Babcock Price Fall, Segro Placing, TR Property and EKF Diagnostics Virtual AGM

I said in a previous blog post “that I tend to avoid FTSE-100 companies as their share prices are driven by professional analysts’ comments, by geo-political concerns, by general economic trends and by commodity prices. You can buy a FTSE-100 company and soon find it’s going downhill because one influential analyst has decided its prospects are not as they previously thought”.

Indeed that is exactly what happened after I made a recent purchase of Babcock International (BAB). Soon after Shore Capital Markets published a note that said it would be skipping its final dividend. The share price promptly fell by 7% on that day even though they claimed to “retain a buy stance” on the shares.

The last announcement by the company covering the subject of dividends on the 6th April simply said “The Board will consider the final ordinary dividend for this financial year ahead of our full year results announcement [due on the 11th June] taking into account developments over the next two months”. Do Shore Capital have inside information or are they just guessing? Or did they consult the company first? If they were given any relevant steer on this matter, the company should have issued a statement on it. Regardless it’s somewhat annoying even if some moderation of the dividend might make some sense and everyone else is cutting them. I would not be too concerned about the loss of dividend because I never buy shares for dividends alone, but I don’t like to suffer capital losses.

Yesterday property company Segro (SGRO) announced a placing “to take advantage of additional investment opportunities”. There was no open offer but private shareholders could participate via Primary Bid if you were willing to accept the price agreed with institutional holders. The shares issued represented 7% of the existing capital and the placing price turned out to be 820p, a discount of 4.5% to the previous close. I declined to participate, mainly because I have enough of their shares already. One has to ask why they could not have done a proper rights issue as there seemed no great urgency in the matter.

Last night I watched a presentation by Marcus Phayre-Mudge, fund manager for TR Property Investment Trust (TRY), on the internet. This tended to simply confirm my view that this is a well-managed fund which is withstanding the Covid-19 epidemic well. It has avoided many of the property sectors most damaged by the virus. It has a pan-European focus when internet retailing in the rest of Europe is still well behind that in the UK. He said “retailing is in an accelerating structural shift” but he does not “believe the end of the office is nigh”. A very useful and informative presentation via PI World even if he got cut off at the end due to some unknown technical issue. You can see a recording of it here: https://www.piworld.co.uk/

This morning I attended the virtual AGM of EKF Diagnostics (EKF), a medical products manufacturer mainly for diagnostic applications. There were about 12 attendees via a Zoom conference call and it worked quite well. Attendees were asked to register and submit questions in advance, although there was time to ask impromptu questions in the meeting also which were invited at the end.

Voting was done on a poll so the results of that were displayed first. The meeting was chaired by CEO Julian Baines.

I submitted a question about their investment in Renalytix AI (RENX) and its progress, which had been recently listed. I suggested progress was slow but the response was that progress had not been slow at all. However the Covid-19 situation has delayed tests in hospitals in the USA.  Progress on approvals is significant and revenues are expected shortly.

There was a question on the ramp-up of sales in McKesson and the answer was they had slowed significantly. But the company overall was only about 10% down on core products. They had seen business coming back on line in May and June.

Another question related to the Longhorn product which was claimed to be “the world’s safest sample collection product” (very relevant to virus sample collection of course). They are selling millions of these tubes in the USA. There is only one competitor who is allegedly infringing their patents – they are speaking to them “robustly” at present.

There were several other questions and answers of no great significance, but it was certainly a useful meeting and a good example of how any small/medium company could run a virtual AGM very easily. Why do they not do so?

My thanks to EKF for running such an event, which took less than 30 minutes in duration.

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

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Ocado Trading Update, Coronavius Apps, EMIS AGM, IDOX Pay, Segro Dividends

Ocado (OCDO) issued a trading update today, and it shows their joint retail venture with M&S is benefiting from the coronavirus epidemic. In the second quarter revenue was up 40% on the prior year. They have had to ramp up capacity significantly to meet this demand, and they have suspended delivery of mineral water so as to cope with the needs of additional households. The announcement gives the distinct impression that they need more warehouses (or CFCs as they call them).

On a personal note, my family has been using Sainsburys’ on-line delivery system and as a “vulnerable” person we get priority. The result has meant neighbours asking us to shop for them. But at least I don’t need to accept the offer of food parcels sent to me yesterday by the local council!

There has been good coverage of coronavirus apps in the national media in the last couple of days. This UK Government has chosen one that relies on a centralised system and it looks distinctly insecure and not good enough to protect privacy. Robert Peston pointed out another flaw in it that someone could maliciously chose to report themselves as suffering from symptom thus causing everyone they might have come into contact with in the last two weeks to self-isolate. I am not at all clear why the Government has chosen this approach, which may deter take-up anyway, when Google and Apple are implementing a different system with fewer privacy concerns. That has been adopted by other countries so there will be problems with international travel.

