FCA Action, Shareholder Rights and Beaufort

Better Finance, the European representative body for retail investors have issued a couple of interesting announcements this morning. The first compliments the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for their action over “closet index trackers”. They are investment funds that pretend to be active managers and charge the higher fees that normally apply to such funds, while in practice they hug their benchmark index. Other European regulators have been less than prompt in taking action on this problem it transpires.

It’s not quite as positive as that though as although a number of UK asset managers have voluntarily agreed to compensate investors in such funds at a cost of £34 million, and enforcement action may be taken against others for misleading marketing material, this appears to be a voluntary scheme rather than a formal compensation arrangement.

Which are the funds complained about? I could not find any published list. But back in 2015, the Daily Telegraph reported the following as being the worse ones: Halifax UK Growth, Scottish Widows UK Growth, Santander UK Equity, Halifax UK Equity Income and Scottish Widows UK Equity Income – all bank controlled business you will note.

The second report from Better Finance was on the publication of the final draft of the EU Shareholder Rights Directive. This was intended to improve the rights of individual shareholders but is in reality grossly defective in that respect. Even if implemented into UK law, it will not improve the rights for UK investors. Indeed it might worsen them. For example Better Finance said this: “Important barriers to cross-border shareholder engagement within the EU virtually remain in place, since intermediaries will by and large still be able to charge higher fees to shareholders wanting to exercise their cross-border voting rights (admittedly subject to certain conditions) and beneficial owners of shares in nominee and omnibus accounts will still not have any voting rights (with the exception of very large shareholders), to name but two of the remaining issues.”

Let us hope that the UK Government and the FCA take more positive steps to improve the rights of UK investors which have been undermined by the use of nominee accounts and other market practices adopted in recent years.

Another recent news item from the FCA was about the forced administration of Beaufort Securities and Beaufort Asset Clearing Services. Beaufort specialised in promoting small cap companies such as those listing or listed on AIM to private investors. But the US Department of Justice investigated dubious activities in relation to US shares and has charged the firm and some individuals involved with securities fraud and money laundering. These allegations appear to be about typical “pump and dump” schemes where share prices are ramped up by active trading of the shares by the promoters of companies, such that the prices of the shares sold to investors bear little relation to fundamental value, and then the insiders sell their shares leaving private investors holding shares which the market rapidly revalues downwards. On twitter one person published charts showing the share prices of companies that Beaufort promoted to investors and it does indeed look convincing evidence of abusive practices.

These kinds of share promotions by “boiler rooms” staffed by persuasive salesmen were very common a few years back and they seem to be coming back into favour as there are a number of other companies promoting small cap or unlisted stocks to investors. Regulations might have been toughened, and such companies are more careful to ensure investors are apparently “sophisticated” or can stand the possible risks and losses, but the FCA still seems slow to tackle unethical practices. Should it really have taken US regulatory authorities to take down this company? The FCA has been aware of the market abuse in the share trading of AIM shares for some time but no action has been taken. It’s just another example of how small cap shares, and particularly the AIM market, attracts individuals of dubious ethics like bees to a honeypot.

If you have invested via Beaufort in stocks, are your holdings likely to be secure? As they may be held in a nominee account it rather depends on the quality of the record keeping by Beaufort. Past experience of similar situations does not inspire confidence. It can take years for an administrator to sort out who owns what and in the meantime the assets are frozen. The administrators are PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC).

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

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Sophos, Interquest and the Government

Yesterday I missed the Sophos (SOPH) AGM due to having a clashing engagement, but I noticed that in the announcement of the voting results that there were substantial votes against the Remuneration Report (29.8% against) and also high votes against most of the directors. One only needs to glance at the Remuneration Policy to see why.

The maximum bonus opportunity is 200% of salary, and the maximum LTIP award is 500% of salary in normal circumstances and up to 750% in exceptional circumstances. So total incentive payments can reach nearly 10 times normal salary. That’s the kind of scheme I always vote against.

For what is actually a relatively small company that has never reported an annual profit, the actual pay figures are way too high – CEO got a base salary of $695,000 last year and total single figure remuneration of $2.32 million. Other directors, even the non-execs, have similar generous pay figures. It might be a rapidly growing company in a hot sector (IT security) but I am beginning to regret my purchase of a few shares.

Although I missed the AGM, I did “attend” the previous days Capital Markets Day. I was refused physical access but anyone could log into the web cast of the event. Not quite the same thing but it was exceedingly boring with a lot of the time spent on the wonders of their technology rather than important business questions. Is it not despicable though that companies and their PR advisors try to keep such events solely to institutional investors?

Interquest (ITQ) is an AIM listed company that received an offer for the company from some of the directors but they only got 58% committed support. That’s not enough to delist the company under the AIM Rules which requires 75% so the offer was abandoned. What did the directors do then? They notified their Nomad of termination of their contract and subsequently said they would be unlikely to appoint another Nomad within the one month period allowed. This means the shares will automatically be suspended from AIM and subsequently delisted if no Nomad is appointed.

The moral is that if directors or anyone else control 58% of the company then minority shareholders are in a very difficult position because they will have the ability to do lots of things that prejudice the minority shareholders – for example pay themselves enormous salaries. A legal action for prejudice of a minority is available but as my lawyer said yesterday, these are complex cases, as I well know from having run one myself in the past, and successfully (we were discussing my past legal cases). It’s difficult enough in a private company, and even more so in a public one. In summary, having an AIM Rule about delistings may not help if one cannot win a vote of shareholders on other matters that require just 50%.

Having control of a public company in the effective hands of a concert party of a few people is something to be very wary about, and something all AIM company investors should look at.

Government policy on tackling excessive pay levels for the directors of public companies has taken a step backwards this week. Tougher measures which Theresa May threatened have been watered down, and the core of the problem – the fact that Remuneration Committees consist only of directors, whose appointment and pay is controlled by other directors, has not been tackled. In addition, the potential to control pay by votes at General Meetings has been undermined by the disenfranchisement of private shareholders as a result of the prevalence of the nominee system and the dominance of institutional voters who have little interest in controlling pay.

Another bit of news from Government sources this week is that the hope of some change in shareholder rights that might have improved private shareholder voting is fading away after a decision to postpone yet again the issue of “dematerialisation”. The staff involved in that project have been moved and expertise will be lost. This is likely to be the result of both lack of interest in tackling a difficult and complex problem, and the need to put in effort on Brexit matters at the BEIS Department.

Will we ever get a proper shareholder system where everybody is on the share register and automatically gets full rights, including voting rights? It remains to be seen but I will certainly continue to fight for that. Without it we will never get some control over public companies and their directors. I suggest readers write to their Members of Parliament about this issue.

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

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