Book Review: Debtonator by Andrew McNally

Now here’s a book well worth reading on your summer holidays. It’s called Debtonator by Andrew McNally. Indeed if you are taking a long-haul flight to your holiday destination, you might be able to read it in one sitting. Like all good books it is short at only 98 pages excluding notes and index, and the format is small as well. But there is an enormous amount of information embodied in there.

It covers the problems caused by excessive debt in the modern world. The author explains how the balance of company finance has moved from equity to debt which has had many negative effects. He links the rise in income inequality, a major social concern in leading economies, to the excessive use of debt and the discouragement of investment in equities by Governments and pension regulators. The housing market is another example of the distortion created by too much debt at very low cost, engineered by Government and central banks.

The author suggests we need to move to an equity financed, rather than a debt financed economy and proposes how that could be achieved. Reform of the tax system is one aspect of achieving that.

He is also scathing about the current costs of equity investment for retail investors due to high “intermediation” with too many people taking a cut of the real investment returns before they arrive in the hands of the beneficial owners. That’s despite his apparent long career in the investment industry.

The book is a very good summary of what is wrong with the modern financial system. But it also gives the reader some tips on how to become one of the wealthy few rather than the impecunious many. You need to take a direct stake in the real economy where companies are generating real returns, and minimize the costs imposed by advisors, brokers, platform operators and all the other gougers who erode the returns.

In summary one of the best books I have read lately on the defects in the modern financial world. A little gem of erudite analysis.

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

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Amati AIM VCT AGM and Retailers

Amati AIM VCT is one of those peculiar beasts – a Venture Capital Trust. Yesterday I attended their annual general meeting and here are some general comments on the company and the meeting:

Amati AIM VCT (AMAT) is the result a merger of the two Amati VCTs. They had very similar portfolios so this made a lot of sense, and the result is a large VCT with total assets of £147 million. This figure was also boosted by excellent performance last year – a total return of 45.2% on VCT2 for example. That of course was helped by a surprising good performance from AIM companies in general last year, but the Numis AIM index was only up 29%.

How was the performance achieved? By selective stock picking primarily, and by holding on to the winners. So the top ten holdings are now: Accesso Technology, Frontier Developments, Keywords Studios, Quixant, Learning Technologies, Ideagen, AB Dynamics, GB Group, Tristel and the TB Amati UK Smaller Companies Fund. The fact that I hold 5 of those companies directly tells me I should keep an eye on what the VCT is investing in.

Note that I learned to take a jaundiced view of AIM VCTs who traditionally did worse than private equity (i.e. generalist) VCTs due to being suckered into investing in dubious IPOs in what was historically a poor-performing AIM market. But there are always exceptions and perhaps this shows that AIM is improving and AIM fund managers are learning to be more discriminating.

There were presentations from fund managers Anna Wilson (new to the company) and founder Dr Paul Jourdan. The latter gave a somewhat “spaced out” presentation as if he had not spent much time preparing it. It included coverage of a chess match between two software programmes, indicating how clever they had become. Perhaps Paul is worried about being replaced by a computer. But I think the main message we were meant to receive was that the world is rapidly changing with disruptive new technology such as AI.

Anna Wilson covered the worst and best portfolio performers and some of the new investments. The latter include i-Nexus Global (INX: software to help companies to implement strategies), Water Intelligence (WATR: leak detection and remediation), AppScatter (APPS: app management platform) and Fusion Antibodies (FAB: antibody based therapeutics for cancer treatment).

There were also presentations from investee companies Loop-Up (LOOP) and FairFX (FFX) both of which I hold directly. In the latter case, and as the CEO said in his presentation, they should probably change the name as it does not just do foreign exchange provision which is now a crowded market. That was particularly so after the announcement in the morning about a new service to provide business banking to SMEs. By using their new e-money issuing licence they can act like a bank in almost all regards except that they cannot lend client funds out to others. But that just makes them safer.

As I hold both Loop-Up and FairFX directly I did not learn a great deal more but they were interesting nonetheless. It’s always good to be reminded why one bought a stock in the first place.

