The Market, Dunedin and Standard Life Smaller Companies Merger, and Aston Martin IPO

Is it not depressing when you go away for a week’s holiday and your portfolio falls every day in that time? I do monitor any exceptional movements while on vacation but try to avoid trading. It just seemed to be a general downward trend and reviewing the movement over that week my portfolio is down 1.73% while the FTSE All-Share is down 1.72%. So that is what I had already surmised.

Those stocks that seemed to have become overblown did fall and there were some like Scottish Mortgage Trust (SMT) were hit by specific news – in their case the events at Tesla. But the fall in my portfolio last week was less than it went up the previous week. I feel not quite so depressed now I have done the analysis.

Anyway, I am back from holiday now and on my desk is a proposed merger of Dunedin Smaller Companies Investment Trust (DNDL) and Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Investment Trust (SLS). I need to take a decision on this as I hold the latter.

DNDL is smaller than SLS and following the merger of DNDL’s manager, Aberdeen Asset Management, with Standard Life the merged manager now has two trusts with a similar focus. SLS has a superior performance record – 100.7% net asset value total return versus 68.9% for DNDL over the last 5 years. The merged trusts would be managed by Harry Nimmo who has managed SLS for some years.

The directors argue that the merger makes sense because it will result in reduced on-going costs and improved liquidity in the shares, although they don’t quantify either claim. There is no immediate change proposed to the fund management charges on SLS. DNDL will be paying the costs of both parties if the merger goes through.

It no doubt makes sense for the manager to merge these trusts. Not much point in having two trusts in the same stable with a similar focus and they will save on management costs. It also makes some sense for DNDL holders but does it for SLS shareholders?

Enlarging a trust or fund can degrade future returns particularly in small cap funds. This is because buying larger quantities of smaller company shares is more difficult and exiting is also difficult. In other words, the manager may find they cannot be as nimble as before. Alternatively the number of companies in the fund has to grow and we surely know that this is a recipe to reduce returns as there are only so many “good ideas” out there. The more companies in a portfolio, the more likely it is to approximate to a tracker fund.

Therefore, I think I will vote against this merger for that reason.

But what alternatives were there for DNDL shareholders? The company could have changed the manager to avoid the conflict of interest. Or simply wound up if it was too small to be viable. Perhaps a wider international focus when SLS is UK focused would be another alternative.

Luxury car maker Aston Martin is to float on the market. I agree with Neil Collins comments in the FT this weekend – “never buy a share in an initial public offering”. He suggested those who are selling know more about the stock than you do. Car companies, particularly of niche brands, are notoriously tricky investments. Aston Martin has been bust as many as seven times according to one press report. As Mr Collins also said “The private equity vendors are dreaming of a £5 billion valuation for a highly geared business with a decidedly unroadworthy past”.

Car companies exhibit all the worst features of technology businesses. Product reliability issues (which was a bugbear for Aston Martin for many years), very high cost of new model production, Government regulatory interference requiring major changes for safety and emissions, competitors leapfrogging the technology with better products, and sensitivity to economic trends. In a recession few people buy luxury vehicles or they simply postpone purchases – so it’s feast or famine for the manufacturers.

There can be some initial enthusiasm for companies after an IPO that can drive the price higher but the hoopla soon fades. Footasylum (FOOT) was a recent example but McCarthy & Stone (MCS) was another one where investors found that the market proved more challenging than expected.

Resist the temptation to buy IPOs!

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

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ULS Technology, Keystone Law and Collusion on IPO Pricing

Yesterday I attended an interim results presentation by ULS Technology (ULS). They have been listed on AIM for a couple of years and have grown both from organic increases in revenue and from acquisitions which is often a good formula. They operate in the legal conveyancing and estate agency market where volumes have not been great of late – it seems house prices have made it difficult for folks to move plus changes to stamp duty and buy-to-let taxes have deterred transactions. But they seem to be prospering regardless.

