Babcock Dividend, Ocado Placing, AGM Reform and Why Are People So Angry?

To follow up on my previous blog post about Babcock (BAB) and the possibility of it “skipping” its final dividend, the company issued its Final Results this morning and spelled it out. This is what it said about the dividend: “Given the current level of uncertainty over the impact of COVID-19, the Board has decided to defer the decision on our final dividend for the year ended 31 March 2020. We recognise the importance of the dividend to our shareholders and the Board will keep this under review during the financial year as the impact of COVID-19 becomes clearer”. That is not what Shore Capital suggested at all.

Although the company appears to have met forecasts for last year, and says it has a record order book, the share price has fallen 5% at the time of writing. The market in general is down considerably also though.

Ocado (OCDO) announced an institutional placing yesterday together with an offer via Primary Bid to retail investors. Like the one for Segro I commented on yesterday, this is a fund raising for expansion and is at a relatively small discount and dilution. These arrangements are now becoming common but I still don’t like them. They give private investors very little time to decide whether they wish to take up the offer and they do not know what price is being offered. As a holder of Ocado, this is another one I declined to invest in. Ocado share price is down 5.7% this morning at the time of writing which is exactly the same as the discount in the offer to the previous closing price, i.e. you could pick up shares in the market just as cheaply. I suggest companies should do proper rights issues rather than this dubious method and that the FCA should regulate this area more robustly.

There was a good article in the Financial Times today under the headline “Coronavirus casts doubt on the future of AGMs”. It describes the debate over the reform of AGMs and the use of virtual AGMs. It also covered an initiative by organisation ShareAction who are raising money to fund research into the issue. They quote Catherine Howarth as saying “We hope to co-develop a robust framework for AGMs that would still include shareholder votes and which would also help companies interact with a wider range of their important stakeholders including employees, customers, suppliers and communities”. That may be a worthwhile initiative if it makes AGMs more vibrant and useful than they are now but bearing in mind the funding of ShareAction it may not be a totally unbiased proposal.

What we do not want is AGMs dominated by “stakeholders” with political views as happens already at some companies – such as oil and mining company AGMs with endless complaints from environmental activists or defence industry company AGMs dominated by those who believe the company should not be involved in that industry at all. Companies are not in business to right all the social wrongs in the world, but to provide a financial return to their shareholders. They just need to operate within the laws set by national governments. Company law in the UK already requires the company to take the wider interests of stakeholders such as employees or customers into account and they can be represented at AGMs easily enough now by just buying a few shares – you only need one share to attend an AGM.

The FT article does make some good points about virtual AGMs, one of which I commented upon yesterday (EKF Diagnostics). But it suggests that it might cost £10,000 to hold a “hybrid” meeting at a small company. That is surely a grossly excessive estimate if voting is done on a poll. It’s trivial to set up a Zoom meeting for the number of investors likely to attend such a meeting (only a dozen at EKF).

I don’t often comment on general political or economic issues, but I find the current hysteria about the death of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations over “Black Lives Matter” in the USA and UK totally out of proportion. George Floyd was a very tall and heavy person who it is alleged resisted arrest. He had a past criminal record and was a drug user. The full facts of the case have not yet been revealed and it is way too early to say whether the police used excessive force or not, even if the result was very sad.

As to whether there is wider discrimination against black or coloured people in the USA or the UK is also doubtful. From my experience of working in the USA, there appeared to be very little direct discrimination. Did not Colin Powell become head of the US Army and Secretary of State? Did not Barack Obama become US President? But as in the UK, black people are disadvantaged often by the social and cultural backgrounds of their families. Righting that can only be done by education not by demonstrations or laws. Demonstrations actually make matters worse, and the recent violent ones and attacks on property such as historic statues actually make people less sympathetic to the cause. Meanwhile the failure by the police to stop these events undermines law and order in general, just as happened with the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations.