As Paul Jourdan indicated there are rapid changes in some markets and retailing is certainly one of them. There has been wide media coverage of the fact that even John Lewis, that favorite destination for middle-class shoppers along with its Waitrose stores, is now not making a profit. Here’s a good quotation from Sir Charlie Mayfield, John Lewis Chairman: “It is widely acknowledged that the retail sector is going through a period of generational change and every retailer’s response will be different. For the partnership, the focus is on differentiation – not scale”.

This is undoubtedly true. Competing with other supermarkets with a general “stack them high, sell them cheap” approach certainly makes no sense. It seems John Lewis is having some success with clothes by using “personal style advisors” (rebranded shop assistants).

Clearly the future is internet shopping for many products, perhaps with some “destination” warehouses for viewing and collecting goods. There are some categories of products where viewing the merchandise, particularly on big ticket items or where one cannot simply return them, may still be essential. Those where advice is required might also require a personal touch but some of that can be done remotely. Where the damage will be mainly done is to high street outlets and shopping malls for which I can see no good purpose. Perhaps if they can turn themselves into entertainment and drinking/eating venues they can survive but it’s clearly going to be a lot tougher for such venues and the smaller retail chains that rely on them. Department stores will likely suffer as they already have so investing in companies such as Debenhams is surely questionable unless they become much more internet focused with the shops changing in function.

The high streets are already changing. Banks going, clothes shops closing and more restaurants, cafes, fast food outlets and charity shops if my local high street is anything to go by. Do I regret the changes? Perhaps but I also know it’s not wise to piss against the economic and technological winds. For investors the message is that with such rapidly changing markets, one has to keep an eye on evolving trends and how company management is responding, or not, ever more closely.

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

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Stopping Another Beaufort Case

Readers are probably aware of the administration of stockbroker Beaufort, how PwC are running up enormous bills to the disadvantage of creditors and how they also claimed to be able to charge the bills against client assets under the Special Administration Rules. See here for more information if you are not familiar with this debacle: https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/beaufort-client-campaign/

I hope all stock market investors have already written to their Members of Parliament on this topic, not just to get the Special Administration Rules changed but to get a proper and full reform of the share ownership system in the UK. If you have not, please do so now.

But another way to get the Government’s attention is to get enough people to sign a Government e-petition. One of the people affected by the Beaufort case has created just such a petition which is now present here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/222801 . Please sign it now!

The Special Administration rules that apply to financial institutions (banks and stockbrokers for example) are helpful in many ways and were well conceived following the banking crisis in 2008. But rule 135 which allows client assets to be filched by an administrator, even when they are held in trust, seems to have been snuck in without notice and without consultation. It means anyone who holds shares in a nominee account (as most people do nowadays) is at risk of substantial losses if the broker goes bust. That’s a more common occurrence than most people realise mainly because most brokers operate in a highly competitive and low margin market.

SO MAKE SURE YOU SIGN THE PETITION TO ENSURE YOUR ASSETS ARE SECURE

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

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Just Eat – Capital Markets Day

I recall other ShareSoc Members complaining about how some companies publicly announce “Capital Market Day” events on the morning that the event takes place. This ensures that private investors are excluded as only institutional investors are given advance notice. A very good example was that for Just Eat (JE.) yesterday. Given in an RNS at 7.00 am in the morning, with the event commencing at 9.00 am.

Usually such announcements say something like “no new information will be provided”, or in this case it said “no update on trading will be provided”. But in fact there was obviously very significant new information provided because the share price fell 7.1% on the day, mainly in the afternoon.

There was a webcast provided and I tried to listen to a recording of it in the evening but it kept breaking up so I did not hear anything of interest. The Financial Times reported this morning that “management comments about costs and profitability jolted investors”, and that “investment levels in the coming years would remain elevated and margins were likely to flatline at its marketplace business”. Consensus forecasts were likely to fall it suggested. There was no announcement this morning from the company clarifying what was said or why the share price fell.

This debacle follows a similar sharp fall in the share price following an unexpected statutory loss due to exceptional write-offs in the annual results in March. It is also clear the market for food delivery is changing rapidly with new entrants in addition, meaning the sector is getting more competitive and more investment seems to be required.

