Running Out of Gas, and InvestorEase to Close

Media reports suggest that National Grid is running out of gas, and having to pay industrial users to stop consuming it. This is due to the exceptionally cold weather spell. But National Grid has also been running out of shareholders because of fears over possible nationalisation. The share price is down by 33% on its peak in 2016. As I have probably said before, the threat of nationalisation has undoubtedly spooked international investors who now dominate the holdings of UK public companies.

It seems Macquarie analysts have suggested that investors should encourage utility companies to move their domicile to another country. Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has said “Transferring asset holdings overseas in pursuit of higher compensation shows total contempt for the British Public”, but I think she complains too much. Surely moving the registration of a holding company would not be effective? The Government could just take control of the assets and bearing in mind principles set by other recent laws and legal judgements, just pay what they wanted. It would all be justified as being “in the national interest” even under EU law if that still applied.

One would have to pick the domicile carefully to gain much benefit. For example, National Grid has substantial assets in the USA so they could possibly keep those out of reach by demerging the relevant part of their business. But that only provides limited protection to current investors.

I have not personally held National Grid for some time because of the political risk and am not invested in other utility companies either. If those companies wish to avoid the risks of a Labour Government and their current policies, they might find it wise to look at other ways of thwarting damage to their shareholders interests.

InvestorEase

InvestorEase is a share portfolio management software product which I have used for the last 20 years. The current owner (Financial Express) has announced they are closing the service at the end of May on the basis that it is no longer economic to continue with it.

This is disappointing as although I also use ShareScope, there are some features in InvestorEase that are not easily replicated in the former. InvestorEase is also quicker and easier to use than ShareScope which has so many options that configuration is complex (SharePad from the same company is not a viable alternative either from my knowledge of it). But it’s hardly surprising that FE decided to close InvestorEase as the developer who maintains the software has clearly been having difficulty and losing interest of late.

I also have a portfolio in Stockopedia, but again I am not sure that will give a good solution. I need a product/service that enables maintenance of multiple portfolios with large numbers of holdings and transactions, plus a consolidated view on demand. The other reason I am running more than one such product is because I like to have a back-up in emergencies and by duplicating entries in the two products I can spot any obvious errors easily.

So any suggestions for good alternative solutions for the private but semi-professional investor would be welcomed.

Or perhaps anyone who might have an interest in taking on the product, which has suffered from total lack of marketing in recent years, should contact Financial Express.

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

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Libel Settlement – Peace Breaks Out

Some readers of this blog may have become aware that I was pursuing a libel action against Tom Winnifrith of ShareProphets. Tom writes a newsletter which many private investors read, and he often tackles the dubious activities of some public companies and their directors – particularly AIM companies – which can only be applauded.

Our legal dispute has now been settled and Tom has withdrawn his allegations to my satisfaction. He is in the process of removing them from the web. He has even gone so far as to call me an “underlying good person” in a recent podcast so I am feeling quite saintly at present. I hope readers will not hear more about this matter.

The following statement was agreed by both parties as part of the Settlement Agreement.

Roger Lawson & Tom Winnifrith: a joint statement

Roger Lawson and Tom Winnifrith have agreed that Mr Lawson’s legal action against Tom Winnifrith for libel will not be pursued further. Life is too short. Both men are agreed that nearly all of the work done by each other on seeking reform of AIM and in campaigning against poor corporate governance is worthwhile. There are too many ways in which the stock market needs reform and too many individuals who break the rules that do exist, for energies and money to be wasted on a fight that will enrich only lawyers. 

Tom Winnifrith stated: I stand by my assertion that Roger Lawson should have declared ownership of shares when writing about them at all times and it would have been better practice to have advised readers to sell before doing so himself. But Roger acted in line with the rules for the ShareSoc blog and other publications. More importantly I am sure that he did not act in the way he did in order to secure personal financial gain. Nor did he secure a gain as a result. Roger can be somewhat cantankerous but his heart is normally in the right place; he is not the sort of man I want to be fighting, especially as on most issues we are in agreement. My energies should be focussed on the bad guys and Roger is not one of them. 