EMIS (EMIS) held their AGM today. Nobody allowed to attend and no on-line session which is not good enough for an IT company. EMIS operates in the healthcare sector. Recurring revenues have held up but new business sales have been lower. They still expect to meet full year expectations.

However, they did get 15% of votes AGAINST the remuneration report. That included my votes as a holder as it looked a typical complex scheme with total pay too high in relation to the size of the business.

Another example of a poor pay scheme is that of IDOX (IDOX), an AIM listed company that operates mainly in the provision of software to local authorities. Reviewing the Annual Report, the Chairman acquired 585,000 share options last year (current price about 40p, exercise price 1p) based on a share matching scheme. The CEO acquired 3,512,400 share options under an LTIP with an exercise price of 0p (nil). The CFO also acquired 1,000,000 share options, again with an exercise price of 0p, but with a performance condition of the share price being greater than 45p. In summary I think this is way too generous so I have voted against the remuneration report. The AGM is on 28th May, so other shareholders have plenty of time to submit their votes.

Another item of annoying news I received recently was from Segro (SGRO) the property company. They will no longer be sending out dividend cheques from next year. I still prefer dividend cheques for my direct holdings because it is easy to check that the dividends are received and you know exactly when the money is in the bank because you pay them in yourself.

However looking at a report published by the Daily Telegraph last year, it quotes registrar Equiniti as saying that up to 30% of dividend cheques do not get presented which is a rather surprising statistic and must create a lot of extra work. Kingfisher, Marks & Spencer and Vodafone have already stopped dividend cheque issuance, forcing you to give the registrar your bank details. I may have to accept this as a reasonable change even if I don’t like it.

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

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Porvair and Segro AGMs

I “attended” the Annual General Meeting of Porvair Plc (PRV) this morning. This was of course not a conventional meeting with minimal numbers there in person. But there was a telephone conference call before the legal meeting to enable shareholders to ask questions, although there were less than half a dozen investors who chose to dial-in.

The Chairman, John Nicholas, made some brief comments to begin with. He mainly just summarised the recently issued trading statement. But he did say all plants were open and they expected to be modestly cash generative for the balance of the year except in extreme circumstances. There was no AGM statement, so we then went straight into questions.

One investor asked about the impact of the problems in the aviation sector. Answer: too early to say.

I asked about the impact of the oil price decline, which in case you had not noticed briefly went negative yesterday. There was no clear answer to that but their recent acquisition Royal Dahlman obviously might be affected.

I also asked whether they could do something about the extreme volatility of the share price and the wide spread. All shares are volatile of late but Porvair is one of the worst in my portfolio and the spread this morning was 7%. That is unusual for a company of this size. They will talk to their broker Peel Hunt about this.

Another shareholder suggested they should do more to raise awareness of the company and it was admitted that they do not spend much time on promoting the company to investors. It might certainly help liquidity if they did so.

As the AGM itself was done on a poll with all resolutions passed, the “meeting” was over in 15 minutes. However it was still a useful event.

The other AGM held today which I could have attended in normal circumstances was that of Segro (SGRO). That was at exactly the same time as Porvair, but they also did not provide any way for shareholders to attend electronically. Questions could be submitted in writing via email but that is hardly a good alternative. I hope they publish the questions and answers.

Note that ShareSoc have just published a blog post concerning the letter written by ShareAction to FTSE-100 companies complaining about the lack of provision of virtual AGMs this year by many companies. Their complaints are very justified. The technology is simple to use and a simple conference call would suffice for many companies.

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

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Recent Annual Reports and Trust Discounts

After the news over the weekend, it’s clearly going to be another very bad day on stock markets. One rare riser initially was Ten Entertainment Group (TEG) despite the fact that they announced this morning that all their bowling venues had been closed but they made some positive comments about their cash balances and Government support which might have helped.

As per guidance issued by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) it has delayed publication of its Preliminary Financial Results for two weeks as many other companies will be doing. This seems unfortunate to me as a company could just give only a limited outlook statement in there and issue separate trading statements as the crisis developments. But there is no reason to delay the historic figures for the last year.

The AIM Regulator (the LSE) has also announced that in response to the epidemic it is making the rules around suspension of listings more flexible. It is also permitting Nomads not to do site visits to new clients. See https://www.londonstockexchange.com/companies-and-advisors/aim/advisers/inside-aim-newsletter/inside-aim-coronavirus.pdf for details.