I did previously hold a significant number of shares in the company but sold the remainder today. Just too many unexpected events at this company. I hate unpredictable companies and lack of clarity in management statements (or no statements). When confidence in a company and its management evaporates, it’s always time to sell in my view.

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

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Directors Removed But One Reappointed at Telit

More interesting events at the Telit Communications (TCM) AGM yesterday. This is a company that has been through troubled times of late with the departure of former CEO Oozi Cats under a cloud and lots of questions about their accounts being raised. But events at the AGM were even more surprising when the Chairman Richard Kilsby and two other non-executive directors were voted off the board on a poll. The meeting lasted all of ten minutes apparently.

Existing non-executive director Simon Duffy took over as Interim Chairman and one of the removed directors, Miriam Greenwood, was promptly reappointed (i.e. co-opted to the board). This was so as to ensure the “board and its committees continue to be quorate with an appropriate number of independent, non-executive directors” according to the announcement by the company.

Is it legal for a board to reappoint a director just removed by a vote of shareholders? The answer is yes unless a resolution was passed to the contrary. Whether it is acceptable practice is another matter altogether.

I have come across this situation once before at Victoria where the Chairperson reappointed someone just removed by a vote of shareholders. I did not like it then when the justification given was the need to have at least two directors to maintain the company’s listing. I recall saying at the time: “is there nobody else in the company who is willing to step forward”. The Chairperson was subsequently removed by shareholders.

Does the justification for re-appointing a removed director by the Telit board make any sense? Not really in my view. Board committees don’t sit frequently and new non-executive directors can usually be recruited relatively quickly. Perhaps the board anticipated some problems in that regard as joining this board might be perceived as being risky. But Telit is an AIM company so is not bound by the UK Corporate Governance Code regarding the number of independent directors and composition of board committees and nor is there any AIM Market Rule that I am aware of that would require them to immediately appoint another non-executive director. Even if the company is adhering to some other corporate governance code, the rules are typically “comply or explain” and obviously the company would have a good explanation for non-compliance.

It would seem to me that the board simply considered it a good idea to reappoint Miriam Greenwood, but when shareholders have voted to remove her, I suggest she should have stayed removed. Shareholders views and rights should not be abused in this manner. It is surely time for the FCA or FRC to lay down some guidelines on what is permissible in such circumstances as the Companies Act does not cover it.

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

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Scottish Mortgage Investor Meeting

Yesterday I went to the meeting for investors held by Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (SMT) in London. This was a useful event as they normally hold their AGMs in Scotland. Needless to say this company’s name is now grossly misleading as it does not invest in mortgages nor in Scotland but is a “global” investment trust. It has a great track record in the last few years and has a focus on growth companies. Their top 10 investments are Amazon, Alibaba, Illumina, Tencent, Tesla, Baidu, Kering, Inditex, Netflix and Ferrari which gives you a good idea of their focus. Here are some of the words of wisdom from manager James Anderson:

He finds the stock market ever more puzzling. Investors think daily headlines help you to invest but there is no correlation. Comment: I think he is saying ignore the political gyrations and such matters as Brexit. He suggested that people way cleverer than us get the world wrong and referred to the work of Hans Rosling and that of Hendrik Bessembinder who reported that 0.4% of all US stocks created half the wealth. Comment: Anderson implied that the key was to pick a few of those really successful growth companies because they will have the biggest impact on overall returns.

SMT therefore tries to identify businesses that are focused on growth markets with great potential – at least 40% per annum. Typically they are also run on a completely pragmatic basis.

Anderson thinks that deflation is highly likely in the next few years as companies they are investing in are reinventing the world. For example healthcare may become a lot cheaper as diagnostics improves and reduces the burden of expensive late stage interventions in cancer and heart disease.

Catherine Flood talked about the companies they are invested in and about the biotechnology sector where genome mapping is creating major opportunities. They have a rising number of private companies in their portfolio.

