Technology and Media Leads the Way, and the Renew Party

The Association of Investment Companies (AIC) have just issued an interesting press release. It gives the top performing investment companies and sectors for the year to date under the headline “Technology and Media Leads the Way”.

The Technology and Media Sector was up 34%, compared with an overall average of 14% for all investment companies (excluding VCTs) in share price total return. The top performing company was Blackrock Throgmorton Trust (THRG) which is a UK smaller and mid-cap companies focused trust. It is up 49%. A quick review of how they achieved their stellar performance indicates derivatives although several other smaller company trusts were listed in the top ten.  The Blackrock web site says this: “Derivatives may be used substantially for complex investment strategies. These include the creation of short positions where the Investment Manager artificially sells an investment it does not physically own. Derivatives can also be used to generate exposure to investments greater than the net asset value of the fund / investment trust. Investment Managers refer to this practice as obtaining market leverage or gearing”.

Dan Whitestone, Manager of BlackRock Throgmorton Trust, is quoted in the AIC press release as saying: “As we have long argued, stock and industry specific outcomes can triumph over the volatility created by macro, political and economic events. This certainly held true in 2019, which has been a strong year for the trust in absolute and relative terms, aided by positive contributions from both long and short positions. The management teams of the companies the trust invests in have played a key part in helping deliver value and wealth creation for shareholders, not just this year but over the course of many years.

The premium for genuine secular growth is high, as we remain within an era of low inflation, low interest rates and weaker growth. However, we see many companies with solid business models, that have enormous growth potential, are all too often dismissed by the market as expensive. Conversely, many so-called value shares are under significant pressure from the structural changes wrought by technological disruption, resulting in fundamental changes in distribution, manufacturing and customer behaviour.

Throgmorton aims to identify and own, for the long term, the exciting, fast-growing companies that we believe are truly differentiated and disruptive and taking full advantage of the structural changes reshaping industries. Our belief is that the stock market persistently undervalues these companies, which have strong balance sheets, and have been able to heavily invest ahead of their peers. Combined with solid management teams, dominant market positions, and a compelling product offering, investing in these companies can lead to years of dramatic compound growth, regardless of the wider political or economic environment.”

I can probably agree with most of what he says, but am not sure about the use of derivatives. I’m happier with the three other UK smaller companies trusts in the top ten list who all achieved more than 40% share price total return, one of which I hold. Does the cleverness of Throgmorton result in better long-term performance? It might do so if you look at the 10-year performance figures in the UK smaller companies AIC sector where it is beaten by only one other company – the Rights & Issues Investment Trust (RIII), although they seem to have a more variable performance. I may have a closer look at Throgmorton. This is definitely one where a read of their Annual Report will be essential (all 114 pages of it).

You can read the full AIC press release here: https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/press-releases/top-performing-investment-company-sectors-over-2019

Investing in UK smaller companies rather than the rest of the world probably requires you to have confidence in the UK economy after Brexit. Which brings me onto the subject of politics.

The Renew Party

I was interested to receive a flyer through my door just now for the Renew Party. Bromley & Chislehurst is one of only four constituencies where they are putting up candidates. The Renew Party have an interesting manifesto including political reform.

This is what it says on their web site:  “Our system of politics rewards adversaries, not collaboration. These systems need radical reform to get the best, in candidates and in MPs. Whilst vigorous debate is critical to the evolution of our society, it does not need to become personal, crude and nasty…….. We support electoral reform to make representation in parliament proportional to the number of votes cast for each party. This means the abolition of the first-past-the-post voting system”.

That’s something I would vote for, but unfortunately their General Election platform also supports staying in the EU, which may be arguable, and delivering a “People’s Vote”, i.e. another referendum which is a profoundly daft idea. So they are not going to gain my vote this time.

Neither are the Labour Party who delivered a leaflet that referred to “Tory cuts” to the NHS. It’s simply not true – the real expenditure on the NHS has gone up. Indeed the service from the NHS has improved enormously over the 25 years I have been an active user of it. See https://fullfact.org/health/spending-english-nhs/ for the facts. I sent their candidate a complaint about her grossly misleading leaflet but she did not respond. Regrettably there seems no way to easily get such gross distortions by politicians stopped.

Other candidates are from the Christian People’s Alliance, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party (no Brexit Party runner). It may not be a difficult choice.