Why are people so angry that they feel the need to take part in such demonstrations, including many people who are not black and hence could not have personally suffered from any prejudice? You can see the same problem in the divisive politics of Brexit where rational debate soon flew out of the window and it degenerated into personal slanging matches on social media. In fact social media and national media reporting of news has actually coarsened political life. The BBC in particular has often seemed to be more interested in stimulating outrage to improve their readership or programme viewing and web site clicks than in reporting the facts in a neutral and unbiased way. This is not a useful national broadcasting service. It has become a medium for slanted propaganda and for stimulating social unrest. This is a problem that responsible politicians will need to tackle sooner or later. But in the meantime those such as Sadiq Khan in London seem more interested in stimulating political division over trivia with the objective of gaining a few votes.

As investors, my readers will have to face up to these issues sooner or later because when the social fabric of a country crumbles as the result of poor leadership, sooner or later the economy crumbles also.

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

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Babcock Price Fall, Segro Placing, TR Property and EKF Diagnostics Virtual AGM

I said in a previous blog post “that I tend to avoid FTSE-100 companies as their share prices are driven by professional analysts’ comments, by geo-political concerns, by general economic trends and by commodity prices. You can buy a FTSE-100 company and soon find it’s going downhill because one influential analyst has decided its prospects are not as they previously thought”.

Indeed that is exactly what happened after I made a recent purchase of Babcock International (BAB). Soon after Shore Capital Markets published a note that said it would be skipping its final dividend. The share price promptly fell by 7% on that day even though they claimed to “retain a buy stance” on the shares.

The last announcement by the company covering the subject of dividends on the 6th April simply said “The Board will consider the final ordinary dividend for this financial year ahead of our full year results announcement [due on the 11th June] taking into account developments over the next two months”. Do Shore Capital have inside information or are they just guessing? Or did they consult the company first? If they were given any relevant steer on this matter, the company should have issued a statement on it. Regardless it’s somewhat annoying even if some moderation of the dividend might make some sense and everyone else is cutting them. I would not be too concerned about the loss of dividend because I never buy shares for dividends alone, but I don’t like to suffer capital losses.

Yesterday property company Segro (SGRO) announced a placing “to take advantage of additional investment opportunities”. There was no open offer but private shareholders could participate via Primary Bid if you were willing to accept the price agreed with institutional holders. The shares issued represented 7% of the existing capital and the placing price turned out to be 820p, a discount of 4.5% to the previous close. I declined to participate, mainly because I have enough of their shares already. One has to ask why they could not have done a proper rights issue as there seemed no great urgency in the matter.

Last night I watched a presentation by Marcus Phayre-Mudge, fund manager for TR Property Investment Trust (TRY), on the internet. This tended to simply confirm my view that this is a well-managed fund which is withstanding the Covid-19 epidemic well. It has avoided many of the property sectors most damaged by the virus. It has a pan-European focus when internet retailing in the rest of Europe is still well behind that in the UK. He said “retailing is in an accelerating structural shift” but he does not “believe the end of the office is nigh”. A very useful and informative presentation via PI World even if he got cut off at the end due to some unknown technical issue. You can see a recording of it here: https://www.piworld.co.uk/

This morning I attended the virtual AGM of EKF Diagnostics (EKF), a medical products manufacturer mainly for diagnostic applications. There were about 12 attendees via a Zoom conference call and it worked quite well. Attendees were asked to register and submit questions in advance, although there was time to ask impromptu questions in the meeting also which were invited at the end.

Voting was done on a poll so the results of that were displayed first. The meeting was chaired by CEO Julian Baines.

I submitted a question about their investment in Renalytix AI (RENX) and its progress, which had been recently listed. I suggested progress was slow but the response was that progress had not been slow at all. However the Covid-19 situation has delayed tests in hospitals in the USA.  Progress on approvals is significant and revenues are expected shortly.

