Queen Elizabeth, Energy Caps, Verici DX, Equals and Paypoint

The sad death of Queen Elizabeth reminds me of my own mother’s death at the age of 100. They looked similar in later life. Both managed to die in their own home which is the best place from which to leave. Will Charles III make a good king? We will have to wait and see but his name is not propitious bearing in mind the track record of the previous two. As I am not a monarchist I will say no more.

It was interesting to see an open coal fire in use in the photographs of Liz Truss with the Queen. Balmoral does not have central heating apparently while Buckingham Palace does have a CHP plant. But the bill to run the later was about half a million pounds per annum before the projected price increases. So King Charles might welcome Truss’s announcement to cap the maximum price of gas and electricity.

This is a cap on prices, not on overall cost so people with big houses with large gas consumption will still pay more. But at least it will replace the OFGEM price cap which was an irrational policy that would not encourage people to reduce energy consumption. Fracking is also being permitted to boost local gas production.

Truss did not give in to calls for this largess to be funded through a windfall tax. She said this would undermine the national interest by discouraging the very investment we need to secure home-grown energy supplies. You can’t tax your way to growth she said. So it will be funded by more Government debt in essence.

Is this wise? I believe it is the lesser of evils as it will help to bring inflation under control which is essential to keep the economy healthy and avoid a severe recession. These decisions by Truss and her new cabinet are positive in my view and should help the stock market.

But she is still committed to net zero by 2050 which is simply an unrealistic and unachievable objective.

I attended a couple of interesting results webinars this week. The first was from Verici DX (VRCI) who provide pre and post diagnostic technology for kidney transplants to avoid rejection. This is a subject in which I have a strong interest as a transplant patient and I do hold the shares which were acquired free as a scrip dividend when they spun off from EKF. The company is making progress but revenue is some way off and profits impossible to forecast so I would not purchase the shares at this time.

I did attend a two-hour seminar at Guys Hospital recently for pre-transplant patients as I need another. It was apparent that transplant procedures have not changed much in the last 25 years. Back then there was hope of xeno-transplantation but that faded away. More recently a bioartificial kidney has been developed (see  https://pharm.ucsf.edu/kidney ) but that could be years away from clinical use.

The other webinar I attended was that of Equals Group (EQLS) which I have held in the past. Financial figures are improving and a focus on the SME sector has clearly helped. It’s a complex payment business though and the webinar only helped in some degree to understand it. It might be another UK technology business vulnerable to being acquired by a trade buyer who understands the technology and regulatory environment. The company has been tipped recently by Simon Thompson in Investors Chronicle.

One company I do hold which is also looking cheap in the payments world is Paypoint (PAY) – probably because it operates in the retail sector and has been around a long time. There is a good write-up on the company in the latest Techinvest newsletter. But like Equals it is a complex business providing a number of different services. Both Equals and Paypoint could do with better communications on their business activities.

All of Verici DX, Equals and Paypoint have one advantage – they are not affected by the price of energy except very indirectly!

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

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Chocolat Melting, Fevertree Losing Fizz, Paypoint Results and PM Choice

The share price of Hotel Chocolat (HOTC) collapsed yesterday after posting a trading update. It was not that chocolate sales had fallen in the heat wave as one might expect. The temperature nudged 40 degrees C in the leafy Chislehurst suburbs yesterday and I cancelled a trip into the City which was probably a wise move.

HOTC said “While the Board anticipates underlying FY22 profit before tax will be in line with market consensus, statutory reported profit for FY22 is
expected to be a loss, being affected by the outcomes of an internal business review, predominantly as a result of non-cash impairment provisions and costs arising from discontinued activities including the closure of retail stores in the USA”. It’s a loss however you look at it.

The share price of HOTC peaked at about 530p last November and it’s now about 130p. Investors who signed up for the placing at 355p last July must be kicking themselves.

I must admit to a certain scepticism about “comfort” food sellers particularly those targeting the luxury end of the market. The history of chocolate and ice cream sellers is very poor and I would extend that to premium alcohol brands such as gin and wine. Likewise premium mixer seller Fevertree (FEVR) whose shares fell by 30% last Friday after warning on margin erosion due to higher glass and freight costs combined with labour shortages. These kinds of companies depend on aggressive marketing to grow sales but their products and marketing can be imitated. When consumers become price sensitive they may quickly switch to cheaper brands.