In response to questions, Anderson said they sold Apple two years ago because growth prospects seemed limited and had reduced their holding in Facebook for other reasons. He also questioned whether the kind of investment strategy following by Warren Buffett will continue to work in future as markets get disrupted by new companies using innovative technology. We may be facing a different world in future where “value” is less important.

As regards their large number of holdings in Chinese companies, Anderson was not worried about the political risks in China and expected China to become the dominant world economy in the near future. They are leading in technology in some areas (e.g. NIO in electric cars).

Overall this was an educational presentation as we got some understanding of the investment strategy of the company which clearly has worked well when economies have been buoyant and markets have been heading consistently upwards. The share price is at a premium to assets of 3.6% at present so might be vulnerable to a correction if there is any hiccup in the global economy. There was no mention of cash flows, return on capital or other “fundamental” measures of value in companies which tells you something does it not. But if you wish to invest in global growth companies, this is certainly one investment trust to consider.

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

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Horizon Discovery AGM and Chrysalis VCT

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Horizon Discovery Group (HZD) in Cambridge. This is a new holding for me, and I don’t often buy shares in companies that are not reporting profits, but I thought it was worth going along to learn some more about the business. The company’s primary focus is on cell manipulation tools (gene editing, gene modulation) which they sell to drug development companies et al. I am not sure I have great understanding of the science but they recently had an offer for the business from Abcam who should understand it, particularly as they shared a non-exec director, Jonathan Milner, until recently. The offer from Abcam was rejected on the basis it was not good enough. The board of Horizon thought it was worth twice as much on a revenue multiple basis looking at comparable companies so the offer was withdrawn. Analysts forecasts are for near breakeven on an adjusted basis this year so it is making progress, but it’s still valued at more than seven times revenue.

However, I shouldn’t need to tell you that this area of medical science is a rapidly developing one with great prospects for innovatory cures of genetic defects and more focused drugs to match a person’s DNA profile.

With minimal shareholders present, it was a short meeting and only I asked any questions, so it will be a short report. One question I asked is why the company loses money on services but makes a profit on product sales. See segmental breakdown on page 66 of the Annual Report. As I said at the time, normally it’s easier to lose money on product sales because with services if they are not profitable you can simply stop providing them. In other words, this was an unusual profile. The Chairman, Ian Gilham, initially denied they lost money on services (it’s over £10 million excluding even “leveraged R&D”), but the CFO then explained that the services are often development projects for customers where they retain the IP, i.e. the customers are paying to some extent to develop the products. That is always a good business model.

I asked why the former CEO had recently left and the only answer I got was that he probably wanted to work for a smaller company while Horizon is now quite large after the recent acquisition of Dharmacon. That will transform the financial numbers. The new CEO is Terry Pizzie who has worked for the company since February 2017.

I was favorably impressed on the whole but I did comment that even if it is an AIM company they could do with having a Remuneration resolution on the agenda. Their pay scheme is actually quite a simple one, and bonuses last year were quite limited, so I would have voted in favour of it anyway.

A long-awaited announcement yesterday on what they plan to do to tackle some strategic issues was from Chrysalis VCT (CYS). This venture capital trust has been somewhat unusual in being self-managed and having no discount control mechanism, i.e. no active buy-back policy. As a result of the latter combined with decent fund performance the trust was offering a very high dividend yield to those investors brave enough to buy shares in the market (like me). Some of the directors took advantage of that situation in the past, although not recently. However the company is facing some possible problems in that the size of the trust is tending to run down due to the high dividends paid out, and the changes to the VCT rules might make it difficult to follow their past investment strategy.

So yesterday they announced that they were implementing an “active buy-back” policy with a target discount to NAV of 15%. The share price rose on the day as a result. Even after that the yield is 7.6% (tax free) according to the AIC. The buy-back policy might help if they wished to raise more investment funds, but they also say they are likely to make “further distributions of capital” so it looks like the fund will run down further in size instead.

The half year results given in the same announcement were somewhat pedestrian (NAV up 1.6%) like many VCTs I hold of late. But anyone considering the shares needs to look at the large holding of Coolabi in the portfolio.

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

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