There was a question on the ramp-up of sales in McKesson and the answer was they had slowed significantly. But the company overall was only about 10% down on core products. They had seen business coming back on line in May and June.

Another question related to the Longhorn product which was claimed to be “the world’s safest sample collection product” (very relevant to virus sample collection of course). They are selling millions of these tubes in the USA. There is only one competitor who is allegedly infringing their patents – they are speaking to them “robustly” at present.

There were several other questions and answers of no great significance, but it was certainly a useful meeting and a good example of how any small/medium company could run a virtual AGM very easily. Why do they not do so?

My thanks to EKF for running such an event, which took less than 30 minutes in duration.

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

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Bioventix AGM, Babcock Attack and FCA Measures on CFDs

On Thursday (6/12/2018) I attended the Annual General Meeting of Bioventix Plc (BVXP) at Farnham Castle. There were about a dozen ordinary shareholders present. Bioventix develop antibodies for use in blood tests. Their Annual Report contains a very good explanation of the business.

This AIM company had revenue of £7.9 million last year and post-tax profits of £5.6 million. They did that with only 15 staff. Total director pay was £362,000 even though CEO Peter Harrison’s pay went up by 54% – but no shareholders even mentioned that. With consistent growth, good dividends and high return on capital, there’s not much to complain about here.

There is a copy of the last presentation the company gave to investors here: https://www.bioventix.com/investors/overview/ which gives you more information on the company.

I won’t cover the meeting in detail but there were a few points worth mentioning:

Peter explained that the Vitamin D antibody market is “plateauing”, i.e. unlikely to show the same growth as historically. The key product for future revenue growth is their new Troponin test for which there are high hopes, but take-off seems sluggish. This is a marker for heart attacks and is used to check when someone turns up in A&E with chest pains whether they are having a heart attack or some other problem, the former being much more serious of course and needing rapid treatment. The new Troponin test is faster and more accurate which helps speedy and more accurate diagnosis. However adoption of it to replace the older test is slow. This seems to be because hospitals are slow to change their “protocols”. There is also some competition but it is not clear how the company’s product stands against that in terms of sales. It would seem more education and promotion of the new product is required but Bioventix is reliant on the blood-testing machine partner (Siemens) to promote it and it seems there is little financial advantage in doing so to them – the new product is no more expensive than the old. That you might think makes it easy for customers to convert to the new, but also provides little motivation for the supplier to promote. However, NICE and others are promoting the new tests. That’s a summary of what Peter explained to the shareholders with my deductions.

It would certainly be of advantage to patients if the new test was adopted. Might have saved me hanging around in A&E for most of the night a few years back just awaiting confirmation I had not had a heart attack.

There are other antibodies in the R&D pipeline although it can take 5 years from R&D commencement to product sales, even if the product is adopted. All R&D is written off in the year incurred though.

There were questions on cash and special dividends which the company sometimes pays. The business is highly cash-generative but they like to keep about £5 million in cash on the balance sheet and no debt so that they can take up any acquisition or IP opportunities.

On Friday (7/12/2018), there was an interesting article in the Financial Times on the attack on Babcock International (BAB) by Boatman Capital Research – a typical type of attack by an anonymous blogger probably combined with shorting. The article quoted an investor as saying “Boatman made some valid points…..but there were whopping inaccuracies which seemed calculated to drive the share price down”. For example, the article mentioned claims about overruns on a contract to build a dry dock at Devonport – there is no such contract.

Babcock has been trying to find out who Boatman Capital are, but with no success at all. The organisation or its owners cannot be located, and their web site is anonymised. So Babcock cannot even sue the authors. They may well be located overseas in any case which would make it even more difficult. Babcock share price has been falling as a result and is down 20% since the Boatman report was published. See the FT report here: https://www.ft.com/content/c2780d6e-f942-11e8-af46-2022a0b02a6c

Comment (I do not hold Babcock shares): The Boatman report seems to be the usual mixture of a few probable facts, mixed with errors and innuendo as one sees in such shorting attacks. There have been a few examples where such reports did provide very important information but because of the approach the writers of such reports take it is very difficult to deduce whether the content is all true, partially true, or totally erroneous and misguided. The shorter does not care because they can do the damage regardless and turn a profit.

