The Conservative General Election Victory has generated large movements in stock prices with utility companies and banks some of the major beneficiaries. National Grid (NG.) rose 4% on Friday as the threat of nationalisation disappeared and Telecom Plus (TEP), which I hold, rose 11%. I sold the former some time ago as the business seemed challenged on a number of fronts and regulation of utilities in general in the UK and hence their likely return on capital seemed to becoming tougher. My view has not changed so although foreign investors might be mightily relieved, I am not rushing into buying utility companies today.
The euphoria seems to have spread to a very broad range of stocks. Even those you would think would be negatively affected by the rise in the pound, which will depress the value of dollar earnings, have risen. This may be because US markets have risen on the prospect of a US/China trade deal which was announced on December 13th. This might roll back some of the imposed and proposed tariffs on Chinese products to the USA, and cause cancellation of retaliatory Chinese tariffs, but the details are yet to be settled. This may not be a long-term solution though as it will likely still leave the USA with a very large trade deficit with China.
One noticeable aspect of the euphoria infecting markets on Friday morning was the inability of some investment platforms to keep up. According to a report on Citywire, two of the largest operators were affected with AJ Bell suffering intermittent problems due to a four-fold rise in volumes and Hargreaves Lansdown also experiencing problems. Some of the issues apparently related to electronic prices not being quoted by market makers which was reported as a problem by Interactive Investor. This meant that trades had to be put through manually via dealers who became overloaded.
It is very disappointing to see that yet again a moderate rise in volumes caused an effective market meltdown. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) should surely be looking into this as it is their responsibility to ensure the markets and operators therein have robust systems in place. If there is a real market crash, as has happened in the past, retail investors could be severely prejudiced if platforms fail or market makers fail to quote prices.
Eurphoria also seems to have become prevalent in the market for VCT shares in the last couple of years with figures from HMRC showing that the number of new VCT investors claiming income tax relief reached a ten-year high in 2017-18, up 24% over the previous year. The amount invested increased by 33% and in 2018-19 the amount invested increased again by 1.6% to £716 million. The pension changes such as the reduction in the lifetime allowance and new pension freedoms are attributed as the causes. High earners have been flocking to VCTs to mitigate their tax bills it appears.
But the investment rules for VCTs have got a lot tougher so whether they will continue to achieve the high returns seen in the past remains to be seen.
I have mentioned previously the attempt by a shareholder in the Ventus VCTs (VEN and VEN2) to start a revolution, i.e. replace all the directors and appoint new ones. See https://tinyurl.com/y6e5fafo . Nick Curtis was the leader of the revolt but at the AGMs on the 8th August the required resolutions were narrowly defeated with one exception. This was after the boards of these companies paid a proxy advisory service £38,000 to canvas shareholders, which of course shareholders will be paying for as it is a charge on the companies.
There is a report on the meetings by Tim Grattan in the ShareSoc Member’s Area which gives more details. One surprising bit of information that came out was that the performance incentive fee payable to the manager would be paid in perpetuity even if the management agreement is terminated. This is an outrageous arrangement as it would effectively frustrate any change of manager, i.e. it’s a “poison pill” that protects the status quo.
In addition the performance fee calculation is exceedingly complex, and allegedly double counts the dividends because it is based on the sum of total return and dividends. It seems to be yet another incomprehensible performance fee arrangement which I have often see in VCTs.
Comment: I think the existing directors deserve to be removed solely for agreeing to such arrangements. I have repeatedly advocated that performance fees in investment trusts (including Venture Capital Trusts) are of no benefit to shareholders and typically just result in excessive fees being paid to fund managers. There is no justification for them. Fund managers say that they are essential to retain and motivate staff, but I do not know of any VCT where the fund manager has voluntarily given up the role because of inadequate fees being paid even though some of them have had quite dire performance.
The boards of these VCTs are reflecting on the outcome. Let us hope that they decide it is time to step down and appoint some new directors who need to be truly independent of the manager. The candidates for the board put forward by Nick Curtis are a good starting point.
