General Election and the Stock Market Impact

We finally have a possible resolution of the impasse in Parliament as a General Election is to be held on December 12th. That’s after the Speaker (not Bercow needless to say) rejected two wrecking amendments to a simple Bill authorising the election. My spirits were elated by this news because it finally means that the uncertainty over Brexit (will we or won’t we depart) may soon be resolved. That uncertainty has been damaging to UK business as their plans were put on hold, and has caused a fall in the pound as the world saw that we were in a political crisis and there was a risk of a hard Brexit. It also meant little other business was getting done in Parliament as the Government had no overall majority.

Now we have the situation that with a large Conservative lead in the opinion polls it seems likely that Boris Johnson will be returned with a Commons majority and will be able to push through his Brexit Withdrawal Bill. That Bill does seem reasonable to me in many regards, as a Brexit supporter. It avoids a “hard”, no-deal Brexit which was certainly going to have some impact on business, although not as much as some people claimed. It also seems likely that the marxist ambitions of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party will be a dead letter for at least a few years.  I expected that the stock market would be lifted by this news but it has not happened. Why?

Perhaps some risks are still perceived. One is that the Brexit Party will split the right-wing vote in individual constituencies thus allowing other parties to win them. Or there could be mix of parties in the resulting Parliament with no overall majority which would put us back at square one. The key is the stance of the Brexit Party where Nigel Farage is opposed to the Withdrawal Agreement as he basically thinks it concedes too much to the EU (over fisheries, future trade, future regulatory alignment, etc). But if he wants to be certain of obtaining Brexit he has to think again and form a pact with the Conservatives. The Brexit Party has already been targeting Labour seats and that is surely a good focus for them leaving the Conservatives to target marginals and traditional Tory seats. As a relatively new Party, the Brexit Party probably does not have the resources to fight all the constituencies effectively in any case. Better to focus on a few. That way the Brexit Party could achieve some seats in Parliament for the first time and have a longer-term future with some say in Government and the future negotiations with the EU. The latter still leaves a lot to be settled under the “Political Declaration” so there is much to be decided.  Otherwise the Brexit Party surely has no future other than as sheep in the wilderness.

But all this complexity is probably lost on most investors, particularly overseas ones who dominate the UK stock market. They probably will not be convinced that the UK has returned to some sanity until a clear election result appears.

But as always I am optimistic. I am betting it will be resolved in a satisfactory way as most voters are fed up with the political gyrations and many of the worse MPs have been destroying their own reputations by repeated “about-faces”. Boris Johnson has to clean out the Augean Stables that are the Houses of Parliament.  To quote: “For the fifth labour, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to clean up King Augeas’ stables. Hercules knew this job would mean getting dirty and smelly, but sometimes even a hero has to do these things”. That’s politics in essence.

For those opposed to Brexit and still clutching at straws, the National Institute of Social Research (NIESR) has reported that they expect UK GDP to be 3.5% lower in ten years’ time under the proposed deal. But the Treasury and the Governor of the Bank of England do not agree. It depends on the terms of any free trade agreement that is negotiated with the EU. I am sceptical that there is likely to be any negative impact. Economic forecasts of just one or two years ahead are notoriously unreliable. Ten-year forecasts are simply incredible. The latter cannot take account of unexpected events and economic trends, and tend to ignore the adaptability of businesses. I suspect a more positive outlook for the country might stimulate more confidence in business and investment therein and offset any minor other impacts. In essence a Government with a good majority and a unity of purpose is the key. Perhaps readers should consider tactical voting to ensure that happens.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

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

 

Population Trends and Productivity

One of the key factors that affects the wealth of the population of the UK is labour productivity. It also has a big influence on the value of UK companies in which many of my readers have a strong interest.  Only by improving productivity can we become richer in essence. But even the Government recognises that this country has a big problem at present because productivity is not improving, unlike in some of our competitors.

