Blue Prism, GB Group, Gooch & Housego, Greggs, IDOX, Pets at Home, Victoria, Brexit and Pre-Pack Administrations

Lots of results and trading statements this morning of interest. Here’s a few brief comments on some of them in alphabetic order (I hold some of these stocks), with the share price movement on the day at 14:00 hours (at the time of writing):

Blue Prism (PRSM) – down 12.3%. This was one of the ultimate go-go technology stocks until mid-September when it started a sharp decline like many other such stocks. It has some very interesting technology to automate business processes which is why everyone wanted to buy the shares. The trading statement had some positive comments about sales and cash flow (without giving any specifics which is annoying), but it also said “The EBITDA loss is expected to be larger than current expectations due to continued investments into the Group’s growth strategy and increased sales commissions arising from the strong fourth quarter”. With rising losses already forecast and no prospect of a profit in sight, the share price predictably fell. This company has a market cap of over £1 billion when revenue in the current year might be £55 million. I have seen technology companies before (e.g. in the dot.com boom era) that managed to grow sales at a terrific rate but with rising losses. Often they never did manage to show they had a profitable business as competition eroded their USP before they got there.

GB Group (GBG) – up 5.0%. Half year results much as expected taking into account the big one-off deal in the previous half year. Like Blue Prism the share price was down by 30% since early September in the technology stock rout. The valuation is now back down to a more sensible level and with revenue growth of 9%, cash up by £14.5 million and a positive outlook statement there seems to be little to be concerned about. The company provides on-line id verification and location services which is clearly a growth area at present and accounts for the consistently high valuation of the company.

Gooch & Housego (GHH) – down 1.8%. The share price fell sharply after the market opened but that seems to be a frequent occurrence after announcements by small technology stocks as a few insiders take the opportunity to sell. But the new chairman bought a few shares today. The shares in the company are also thinly traded which means they tend to be volatile. The preliminary results were slightly better than forecast on an “adjusted” basis although the reported accounts of this company are heavily distorted by the number of exceptional items including a large write-off of goodwill, restructuring costs (including a site closure) and transaction fees on acquisitions. The share price has been declining like other technology stocks and the announcement today about the departure of the CFO, but not until summer 2019, may not help the share price. The company has moved into a net debt position due to heavy investment in property, plant and equipment and an acquisition but it’s still quite lowly geared.

Greggs (GRG) – Up 11.6%. The share price jumped after the company reported sales up 9.0% in the last eight weeks – no particular reason was supplied. Also forecasting profits to be substantially ahead of forecasts. Greggs went through a share price dip in the middle of the year probably due to poor figures after bad weather hit this “food-on-the-go” seller. But it seems junk food is still a growth market if you adapt to sell it in new locations and less on the High Street, and the weather is good – not that Greggs are not into selling healthy options now of course.

IDOX (IDOX) – up 1.6%. A year-end trading update showed declining revenues even ignoring the disposal of the loss-making Digital business which will have a negative impact on the final results. The company is in cost-cutting mood so as to increase profitability and so as to “align the cost base more directly with its re-focused business model”. There was a new Chairman appointed recently with a very relevant industry background. The business should at least report a profit this year unlike last, and the valuation is lowly due to past problems. But investors may be getting impatient for better results.

Pets at Home (PETS) – down 0.1%. Interim results reported good like-for-like growth in both the retail business and the vet practices but a restructuring of the vet business is going to result in very substantial write-downs including cash costs of £27 million. The reason the share price did not fall is probably because of the positive trading figures and a commitment to hold the dividends both for the interim and future final ones. It’s on a prospective yield of 6.5% at present. With a new management team this may be a good share for those who like “value” plays but being in the general retail sector which is a bloodbath for many such stocks does not help.

Treatt (TET) – Up 5%. This manufacturer of flavourings issued very positive final results – revenue up 11% and adjusted earnings up 10%, with positive comments about likely future results in addition. This is one of John Lee’s favourite stocks and no doubt he will have been talking about it in the last couple of days at the Mello London conference. Unfortunately I could not attend that event, which is one reason for this long blog post today.