Clearly all companies affected by the closure of all public entertainment venues such as pubs, bowling alleys and cinemas are going to suffer greatly. Although they might get some financial relief from the Government, a close examination of their balance sheets and debt will be essential. Some might request suspension of their shares until their financial position becomes clearer. Property companies seem to have been badly hit simply because independent valuers are having difficulty valuing commercial properties as the market is frozen. Retailers with physical stores are also closing them, apart from supermarkets who are doing well due to panic buying and the shift from eating out to eating in as restaurants close. But they seem to be having difficulties adapting their supply chains and coping with the new demands for on-line ordering.

With preliminary announcements being delayed, the AGM season might be delayed also. Companies might have difficulty holding physical meetings and venues might become unavailable, particularly in London. We might see companies holding small meetings in their own offices instead as they won’t expect many people to turn up – I certainly won’t be attending as I am one of those people being told to stay at home for 12 weeks. Some larger companies may try and provide a live on-line stream of the meeting such as Alliance Trust (ATST) who just issued their Annual Report which I would certainly encourage them to do, preferably with some way to submit questions.

It is interesting to look at the discounts to NAV of the share price of that trust and other similar large trusts. According to the AIC, their discount was 17.5% at the weekend, and others were Brunner on 17.5%, F&C on 19.3%, Monks on 12.6% and Witan on 15.6%. These are much higher discounts than such trusts have traded on of late. When private investors have lost faith in the stock market, the discounts tend to rise, although some of the discount can be accounted for by the delay in reporting.  There may be some bargains in investment trusts in due course as private investor sentiment tends to lag financial news.

One company that just distributed their Annual Report and which I hold is property company Segro (SGRO). They had a good year last year although the share price is down 28% from its peak in February due to the general malaise in the property sector as open-end funds close to redemptions and run out of cash. I won’t  be attending their AGM but I will certainly be submitting a proxy vote which all shareholders should do anyway. I will be voting against their remuneration report simply because the total pay of executive directors is too high. The remuneration report consists of 27 pages of justification and explanation, which is way too long and is a good example of how both pay and pay reporting has got out of hand of late.

With bonuses, LTIPs and pension benefits, the total pay of the 4 executive directors (“single figure” report) was £20.4 million. They also wish to change the Articles of the company to raise the limit on the total pay of non-executive directors to £1 million so I will be voting against that also. I would encourage shareholders to do the same.

Lastly for a bit of light relief as it looks like we might have a major recession this year, I mentioned the book “Caught Short!” by comedian Eddie Cantor on the 1929 Wall Street crash in a previous blog post. Now Private Eye have repeated one of his comments in October 1929 after John D. Rockefeller (probably the richest person in the world at the time) said “during the past week, my son and I have for some days been purchasing sound common stocks”. This was seen as an attempt to calm the market in a world where a few very wealthy investors could influence financial markets. Eddie Cantor’s response was “Sure, who else has any money left”. I hope readers do not feel the same.

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

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Brexit Investment Strategies

Investors may have noticed that the pound is in free fall and heading towards US$1.20. That’s near the low after the initial Brexit vote. Pundits, not that they can be relied on for forex forecasts, suggest it could go lower now that we seem to be heading for a “no-deal” Brexit.

With the pound falling, and potential damage to the UK economy from a hard Brexit, investors should surely have been avoiding companies reliant on UK sales, or UK consumers, or those such as engineers and manufacturers that rely on just-in-time deliveries from Europe. The key has been to invest in those UK listed companies that make most of their sales overseas in areas other than the EU.

One such company that announced interim results today is 4Imprint (FOUR), a supplier of promotional merchandise. Most of its sales are in the USA and its accounts are in dollars. Revenue in dollar terms was up 16% at the half year and pre-tax profit up 22%. The share price rose 6.5% yesterday and more this morning but the former suggests the good news leaked out surely. With the added boost from currency movements, this is the kind of company in which to invest but there are many other companies with similar profiles. For example, many software companies have a very international spread of business, or specialist manufacturers such as Judges Scientific (JDG). Those are the kind of companies that have done well and are likely to continue to do so in my view if the US economy remains buoyant and the dollar exchange rate remains favourable.

The other alternative to investing in specific UK listed companies with large export revenues and profits is of course to invest directly in companies listed in the USA or other markets. But that can be tricky so the other option is to invest in funds such as investment trusts that have a global spread of investments with a big emphasis on the USA. Companies such as Alliance Trust (ATST), Scottish Mortgage (SMT) or Polar Capital Technology Trust (PCT) come to mind. Alliance Trust has a one-year share price total return of 11% according to the AIC and the share price discount is still about 5%. I received the Annual Report of PCT yesterday and it makes for interesting reading. Net asset total return up 24.7% last year and it again beat its benchmark index. The investment team there has been led by Ben Rogoff for many years and what he has to say about the technology sector is always worth reading. Apparently the new technology to watch is “software containerisation” which is compared to the containerisation of cargo shipments in its revolutionary impact.