The basic problem is that with the internet it is easy to propagate “fake news” and get it circulated so rapidly that the company cannot respond fast enough, and regulators likewise – the latter typically take months or years to do anything, even if they have a channel they can use. We really need new legislation to stop this kind of market abuse which can just as easily involve going long on a stock as going short. Contracts for Difference (CFDs) are one way to take an interest in a share price without owning the underlying stock and hence are ideal for such market manipulations.

Which brings me on to the next topic. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has announced proposals to restrict the sales of CFDs and Binary Options to retail investors. Most retail investors in CFDs lose money – see my previous comments here on this subject: https://roliscon.blog/2018/01/14/want-to-get-rich-quickly/ . The latest FCA proposals are covered here: https://www.fca.org.uk/news/press-releases/fca-proposes-permanent-measures-retail-cfds-and-binary-options

You will note it contains protections to ensure clients cannot lose all their money and positions will be closed out earlier. But leverage can still be up to 30 to 1. The new rules might substantially reduce losses incurred by retail investors, the FCA believes.

But it still looks like a half-baked compromise to me. If the FCA really wants to protect retail investors from their own foolishness, then an outright ban would surely be wiser. At best most CFD purchasers are speculating, not investing, and I cannot see why the FCA should be permitting what is essentially gambling on stock prices. It creates a dubious culture, and the promotion of these products is based on them being a quick way to riches when in reality it’s usually a quick way to become poorer.

You only have to look at the accounts of publicly listed CFD providers to see who is making the money – it’s the providers not the clients. Those companies seem to be mainly saying the new rules won’t have much impact on them. That is shame when they should do and shows how the FCA’s solution is a poor, half-baked compromise.

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

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Should You Give Up Fags and Booze, plus Coverage of Babcock and Babylon

The title of this article refers not to your personal habits, but whether investors should give up on holdings in tobacco and drinks companies. Yesterday British American Tobacco (BATS) dropped 10% after the Wall Street journal reported that the US Food and Drug Administration was planning a ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes. They contribute a significant proportion of BATS profits.

Aside from this possible temporary issue, the key question for investors is whether to hold tobacco stocks at all. Apart from the ethics of selling products that kill people (and as a former smoker I am not too concerned about that as many people participate in dangerous behaviour of other kinds despite being warned), the key question is whether you should invest in such companies. With BATS on a prospective p/e of 10 and a yield of 6.7% (according to Stockopedia) it might seem attractive. But the share price has declined from a peak of 5,530p in June 2017 to below 3,000p now.

Smoking in the developed world is falling – down to under 15% of the population in England according to the latest statistics. But it’s still growing in less developed parts of the world such as Africa and the Middle East. However, with more Government intervention and better population education, one has to face up to the fact that it is likely to be a declining market sooner or later. It’s obviously a sector very vulnerable to Government interference which are usually ones to avoid. So I suggest investors should not just give up smoking, they should give up on tobacco companies. Investing in companies operating in declining markets is always tricky as few managements accept the party is over and tend to continue in their same old ways with damaging effects to their health – just like smokers.

The next addictive product to talk about is alcohol which is also vulnerable to Government regulation. Diageo (DGE) is a company with leading brands in the sector. Strong brands can enable companies to earn a superior return on capital and some Annual Reports from the company talk about nothing else. Indeed they have so many brands that they recently announced they were selling off a few of them. Does that make sense? Probably because does one really need multiple gin and whisky brands? Personally I find great difficulty distinguishing the multiple brands of gin now on the market – most of them seem to be marketing gimmicks rather than really different products with different tastes. By the time they are diluted with your favourite tonic such as Fevertree, there’s not much difference. Diageo has one particular strength in that booze sales are less affected by general economic trends just like tobacco. People don’t give up drinking and smoking in a depression so are unlikely to be affected by Brexit, whatever the outcome. But health concerns and Government intervention are still risks – for example Diageo has potential problems in India. But I consider the risks worth taking in Diageo so I do hold a few shares in the stock.

