LoopUp Profit Warning and Brexit Party Policy

Conference calling AIM company LoopUp (LOOP) issued a trading statement this morning which contained a profit warning. At the time of writing the share price is down 47% on the day but it has been falling sharply in recent days which suggests the bad news had already leaked out.

This is an example of what happens when lofty growth expectations are revised downwards. Revenue is now expected to be down 7% on the previous market consensus and EBITDA down 20%. The company blames the shortfall on “subdued revenue across its long-term customer base” driven by macro-economic factors and diversion of sales staff into training new ones.

LoopUp is presenting at the ShareSoc seminar event on the 10th July so it will be interesting to hear what they have to say about this – see https://www.sharesoc.org/events/sharesoc-growth-company-seminar-in-london-10-july-2019/ . This news comes only a month after LoopUp held a Capital Markets Day when there was no hint of these problems. I did a report on that here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/06/07/broker-charges-proven-vct-performance-fee-and-loopup-seminar/

I do hold a few shares in LoopUp but thankfully not many.

Brexit Party Policy

I mentioned in a recent blog post that the Brexit Party is looking for policy suggestions to enable them to develop a platform for any prospective General Election. Here’s what I sent them with respect to financial matters:

  1. The personal taxation system is way too complicated and needs drastically simplifying. At the lower end the tax credit system is wide open to fraud while those on low incomes are taxed when they should not be. The personal tax allowance, both the basic rates, and higher rates, need to be raised to take more people out of tax altogether.
  2. The taxation of capital gains is also now too complicated, while tax is paid on capital gains that simply arise from inflation, which are not real gains at all. They should revert to being indexed as they were some years ago. For almost anyone, calculating your own tax that is payable is now way too difficult and hence requiring the paid services of accountants using specialist software.
  3. Inheritance tax is another over-complex system that wealthy people avoid by taking expert advice while the middle class end up paying it. It certainly needs grossly simplifying, or scrapping altogether as a relatively small amount of tax is actually collected from it.
  4. The taxation of businesses is inequitable with the growth of the internet. Small businesses, particularly retailers, pay a disproportionate level of tax in business rates while their internet competitors often avoid VAT via imports. VAT is now wide open to fraud and other types of abuse such as under-declarations, partly because of the EU VAT arrangements. VAT is in principle a simple tax and the alternative of a sales tax would create anomalies but VAT does need to be reformed and simplified.
  5. All the above tax simplifications would enable HMRC to be reduced in size and the time wasted in form filling by individuals and businesses reduced. Everyone would be a winner, and wasted resources and expenditure reduced.
  6. The taxation of company dividends on shares is now an example of the same profits being taxed twice – once in Corporation Tax on the company, and then again when those profits are distributed to shareholders. This has been enormously damaging to those who receive dividends and the lack of tax credits has also undermined defined benefit pension funds. The taxation of dividends should revert to how it once was.
  7. The regulation of companies and financial institutions needs very substantial reform with much tougher laws against fraud on investors. Not only are the current laws weak but the enforcement of them by the FCA/FRC is too slow and ineffective. Although some reforms have recently been proposed, they do not go far enough. Individual directors and senior managers in companies are not held to account for gross errors or downright fraud, or when they are, they get off too lightly. We need a much more effective system like they have in the USA, and better laws.
  8. Shareholder rights as regards voting and the receipt of information have been undermined by the use of nominee accounts. This has made it difficult for individual shareholders to vote and that is one reason why investors have not been able to control the excesses in director pay recently. The system of shareholding and voting needs reform, with changes to the Companies Act to bring it into the modern electronic world.
  9. The pay of directors and senior managers in companies and other organisations has got wildly out of hand in recent years, thus generating a lot of criticism by the lower paid. This has created social divisions and led partly to the rise of extreme left socialist tendencies. This problem needs tackling.
  10. Governance of companies needs to be reformed to ensure that directors do not set their own pay, as happens at present, but that shareholders and other stakeholders do so. Likewise shareholders and other stakeholders should appoint the directors.
  11. Insolvency law needs reform to outlaw “pre-pack” administrations which have been very damaging to many small businesses. They are an abuse of insolvency law.
  12. All the EU Directives on financial regulation should be scrapped (i.e. there should be no “harmonization” with EU regulations after Brexit). The MIFID regulations have added enormous costs to financial institutions, which have passed on their costs to their customers, with no very obvious benefit to anyone. Likewise the Shareholder Rights Directive might have had good objectives but the implementation has been poor because of the lack of knowledge on how financial markets operate in the UK. Other examples are the UCITS regulations which have not stopped Neil Woodford from effectively bypassing them, or the PRIIPS regulations which have resulted in misleading information being provided to investors.