Roger Lawson stated: Like most people I find Tom Winnifrith’s language not always to my liking. However on most occasions when he goes after a company his judgement is shown to be correct and in doing that he performs a valuable service. In publishing the Globo dossier he showed bravery other journalists baulked at and with hindsight he asked all the right questions of blinkx and Globo. Since we agree on far more than we disagree on it is right that instead of making lawyers rich with any law suit we both move on and continue to offer fair criticisms of the London market and to fight on behalf of ordinary investors.

<End>

Part of the dispute was about the fact that I sometimes commented on shares that I owned. That continues to be the case on this blog, although I frequently comment on shares that I have never had any financial interest in whatsoever (for example Autonomy in my last blog post simply from my knowledge of the IT world). Excluding shares that I have owned would not make sense as I often have a deeper understanding of those companies than any financial journalist could quickly acquire. Readers should read the About page on this blog to understand the legal terms that apply to the content and use of this blog which covers that point, although I would normally declare any interest in shares when I write about them.

Postscript: Readers are reminded that I never give buy or sell recommendations on shares, and have never done so in the past. I try to give a balanced view about companies so if I point out positive aspects I am likely to also include the negative aspects. A good example is my recent comments on Rightmove Plc. Whether my comments are fair and accurate at the time you will need to judge for yourself, and hindsight can distort the picture. I am generally dubious about the ethics of those who comment negatively on companies in public while shorting the shares and likewise I do not appreciate those investors who puff shares they hold – even institutional fund managers are frequently guilty of “talking their own book” which I consider a dubious practice. It is unfortunate that the ethics of the financial world leave a lot to be desired and “fake news” is a growing problem.

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

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Autonomy Legal Case and Revenue Recognition

There is an interesting report in today’s Financial Times on the legal case against the former CFO of Autonomy. Leading British software company Autonomy Plc was acquired by Hewlett Packard for $11 billion but subsequently had to write it down by $5 billion. They alleged that Autonomy had inflated the value of the business by various accounting practices and that is now the subject of a civil law suit.

But the interesting aspect is that the former CFO, Sushovan Hussain, is facing a criminal court today in California for 15 counts of conspiracy and wire fraud associated with the alleged falsification of Autonomy’s accounts. The UK’s Serious Fraud Office did look at the case but dropped it in 2015.

Mike Lynch of Autonomy has vigorously denied the allegations and has even set up a web site to defend himself and others against the allegations. You can read his side of the story here: https://autonomyaccounts.org/

But for investors the FT article gives a nice list of the abuses that are alleged and are common in software companies. They include:

  • Booking transactions to resellers as revenue when there was no end-user license (i.e. “channel stuffing” as it is sometimes called).
  • Engaging in “round-trip” transactions where purchases were invented so it could pay money to companies which then returned it to Autonomy to cover fictitious sales.
  • Backdating sales transactions so they fell into a previous accounting period.

There is also a claim previously reported that bundles of hardware/software sales were treated as solely software in the accounts. Why does this matter? Because software sales are valued in company valuations much more highly than hardware sales.

The above are some of the things that investors in IT companies need to look at although abuse can be difficult to spot in the published accounts of a public company. High accounts receivable and apparent lengthy payment delays can be clues. There were some questions raised about Autonomy’s accounts even before the takeover.

One claim by Autonomy’s founder, Mike Lynch, is that some of the disputed differences are simply down to different accounting standards (US GAAP versus IFRS), but I am not sure that stands up to scrutiny.

Hewlett-Packard are effectively saying they were sold a pup, while Autonomy executives deny wrong-doing and blame HP for not reading their due diligence report carefully, screwing up the subsequent integration and then searching for a scapegoat after what turned out to be a disaster of an acquisition.

But if the SEC’s California prosecutors make the charges stick then there may be more problems for Mike Lynch.

The auditors of Autonomy were Deloittes.

