Woodford Fund and Trust News

The good news for investors in the Woodford Patient Capital Trust (WPCT) is that Schroders are taking over management of the portfolio.  The share price promptly jumped upwards on the news (up about 29% at the time of writing), but speculators need to be wary. Although the trust is still at a large discount to the Net Asset Value, I looked at the portfolio yesterday and was not impressed.

These are the top ten holdings by value: Rutherford Health, Benevolent AI, Atom Bank, Oxford Nanopore, Industrial Heat, Immunocore A Pref, Kymab B Pref, Mission Therapeutics, Ratesetter and Autolus. There may be some value in there but actually judging it, or confirming it, is far from easy.

One issue not raised in the recent BBC Panorama programme on Woodford was that of the naming of the Woodford Equity Income Fund. Such funds typically focus on paying high dividends to investors and to do so they invest in high dividend paying companies. They therefore tend to hold boring large cap companies. But the Woodford fund, which is now being wound up, was very different. It did have some high dividend paying holdings in the fund but not necessarily large cap ones and it also had a number of early stage companies that were unlisted. This was not a typical “Equity Income” fund. Investors might feel they were misled in that regard by the name.

For a more typical “equity income” fund, look at City of London Investment Trust (CTY) who are holding their Annual General Meeting today at 2.30 pm. You may be able to watch the AGM on-line, or see a recording later, by going to https://www.janushenderson.com/en-gb/investor/ . Their top ten holdings at the year end were: Shell, HSBC, Diageo, BP, Unilever, Prudential, Lloyds Bank, RELX, BAT and Rio Tinto.

But these were the top ten holdings in the Woodford Equity Income Fund: Barratt Developments, Burford Capital, Taylor Wimpey, Benevolent Ai, Provident Financial, Theravance Biopharma, Countryside Properties, Oxford Nanopore, Ip Group and Raven Property Convertible Pref 6.5%. That’s a very different kind of portfolio.

The AIC definition of an equity income fund primarily says that typically the company will have a yield on the underlying portfolio ranging between 110% and 175% of that of an All-Share Index (World or UK). It says nothing about the riskiness of the companies being invested in nor their size when income investors are typically looking for security of income. Surely the definition of an equity income fund needs revisiting and more information provided to investors. The latter is of course now taking place as new direct investors have to confirm they have read the KID on the fund when doing so on-line but do they read them and understand them?

Postscript: The broadcast on-line video of the City of London IT AGM as definitely promised in the notice of the meeting could not be found when required and after contacting Janus Henderson I am still awaiting a call back 24 hours later to tell me where a recording might be. This is really not good enough.

Postscript 2 (4 days later): A recording of the presentation by Job Curtis at the City of London AGM and the business of the meeting is present here: https://www.janushenderson.com/en-gb/investor/investment-trusts-live/ .

As regards Woodford Patient Capital Trust, it has been pointed out to me that one aspect I did not mention and which might affect an investors view of the valuation was the high level of debt in the company. The gearing has grown as some equity holdings were disposed of and this may be another problem for Schroders.

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

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Population Trends and Productivity

One of the key factors that affects the wealth of the population of the UK is labour productivity. It also has a big influence on the value of UK companies in which many of my readers have a strong interest.  Only by improving productivity can we become richer in essence. But even the Government recognises that this country has a big problem at present because productivity is not improving, unlike in some of our competitors.

Some relevant information on this issue recently came to light in the pages of the FT. First the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that population growth is slowing due to worsening life expectancy. But it’s still expected to grow by 3 million to 69.4 million by mid-2028. It also concludes that it is migration that is driving UK population growth and as the post-war baby boomers die that impact will strengthen.

Of the UK countries, England is expected to grow population more rapidly, rising by 10.3% to 2043, and I can guess where most of that will settle – London and the South-East no doubt based on recent past trends.

Now you may have concerns about that in terms of the “liveability” of the area. It will worsen the pressure on the public transport network and congestion on the road network. It will also increase air pollution substantially as air pollution directly relates to the business and travel activity of the population and the number of homes. But a letter from Professor Nicholas Oulton in the same FT pointed out that the growth of hours worked in the UK, largely fueled by migration, has reduced our productivity growth to near zero. He says the flip side of the UK’s job miracle is the productivity disaster [unemployment is at record lows].

This is not just a debate for economists though, because Brexit will enable the UK to restrict immigration from Europe which is currently unrestrained and has led to 18% of the workforce now being foreign born. That ready supply of both skilled and unskilled labour provides a disincentive for UK companies to invest in more machinery or IT systems and explains both the poor productivity growth and lack of capital investment. We have just been creating a lot of low-paid jobs.

