Hedging Against Brexit

As we edge towards an abrupt Brexit as agreement with the EU has turned into a game of chicken, it’s worth considering some options. Or as my M.P. Bob Neill said about divorce on Twitter “the current system of divorce creates unnecessary antagonism in an already difficult situation” (he was talking about personal divorce in the UK as head of the Justice Committee but our EU divorce is looking very similar – acrimony is the word for it).

Perhaps the Prime Minister will find a way through to a sensible settlement now she is reported to have personally taken charge of the matter. But as investors we should not rely on such a chance.

One solution is simply to move your share investments into companies that are listed overseas and do most of their business elsewhere than the UK. Don’t wish to buy overseas companies directly? Simply buy one of those “global” investment trusts or trusts focused on particular sectors – Europe, the USA, China, India, et al. Or ensure you invest in UK companies with large exposure to overseas markets other than the EU – there are lots of those.

One aspect that caught my attention this week was the suggestion that the UK should stockpile food and medicines to ensure there were no shortages. But taking food alone, fresh food does not generally keep for very long unless you have a refrigerated warehouse. Even then there are limits. As one supermarket chief was reported as saying in the FT today that it was “ridiculous” and showed “complete naivety”. The reason is simply that supermarkets and their suppliers operate “just in time” systems where deliveries often depend on overnight shipping of goods from Europe. Likewise car manufacturers and other engineering companies rely on complex supply chains that depend on the same “just in time” processes and very quick delivery times. There is a solution to this problem which is to store more items. Non-perishable goods can be stored for a very long time to provide a buffer to the flows of goods. One hedge tactic might therefore be to invest in warehousing companies – Segro and Tritax BigBox REITs come to mind (I own them), although Lex in the FT suggested today that “optimism is already baked in” to the share price of Segro after their interim results announcement. The share prices of those companies have been driven by the internet shopping boom where goods are held in warehouses rather than shops, and rapid delivery is essential. More warehouse demand caused by Brexit might add another wave of warehouse building and increase rents.

When it gets nearer the date next March for Brexit, perhaps we should be doing some personal hoarding of French cheese, Dutch salami and German sausages to guard against short-term supply chain disruptions, but I doubt I will be panicking. UK producers can gear up and many other suppliers in the rest of the world will suddenly find they are much more price competitive. Tariffs on imports of food from outside the EU can currently be very high (e.g. an average of 35% on dairy products which is why you don’t see much New Zealand or Canadian cheese in the shops lately – see https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/bns/BN213.pdf for details).

That does not mean of course that food will be much cheaper as the UK Government might impose some tariffs to protect our own farmers, but you can see that it is quite possible that the supply chains will rapidly adapt once we are outside the EU regime. But long haul supply lines will require more warehousing and more dock facilities.

Or our Government could take the Marie Antoinette approach to food shortages – “let them eat cake” she said, or “let them buy British products” instead perhaps. Was that not a past Government campaign which could be revived? Such “Buy British” campaigns ran in the 1960s and 1980s to inform my younger readers. I am of course joking because so far as I recall they had little public impact. They did not have any influence on the preference to buy German or Japanese cars, although many of the latter are now made in the UK. But in a new post-Brexit world we should expect some surprises and the need to change our habits.

One joker suggested we might need to eat more non-perishable food, i.e. tinned peaches rather than fresh. But that just shows that there are ways around every problem. If the current heat wave persists we will of course be able to grow our own peaches. But betting on the weather is as perverse as betting on the outcome of Brexit. All I know is that we are likely to survive it. Hedging your bets is the best approach.

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

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GB Group, Social Media, Rightmove and Alliance Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Voting at General Meetings, Link Asset Services and CentralNic

CentralNic (CNIC) have announced that the proxy voting forms they sent out to shareholders on the register for their forthcoming General Meeting were invalid as it omitted a signature block. So they have sent them out again. As a shareholder in the company, I spotted the error and simply wrote by name and date on the bottom of the form and signed it. That should suffice.

