Impressions of the British Land AGM

I attended the Annual General Meeting of British Land Plc (BLND) today. This is a large FTSE-100 property company of course, focused on London offices (39% of portfolio) and Retail stores (most of the balance).

The trading statement issued in the morning was a mixed bag. Loan-to-value (LTV) further reduced to 26% (they have been selling off developments and repaying debt plus buying back shares with the resulting cash). There were positive comments about the office sector – the Chairman indicated in the meeting that the Brexit threat had put new developments on hold so there was a growing shortage of good quality office space in London. But retail comments were less positive – long term structural change driven by the internet and short-term trading headwinds, so the market “remains challenging”. The share price fell this morning as it has been doing since mid-June.

The Chairman, John Gildersleeve, mentioned NAV was up 6% last year but profits were down because of disposals (which reduce the rental income). He gave the impression that he thought British Land have been doing a good job of managing their property holdings and “reshaping” their retail portfolio. He also talked about their new ventures in flexible office space (“Storey” – now 80% let) and in homes to rent (e.g. on Canada Water). Whether these new ventures will be sufficient to offset the negative trends in retail property in general is not yet clear.

Shareholder questions focused on whether the portfolio valuations were accurate – the Chairman defended them; should they be developing offices in Dublin – answer No; or warehouses – no clear answer but general impression is to focus on what they know and stick to the UK; and the risk of rent controls on housing – risks are uncertain and it’s only a small element in their portfolio. There were some other questions of little consequence.

More than one shareholder questioned the large buy-backs undertaken by the company – they could have doubled the dividend instead (dividend yield will be about 4.0% this year, but they are doing more buy-backs). The Chairman said as they can buy their own shares (i.e. their assets) at 30% discount why should they not do it? Can’t say I am convinced by such arguments. The company is clearly reducing its size by selling assets and hence generating surplus cash but if they cannot find a good use for it they should return it to shareholders via dividends or a tender offer, not market share buy-backs.

I asked whether they could use the new “hybrid” AGM capability (part physical, part on-line) capability in the new Articles but the Chairman seemed to think that investors were not yet ready for that, which is a disappointment. It would have saved us all traipsing into the West End of London on a hot day.

The questions only lasted about an hour before we moved to a poll vote. No questions on remuneration which is excessive (4.5% voted against), or on why they need 13 directors a number of whom seemed to have no relevant backgrounds. Thirteen directors must surely make for dysfunctional board meetings. Perhaps more questions were deterred by the witty put-downs given by the Chairman to some shareholders which is a style I do not like even if it makes such events somewhat less boring.

There were also 14% of shareholders voted against the change to 14 days notice for General Meetings – good for them. But we did not see the voting figures until later so no opportunity to comment on them.

In summary, an unexciting AGM at an unexciting company. A typical PR event for geriatric shareholders on the whole so only useful to a limited extent.

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

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Hybrid AGMs and British Land

The British Land Plc (BLND) Annual General Meeting is coming up on the 17th July and I took the opportunity to review the agenda items as some are particularly interesting this year. One resolution refers to a change in the Articles which have been substantially revised. They include:

  • A new resolution to permit “hybrid” General Meetings where some members can participate electronically instead of attending in person. But “all electronic” meetings are still not permitted. This is surely a good initiative and would enable many more shareholders to “attend” such meetings. The disappointing aspect is that apparently the company has “no current intention” to use this capability.
  • A new provision is to allow the current directors to continue in office, with limited capabilities, if they are all voted off at an AGM. This is not very likely to happen, particularly when there are 13 directors on the board as in this company, although I have seen it threatened at smaller companies. Perhaps it is not an unreasonable provision. But why does any company need 13 directors? That surely makes board meetings either very long-winded or some directors are not likely to be saying much. It makes for dysfunctional board meetings. Looking at the backgrounds of some of the directors, where there is no obvious relevance to a property company, it would look like the board could be reduced in size without too much difficulty.
  • Another change is to up the limit on the total pay of non-executive directors from £600,000 to £900,000. Does that sound high? Perhaps not when the Chairman has a fee set at £385,000 per year and the non-executives get a base fee of £62,500 with other additions for sitting on various committees. Indeed the odd thing is that the total fees paid to non-executive directors were £986,000 last year. Surely that means the new limit it not enough and the limit was breached by a wide margin last year? Perhaps not because the limit excludes any additional fees for serving on committees or for acting as chairman which presumably can be set at whatever the board thinks are reasonable. In reality it’s a limit voted upon by shareholders that can be easily side-stepped. It’s surely worth asking for justification at the AGM! So I’ll be voting against the change to the Articles even though most of the revisions are sensible.

