Brexit and Other News

It’s been a busy few days even if stock market news is thinning out now we are into summer. The white paper outlining how Theresa May’s cabinet (at least those who are left) would like to do a deal with the EU has been published. I advised my followers via Twitter to read it rather than simply read the media commentary on it which tends to be slanted based on the writer’s emotions to “leave” or “remain”. You can find the white paper here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-future-relationship-between-the-united-kingdom-and-the-european-union

Needless to say I have taken my own advice, and read it all. As a supporter of Brexit primarily because I think it is necessary to regain democratic control of our laws, I think it gives me most of what I was looking for.

On goods and agri-products it does mean that we will be adhering to EU standards but is that a major problem? It will ease trade if we do so, just as we adhere to internationally agreed standards in some areas. I do not see that it will necessarily thwart any free-trade agreements with the USA or any other country, regardless of what Trump says. A free trade agreement is primarily about having no tariff barriers but there are bound to be issues about technical standards. For example, does Mr Trump expect the UK to accept US cars built to US technical standards for us to get a free trade deal with the USA? If he does then we would risk becoming a poodle of the USA rather than the EU. That makes no sense when we are much closer to the EU, already conform to their standards in many areas, and do more trade with them. Some Brexiteers argue that we should not be a poodle of either of course, but for us to start setting our own standards and enforcing them would be a massive task in the short term. Likewise continuing to adhere to EU standards on employment rights and competition law, at least for some time, does not seem totally unreasonable even if the European Court of Justice might give rulings on issues that relate to them.

Whether the EU will accept Mrs May’s proposals is far from certain. The proposed customs arrangements where we collect EU tariffs on goods coming into the UK that are destined for EU countries seems particularly problematic. Is that workable in practice and at reasonable cost? And the refund arrangements for goods that do not get forwarded might be a recipe for large scale fraud I suspect.

So on the whole, I am supportive of the white paper’s proposals if in any negotiation with the EU no more is conceded. I hope Donald Trump gives Mrs May some advice on hard bargaining while he is here.

But as I said before, read the white paper and make up your own mind. Your comments are welcomed.

How Not to Run an AGM

On Wednesday I attended an AGM of an EIS company named British Smaller Country Inns 2 Plc (one of four similar companies). The directors have managed to turn my investment of £2,400 into £670 over 12 years (based on the latest estimate of net assets). I think the directors are fools for not trying to exit the pubs market years ago and this AGM gave other examples of their incompetence. Firstly the Chairman, Martin Sherwood, does not know how to run the voting at an AGM according to the Companies Act. He announced a “show of hands” vote but then proceeded to add the submitted proxy votes to the count of raised hands before declaring the result. In essence you can only take into account the proxy votes if a poll is involved in which case the show of hands vote is ignored. Mr Sherwood did not understand this point when I raised it.

I also raised the fact that the company had sent out from it’s email address an “invite” that was clearly “phishing” of some kind. When I raised this at the time he said the company had been “hacked”. Bearing in mind the email had been sent to a number of shareholders, and probably everyone in their email contact list when that could be thousands of people, I asked whether they had reported it to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO)? Who are they, never heard of them, was the response at the AGM. Well for Mr Sherwood’s information and everyone else, if there is a significant leakage of personal information, then it should be reported to the ICO (see https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/report-a-breach/ ). This is a legal requirement since the 25th May. It simply astonishes me that a director of a Plc is not familiar with the ICO and their responsibilities under the GDPR regulations.

As there is only one pub remaining to be sold in British Country Inns 2, after which the company is likely to be wound up, I may get an exit within a year or so and will then be able to claim “loss relief”. Shareholders in the other linked companies are not so fortunate as they may take longer to reach wind-up. Originally I did not invest directly in this EIS company but via a fund. I am now very wary about EIS fund offerings. How many really show a profit rather than just provide a vehicle for tax refunds?

Proven Growth & Income VCT

After the above AGM I moved on to the Proven Growth & Income VCT (PGOO), another tax relief focused vehicle but with a much better track record. In this case I am at least showing a profit even ignoring the generous tax reliefs. Total return last year was 4.35% according to my calculations, but only 2.7% according to the company. I queried the difference and it’s probably accounted for the fact they are calculating it on the mid-year average asset value when I do it on the year start figure. Total return (change in net asset value per share plus dividends paid out) is the only measure to focus on for VCTs and other investment trusts.

Not much to note at this AGM with only 4 ordinary shareholders present. I queried the length of service of the directors, with 2 having served more than 9 years. They are not apparently in any hurry to refresh the board however.