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

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Persimmon Pay and Rightmove Results

This morning the directors of Persimmon (PSN) gave in to demands to revise the benefits they would get from their LTIP scheme. This has drawn lots of criticism from investors, even institutional ones who voted for the scheme a few years back. They clearly either did not understand the workings of the scheme or did not understand the possible implications. I voted against it at the time as a holder of shares in this company, but then I do against most LTIPs. The LTIP concerned potentially entitles three directors and other staff to hundreds of millions of pounds in shares.

Three of the directors have agreed to cut their entitlement to shares on the “second vesting” by 50%. They have also agreed to extend the required holding period and put a cap on the value of any future exercise.

However, they have not conceded anything on the first tranche of vesting which vested on the 31st December 2017. Director Jeff Fairburn, has said he will devote a substantial proportion of his award to charity, but surely that is simply a way to minimise his tax bill.

One particularly annoying aspect of the announcement this morning is this statement therein: “The Board believes that the LTIP put in place in 2012 has been a significant factor in the Company’s outstanding performance.  In particular, it has contributed to industry-leading levels of margin, return on assets and cash generation”. This is plain hogwash. The main factors were a buoyant housing market, supported by the Government’s “Help to Buy” scheme. House prices rose sharply driven by a shortage of housing while record low interest rates encouraged buy-to-let investors. It was the most benign housing market for decades.

So although the three directors have made some concessions, and the company Chairman has resigned, I suggest this has not really been as satisfactory an outcome as many folks would have liked to see.

Rightmove Results

Another company I hold who also operate in the property sector is Rightmove (RMV). This business mainly provides an advertising platform for estate agents. Results were much as forecast with revenue up 11% and adjusted earnings per share up 14%. These are good figures bearing in mind that there were some concerns about increased competition from two other listed companies, Zoopla and OnTheMarket, plus concerns that the business was maturing. In addition the number of house moves has been falling, thus impacting one would have assumed on estate agent transactions, but they seem to be spending more to obtain what business is available to them.

There are very few estate agents, traditional or on-line ones, that are not signed up with Rightmove plus one or other of the competitors. Although growth in revenue to Rightmove has been slowing, it’s still improving mainly because of price increases and new options available to advertisers. It is clear that Rightmove has considerable “pricing power” over its customers.

The really interesting aspect of this business is their return on capital that they achieve. On my calculations the return on equity (ROE) based on the latest numbers is 1,034% (that’s not a typo, it is over one thousand per cent).

This is the kind of business I like. A dominant market position due to the “network” effect of being the largest property portal, plus superb return on capital.

But their remuneration scheme is not much better than Persimmon’s. Retiring CEO Nick McKittrick received £159,200 in base salary last year, but the benefit from LTIPs is given as £1,063,657, i.e. seven times as much. Other senior directors had similar ratios if other bonuses are included (cash bonuses and deferred share bonuses). Such aggressive bonus arrangements distort behaviour. In the case of Rightmove I believe it might have resulted in an excessive emphasis on short-term profits which has enabled their two listed competitors to grab significant market shares.

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

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RBS, GRG and Borrowing From Banks

I just had a read of the Financial Conduct Authority’s report on the Global Restructuring Group of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). This was published by the Treasury Select Committee despite the fact that the FCA wished to delay it further. At 361 pages in length, it’s not exactly a quick read.

The operations of GRG have been the subject of many complaints – hundreds in fact from mainly smaller businesses. This was a part of GRG where borrowers in default were placed so as to “help” them. In reality their fees were raised and many of the financially distressed companies that went through the process ended up being put into administration.

The FCA report certainly supports many of the complaints. It says one in six of the cases it examined RBS had caused “material financial distress”. They suggest there were major failings in GRG’s “governance and oversight arrangements” where narrow commercial objectives were paramount. The interests of their customers were ignored and the stated objectives of GRG to support the turnaround of potentially viable customers was not pursued. In summary they conclude there was “widespread inappropriate treatment of customers”.