I first became interested in this company, and acquired some shares, when I noticed that Geoff Wicks have become a director. He has also just been made Chairman. Geoff used to be CEO of Group NBT which was one of my most successful technology investments and he did a great job of sorting out and then growing a failing dotcom business.

I did perhaps amuse the CEO of ULS, Ben Thompson, by noting that I don’t really like companies with unmemorable three letter acronym names (ULS, NBT for example). Investors can never recall what they do. ULS used to be called United Legal Services but needed a new “umbrella” name so came up quickly with ULS. Should have used a branding consultancy I suggest. Unless you are a really big company, like IBM or BAE, establishing name recognition for such “brands” is hard work.

So ULS it is for the present, but understanding what they do and how they make money is not necessarily easy. Attending the seminar helped with understanding that. In summary, ULS aim to make house moving easier by making conveyancing easier, quicker and lower costs. They use web technology to support that. So if you are looking for a conveyancing solicitor they can help, and they have partnerships with other businesses in the house buying space such as mortgage brokers/lenders so that their service is offered when required. For example, Lloyds Bank is one of their largest partners. In addition they have a specialist comparison web site for when you are looking for an estate agent (includes price and performance comparisons).

For the conveyancing service they get paid by solicitors to which customers are referred, who pay 5 days after the legal completion with a fixed fee (does not vary with house price cost). The customer saves on paperwork such as filling out multiple forms. The customer introducers are many small mortgage brokers, large financial networks and others such as Moneysupermarket.com and Home Owners Alliance. They do seem to have some competitors but these are generally smaller in size and have nowhere near the same size of “panel” containing solicitors to which referrals are sent. The market generally for conveyancing services is still very old fashioned and dominated by “cottage industry” firms. ULS have only 2.6% of the conveyancing market but have a desire to become much larger. It certainly seems a market that is ripe for technical disruption.

Estateagent4me.com is their estate agency comparison site where you can search for agents and select on the basis of: the Fees they will charge; Average time to sell a property like yours; How close they might get to achieving an asking price; and How successful they are at selling similar homes. I asked whether they had received any legal threats from Purplebricks who apparently were not happy at all about some reviews that were published on their service, but it seems they have not.

The company expects to grow by: 1) Organic growth; 2) M&A (already done some of those); 3) Future new product development. They are not rushing to move outside the UK although there might be opportunities there. In essence they seem to be aiming for a conservative, profitable growth strategy which is often the kind of company I like, rather than betting the farm on a very rapid expansion as per Purplebricks. Return on capital is what matters, not empire building at huge cost.

There were a number of good questions from the audience of private investors (organised by Walbrook) but I’ll only cover one that arose. The accounts show a very low “current ratio” because the current liabilities, particularly the “Trade and other payables” figure is high at £7.8 million. This does include two earn-out payments due from past acquisitions of £5.2 million and taking those out makes the ratio look more reasonable. It would seem they do have a credit facility lined up to cover those payments, but this will add to the gearing of the company of course, at least temporarily even if operating cash flow is positive as it appears to be. They may wish to raise more equity also I suspect, particularly if other acquisitions are contemplated.

Also yesterday a legal firm named Keystone Law Group Plc listed on AIM. I think this is only the second of two commercial legal firms to list (Gateley Holdings, GTLY, was the first). Keystone promptly went to a premium over the listing price. I’ll have to read the IPO Prospectus which is available on the company’s web site under AIM Rule 26. Keystone are different to many law firms in that most of their solicitors are effectively freelances and they only get paid when the client pays (yes they are part of the new “gig” economy). The prospectus should make interesting reading as I have been a client of theirs in a libel action I have been pursuing of late which you should hear more about very soon. But buying shares in new IPOs is generally something to avoid.

Meanwhile the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) FCA has accused fund managements of colluding on IPOs. The regulator alleges Artemis, Newton, River and Mercantile and Hargreave Hale shared the prices they were willing to pay for shares. This story should run and run as it attacks the informal nature of conversations in the City of London about deals under consideration. But colluding on pricing is a breach of competition law as anyone in business should surely know.

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

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