Labour’s Plans For Confiscation of Shares and Rail System Renationalisation

Jeremy Corbyn made it clear in a speech last night that the rich will be under attack if Labour gets into power. John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, will present his plans today to give 10% of shares in all larger companies to employees over a period of years. The Daily Telegraph described it as a Marxist plot to control businesses while Carolyn Fairburn of the CBI attacked it as a “new tax that adds to the impression that Labour sees business as a bottomless pit of funding”. The proposal seems to be based on setting up a trust for employees into which the shares would be deposited and from where dividends would be paid to employees.

Comment: It will certainly dilute existing shareholders so readers of this blog might find they and the pension funds that invest in shares are proportionally poorer. Although it sets a bad principle, if the numbers being proposed are enacted it might not have a major impact on companies or investors. Enabling employees to have a financial interest in the profits of a company is quite a sensible idea in many ways. But it might simply encourage companies to take their business elsewhere. If they are registered in another country, how will the UK Government enforce such legislation?

Last week Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, announced a review of the privatised rail system. That follows the recent problems with new timetables where the regulator concluded that “nobody took charge”. John McDonnell said that he could renationalise the railways within five years if Labour wins the next election – it’s already a manifesto commitment. Perhaps he thinks he can solve the railway’s problems by doing so but this writer suggests the problem is technology rather than management, although cost also comes into the equation.

The basic problem is that the railways are built on inflexible and expensive old technology. There has never been a “timetable” problem on the roads because there are no fixed timetables – folks just do their own thing and travel when they want to do so.

Consider the rail signalling system – an enormously expensive infrastructure to ensure trains don’t run into each other and to give signals to train drivers. We do of course have a similar system at junctions on roads – they are called traffic lights. But they operate automatically and are relatively cheap. Most are not even linked in a network as train signals are required to be.

Trains run on tracks so they are extremely vulnerable to breakdowns of trains and damage to tracks – even snow, ice or leaves on the line cause disruption – who ever heard of road vehicles being delayed by leaves? A minor problem on a train track, often to signals, can quickly cause the whole line or network to come to a halt. Failing traffic signals on roads typically cause only slight delays and vehicles can drive around any broken-down cars or lorries.

The cost of changes to a rail line are simply enormous, and the cost of building them also. For example, the latest estimate for HS2 – the line from London to Birmingham is more than £80 billion. The original M1 was completed in 1999 at a cost of £26 million. Even allowing for inflation, and some widening and upgrading since then the total cost is probably less than £1 billion.

Changes to railway lines can be enormously expensive. For example, the cost of rebuilding London Bridge station to accommodate more trains was about £1 billion. These astronomic figures simply do not arise when motorways are revised or new service stations constructed.

Why invest more in a railway network when roads are cheaper to build and maintain, and a lot more flexible in use? At present the railways have to be massively subsidised by the Government out of taxation – about £4 billion per annum according to Wikipedia, or about 7.5p per mile of every train journey you take according to the BBC. Meanwhile road transport more than pays for itself and contributes billions to general taxation in addition from taxes on vehicle users.

So here’s a suggestion: scrap using this old technology for transport and invest more in roads. Let the railways shrink in size to where they are justifiable, or let them disappear as trams did for similar reasons – inflexible and expensive in comparison with buses.

No need to renationalise them at great expense. Spend the money instead on building a decent road network which is certainly not what we have at present.

Do you think that railways are more environmentally friendly? Electric trains may be but with electric road vehicles now becoming commonplace, that justification will no longer apply in a few years’ time, if not already.

Just like some people love old transport modes – just think canals and steam trains – the attachment to old technology in transport is simply irrational as well as being very expensive. Road vehicles take you from door-to-door at lower cost, with no “changing trains” or waiting for the next one to arrive. No disruption caused by striking guards or drivers as London commuters have seen so frequently.

In summary building and managing a road network is cheaper and simpler. It just needs a change of mindset to see the advantages of road over rail. But John McDonnell wants to take us back to 1948 when the railways were last nationalised. Better to invest in the roads than the railways.

It has been suggested that John McDonnell is a Marxist but at times he has denied it. Those not aware of the impact of Marxism on political thought would do well to read a book I recently perused which covered the impact of the Bolsheviks in post-revolutionary Russia circa 1919. In Tashkent they nationalised all pianos as owning a piano was considered “bourgeois”. They were confiscated and given to schools. One man who had his piano nationalised lost his temper and broke up the piano with an axe. He was taken to goal and then shot (from the book Mission to Tashkent by Col. F.M. Bailey).

Sometimes history can be very revealing. The same mentality that wishes to spend money on public transport such as railways as opposed to private transport systems, or renationalising the utility companies such as National Grid which is also on the agenda, shows the same defects.