If the board does not respond appropriately, then I think shareholders should pursue the matter further with another requisition for an EGM to change the directors. It can take time to educate all the shareholders in such circumstances so perseverance is essential in such campaigns.
The Financial Times had more lengthy coverage on National Grid (NG.) and its power outage last week, which I covered in a previous blog post. It seems the company is blaming the power failures on the regional distribution operators for cutting the power to the wrong people, e.g. train line operators rather than households. But they suggest otherwise. Meanwhile an article on This is Money suggests that the increased sales of electric vehicles will cause the grid to be overloaded by 2040, even though sales of such vehicles are well behind those in some other countries. They were only 2.5% of sales in the UK in 2018, versus 49% in Norway. Surely what the UK needs is more back-up capacity based on batteries, gas turbines or like the Dinorwig pumped storage power station in North Wales. That can bring large amounts of capacity on-line in seconds and is well worth a visit if you are on holiday in the area.
Other interesting news is the recent events at Sports Direct (SPD). After problems with the last audit and getting the results out, Grant Thornton have announced that they do not wish to continue as auditors. All of the big four audit firms have refused to tender for the audit and other small firms have also declined it seems. Corporate governance concerns at the company seem to be one issue.
A UK listed company does require an audit so what does the company do if there are no volunteers for the role? The FRC is being consulted apparently on how to resolve this problem. Needless to say, these issues are having a negative effect on the company’s share price.
Last Friday the electricity network suffered a number of major failures with power cuts closing Kings Cross station and associated lines, traffic lights in South-East London being cut and other areas of the country affected. This caused me to consider whether National Grid (NG.) has been running too close to the wind in terms of capacity to cope with exceptional events.
I have not held shares in the company since late 2017/early 2018 but I do recall attending one of their AGMs when a shareholder questioned whether the country and the company had enough spare electricity capacity (National Grid has a monopoly on electricity distribution in the UK and also acts as a “system operator”). The shareholder concerned was reassured by the directors so far as I recall.
Keeping the power on is quite essential in the modern world. Heating appliances rely on it to operate, phone networks fail if the electricity supply is down (unlike some years ago when landlines operated on batteries), hospitals and other essential services rely on electricity being available and even cars will soon be reliant on the electricity supply. But it seems that the grid suffered three “near-misses” in the months before Friday’s disruption. On Friday the problem appears to have been caused by the failure of a gas power plant in Bedfordshire and a North Sea wind farm at the same time. This combination caused automatic systems to be triggered that cut supplies to certain parts of the country to avoid a wider shutdown. Note that this is nothing to do with reliance on unreliable supply sources such as wind power generation. It’s about network management, being able to get alternative supplies into action quickly and having spare capacity.
Has the company been under investing in capacity and system resilience while paying out enormous sums in dividends to investors, as some people allege?
It’s worth reading the company’s last Annual Report where the risks the company faces are covered in some depth. They have added “two new principal risks” one of which is given as “failure to predict and respond to significant disruption of energy that adversely impacts our customers and/or the public”, so it seems they were already aware of this issue.
They also cover the risk of state ownership if the Labour Party gained power and they say “The Government would have to pay fair compensation for the Company’s property….”. That is simply untrue. It would only have to pay what Members of Parliament considered fair which may be very different to a truly independent valuation or what the company’s shareholders might consider reasonable.
It would appear to me that the company has been excessively optimistic over its ability to maintain the supply network when an unusual combination of events arises, and has been discounting other major risks to shareholders.
It is surely time for the Government and National Grid’s regulator (OFGEM) to take a close look at the company.
This week’s Investors Chronicle edition (dated 28/12/2018) provides lots of food for thought. One of the most educational is their review of the share tips they published as “tips of the week” in 2018. Unlike some investment publications, who simply forget about their past tips that go nowhere, while lauding their hits, the IC is open about their performance.
They issued 173 “BUY” tips and 24 “SELL” tips in the year. That is quite some achievement by itself as I rarely have more than a very few good new investment ideas in any one year and tend to hold most of my investments from year to year.