Let me know if you have other suggestions, and of course the above policies might be good for adoption by other political parties in addition.

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

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Redcentric – Devasting Report on Audit Quality

I have commented on the accounting problems at Redcentric (RCN) before – see https://roliscon.blog/2019/06/13/pwc-fined-over-audit-at-redcentric/ . Mark Bentley of Sharesoc has written a good article on the audit issues at this company on their blog here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/redcentric-rcn-campaign-important-developments/

He covers the report from the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) on the audit which has only taken them two years to produce – that’s fast for the FRC. But if you read the report you will see that it is a devastating critique of the quality and professionalism of the audit by PwC.

An investigation by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is still on-going apparently and ShareSoc is talking to lawyers about possibly legal action to recover losses suffered by investors from reliance on clearly inaccurate accounts.

But there are simply too many such cases and shutting the stable door several years after the horse has bolted is not good enough. The Government needs to look at how to prevent such problems by improving the standards of accounts, and improving the auditing of them. Some reforms have already been proposed in that regard but whether they will have an impact on the activities of smaller AIM companies, where a lot of the problems occur, has yet to be seen.

At the core of the problem is the failure to make the individuals (i.e. the directors and senior management) in such companies personally responsible. Pursuing the companies or their auditors is only a limited solution and shareholders often bear the costs when the individuals concerned need to be deterred by prison sentences I suggest. But that means changes to the law to make it easier to prosecute such cases.

And the FCA needs much more resources to enable them to pursue such cases quickly and forcefully. There is so much fraud taking place in the financial world that most goes undetected, unrecognised and unprosecuted.

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

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Impressions from the Brexit Party Rally

Brexit rallyAs I received an invite to the Brexit Party Rally at the NEC in Birmingham, I went along yesterday to see what I could learn about their policies – apart from wanting Brexit of course. Not that there was a great deal to learn as clearly policies for a prospective general election are still being developed, but there were a few hints. However they do plan to have 600 candidates ready to fight such an election by the Autumn and 100 of them can be seen in the photo left of the event.

It was a lively meeting, and clearly professionally organised. With the party only being in existence for 49 days, it is surprising how much they have achieved already. They are clearly going to be a force to be reckoned with in UK politics whatever happens on Brexit.

The main speakers were Annunziata Rees-Mogg, Richard Tice, Tim Martin and Nigel Farage. Richard Tice is the party Chairman and spoke particularly well. He runs a property firm and was formerly CEO of CLS Holdings – a listed property company. He made it clear that the Brexit party has an “anti-London” focus where they think too much money is spent and have already committed to scrapping HS2. Another big commitment was to scrap interest on student loans and cancel all historic interest.

Tim Martin runs the Wetherspoon pubs and suggested that on a hard Brexit happening we will not need to drink French wine or German/Dutch beer. We can produce it ourselves or import from Australia. But his main focus was on the lack of democracy in the EU. He just wants to leave on WTO terms, i.e. without a deal.

Other speakers argued that the electoral system needs reform with some type of proportional representation introduced, and the House of Lords reformed or scrapped altogether (cheers for that from the audience). The events in the Peterborough by-election where the party failed to win the seat were explained as an abuse of the postal voting system (see below). Reform was also planned for the Civil Service – exactly why or how was not made clear, and the party wants to scrap the BBC License Fee but not scrap the BBC.

Unlike Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, there was no great commitment for tax hand-outs to bribe the electorate – maybe they will come later. But cancelling HS2, not paying the Brexit bill as proposed in the Withdrawal Agreement and halving the foreign aid budget will create many billions of pounds to spend on the regions outside London.

The Brexit Party is clearly a party of protest – members don’t like the EU, don’t like Westminster politicians, don’t like the BBC who collected boos from the audience, don’t like the London elite and the Civil Service, and more…. At a general election they might simply split off a lot of Conservative voters enabling the Labour Party to take power. That is an issue they have yet to tackle.

But that’s about all I learned about their policies which are clearly still under development. You can submit your own suggestions for what they should be by sending an email to policy@thebrexitparty.org .

You can see a video of the event and Nigel Farage’s speech on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXk0tChqOUk

Voting Reform

The alleged abuse of the postal voting system by the Labour Party in Peterborough is the subject of a legal challenge by the Brexit Party, who only lost by 683 votes. They are lodging a petition under the Representation of the People Act and several allegations of voter fraud are being investigated by the police.