The above might be controversial, but I have not even mentioned Brexit yet. Will the Labour Party support another referendum as some hope and Corbyn is still hedging his bets over? I hope not because I think the electorate is mightily fed up with the subject. In politics, as in business, you should take decisions and then move on. Going back and refighting old battles is not the way to succeed. All we should be debating is the form of Britain’s relationship with the EU after Brexit.

Roger Lawson

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

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Whitewash at Gordon Dadds AGM, and Insolvency Warnings

I attended the Annual General Meeting of law firm Gordon Dadds Group (GOR) this morning. The company was tipped as a buy in Investors Chronicle on the 3rd August so I bought a few shares. It’s always good to go to the AGMs of new investments to get an impression of the management and ask a few questions. This is one of only three listed legal firms (the others being Gateley and Keystone which I do not hold).

This AGM was very unusual in that both on the “show of hands” vote and the proxy vote counts, there were no votes against at all, i.e. exactly zero on all resolutions. That is exceedingly unusual for a public company. As I said to the Chairman, he managed to achieve that by not having a share buy-back resolution on the agenda as I normally vote against such resolutions. Likewise no resolution to change to 14 days notice of general meetings. I congratulated him on that and a well run AGM where questions were taken first before the formal business.

There were about a dozen shareholders present, some of whom might have been staff. I questioned the increase in overheads in the last year – they are working to bring that down but it was increased as they “set up to expand” – and the high debtors. Although they bill work in progress monthly, it seems their corporate clients are slow payers. Another shareholder asked how work in progress was valued, and it’s at cost apparently. Otherwise I did not pick up any concerns although the legal market does seem fragmented and it is not clear to me how they are differentiated from others although they do have some specialisations. One might see it as a market ripe for consolidation with too many small firms and Gordon Dadds seem to have acquisition ambitions.

The company only listed on AIM a year ago so it’s early days as yet.

Interesting that the national media failed to pick up on the changes to the insolvency regime announced by the Government last Sunday. Perhaps not surprising on a Bank Holiday weekend although I covered it here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/08/26/insolvency-regime-changes-a-step-forward/

Perhaps private investors were not concerned because they think they can bail-out before such events unlike institutional shareholders who frequently have such large holdings that they can’t place them on the market at any price. But you cannot always do so. I have been caught twice in over twenty years of investing by unexpected administrations of retailing companies who often appear to have lots of revenues and positive cash flows. But a retail market turn-down can catch them unawares when they have high fixed costs (staff and property rentals). The result is often a cash flow problem when quarterly rent payments are due, or an unexpected tax bill appears, or suppliers’ insurers simply get nervous and withdraw cover.

A simple ratio to look at to pick up businesses at risk of insolvency is the Current Ratio which I like to see above 1.4. Remember business only go bust when they run out of cash. However, retailers often pay their suppliers after they have sold the goods to their customers so the Current Ratio is not a reliable measure for retailers. Likewise it tends to be unreliable when looking at software companies where they might have deferred support revenue in their current liabilities which should really be ignored as it will never be paid.

The Current Ratio is easy to calculate (it’s Current Assets divided by Current Liabilities). A better measure but a more complex one is the Altman Z-Score. This was very well covered in this week’s Investors Chronicle where it was argued that it was also a good measure of the overall performance of companies. It’s not foolproof in terms of predicting insolvency but it’s certainly a good warning indicator – the big problem is that accounting figures on which it is calculated are often out of date.

The Z-Score can be obtained from a number of sources as it’s a bit tedious to calculate it yourself – for example Stockopedia display it on their company reports.

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

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House of Fraser Pre-Pack – Is It Such a Great Deal?

The acquisition of House of Fraser by Sports Direct is a typical “pre-pack” administration. In administration one minute, sold the next. The national media promptly welcomed it as the rescue of everyone’s favourite department store, the protection of 17,000 jobs and just what is needed to help save Britain’s High Streets.

Mike Ashley of Sports Direct trumpeted this as a great deal. All the stores and stock were purchased for £90 million when gross assets were £946 million and the company made a profit last year of £14.7 million – more on the financial numbers below. He plans to turn House of Fraser into the “Harrods of the High Street”.

But is it such a great deal? I have written many times in the past about the iniquities of pre-pack administrations. How creditors and shareholders are dumped, and pension schemes likewise. The administrators save themselves the hassle of winding up the business or looking for a buyer of the business as a “going concern” while collecting large fees for little work. I think the insolvency regime should be reformed.