Some relevant information on this issue recently came to light in the pages of the FT. First the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that population growth is slowing due to worsening life expectancy. But it’s still expected to grow by 3 million to 69.4 million by mid-2028. It also concludes that it is migration that is driving UK population growth and as the post-war baby boomers die that impact will strengthen.

Of the UK countries, England is expected to grow population more rapidly, rising by 10.3% to 2043, and I can guess where most of that will settle – London and the South-East no doubt based on recent past trends.

Now you may have concerns about that in terms of the “liveability” of the area. It will worsen the pressure on the public transport network and congestion on the road network. It will also increase air pollution substantially as air pollution directly relates to the business and travel activity of the population and the number of homes. But a letter from Professor Nicholas Oulton in the same FT pointed out that the growth of hours worked in the UK, largely fueled by migration, has reduced our productivity growth to near zero. He says the flip side of the UK’s job miracle is the productivity disaster [unemployment is at record lows].

This is not just a debate for economists though, because Brexit will enable the UK to restrict immigration from Europe which is currently unrestrained and has led to 18% of the workforce now being foreign born. That ready supply of both skilled and unskilled labour provides a disincentive for UK companies to invest in more machinery or IT systems and explains both the poor productivity growth and lack of capital investment. We have just been creating a lot of low-paid jobs.

The recent uncertainty over Brexit has also created difficulties for many businesses who are generally horrified by yet more delays in Parliament over concluding the matter. This is becoming an even more important issue than whether it is a hard or soft Brexit. So what should the Prime Minister do now that his Bill debate timetable was voted down thus making it very difficult to achieve his desired exit on October the 31st? I suggest he needs to either agree a very short delay with the EU together with some agreement from the Labour Party and others that wrecking amendments will not proliferate – I do not consider it totally unreasonable that more time was required to debate the Brexit Biill. Or he needs to get a General Election agreed. It seems that may just be possible.

But it is important to get Brexit completed if the UK is to tackle the problem of low productivity and hence low wages driven by excessive immigration.

It is the low and poor growth in wages for most of the population that is also driving the social unrest in the country which is an issue that cannot be ignored.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

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

 

Woodford and Hargreaves Lansdown, Rosslyn Data AGM and Brexit

To follow up on my previous blog post over the collapse of Woodford Investment Management and how to avoid dud managers, the focus has now turned in the national media upon Hargreaves Lansdown (HL.). Investors who have lost a lot of money, and now won’t be able to get their cash out for some time, are looking for who to blame. Neil Woodford is one of course, but what about investment platforms such HL?

The Woodford Equity Income Fund was on the HL “best buy” list for a long time – indeed long after its poor performance was evident. They claimed at a Treasury Committee that Woodford had displayed similar underperformance in the past and had bounced back. But that was when he had a very different investment strategy so far as one can deduce.

The big issue though that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) should be looking at is the issue of platforms favouring funds that give financial incentives – in this case via providing a discount to investors and hence possibly generating more revenue when better performing funds such as Fundsmith refused to do so. HL have not recommended Fundsmith in the past, despite it being one of the top performing funds.

It is surely not sensible for fund platforms to be recommending funds unless they have no financial interest in the matter whatsoever. Indeed I would suggest the simple solution is for platforms to be banned from recommending any funds or trusts, thus forcing the investor to both get educated and make up their own minds. Such a rule might spawn a new group of independent retail investor advisors which would be surely to the good.

Today I attended the Annual General Meeting of Rosslyn  Data Technologies (RDT). This is an IT company that I bought a few shares in a couple of years ago as an EIS investment. It was loss-making then, and still is but is getting near break-even.

There were only about half a dozen shareholders present, but they had lots of questions. I only cover the important ones here. New Chairman James Appleby chaired the meeting reasonably well, but left most of the question answering to others.

Why did company founder Charles Clark step down (as announced today)? Reason given was that he had set up another company where there was  a potential conflict of interest.

