Covid-19 Economic Impact and Was It All Based on Faulty Analysis?

Readers don’t need to be reminded on the damage being caused to the UK economy as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. Most of the damage has been caused by the “lock-down” that has closed whole swathes of UK business and industry. There can’t be many readers’ stock market portfolios which have not suffered as a result. The lock-down was all done based on the advice of Prof. Ferguson of Imperial College and a computer model that he used.

This is what Steve Baker, M.P. tweeted today: “Today, I read the Imperial College Covid-19 Code: https://github.com/mrc-ide/covid-sim . I then read this for a second time with growing horror: https://thecritic.co.uk/a-series-of-tubes/ . Software critical to the safety and prosperity of tens of millions of people has been hacked out, badly. It is a scandal.”

This is what I wrote yesterday in my diary (which I have kept since the start of the epidemic to make interesting reading for my offspring in future years):

“There has been a lot of controversy of late over the role of Professor Neil Ferguson in the epidemic crisis.  He is professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London and has been advising on the UK government’s response. His virus modelling led to the current lockdown being put in place. It seems his past forecasts of the impact of epidemics of other diseases have been wildly pessimistic. He has now resigned from the Government advisory body after ignoring the lock-down rules to meet a paramour.

But when people looked at the software code that he has been using to forecast epidemic spread, it seemed to be unreliable. It consisted of 15,000 lines of undocumented and unstructured code that allegedly gave different answers when run more than once. It very much appears to be a rather unprofessional approach to software development that one might expect from a scientist rather than an IT professional”.

I then covered my past career as a programmer and lamented the lack of professionalism in some parts of the world as regards software development, 40 years after I gave up programming. This is a good quotation from the Daily Mail on the latest fiasco: “David Richards, co-founder of British data technology company WANdisco said the model was a ‘buggy mess that looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming’. He also said: ‘In our commercial reality we would fire anyone for developing code like this and any business that relied on it to produce software for sale would likely go bust’.”

So now you know why we are all stuck at home and in such a financial mess.

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

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Dividend Cut at Elecosoft, Dignity Trading and Public Transport Problems

Many investors are suffering from dividend cuts by companies. The latest one in my portfolio is Elecosoft (ELCO), a company that produces software for the construction sector. In their announcement of the full year results this morning they indicated revenue and earnings were much as forecast to December, and cash flow was good enough to put them in a net cash position.

Normally these results would not have caused any concerns that the dividend would be reduced or cancelled, but not this year. Even though they only previously paid small dividends and half the “cost” as a scrip dividend, this year’s final dividend has been cancelled. This is what the company had to say:

“Proposed Dividend: Elecosoft’s strong trading performance and cash generation in 2019, and, ironically, the strong start to trading in 2020, would normally have warranted the payment of an increased final dividend. However, having regard to the uncertainties created by the Coronavirus situation and the need to conserve our cash resources, the Board has decided to not recommend a final dividend”.

I don’t normally like to challenge the wisdom of management, who may know more than me about the trading position of the company and future revenue, but this does look at first glance to be excessively cautious. That is particularly so bearing in mind they could have paid it as a scrip dividend if they wished to conserve cash. ShareSoc has published some comments and written to the FRC, FCA and BEIS on the problem of dividend cuts suggesting they should issue some guidance. That seems to be a sensible suggestion because at present we don’t know whether this is just management panicking or being simply prudent.

One company that should surely be benefiting from the coronavirus epidemic is funeral provider Dignity (DTY) – I do not hold the shares. More deaths surely mean more business for them. But in their trading update today they show that it is not that simple. The company says the following:

“The absolute number of deaths increased by approximately one per cent to 161,000 from 159,000 in the comparative period last year. Sadly, since the end of the quarter, the UK has witnessed in excess of 20,000 deaths in a single week, the highest since the beginning of 2000. The number of possible incremental deaths as a result of COVID-19 is a matter of substantial speculation. Should 2020 witness a large number of incremental deaths, beyond the 600,000 originally anticipated by the Office for National Statistics, then it is possible that 2021 and 2022 could experience a lower number of deaths than in 2019. The Group will not speculate on the most likely outcome”.