How did their tips perform? Overall the “BUYs” returned minus 11.5% which they calculate as being 0.9% better on average than the relevant index. Hardly worth the trouble of investing in them bearing in mind the need to monitor such individual share investments and the transaction costs. The “SELLs” did better at -18.0% versus an index return of -8.8%.
The BUYs were depressed by some real howlers. Such as tipping Conviviality shortly before it went into administration, although they did reverse that tip to a “SELL” before it did so. The result was only a reported 12% loss. As a consequence they are making some “fundamental changes to the way we recommend shares”.
But with so many share tips, the overall performance was not impacted by one or two failures and tended to approximate to the overall market performance. Which tells us that you cannot achieve significant over or under performance in a portfolio by holding hundreds of shares.
I don’t work out my overall portfolio performance for the year until after it ends on the 31st December so I may report on it thereafter. That’s if it’s not too embarrassing. With many small cap technology stocks in my portfolio, I suspect it won’t be good. I always look at my individual gains and losses on shares at the year end, as an educational process. As Chris Dillow said in the IC, “Investing like all our dealings with the real world, should be a learning experience: we must ask what we got wrong, what we got right, and what we can learn. The end of the year is as good a time as any for a round up…”.
One BUY tip they made was National Grid (NG.) in May 2018 on which they lost 11.8%. There is a separate article in this week’s IC edition on that company which makes for interesting reading as a former holder of the stock. I sold most of my holding in 2017 and the remainder in early 2018 – that was probably wise as you can see from the chart below (courtesy of Stockopedia).
National Grid has a partial monopoly on energy distribution and always seemed to be a well-managed business. Many investors purchase the shares for the dividend yield which is currently about 6%. But the IC article pointed out that proposals from OFGEM (their regulator) might limit allowed return on equity to 3%, which surely threatens the dividend in the long term. The share price fell 7% on the day that OFGEM announced their proposals. Bearing in mind the risks of running an electricity network, and the general business risks they face, that proposed return on equity seems to be completely inadequate to me. That’s even if one ignores the threat of nationalisation under a possible Labour Government.
Another IC article in the same edition was entitled “Brexit and the UK Economy”. That was an interesting analysis of the UK economy using various charts and tables. One particularly table worth studying was the balance of trade between the UK and our main trading partners. We have a big negative balance (i.e. import more than we export) to Germany, Spain, Belgium, Holland and Italy but positive balances with Ireland and the Rest of the World – particularly the USA. The article makes clear that our trade with EU countries has been declining – exports down from 55% in 1999 to 44% of all exports. But imports have not fallen as much so the trade gap has been widening. Meanwhile our exports to Latin America and China, which have been good economic growth areas, have remained relatively small.
The conclusions are simple. EU economies such as Germany would be severely hit by any trade disruption on Brexit. But opportunities in rapidly growing markets are currently being missed, perhaps hampered by inability to negotiate our own trade deals with them, and that might improve after Brexit.
It mentions a long list of audit failings on pages 12 onwards including banks before the financial crisis of 2008, BHS, Carillion, Autonomy (covered in a previous blog post) and Conviviality which was mentioned above.
This paragraph in their executive summary is worth repeating: “Independent audits should ensure that company information can be trusted; they provide a service which is essential to shareholders and also serves the wider public interest. But recent events have brought back to the surface longstanding concerns that audits all too often fall short. And in a market where trust and confidence are crucial, even the perception that information cannot be trusted is a problem.”
One problem they identify is that “companies select and pay their own auditors” which they consider an impediment to high-quality audits. In addition choice is exceedingly limited for large FTSE companies, with the “big four” audit firms dominating that market.
Their proposals to improve matters are 1) More regulatory scrutiny of auditor appointment and management; 2) Breaking down barriers to challenger firms and mandatory joint audits; 3) A split between audit and advisory business within audit firms and 4) Peer reviews of audits.
Their review of FRC enforcement findings suggests that the most frequent findings of misconduct include:
(a) failure to exercise sufficient professional scepticism or to challenge management (most cases);
(b) failure to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence (most cases); and
(c) loss of independence (three out of a total of 11 cases).