The figure of £946 million of gross assets given by Sports Direct is from the last published accounts of the parent company House of Fraser (UK & Ireland) Ltd for the year ending January 2017, which is the last set of accounts filed at Companies House. The truth is that the company had net assets of £111 million with trade creditors of £365 million and long-term borrowings of £284 million. Debts including short terms borrowings probably grew substantially since then. Although Mr Ashley is paying the administrators £90 million for the assets, it would appear that both the trade creditors and the lenders will be very substantially out of pocket.

That’s not to mention the property companies who are the store landlords who face a default on their leases. Mr Ashley is unlikely to want to keep half the stores, so many of the jobs will be lost and he will no doubt want to renegotiate the leases on other stores downwards. So any property companies you may have invested may be damaged.

The company will have got shot of its defined pension schemes (approximately 10,000 members) which will be taken on by the Pension Protection Fund. That’s a public body that is funded by a levy on all pension schemes, so basically someone else will be paying if there is any shortfall. Although the pension scheme may be in surplus at this time, in such circumstances pensioners usually face a substantial cut in their future income as there will be no more contributions from the company.

Now House of Fraser might have been a retailing basket case with excessive debt, but surely a more equitable solution was possible? Indeed the Mail on Sunday today called it a “Fix” because there was an alternative offer on the table from retail billionaire Philip Day who allegedly offered £100 million for the company including taking on the pension obligations. The Mail suggested that the bankers and bondholders forced acceptance of the Ashley proposal in their interests. This is not unusual in pre-packs.

Sir Vince Cable suggested an investigation by the BEIS Department is required followed by reform of the pre-pack system. I agree with him. There are better solutions to how to deal with companies that run out of cash or become insolvent due to excessive debt which could protect the interests of trade creditors, employees and pensioners.

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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Protecting Yourself Against Administrations

Investors now know that when your stockbroker goes into administration, your assets are not secure (or “ring fenced” as your contract with them often says) because they can be seized under the Special Administration Regulations by the administrator to pay their costs. This has become clear from the Beaufort case. That means many investors are facing losses because Beaufort client accounts, like most stockbroking accounts now, were nominee accounts with the shares registered in the name of Beaufort.

There are two possible ways to protect your assets: 1) Hold your shares in the form of paper share certificates – not the most convenient format for trading and expensive to do so even if you can find a broker still willing to handle them; or 2) Hold your shares in a personal crest account, i.e. a “Sponsored Crest” account where your broker acts as the sponsor but the shares are registered in your name and traded electronically.

Some doubts arose in my mind about whether the latter would actually provide the protection required. For example, would an administrator be able to transfer the shares into their name, or stop the transfer of the account and hence the holdings to another broker? So here are the answers provided by Killik & Co who. It provides some reassurance:

In order for a participant to change Sponsor, CREST require:  

  • For those Participants that are already Sponsored, 3 letters as follows – – One from the existing Sponsor stating they are happy for the Participant(s) to move away from them on a set date. – One from the Participant(s) requesting to move Sponsors on a set date. – One from the new Sponsor stating they are happy to take over sponsorship of the Participant on a set date.
  • However, our understanding is that, where the Sponsor is in administration, a letter is not required by the existing Sponsor.  We believe it would be possible therefore, for the sponsored member to instruct another Sponsor to take on the sponsorship of the account.  Note that CREST is not a custodian or a depository and the shares are actually held by the Sponsor, but in the name of the legal owner. 

Regarding the question of the ability of the administrator to issue instructions on the stocks or transfer them into their own nominee name, our understanding is that the administrator has no rights over the securities held in the name of the legal owner as specified on the legal register. 

This information is provided by Killik & Co to the best of their knowledge and belief. For more information contact Gregory Smith on 0207-337-0409.

There are few brokers that still offer personal crest accounts (Killik & Co are one of them), but that still leaves the problem that ISAs and SIPPs have to be held in nominee accounts. Until the administration legislation is reformed, the only solutions for them are to open multiple broker accounts so that no one of them contains assets worth more than £50,000 (the limited covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme) or to pick a broker which is large enough and with a balance sheet that is strong enough that it is unlikely to go into administration. Having multiple broker accounts can be wise for other reasons than the risk of administration even if it can make life very complicated and possibly less secure – for example IT meltdowns in financial services companies are not uncommon (RBS and TSB are examples). It can be very frustrating not to be able to trade even for a few minutes (as happened this morning with the LSE due to a technology problem) let alone days or even weeks as Beaufort clients are suffering.

It is perhaps unfortunate that these risks might make for an anti-competitive stockbroking market. Folks may be very reluctant to sign up with new brokers who have a limited track-record.

But we really do need some reform of the insolvency rules to stop administrators grabbing client assets, a new electronic “name on register” system that protects ownership to replace the nominee system (something I have been campaigning on for years), and the ability to hold ISA and SIPP holdings in our own name.