Now I do personally have some experience of how the Labour party operates with postal votes. A few years ago we happened to visit my late mother-in-law when the Labour candidate was visiting to collect her vote. It was clear they had organised a postal vote for her, and had come to ensure she ticked the right box and they then promised to post her vote for her.

She might have been on their list of traditional Labour voters but given her age at the time she was hardly acting independently or with due consideration of the candidate and his policies. In other words, the Labour Party was leading the prospective voters by the nose with a well organised machine to collect votes from those who only had a vague commitment to the candidate and the policies they were supporting.

The Brexit Party certainly have a case to argue for reform in this area.

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

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Bonmarché Update, FCA Grilling over Woodford and Amati AIM VCT AGM

Yesterday Bonmarché (BON) conceded defeat in its opposition to a takeover bid at 11.4p. On the 17th May it had rejected the bid because it “materially undervalues Bonmarché and its prospects”. The share price of this women’s clothing retailer was over 100p a year ago but the latest trading review suggests sales are dire because of underlying weakness in the clothing market and “a lack of seasonal weather”. Auditors might have qualified the accounts due to be published soon due to doubts about it being a going concern if sales did not pick up before then. Bonmarché looks to be another victim of changing shopping habits and changing dress styles.

Is the market for traditional men’s clothes any better? Not from my recent experience of buying two formal shirts from catalogue/on-line retailer Brook Taverner. Cost was zero although I did have to pay postage. Why was the cost zero? Because they had a special offer of 60% off for returning customers, and I had collected enough “points” from them to wipe out the balance. Smacks of desperation does it not?

On Tuesday the Treasury Select Committee interviewed Andrew Bailey of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) over the closure of the Woodford Equity Income fund and their regulation of it. It is well worth listening to. See https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/34965022-ec99-4243-8d0b-ae3350c31fe4

It seems that technically the fund only made two minor breaches of the 10% limit on unlisted stocks twice in the UCITS rules which were soon corrected in 2018. But Link were responsible for ensuring compliance as they were legally the fund manager as they were the ACD who had delegated management to Neil Woodford’s company. But in the morning of the same day the Daily Telegraph reported that nearly half of the fund investments were actually illiquid including 20% that were nominally listed in such venues as Guernsey and not actively traded. In other words, they were perhaps technically complying with the UCITS rules but their compliance in principle was not the case. Mr Bailey suggested this is where regulation might be best to be changed to be “principle” based rather than “rule” based but surely that would lead to even more “fudges”? The big problem is yet again that the EU, who sets the UCITS rules, produced regulations that lacked any understanding of the investment world.

The Investment Association has suggested a new fund type be allowed which only allows limited withdrawals, e.g. at certain times or on notice. But that does not sound an attractive option to investors. When investors want to sell, they want to sell now.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has said open-ended funds are “built on a lie” in that they promise daily liquidity when it may not always be possible. He also suggested they posed a systemic risk to financial stability. Or as Paul Jourdan said at the Amati AIM VCT AGM: “Liquid investments are liquid until they are not”.

There is of course still no sign that Neil Woodford is taking steps to restore confidence in his funds, as I suggested on June the 5th. There needs to be a change in leadership and in name for that to happen. Once a fund has become a dog and untouchable in the minds of investors, and their financial advisors, redemptions will continue. Neil Woodford making reassuring statements will not assist. More vigorous action by Woodford, Link, and the FCA is required. Affected investors should encourage more action.

The Amati AIM VCT (AMAT) had a great year in the year before last as small cap AIM stocks rocketed but last year was a different story. NAV Total Return was down 10% although that was better than their benchmark index. AB Dynamics was the biggest positive contributor – up 93% over the year with Water Intelligence also up 93%. Ideagen was a good contributor (now second biggest holding) and Rosslyn Data was also up significantly. Accesso fell 36% but they are still holding. I asked whether they had purchased more AB Dynamics in the recent rights issue but apparently they could not as it was no longer VCT qualifying.

I also asked about the fall in Diurnal which wiped £1.2 million off the valuation. This was down to clinical trial results apparently. However, fund manager Paul Jourdan is still keen on biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms as he suggested that healthcare is being revolutionised in his concluding presentation – he mentioned Polarean as one example.

Other presentations were from Block Energy – somewhat pedestrian and not a sector I like – and Bonhill Group which was more lively. Bonhill were formerly called Vitesse Media but are growing rapidly from some acquisitions and clearly have ambitions to be a much bigger company in the media space.

It was clear from the presentations that the investee company portfolio is becoming more mature as the successful companies have grown. This arises because they tend to take some profits when a holding becomes large but otherwise like to retain their successful holdings.