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

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Mello Trust and Funds Event and ShareSoc AGM

I managed to attend part of the Mello Trust and Funds Event in West London yesterday and although I had other commitments today, I may manage to attend the second day of the main Mello 2019 event tomorrow. If you have not attended one of these events before, it is definitely worth doing so. The only slight criticism I would have is that getting to Chiswick from South East London where I live via the slow District Line is not great. The wonders of the London transport network meant it almost took me two hours to get there. I’ll give a brief report on the sessions I attended, and what particularly interested me:

There was a good presentation by the young and enthusiastic George Cooke on the Montanaro European Smaller Companies Trust (MTE). This is a company I had not come across before and it looks to have a good performance record. It’s a stock pickers fund in essence but Mr Cooke’s approach to small cap company research seems similar to mine. However he covers the whole of Europe whereas my focus on direct investments is the UK. I will take a more in-depth look at this company.

I attended a panel session on investing in small cap funds and one member of the audience questioned why one would do so when you can invest in the companies directly. Here are two possible reasons: It can give you exposure to geographic or sector areas that you cannot adequately research oneself (as in MTE), and for UK funds it is always interesting to see what the high-performing fund managers are buying and selling even if you only get a limited view. That’s why I invest both directly in companies and in funds.

I also attended a presentation by Carl Harald Janson on International Biotechnology Trust (IBT) a company I already hold so I did not learn a great deal new. This is a sector specialist with a good track record and it is now paying dividends out of capital which has help to close the discount to NAV when it used to be quite high. The discount is now negligible.

Several stand staffers in the exhibit area tried to sell me “income” funds but that proved difficult as I had to tell them I never buy income funds. For long-term returns, growth funds usually provide better performance and you can always sell a few shares to produce cash income – and you may be better off tax-wise also as a result. But many people buy funds for retirement income so they are attracted by the “income” name. This is where more financial education might be beneficial.

The last presentation I saw was by Nick Britton of the AIC (Association of Investment Companies who represent investment companies). Their web site is always useful for researching investment trusts and their past performance, which I tend to prefer as against open-ended funds although I do own a few of the latter.

Nick covered the differences between the two types of funds (open versus closed). His presentation suggested that closed-end funds consistently performed better for several reasons and he compared some funds of both types run by the same manager as evidence. There are a number of reasons why closed-end funds perform better in the long term and I was convinced by the statistics on this a long time ago. But Nick gave some more data on the subject.

So why do open-ended funds dominate the fund industry (£1.2 trillion versus £189 billion funds under management)? I rather expected that after the Retail Distribution Review (RDR) that platforms would no longer have a strong financial incentive to promote open-ended funds but it seems there are other reasons remaining which are not exactly clear. But it’s the investors who are suckered into buying open-ended funds who should know better. Like in most markets, folks buy what they are sold rather than do their own research and buy the best option. That’s particularly problematic on property funds which Nick was particularly scathing about.

I hope ShareSoc members are better informed. Which brings me on to the subject of their AGM which was held at the Mello meeting. This was a relatively straightforward event as there were no controversies of significance, although I did suggest that with more funds in the bank they might want to hire more staff and spend more on marketing. As one of the two newly appointed directors pointed out, few investors have heard of ShareSoc although they do enormously good work in promoting the interest of private investors and in educating them. In my experience, sales of anything often relate simply to how much money is spent on marketing even if some attention has to be paid to the most cost-effective channels. But if you don’t know what works best, you just have to experiment until you find the most productive approaches.

However ShareSoc membership is growing and it’s now twice the size of UKSA with whom merger discussions are now taking place – which I wholeheartedly support incidentally. There are also discussions taking place about supporting Signet activities, who run investor discussion groups, following the recent death of John Lander who led Signet for many years.

ShareSoc is spending money though on improving their back-end membership system which will help to improve the services provided to members.

In summary this was a useful event, and like all such meetings, as useful for networking and picking up gossip as much as from learning from the formal sessions.

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

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AIC Calls for KIDs to be Suspended

The Association of Investment Companies (AIC) have called for KIDs to be suspended. KIDs are those documents devised by the EU that were aimed at giving basic information on investment funds – and that includes investment trusts which the AIC represents.

It was a typical piece of badly implemented EU regulation even if the motive was worthy. But KIDs give a very misleading view of likely returns from investment funds. Whoever designed the performance rating system clearly had little experience of financial markets, and neither did they try it out to see what the results would be in practice. Similarly, if they had bothered to consult the AIC or other bodies representing collective funds, or experienced investors as represented by ShareSoc, they would have realised how misleading the results might be.

