Autonomy, FRC Meeting, Retailers and Brexit Legal Advice

The big news last Friday (30/11/2018) was that former CEO Mike Lynch has been charged with fraud in the USA over the accounts of Autonomy. That company was purchased by Hewlett Packard who promptly proceeded to write off most of the cost – see this blog post for more information: https://roliscon.blog/2018/06/02/belated-action-by-frc-re-autonomy/. As this was a UK company, are we anywhere nearer a hearing in the UK over the alleged “creative accounting” that took place at the company and the failure of the auditors to identify anything amiss? That’s after 8 years since the events.

As I was attending a meeting held by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) for ShareSoc and UKSA members yesterday, I thought to review the past actions by the FRC on this matter. In February 2013 they announced an investigation but it took until May 2018 to formally announce a complaint against auditors Deloitte and the former CFO of Autonomy Sushovan Hussain who has already been convicted of fraud in the USA. On the 27th November, the action against Hussain was suspended pending his appeal against that conviction, but other complaints were not. But why the delay on pursuing the auditors?

The FRC event was useful in many ways in that it gave a good overview of the role of the FRC – what they cover and what they do not cover which is not easy for the layman to understand. They also covered the progress on past and current enforcement actions which do seem to have been improving after previous complaints of ineffectiveness and excessive delays. For example PWC/BHS was resolved in two years and fines imposed are rising rapidly. But they still only have 10 case officers so are hoping the Kingman review of the FRC will argue for more resources.

It was clear though that audit quality is still a major problem with only 73% of FTSE-350 companies being rated as 1 or 2A in the annual reviews when the target is 90%. The FRC agreed they “might be falling short” on pursuing enforcement over poor quality audits. So at least they recognise the problems.

One useful titbit of information after the usual complaints about the problems of nominee accounts and shareholder rights were made (not really an FRC responsibility) was that a white paper on the “plumbing” of share ownership and transactions will be published on the 30th January.

There were lots of interesting stories on retailing companies yesterday. McColl’s Retail Group (MCLS) published a very negative trading update which caused the shares to fall 30% on the day. Supply chain issues after the collapse of Palmer & Harvey are the cause. Ted Baker (TED) fell 15% after a complaint of excessive hugging of staff by CEO Ray Kelvin. This may not have a sexual connotation as it seems he treats male and female staff similarly. Just one of the odd personal habits one sees in some CEOs it seems. Retail tycoon Mike Ashley appeared before a Commons Select Committee and said the High Street would be dead in a few years unless internet retailers were taxed more fairly. He alleged the internet was killing the High Street. But there was one bright spark among retailers in that Dunelm (DNLM) rose 14% after a Peel Hunt upgraded the company to a “buy” and suggested that they might be able to pay a special dividend next year. There was also some director buying of their shares.

Before the FRC meeting yesterday I dropped in on the demonstrations outside Parliament on College Green. It seemed to consist of three fairly equally balanced groups of “Leave Means Leave” campaigners, supporters of Brexit and those wishing to stay in the EU – that probably reflects the composition of the Members in the House across the road. You can guess which group I supported but I did not stay long as it was absolutely pelting down with rain. There is a limit to the sacrifices one can make for one’s country.

But in the evening I did read the legal advice given to Parliament by the attorney-general (see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/761153/EU_Exit_-_Legal_position_on_the_Withdrawal_Agreement.pdf

Everyone is looking very carefully at the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement that cover the Northern Ireland backstop arrangements. The attorney-general makes it clear that the deal does bind the UK to the risk of those arrangements continuing, although there is a clear commitment to them only lasting 2 years when they should be replaced by others. There is also an arbitration process if there is no agreement on what happens subsequently. However, he also makes it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement is a “treaty” between two sovereign powers – the UK and the EU.