Another interesting comment is from the Chairman complimenting Ben on having the skill of buying shares and holding those which go on to outperform, but also knowing when to sell at the right time which the Chairman suggests is not common in fund managers.

Another hedge against a hard Brexit is to invest in companies that own warehouses because a lot more stockpiling is already taking place as a protection around the Brexit date by importers, but also more will be required to hold buffer stocks for manufacturers in the future. Companies such as Segro (SGRO), Tritax Big Box (BBOX), and Urban Logistics (SHED) have been doing well for that reason. They have also been helped by the trend to internet shopping which requires more warehousing space and less retail space. These trends are likely to continue in my view and the retail sector is likely to remain difficult for those retailers reliant on physical shops. You can see that from the results from Next (NXT) this morning. Shop sales down while internet sales up with the overall outcome better than expected as on-line sales grew rapidly. Anyone who expects the high street or shopping malls to revive is surely to going to be disappointed in my view.

There are bound to be some problems for particular sectors if we have a hard Brexit. The plight of Welsh sheep farmers was well covered by the BBC as Boris Johnson visited Wales yesterday. Most of their production currently goes to Europe but they may face 40% tariffs in future. The Prime Minister has promised assistance to help them but they have been heavily reliant on subsidies in the past in any case. There will need to be some difficult decisions made about the viability of farming on marginal land in future.

The falling pound has other implications of course. It will help exporters but importers will face higher prices with the result that inflation may rise. However, there are few products from Europe that cannot be substituted by home grown or produced equivalents, or by lower cost products from the rest of the world. With import tariffs lowered on many imports the net effect may be very low in the long term. But it will take time for producers and consumers to adjust. Tim Martin of JD Wetherspoon is well advanced in that process so you can see just how easy it will be to adapt.

In summary, investors should be looking at their current portfolios and how they might be impacted by Brexit now, if they have not already done so. There will clearly be winners and losers from the break with Europe and investors should not rely on any last-minute deal with the EU even if Boris is expecting one. Any solution may only be a temporary fix and the policies suggested above of international diversification are surely wise regardless of the political outcome.

Note: the author holds some of the stocks mentioned.

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

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AssetCo, Patisserie, Stockpiling, Warehouses, Sheds, Brexit and Venezuala

A week ago, an award of damages of £21 million plus interest and costs was made against Grant Thornton for their breach of duty when acting as auditors of AssetCo Plc (ASTO) in 2009/10. See https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Comm/2019/150.html for the full judgement. I understand Grant Thornton may appeal. These are the key sentences in the judgement: “It is common ground that in those years the senior management team at AssetCo behaved in a way that was fundamentally dishonest. During the audit process management made dishonest statements to GT, provided GT with fabricated and massaged evidence and dishonestly misstated reported profits, and provided GT with flawed and dishonest forecasts and cash flow projections. Outside of the audit process, management were engaged in dishonestly ‘overfunding’ assets (i.e. misleading banks as to the costs of new purchases etc so as to borrow more than was permitted), misappropriating monies, dishonestly under-reporting tax liabilities to HMRC, concluding fraudulent related party transactions and forging and backdating documents. GT accepts that it was negligent in a number of respects as the company’s auditor in failing to detect these matters…”

In 2012, AssetCo (ASTO) was forced to make prior period adjustments for 2010 that wiped more than £235m off its balance sheet. AssetCo was, and still is, an AIM listed company now operating in the fire and emergency services sector.

This is undoubtedly a similar case to Patisserie (CAKE). According to a report by Investors Champion, former Chairman Luke Johnson suggests it “has possible relevance for a claim against Grant Thornton” and he will be pushing the administrators to instigate similar action. Let us hope it does not take as long at ten years and millions of pounds in legal costs which administrators may be reluctant to stand.

According to a report in the FT, manufacturers are stockpiling goods at a record rate in anticipation of supply chain disruption from Brexit. Importers are also stockpiling goods – for example Unilever is storing ice-creams and deodorant such as its Magnum ice-cream bars which are made in Germany and Italy. There is also the increasing demand for warehousing by internet retailers, even for smaller “sheds” to enable them to provide next day or even same day delivery.