I asked about the Landon acquisition that was announced in September. How much revenue would this add?  They are not sure but maybe £0.5 million. Bearing in mind they only paid £48,750 for the assets and client list from the administrator, that seems to be me a remarkably good deal. But it later transpired that they have outstanding contracts (pre-paid) which they have to finish so that might be another £250,000 of costs. However, that’s still cheap and by rationalising some of the costs they should quickly turn Langdon profitable. It was suggested that Langdon had been mismanaged with over-expansion and too many staff which is why it went bust – only a few of the staff have been taken on. Note that the impact of this acquisition is not yet in broker’s forecasts.

It was noted that RDT is currently broadly on track for analysts forecasts but it has been a slow start to the year. Deals are slipping into the second half. Decision timescales in major corporates seem to be stretching out at present.

One shareholder, who said “I am talking too much – a daft old man”, which it is difficult to disagree with as he asked numerous questions, some not very intelligent, asked whether they were charging enough for their services. There was a long debate on that issue, but it was explained that competitors were charging less.

There were also concerns about the slow rate of revenue growth (only 8.3% last year). Comment: this company is clearly not operating in a hot, high-growth sector of the market. But it does seem to be competently managed and if they can do acquisitions like Langdon that are complementary then profits should grow.

Altogether a useful AGM.

Brexit has of course made many UK companies nervous about new projects. At the time of writing the latest position appears to be that the EU and Boris have agreed a deal. Most Conservatives like it, but the DUP does not and Labour, LibDems and SNP will all seem likey to vote against it in Parliament. The last group all seem to be playing politics to get what they individually want, but not a general election which on current opinion polls might result in a big Conservative majority. Most people are very frustrated that this group are blocking support of Brexit so we can close down the issue and move on when there seems to be no overall public support for another referendum or cancelling Brexit altogether.

But even given this messy situation, I am hopeful that it will be resolved in one way or the other soon. But then I am the perpetual optimist. I am investing accordingly.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

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

Dunelm Trading, Abrupt Share Price Moves and Volatility

It’s a good job I am not an emotional person. This morning Dunelm (DNLM) issued what I considered a very positive trading statement for the last quarter. The share price promptly dropped 6% after the market opened.

Total group sales were up 5.8%, with like-for-like sales up 6.4%. In addition this is a company that is clearly making a successful transition from being a retail store business to a hybrid on-line/store model. On-line business was up 34.7% while store business was still up 2.9%. On a prospective p/e of less than 15 and a yield of over 4% this is starting to look attractive. The company says year-end expectations remain unchanged as it continues to win market share. The only slight negative was that “September trading was mixed in part reflecting a softer homewares market”. But should a retailer be judged on one month’s trading alone?

This is the third of my holdings to suffer abrupt falls in the last couple of days. The others were 4Imprint (FOUR) and Telecom Plus (TEP), neither for any very obvious reason although there were some large trades put through on the former. But the UK market has been falling driven by the nervousness over resolution of the Brexit situation no doubt. That looks even more problematic at present with it being clear that the EU thinks they can force Brexit to be cancelled by sitting on their hands and dictating another referendum or general election before they will negotiate a withdrawal agreement. Conspiring with Speaker John Bercow is the latest attack on the democratic constitution of the UK by the EU in furtherance of this objective. What’s the motivation for the position of the EU Commission on all of this? I would suggest as usual it’s about money which always drives politics and the actions of individuals. The departure of the UK from the EU will leave a massive hole in the EU budget which they have not even attempted to solve as yet.

These events mean of course that foreign investors, who hold the majority of UK listed companies, are spooked and the risk of a future Labour Government rises as the leavers vote is split between Conservatives and Brexit party supporters. The only positive aspect is that the falling pound, driven by the same emotions, is improving the potential profits of many of my holdings which have large overseas revenues. 4Imprint comes into that category of course so the recent falls are difficult to explain except on the basis of recent past irrational exuberance. Smaller cap stocks are particularly vulnerable because just a few trades can move the share price substantially.