The registrar in this case is Equiniti. They sent me a paper proxy voting form but no paper Annual Report, which is somewhat annoying as reading a 186 page report on-line is not easy. I’ll have to request a paper one. But at least they provide an easy on-line voting system unlike some others I could mention – I am still on correspondence with Link Asset Services (Capita as was) on that subject.

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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Property Companies and TR Property AGM

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of TR Property Investment Trust (TRY). I have held shares in this company for a long time, and it’s always useful to attend their AGM as you get a useful update on trends in the property market from the fund manager (Marcus Phayre-Mudge of late). As he mentioned, the fact that they hold property directly, as well as holding shares in property companies gives them a unique insight into the state of the market.

Apart from holding TR Property, I also hold some direct property company shares which are British Land, NewRiver, Segro and Tritax Big Box. Not claiming to be a property expert, have I made the right choices there? Answers will be obvious later.

Segro announced their interim results yesterday also. Segro, like Tritax, are focused on large warehouses. They reported adjusted eps up 6.5%, and NAV up 2.6% with the dividend increased by 4%. The share price rose 2.8% on the day and has been in a strong positive trend in the last few months. Marcus was particularly positive about the Segro results and said there was tremendous rental growth in that sector with a 94% retention rate which is remarkably high. So no problems there.

As Marcus made clear, the property market is at present only doing well in certain sectors and certain geographies. TR Property is very well diversified though as it covers the whole of Europe (one might consider it as another of those Brexit hedging stocks with only 36% of holdings in the UK and they have been reducing that). The commercial property market is somewhat cyclical and was expected to decline in the UK, particularly after the Brexit vote. London offices were perceived as being vulnerable. There is also the impact of the internet on large retail stores. They are reducing exposure to retail but not to convenience stores. Shopping habits in the UK are clearly changing substantially, but less quickly in the rest of Europe. Marcus said they have been trying to focus on buying more physical property but the market has been surprisingly strong.

Switzerland, Benelux and Sweden were the worse geographic areas, and one shareholder commented very negatively on the political and social problems of late in Sweden. Rental growth in Paris and Stockholm is taking place and we might even get some in Spain as properties are filling up.

He made it plain that two sectors are performing well in the UK – “big box” warehouses, and convenience stores. So my holdings of Segro, Tritax and NewRiver are in the right place. But TR Property also hold those two big companies of British Land (pedestrian performance of late with asset value declines) and Land Securities (now renamed Landsec – Marcus said he hoped it did not cost them much to change). He has a bigger holding in the latter, but apparently he may not be totally happy as he mentioned he held a meeting with them recently, and it was not just to have a cup of tea.

He was positive about the share buy-back announced by British Land but suggested it was not big enough to make much difference. British Land is currently on a big discount to NAV so it probably makes sense when I am generally opposed to market share buy-backs. The discount discourages me from selling the shares at present.

TR Property managed to achieve a Total NAV Return of 8.0% last year which was very similar to the previous year and ahead of their benchmark. The depreciation of sterling helped the valuation of their European holdings. The share price discount is currently 7.8% which is slightly below their average. The dividend grew by 26% last year due to strong revenue growth, and currently yields 3.0%.

Marcus was positive about the future because capital markets are still good for property with very cheap debt. There has been record bond issuance by property companies – fixed for longer and lower, which they are encouraging.

He is slightly worried about Brexit and our politicians – “not sure they could negotiate themselves out of a paper bag”.

There were about 70 shareholders present at the AGM at a new venue (Marriott Grosvenor on Park Lane) with defective air conditioning. Shareholder votes were overwhelming in support of all resolutions, except that Chairman Hugh Seaborn got 5.9% against on the proxy votes. Not clear why and did not get the opportunity to ask him about that.

In summary, a useful AGM for those interested in the property sector (which I hold to offset my go-go growth stocks as property tends to be relatively defensive in nature, with share prices more driven by asset values and rental yields).

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

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