Shareholder Democracy, RBS, Rightmove AGM and Stockopedia

There is a very good article by City Slicker in this weeks’ edition of Private Eye (No.1469) on the subject of “Apathy in the City”. The article comments on the “disengaged” share owners in Persimmon who failed to vote against the remuneration report, or simply abstained. See my previous blog post on that subject here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/04/25/persimmon-remuneration-institutions-duck-responsibility/

The article highlights the issue that the many private shareholders in the company probably also did not vote (they could have swung the result), because they have effectively been disenfranchised by the nominee system that is now dominant. The writer says “This democratic deficit has been richly rewarding for companies, share registrars and those representing retail investors”, and the result “has been a real diminution in shareholder democracy”. A few more articles of that ilk may sooner or later impress on politicians and the Government that substantial reform is necessary.

The article also points out how the EU Shareholder Rights Directive, one of the few good things to come out of the EU bureaucracy in my opinion, is being misinterpreted by the UK Government to suggest beneficial owners are not shareholders.

To get the message across I have written to my M.P. on the subject of Beaufort and the substantial financial losses that thousands of investors will suffer there as a result of the use of nominee accounts compounded by the current insolvency rules. If anyone would like a copy of my letter to crib and send to their own M.P., just let me know.

In the meantime the AGM at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is due on the 30th May. The RBS board has opposed the resolution put forward by ShareSoc and UKSA to establish a “shareholder committee”. That would be a step forward in corporate governance in my view and shareholders would be wise to vote in favour of that resolution (no.27). I do hold a few shares in the company but will be unable to attend the AGM in Edinburgh so if anyone would like a proxy appointment from me so that you can attend and voice your own views on the subject, please let me know. You would at least have the pleasure of seeing the buildings created in Gogarburn by empire builder Fred Goodwin for RBS.

The RBS Annual Report is a 420 page document which must make it one of the heaviest UK Plc Annual Reports. The motto on the cover is quite amusing. It reads “Simple, safe and customer focussed” – perhaps it means they intend to get back to that because RBS was none of these things during the financial crisis that almost bankrupted the business.

One aspect that City Slicker criticizes in the aforementioned article is the low “turn-out” of voters at AGMs, i.e. the low percentage of shareholder votes cast even including “votes withheld”. A third were not voted at Persimmon. That is not untypical at AGMs in my experience although institutional voting has improved in recent years. It’s often the private investors now who don’t vote due to the difficulty, or downright impossibility of voting shares held in nominee accounts.

But there was no such problem at Rightmove Plc on the 4th May. About 85% of votes were cast. As a holder I could not attend in person, but Alex Lawson has written a report which is on the ShareSoc Members Network. One surprising result though was that long-standing Chairman Scott Forbes got 39% of votes against his re-election and Remuneration Committee Chairman Peter Williams got 37% against. I voted against the latter, against the Remuneration Report and did not support the re-election of Scott Forbes either. With 12 plus years of service, it is surely time to look to board succession planning and a new Chairman. The board is to look into why they got so many votes against the two resolutions which is certainly unusual.

To conclude I see that blogger/journalist Tom Winnifrith is having yet another go at mild-mannered Ed Croft of Stockopedia after a spat at the UK Investor Show over a trivial matter. Since then Tom has been attacking Ed over “recommendations” given by Stockopedia in his usual rottweiler manner. As a user of Stockopedia and other stock screening services, I don’t expect absolutely all the positively rated stocks to be great investments. I know that some will be dogs because either the accounts are fraudulent, the management incompetent or unexpected and damaging events will appear out of the blue. So for example, Globo’s accounts fooled many people including me until late in the day so any system that relied just on analysis of the financial numbers would be likely to mislead. But stock screens rely on the laws of averages. The fact that there will be one or two rotten apples in the barrel does not mean that stock screens cannot be a useful tool to quickly scan and dispose of a lot of “also-rans” in the investment world. They can quickly highlight the stocks that are worthy of more analysis, or prompt dismissal.

Winnifrith seems unable to differentiate between meritorious causes that deserve the full power of his literary talents and those where his imitation of a sufferer from Tourette’s syndrome where he heaps abuse on innocent victims goes beyond the bounds of reason. Stockopedia provides a useful service to investors. Let us hope that the saying there is “no such thing as bad publicity” applies in this case.