It is a little known fact that you don’t actually need to use the proxy form issued by the company or their registrar so long as your instructions are clear. Which prompts me to talk about the conversation I have been having with Link Asset Services (formerly Capita) about proxy voting.

I complained to them when I received a notice of an AGM by post but no paper proxy voting form. They said I needed to specifically request a paper proxy form or use their on-line portal. The latter is tedious to use and not nearly as simple when you just want to cast votes as the system used by Equiniti. It transpired that on Link’s interpretation of the Companies Act they no longer need to send out proxy voting forms as only the notice of the meeting is legally required. This appears to be correct. This is what I said in a letter to their Operations Director after the exchange of several letters:

“I will continue to submit my proxy votes by post whether you supply a form to do so or not. Where you have not supplied one, I will use my own – I attach a copy of what I will be using. If you have any objections to receiving my proxy votes in that way, please let me know. I do not see how you can legally object as it meets the requirements of the Companies Act.

I note your comments about the low percentage of shareholders who submit proxy votes, and the even lower percentage who do so in physical form [6% and 3.8% reportedly]. The latter may simply be because you and companies are now obstructing those who do not wish to vote on-line by not issuing paper proxy forms!

Overall the low percentage of shareholders voting suggests to me that registrars and companies are not doing enough to both encourage voting and making it easy for shareholders to do so. This is a major concern because shareholder voting is a key part of ensuring good corporate governance in listed companies. The Government recognized this only recently by ensuring there are binding votes on remuneration for example, but obviously if shareholders do not vote then governance is undermined.

It is of course unfortunate that there is a financial incentive for both you and companies to deter shareholder votes as they undoubtedly cost money to process, particularly if they are submitted on paper. But that is not a good justification for adopting the recent changes that Link Asset Services has adopted.

In your letter you rightly point out that registrars are not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. I will be writing to them to encourage them to take on such regulation as it seems totally inappropriate to me that this area of financial markets and corporate governance is not regulated. The FCA should lay down regulations about what Registrars can and cannot do so that voting is maximized regardless of financial considerations.”

I also noted that the Link Asset Services on-line portal does not meet the requirements of the Companies Act for an “electronic address”.

I am writing to both the FCA and the BEIS department asking them to start regulating registrars so as to clarify their responsibilities under the Companies Act and so that voting is encouraged. If necessary the Companies Act should be amended to ensure voting is maximised.

So that anyone can use the generic proxy voting form I have devised I have made it available on my web site here: http://www.roliscon.com/proxy-voting.html

There is also a version you can use where you wish to instruct your stockbroker to vote your shares that are held in a nominee account. Most will do so although there may be a charge and remember that for ISA accounts they have a legal obligation to do so under the ISA regulations.

Please let me know if you have any comments on the use of these forms. If there is sufficient usage they can be made more digitally enabled in future.

Private shareholders do need to vote to make sure that your voice is heard. So please use the forms I have supplied to ensure your votes are recorded for all General Meetings.

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

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Duty of Care or Fiduciary Duty to Investors?

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have published two papers on their approach to consumers (i.e. retail savers/investors in their terminology). These cover whether a new “Duty of Care”, or a “Fiduciary Duty” (not the same thing) should be introduced.

Many people view financial market operators as paying more attention to their own interests than their clients, or that they do not take reasonable care to treat their clients fairly.

However there has been concern expressed that new obligations might lead to even more regulation than we have at present, which adds to the cost of investment substantially as more complex rules are introduced and more compliance officers hired to monitor the rules. For example, stockbroking charges have been rising recently due to more onerous regulation, some of it emanating from the EU.

This is not a one-sided debate in this writer’s view but a Fiduciary Duty would be simple to define as it is an established legal concept. A Duty of Care rather releases the clients of any obligation to take care of their own best interests.

The papers concerned are present below and the FCA would no doubt welcome your own comments on the subject.

