for zombie slaying. After the announcement of a trading update and possible bid yesterday the share price is now 5p.

The Board of Directors “believes that Carpetright is performing well….” and “the prolonged sales decline appears to be bottoming out….”, but the company has too much debt and needs refinancing. One of its major lenders and shareholders is Meditor who have proposed to make a cash offer of 5p per share for the company. The share price promptly halved to that level because it is likely that the offer will be accepted by enough shareholders to be approved. So it looks like we will have a company with revenues of £380 million (but no profits), sold for £15 million. Founder Lord Harris, who is long departed, must be crying over this turn of events. But it demonstrates that when a company is in hock to its bankers and dominant shareholders, minority investors should steer clear.

Another announcement was from Proactis Holdings (PHD) which I sold fortuitously in mid-2018. They announced Final Results yesterday. Revenues increased by 4% but a large loss of £26 million was reported due to a large impairment charge against its US operations. The business has undertaken an operational review and restructuring is in progress. It has also been put up for sale but there is little news on potential “expressions of interest”. Just too many uncertainties and debt way too high (now equal to market cap) in my opinion.

The third announcement was from Smartspace Software (SMRT) which I sold earlier this year at more than the current share price as progress seemed to be slow and I wanted to tidy up my over-large portfolio. It reported interim results where revenue was up 57% but there was a large loss reported (more than revenue). There were some positive noises from the CEO so the share price only fell 0.7%. The company has some interesting products for managing office space but it’s a typical “story” stock where the potential seems high but it has yet to prove it can run a profitable business.

I have also noticed lately that the fizz has gone out of the share price of Fevertree (FEVR). It’s been falling for some time. I sold it in 2018 at a much higher level. It still looks quite expensive on a prospective p/e basis. Overall revenue is still growing rapidly but the USA is still the big potential market yet to be proven. I like the business model and the management even if I don’t personally like the main product. But perhaps one to keep an eye on. But generally buying back into past investments can be a mistake.

Given my track record on the above, perhaps my next investment book should not be on choosing new investments but on choosing when to sell existing ones?

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

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