Is it Elecosoft or Eleco? And Electronic Meetings.

One company I hold is building software company Elecosoft (ELCO). I have just received the notice of the Annual General Meeting and one oddity is that they have a resolution on there to change the name of the company to Eleco.  But surely the company used to be named that but amended it when they changed to focus on the software side of the business. So why the reversion? No explanation is provided so far as I can  see.

Another confusion in the notice is that there is a proposed change to the Articles to permit electronic general meetings. That will be solely at the discretion of the Chairman but reading the detail it is not at all clear how electronic meetings are supposed to work. For example, they still include provision for a “show of hands” vote but how does one show one’s hand electronically?

As with many other companies, they are not permitting anyone but two people to attend the AGM. You may be able to attend electronically but no questions are possible. But they may be hosting an event later in the year where shareholders will be able to ask questions in person.

It would certainly be helpful to have clarity on the above issues, and as most companies are dispensing with physical meeting, at least temporarily, it would surely be a good idea for the FCA to lay down some regulations on how electronic meetings should operate rather than letting every company to make up their own.

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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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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