Victoria (VCP) – up 1.6%. Interim results were generally positive and they look to be on target to make the full year estimates. But Exec Chairman Geoff Wilding probably summed it up well with this comment: “Finally, I am acutely aware that Victoria’s share price is not where I believe it should be given our current trading and prospects. As one of the largest shareholders, you can be assured that I, and the other directors and management, are focused on building the confidence of investors and delivering the financial results expected of Victoria. It is important to remember, together we own a very robust, well-managed, and growing business with over 3,000 employees who manufacture and sell some of the finest flooring in the world. The events of the last couple of months have not distracted management from delivering and for that reason I am highly confident of Victoria’s continued long-term success”. The events he refers to were the growing concerns about the level of debt in the company and the aborted proposal to convert bank debt into a bond. Floor-covering businesses can be somewhat cyclical, as results from the Australian subsidiary in these figures indicate. Investors can get nervous about high debt and what will happen when it is due for repayment. You need a lot of confidence in Geoff Wilding for him to steer through this situation to buy the shares even at the current level.

It is remarkable looking back over these results and the share price performance of the companies over the last few months that share prices seem to have been driven by emotion and trend following even more than usual. Brexit also seems to be making investors nervous and overseas investors particularly so. That explains why the dividend yield on the market overall is at record levels. Current yield is not everything of course as future growth is also important to market valuations which depends on profit growth. But apart from Brexit there are few clouds on the horizon at present.

Brexit. Mrs May is apparently trying to sell her agreed Brexit deal directly to the general public, i.e. over the heads of politicians. But with no unanimity in the Conservative party nobody sees how she can get the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament even if she manages to persuade the DUP to support it. It’s not easy to see how even a change of leader would help unless they can tweak the Agreement in some aspects to make it acceptable to the hardliners. That might just be possible whatever the EU bureaucrats currently say but otherwise we are headed for a “hard” and abrupt exit in March. Am I worried about such a prospect? Having run a business which exported considerably into Europe before we joined the Common Market, the concerns about the required customs formalities are exaggerated. The port facilities may suffer temporary congestion but it is always remarkable how quickly businesses can adapt to differing circumstances. For those who think we should simply go for a hard Brexit and stop debating what to do there is an on-line Parliamentary petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/229963/signatures/new . With the Brexit Withdrawal date set for March 29th 2019, I confidently predict that the matter will be settled by March 28th or soon after, probably based on Theresa May’s Agreement which actually does have many positive aspects. It’s just the few glaring stumbling blocks in the deal that are annoying the Brexiteers.

Incidentally Donald Trump was incorrect in suggesting that the current Agreement would prevent the UK signing a trade deal with the USA. See https://brexitfacts.blog.gov.uk/2018/11/27/response-to-coverage-of-the-uks-ability-to-strike-a-trade-deal-with-the-us-when-we-leave-the-eu/ . There’s just as much fake news from politicians than there is from digital media platforms these days.

Pre-Pack Administrations. There was an interesting article on the subject of Pre-Pack Administrations in the Financial Times yesterday (26/11/2018). I have covered this topic, many times in the past, always negatively. For example on the recent case of Johnston Press – see https://roliscon.blog/2018/11/19/johnston-press-trakm8-and-brexit/ where creditors were dumped and a payment into the pension scheme due in just days time was not made with the result than the Pension Protection Fund is likely to pick up the tab. That not just means pensioners in the Johnston scheme will suffer to some extent, but the costs fall on all other defined benefit schemes so you could be contributing also.

They are not the only losers though. The FT article pointed out that one of the biggest losers are HMRC as it seems some pre-packs are done to simply avoid paying tax due to them. There is now an advisory group called the “Pre-Pack Pool” that was set up to try and stop the abusive use of pre-packs, but it is reported that even when they gave a pre-pack proposal a “red card” many were put through regardless. This looks another case where self-regulation does not work and abuses are likely to continue.

That’s not to say that all administrations could result in a better return to trade creditors and the taxman than zero, but a conventional administration with proper marketing and the sale of a business as a going concern is much more likely to do so. The insolvency regime needs reform to stop pre-packs and provide better alternatives.

Have I got a bee in my bonnet about pre-packs because of suffering from one or more? No, but I know people who have even though they are relatively rare in public companies. But I just hate the duplicity and underhand shenanigans that go along with them.

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

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Insolvency Regime Changes – A Step Forward

There’s nothing like issuing a major Government announcement on the Sunday of an August bank holiday weekend to get good media coverage is there? But as it’s raining and I have nothing much else to do, I have read the announcement and here is a summary:

The announcement is entitled “Insolvency and Corporate Governance – Government Response” (see https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/insolvency-and-corporate-governance ). It is the Government’s response to past public consultations on how to tackle some of the perceived problems when companies get into difficulties or go bust. Such examples as House of Fraser (see my past blog posts on that subject where I called for reform of pre-pack administrations), Carillion, BHS, et al.