Approach to Consumers paper: https://www.fca.org.uk/publications/corporate-documents/approach-consumers

Discussion Paper on a duty of care and potential alternative approaches: https://www.fca.org.uk/publications/discussion-papers/dp18-5-duty-care-and-potential-alternative-approaches

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

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Impressions of the British Land AGM

I attended the Annual General Meeting of British Land Plc (BLND) today. This is a large FTSE-100 property company of course, focused on London offices (39% of portfolio) and Retail stores (most of the balance).

The trading statement issued in the morning was a mixed bag. Loan-to-value (LTV) further reduced to 26% (they have been selling off developments and repaying debt plus buying back shares with the resulting cash). There were positive comments about the office sector – the Chairman indicated in the meeting that the Brexit threat had put new developments on hold so there was a growing shortage of good quality office space in London. But retail comments were less positive – long term structural change driven by the internet and short-term trading headwinds, so the market “remains challenging”. The share price fell this morning as it has been doing since mid-June.

The Chairman, John Gildersleeve, mentioned NAV was up 6% last year but profits were down because of disposals (which reduce the rental income). He gave the impression that he thought British Land have been doing a good job of managing their property holdings and “reshaping” their retail portfolio. He also talked about their new ventures in flexible office space (“Storey” – now 80% let) and in homes to rent (e.g. on Canada Water). Whether these new ventures will be sufficient to offset the negative trends in retail property in general is not yet clear.

Shareholder questions focused on whether the portfolio valuations were accurate – the Chairman defended them; should they be developing offices in Dublin – answer No; or warehouses – no clear answer but general impression is to focus on what they know and stick to the UK; and the risk of rent controls on housing – risks are uncertain and it’s only a small element in their portfolio. There were some other questions of little consequence.

More than one shareholder questioned the large buy-backs undertaken by the company – they could have doubled the dividend instead (dividend yield will be about 4.0% this year, but they are doing more buy-backs). The Chairman said as they can buy their own shares (i.e. their assets) at 30% discount why should they not do it? Can’t say I am convinced by such arguments. The company is clearly reducing its size by selling assets and hence generating surplus cash but if they cannot find a good use for it they should return it to shareholders via dividends or a tender offer, not market share buy-backs.

I asked whether they could use the new “hybrid” AGM capability (part physical, part on-line) capability in the new Articles but the Chairman seemed to think that investors were not yet ready for that, which is a disappointment. It would have saved us all traipsing into the West End of London on a hot day.

The questions only lasted about an hour before we moved to a poll vote. No questions on remuneration which is excessive (4.5% voted against), or on why they need 13 directors a number of whom seemed to have no relevant backgrounds. Thirteen directors must surely make for dysfunctional board meetings. Perhaps more questions were deterred by the witty put-downs given by the Chairman to some shareholders which is a style I do not like even if it makes such events somewhat less boring.

There were also 14% of shareholders voted against the change to 14 days notice for General Meetings – good for them. But we did not see the voting figures until later so no opportunity to comment on them.

In summary, an unexciting AGM at an unexciting company. A typical PR event for geriatric shareholders on the whole so only useful to a limited extent.

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

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Investment Platforms Market Study

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have just published an interim report on their study of “investment platforms”. It makes for very interesting reading. That is particularly so after the revelations from Hardman last week. They reported that the revenue per assets held on the platform from Hargreaves Lansdown (HL) was more than twice that of soon to be listed AJ Bell Youinvest. HL is the gorilla in the direct to consumer platform market with about 40% market share. HL earns £473 per £100,000 invested while Youinvest earns only £209.

That surely suggests that competition is weak in this market. Indeed the FRC report highlights that investors not only have difficulty comparing the charges of different platforms, but they do not seem too concerned about high charges as they focus more on other aspects of the service provided. It also says on page 23 of the report: “Our qualitative research also found that consumer satisfaction levels are sometimes linked to satisfaction with overall investment returns, which tend to be attributed to the performance of the platform. This suggests some confusion about consumers’ understanding about platforms’ administrative function as opposed to the performance of investment products. So it is possible that consumers’ relatively high satisfaction levels with platforms could be influenced by the positive performance of financial markets in recent years”. In other words, the consumers of such services are very complacent about the costs they pay at present.