When markets and investors get nervous, volatility does increase and sharp share price falls can happen for no great reason. This is the time to pick up some bargains perhaps?

Postscript: Commentators on the Dunelm results after the share price fell further focused on the threat to margins from a falling pound, but the company announcement indicated that they expect gross margin for the full year to be consistent with last year despite currency headwinds towards the end of the year.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

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

 

City of London IT, Equals Interims, Paypoint CEO, Downing One VCT and Parliamentary Pandemonium

Having been away on holiday in the North of England last week, this is a catch up on news that impacted my portfolio.

I received the Annual Report for City of London Investment Trust (CTY) which is one of my most boring holdings. This is large cap equity growth/income trust managed for many years by Job Curtis and I have held since 2011 – it seems longer. Total return last year was 2.7% which beat most of the comparable indices. But a look at the overall return (including dividends) on my holdings in Sharescope shows an annual return of 15.0% which is very pleasing. It has reduced its management overheads to a cost of 0.39% (the “on-going” charge).

It is particularly worthy of note that the Chairman, Philip Remnant, says this in the Annual Report: “In February 2019 the AIC published an updated Code of Governance which largely mirrors the provisions of the UK Corporate Governance Code issued by the FRC save that the strict nine year cap on the Chairman’s tenure contained in the FRC’s code has been disapplied by the AIC. I see no reason why the rules which apply to the length of time which the chairman of an investment company can server should be more relaxed than those that apply to other listed companies, and so I will be stepping down as Chairman during 2020”.

I completely agree with Mr Remnant and have raised this point at AGMs of a number of trusts where directors are permitted to hang on for much too long. The AIC should not pretend that investment trusts are exempt from the UK Corporate Governance Code.

Equals (EQLS), formerly called FairFX, issued their interim results on the 26th September. Revenue was up by 21.4% and Adjusted EBITDA up by 78% but EPS was down. The share price fell, although the Chairman bought some shares soon afterwards.

However as reported on at the AGM (see https://tinyurl.com/y5j58dd6 ) there is a large amount of software development work being capitalised at this company and as expected, it went up in the half year. Another £4.8 million to be exact. That is a very large amount of development work and suggests either a very large team or an expensive one. It does raise doubts in my mind, and possibly others, about the accounts.

Paypoint (PAY) reported a “temporary leadership change” on the 26th September. CEO Patrick Headon is taking a leave of absence to receive treatment for a medical condition and he is expected to be absent for 3 months. The share price barely moved during the week but these kinds of reports which give no details can often conceal worse news. I recall the recent events at Wey Education where Executive Chairman David Massie received some open-heart surgery and subsequently died. Shareholders were not informed of this problem until he resigned and this was a significant problem for the company. I suggest there should be some clear rules developed on when medical incapacity needs to be reported to shareholders, and what level of detail is provided so that investors can judge the risks and possible impacts.

Downing One VCT (DDV1) issued a circular concerning the raising of up to £40 million in additional equity. This is justified so as to increase the size of the company to better cover the fixed running costs and to enable the company to make new investments and diversify its portfolio.

It always surprises me how Venture Capital Trusts can often raise more money even when they have a very patchy performance record. According to the AIC, this VCT achieved a NAV total return of 9.4% over the last 5 years. I won’t be increasing my holding in this company therefore by subscribing for it. However, how should I vote on the fund raising? Should I support it on the basis of pulling in more suckers to support the overhead costs? Or oppose it on the basis that giving more cash to the manager will hardly improve performance in the short term and simply give more fees to a poorly performing fund manager?

They are also proposing to introduce a Performance Incentive Fee – 20% of gains subject to a hurdle rate. But performance fees do not improve performance so I always oppose them. I hope other shareholders will do the same.