The manager said it was difficult to find new deals – a “wall of money” going onto companies that would qualify for VCT investment. But they are doing more marketing to raise awareness of their company.

Oxford Technology VCTs

Yesterday I attended the AGMs of the Oxford Technology VCTs in Oxford (all four of them) who are a very different beast altogether with a very disappointing track record since formation. Figures for total return (after tax relief) were given as 107.4, 52.9 122.2 and 82.9 respectively since foundation. As manager Lucius Cary said in his presentation, “not a great result – not brilliant but not a disaster either”. They have had some disappointments and a lack of really big hits which one needs when investing in early stage technology companies. But clearly many investors attending were unhappy with several suggestions for winding-up the companies. That was particularly vociferous for OT4 where there is no problem with investors having claimed capital gains roll-over relief.

The directors, who were all changed not so long ago, suggested wind-up would be difficult. They also think there is value to be realised that would be lost in any “fire sale”. They recognize these VCTs are too small and with no major new investments being made and no fund raising likely, they are aware of the strategic issues. But they are apparently looking at possibly doing a similar deal to that done by the Hygea VCT who appointed a new, experienced manager to raise a “C” share fund. That company has been renamed the Seneca VCT accordingly.

We had presentations from three of their investee companies: Ixaris (electronic payments business), Scancell (a listed pharma company) and Select (printer management software). The last one was somewhat interesting as I am familiar with the sector from my past career. But Select used to be a company that had its own products and IP but seemed to have turned into a distributor of other people’s products. Distributors are not valued highly and in the presentation the typical problems of being distributor became apparent – they lost money last year due to a change in the relationship with their major supplier to their disadvantage.

Scancell and Ixaris are both major proportions of the portfolios so a lot depends on their future results. Scancell result is very dependent on the outcome of clinical trials which won’t be available until 2019. But it was mentioned that one analyst values then at 55p when the current market price is 12p.

The presentation from Ixaris was by David Sear via Skype who was appointed Chairman a year ago. They also changed CEO a week ago. Note: for those who saw a presentation by LoopUp recently at the Amati AIM VCT agm where one member of the audience suggested that everyone should use Skype as it works fine, this latest event was a good demonstration of why Skype is not fit for business use – audio out of synch with video, download delays, etc.

I have to admit to knowing a lot about Ixaris as I was a founder investor 14 years ago and still hold a few shares directly. It has been slow progress, although revenue has been increasing and they are near EBITDA profitability. The new management team does seem to be improving the business but it was suggested that a “possible liquidity event” was 2 years away and it might be via a public flotation. But the bad news was Sear’s mention of a contractual issue with Visa for their Entropay pre-paid card service. Incidentally if you want a pre-paid card for security reasons then the Entropay service is a good one. Ixaris do have a second major division though that seems to be doing well.

Some of the other investee companies were covered in brief, and they do appear to have prospects in some cases. But Plasma Antennas for which there were high hopes at one time has been written off.

When it came to the votes, all the resolutions were passed on a show of hands, including re-election of all the directors, and perhaps even more importantly on the votes to continue with the companies, including even on OT4!

It was an educational AGM and my conclusion is that the directors are actually doing the right things with these problem companies. These VCTs are trading a high discounts to NAV, partly because there are no company share buy-backs unlike in many VCTs. But it would be a brave investor to buy the shares in the market. I only have a small holding in one of them.

K3 Business Technology (KBT), MaxCyte (MXCT), Eservglobal (ESG) and FairFX (FFX)

On Wednesday I attended presentations on the above four companies at the ShareSoc Growth Company Seminar in London. The last of those four I hold some shares in, and at least they made a small profit last year whereas all the others reported losses. With AIM companies, as the private equity world often says, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.

K3 showed the same problems historically as in Select mentioned above. Being a distributor is not an easy life and it’s difficult to make money doing that. But new management is changing the focus which may improve matters. Maxcyte is a typical pharma company and I never understand the technology in these businesses. I think you need a degree in biochemistry to even get to grips with developments in the sector. I have no idea whether it will come good in the end. Eservglobal seem to be moving from a mobile payment offering to focus on “Homesend” – sending money internationally more quickly and at lower cost than traditional banks can do. Earthport is a similar business I believe and that has not yet been reporting profits.

FairFX has a number of electronic money/payment offerings with the latest being a “business” account for SMEs. That might be very attractive to the large numbers of such companies. I have seen this company present before and the message is always clear and the questions answered well whereas the other companies presenting failed to convince me.

An eventful week, compounded by stock market volatility. Summer is the time to pick up bargains and sell the over-hyped stocks when buyers depart for their holidays.