Another piece of evidence that this is not a competitive market obtained by the FRC was that they found that when platforms increased or decreased prices it had no significant impact on flows in and out of the platform. No doubt some platform operators will read that with joy, but others despair! 

Indeed when I made some comments on Citywire effectively saying I thought it suspicious that there were so many positive comments about Hargreaves Lansdown in response to an article reviewing the Hardman news, particularly as they were clearly much more expensive than other platforms who provided similar effective services (I use multiple ones) I was bombarded with comments from lovers of the HL service. Bearing in mind that platform charges can have a major impact on overall returns in the long term from stock market investments, you would think investors would pay more attention to what they are being charged.

One particular problem is that switching platforms is not only difficult and a lengthy process but can also incur charges. This is clearly anti-competitive behaviour which has been present for some years and despite complaints has not significantly improved.

The FRC summarises its findings as:

  • Switching between platforms can be difficult. Consumers who would benefit from switching can find it difficult to do so.
  • Shopping around can be difficult. Consumers who are price sensitive can find it difficult to shop around and choose a lower-cost platform.
  • The risks and expected returns of model portfolios with similar risk labels are unclear.
  • Consumers may be missing out by holding too much cash.
  • So-called “orphan clients” who were previously advised but no longer have any relationship with a financial adviser face higher charges and lower service.

That’s a good analysis of the issues. The FCA has proposed some remedies but no specific action on improving cost comparability and the proposals on improving transfer times are also quite weak although they are threatening to ban exit charges. That would certainly be a good step in the right direction. Note that a lot of the problems in transfers stem from in-specie transfers of holdings in funds and shares held in nominee accounts. Because there is no simple registration system for share and fund holdings, this complicates the transfer process enormously.

One interesting comment from the AIC on the FCA report was that it did not examine the relative performance of different investment managers, i.e. suggesting that lower cost investment trusts that they represent might be subject to prejudice by platforms. They suggest the FCA should look at that issue when looking at the competitiveness of this market.

In summary, I suggest the platform operators will be pleased with the FCA report as they have got off relatively lightly. Despite the fact that the report makes it obvious that it is a deeply uncompetitive market as regards price or even other aspects, no very firm action is proposed. But informed investors can no doubt finesse their way through the complexities of the pricing structure and service levels of different platform operators. I can only encourage you to do so and if an operator increases their charges to your disadvantage then MOVE!

The FCA Report is present here: https://www.fca.org.uk/publication/market-studies/ms17-1-2.pdf

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

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Brexit and Other News

It’s been a busy few days even if stock market news is thinning out now we are into summer. The white paper outlining how Theresa May’s cabinet (at least those who are left) would like to do a deal with the EU has been published. I advised my followers via Twitter to read it rather than simply read the media commentary on it which tends to be slanted based on the writer’s emotions to “leave” or “remain”. You can find the white paper here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-future-relationship-between-the-united-kingdom-and-the-european-union

Needless to say I have taken my own advice, and read it all. As a supporter of Brexit primarily because I think it is necessary to regain democratic control of our laws, I think it gives me most of what I was looking for.

On goods and agri-products it does mean that we will be adhering to EU standards but is that a major problem? It will ease trade if we do so, just as we adhere to internationally agreed standards in some areas. I do not see that it will necessarily thwart any free-trade agreements with the USA or any other country, regardless of what Trump says. A free trade agreement is primarily about having no tariff barriers but there are bound to be issues about technical standards. For example, does Mr Trump expect the UK to accept US cars built to US technical standards for us to get a free trade deal with the USA? If he does then we would risk becoming a poodle of the USA rather than the EU. That makes no sense when we are much closer to the EU, already conform to their standards in many areas, and do more trade with them. Some Brexiteers argue that we should not be a poodle of either of course, but for us to start setting our own standards and enforcing them would be a massive task in the short term. Likewise continuing to adhere to EU standards on employment rights and competition law, at least for some time, does not seem totally unreasonable even if the European Court of Justice might give rulings on issues that relate to them.