In addition there is the problem that as many people cannot attend funerals, some funerals are being postponed or executors are opting for lower cost funeral packages. Dignity was already suffering from aggressive price competition which had prompted a strategic review before the latest crisis arose.

The company had previously decided to suspend dividend payments. Like Elecosoft they apparently are simply unable to forecast the likely impact of the epidemic on their business. So no guidance for 2020 is being provided.

On Saturday the 9th May Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary, said that only 10% of former public transport capacity will be available in some locations if social distancing is to be maintained. It seems likely that will be so for many months even if people are permitted to go back to work. This will clearly cause major problems in London where almost all commuters use public transport such as trains, the underground and buses.

After the Prime Minister spoke on the 10th May, Mr Shapps issued this tweet: “Speaking this evening the PM was clear – if you’re going back to work in a job that cannot be done from home, please avoid public transport if possible. Go by car, or even better, cycle or walk. To help, we’ve announced more than £2bn in the biggest ever boost to cycling and walking”.

An example of how problematic London transport has become is a report in the Times that says Transport for London (TfL) has asked the Government for £2 billion. To quote: “TfL is down to its last £1bn, which is being burnt at a rate of £21m a day — leaving it less than two months from emptying its coffers and illustrating the intense pressure on local authority finances”. The article suggests the Government will attach some strings to any funding.

Mr Shapps was clearly right to point out the public transport capacity problem, but his apparent remedy to get everyone walking and cycling makes little sense. It is a typical view of politicians who can afford to live in central London. But for the vast majority of London commuters who travel many miles to get to work, it’s simply impractical even if they are keen cyclists.

Mr Shapps also justified his proposals by saying the epidemic is a great health opportunity to encourage active travel with the objective to double cycling by 2025. He also proposes to implement at least one “zero emission” city, and argues that one of the few positives will be improved air quality. He actually said there are “more than 20,000 extra deaths a year attributed to NO2 emissions”.

This figure is nonsense. It repeats the past allegation of 40,000 deaths from air pollution in the UK which has been shown to be simply wrong and a corruption of statistical evidence. In reality, there may be a few months shortening of life expectancy from all air pollution sources, a lot of which cannot be removed such as natural sources. But the figure is essentially uncertain and it is clear there are no deaths directly attributable to pollution. To specifically indicate NO2, which mainly comes from transport, as being the problem is also wrong when the Government advisory body COMEAP could not even agree that NO2 contributed to the negative impact on health of air pollution from particulates.

Mr Shapps clearly knows little about air pollution and its impact on health but is using his ignorance to put a positive spin on his actions in response to the transport crisis.

Just to show how there is no direct correlation between traffic levels and air pollution, this is what the London Air Quality Network (LAQN) recently reported: “Levels of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) has reduced significantly during lockdown, research from King’s College London has found. Concentrations of NO2 have lowered as much as 55% due to less road traffic. However, levels of PM10 and PM2.5 were higher after lockdown than at any other time in 2020, due to easterly winds and pollutants from northern Europe”. The reduction in NO2 is perhaps not surprising when measurements by the LAQN are often taken at the roadside so will be heavily influenced by adjacent traffic. But as particulates (PM10 and PM2.5) are of much greater health concern you can see that Mr Shapps’ spin on the air pollution issue is somewhat misleading. Other UK cities have also shown no direct correlation between traffic reduction from the epidemic and air pollution – at least to date.

The air pollution problem is much more complex than can be solved by encouraging walking and cycling alone.

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

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Ocado Trading Update, Coronavius Apps, EMIS AGM, IDOX Pay, Segro Dividends

Ocado (OCDO) issued a trading update today, and it shows their joint retail venture with M&S is benefiting from the coronavirus epidemic. In the second quarter revenue was up 40% on the prior year. They have had to ramp up capacity significantly to meet this demand, and they have suspended delivery of mineral water so as to cope with the needs of additional households. The announcement gives the distinct impression that they need more warehouses (or CFCs as they call them).