In other words, the interests of RBS took precedence. Bearing in mind that this was the culture in RBS under the leadership of Fred Goodwin, it’s not that surprising. I saw this myself where RBS was involved with public companies in some difficulties. The other stakeholders seemed to be ignored by RBS who pursued their own interests regardless. But should borrowers have ever expected a bank like RBS to take account of their interests?

Regrettably small businesses often rely on bank lending to fund their working capital. This is a very dangerous practice when working capital can swing violently in response to market circumstances. Even larger companies often go bust when they take on too much debt unwisely and simply run out of cash – the latest example being Carillion of course.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, people have lowered their trust in bankers. They are now rated alongside estate agents and used car salesmen. But past trusts in bankers was always misplaced. Bankers are there to make money from you or your company. When you have lots of assets and cash, they are happy to lend on good terms. When you really need the funds, they will be reluctant to lend and if they do charge high fees and impose onerous terms. The moral is: businesses should be financed by risk capital, i.e. equity or preference shares.

Companies that gear up their balance sheets with debt rather than equity (and RBS itself was a great example of the problem of little equity to support its business back in 2008), might apparently be improving the “efficiency” of their financial structure and enable higher profits but in reality they are also increasing the riskiness of the business. Investors should be very wary of companies with high or increasing debts. It might look easy to repay the interest due out of cash flow now, but tomorrow it might look very different.

You can read the full FCA report on GRG here: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/treasury/s166-rbs-grg.pdf

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

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Good Growth and Why the London Plan is Strategically Flawed

NHS in crisis (queues in A&E, operations postponed and delays getting to see your GP), road network suffering from worse congestion, overcrowded trains and underground in London, air pollution still a problem, not enough schools to accommodate growing numbers of children and simply not enough houses to meet the demand for homes. These are simply symptoms of too many people and not enough infrastructure.

For those concerned about the future of one of the major financial capitals of the world, namely, London, here’s an editorial I wrote for the Alliance of British Drivers on the subject of the “London Plan” – on which there is a recently launched public consultation:

The population of the UK has been growing rapidly and particularly in London and the South-East. The latest figures from TfL show that the number of trips by London residents grew by 1.3% in 2016, up by 19.7% from the year 2000. The population of London grew by 21.4% in that period.

Forecasts for the future are for it to grow from the level of 8.8 million people in 2016 to 10.8 million in 2041 according to the Mayor’s London Plan, i.e. another 22%.

More people means more housing demand, more businesses in which they can work, more shops (or more internet shopping deliveries) to supply them, more transport to move them around and more demand on local authorities to supply services to them.

In addition more people means more air pollution – it’s not just transport that generates air pollution and even if every vehicle in London was a zero emission one we would still have major emissions from office and domestic heating, from construction activities, and from many other sources.

The London Plan and Mayor Sadiq Khan talk about “good growth” but unfortunately the exact opposite is likely to be the case. It will be “bad” growth as the infrastructure fails to keep up with population growth even if we could afford to build it.

In London we have not kept up with the pace of population growth for many years and the future will surely be no different.

London residents have suffered from the problems of past policies which condoned if not actually promoted the growth of London’s population. Indeed Mayor Khan insists London should remain “open” which no doubt means in other language that he is opposed to halting immigration – for example he opposes Brexit and any restrictions on EU residents moving to London which has been one source of growth in the population in recent years.

There are of course several policies that wise politicians might adopt to tackle these problems. Restrictions on immigration and the promotion of birth control are two of them that would limit population growth. China is a great example of how a public policy to discourage children has resulted in dynamic economic growth whereas previously China suffered from population growth that outpaced the provision of resources to support them – result: abject poverty for much of the population; that is now receding into history.

The other answer is to redistribute the population to less crowded parts of the country. It is easier and cheaper to build new infrastructure and homes in less populous parts of the country than London. Back in the 1940s and 1950s there was a national policy to encourage businesses and people to move out of London into “New Towns” such as Bracknell, Basildon, Harlow, Stevenage, Milton Keynes and even further afield.