Curtis Banks

One final item; I seem to be having some payment problems with Curtis Banks (an AIM listed company) who manage one of my SIPPs that is in drawdown. They took over a business called Pointon York and since then there have been delays in payments, or in one case two payments made in error. Reviews of the service, including comments from employees on the web seem somewhat poor. If anyone else is having problems with them, please contact me.

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

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Amati AIM VCT AGM and Retailers

Amati AIM VCT is one of those peculiar beasts – a Venture Capital Trust. Yesterday I attended their annual general meeting and here are some general comments on the company and the meeting:

Amati AIM VCT (AMAT) is the result a merger of the two Amati VCTs. They had very similar portfolios so this made a lot of sense, and the result is a large VCT with total assets of £147 million. This figure was also boosted by excellent performance last year – a total return of 45.2% on VCT2 for example. That of course was helped by a surprising good performance from AIM companies in general last year, but the Numis AIM index was only up 29%.

How was the performance achieved? By selective stock picking primarily, and by holding on to the winners. So the top ten holdings are now: Accesso Technology, Frontier Developments, Keywords Studios, Quixant, Learning Technologies, Ideagen, AB Dynamics, GB Group, Tristel and the TB Amati UK Smaller Companies Fund. The fact that I hold 5 of those companies directly tells me I should keep an eye on what the VCT is investing in.

Note that I learned to take a jaundiced view of AIM VCTs who traditionally did worse than private equity (i.e. generalist) VCTs due to being suckered into investing in dubious IPOs in what was historically a poor-performing AIM market. But there are always exceptions and perhaps this shows that AIM is improving and AIM fund managers are learning to be more discriminating.

There were presentations from fund managers Anna Wilson (new to the company) and founder Dr Paul Jourdan. The latter gave a somewhat “spaced out” presentation as if he had not spent much time preparing it. It included coverage of a chess match between two software programmes, indicating how clever they had become. Perhaps Paul is worried about being replaced by a computer. But I think the main message we were meant to receive was that the world is rapidly changing with disruptive new technology such as AI.

Anna Wilson covered the worst and best portfolio performers and some of the new investments. The latter include i-Nexus Global (INX: software to help companies to implement strategies), Water Intelligence (WATR: leak detection and remediation), AppScatter (APPS: app management platform) and Fusion Antibodies (FAB: antibody based therapeutics for cancer treatment).

There were also presentations from investee companies Loop-Up (LOOP) and FairFX (FFX) both of which I hold directly. In the latter case, and as the CEO said in his presentation, they should probably change the name as it does not just do foreign exchange provision which is now a crowded market. That was particularly so after the announcement in the morning about a new service to provide business banking to SMEs. By using their new e-money issuing licence they can act like a bank in almost all regards except that they cannot lend client funds out to others. But that just makes them safer.

As I hold both Loop-Up and FairFX directly I did not learn a great deal more but they were interesting nonetheless. It’s always good to be reminded why one bought a stock in the first place.

As Paul Jourdan indicated there are rapid changes in some markets and retailing is certainly one of them. There has been wide media coverage of the fact that even John Lewis, that favorite destination for middle-class shoppers along with its Waitrose stores, is now not making a profit. Here’s a good quotation from Sir Charlie Mayfield, John Lewis Chairman: “It is widely acknowledged that the retail sector is going through a period of generational change and every retailer’s response will be different. For the partnership, the focus is on differentiation – not scale”.

This is undoubtedly true. Competing with other supermarkets with a general “stack them high, sell them cheap” approach certainly makes no sense. It seems John Lewis is having some success with clothes by using “personal style advisors” (rebranded shop assistants).

Clearly the future is internet shopping for many products, perhaps with some “destination” warehouses for viewing and collecting goods. There are some categories of products where viewing the merchandise, particularly on big ticket items or where one cannot simply return them, may still be essential. Those where advice is required might also require a personal touch but some of that can be done remotely. Where the damage will be mainly done is to high street outlets and shopping malls for which I can see no good purpose. Perhaps if they can turn themselves into entertainment and drinking/eating venues they can survive but it’s clearly going to be a lot tougher for such venues and the smaller retail chains that rely on them. Department stores will likely suffer as they already have so investing in companies such as Debenhams is surely questionable unless they become much more internet focused with the shops changing in function.

The high streets are already changing. Banks going, clothes shops closing and more restaurants, cafes, fast food outlets and charity shops if my local high street is anything to go by. Do I regret the changes? Perhaps but I also know it’s not wise to piss against the economic and technological winds. For investors the message is that with such rapidly changing markets, one has to keep an eye on evolving trends and how company management is responding, or not, ever more closely.

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

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