The Dangers of Share Tipping, Alliance Trust and AIM Regulation

Share tipping is a mug’s game. Both for the tipsters and their readers. More evidence of this was provided yesterday.

Investors Chronicle issued their “Tips of the Week” via email during the day. It included a “BUY” recommendation on Conviviality (CVR). Unfortunately soon after the company issued a trading statement which said the forecast EBITDA for the current year (ending 30th April) will be 20% below market expectations. Conviviality is a wholesaler, distributor and retailer of alcohol and it seems there was a “material error in the financial forecasts” in one part of the business and that margins have “softened”.

The share price dropped by almost 60% during the day and fell another 10% today at the time of writing. This puts the business based on the new forecasts on a prospective p/e of less than 6 and a dividend yield of over 10% (assuming it is held which may be doubtful). Is this a bargain?

Having had a quick look at the financial profile I am not sure it is. Although net debt of £150 million may not be too high in relation to current revenues or profits, their net profit margin is very small and their current ratio is less than 1, although this is not unusual in retailers who tend to pay for goods after they have sold them.

(Postscript: Paul Scott of Stockopedia made some interesting comments on Conviviality including the suggestion that they might be at risk of breaching their banking covenants and hence might have to do another placing. Certainly worth reading his analysis before plunging into the stock. He also commented negatively on the mid-day timings of the announcements from Conviviality and Fulham Share which I agree with, unless there was some compulsive reason to do them – perhaps they were aware of the Investors Chronicle commentary being issued).

Another tip Investors Chronicle gave yesterday was on Fulham Shore (FUL) which they rated a SELL on the grounds that “growth looks unsustainable”. They got that one right. The company issued a trading statement on the day which also said EBITDA would be below market expectations. Their London restaurants are simply serving fewer customers. The share price dropped 17% on the day. This looks to be symptomatic of the problems of restaurant chains – Prezzo are closing a number of outlets which I was not surprised at because from my visits it seemed rather pedestrian food at high prices. Restaurant Group also reported continuing negative like-for-like figures recently, perhaps partly because of price cutting to attract customers back. Restaurants are being hit by higher costs and disappearing customers. Boring food from tired formulas is no longer good enough to make money.

Another announcement yesterday was results from Alliance Trust (AT.). This is a company that I, ShareSoc, some investors in the trust and hedge fund Elliott Advisors spent a lot of effort on to cause a revolution a couple of years ago so it’s good to see the outcome has been beneficial. Total shareholder return was 19.1% which was well ahead of their benchmark. There was a lot of doubt expressed by many commentators on the new multi-manager investment strategy adopted by the board of directors and the involvement of Elliott, who were subsequently bought out, but it has turned out very well.

The only outstanding issue is the continuing problems at Alliance Trust Savings. They report the integration of the Stocktrade business they acquired from Brewin Dolphin has proved “challenging”. Staff have been moved from Edinburgh to Dundee and the CEO has departed. Customer complaints rose and they no doubt lost a lot of former Stocktrade customers such as me when they decided to stop offering personal crest accounts. So Alliance have written down the value of Alliance Trust Savings by another £13 million as an exceptional charge. No stockbrokers are making much money at present due to very low interest rates of cash held. It has never been clear why Alliance Trust Savings is strategic to the business and it’s very unusual for an investment trust to run its own savings/investment platform. Tough decisions still need to be taken on this matter.

AIM Regulation. The London Stock Exchange has published a revised set of rules for AIM market companies – see here: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-rules-for-companies-march-2018-clean.pdf .

It now includes a requirement for AIM companies to declare adherence to a Corporate Governance Code. At present there is no such obligation, although some companies adhere to the QCA Code, or some foreign code, or simply pick and choose from the main market code. I and ShareSoc did push for such a rule, and you can see our comments on the review of the AIM rules and original proposals here: https://www.sharesoc.org/blog/regulations-and-law/aim-rules-review/ and here is a summary of the changes published by the LSE: http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-notice-50.pdf (there is also a marked up version of the rule book that gives details of the other changes which I have to admit I have not had the time to peruse as yet).