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

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Persimmon Remuneration – Institutions Duck Responsibility

Most folks are aware of the absolutely outrageous pay levels at Persimmon Plc (PSN) and the perverse LTIP scheme that permitted them. Today was the day of their Annual General Meeting when shareholders had the opportunity to express their displeasure. Some did but a lot of investors (no doubt institutional ones) did not. The results of the vote on the Remuneration Report were:

VOTES FOR: 74.5 million, AGAINST: 70.2 million, ABSTAINED: 64.8 million.

Because of the very large number of abstentions (votes withheld), the resolution was passed by 51.5% to 48.5% of votes cast.

Is this not a sorry reflection on the corporate governance standards in the UK when such a blatantly perverse remuneration scheme is not censored by a vote against? The excuse that last year’s pay was simply a reflection of a previously approved remuneration policy is a very poor one. When the outcome was so appalling, it should have been consigned to the garbage heap by a vote against.

This is the kind of behaviour by UK company directors and institutional investors that might well lead to a socialist Government in due course who will have a mandate to deal with this problem in a more vigorous manner than the current Government.

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

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Persimmon Pay and Rightmove Results

This morning the directors of Persimmon (PSN) gave in to demands to revise the benefits they would get from their LTIP scheme. This has drawn lots of criticism from investors, even institutional ones who voted for the scheme a few years back. They clearly either did not understand the workings of the scheme or did not understand the possible implications. I voted against it at the time as a holder of shares in this company, but then I do against most LTIPs. The LTIP concerned potentially entitles three directors and other staff to hundreds of millions of pounds in shares.

Three of the directors have agreed to cut their entitlement to shares on the “second vesting” by 50%. They have also agreed to extend the required holding period and put a cap on the value of any future exercise.

However, they have not conceded anything on the first tranche of vesting which vested on the 31st December 2017. Director Jeff Fairburn, has said he will devote a substantial proportion of his award to charity, but surely that is simply a way to minimise his tax bill.

One particularly annoying aspect of the announcement this morning is this statement therein: “The Board believes that the LTIP put in place in 2012 has been a significant factor in the Company’s outstanding performance.  In particular, it has contributed to industry-leading levels of margin, return on assets and cash generation”. This is plain hogwash. The main factors were a buoyant housing market, supported by the Government’s “Help to Buy” scheme. House prices rose sharply driven by a shortage of housing while record low interest rates encouraged buy-to-let investors. It was the most benign housing market for decades.

So although the three directors have made some concessions, and the company Chairman has resigned, I suggest this has not really been as satisfactory an outcome as many folks would have liked to see.

Rightmove Results

Another company I hold who also operate in the property sector is Rightmove (RMV). This business mainly provides an advertising platform for estate agents. Results were much as forecast with revenue up 11% and adjusted earnings per share up 14%. These are good figures bearing in mind that there were some concerns about increased competition from two other listed companies, Zoopla and OnTheMarket, plus concerns that the business was maturing. In addition the number of house moves has been falling, thus impacting one would have assumed on estate agent transactions, but they seem to be spending more to obtain what business is available to them.

There are very few estate agents, traditional or on-line ones, that are not signed up with Rightmove plus one or other of the competitors. Although growth in revenue to Rightmove has been slowing, it’s still improving mainly because of price increases and new options available to advertisers. It is clear that Rightmove has considerable “pricing power” over its customers.

The really interesting aspect of this business is their return on capital that they achieve. On my calculations the return on equity (ROE) based on the latest numbers is 1,034% (that’s not a typo, it is over one thousand per cent).

This is the kind of business I like. A dominant market position due to the “network” effect of being the largest property portal, plus superb return on capital.

But their remuneration scheme is not much better than Persimmon’s. Retiring CEO Nick McKittrick received £159,200 in base salary last year, but the benefit from LTIPs is given as £1,063,657, i.e. seven times as much. Other senior directors had similar ratios if other bonuses are included (cash bonuses and deferred share bonuses). Such aggressive bonus arrangements distort behaviour. In the case of Rightmove I believe it might have resulted in an excessive emphasis on short-term profits which has enabled their two listed competitors to grab significant market shares.

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

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Persimmon Directors, IDOX Profit Warning and Transplants

This morning house building company Persimmon announced that Chairman Nicholas Wrigley and Non-Exec Director Jonathan Davie were departing. The company says that both of them recognise that the 2012 LTIP “could have included a cap” and “in recognition of this omission” they have tendered their resignations.

Holders of Persimmon shares like me, or indeed anyone who has followed the debate on excessive executive pay, will be aware of the outrageous pay that has resulted at this and other companies because of the adoption of complex and aggressive LTIPs. Often these schemes have paid out unanticipated amounts, because the directors seemed not to understand their complexities or the possible outcomes. In the case of Persimmon it has meant that as much as 10 per cent of the value of the company has been paid out to the beneficiaries, allowing the CEO to pocket more than £100 million.