Treaties between nations only stick so long as both parties are happy to abide by them, just like agreements between companies. But they often renege on them. For example, the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939 was a notorious example – Hitler ignored it 2 years later and invaded Russia. Donald Trump has reneged on treaties, for example the intermediate nuclear weapons treaty last month. Similarly nations and companies can ignore arbitration decisions if they choose to do so.

What happens after 2 years if no agreement is reached and the UK insists on new proposals re Northern Ireland? Is the EU going to declare war on the UK? We have an army but they do not yet have one. Are they going to impose sanctions, close their borders or refuse a trade deal? I suspect they would not for sound commercial reasons.

Therefore my conclusion is that the deal that Theresa May has negotiated is not as bad as many make out. Yes it could be improved in some regards so as to ensure an amicable future agreement but I am warming to it just like the Editor of the Financial Times recently. He did publish a couple of letters criticising his volte-face when previously he has clearly opposed Brexit altogether, but changing one’s mind when one learns more is just being sensible.

Note: I have held or do hold some of the companies mentioned above, but never Autonomy. Never did like the look of their accounts.

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

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CAKE (Patisserie), Foresight 4 VCT AGM, Payment Companies and Dunelm

More bad news from Patisserie Holdings (CAKE) today – well at least you can’t say the directors are not keeping you informed about their dire situation which is not always the case in such circumstances.

Yesterday the company announced that its major operating company had received a winding-up petition from HMRC, of which the directors had only recently become aware. Today the company said after further investigation the board has reached the conclusion that without an “immediate injection of capital, the Directors are of the view that there is no scope for the business to continue trading in its current form”.

The directors could possibly try to do a quick placing at a deep discount no doubt, borrow a pile of cash at extortionate rates or they could put it into administration. The big risk is that Exec Chairman Luke Johnson will put it through a pre-pack administration. I hope he does not because that won’t do his reputation any good at all. He needs to try and engineer some sensible solution if his reputation in the financial world is to remain intact. That is particularly so after he wrote an article for the Times in September on “a beginner’s guide to tried and tested swindles” suggesting how you can spot them. Clearly he was not taking his own advice. Whatever happens, the outlook for existing shareholders does not look good.

As another commentator said, the Treasury should not reduce the generous tax reliefs on AIM companies because they need to realise that it is a risky market.

But there was some good news on cake yesterday when the Supreme Court decided after all in an appeal from the lower courts that a cakemaker can refuse to bake cakes where the proposed wording in the icing is objectionable to them. A victory for common sense and liberty.

Today I attended the Annual General Meeting of Foresight 4 VCT (FTF). There is one advantage to owning VCT shares. They barely move when the stock market is otherwise in panic mode. They are one of the few “counter-cyclical” investments to public companies as they invest in private equity. There are some disadvantages of course. Illiquidity in the shares, and often disappointing long-term performance as in Foresight 4. But it may be improving.

I won’t cover the meeting in detail but there were a couple of interesting items in fund manager Russell Healey’s presentation. He mentioned they are still having problems with long delays on HMRC pre-approval of new qualifying investments – can still delay deals for a few months it seems. More representations are being made on this.

He also covered the performance of their top few investments. Datapath, the largest, was valued down because EBITDA fell but revenue is still growing and the fall in profits arose from more product development costs. Ixaris, the second largest, is growing strongly (I knew this because I have a direct holding in it and had just read the December 2017 accounts they filed at Companies House). From my recollection that’s the first year they have made a profit since founding 16 years ago. Russell couldn’t remember how many funding rounds the company had launched – was it 6 or 7, and me neither. That’s venture capital in early stage companies for you – you have to be very patient.

However, in response to a question from VCT shareholder Tim Grattan it was disclosed that VISA are tightening up on the rules regarding pre-payment cards. This might affect a significant part of Ixaris’s business. I suspect it will also affect many other pre-payment card offerings by payment companies, some of whom are listed. Particularly those that are using them to enable payments into gaming companies which Visa does not like.