On a personal note, my family has been using Sainsburys’ on-line delivery system and as a “vulnerable” person we get priority. The result has meant neighbours asking us to shop for them. But at least I don’t need to accept the offer of food parcels sent to me yesterday by the local council!

There has been good coverage of coronavirus apps in the national media in the last couple of days. This UK Government has chosen one that relies on a centralised system and it looks distinctly insecure and not good enough to protect privacy. Robert Peston pointed out another flaw in it that someone could maliciously chose to report themselves as suffering from symptom thus causing everyone they might have come into contact with in the last two weeks to self-isolate. I am not at all clear why the Government has chosen this approach, which may deter take-up anyway, when Google and Apple are implementing a different system with fewer privacy concerns. That has been adopted by other countries so there will be problems with international travel.

EMIS (EMIS) held their AGM today. Nobody allowed to attend and no on-line session which is not good enough for an IT company. EMIS operates in the healthcare sector. Recurring revenues have held up but new business sales have been lower. They still expect to meet full year expectations.

However, they did get 15% of votes AGAINST the remuneration report. That included my votes as a holder as it looked a typical complex scheme with total pay too high in relation to the size of the business.

Another example of a poor pay scheme is that of IDOX (IDOX), an AIM listed company that operates mainly in the provision of software to local authorities. Reviewing the Annual Report, the Chairman acquired 585,000 share options last year (current price about 40p, exercise price 1p) based on a share matching scheme. The CEO acquired 3,512,400 share options under an LTIP with an exercise price of 0p (nil). The CFO also acquired 1,000,000 share options, again with an exercise price of 0p, but with a performance condition of the share price being greater than 45p. In summary I think this is way too generous so I have voted against the remuneration report. The AGM is on 28th May, so other shareholders have plenty of time to submit their votes.

Another item of annoying news I received recently was from Segro (SGRO) the property company. They will no longer be sending out dividend cheques from next year. I still prefer dividend cheques for my direct holdings because it is easy to check that the dividends are received and you know exactly when the money is in the bank because you pay them in yourself.

However looking at a report published by the Daily Telegraph last year, it quotes registrar Equiniti as saying that up to 30% of dividend cheques do not get presented which is a rather surprising statistic and must create a lot of extra work. Kingfisher, Marks & Spencer and Vodafone have already stopped dividend cheque issuance, forcing you to give the registrar your bank details. I may have to accept this as a reasonable change even if I don’t like it.

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

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Why I Am Optimistic

The UK death count from the Covid-19 virus is now 25,785 and continues to grow, albeit at a slower rate. There is a lot of bad news about the economy still being reported – new car sales have fallen to the level last seen in 1946 and according to the Daily Telegraph the state is now paying more than half of all adults. The same dire economic picture is also seen in the USA and most other countries. But I am still optimistic for the following reasons.

Apart from being a naturally optimistic person, which is a required attribute for any entrepreneur, the medical scene is looking better for several reasons. Below is a chart issued by the Government today which shows the daily number of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Reported Covid19 Cases 2020-05-05

It is clear that the spread of the disease is falling rapidly and hence the “R” (reproduction) rate is probably less than 1. If the same conditions persist then the disease will gradually die out. Emergency “Nightingale” hospitals are already closing because of a lack of patients. With fewer new cases, the spread of the disease declines. Tracing of infected people and ensuring they are isolated, plus the new phone App to help identify contacts, are two ways the Government hopes will assist in this process. That’s ignoring the potential vaccines or medical treatments on which a lot of money is being expended worldwide at present. It has even been suggested that taking Vitamin D supplements might avoid the worst symptoms of the disease.

But the Government is concerned that if the “lock-down” restrictions are relaxed to enable people to get back to work then the virus may stage a resurgence and we will be back at square one.