Babcock International (BAB), the defence contractor, is another stock to avoid if you have environmental or social concerns. But that’s not the main reason the share price has been declining of late – the share price is down from a peak of about 860p in June this year to about 600p. The prospective p/e is now 7.3 and the yield about 5% which certainly makes it look cheap.

One reason for the decline is an attack by an investment firm called Boatman Capital. They allege (to quote from their web site): “Babcock has systematically misled investors by burying bad news about its performance. We believe it faces potentially massive exceptional costs, revenue pressure and declining margins”. They also suggested the company’s relationship with the Ministry of Defence had soured. Nobody knows who is behind Boatman and BAB say they are “untraceable” so this looks like yet another of those shorting attacks preceded by a damaging report that mixes up mud-slinging and innuendo with dubious financial analysis and a few real facts that add credibility. BAB issued a response to the Boatman report yesterday which is worth reading. Babcock investors can download the report from the Boatman web site.

Such attacks have been common among smaller cap stocks for some time. Sometimes the attacks have an underlying basis of a few facts, but sometimes they do not. As I have said before, I think this is an area that needs regulation, although how that can be done when often the material is published overseas is not easy to see.

But there is one thing that is certain. Any major Government contractor is vulnerable to changes in Government policy and financial retrenchment. Will the UK Government really be spending more on defence on future? I rather suspect not as other social priorities take precedence.

One of the Government’s priorities is to spend more on healthcare. There was a very interesting report on the activities of a company called Babylon Health in a recent BBC Horizon programme. Babylon, via their app called Babylon which anyone can download, provide an on-line symptom screening and G.P. service. This is an area I have taken an interest in for several years as it has always seemed to be that this is potentially one of the most effective uses of AI and medical technology to improve healthcare. Not that I have ever doubted the wisdom of doctors to diagnose my complex medical problems effectively but I do believe some intelligent assistance might speed diagnosis.

At present Babylon is focused on G.P. services although they are moving into more specialist secondary areas. In London they offer the service under the name “GP-at-hand” with support from the NHS. But some doctors are complaining they are pinching their registered patients which reduces their income in local surgeries, and leaves them with the relatively unhealthy and elderly who don’t have access to on-line services but are more expensive to service.

Babylon do not offer on-line diagnosis at present for legal reasons, which in my view is a pity. They just provide a “triage” service and pass you to a G.P. when required for an on-line video consultation. But would it not save the NHS an enormous amount of money to have patients doing their own diagnosis using an intelligent app? But the current “GP-at-hand” service is a step in the right direction.

Babylon have recently done a study of how their system compares to the diagnostic skills of real G.P.s and they came out of it well – see their report here: https://marketing-assets.babylonhealth.com/press/BabylonJune2018Paper_Version1.4.2.pdf . For some more critical comments on the company and a summary of its history, see http://www.nhsforsale.info/private-providers/babylon-health.html . I fear G.P.s will resist this innovation because the NHS is notorious for its slow take up of technology. As the BBC programme reported, the NHS is now the biggest user of fax machines in the world when most organisations gave up using them years ago and turned to more direct digital channels. This is symptomatic of the NHS’s continuing reliance on paper processes.

Babylon is a British company but it is private equity funded and not a public company. But this is surely the kind of company than should be listed. It’s one of the best applications of AI. Undoubtedly I would have a lot more confidence in medical diagnostic software supported by a trained doctor than I have in self-driving cars. At least you can get a second opinion on the former before you crash.

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

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