It aims to tackle issues around company director actions when a company gets into difficulties but one of the main proposals is very significant. That is that the Government intends to introduce a “Moratorium” scheme where a company can hold off its creditors for up to three months while it seeks to develop a restructuring proposal. Although a Moratorium will be a court process and will be supervised by a “Monitor” who is likely to be an insolvency practitioner, the directors of the company will remain in control albeit with some limitations.

Representatives of secure creditors (e.g. bank lenders) did not seem to like this idea at all based on their responses to the consultations, but it’s not quite as generous as first appears. Apart from the “monitoring” requirement to protect the interests of creditors, the initial period of a Moratorium will only be 28 days and can only be extended to 3 months if justified, and the company must be able to meet the normal insolvency rule that current obligations must be capable of being met as they become due during the Moratorium. But it is surely a step in the right direction in that it will provide more chance of those businesses that are not pure basket cases of being rescued to the advantage of trade creditors, pensioners and shareholders. That’s as opposed to the present situation where a pre-pack administration can instantly dump everyone except the secured creditors with massive damage to everyone else.

But directors of companies will need to act more in advance to ensure that a Moratorium is of help. To encourage them to do so the Government hopes to improve shareholder stewardship by identifying means to help the actions of institutional shareholders and others to escalate their concerns about the management of a company by its directors.

In addition the Government wishes to improve board directors effectiveness and training including raising awareness of their legal duties when making key decisions, and developing a code of practice for board evaluations. Comment: it is certainly the case that in smaller public companies the directors often seem to be unaware of their legal obligations and this sometimes extends to larger companies. I have argued in the past that all public company directors should have some minimal education in company law and their other responsibilities when acting as a director.

One issue examined was the payment of dividends by companies when companies were apparently in a weak condition such as having substantial pension liabilities or were paying dividends shortly before they went bust. Whether a company can pay dividends is governed by the calculation of whether it has “distributable reserves”, but that is a calculation that only the company and its auditors might be able to do. It’s not obvious from the published accounts. The Government is to work with interested parties on a possible alternative mechanism.

There were also concerns expressed that some companies are now paying dividends only as “interim dividends” which can escape approval by shareholders at Annual General Meetings. The Government has asked the Investment Association to report on the prevalence of the practice and they will take further steps to ensure that shareholders have an annual say on dividends if the practice is widespread and investor pressure proves insufficient.

In summary, I welcome all of these proposals as a step forward in rectifying some of the defects in the existing insolvency regime. The slight concern is that companies will be reluctant to enter a “Moratorium” due to the adverse publicity it might generate and the costs involved so we will have to see whether that turns out to be the case or not. But almost any restructuring solution is better than a formal administration or liquidation.

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

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Mulberry Profit Warning – Better Late Than Never

On Saturday (18/8/2018) I wrote about the damage to suppliers from the pre-pack administration at House of Fraser. One of the companies mentioned was Mulberry Group Plc (MUL) and I queried why they had not issued an RNS announcement indicating the likely impact on their profits. I suggested it could be £2.4 million.

This morning Mulberry issued a profit warning that spelled out the likely figure. There will be a provision of £3 million of “exceptional costs” related to the 21 “concessions” that they operated in House of Fraser stores. That arises from “a review of debtor balances, fixed assets and potential costs that may result from restructuring”.

For the avoidance of doubt, I have never owned the shares, nor bought their products. They do sell some nice handbags at £1,000 plus though. Both the products and the share price are too rich for me. At a prospective p/e of over 50 even before this morning’s profit warning, they must have some loyal followers.

The share price has fallen by 17% this morning at the time of writing. I hope shareholders in Mulberry will complain to the Insolvency Service (part of the BEIS Department – the responsible Minister is Kelly Tolhurst M.P.). The insolvency regime needs major reform.

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

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House of Fraser – The Real Damage from the Pre-Pack and to Mulberry

I have covered the abuse of pre-pack administrations and the case of House of Fraser in two previous blog articles. But now that the initial administrators report has been published the real damage is very clear.

House of Fraser had total debts of £884 million of which trade suppliers were owed £484 million. The latter means goods supplied to the company, and sitting in the stores being sold to customers which will not be paid for by either the administrator or the new owners. The suppliers included big names such as Mulberry, Giorgio Armani, Gucci and Prada plus no doubt a large number of smaller suppliers as is common in the “rag trade”. Some of the latter might well go bust as a result.