Bearing in mind that the current very severe restrictions are causing enormous financial damage to the economy and costing the Government (and by implication, you and me) billions of pounds in paying the wages of furloughed staff and providing loans to companies, the question is how to make a rational decision on when to relax the restrictions and by how much. One way to look at this is how much you value a life. If you know what that value is then you can do some calculations to see what the cost might be and whether it is justified to relax the restrictions.

The Government already has that figure. For example, when calculating the benefit of road safety measures a figure of about £2 million is put on the benefit of saving one life. That is a somewhat optimistic figure though because it not just includes the cost of lost economic contribution and the cost of medical treatment but also what people say they would pay to avoid the loss of life, i.e. it’s a subjective figure to a large extent. However, it is a good starting point.

In the case of Covid-19 deaths, many of the cases are of the elderly or those with existing medical conditions who cost the state money rather than contribute. So the loss might be much less than £2 million from a Covid-19 death. Maintaining the existing strict lock-down might actually be causing some deaths from lack of attention to the early symptoms and treatment of some diseases such as cancer.

You can see therefore that it might make some sense to do some calculations on the impact of relaxing the restrictions to enable the majority of people to get back to work even if it means the deaths might increase. I won’t even attempt to do such a calculation but the Government should.

Those people who are particularly vulnerable could of course choose to continue to self-isolate but there is no reason to have a lot of the economy shut down. It would also be wise to have a phased relaxation of the restrictions so that meetings of people in confined spaces are still banned until the picture is clearer.

There would still be some sectors of the economy that will be severely affected. So restaurants other than those providing take-aways would need to remain closed and hotels be very restricted. Even if they opened they might have few customers. Airlines and trains would also suffer and it’s perhaps no surprise that Warren Buffett has sold all his shares in airlines. He had acquired stakes of about 10% in American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines in 2016 which rather surprises me as surely he used to say these were typically bad businesses. I would guess he lost a few billion dollars on that punt. It seems most people don’t expect airlines to recover for at least a couple of years and aircraft leasing companies are in major difficulties as are aircraft and engine producers such as Boeing and Rolls-Royce. Nobody will be buying new planes for a while.

But a lot of the economy can surely get back into action over the next few months if the Government makes some sensible decisions which is surely good news for investors – so long as you are selective about the companies you hold.

In conclusion the panic should be over. We are not all going to die from Covid-19 although a few of us might do so. But in comparison with the normal hazards of living it may not be significant. For example, about 6,000 deaths happen each year from accidents in the home which is many times the figure for accidents on our roads but little attention is paid to the former mainly because the cost of preventing them would be very high and they do not attract much public attention. Average UK deaths from common influenza are 17,000 but it can be as high as 30,000 in some years.

The Government just needs to take some rational economic decisions on lifting the restrictions.

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

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Stock Market Trends, Covid-19 Treatments, Burford Results, Lookers Accounting and Medica

The stock market seems to be returning to normal with a positive trend over the last month despite the economy being in a complete shambles as a result of the “lock-down”. The Government is incurring massive costs to bail-out companies, support the NHS and pay workers to do nothing. We have yet to see the real economic impact of those measures on the Government’s finances. But investors seem to be euphoric because they now realise we are not all going to die from the Covid-19 epidemic and there are signs we will be able to get back to work soon.

There are also indications that vaccines to prevent the disease, or treatments for it, may be available in the next few months. One of the best commentators on the epidemic because of his scientific background is Matt Ridley who I met many years ago in circumstances he probably prefers to forget. He publishes a blog which is here: http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/ plus he has several good books published which I can recommend. His latest blog article is entitled “The contenders – and challenges – in the race to cure Covid” and is a good review of the field.

One interesting suggestion is the possible use of monoclonal antibodies to replicate antibodies from those infected with the disease and use them to treat other people. This might be very expensive from my knowledge of other such treatments but if the treatment is effective it might only require an injection every few months. It might be affordable for developed countries.