That surely indicates a major problem with audit quality, and that is backed up by the FRC’s own analysis of audits that they have reviewed with only 73% being rated as “good or requiring limited improvement”.
Auditors are primarily selected via audit committees and there is a noticeable lack of engagement by shareholders in their selection. But that’s surely because large institutional shareholders have little ability to judge the merits of different audit firms.
Would more competition improve audit quality, or simply cause a focus on the lowest price tenders? The report does not provide any specific comment on that issue but clearly they believe more competition might assist. More competition does appear to drive more quality for a given expenditure in most markets however so it is surely sensible to support their recommendations in that regard. The report does emphasise that the selection and oversight of auditors would ensure that competition is focused on quality more than price which is surely the key issue.
A previous proposal was that auditors be appointed by an independent body but that has been dropped, partly due to shareholder opposition. The new proposal is for audit committees to report to a regulator with a representative even sitting as an observer on audit committees where justified. In essence it is proposing much more external scrutiny of audit committee activities in FTSE-350 companies and decisions taken by them.
The end result, at some cost no doubt, would be that both auditors and audit committees will be continually looking over their shoulders at what their regulators might think about their work. That might certainly improve audit quality so for that reason I suggest this proposal should be supported.
The requirement for “joint” audits where two audit firms including one smaller firm had to be engaged seemed to be opposed by many audit committee chairmen and by the big four accounting firms. Some of their objections seem well founded, but the riposte in the report is that evidence from France, where joint audits are compulsory, suggests they have a positive impact on audit quality. Moreover, it would clearly increase competition in the audit market.
In summary, the report does appear to provide some sound recommendations that might improve audit quality. But investors do need to respond to the consultation questions in the report as it would seem likely that the big audit firms will oppose many of them.
As a postscript to my last blog post on the administration of Beaufort, an interesting article was published by the FT this morning. They had clearly had a chat to administrators PWC. The article reports that the 14,000 investors affected will get no more than 85p in the £1 invested and that no money would be returned for at least a month.
PWC said that that Beaufort’s own funds were very limited and therefore clients will have to cover the cost of recouping their own money and assets. It seems it is a “complicated” administration and there are a number of challenges including assessing the accuracy of financial records. In other words, it’s a typical such mess where the administrators will run up enormous bills sorting it out. As I said in the last blog post, “past experience of similar situations does not inspire confidence”.
It will be months if not years before PWC can sort out who owns what and in the meantime the assets will be frozen. But anyone thinking of taking legal action over the alleged fraudulent practices of the company might find it not worth doing because the cupboard is bare, unless they can target individuals and their assets. Meanwhile there have already been 600 complaints to the Financial Ombudsman apparently but investors might find share dealing by “sophisticated” investors is not covered, and neither are they by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.
The energy market regulator OFGEM issues a press release this morning. Here is some of what it said: “Ofgem proposes significantly lower range of returns for investors. Tougher approach would deliver savings of over £5 billion to consumers over five years.
Ofgem has today set out proposals for a new regulatory framework from 2021 which is expected to result in lower returns for energy network companies and significant savings for consumers.
This includes a cost of equity range (the amount network companies pay their shareholders) of between 3% and 5%, if we had to set the rates today. This is the lowest rate ever proposed for energy network price controls in Britain. Ofgem also proposes to refine how it sets the cost of debt so that consumers continue to benefit from the fall in interest rates.”
This is very negative news for National Grid (NG.), but surprisingly the share price has risen today. It is possible that analysts and institutional investors were expecting it to be worse, so it’s a “relief” rally. Meanwhile some chatter on twitter from private investors talks about how cheap the shares are on fundamentals. That may be one view, but just look at 2021, when Corbyn and John McDonnell might be in power and to me there look to be very substantial risks. If equity investors are getting less than 5% return, then in any nationalisation the valuation of the equity could be very low even if the Government pays a “fair” price – which no recent Government did on nationalisations. They used totally artificial valuation rules to come out with the figure the politicians wanted. Investors should not trust politicians, but I think we all know that.