It was of course difficult to get away from events in Parliament and Brexit issues while on holiday. But I did manage to read a book in the hotel library – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon – just a part of it of course as it’s a multi-volume book. Gibbon was a Member of Parliament in the 1770s but disliked the place which he called “Pandemonium”. Nothing changes it seems.

As regards the decision of the Supreme Court over Prorogation, having read the full Judgement of the Court, I do not find it particularly surprising. People do tend to jump to conclusions about court judgements, often declaring they are biased, when a full reading often shows that the judges are not so perverse as imagined. I fear the advice of the Attorney General on prorogation was defective in that it cannot be purely at the whim of the prime minister to suspend Parliament for a long period of time and without good reason.

It was also unnecessary as Boris Johnson has other options to ensure that Brexit takes place on the 31st October as he wishes. Most investors are surely now of the same view of many of the public that we need to get this matter settled. Delaying resolution by a further extension of the Brexit date or by another referendum would simply cause more uncertainty and difficulty for businesses and for investors. Businesses cannot plan adequately and the value of the pound is dropping while investors are nervous. None of these things are helpful to investment returns.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

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

Next Results, Brexit Politics and Statpro Offer

Retailer Next (NXT) published their interim results on Thursday (19th Sept). This is a good example of a retailer making a successful transition from shops to internet sales. Earnings per share were up 8.8% with some impact from a change to adopt IFRS16 (lease accounting) and share buy-backs. Overall revenue was up 3.7% with online sales up 12.6% but retail sales down 5.5% and now less than the online figure. One has to ask, if Next can do this why could not M&S who recently got booted out of the FTSE-100? I suggest management is what makes the difference.

This what the CEO had to say in a detailed analysis of performance last year, under “Direction of Travel”: We are often asked: “What will the high street look like in 10 years’ time?”  The only honest answer to this question is that we do not know; we can see the general direction of travel but can predict neither the speed nor endpoint for the changes that lie ahead. Our approach is to build as much flexibility into our operations and cost base as is possible to minimise the negative effects of falling Retail sales and maximise opportunities for growth Online.  This means a constant process of reinvention and experimentation within our business, whilst preserving the integrity of our brand, the calibre of our people, quality of the operations and the profitability of the Group.  The task remains extremely challenging, but with more than half of our sales now coming from our Online and Finance businesses, it feels like we are moving in the right direction”.

CEO Lord Wolfson said that they would cut prices by 2% if the UK leaves with a Brexit deal. This is due to the government’s temporary tariff regime for a No Deal Brexit, which aims to minimise costs to businesses and consumers while protecting vulnerable industries. But he would prefer to see a deal done.

It was interesting watching Lord Pannick performing in the Supreme Court over the challenge to the prorogation of Parliament which is undoubtedly being motivated by opposition to Brexit (I simply don’t believe the motivation is otherwise – Parliament has had plenty of time to debate Brexit issues and will still have more time). As the Government’s lawyer said in court, if MPs don’t like what the Prime Minister is doing they can always call a “no confidence” vote.

Lord Pannick is a very clear speaker and a good advocate of any case. I recall him representing the Northern Rock shareholders over the nationalisation of that company without compensation and actually congratulated him on his performance at the end of the case. He lost that one though. I suspect he may lose this latest, or the result will be inconclusive but we will no doubt hear in a couple of days. It does seem to me though that it is time the UK adopted a written constitution to avoid such legal challenges and not have lawyers debating political issues. More clarity is required on what is permissible and what is not, and what the powers of the executive have versus Parliament. The role of the Prime Minister and other Ministers is being undermined by MPs trying to dictate day-to-day matters such as foreign relations with the EU which undermines their historic responsibilities.