The diversion of NHS resources to treat Covid-19 patients is creating many problems though. Minor operations and non-urgent consultations are being cancelled. You can see the impact of this in the results reported by Medica Group (MGP) earlier this month. The company provides teleradiology services to the NHS and others. This is what it said: “In terms of Routine activity, the Company is experiencing a decline of around 90% in activity with many NHS hospitals having already suspended non-urgent elective procedures”. Reduced A&E admissions are also having an impact. But the company remains positive and can reduce its cost base substantially. ShareSoc has organised a webinar with this company this evening which may be interesting as I do not hold it.

Another company I do not hold is Burford Capital (BUR) which announced results this morning. This company has been in the news a lot because of a shorting attack. This is what the Chairman had to say: “2019 was a year of contrasts, marked by the continued expansion of our business yet also by the disruption of a meritless short attack.  Though our business fundamentals remained strong, investor confidence was dented, causing shareholders to urge changes to our governance”. The announcement contains many positive comments about the progress on litigation, the future prospects, and balance sheet strength.

The accounts are not easy to understand and the Annual Report consists of 163 pages so I have not read it all. No doubt other people will comment on it in detail. But one simple thing I did do was look at the income and cash flow statements.

This is a company where the profits do not turn into cash. Comprehensive income was down from $342 million to $194 million but after changes in “capital provisions” the net cash outflow was $8.3 million. There are also doubts as to whether the legal awards which are recognised in the accounts can actually be collected. The share price is up over 25% today at the time of writing.

Another company worth mentioning as I like to cover cases of defective accounts is that of motor dealer Lookers Group (LOOK) – I have never held it. A few days ago the company gave a “Trading and Operational Update”. It included coverage of the fraud investigation which is now expected to result in a non-cash charge of £4 million in the 2019 financial accounts. Those have now been delayed until June. The investigation has also been extended across all divisions and more charges are expected.

The share price of Lookers was 185p in early 2016. It’s now about 21p. Such events totally undermine investor confidence in the accounts of public companies and suggest much tougher action is required to ensure accounts reported by companies are accurate and not subject to fraud or misrepresentation. Auditors surely are one group who need to take a lead on this as frequently when frauds are identified they have been running for several years.

As I said in my book Business Perspective Investing, “financial accounts don’t matter because they cannot be relied upon”. That’s certainly the case at present and it’s better to look at other measures of the quality of a business.  That is particularly the case at present when the Covid-19 epidemic is distorting the results of companies and making it very difficult to forecast future financial numbers.

Better to look at other factors such as your trust in the management, the market position of the company and its future prospects.

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

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Excess Optimism and 4imprint Reality

The FTSE-100 is up 3% today at the time of writing and the FTSE-250 up over 6%. That follows a rise of 7% in the S&P 500 in the USA yesterday. This is driven by some expectation that the virus spread is declining in some countries, or has ceased altogether in China. But I suggest this is pure excess optimism as the lock-downs in many sectors have yet to hit the results of companies.

A good indication of how bad it could be was the announcement this morning from 4imprint (FOUR) a supplier of promotional products to companies, mainly in the USA. The share price of this company fell to a low of 1320p on the 19th March after it reported sales were had fallen to 40% of previous levels. It has since bounced back up to 1830p as of last night.

This morning they gave even more bad news. Sales are now running at 20% of last year’s figures and their main distribution centre in Oshkosh has been closed. The message is quite obvious to see. Companies are axing their promotional budgets and aggressively reducing their marketing expenditure. When times get tough, marketing expenditure is a discretionary item that can be easily chopped. You will see how this can ripple through the whole economy and affect any company in the marketing sector.

4imprint may survive but this year’s results are likely to look quite awful even if there is a rapid return to work. But there is no sign of that and it could be months before business returns to normal, or to anywhere near last year’s levels. The last widely published profit forecasts suggest a fall of 10% from previous forecasts made at the start of the year, but still more than last year’s actuals.

Hopelessly optimistic in my view, even if I am still holding some shares in the company.

This seems to be a common feature of the market at present with investors piling into or buying back shares they previously sold. Far be it for me to ignore the wisdom of crowds so I have been buying some shares but only on a selective basis. But excess enthusiasm for some shares such as 4imprint seems rather too common.