Needless to say, I do not hold the stocks mentioned above.

One share I do hold is Paypoint (PAY) who issued a positive trading statement this morning. It included this statement:

“Q1 Progress: Good progress against our ESG programme, including commitment to ensure all employees are paid a minimum of the Real Living Wage delivered in July 2022; and Inaugural Pride Month programme launched in June 2022, as part of our ‘Welcoming Everyone’ activities, providing educational content, further meetings of our LBGTQ+ network and events to bring colleagues together, building on our commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion and supporting our vision to create a dynamic place to work”.

They have clearly become enamoured of the need to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals but I am not personally convinced that this is an area in which companies should be interfering. Next thing we know they’ll be promoting religion and holding prayer meetings.

One of the last three candidates for Prime Minister, Penny Mordaunt, has been criticised for calling that old TV series of “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” as being misogynistic and homophobic. It certainly was but it was also comic as the characters were true of their era. Likewise in Dad’s Army written by the same authors which could also be criticised for being prejudiced. But as my father served in the Home Guard and kept a diary during the war years, I think it was a good representation of reality. He skived off a lot apparently and considered it a waste of his time.

Will Penny Mordaunt beat Liz Truss to make the final poll? I hope so as I don’t think Truss could win a General Election for the Conservatives. Simply not enough charisma.  I still think Rishi Sunak is the best candidate.

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

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Annual Reports and Voting – HLMA, AUTO, PAY and TEP

It’s that time of year when many companies issue their annual reports and request that we vote on AGM resolutions. I pity our postman as I still receive most of the reports on paper (they are easier to read in that form) and they are getting to be very heavy. Here are some examples and brief comments:

Halma (HLMA): 248 pages.  Emphasises “sustainable growth over 50 years” and included a tribute to co-founder David Barber who died recently. Report is full of non-essential bumf which I doubt anyone reads. I voted against the Remuneration Report – total remuneration of CEO £3.5 million last year and against the Chair of the Remuneration Committee plus several other non-exec directors who either seemed superfluous or have too many jobs.

Auto Trader Group (AUTO): 170 pages. A clear description of the business and future developments but do we really need 20 pages of bumf on “Making a difference” (ESG etc). Interesting to note that the average price of a used car advertised on their web site rose by 22% last year. There is clearly a shortage of second-hand vehicles as new car sales have been depressed for a number of reasons. People are holding on to their cars for longer it seems. Again I voted against the Remuneration Report and the Chair of the Remuneration Committee (single figure of pay for the CEO last year was £1.7 million). Cannot see any reason for such generous pay for directors. Also as with Halma I voted against share buy-backs and calling General Meetings on 14 days notice.

Paypoint (PAY): 162 pages. This is a complex business providing payment and other services to retailers and SMEs. Their markets have been changing as mobile top-ups have declined and bill payments in cash also. Romanian business was disposed of and a settlement with Ofgem re competition infringements of £12.5 million has been booked as a prior-year adjustment. You can spend a long time reading this Report without getting a very clear understanding of where the profits came from and their future prospects.

Total pay of the CEO last year was £911k which is down on the previous year. Does that reflect the Ofgem settlement? I have no idea as the 11-page Remuneration Report does not explain. Again lots of ESG bumf under the heading “Responsible Business”.

Telecom Plus (TEP) also published their Final Results last week. This company is clearly going to benefit from the failure of numerous energy suppliers. The National Audit Office has blamed the Ofgem regulator for light touch regulation and allowing businesses to be set up with poor financial resources. Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Consumers have borne the brunt of supplier failures at a time when many households are already under significant financial strain having seen their bills go up to record levels. A supplier market must be developed that truly works for consumers”. Certainly regulation has been lax but the setting of price caps that stopped world market gas prices from being passed on to customers was also quite irrational.

With a lot of the competition to Telecom Plus being removed from the market their prospects are looking up and the share price has zoomed upwards.

Needless to point out that I hold shares in all the aforementioned companies. They have many things in common – high levels of repeat revenue, have high returns on capital and appear to be well managed. But they have not been immune to the general bearish view of the stock market by investors at present.

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

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City of London IT, Equals Interims, Paypoint CEO, Downing One VCT and Parliamentary Pandemonium

Having been away on holiday in the North of England last week, this is a catch up on news that impacted my portfolio.