All resolutions were passed on a show of hands vote but I queried why all the resolutions got near 10% opposing on the proxy counts which is unusual. It seems this is down to one shareholder whose motives are not entirely clear.

In summary, an educational event and worth attending as most AGMs are.

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

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Shareholder Rights Being Eroded

There is a good article in the Financial Times today (Saturday 22/6/2019) which is headlined “UK shareholder rights being eroded”. As the article says, almost no investors who buy shares legally own the shares they have bought, which rather surprises them. That’s because most of them buy via nominee accounts operated by stockbrokers and platforms. Not only that, but most nominee accounts are “pooled” accounts so even identifying who are the “beneficial owners” is not always easy.

Does it matter? Yes it does as investors apparently holding shares via Beaufort Securities soon found out, and there have been a number of similar cases. If brokers go bust or cease trading, your investments will be frozen and reclaiming them may not be easy. It also undermines your rights to vote, to attend AGMs and other rights that those on the share register of the company have as “Members”.

The Law Commission has announced a review of this system – see here for more details: https://tinyurl.com/yyhm3mf9 .

There are some good quotations from Cliff Weight of ShareSoc and Peter Parry of UKSA in the FT article. However there is this quote from Russ Mould of AJ Bell: “It is debatable whether this [nominee account system] makes it harder for shareholders to cast their votes any more than the old paper share certificate regime”. That is clearly wrong as those on the register can easily vote via submitting a paper proxy form or via the registrars’ on-line systems. Submitting votes if you are in a nominee account is rarely so simple and AJ Bell do not provide an easy to use method so it would require significant effort by investors to vote. The result is that most do not bother.

The other claim in the article is that the nominee account system has made trading easier and cheaper. That is not true either. The electronic Personal Crest system is a better alternative and as all trades go through Crest anyway (even those done via a nominee account), there is no cost difference in reality. The reason brokers and platforms have promoted nominee accounts is simply because there are other commercial advantages for them.

There is a lot more information on this subject which explains the real facts and includes a video from me on the subject on the ShareSoc web site here: https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/shareholder-rights-campaign/

A minimal if partial solution to this problem would be to have all beneficial owners on the share register. But in reality the whole system needs reforming so that investors are not forced into nominee accounts where they lose a lot of their legal rights, and shareholder democracy is fatally undermined.

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

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Slack IPO, Web Privacy and Sell on Monday

The IPO of Slack in the USA has received a lot of media coverage. This is one of those technology stocks that is on what at first glance is a sky-high valuation. Slack provides workplace collaboration software and last year had revenues of $400 million, and lost $140 million. The market cap is now around $20 billion which means it is valued at about 50 times revenue. Those are the negative numbers. The positive aspect is that it roughly doubled revenue in each of the last two years. With such growth are profits or losses important? But it’s surely a case of investors piling into a hot story, i.e. following the herd.

There’s an interesting article by Megan Boxall in this week’s Investor’s Chronicle comparing the current mania for technology stocks with the dot.com bubble of the 1990s. She reports that 2018 saw the highest proportion of loss-making company IPOs since 2000 and the market is awash with private equity money being ploughed into early stage loss-making companies.

Well I lived through the dot.com era and managed to sell a software business and retire before the boom became a bust. The current mania for technology stocks certainly reminds me of that era. Growth certainly adds to value, but growth in profits not revenue is what matters. Many early stage companies can grow revenue given enough investment but often they never make a profit. And when the realisation comes, investors drop the company like a hot potato. The key question is to look at when a company will stop consuming cash and at least look like it will breakeven. Before that point, it’s simply a speculation. Investors in the dot.com boom realised later on that they were going to lose money on most of their punts and the whole sector became untouchable for some years.

The other question to ask about Slack is whether it has some unique technology that cannot be easily copied. I am not sure it does on a quick review.

ICO and Adtech

I mentioned in a blog post om April 10th my concerns about privacy after I was bombarded with advertising for SuperxxDry products after mentioning the company in my blog. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has now published a report which says the Adtech industry must mend its ways. Basically personal data is being shared without the users’ consent, possibly to hundreds of advertising firms.

The ICO has effectively warned the industry that they must reform themselves as the use of personal data has been unlawful. See https://tinyurl.com/yxk7d494 for more information and to read their report. This will clearly affect any company operating in this sector including such giants as Google. But it is surely a move that is to be welcomed by anyone concerned about privacy and those not wanting to be bombarded by irrelevant advertising.

Buy on Friday, Sell on Monday

I have noticed over the last few months that my portfolio tends to rise on Mondays and fall on Fridays. It certainly did this week again. It appears that investors pile in to small cap stocks and investment trusts on Monday morning, but lassitude sets in on Fridays.