ShareSoc are running a campaign on the Beaufort case (see https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/beaufort-client-campaign/ ) and have also asked anyone who is concerned about this issue, as all stock market investors should be, to write to their M.P.s. Please do so. Only that way will we get political action on these issues. ShareSoc can provide a template letter you can use.

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

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Beaufort Administration, Intercede and the Mello Conference

Yesterday I attended the first day of the 2-day Mello investor conference in Derby. There were lots of good presentations and some interesting companies to talk to. One hot topic of conversation was the collapse of Beaufort which was forced into administration (see two previous blog posts on the topic for details). There are apparently many people affected by it. There are a number of major issues that have arisen here:

  • The administrators (PWC) have suggested it might cost as much as £100 million to wind up the company and return assets to clients which seems an enormously large figure when the assets held are worth about £550 million. The costs will be taken out of the clients’ funds and as a result there will hundreds of larger clients who will suffer substantial loses (those with assets of less than £50,000 may be able to claim against the Financial Services Compensation Scheme – FSCS – but larger investors will take a hair-cut).
  • The assets (mainly shares) were apparently held in nominee accounts. Surely these were “segregated” accounts, i.e. not available to be treated as assets of the failed business? Most brokers who use nominee accounts will have wording in their contracts with their clients that cover this with often fine words that conceal the underlying reality that if there is any “shortfall” then the clients may be liable. But regardless, PWC are saying that because this is a “Special Administration” they have the right to take their fees out of the client assets/funds.
  • There will be a Creditors’ Meeting as required by all administrations but will the creditors be able to challenge the arrangements put in place by PWC and the costs being incurred? From past experience of such events I think they may find it very difficult. Administrators are a law unto themselves. It is alleged that there were offers from other brokers to take over the assets of Beaufort and their clients very quickly and at much lower cost, but that offer has been ignored. Investors need to ask why.
  • Note that the Special Administration regime was introduced during the financial crisis to enable the quick resolution of problems in financial institutions such as banks. This is where it is necessary to take prompt action to enable a company to continue trading and the clients not to be prejudiced. But in this case it seems we are back to the previous state where client assets are frozen for a lengthy period of time while the administrator runs up large bills at the clients expense.
  • I said only recently that the insolvency regime needs reform after the almost instant collapse of both Conviviality and Carillion. There may not have been a major shortfall in Beaufort and it might have been able to continue trading. But the current Administration rules just provide large, and typically unchallengeable, fees for the administrators who give the impression of having little interest in minimising costs. The result is the prejudice of investors in the case of a broker’s collapse, or of shareholders in the collapse of public companies.
  • Can I remind readers that part of the problem is the widespread use of nominee accounts by stockbrokers. I, ShareSoc and UKSA have long campaigned for reforms to reduce their use and give shareholders clear title and ownership after they purchase shares. In the meantime there are two things you can do: a) Avoid using nominee accounts if at all possible (i.e. use certificated trading or personal crest accounts so your name is on the share register); b) if you have to use a nominee account, make sure you are clear on the financial stability of the broker and that you trust the management. It would not have taken a genius to realise that some of the trading practices of Beaufort might raise some doubts about their stability and reputation.

I do suggest that investors who are affected by the collapse of Beaufort get together and develop a united front to resolve not just the problems raised by this particular case, but the wider legal issues. Forceful political representation is surely required.

See this web site for more information from PWC: https://www.pwc.co.uk/services/business-recovery/administrations/beaufort/beaufort-faqs.html

An amusing encounter at the Mello event was with Richard Parris, the former “Executive Chairman” of AIM listed Intercede (IGP). He was talking in a session entitled “The importance of the right board of directors” and he conceded that “separation of roles” is important, i.e. presumably he would do it differently given the chance. Richard, the founder of the company, has recently stepped down to a non-executive role, they have a new Chairman, and even Richard’s wife who was operations manager has departed. While I was in the session, there was even an RNS announcement saying the “Chief Sales Officer” had resigned (I am still monitoring the company despite having sold all but a nominal holding years back).

Richard pointed out to me that the pressure put on the company over his LTIP package back in 2012 meant that his share options are worthless as the performance targets put in place were not achieved. Well at least he is still talking to me and has joined ShareSoc as a Member apparently. Sometimes time can heal past disputes, and as I said, shareholder activism does work!

But it is regrettable that RBS are recommending voting against a resolution proposing a shareholder committee at their upcoming AGM. Perhaps not surprising, but a shareholder committee could avoid confrontation over such issues as remuneration and would be a better solution that confrontation.

I hope the Mello event becomes a regular feature of the investment calendar.

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

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