I received the Annual Report for City of London Investment Trust (CTY) which is one of my most boring holdings. This is large cap equity growth/income trust managed for many years by Job Curtis and I have held since 2011 – it seems longer. Total return last year was 2.7% which beat most of the comparable indices. But a look at the overall return (including dividends) on my holdings in Sharescope shows an annual return of 15.0% which is very pleasing. It has reduced its management overheads to a cost of 0.39% (the “on-going” charge).

It is particularly worthy of note that the Chairman, Philip Remnant, says this in the Annual Report: “In February 2019 the AIC published an updated Code of Governance which largely mirrors the provisions of the UK Corporate Governance Code issued by the FRC save that the strict nine year cap on the Chairman’s tenure contained in the FRC’s code has been disapplied by the AIC. I see no reason why the rules which apply to the length of time which the chairman of an investment company can server should be more relaxed than those that apply to other listed companies, and so I will be stepping down as Chairman during 2020”.

I completely agree with Mr Remnant and have raised this point at AGMs of a number of trusts where directors are permitted to hang on for much too long. The AIC should not pretend that investment trusts are exempt from the UK Corporate Governance Code.

Equals (EQLS), formerly called FairFX, issued their interim results on the 26th September. Revenue was up by 21.4% and Adjusted EBITDA up by 78% but EPS was down. The share price fell, although the Chairman bought some shares soon afterwards.

However as reported on at the AGM (see https://tinyurl.com/y5j58dd6 ) there is a large amount of software development work being capitalised at this company and as expected, it went up in the half year. Another £4.8 million to be exact. That is a very large amount of development work and suggests either a very large team or an expensive one. It does raise doubts in my mind, and possibly others, about the accounts.

Paypoint (PAY) reported a “temporary leadership change” on the 26th September. CEO Patrick Headon is taking a leave of absence to receive treatment for a medical condition and he is expected to be absent for 3 months. The share price barely moved during the week but these kinds of reports which give no details can often conceal worse news. I recall the recent events at Wey Education where Executive Chairman David Massie received some open-heart surgery and subsequently died. Shareholders were not informed of this problem until he resigned and this was a significant problem for the company. I suggest there should be some clear rules developed on when medical incapacity needs to be reported to shareholders, and what level of detail is provided so that investors can judge the risks and possible impacts.

Downing One VCT (DDV1) issued a circular concerning the raising of up to £40 million in additional equity. This is justified so as to increase the size of the company to better cover the fixed running costs and to enable the company to make new investments and diversify its portfolio.

It always surprises me how Venture Capital Trusts can often raise more money even when they have a very patchy performance record. According to the AIC, this VCT achieved a NAV total return of 9.4% over the last 5 years. I won’t be increasing my holding in this company therefore by subscribing for it. However, how should I vote on the fund raising? Should I support it on the basis of pulling in more suckers to support the overhead costs? Or oppose it on the basis that giving more cash to the manager will hardly improve performance in the short term and simply give more fees to a poorly performing fund manager?

They are also proposing to introduce a Performance Incentive Fee – 20% of gains subject to a hurdle rate. But performance fees do not improve performance so I always oppose them. I hope other shareholders will do the same.

It was of course difficult to get away from events in Parliament and Brexit issues while on holiday. But I did manage to read a book in the hotel library – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon – just a part of it of course as it’s a multi-volume book. Gibbon was a Member of Parliament in the 1770s but disliked the place which he called “Pandemonium”. Nothing changes it seems.

As regards the decision of the Supreme Court over Prorogation, having read the full Judgement of the Court, I do not find it particularly surprising. People do tend to jump to conclusions about court judgements, often declaring they are biased, when a full reading often shows that the judges are not so perverse as imagined. I fear the advice of the Attorney General on prorogation was defective in that it cannot be purely at the whim of the prime minister to suspend Parliament for a long period of time and without good reason.

It was also unnecessary as Boris Johnson has other options to ensure that Brexit takes place on the 31st October as he wishes. Most investors are surely now of the same view of many of the public that we need to get this matter settled. Delaying resolution by a further extension of the Brexit date or by another referendum would simply cause more uncertainty and difficulty for businesses and for investors. Businesses cannot plan adequately and the value of the pound is dropping while investors are nervous. None of these things are helpful to investment returns.

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

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