Babcock Dividend, Ocado Placing, AGM Reform and Why Are People So Angry?

To follow up on my previous blog post about Babcock (BAB) and the possibility of it “skipping” its final dividend, the company issued its Final Results this morning and spelled it out. This is what it said about the dividend: “Given the current level of uncertainty over the impact of COVID-19, the Board has decided to defer the decision on our final dividend for the year ended 31 March 2020. We recognise the importance of the dividend to our shareholders and the Board will keep this under review during the financial year as the impact of COVID-19 becomes clearer”. That is not what Shore Capital suggested at all.

Although the company appears to have met forecasts for last year, and says it has a record order book, the share price has fallen 5% at the time of writing. The market in general is down considerably also though.

Ocado (OCDO) announced an institutional placing yesterday together with an offer via Primary Bid to retail investors. Like the one for Segro I commented on yesterday, this is a fund raising for expansion and is at a relatively small discount and dilution. These arrangements are now becoming common but I still don’t like them. They give private investors very little time to decide whether they wish to take up the offer and they do not know what price is being offered. As a holder of Ocado, this is another one I declined to invest in. Ocado share price is down 5.7% this morning at the time of writing which is exactly the same as the discount in the offer to the previous closing price, i.e. you could pick up shares in the market just as cheaply. I suggest companies should do proper rights issues rather than this dubious method and that the FCA should regulate this area more robustly.

There was a good article in the Financial Times today under the headline “Coronavirus casts doubt on the future of AGMs”. It describes the debate over the reform of AGMs and the use of virtual AGMs. It also covered an initiative by organisation ShareAction who are raising money to fund research into the issue. They quote Catherine Howarth as saying “We hope to co-develop a robust framework for AGMs that would still include shareholder votes and which would also help companies interact with a wider range of their important stakeholders including employees, customers, suppliers and communities”. That may be a worthwhile initiative if it makes AGMs more vibrant and useful than they are now but bearing in mind the funding of ShareAction it may not be a totally unbiased proposal.

What we do not want is AGMs dominated by “stakeholders” with political views as happens already at some companies – such as oil and mining company AGMs with endless complaints from environmental activists or defence industry company AGMs dominated by those who believe the company should not be involved in that industry at all. Companies are not in business to right all the social wrongs in the world, but to provide a financial return to their shareholders. They just need to operate within the laws set by national governments. Company law in the UK already requires the company to take the wider interests of stakeholders such as employees or customers into account and they can be represented at AGMs easily enough now by just buying a few shares – you only need one share to attend an AGM.

The FT article does make some good points about virtual AGMs, one of which I commented upon yesterday (EKF Diagnostics). But it suggests that it might cost £10,000 to hold a “hybrid” meeting at a small company. That is surely a grossly excessive estimate if voting is done on a poll. It’s trivial to set up a Zoom meeting for the number of investors likely to attend such a meeting (only a dozen at EKF).

I don’t often comment on general political or economic issues, but I find the current hysteria about the death of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations over “Black Lives Matter” in the USA and UK totally out of proportion. George Floyd was a very tall and heavy person who it is alleged resisted arrest. He had a past criminal record and was a drug user. The full facts of the case have not yet been revealed and it is way too early to say whether the police used excessive force or not, even if the result was very sad.

As to whether there is wider discrimination against black or coloured people in the USA or the UK is also doubtful. From my experience of working in the USA, there appeared to be very little direct discrimination. Did not Colin Powell become head of the US Army and Secretary of State? Did not Barack Obama become US President? But as in the UK, black people are disadvantaged often by the social and cultural backgrounds of their families. Righting that can only be done by education not by demonstrations or laws. Demonstrations actually make matters worse, and the recent violent ones and attacks on property such as historic statues actually make people less sympathetic to the cause. Meanwhile the failure by the police to stop these events undermines law and order in general, just as happened with the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations.

Why are people so angry that they feel the need to take part in such demonstrations, including many people who are not black and hence could not have personally suffered from any prejudice? You can see the same problem in the divisive politics of Brexit where rational debate soon flew out of the window and it degenerated into personal slanging matches on social media. In fact social media and national media reporting of news has actually coarsened political life. The BBC in particular has often seemed to be more interested in stimulating outrage to improve their readership or programme viewing and web site clicks than in reporting the facts in a neutral and unbiased way. This is not a useful national broadcasting service. It has become a medium for slanted propaganda and for stimulating social unrest. This is a problem that responsible politicians will need to tackle sooner or later. But in the meantime those such as Sadiq Khan in London seem more interested in stimulating political division over trivia with the objective of gaining a few votes.

As investors, my readers will have to face up to these issues sooner or later because when the social fabric of a country crumbles as the result of poor leadership, sooner or later the economy crumbles also.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right in most browsers or by using the Contact page to send us a message requesting. You will then receive an email alerting you to new posts as they are added.

 

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

On-Line AGMs and City of London IT

I mentioned in a previous article the growing concerns about the use of “virtual” Annual General Meetings (AGMs) in the USA. There are not many on-line AGMs yet in the UK but yesterday there was a good example at the City of London Investment Trust (CTY). I actually had to complain to the company last year about the defects when I attempted to attend it on-line rather than in person – it did not work on the day, plus a later recording that was available had all the Q&A part cut out.

This year it was better, but a long way from perfect. Parts of fund manager Job Curtis’s presentation could not be heard. But at least it gave shareholders the opportunity to attend in person, or attend on-line. Questions could be submitted on-line.

Here’s a brief report on the company and the AGM:

The City of London IT is probably the most boring holding in my portfolio. It invests mainly in large cap UK listed companies. Top ten holdings are British American Tobacco, Royal Dutch Shell, HSBC, Diageo, Unilever, Vodafone, Prudential, GlaxoSmithKline, Lloyds Banking Group and BP, totalling 32% of the portfolio. It’s in the “UK Equity Income” sector for trusts. So you can see it’s not going to be any racehorse as these are quite defensive stocks. However the performance over many years has been good and it tends to outperform its benchmark. Not last year though where it underperformed the benchmark but still managed to achieve a total return of 14.5% (All-Share was up 18.1% for example with growth and smaller cap stocks more in fashion in a buoyant market). The current yield is 3.9%.

Here’s a few comments from fund manager Job Curtis from his presentation who has been with the fund management company (Henderson) for 26 years. He mentioned the fact that dividends have grown every year for more than 50 years. They manage this by keeping some cash back in revenue reserves in good years, which are then used to pay dividends in the bad years.

They use gearing and last year moved up the gearing to 7% by taking advantage of the very low interest rates – they are now borrowing at 2.4% over 32 years. (Note: have mentioned before how astonishing it is that such trusts can borrow at rates lower than inflation and for long periods).

Job Curtis said their on-going charge figure was now 0.42% which is the lowest in the equity income sector.

Positive contributors to performance last year were housebuilders (they hold three – Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey and Berkeley) and pharmaceuticals (Glaxo and AstraZeneca, but they also hold Merck, Johnson & Johnson and Novartis). They also benefited from a below average exposure to oil and gas producers. Detractors from performance were banks, mining companies and a holding in Provident Financial which they have now sold.

There were few questions in the Q&A session (a good indication that shareholders are happy), and you can hear those and the rest of the event by going to this web site: www.janushenderson.com/trustslive .

Certainly this format provides a good approach for those investors who cannot easily get to AGMs, while not prejudicing those who wish to attend in person and chat to the directors. They do need to iron out the technical glitches though.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.