Whether the EU will accept Mrs May’s proposals is far from certain. The proposed customs arrangements where we collect EU tariffs on goods coming into the UK that are destined for EU countries seems particularly problematic. Is that workable in practice and at reasonable cost? And the refund arrangements for goods that do not get forwarded might be a recipe for large scale fraud I suspect.

So on the whole, I am supportive of the white paper’s proposals if in any negotiation with the EU no more is conceded. I hope Donald Trump gives Mrs May some advice on hard bargaining while he is here.

But as I said before, read the white paper and make up your own mind. Your comments are welcomed.

How Not to Run an AGM

On Wednesday I attended an AGM of an EIS company named British Smaller Country Inns 2 Plc (one of four similar companies). The directors have managed to turn my investment of £2,400 into £670 over 12 years (based on the latest estimate of net assets). I think the directors are fools for not trying to exit the pubs market years ago and this AGM gave other examples of their incompetence. Firstly the Chairman, Martin Sherwood, does not know how to run the voting at an AGM according to the Companies Act. He announced a “show of hands” vote but then proceeded to add the submitted proxy votes to the count of raised hands before declaring the result. In essence you can only take into account the proxy votes if a poll is involved in which case the show of hands vote is ignored. Mr Sherwood did not understand this point when I raised it.

I also raised the fact that the company had sent out from it’s email address an “invite” that was clearly “phishing” of some kind. When I raised this at the time he said the company had been “hacked”. Bearing in mind the email had been sent to a number of shareholders, and probably everyone in their email contact list when that could be thousands of people, I asked whether they had reported it to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO)? Who are they, never heard of them, was the response at the AGM. Well for Mr Sherwood’s information and everyone else, if there is a significant leakage of personal information, then it should be reported to the ICO (see https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/report-a-breach/ ). This is a legal requirement since the 25th May. It simply astonishes me that a director of a Plc is not familiar with the ICO and their responsibilities under the GDPR regulations.

As there is only one pub remaining to be sold in British Country Inns 2, after which the company is likely to be wound up, I may get an exit within a year or so and will then be able to claim “loss relief”. Shareholders in the other linked companies are not so fortunate as they may take longer to reach wind-up. Originally I did not invest directly in this EIS company but via a fund. I am now very wary about EIS fund offerings. How many really show a profit rather than just provide a vehicle for tax refunds?

Proven Growth & Income VCT

After the above AGM I moved on to the Proven Growth & Income VCT (PGOO), another tax relief focused vehicle but with a much better track record. In this case I am at least showing a profit even ignoring the generous tax reliefs. Total return last year was 4.35% according to my calculations, but only 2.7% according to the company. I queried the difference and it’s probably accounted for the fact they are calculating it on the mid-year average asset value when I do it on the year start figure. Total return (change in net asset value per share plus dividends paid out) is the only measure to focus on for VCTs and other investment trusts.

Not much to note at this AGM with only 4 ordinary shareholders present. I queried the length of service of the directors, with 2 having served more than 9 years. They are not apparently in any hurry to refresh the board however.

The manager said it was difficult to find new deals – a “wall of money” going onto companies that would qualify for VCT investment. But they are doing more marketing to raise awareness of their company.

Oxford Technology VCTs

Yesterday I attended the AGMs of the Oxford Technology VCTs in Oxford (all four of them) who are a very different beast altogether with a very disappointing track record since formation. Figures for total return (after tax relief) were given as 107.4, 52.9 122.2 and 82.9 respectively since foundation. As manager Lucius Cary said in his presentation, “not a great result – not brilliant but not a disaster either”. They have had some disappointments and a lack of really big hits which one needs when investing in early stage technology companies. But clearly many investors attending were unhappy with several suggestions for winding-up the companies. That was particularly vociferous for OT4 where there is no problem with investors having claimed capital gains roll-over relief.

