Market Bouncing Up or Down – Sophos, Greggs, Apple and Fundsmith

 

After a dire market performance before Xmas, we seem to be back to the good times in the last 3 days. Is it time to get back into the market for those who moved into cash as the market fell down and down and down in the autumn? Rather early to generalise I suggest although I have been picking up some shares recently.

One which I purchased a small holding in was Softcat (SCT). Yesterday it issued a trading update simply saying that trading was strong and they are materially ahead of where they expected to be at this stage in the year. The share price promptly jumped by 20%. I no doubt should have bought more. But there was a wider rise, no doubt driven by a rise in US markets and effectively ignoring the political turmoil in the UK.

Another company issuing a trading update yesterday was Greggs (GRG). They reported total sales up by 7.2% in the year and like-for-like sales up by 4.2% in the second half. The share price rose over 6% yesterday and it rose again this morning. CEO Roger Whiteside has done a remarkable job of turning around this company from being a rather old-fashioned bakery chain to a fast “food-on-the-go” business. New products have been introduced and new locations opened. The latest product initiative which got a lot of media coverage was vegan sausage rolls, now combined with “vegan-friendly” soup in a meal deal for just £2.25! A good example of how new management with new ideas can turn a boring and financially under-performing one into a growth story. But this comment of Lex in the FT is worth noting: “The positives, like the mycoprotein, are baked in. At almost 20 times forward earnings, the stock rating is well above the long-term average. Investors should wait for this dish to cool before taking a bite”. I remain a holder.

There have been lots of media comment on the profit warning from Apple with questions about whether we have hit “peak i-Phone”. Sales in China are slowing it seems and folks everywhere are not upgrading as frequently as before. Apple phone users may be loyal but they are now tending to upgrade after 3 years rather than 2.

Having just recently upgraded from a Model 6 to an 8, I can see why. The new phone is slightly faster but battery life has not significantly changed. Phone prices have gone up and I could not justify the even higher priced models. Software functionality is of course identical anyway.

Apple is the sort of company I do not invest directly in for two reasons. Firstly it’s very dependent on one product – iPhones are more than 50% of sales revenue. Secondly, all electronic hardware is vulnerable to being leapfrogged by competitors with newer, better products. With growing price competition in smartphones, particularly from low-cost Chinese producers, the world is surely going to get tougher for Apple.

Hargreaves Lansdown have reduced their recommended fund list down from 85 funds to 61 and it’s now called the Wealth 50, but Fundsmith Equity Fund is still not included even though it was one of the best performing funds last year. But they have kept faith in the Woodford Equity Income Fund which is most peculiar given its recent performance. It seems they think the big bets that Neil Woodford has been making on companies and sectors will come good in the long term, as they have in the past. We will see in due course no doubt.

But their reluctance to recommend Fundsmith seems to be more about the discounts on charges that some fund managers give them, which they do pass onto customers of course. It’s worth pointing out that the lowest cost way to invest in the Fundsmith Equity Fund can be to do it directly with Fundsmith rather than via a stockbroker or platform. That’s in the “T” class with an on-going charge of 1.05% which achieved an accumulated total return of 2.2% last year, beating most global indices and my own portfolio performance.

Indeed one commentator on my fund performance reported in a previous blog post suggested that an alternative to individual stock picking was just to pick the best performing fund. Certainly if all of my portfolio had been in Fundsmith last year rather than just a part then I would have done better. But that ignores the fact that my prior year performance was comparable and having a mix of smaller UK companies helped to diversify while Fundsmith is subject to currency risk as it is mainly invested in large US stocks. Backing one horse, or one fund manager, is almost as bad as buying only one share. Fund managers can lose their touch, or have poor short-term performance, as we have seen with Neil Woodford. Incidentally the Fundsmith Annual Meeting for investors is on the 26th February if you wish to learn more. Terry Smith is always an interesting speaker.

Stockopedia have just published an interesting analysis of how their “Guru” screens performed last year. Very mixed results with an overall figure worse than my portfolio. For example “Quality Composite” was down 19.7% and Income Composite was down 13.9%, with only “Bargain” screens doing well. It seems to me that screens can be helpful but relying on them alone to pick a few winning stocks which you hold on for months is not a recipe for assured success. It ignores the need to do some short-term trading as news flow appears, or to manage cash and market exposure based on market trends. As ever it’s worth reiterating that there is no one simplistic solution to achieve good long-term investment performance without too much risk taking.

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

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Elecosoft AGM, British Land, Apple, Social Media and GDPR

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Elecosoft (ELCO) as a shareholder. Elecosoft produce software products for the building/construction industry. It’s a fairly new purchase of mine so I thought I would go along and get an impression of the company and its management.

The meeting was held in the City of London at the convenient time of 12.00 noon and there were about 20 shareholders present. That’s more than I expected given the size of the business (market cap only £56 million). The share price has been rising recently after the company now seems to be growing rapidly after a period of relative stagnation. But like many software companies they capitalize a lot of software development which will not please some investors. They do have substantial recurring revenue from maintenance contracts which is an aspect of software businesses I always like. The company issued a positive trading update on the morning of the AGM.

The Executive Chairman, John Ketteley, is a former merchant banker apparently. He commenced by welcoming attendees to the 78th Annual General Meeting of the company (did I hear that right?), and that he found that easy to remember as he was also 78 years old. Yes this is a somewhat unusual leader for a software business.

The Chairman then launched straight into the formal business of the meeting without inviting questions – not a good sign – so I had to interrupt him. Questions should be taken first.