Meanwhile the Financial Times ran with a headline today saying the Labour Party’s plans to expropriate 10% of shares would cost pension funds £31 billion. It might also cost readers of this blog who invest directly in shares or in funds a very large amount. Thankfully the chance of the Labour Party winning any general election seems low as not only is the Party in some disarray over their Brexit policy but they are dropping in the opinion polls. This is of course why Jeremy Corbyn refuses to support the call for a General Election. He is also rated the worse opposition leader in the last 45 years according to one opinion poll. Those who oppose Brexit are now choosing the LiberalDemocrats while those who support Brexit are supporting the Conservatives or the Brexit Party. Only if the Conservative vote is split would Labour have any chance of winning an election. But a General Election can be a very different battle ground to polls driven by single issue politics.

On Friday (20th Sept) AIM listed Statpro (SOG) announced a recommended takeover bid from US company Constellation Technologies. The share price promptly jumped over 50% to near the offer price. I held shares in this company for a number of years. Bought in 2005 originally and sold the last in 2015, suffering an overall loss. So that’s an example of lack of patience. The company always seemed to have potential but profits were patchy – it lost money in the last three years. Both companies operate in the investment analysis and reporting markets so this is a complementary acquisition. I see no reason to turn it down.

Bearing in mind my previous comments on technology stock valuations, it is on a forecast p/e of 8 but that is probably optimistic given that it reported a loss recently at the half-year and has a habit of disappointing. The bid values the company at 2.7 times historic revenue though which is probably reasonable assuming that Constellation can strip out a lot of the overheads. That always needs to be taken into account when looking at technology stocks. Often a trade buyer will pay more than market investors, particularly if they wish to acquire technology or customers.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

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

JD Wetherspoon Results and Directors Reappointed at Edge Performance VCT

JD Wetherspoon (JDW) published their results for the year on Friday (13/9/2019). The revenue figures were very positive with like-for-like sales up 6.8%, overall revenue up 7.4% and earnings up 9.2% (after exceptional items).

There was an extensive diatribe from Executive Chairman and founder Tim Martin on two issues: 1) Brexit and 2) Corporate Governance standards.

Mr Martin’s stance on Brexit is well known. He is a Brexit party supporter and sees no problem with a “hard” Brexit. He says “Elite remainers are ignoring the big picture regarding lower input costs and more democracy, and are mistakenly concentrating on assumed short-term problems, such as delays at Channel ports”.

On corporate governance he dislikes the requirement for non-executive directors to step down after nine years. He says his company’s stance “is that experience is extremely important and the so-called nine-year rule is perverse and counterproductive”. He has a number of other complaints about the UK Corporate Governance standards. It looks like there may be a battle on some of these issues at the forthcoming AGM.

I agree with Tim Martin on Brexit but not altogether on corporate governance. I don’t like directors serving for more than 9 years simply from past experience of directors becoming stale and sycophantic over time. But he is right to criticise the “excessive focus on achieving financial or other targets”.

It’s well worth reading the announcement, but this is clearly one of those companies where shareholders have to have faith in the leadership of Tim Martin.

I do not hold the shares, but not for any prejudice against Mr Martin.

At the Edge Performance VCT (EDGH and EDGI) the sole remaining director Terry Back has reappointed two of the directors removed by votes at the recent AGM. This I consider most atrocious behaviour. The last time I saw this happen was at the bun fight over the future of Victoria (VCP) and that was soon overturned and a new board put in place.

It is of course essential to have more than one director in a public company because of the listing rules and for other reasons. It can of course be difficult to recruit new directors at short notice, particularly when a company is in difficulties. Potential directors fear they are at reputational risk. But reappointing directors removed by a vote of shareholders is simply not acceptable. Shareholders have a strong interest in improving matters so it should not be impossible to find some volunteers. I have suggested that ShareSoc line up some nominees to put the board on the spot. Investors need some new independent directors, not the same old guard.

As I said in this previous blog post: https://roliscon.blog/2019/09/02/edge-performance-vct-sorted/, I have long considered this VCT to be a basket case of the first order. The situation should not be allowed to continue.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

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