The directors, who were all changed not so long ago, suggested wind-up would be difficult. They also think there is value to be realised that would be lost in any “fire sale”. They recognize these VCTs are too small and with no major new investments being made and no fund raising likely, they are aware of the strategic issues. But they are apparently looking at possibly doing a similar deal to that done by the Hygea VCT who appointed a new, experienced manager to raise a “C” share fund. That company has been renamed the Seneca VCT accordingly.

We had presentations from three of their investee companies: Ixaris (electronic payments business), Scancell (a listed pharma company) and Select (printer management software). The last one was somewhat interesting as I am familiar with the sector from my past career. But Select used to be a company that had its own products and IP but seemed to have turned into a distributor of other people’s products. Distributors are not valued highly and in the presentation the typical problems of being a distributor became apparent – they lost money last year due to a change in the relationship with their major supplier to their disadvantage.

Scancell and Ixaris are both major proportions of the portfolios so a lot depends on their future results. Scancell result is very dependent on the outcome of clinical trials which won’t be available until 2019. But it was mentioned that one analyst values then at 55p when the current market price is 12p.

The presentation from Ixaris was by David Sear via Skype who was appointed Chairman a year ago. They also changed CEO a week ago. Note: for those who saw a presentation by LoopUp recently at the Amati AIM VCT agm where one member of the audience suggested that everyone should use Skype as it works fine, this latest event was a good demonstration of why Skype is not fit for business use – audio out of synch with video, download delays, etc.

I have to admit to knowing a lot about Ixaris as I was a founder investor 14 years ago and still hold a few shares directly. It has been slow progress, although revenue has been increasing and they are near EBITDA profitability. The new management team does seem to be improving the business but it was suggested that a “possible liquidity event” was 2 years away and it might be via a public flotation. But the bad news was Sear’s mention of a contractual issue with Visa for their Entropay pre-paid card service. Incidentally if you want a pre-paid card for security reasons then the Entropay service is a good one. Ixaris do have a second major division though that seems to be doing well.

Some of the other investee companies were covered in brief, and they do appear to have prospects in some cases. But Plasma Antennas for which there were high hopes at one time has been written off.

When it came to the votes, all the resolutions were passed on a show of hands, including re-election of all the directors, and perhaps even more importantly on the votes to continue with the companies, including even on OT4!

It was an educational AGM and my conclusion is that the directors are actually doing the right things with these problem companies. These VCTs are trading a high discounts to NAV, partly because there are no company share buy-backs unlike in many VCTs. But it would be a brave investor to buy the shares in the market. I only have a small holding in one of them.

K3 Business Technology (KBT), MaxCyte (MXCT), Eservglobal (ESG) and FairFX (FFX)

On Wednesday I attended presentations on the above four companies at the ShareSoc Growth Company Seminar in London. The last of those four I hold some shares in, and at least they made a small profit last year whereas all the others reported losses. With AIM companies, as the private equity world often says, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.

K3 showed the same problems historically as in Select mentioned above. Being a distributor is not an easy life and it’s difficult to make money doing that. But new management is changing the focus which may improve matters. Maxcyte is a typical pharma company and I never understand the technology in these businesses. I think you need a degree in biochemistry to even get to grips with developments in the sector. I have no idea whether it will come good in the end. Eservglobal seem to be moving from a mobile payment offering to focus on “Homesend” – sending money internationally more quickly and at lower cost than traditional banks can do. Earthport is a similar business I believe and that has not yet been reporting profits.

FairFX has a number of electronic money/payment offerings with the latest being a “business” account for SMEs. That might be very attractive to the large numbers of such companies. I have seen this company present before and the message is always clear and the questions answered well whereas the other companies presenting failed to convince me.

An eventful week, compounded by stock market volatility. Summer is the time to pick up bargains and sell the over-hyped stocks when buyers depart for their holidays.

Curtis Banks

One final item; I seem to be having some payment problems with Curtis Banks (an AIM listed company) who manage one of my SIPPs that is in drawdown. They took over a business called Pointon York and since then there have been delays in payments, or in one case two payments made in error. Reviews of the service, including comments from employees on the web seem somewhat poor. If anyone else is having problems with them, please contact me.

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

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