Bonmarché Update, FCA Grilling over Woodford and Amati AIM VCT AGM

Yesterday Bonmarché (BON) conceded defeat in its opposition to a takeover bid at 11.4p. On the 17th May it had rejected the bid because it “materially undervalues Bonmarché and its prospects”. The share price of this women’s clothing retailer was over 100p a year ago but the latest trading review suggests sales are dire because of underlying weakness in the clothing market and “a lack of seasonal weather”. Auditors might have qualified the accounts due to be published soon due to doubts about it being a going concern if sales did not pick up before then. Bonmarché looks to be another victim of changing shopping habits and changing dress styles.

Is the market for traditional men’s clothes any better? Not from my recent experience of buying two formal shirts from catalogue/on-line retailer Brook Taverner. Cost was zero although I did have to pay postage. Why was the cost zero? Because they had a special offer of 60% off for returning customers, and I had collected enough “points” from them to wipe out the balance. Smacks of desperation does it not?

On Tuesday the Treasury Select Committee interviewed Andrew Bailey of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) over the closure of the Woodford Equity Income fund and their regulation of it. It is well worth listening to. See https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/34965022-ec99-4243-8d0b-ae3350c31fe4

It seems that technically the fund only made two minor breaches of the 10% limit on unlisted stocks twice in the UCITS rules which were soon corrected in 2018. But Link were responsible for ensuring compliance as they were legally the fund manager as they were the ACD who had delegated management to Neil Woodford’s company. But in the morning of the same day the Daily Telegraph reported that nearly half of the fund investments were actually illiquid including 20% that were nominally listed in such venues as Guernsey and not actively traded. In other words, they were perhaps technically complying with the UCITS rules but their compliance in principle was not the case. Mr Bailey suggested this is where regulation might be best to be changed to be “principle” based rather than “rule” based but surely that would lead to even more “fudges”? The big problem is yet again that the EU, who sets the UCITS rules, produced regulations that lacked any understanding of the investment world.

The Investment Association has suggested a new fund type be allowed which only allows limited withdrawals, e.g. at certain times or on notice. But that does not sound an attractive option to investors. When investors want to sell, they want to sell now.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has said open-ended funds are “built on a lie” in that they promise daily liquidity when it may not always be possible. He also suggested they posed a systemic risk to financial stability. Or as Paul Jourdan said at the Amati AIM VCT AGM: “Liquid investments are liquid until they are not”.

There is of course still no sign that Neil Woodford is taking steps to restore confidence in his funds, as I suggested on June the 5th. There needs to be a change in leadership and in name for that to happen. Once a fund has become a dog and untouchable in the minds of investors, and their financial advisors, redemptions will continue. Neil Woodford making reassuring statements will not assist. More vigorous action by Woodford, Link, and the FCA is required. Affected investors should encourage more action.

The Amati AIM VCT (AMAT) had a great year in the year before last as small cap AIM stocks rocketed but last year was a different story. NAV Total Return was down 10% although that was better than their benchmark index. AB Dynamics was the biggest positive contributor – up 93% over the year with Water Intelligence also up 93%. Ideagen was a good contributor (now second biggest holding) and Rosslyn Data was also up significantly. Accesso fell 36% but they are still holding. I asked whether they had purchased more AB Dynamics in the recent rights issue but apparently they could not as it was no longer VCT qualifying.

I also asked about the fall in Diurnal which wiped £1.2 million off the valuation. This was down to clinical trial results apparently. However, fund manager Paul Jourdan is still keen on biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms as he suggested that healthcare is being revolutionised in his concluding presentation – he mentioned Polarean as one example.

Other presentations were from Block Energy – somewhat pedestrian and not a sector I like – and Bonhill Group which was more lively. Bonhill were formerly called Vitesse Media but are growing rapidly from some acquisitions and clearly have ambitions to be a much bigger company in the media space.

It was clear from the presentations that the investee company portfolio is becoming more mature as the successful companies have grown. This arises because they tend to take some profits when a holding becomes large but otherwise like to retain their successful holdings.

All resolutions were passed on a show of hands vote but I queried why all the resolutions got near 10% opposing on the proxy counts which is unusual. It seems this is down to one shareholder whose motives are not entirely clear.

In summary, an educational event and worth attending as most AGMs are.

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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