It also imposes costs on investment managers and on brokers who have to ensure their clients have read the KID before investing – even if they are already holding the fund/shares or have invested in it previously. This means for on-line brokers we now get a tick box that we have to click on which is simply tedious. I just click on them automatically because if I intend to buy an investment trust there is a great deal of information available elsewhere in the UK and the KID does not add anything of use in my opinion.

I think KIDs should be scrapped rather than just suspended. They serve little useful purpose and just add a costly bureaucratic overhead. This is the kind of nonsense that Brexit supporters are keen to get rid off when we do finally get out of the EU monster. But will we if Mrs May gets her way?

The AIC press release is here if you want more information: https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/press-releases/aic-calls-for-kids-to-be-suspended

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

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Investment Platforms Market Study

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

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

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

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

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

The FRC summarises its findings as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Which Is The Cheapest Platform?

Many investors do not research which trading platforms (a.k.a. on-line stockbrokers) are the cheapest before they sign up with them. Neither do all platforms offer the same facilities – for example all the different types of ISAs and allow investment in both funds and investment companies or direct shares. Retail investors tend to depend on which name they remember from advertising, from friends’ recommendations and other sources. But now the Association of Investment Companies (AIC) has provided a useful comparison tool.

The AIC represents investment companies and has issued the following press release about the launch of their new platform comparison tool: https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/press-releases/aic-launches-platform-comparison-tool-on-its-website

This is an exceedingly useful tool and shows that the platform charge on several platforms can be as high as over £3,000 p.a. or as low as less than £100 p.a. for a portfolio valued at £1 million invested solely in open-ended funds. In other words, an enormous range!

They also have separate tables for investments in investment trusts so you can compare those charges against open-ended fund portfolios, or a mix. Funds are often more expensive. You might notice they don’t give the cost of directly investing in shares, but these would be the same as investment trusts as they are simply listed company shares.

They don’t include transaction costs on trading which is worth bearing in mind though. The volume of trading as well as the size of portfolio affects the overall costs.

Surely you don’t need reminding that minimising what you pay to platforms is one of the key ways to maximise long-term investment performance as they can seriously erode your returns. If you are looking for a new stockbroker, it would be worth reviewing this comparison tool first because although service quality is important there is little correlation between cost and service. Some of the lowest cost brokers provide very good service in my experience so one wonders why there is such a price difference in this market. One reason might be the difficulty investors have in switching brokers that reduces competition in this market.

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

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Stale Directors and the UK Corporate Governance Code

One interesting fact highlighted by the Financial Times today was the impact of the proposed new UK Corporate Governance Code on company Chairmen. It pointed out that the change in the Code to limit the length of service of directors will include their time as Chairmen and will mean dozens of long-standing Chairmen may need to retire.

The FT suggests 67 of FTSE-100 chairmen will be affected, and there will be another 48 chairmen of FTSE-250 companies according to an analysis by the FT and Manifest. The reason for the 9-year rule for non-executive directors is simply because they cannot be considered “independent” after that length of time.

One aspect that the FT did not mention was the prevalence of such long-standing chairmen on the boards of investment trusts. Without doing a formal check, I found two in my holdings very easily. Anthony Townsend who actually “rejoined” the board of Finsbury Growth & Income in 2005 and John Scott who was on the board of Scottish Mortgage for 16 years until he retired in June. Investment Trusts seem to exhibit this symptom of permitting investment world grandees to serve for many years both as chairman and ordinary non-executive directors quite often. This has been condoned by the AIC (a trade body for investment companies) who seem to believe that length of service is no handicap. They have even suggested that such companies are not bound by the UK Corporate Governance Code in this area in the past. Will they try to take the same stance on this issue one wonders?

Will this change in the Code, if adopted, lead to a loss of highly experienced directors to the disadvantage of investors? Not likely. I suggest it will just result in a game of musical chairs where they simply move to another company when the clock would be reset. But it might at least give a hint to those too long in service to consider retirement.

It is surely a positive change as I have seen too many directors hang around for too long. They may not show actual signs of dementia (although one of the Chairmen of one my holdings did before retiring), but they are not always as sharp as they could be. Regrettably the generally aged shareholders who turn up at the AGMs of companies are averse to voting against such directors even when the issue is raised. So perhaps the boards affected by this problem of the Code change might simply choose to ignore it on a “comply or explain” excuse – I can volunteer the words they could use because I see them regularly. But that would be a pity.

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

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