Big warehouses are one of the few commercial property sectors that has shown a good return of late and I am already stacked up with two of the leaders in that sector – Segro (SCRO) and Tritax Big Box (BBOX). On the 31st January the Daily Telegraph tipped smaller company Urban Logistics REIT (SHED) for similar reasons and the share price promptly jumped by 7% the next day wiping out the discount to NAV.

There has been much misinformation spread about Nissan’s decision to cancel manufacture of a new car model in the UK. They denied it was anything to do with Brexit. This was to be a diesel-powered model and as they pointed out, sales of diesel vehicles are rapidly declining in the UK. The same problem has also hit JLR (Jaguar-LandRover). One aspect not taken into account in many media stories was that Japan has just concluded a free trade deal with the EU. Japanese car manufacturers no long need to build cars in Europe to avoid punitive tariffs. Where will the new vehicle now be made? Japan of course!

There has been lots of media coverage of the politics of Venezuela and its rampant inflation. A good example of how damaging extreme socialism can be to an economy. Over twenty-five years ago it had a sound economy and I had a business trip scheduled to visit our local distributor there. But at the last minute the trip was cancelled after a number of people were killed in riots over bus fares. I never did make it and I doubt I will ever get there now.

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

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Hedging Against Brexit

As we edge towards an abrupt Brexit as agreement with the EU has turned into a game of chicken, it’s worth considering some options. Or as my M.P. Bob Neill said about divorce on Twitter “the current system of divorce creates unnecessary antagonism in an already difficult situation” (he was talking about personal divorce in the UK as head of the Justice Committee but our EU divorce is looking very similar – acrimony is the word for it).

Perhaps the Prime Minister will find a way through to a sensible settlement now she is reported to have personally taken charge of the matter. But as investors we should not rely on such a chance.

One solution is simply to move your share investments into companies that are listed overseas and do most of their business elsewhere than the UK. Don’t wish to buy overseas companies directly? Simply buy one of those “global” investment trusts or trusts focused on particular sectors – Europe, the USA, China, India, et al. Or ensure you invest in UK companies with large exposure to overseas markets other than the EU – there are lots of those.

One aspect that caught my attention this week was the suggestion that the UK should stockpile food and medicines to ensure there were no shortages. But taking food alone, fresh food does not generally keep for very long unless you have a refrigerated warehouse. Even then there are limits. As one supermarket chief was reported as saying in the FT today that it was “ridiculous” and showed “complete naivety”. The reason is simply that supermarkets and their suppliers operate “just in time” systems where deliveries often depend on overnight shipping of goods from Europe. Likewise car manufacturers and other engineering companies rely on complex supply chains that depend on the same “just in time” processes and very quick delivery times. There is a solution to this problem which is to store more items. Non-perishable goods can be stored for a very long time to provide a buffer to the flows of goods. One hedge tactic might therefore be to invest in warehousing companies – Segro and Tritax BigBox REITs come to mind (I own them), although Lex in the FT suggested today that “optimism is already baked in” to the share price of Segro after their interim results announcement. The share prices of those companies have been driven by the internet shopping boom where goods are held in warehouses rather than shops, and rapid delivery is essential. More warehouse demand caused by Brexit might add another wave of warehouse building and increase rents.

When it gets nearer the date next March for Brexit, perhaps we should be doing some personal hoarding of French cheese, Dutch salami and German sausages to guard against short-term supply chain disruptions, but I doubt I will be panicking. UK producers can gear up and many other suppliers in the rest of the world will suddenly find they are much more price competitive. Tariffs on imports of food from outside the EU can currently be very high (e.g. an average of 35% on dairy products which is why you don’t see much New Zealand or Canadian cheese in the shops lately – see https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/bns/BN213.pdf for details).

That does not mean of course that food will be much cheaper as the UK Government might impose some tariffs to protect our own farmers, but you can see that it is quite possible that the supply chains will rapidly adapt once we are outside the EU regime. But long haul supply lines will require more warehousing and more dock facilities.

Or our Government could take the Marie Antoinette approach to food shortages – “let them eat cake” she said, or “let them buy British products” instead perhaps. Was that not a past Government campaign which could be revived? Such “Buy British” campaigns ran in the 1960s and 1980s to inform my younger readers. I am of course joking because so far as I recall they had little public impact. They did not have any influence on the preference to buy German or Japanese cars, although many of the latter are now made in the UK. But in a new post-Brexit world we should expect some surprises and the need to change our habits.

One joker suggested we might need to eat more non-perishable food, i.e. tinned peaches rather than fresh. But that just shows that there are ways around every problem. If the current heat wave persists we will of course be able to grow our own peaches. But betting on the weather is as perverse as betting on the outcome of Brexit. All I know is that we are likely to survive it. Hedging your bets is the best approach.

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

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