The recent uncertainty over Brexit has also created difficulties for many businesses who are generally horrified by yet more delays in Parliament over concluding the matter. This is becoming an even more important issue than whether it is a hard or soft Brexit. So what should the Prime Minister do now that his Bill debate timetable was voted down thus making it very difficult to achieve his desired exit on October the 31st? I suggest he needs to either agree a very short delay with the EU together with some agreement from the Labour Party and others that wrecking amendments will not proliferate – I do not consider it totally unreasonable that more time was required to debate the Brexit Biill. Or he needs to get a General Election agreed. It seems that may just be possible.

But it is important to get Brexit completed if the UK is to tackle the problem of low productivity and hence low wages driven by excessive immigration.

It is the low and poor growth in wages for most of the population that is also driving the social unrest in the country which is an issue that cannot be ignored.

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

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Panorama on Woodford – Expletives Deleted?

Panorama covered the Woodford debacle last night and the issue of conflicts of interest in fund managers. They tried door-stepping Neil Woodford to ask him some questions, but he just walked past them. I think the questions would have been rhetorical anyway, such as “why did he make so many duff bets on companies” and “why should he have made millions while investors in his funds lost money”?

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) came in for a lot of criticism for not intervening sooner and allegedly not enforcing the rules concerning the liquidity of holdings in open-ended funds.

My old sparring partner T** W** was interviewed in his new home in Wales – looks like he has a renovation project on his hands. I don’t like to mention his name in case it attracts readers to follow him when they might find his use of language somewhat offensive. But in this interview there were no expletives which is unusual for him – perhaps the BBC deleted them.  They also interviewed some investors in the Woodford funds and one of them definitely had her expletives deleted.

The programme also covered the issue of the conflicts of interest in fund managers such as the fact that as their fees are based on the value of funds under management, there are strong incentives to grow the assets and also an incentive to manipulate the share prices. For example, without suggesting that Woodford specifically did these things, if a fund manager buys more of a listed stock in the market then that can raise the price, particularly when the stock is a small cap one and relatively illiquid. In the case of unlisted stocks, investing at a higher price than any previous trades causes the whole company to be revalued upwards (see BVCA valuation rules). There is clearly the possibility of perverse incentives here.

The programme also mentioned the case of Mark Denning an investment manager for Capital Group who allegedly had been trading in stocks on his personal account that were also held by the fund he managed. He denies it, but clearly such activity could enable “front-running” of trades and other abuses. The Panorama programme argued that there was in essence very little oversight of fund managers.

In summary the BBC programme was a good overview of the issues and T** W** made a useful contribution. The FCA should certainly be tightening up on the oversight of open-ended funds and their managers, and should be reviewing the liquidity rules even if they are bound by the EU Directives in that regard at present.

As the FCA never acts quickly, which is of course part of the problem, in the meantime investors might like to consider what I said in my recent book in the chapter on Trusts and Funds. I repeat some excerpts here:

“A key measure of the merit of a fund is its long-term performance against similar funds or its benchmark”. [Woodford’s funds, after he set up his new management company. never demonstrated that].

“One issue to examine is whether a fund manager has a consistent and effective process for selecting investments if they are an active manager. It is important that they are not simply making ad-hoc decisions about investments however experienced they are”. [See my comments on City of London Investment Group in a previous blog post for an example].

“To judge whether a fund manager is competent it helps to look at the underlying companies in which they invest. Are they investing in companies that show a high return on capital while being on relatively low P/Es and with significant growth in earnings or are they investing in shares that appear to be simply cheap? Are they picking companies that are of high quality – in other words displaying the characteristics covered in the first few chapters of this book?” [Anyone looking at the holdings of the Woodford Equity Income Fund or Patient Capital Trust would have realised that many of the holdings were speculative].

One issue not raised in the BBC programme was that of the naming of the Woodford Equity Income Fund. Such funds typically focus on paying high dividends to investors and to do so they invest in high dividend paying companies. They therefore tend to hold boring large cap companies. But the Woodford fund was very different. It did have some high dividend paying holdings in the fund but not necessarily large cap ones and it also had a number of early stage companies that were unlisted. This was not a typical “Equity Income” fund. Investors might feel they were misled in that regard by the name.

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

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City of London Investment Group AGM

I attended the City of London Investment Group (CLIG) Annual General Meeting this morning – not of course to be confused with other City of London companies. CLIG is primarily an investment company that invests in Closed End funds/trusts via a very specific process. It encourages such trusts to close any discount to NAV. Historically it has had a strong focus on emerging markets funds but has been diversifying into other markets and into REITS more recently.

Barry Oliff was the founder and has acted as investment manager until recently but he is retiring in December. He plans to dispose of some shares but he has pre-announced the number he would sell and at what price. He has set an example of open disclosure at the company and they provide voluminous information on Funds Under Management (FUM) and likely future profits. They also make the investment process used absolutely clear which is of some importance if you wish to be able to trust a fund manager.