I asked why the company was requiring shareholders to “opt-in” specifically to receive a cash dividend rather than a scrip dividend. I have never seen this before in any company. The answer given was because those in nominee accounts had difficulty in taking up scrip dividends instead of receiving cash. But I had to tell him that as some of my holding was in a SIPP I had queried how they were going to handle this option and was advised that they took up the cash option for all investors in such cases, which rather defeats what the Chairman was trying to achieve. Some shareholders, like me, tend to prefer cash dividends as otherwise it can get complicated keeping track of one’s holdings. Only those with large direct holdings (not in tax free ISAs or SIPPs) are likely to want to take a scrip dividend.

There were a few questions from other shareholders. Might the company consider moving to the main market from AIM (or moving back as it turned out)? The Chairman saw no benefit in doing so and two shareholders say they would be definitely opposed. There are good tax and other benefits for shareholders from being on AIM. Another question was on moving to SAAS platforms – it seems some of their software is still PC based, but new development is moving to the web.

I would not say the Chairman handled the meeting particularly well despite his experience. Perhaps his age is showing. I did speak to him directly after the meeting and asked about the high number of management changes in the last year and whether he was considering retiring. He indicated that he needed to rebuild the team and that he was now very confident he had a good team in place. But succession planning does not seem to be a priority.

But it was a useful and interesting AGM, as many are. They often turn out to be more interesting than expected. There was also a goody bag of useful kit – a baseball cap (something us baldies can always use as I said to the Chairman), a UBS Memory Stick and a Notebook.

Let’s now consider two companies at the other extreme in terms of size. Firstly British Land (BLND) – a property company with a market cap of about £7 billion. This company has a large portfolio of City offices and retail stores. I first invested in this company in December 2015 when I bought a few shares at 795p on the basis that the falling prices of property companies due to fears over Brexit were overdone. The share price is now 695p so not exactly a great initial purchase!

But the share price has been recovering and in fact taking into account dividends received I am now at breakeven after some more purchases when it became even cheaper. But it has certainly been a poor investment in comparison with other property companies I hold (e.g. big warehouse providers). Any company with an interest in the retail sector has suffered and British Land has been selling such properties. That has reduced their income and impacted profits.

But I do like to have some more defensive large cap stocks in my portfolio to offset the more speculative small cap stocks such as Elecosoft (I run a “barbell” portfolio in essence). When I first purchased British Land it offered a yield of 3.6% and was at a discount to net asset value of 10%. The prospective yield is now 4.4% and the discount is over 25% even after recent share price rises, which is unusual for a property company.

British Land seemed to adopt a defensive stance although City centre office values have not been declining as expected. The company has been reducing debt with LTV (loan to value) now down at 28% based on the full year results published yesterday. Perhaps the lesson here was not to buy shares that start to look cheap unless they become really, really cheap. But non-executive director Preben Prebensen just spent £140,000 on buying shares so perhaps the future is looking brighter.

Apple Inc (AAPL) is the largest company in the world with a market cap of $919 billion. That’s still ahead of Amazon. I don’t hold Apple directly although some indirectly in the investment trusts I hold. Some people have questioned whether Apple can continue to grow and maintain its profit margins when a lot of the revenue comes from iPhone sales. Surely the mobile phone market is now quite mature with everyone having one (indeed some of us have two) and new models not providing much in terms of new features?

I can possibly provide some light on this having just upgraded from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone 8. They look and weigh the same. I only changed because of contract expiry and a concern that the battery was wearing out, but in fact I think the poor battery life was down to using a smartwatch which connects via bluetooth. The new phone has very similar battery life. Perhaps the camera is a wee bit better, but then I don’t use it a great deal. So in essence, I think I have wasted my money in upgrading. This surely brings into question how long Apple can continue to grow unless some of their other products take off. Their smartwatch has not been as successful as might have been expected – smartwatches still seem to be a minority interest.

Finally let me say some more on the issue of the abuses in social media which I covered in a previous blog post. Just to clarify one point, when I suggested a Government inquiry into social media, I was not necessarily advocating more legislation. I think laws can be very ineffective in mandating or enforcing social norms. For example, one existing problem is that libel laws are pretty useless to most people – only the wealthy can afford to pursue libel cases and even if they do, enormous costs end up being paid to lawyers while the resulting remedy may be ineffective. Making them criminal offences would be no more likely to be effective partly because the police have no resources to enforce most existing laws.

I think there needs to be an inquiry into the causes of the breakdown in social norms about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. The fact that folks can post garbage anonymously is one issue to look into. Is education a solution perhaps? Or perhaps another solution might be to enable “trusted” reviews to be invoked – for example Wikipedia seems to be good at ensuring reasonably accurate and responsible public information and commentary even though in essence there is complete freedom for anyone to post there. Moderation of posted material is obviously advantageous which some platforms do not do, or do in a very limited way. Simply the publication of a “standard” or set of norms for public forums (as Wikipedia also has of course) might assist. A combination of approaches might be the solution, and perhaps more research into the causes is required. Those are the issues that a public inquiry might look into and provide some recommendations upon.

At present there is a focus on making the national press more responsible (the Leveson inquiry and its recommendations) while ignoring the new world of social media, blogging sites and other forums. They need to be embraced also as there is no longer a firm dividing line between media. Perhaps a social media regulator is required to take responsibility for and provide guidance in this area, as the Information Commissioner does for Data Protection? But with a lighter touch than we are getting with the GDPR rules which seem to be another example of excessive regulation from the EU which is unexpectedly imposing major costs on even the smallest organisations. I am not convinced the new rules will stop the spam that we all receive.

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

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