Media reports suggest that National Grid is running out of gas, and having to pay industrial users to stop consuming it. This is due to the exceptionally cold weather spell. But National Grid has also been running out of shareholders because of fears over possible nationalisation. The share price is down by 33% on its peak in 2016. As I have probably said before, the threat of nationalisation has undoubtedly spooked international investors who now dominate the holdings of UK public companies.
It seems Macquarie analysts have suggested that investors should encourage utility companies to move their domicile to another country. Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has said “Transferring asset holdings overseas in pursuit of higher compensation shows total contempt for the British Public”, but I think she complains too much. Surely moving the registration of a holding company would not be effective? The Government could just take control of the assets and bearing in mind principles set by other recent laws and legal judgements, just pay what they wanted. It would all be justified as being “in the national interest” even under EU law if that still applied.
One would have to pick the domicile carefully to gain much benefit. For example, National Grid has substantial assets in the USA so they could possibly keep those out of reach by demerging the relevant part of their business. But that only provides limited protection to current investors.
I have not personally held National Grid for some time because of the political risk and am not invested in other utility companies either. If those companies wish to avoid the risks of a Labour Government and their current policies, they might find it wise to look at other ways of thwarting damage to their shareholders interests.
InvestorEase is a share portfolio management software product which I have used for the last 20 years. The current owner (Financial Express) has announced they are closing the service at the end of May on the basis that it is no longer economic to continue with it.
This is disappointing as although I also use ShareScope, there are some features in InvestorEase that are not easily replicated in the former. InvestorEase is also quicker and easier to use than ShareScope which has so many options that configuration is complex (SharePad from the same company is not a viable alternative either from my knowledge of it). But it’s hardly surprising that FE decided to close InvestorEase as the developer who maintains the software has clearly been having difficulty and losing interest of late.
I also have a portfolio in Stockopedia, but again I am not sure that will give a good solution. I need a product/service that enables maintenance of multiple portfolios with large numbers of holdings and transactions, plus a consolidated view on demand. The other reason I am running more than one such product is because I like to have a back-up in emergencies and by duplicating entries in the two products I can spot any obvious errors easily.
So any suggestions for good alternative solutions for the private but semi-professional investor would be welcomed.
Or perhaps anyone who might have an interest in taking on the product, which has suffered from total lack of marketing in recent years, should contact Financial Express.
I had a busy day yesterday, but let me first comment on the news today. National Grid (NG.) published their half year results this morning. They reported “Adjusted operating profit, excluding timing up 4%….” but statutory earnings per share were down by 12%. What exactly does “adjusted for timing” mean? I have no idea because the announcement does not explain it in any sensible way. For example, it says under “UK Timing”: “Revenues will be impacted by timing of recoveries including impacts from prior years”. Why are these revenues not being booked in the relevant period? Why are they not being recognised as revenues in the period concerned? Looks like a simple “fudge” to me as “adjustments” to reported figures in accounts often are. Many analysts seem to have a negative view of the stock, and I am coming to the same conclusion. I sold some of my holding in the company this morning.
I have previously mentioned the requisition of an EGM at Johnston Press (JPR), but the company has rejected this on the basis that it is “not valid”. It seems this is because the shareholder who requested it holds their shares in a nominee account (i.e. are not on the register). Yet another example of the obstruction caused by the use of nominee accounts. Changes to the law in this area are required to fully enfranchise all shareholders. See the ShareSoc Shareholder Rights campaign for more information: https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/shareholder-rights-campaign/
Yesterday morning I attended the AGM of Crown Place VCT, managed by Albion Capital. No excitement there. Just a competently managed VCT and a well run AGM with a presentation from one of their investee companies (PayAsUGym) who have developed an innovative business selling gym sessions. Crown Place made a total return of 14% last year and currently provide a tax free dividend yield of 6.9% which is covered twice by earnings. The expense ratio is 2.4% which is certainly better than many of the VCTs I hold. Previously this company had a strong focus on “asset-based” investments but they are now restricted by the new rules for VCTs so they are moving into more “exciting” fields. There are also concerns about further rule changes or removal of tax reliefs in the budget next Wednesday. Investors in tax incentivised vehicles seem to be getting nervous.