The company also publishes a Statement on Corporate Governance and Proxy Voting Policy for closed end funds which is very well worth reading by all investors in funds and trusts. I could not immediately find it on their web site but no doubt they would supply if you ask for a copy.

The company traditionally pays a high dividend, currently over 6% yield, which attracts some investors.

There were about a dozen investors at the AGM which is typical at this company, and there were a number of intelligent questions. All resolutions were passed on a show of hands votes and unusually I supported all of them. However, as is common at this company there were substantial proxy votes against one resolution from proxy advisors. It seems they were unhappy with the last resolution on revised Articles which removed the reference to a cap on director fees. The directors are to engage with shareholders with a view to reintroducing that.

In the past they often got substantial votes against remuneration resolutions as the scheme is somewhat unusual, but not this time. Indeed Mark Bentley of ShareSoc complimented the board on an “excellent scheme”.

One question was why pay a special dividend rather than diversify and create new funds? The answer was they have done so but there are limits to how much can be raised and invested by new funds – it takes time to do so.

On grounds of brevity and time, I won’t cover the other questions as they were not of great significance. In essence there seem to be no great concerns at present and the business has a clear development path, although there are perhaps slight concerns about downwards trends in fund management fees that can be charged. This is a general trend it seems but the Chairman indicated that there is potential to treble the funds under management which would offset that trend of course.

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

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Woodford, Buffett Bot and FRC Survey

There was a very good article in the FT on Saturday on the “rise and fall of a rock star fund manager”, i.e. Neil Woodford. Essential reading for those who have lost money in his funds. A tale of hubris and obstinate conviction it seems. They report that lawyers are looking at a possible claim for investors but I cannot see any obvious grounds. But lawyers like to chase ambulances. Panorama are also covering the Woodford debacle on Monday.

That well-known phrase “Where are the customers’ yachts” comes to mind. While Woodford and his associates have made millions from his management company, the customers have lost money. That is an issue that the FCA might wish to consider but I cannot think of any immediate solution.

Another article in Saturday’s FT was on a Buffett “App” which would imitate the value investing style of Warren Buffett. Neil Woodford was once known as Britain’s answer to Buffett in the deadwood press but that is now being forgotten of course. This new App from Havelock London is aimed to imitate the investing style that is claimed to be the source of Buffett’s above average long-term performance.  They claim that App will focus on long-term value rather than short term performance which is the approach of most such “quant” investors. This was the marketing pitch of Woodford’s Patient Capital Trust in essence as you can tell from the name.

But in my view this whole approach that you can pick out sound investments by clever analysis of the historic financial numbers or of other metrics is simply misconceived. I have explained why this is so in my book “Business Perspective Investing (see https://www.roliscon.com/business-perspective-investing.html ). One reason why Buffett was so successful, which is obvious if you read about his career, is that he looked carefully at the business models of the companies in which he invested and such matters as the barriers to competitor entry. Yes you can cover some of his analysis by looking at return on capital or other metrics of a company, but that’s only half of the story. You need to understand the business from the perspective of a business analyst.

The Financial Report Council (FRC) have just published a survey on “The Future of Corporate Reporting” (see   https://www.frc.org.uk/news/october-2019/future-of-corporate-reporting-survey ). As the announcement says: “Respondents views will inform the FRC’s project which seeks to make recommendations for improvements to current regulation and practice and develop “blue sky” thinking. A key aim of the project is to challenge the FRC to think more broadly in responding to the recommendation by Sir John Kingman to promote greater “brevity, comprehensibility and usefulness in corporate reporting” moving forward”. So this is something all investors who read company reports should look at. It should take no more than 15 minutes to complete they assure us. I completed it in not much longer.

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

Woodford and Hargreaves Lansdown, Rosslyn Data AGM and Brexit

To follow up on my previous blog post over the collapse of Woodford Investment Management and how to avoid dud managers, the focus has now turned in the national media upon Hargreaves Lansdown (HL.). Investors who have lost a lot of money, and now won’t be able to get their cash out for some time, are looking for who to blame. Neil Woodford is one of course, but what about investment platforms such HL?

The Woodford Equity Income Fund was on the HL “best buy” list for a long time – indeed long after its poor performance was evident. They claimed at a Treasury Committee that Woodford had displayed similar underperformance in the past and had bounced back. But that was when he had a very different investment strategy so far as one can deduce.

The big issue though that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) should be looking at is the issue of platforms favouring funds that give financial incentives – in this case via providing a discount to investors and hence possibly generating more revenue when better performing funds such as Fundsmith refused to do so. HL have not recommended Fundsmith in the past, despite it being one of the top performing funds.

It is surely not sensible for fund platforms to be recommending funds unless they have no financial interest in the matter whatsoever. Indeed I would suggest the simple solution is for platforms to be banned from recommending any funds or trusts, thus forcing the investor to both get educated and make up their own minds. Such a rule might spawn a new group of independent retail investor advisors which would be surely to the good.