Neither of course did the shareholders understand these schemes and hence voted in favour of them regularly. So long as the company financial performance was good, some shareholders considered the payouts were justified. So the Board of Persimmon “believes that the introduction of the 2012 LTIP has been a significant factor in the Company’s outstanding performance over this period, led by a strong and talented executive team”. No mention of the main factors that have driven performance – high house prices supported by interest rates lower than they have been for thousands of years, the rapid growth in households from immigration and other factors, the Governments “help to buy scheme”, and other contributors. When companies are making hay, few shareholders will pay much attention to remuneration schemes or vote against them which is surely an argument for Government intervention in this area.

The company has appointed a new Chairman of the Remuneration Committee, who is Marion Sears. Will policies and practices change as a result? I doubt it because back in 2015 I argued with her at the AGM of Dunelm where she chaired the Remuneration Committee and subsequently exchanged emails on the complexities of the bonus scheme at that company. I also said to her that it was “difficult to understand the implications of the new policy on the overall remuneration of the senior executives and its sensitivity to different scenarios” and argued that the performance targets were not stretching.

I have come to the conclusion that all traditional LTIP schemes are dysfunctional and I therefore vote against them. There are better ways of recognising superior management performance.

IDOX

Another company I have held for a long time is AIM listed software company IDOX. This company was very successful under the leadership of former CEO Richard Kellett-Clarke. Two days ago the company issued a profit warning (not the first) saying that results for the year ending October 2017 will be delayed until next February. The announcement indicated some concerns about revenue recognition, complicated by the “sudden absence” of the CEO, Andrew Riley, on sick leave.

This is the kind of announcement that investors hate. No real details, and no information on when or if Andrew Riley might return. All we know is that the EBITDA forecast is reduced again to approximately £20 million. But at least we know that Kellett-Clarke is back as interim CEO.

There were concerns expressed by me at the last IDOX AGM about revenue recognition, high debtors and the apparent offering of long payment terms to customers (effectively providing them credit). I opined at the time that this was no way to run a software company because even if the customers are credit worthy, projects can run into unforeseen difficulties causing the customers to argue about the bills. I reduced my holding in the company substantially at the time as a result although it’s still one of my bigger holdings. Leon Boros also made negative comments about cash flows at the company and some investors were shorting the stock at the time – they are probably doing so again.

Comments on bulletin boards also raise the issue about the restating of accounts at 6PM, an acquisition that IDOX made in December 2016. But this is old news. Reference to accounting restatements at 6PM were made in the offer document (page 15, where it says for example that “the Directors expect that the value of the net assets of 6PM under IDOX accounting policies will be reduced materially”). Indeed 6PM subsequently filed accounts in Malta where they are registered showing substantial losses in 2016 and restating the 2015 and 2014 numbers. I thought the acquisition was a dubious one at the time for various reasons and voted against it. But these adjustments were surely known about earlier in the year so the latest announcement suggests some other problems.

Needless to say, with all these uncertainties and lack of clarification from the company (which we may not get until February it seems), all the likely share buyers have disappeared because it becomes very difficult to value the business. Simply too many unknowns. I will be encouraging the company to clarify the position a.s.a.p., but the “transplant” of the CEO, even on a temporary basis, might provide some reassurance that the problems will be sorted.

On the subject of transplants, one public consultation that is of personal interest to me is the Government’s consideration to change the default on organ donation to be an “opt-out” system as opposed to the current “opt-in” arrangement. In other words, unless you had specifically opted out, then it would be assumed that you had no objection to your organs being used for transplantation. Relatives may still be consulted though.

It is hoped that this will increase the number of transplants that are performed. There are a large number of kidney transplants performed each year, with lesser numbers of liver, pancreas, lung and heart transplants. The NHS says that 50,000 people are alive today who would not otherwise be so as a result (including me of course). But there are still long queues of people awaiting transplants. In the case of kidney patients, the alternative of dialysis reduces quality of life substantially and also reduces life expectancy significantly so it is a very poor alternative. Dialysis just keeps you alive, but a transplant gives you a new and better future.

For my financially informed readers, you also need to bear in mind that transplants save the NHS money because maintaining a kidney transplant patient costs a lot less than looking after dialysis patients.

Scotland, Wales and other countries have introduced opt-out systems already. Go here to respond to the public consultation on the matter: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/introducing-opt-out-consent-for-organ-and-tissue-donation-in-england

I hope readers will support this change to the law.

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

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