After lunch with representatives of AGMInfo, I filled an hour or so before the ShareSoc AGM by dropping into the Lloyds Bank legal action nearby which I have mentioned in previous blog posts. On the witness stand was former CEO of Lloyds TSB Eric Daniels being cross examined by the littigants QC. He gave a confident performance and was clearly well prepared. He said he was “bitterly disappointed” over the need to raise £7 billion in capital and was also disappointed that they would end up more highly capitalised than other banks. It was clear from his other comments that there was a certain momentum to go through with the deal (the acquisition of HBOS) and that they did not revisit the benefits of the transaction at every turn (e.g. as more information came out of the due diligence work for example).
He disclosed that in a conversation with the FSA there were real concerns that they could lose the vote of shareholders. This could be because there were views that HBOS could remain independent, although the Government had already indicated that it was promptly going to be nationalised if no rescue deal could be done; and because Lloyds TSB shareholders might vote against it.
The case continues. Lloyds Bank and the former directors continue to say that the claims have no merit of course.
It was then onto the ShareSoc AGM. Again no great excitement there. Mention was made of a possible merger with UKSA and as a former director of both I spoke in favour of that. Spreading the fixed costs over two organisations of a similar size makes a lot of sense. It should never have been necessary to set up a rival organisation to UKSA, but interesting to note that ShareSoc has more members now so my efforts in recent years were not in vain.
The ShareSoc AGM was followed by one of their company presentation seminars. Of interest to me (being current holders) were the two by LoopUp (LOOP) and Ideagen. I reported on Ideagen recently on coverage of their AGM so will only cover LoopUp herein. The presentation by their joint CEO Steve Flavell was slick but it was more a sales pitch for the product/service to customers than one to investors. The issue of them having two joint CEOs was raised in a question later.
The emphasis was on the simplicity of the service, so anyone could take it up easily and quickly. This is the major USP as there are lots of other conferencing products around. Most interesting was his explanation that they leapfrogged the “chasm” by ignoring the early adopters (who often like techy products) by aiming straight for the “mainstream majority”. His reference to “Crossing the Chasm” is from a book of that name by Geoffrey Moore which is essential reading for all sales/marketing executives in the software field, or investors in early stage technology companies likewise. Just had a chat with an Uber driver about this book – he has a degree in marketing – that’s the modern world for you. It will be a great shame if Sadiq Khan manages to put Uber out of business – might miss out on intelligent conversations with cab drivers. I read the book when it first came out back in the 1990s and Mr Flavell had read it also. I highly recommend the book. LoopUp is clearly a sales/marketing driven organisation but the technology is sophisticated enough to make it all look simple.
On the current valuation, the company has obviously a long way to go to grow into that valuation. Questions were raised about whether growth could be accelerated (revenue only up 39% in 2016m and 44% in the interims this year). But I expressed scepiticsm on attempts at a faster growth rate to Flavell after the meeting.
The Financial Times continue to publish anti-Brexit stories and editorial every day. My letter to the editor on the dubious bias, which they published, has obviously had no impact whatsoever. Tim Martin, CEO of JD Wetherspoon, had a lot to say about the subject of the impact of Brexit on food costs in his latest trading statement. He accused the media, and the Chairman of Sainsburys and that of Whitbread, and the head of the CBI, for completely distorting the facts. Rather than food prices rising after Brexit, he suggests they will fall. For his arguments see:
My conclusion is quite simply that some foods might become more expensive, others might become cheaper, and home-produced products might also be cheaper; plus the Government might be able to save a lot of money on contributions to subsidising inefficient farmers. But that of course means that food buying habits might change as consumers react to price changes. Is that a bad thing? Readers can ponder that question.
Whether the Chairmen or CEOs of public companies should be making comments on essentially political issues, one way or the other, is also a question to consider. I suggest that might best be left to bloggers like me. Sainsburys and Whitbread (Costa, Premier Inns) might find they disaffect half their customers while having minimal impact on public opinion.