In summary these are positive moves and the AIM market is improving in some regards although it still has a long way to go to weed out all the dubious operators and company directors in this market.

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

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Sophos, Interquest and the Government

Yesterday I missed the Sophos (SOPH) AGM due to having a clashing engagement, but I noticed that in the announcement of the voting results that there were substantial votes against the Remuneration Report (29.8% against) and also high votes against most of the directors. One only needs to glance at the Remuneration Policy to see why.

The maximum bonus opportunity is 200% of salary, and the maximum LTIP award is 500% of salary in normal circumstances and up to 750% in exceptional circumstances. So total incentive payments can reach nearly 10 times normal salary. That’s the kind of scheme I always vote against.

For what is actually a relatively small company that has never reported an annual profit, the actual pay figures are way too high – CEO got a base salary of $695,000 last year and total single figure remuneration of $2.32 million. Other directors, even the non-execs, have similar generous pay figures. It might be a rapidly growing company in a hot sector (IT security) but I am beginning to regret my purchase of a few shares.

Although I missed the AGM, I did “attend” the previous days Capital Markets Day. I was refused physical access but anyone could log into the web cast of the event. Not quite the same thing but it was exceedingly boring with a lot of the time spent on the wonders of their technology rather than important business questions. Is it not despicable though that companies and their PR advisors try to keep such events solely to institutional investors?

Interquest (ITQ) is an AIM listed company that received an offer for the company from some of the directors but they only got 58% committed support. That’s not enough to delist the company under the AIM Rules which requires 75% so the offer was abandoned. What did the directors do then? They notified their Nomad of termination of their contract and subsequently said they would be unlikely to appoint another Nomad within the one month period allowed. This means the shares will automatically be suspended from AIM and subsequently delisted if no Nomad is appointed.

The moral is that if directors or anyone else control 58% of the company then minority shareholders are in a very difficult position because they will have the ability to do lots of things that prejudice the minority shareholders – for example pay themselves enormous salaries. A legal action for prejudice of a minority is available but as my lawyer said yesterday, these are complex cases, as I well know from having run one myself in the past, and successfully (we were discussing my past legal cases). It’s difficult enough in a private company, and even more so in a public one. In summary, having an AIM Rule about delistings may not help if one cannot win a vote of shareholders on other matters that require just 50%.

Having control of a public company in the effective hands of a concert party of a few people is something to be very wary about, and something all AIM company investors should look at.

Government policy on tackling excessive pay levels for the directors of public companies has taken a step backwards this week. Tougher measures which Theresa May threatened have been watered down, and the core of the problem – the fact that Remuneration Committees consist only of directors, whose appointment and pay is controlled by other directors, has not been tackled. In addition, the potential to control pay by votes at General Meetings has been undermined by the disenfranchisement of private shareholders as a result of the prevalence of the nominee system and the dominance of institutional voters who have little interest in controlling pay.

Another bit of news from Government sources this week is that the hope of some change in shareholder rights that might have improved private shareholder voting is fading away after a decision to postpone yet again the issue of “dematerialisation”. The staff involved in that project have been moved and expertise will be lost. This is likely to be the result of both lack of interest in tackling a difficult and complex problem, and the need to put in effort on Brexit matters at the BEIS Department.

Will we ever get a proper shareholder system where everybody is on the share register and automatically gets full rights, including voting rights? It remains to be seen but I will certainly continue to fight for that. Without it we will never get some control over public companies and their directors. I suggest readers write to their Members of Parliament about this issue.

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

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AIM Rules – Response to Consultation

The London Stock Exchange (LSE) is currently undertaking a consultation on the AIM Market Rules (see http://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/aim-notices/aim-discussion-paper-july-2017.pdf ).

Anyone can respond to this and the deadline is the 8th September. Those who invest in AIM shares will be aware of some of the past problems in AIM companies and tightening up some of the Rules that apply to AIM companies may surely help to improve the quality of the market. For example, it covers new rules that might help AIM to be more selective in regard to the companies that list on the market.

I have submitted a response to this consultation which is here: http://www.roliscon.com/Roliscon-Response-AIM-Rules-Review.pdf

Investors in AIM should do likewise, otherwise the responses will be dominated by Nomads and company promoters.