Let’s look at luxury products supplier Mulberry which is a UK listed company (TIDM MUL). They are owed £2.4 million when last year their net profits were £6.2 million so the potential hit to their profits is very substantial as the administrator is very unlikely to pay them. What might offset those losses?

They might have “reserved title” on the goods supplied if they wrote their contracts correctly although such claims are typically resisted by administrators. They might also have insured the risk of not being paid by their customers in which case the cost will fall on the insurers. They may also do some kind of compromise deal with new owner Mike Ashley whereby he pays a figure to ensure continuity of supply. But Mulberry have made no public announcement of the likely impact on profits which is surely required sooner or later from a public company. Perhaps they are still trying to figure out the impact or are simply “in denial” about the cost.

Retail concession operators within the House of Fraser stores are also in a difficult position. Stock in the stores is theirs and has been removed in some cases. But past sales will have been put through the House of Fraser till system. The cash may be in a trust account, or it may not.

Retail customers of House of Fraser have also been affected, particularly those who ordered products from the company’s web site. These should have been delivered from warehouse operator XPO Logistics who are owed £30 million and stopped processing orders soon after the administration. Whether the customers will get refunds or will have to claim against their credit card suppliers is not currently clear.

The House of Fraser web site is currently unusable so they will be missing a lot of potential orders. The site simply says “We’re currently working hard to make some improvements to the website” which is a misleading euphemism for “systems needing to be totally rebuilt with a new supply chain”.

You can see from the above that although a pre-pack administration appears a simple way for a business to continue while jobs are protected, in reality it is far from simple and enormously damaging to a wide range of people and companies. The bankers and lenders to the company are first in line for any payout as “secured” creditors but typically all other creditors get nothing in such cases. It seems unlikely that it will be any different here.

In conclusion, you can see from the above, and the impact on the pension fund of the company covered in a previous article, that pre-pack administrations are only simple solutions for insolvency practitioners and bankers. For everyone else they are a nightmare. The disruption they cause creates much wider impacts and justifies looking for a better solution to the problems of companies that are losing money and running out of cash.

THE INSOLVENCY REGIME NEEDS REFORM. THERE ARE BETTER SOLUTIONS TO THE HANDLING OF INSOLVENT BUSINESSES.

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

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House of Fraser Pre-Pack – More Details Disclosed

The Financial Times disclosed more details of the pre-pack administration of House of Fraser this morning which I previously commented on here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/08/12/house-of-fraser-pre-pack-is-it-such-a-great-deal/

The FT makes it clear that there was at least one other serious bidder for the company who was willing to purchase the business as a “going concern”. That bidder was Philip Day. How much he was willing to pay is not totally clear, but EY, the administrators are quoted as saying “For the avoidance of doubt, this was the only available offer to save the business, and in comparison to the alternatives represented by far the best recovery for the creditors of House of Fraser”.

The first part of that statement conflicts directly with the other information obtained by the FT. My conclusion is simply that the administrators preferred one bidder rather than another, probably at the behest of the secured lenders (i.e. the banks). There can be a number of reasons for doing so but in essence it’s very typical of what happens with pre-packs where the rush to complete the deal prejudices obtaining the best outcome other than for the secured creditors. So stuff the pensioners, stuff the trade creditors who have supplied goods they won’t now be paid for, stuff the property owners and stuff everyone else so long as the banks get paid.

The administrators can always claim in such circumstances that other offers were not available because very few bidders are likely to make an offer without some information about the business they may be buying and they may need time to put in place the funding required. At least some minimal due diligence is essential. But the administrator can delay or hold back information to thwart other bidders than their favourite candidate. So they can claim that there was only one firm offer on the table when the business was placed into administration.

This is a corruption of the administration process when there should be open marketing and time allowed for reasonable offers to be made so as to obtain the best solution for all stakeholders.

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

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House of Fraser Pre-Pack – Is It Such a Great Deal?

The acquisition of House of Fraser by Sports Direct is a typical “pre-pack” administration. In administration one minute, sold the next. The national media promptly welcomed it as the rescue of everyone’s favourite department store, the protection of 17,000 jobs and just what is needed to help save Britain’s High Streets.

Mike Ashley of Sports Direct trumpeted this as a great deal. All the stores and stock were purchased for £90 million when gross assets were £946 million and the company made a profit last year of £14.7 million – more on the financial numbers below. He plans to turn House of Fraser into the “Harrods of the High Street”.

But is it such a great deal? I have written many times in the past about the iniquities of pre-pack administrations. How creditors and shareholders are dumped, and pension schemes likewise. The administrators save themselves the hassle of winding up the business or looking for a buyer of the business as a “going concern” while collecting large fees for little work. I think the insolvency regime should be reformed.