Today I attended the Annual General Meeting of Rosslyn  Data Technologies (RDT). This is an IT company that I bought a few shares in a couple of years ago as an EIS investment. It was loss-making then, and still is but is getting near break-even.

There were only about half a dozen shareholders present, but they had lots of questions. I only cover the important ones here. New Chairman James Appleby chaired the meeting reasonably well, but left most of the question answering to others.

Why did company founder Charles Clark step down (as announced today)? Reason given was that he had set up another company where there was  a potential conflict of interest.

I asked about the Landon acquisition that was announced in September. How much revenue would this add?  They are not sure but maybe £0.5 million. Bearing in mind they only paid £48,750 for the assets and client list from the administrator, that seems to be me a remarkably good deal. But it later transpired that they have outstanding contracts (pre-paid) which they have to finish so that might be another £250,000 of costs. However, that’s still cheap and by rationalising some of the costs they should quickly turn Langdon profitable. It was suggested that Langdon had been mismanaged with over-expansion and too many staff which is why it went bust – only a few of the staff have been taken on. Note that the impact of this acquisition is not yet in broker’s forecasts.

It was noted that RDT is currently broadly on track for analysts forecasts but it has been a slow start to the year. Deals are slipping into the second half. Decision timescales in major corporates seem to be stretching out at present.

One shareholder, who said “I am talking too much – a daft old man”, which it is difficult to disagree with as he asked numerous questions, some not very intelligent, asked whether they were charging enough for their services. There was a long debate on that issue, but it was explained that competitors were charging less.

There were also concerns about the slow rate of revenue growth (only 8.3% last year). Comment: this company is clearly not operating in a hot, high-growth sector of the market. But it does seem to be competently managed and if they can do acquisitions like Langdon that are complementary then profits should grow.

Altogether a useful AGM.

Brexit has of course made many UK companies nervous about new projects. At the time of writing the latest position appears to be that the EU and Boris have agreed a deal. Most Conservatives like it, but the DUP does not and Labour, LibDems and SNP will all seem likey to vote against it in Parliament. The last group all seem to be playing politics to get what they individually want, but not a general election which on current opinion polls might result in a big Conservative majority. Most people are very frustrated that this group are blocking support of Brexit so we can close down the issue and move on when there seems to be no overall public support for another referendum or cancelling Brexit altogether.

But even given this messy situation, I am hopeful that it will be resolved in one way or the other soon. But then I am the perpetual optimist. I am investing accordingly.

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

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Woodford Closing Down and How to Avoid Dud Managers

No sooner had I suggested that Neil Woodford should retire after his management company was fired from looking after the Woodford Equity Income Fund (see my personal blog article here: https://tinyurl.com/yxflsh8c ) than he decided to shut down the company. So that looks like the end of his career as a fund manager. Other funds that the company managed were the Woodford Income Focus Fund which has also been closed to redemptions and the Woodford Patient Capital Trust (WPCT).

The latter trust’s share price fell another 5% today and it was already on a discount to Net Asset Value of over 45%. The board of WPCT needs to find another manager and quickly. But yesterday they said that “The Board is in advanced discussions in relation to the ongoing management of the Company’s portfolio and expects to be in a position to announce details of the new management arrangements shortly” so perhaps it won’t be long.

Is the discount on WPCT something to take advantage of? Or can one pick up some shares cheaply that the open-ended funds have been and will continue to dispose of? The problem with this is that valuing some of these holdings is exceedingly difficult and some that are unlisted may be worth a lot less than that at which they were last valued by the trust. In addition it may be some time before there are any realisations from the open-ended funds even in the liquid holdings. In essence it would need a lot of careful analysis by an investor to see if there is money to be made from this collapse, and I am not sure it would be worth the effort. Would anyone have any confidence in picking up shares in companies that Woodford had chosen? They might consider that a very negative indicator now.

There was an interesting analysis in the Daily Telegraph by “Questor” (Richard Evans) today on how to spot poor managers. One is not keeping to their initial promise about dividends from the fund, the second is not having a consistent investment style and sticking to it. He said that investment professionals “know perfectly well that no fund manager can offer certainty of returns but they can and do expect certainty about how their money is managed”. He also said they “have learnt the hard way that when they entrust money to an asset manager on the basis or track record or reputation alone, things go wrong”. I certainly agree with those sentiments.

Which is why I said yesterday that investors need to monitor their fund (or trust) investments closely. Unfortunately many of the people who invest in open-ended funds do so on the recommendation of others (IFAs or platforms) without understanding what they are buying. They often get very little information on the performance of the fund or the issues the manager is facing. Even if they do get sent it, they tend not to read it. This is something the FCA could look at to avoid such debacles in the future.

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

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