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

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AIM Rules Review

The London Stock Exchange have published a document entitled “AIM Rules Review”. ShareSoc, including me personally, have criticised the LSE in the past for poor regulation of the AIM market. Many investors view it as a casino because of the numerous problems of fraud, poor disclosures, many delistings or simple bankruptcies in AIM companies. See the ShareSoc campaign page here for more information: https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/campaign-improve-aim-market/

As you can see we made a number of recommendations on how to improve the AIM market, and had meetings with AIM management where we put these proposals forward. The LSE regulates the AIM market but their responsibility lies primarily in ensuring the AIM Rulebook is adhered to and that Nomads meet their responsibilities. Other aspects of the market such as market abuse or false accounting are covered by other regulatory bodies, which many private investors do not understand.

So have any of the ShareSoc proposals been covered in the latest document? In summary, yes they have been. Here’s a quick review:

The AIM Rules Review does emphasise the improved recent performance of the AIM market and the fact that the average size of companies listed on it is growing. That has helped to improve the quality of the market.

Vetting new listings. One proposal we made was that new listings should be vetted by an independent panel because many investors considered some of the new listings in the past to be very dubious businesses. They have not taken this up directly but are proposing to formalise the “early notification process”. In addition, they propose to give more guidance to Nomads (whose role it is to perform due diligence on prospective listings) on what they need to take into account. For example, the “good” character of directors or managers, the corporate structure and business model, risky contractual arrangements and “related party” interests. This looks to be one way to tackle past problems, but one suggestion I would make is to add to that list the “regulatory structure and upholding of the rule of law in the countries where the candidate is listed or operates”. For example, it has proved very difficult to pursue fraud in China, and even Greece creates difficulties in that regard.

Free float. One concern they cover is the issue of low free floats which is a concern of some investors. For example, many of the companies that have turned out to be problem ones are those where there is an executive Chairman who holds a majority of the stock (or their close relations or associates do). This gives that person enormous power to prejudice minority shareholders, ignore the views of other board members and ultimately commit major frauds. The LSE’s response on this issue though is simply that the LSE would like to understand the position on new applications and the Nomad’s consideration of it. That surely is open to abuse, but the LSE does ask whether more specific free float rules should be brought in (the LSE document is a public consultation one so you can submit your own comments).

Minimum Fundraising. They also propose the introduction of a minimum fundraising rule and pose some questions on that. This would help to ensure institutional involvement in a company.

Composition of Boards. They mention this, but give no specific suggestions. That is surely an omission when ShareSoc made some specific suggestions in that regard.

Disclosure and Corporate Governance Codes. The document covers the issue that AIM companies can avoid any adherence to a specific corporate governance code. ShareSoc suggested a specific code should be available and applied by all AIM companies. The LSE asks a question on this at least.

Education and Breaches of the AIM Rulebook. The LSE asks how the market, particularly individual investors, can be further educated as to what the LSE can and cannot do. A good question indeed, which I will ponder.

Breaches of the AIM Rules. But one issue we raised with AIM management was the failure to enforce the existing Rules, or penalise and publicise those who break them. Indeed the document spells out how poor this has been by giving some statistics. There were 93 recorded breaches or where “education” was required, but only 16 warning notices or private censures/fines issued on average over the last three years. There were zero public censures apparently. They do ask a question about possibly imposing automatic fines on breaches of the AIM Rules, and invite suggestions for other changes. I will have some, but the basic problem is “self-regulation” and the resulting unwillingness to take tough action. Both firmer rules on penalties and a cultural change is required.

In summary, this Discussion Paper on the AIM Rules is a useful step in the right direction and does appear to tackle some of the issues about AIM that I and ShareSoc raised. It is though only a discussion paper and hence that does not mean necessarily that action will be taken. In some regards it is still quite weak but regrettably AIM management have an uphill battle to get change adopted when many market participants consider everything in the garden is rosy. However, it is surely necessary to improve the reputation of AIM if the market is to attract more listings and reduce the number of complaints from investors.

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

Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.