The figure of £946 million of gross assets given by Sports Direct is from the last published accounts of the parent company House of Fraser (UK & Ireland) Ltd for the year ending January 2017, which is the last set of accounts filed at Companies House. The truth is that the company had net assets of £111 million with trade creditors of £365 million and long-term borrowings of £284 million. Debts including short terms borrowings probably grew substantially since then. Although Mr Ashley is paying the administrators £90 million for the assets, it would appear that both the trade creditors and the lenders will be very substantially out of pocket.

That’s not to mention the property companies who are the store landlords who face a default on their leases. Mr Ashley is unlikely to want to keep half the stores, so many of the jobs will be lost and he will no doubt want to renegotiate the leases on other stores downwards. So any property companies you may have invested may be damaged.

The company will have got shot of its defined pension schemes (approximately 10,000 members) which will be taken on by the Pension Protection Fund. That’s a public body that is funded by a levy on all pension schemes, so basically someone else will be paying if there is any shortfall. Although the pension scheme may be in surplus at this time, in such circumstances pensioners usually face a substantial cut in their future income as there will be no more contributions from the company.

Now House of Fraser might have been a retailing basket case with excessive debt, but surely a more equitable solution was possible? Indeed the Mail on Sunday today called it a “Fix” because there was an alternative offer on the table from retail billionaire Philip Day who allegedly offered £100 million for the company including taking on the pension obligations. The Mail suggested that the bankers and bondholders forced acceptance of the Ashley proposal in their interests. This is not unusual in pre-packs.

Sir Vince Cable suggested an investigation by the BEIS Department is required followed by reform of the pre-pack system. I agree with him. There are better solutions to how to deal with companies that run out of cash or become insolvent due to excessive debt which could protect the interests of trade creditors, employees and pensioners.

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

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Conviviality Fire Sale

Conviviality (CVR) has now gone into administration, and the ordinary shares are probably worthless (they were suspended some days ago and are likely to remain so). The administrators have already sold the major parts of the business in “pre-pack” administration deals. That’s where arrangements are made to dispose of assets in advance of the appointment of administrators by the prospective administrators before they have in fact been appointed. Is that legal you may ask? Yes it is because of a past legal case however perverse the result might be.

It’s interesting to look at the deals done by the Conviviality administrators:

  1. Retail chains Bargain Booze and Wine Rack have been sold to Bestway for £7 million.
  2. The wholesale division comprising the former businesses of Mathew Clark and Bibendum has been sold to C&C (owners of Magners Cider) for £1, although it seems the new owners have taken on some of the debts owed.

Matthew Clark was bought by C&C for £200 million three years ago and Bibendum was bought for £60 million in 2016. You can see why I call this a “fire sale” when the administrator seems to have lined up buyers in just a few days and disposed of these businesses at a value that seems to be a great bargain for the buyers.

One of the problems with administrations is that often the administrators have an objective to sell the business absolutely as soon as possible. This is to protect their own financial interests it frequently appears to me as much as it is to protect the jobs of employees and maintain a business as a “going concern”. Administrators can only get paid out of the cash that is present in the business or can be collected. That’s why nobody wanted to take on the administration of Carillion and it went straight into liquidation.

Administrators have an obligation to market a business for sale but can that be done adequately and the best price obtained when the deal has clearly been done in just a few days? That obviously does not allow any time for the normal due diligence on a substantial deal so the buyers won’t have paid anywhere near the normal market price for the assets.

In summary, the buyers of the assets get a great deal, the jobs get preserved (at least to some extent), the bankers to the company often get their loans back and the administrators get well paid while minimising their risks. But the previous owners of the business (the ordinary shareholders) get left with nothing. Is that equitable?

In effect the current legal structure, and particularly the pre-pack arrangements, enable the rapid dismantling of a business when it might have been recoverable if the company had been able to have more time to refinance the business and stave off its creditors for just a few weeks.

This is why I argue that the current UK insolvency regime needs reform. It destroys companies in short order when ordinary shareholders have often invested in the company to grow the business in the past. In the case of Conviviality it only listed on AIM in 2013 and did subsequent placings to finance its expansion.

The reason for the invention of “administration” in the insolvency regime was to enable a more measured wind-up, disposal or restructuring of a business rather than a liquidation. But insolvency practitioners (i.e. administrators) seem to have changed it into a short-cut to wind-up. Reform is surely needed.

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

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