It was another bad day in the market today, although Dunelm (DNLM) picked up after a very positive trading statement with good like-for-like figures. They are moving aggressively into on-line sales but their physical stores also seem to be producing positive figures so perhaps big retail sheds are still viable. They are not in the High Street of course.

While the market is gyrating I am doing the usual in such circumstances having been through past crashes. Will the market continue to go down, or bounce back up? Nobody knows. So I tend to follow the trend. But I also clear out the duds from my portfolio when the market declines – at least that way I can realise some capital gains losses and reinvest the cash in other shares that are now cheaper. I also look carefully at those stocks that seem to be wildly over-valued on fundamentals – those I sell. But those that suddenly have become cheap on fundamentals I buy, or buy more of. In essence I am not of the “hide under the sheets” mentality in the circumstances of a market rout as some are. But neither do I panic and dump shares wholesale. This looks like a short-term market correction to me at present, after shares (particularly in the USA) became adrift from fundamentals and ended up looking very expensive. But we shall no doubt see whether that is so in the new few days or weeks.

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

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Interesting AGMs, or not – Rosslyn and Dunelm

This morning I attended the AGM of Rosslyn Data Technologies (RDT) for the first time. I picked up some shares in a deeply discounted placing that qualified for EIS relief a few months back. One has limited time to research a company on offer when a placing comes up. It looked sound enough at the time although the historic financials did not impress. Prospects looked better after an acquisition although this company has been around a long time without becoming a shooting star. Bearing in mind the software sector it operates in – a somewhat niche area – I doubt it will show rapid growth either although the analyst forecasts I looked at before the meeting (from a single broker I gather) suggests a substantial rise in revenue and breakeven in the current financial year – partly from the merger no doubt.

Incidentally in case anyone from HMRC is reading this bearing in mind the current review of VCT/EIS tax reliefs, I would just like to say that I would certainly not have invested in the placing without the attraction of EIS tax relief. I considered the valuation at the placing price only “fair” and with the risks apparent, it would not have been attractive without the tax relief.

But at AGMs of small companies like this one, it is possible to learn a great deal. I will just mention a few things – there may be a more extensive report on ShareSoc’s web site later.

The Chairman was absent in the USA (not usually a good sign), so another of the directors, Barney Quinn chaired the meeting, and well. He read out a prepared statement (not issued in an RNS oddly), saying there had been good progress and they had been focussed on integration of the businesses since the start of the year. He mentioned the securing of a major partnership with D&B (see Annual Report).

I queried the very high debtors (accounts receiveable) which were about 6 months of revenue. Apparently this is due to work in progress on projects being recognised as revenue but not yet billed to clients (which tends to be on completion). To my mind, it’s still excessive though.

It seems to be taking some time to develop the market for the products/services and it seems their broker is currently reconsidering their forecasts and I suspect the existing ones are optimistic from what was said in the meeting – but we may soon see no doubt.

Anyway I learned quite a bit about the business and the management seemed to be competent on a brief acquaintence but a couple of long-standing shareholders turned up late for the meeting and said some negative things about the progress and valuation of the business. The company could really do with some more media coverage if they were to attract more investors and another shareholder suggested ways they could do so.

So it’s always good to attend AGMs, but one I will not be going to is that of Dunelm. This year it is Stoke at 9.30 am on the 21st November. Last year it was at a similar inconvenient and early time in Leicestershire.

A couple of year’s ago I attended their AGM in London (again at an early time), and complained about the remuneration arrangements. Have the more recent AGMs been deliberately arranged to avoid private shareholders like me from attending? I would not be surprised if that was the case. So I have voted against the Chairman, against the Remuneration resolutions, and against other directors also for that reason. It really is not acceptable for the directors of companies to pick inconvenient dates, times or locations for General Meetings.

I don’t object to going to Stoke but I do object to having to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to be sure of getting there on time. But if anyone lives closer, and would like a proxy appointment from me to attend the AGM, let me know.

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

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