Researching the internet seems to suggest that this is a known pattern. So clearly it is best to be contrarian and buy when prices are temporarily down on Friday and avoid buying on Monday. So that’s my tip for today.

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

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FairFX AGM Report, Woodford Fund Issues and Zero Carbon

Firstly a brief report on the Annual General Meeting of FairFX (FFX) which I attended today in the City. Only I and one other shareholder asked any questions, and there may not have been many others there.

This is a payments company which had an initial focus on the provision of foreign exchange but they now do a lot more. They are planning to change the name in the near future and there was a resolution tabled to change the articles to enable them to do this without reverting to shareholders. I abstained on that because I prefer companies to put a change of name to investors. But talking to one of the directors after the meeting it sounds like they are taking a professional approach to the name change.

Revenue of the company was up 69% last year to £26 million with profits of £2.6 million. Adjusted EBITDA was up 687% if you wish to look on the bright side. There was a positive AGM announcement with phrases such as “a strong year to date” both in revenue and margins. Full year trading should be in line with market expectations.

The accounts of payment/credit card companies can be complex as I know from being a director of one of them in the past. So I asked a few questions on that area.

FairFX now exclude customer deposits from their accounts which is a definite improvement. But it does capitalise a lot of software development – £4.7 million last year, which I have no concerns about so long as it is in accordance with accounting standards. In response to a question I was told this level of expenditure might be a bit more in the current year. They are building a new unified front end on their 3 applications (platforms) – some of which were acquired.

I queried the collateral requirements of financial institutions they deal with (see page 6 of the Annual Report) and was told this is taken out of the cash figure on the balance sheet and is now in “Other receivables” – hence the large increase in that figure plus the impact of acquisitions on it and general increase in turnover.

Wirecard was mentioned during these questions. Apparently FairFX has historically used them as a “Card Issuer” but they now have the capability to issue cards themselves which will improve margins – customers will be migrated over. That’s reassuring because Wirecard has been getting some very negative publicity in the FT lately.

The other shareholder attending asked about the economic trends and their impact. Corporates are apparently sitting on their hands re FX and clearly Brexit risk might be impacting the demand for personal FX credit cards as holidays in Europe might be impacted by the uncertainty. However the CEO seemed confident about the future.

I might sign up for one of their “Everywhere” Pre-paid Credit Cards which looks cheaper than the company I am using at present.

This is one of those companies that has stopped issuing paper proxy forms – promoted by their Registrar Link Asset Services. I complained about that. I was also not happy that the resolutions were taken on a poll rather than a show of hands. But I understand the proxy counts were all higher than 99% so that was an academic issue.

Link acting as ACD for Woodford Funds

Link, in the guise of “Link Fund Solutions”, also got their name in the FT today over their activities as the Authorised Corporate Director (ACD) of the Woodford Equity Income Fund. An ACD is supposed to ensure that a fund sticks to the rules. They would have been involved in the decision to close the fund to redemptions.

It also seems very odd to me that they approved the listing of some fund holdings in Guernsey to get around the limitations of unlisted holdings. That was clearly an abuse as the reality was that these were not listing that provided any significant liquidity, with minimal dealing taking place. It’s the substance that counts, not how it might simply appear to meet the technical rules.

This looks to be yet another case of those who are supposed to be keeping financial operators in line not doing their job properly. But ask who is paying them.

FT article on Net Zero Emissions

I commented previously on Mrs May’s commitment to go for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. I called it suicidal.

There is a very good article on this topic in the FT today by Jonathan Ford (entitled “Net Zero Emissions Require a Wartime Level of Mobilisation”). The article explains how easy it is to get to the £1 Trillion cost mentioned by the Chancellor on required housing changes alone to remove all fossil fuel consumption. There may be some payback from the investment required but the payback period might be 37 years!

The whole energy system will need to be rebuilt and some of the required technologies (e.g. carbon capture) do not yet exist on a commercial basis. For more details go to the web site of the Committee on Climate Change and particularly the Technical Report present here: https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/net-zero-technical-report/

If this plan is proceeded with there are enormous costs and enormous risks involved. But it will certainly have a major impact on not just our way of lives but on many UK companies many of which consume large amounts of power. That is definitely something investors must keep an eye on. Companies like FairFX may be one of the few that are not affected in a big way as they only manufacture electronic transactions. That’s assuming the rest of the economy and consumers are not too badly depressed by the changes as a result of course.

Nobel prize winning economist William Nordhaus has shown how a zero-carbon target is unwise. See this note for more information: https://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2018/MurphyNordhaus.html

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

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