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

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What To Do Before You Die, and Avoiding Doing So

Many of the readers of this blog will not be in the springtime of their lives. They therefore might be susceptible to the coronavirus. I thought it was worthwhile therefore to cover how you can prepare for that eventuality. This is not a “bucket list” of things to do before you die but how to ensure your family and executors are prepared for the eventuality. As someone who has had a serious medical condition for many years, this is a subject I have spent some time on so probably have some expertise in the matter.

First make sure you have drawn up a will, and that it has been updated since there have been any changes in your life – for example new partners or offspring. Also check the appointed executors are still able and willing to act. It’s very worthwhile using a solicitor to help you draw up a will or revise one rather than trying to do it yourself. It’s one of the few bits of legal work that are usually low cost.

But there are several other additional documents you need to prepare. A “Letter of Wishes” for how you wish your personal chattels to be disposed of will be helpful to your executors. This can help to ensure that items of particular interest to your partner or children go to the right home. It can also be useful to cover what happens to cash in joint bank or deposit accounts to avoid any doubt.

One problem that is relatively new is what happens to “digital assets” such as internet accounts and associated log-ins. So it’s also helpful to provide a “Letter of Wishes – Digital Assets” that says something like this: “I hereby grant my executors under my will the right to access such digital asset accounts by using the log-ins and passwords mentioned and assigning the rights to use those assets to any person they see fit, or in the case where the accounts contain assets of value they are to be bequeathed under the terms of my will”. Obviously you also need to tell your executors where they can find all the account details and passwords.

A common problem for executors is actually locating all the assets of a deceased. You should therefore also provide a document that covers “What to do when I die” that spells out where they are. For example which brokers/platforms or banks hold the shares and cash or where the share certificates are held. This should also indicate what immediate cash can be accessed if your partner will need that in the short term, and perhaps what should be done with any share holdings, i.e. whether they should be liquidated or who will manage them going forward. In addition it should tell your executors where your will can be found.

The above covers the really bad news, but there are other things you should consider putting in place in case you don’t actually die but are incapacitated for some period of time. A “Lasting Power of Attorney for “Property and Financial Affairs” and for “Health and Welfare” are worth putting in place. These enable a partner or anyone else you appoint to financially administer your affairs and make decisions about personal care if you are unable to do so.

It is also worthwhile putting in place an Advance Medical Directive (Living Will) covering medical treatment. For example it can ensure that where there is little chance of survival or you may end up mentally incapacitated that medical treatment is halted rather than pursued. Tell your partner or offspring where the aforementioned documents can be found. In reality the chance of a Living Will being needed to be considered is relatively low and with the current state of the NHS they may not want to spend a lot of effort on keeping you alive, but you never know.  There are template Advance Medical Directives available on the internet.

Of course, one essential thing to do is to avoid catching coronavirus if you possibly can by self-isolating and avoiding contact with any other humans. One way to avoid meetings is to use conference calling facilities. I attended a discussion group meeting of investors last night using Zoom and it worked quite well. The group were generally rather pessimistic for the economy but they are often are. They had few new investment ideas with a number moving into cash. The difficulty is that it is not at all clear how long the epidemic will last and many businesses have closed down for the duration. The economic impact could be enormous and Government money creation and debt raising is of major concern. It could take some years for the economy to recover, with possibly higher taxes required.

US listed Zoom is just one of many video or telephone conference services, but according to one tweet I saw this morning, its stock market valuation is now 50% more than all listed US airlines! With EasyJet (EZJ) grounding its entire aircraft fleet today, you could probably include UK airlines in that calculation also. A UK competitor for Zoom is LoopUp (LOOP) in which I hold a very few shares. I have not done a detailed technical comparison of the respective products. Zoom certainly seems to be popular and has been growing rapidly as businesses move to video conferencing from telephone conference calls. These are relatively low-cost products but there is also Skype which is free. That works relatively well for one-to-one or small groups but I often find it not easy to use. It has a confusing user interface and is technically unreliable.

In summary, try to stay alive!

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

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