Government departments that were based in central London were moved to places such as Cardiff or the North of England. The population of London fell as a result.

One way to solve the problems of traffic congestion and demand for housing in London would be to encourage redistribution. This could be encouraged by suitable planning policies, but there is nothing in the proposed London Plan to support such measures. In the past, businesses and people were only too happy to move to a better environment. Businesses got low cost factories and offices. People got new, better quality homes and there were well planned schools and medical facilities.

Despite the attitude of many non-residents to the New Towns, most of those who actually live in them thought they were a massive improvement and continue to do so. It just requires political leadership and wise financial policies to encourage such change.

These are towns with few traffic congestion or air pollution problems even though some of them are now the size of cities – for example Milton Keynes now has a population of 230,000.

It is worth pointing out that past policies for New Towns and redistribution of London’s population were supported by both Labour and Conservative Governments. But we have more recently had left-wing Mayors in London (Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan) who adopted policies that seemed to encourage the growth in the population of London for their own political purposes, thus ignoring the results of their own policies on the living standards of Londoners. So we get lots of young people living in poor quality flats, unable to buy a home while social housing provision cannot cope with the demand.

The Mayor’s London Plan is an example of how not to respond wisely to the forecast growth in the population of London. His only solution to the inadequate road network and inadequate capacity on the London Underground or surface rail is to encourage people to walk, cycle or catch a bus. But usage of buses has been declining as they get delayed by traffic congestion and provide a very poor quality experience for the users.

The London Plan should tackle this issue of inappropriate population growth. The rapid population growth that is forecast is bound to be “Bad Growth”, not “Good Growth” as the London Plan suggests. Population growth and its control should underpin every policy that needs to be adopted in the spatial development strategy of London.

For more background on the London Plan, see: https://abdlondon.wordpress.com/2018/01/07/london-plan-abd-submits-comments/

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

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The Art of Execution – Essential Reading For Investors

I am an avid reader of newsletters and the national press on investment matters and noticed a couple of writers recently mentioned very positively the book “The Art of Execution” by Lee Freeman-Shor. I have now read it myself and it’s definitely a book every stock market investor should read. Here’s why:

There are thousands of books available on investment, aimed at both neophyte and experienced investors. They tend to fall into two main groups: those teaching you how to pick out good investments and those explaining how successful past investors have operated. Incidentally reading the latter ones simply tells you that there are many different styles that can be successfully used. But the main problem with the former approach alone, as the author points out, is that even with the most expert fund managers (and the most highly paid), only 49% of their “best ideas” made money when he analysed their performance.

Mr Freeman-Shor managed investors in his role as a fund manager at Old Mutual Global Investors and studied all the deals they did over seven years. Some investors made money for him overall but others did not, and the main differentiator was how they reacted to various circumstances, not their skills in initial stock selection.

Every investor faces decisions. When your favourite stock, where you have a big holding, drops 20% do you cut your losses and sell, or buy more? When another stock rises by 20%, 30% or more do you sell it to realise profits in fear of it falling back? Or do you buy more? Or perhaps you sell some and keep the rest (“top slicing” as it is called)? Do you worry when your portfolio ends up with 40% or 50% in one or two holdings?

Many investment gurus tell you to use a “stop-loss” to avoid big mistakes, but Freeman-Shor explains that many successful managers actually bought more if they believed in the fundamentals of a company. Clearly there is more to this subject of successful execution than the simple rules advocated by many. What really differentiated the successful investors is not how good they were at picking out winners, but how they managed their holdings later. He identifies a few distinct styles which differentiate the winners from the losers.

One of the handicaps of professional investors the author identifies is their unwillingness to take risks in case they get fired for short term underperformance. So they tend to over-diversify and take profits too early. These are bad habits that private investors can avoid.

There is much in this book that I have learned myself from 30 years of investing. But the author identifies the key habits and investment styles than can be successful. Essential reading for any new investor and highly recommended. And also interesting for those already experienced.

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

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