IPOs, Platforms, Growth Stocks and Shareholder Rights

I agreed with FT writer Neil Collins in a previous article when discussing the prospective IPO of Aston Martin (AML) – “never buy a share in an initial public offering” he suggested because those who are selling know more about the stock than you do. We were certainly right about that company because the share price is now 24% below the IPO price.

Smithson Investment Trust (SSON) did rather better on its first day of trading on Friday, moving to a 2% premium. That’s barely enough to have made it worth stagging the issue though. But I think it will be unlikely to outperform its benchmark in the first year simply because as the largest ever investment trust launch it might have great difficulty investing all the cash quickly enough. On the other hand, if the market continues to decline, holding mainly cash might be an advantage.

One company that is lining up for a prospective IPO is AJ Bell who operate the Youinvest investment platform. They reported positive numbers for the year ending September recently but I suspect the IPO may be delayed given recent stock market conditions. One symptom of this is perhaps their rather surprising recent missive to their clients that discouraged some people from investing in the stock market. This is what it said: “In this year’s annual survey we had a small number of customers who identified themselves as ‘security seekers’, which means, ‘I am an inexperienced investor and I do not like the idea of risking my money and would prefer to invest in cash deposits’. If this description sounds like you, please consider whether an AJ Bell Youinvest account is right for you. If in doubt, you should consult a suitably qualified financial adviser”. It rather suggests that a number of people have moved into stock market investment after a long bull run and have not considered the risks of short-term declines in the market.

An interesting article was published on another platform operator, Hargreaves Lansdown (HL.), in this week’s Investors Chronicle. Phil Oakley took apart the business and showed where it was generating most of its profits – and it is undoubtedly highly profitable. Apart from the competitive advantage of scale and good IT systems it enjoys, it also benefits from promoting investment in funds, and running its own funds in addition. The charging structure of funds that it offers means it makes large amounts of money from clients who invest mainly in funds – for example £3,000 per annum on a £1 million SIPP portfolio. Other platforms have similar charging structures, but on Youinvest Mr Oakley suggested the charges on such a portfolio might be half.

His very revealing comment was this: “It is not difficult to see how this is not a particularly good deal for customers. It’s the main reason why I don’t own funds at all”. That goes for me also in terms of investing in open-ended funds via platforms.

Hargreaves Lansdown has been one of those typical growth stocks that do well in bull markets. But with the recent market malaise it has fallen 20% in the past month. Even so it is still on a prospective p/e of over 30. I have never invested in the stock because I was not convinced that it had real barriers to competition and always seemed rather expensive. Stockbroking platforms don’t seem greatly differentiated to me and most give a competent and reliable service from my experience. Price competition should be a lot fiercer in this market than it currently appears to be.

Almost all growth stocks in my portfolio have suffered in the last few weeks as investors have moved into cash, or more defensive stocks such as property. One favourite of private investors has been Renishaw (RSW) but that has fallen 35% since July with another jerk down last week. The company issued a trading statement last week that reported revenue growth of 8% but a decline in profits for the first quarter due to heavy short-term investment in “people and infrastructure”. According to a report in the FT Stifel downgraded the company to a “sell” based on signs that demand from Asian electronics and robotics makers has weakened. But has the growth story at this company really changed? On a prospective p/e now of about 20, it’s not looking nearly as expensive as it has done of late. The same applies to many other growth companies I hold and I still think investing in companies with growing revenues and profits in growing markets makes a lot more sense than investing in old economy businesses.

Shareholder rights have been a long-standing interest of mine. It is good to see that the Daily Mail has launched a campaign on that subject – see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/money/markets/article-6295877/We-launch-campaign-savers-shares-online-fair-say-company-votes.html .

They are concentrating on the issue of giving shareholders in nominee accounts a vote after the recent furore over the vote at Unilever. But nominee account users lose other rights as well because they are not “members” of the company and on the share register. In reality “shareholders” in nominee accounts are not legally shareholders and that is a very dubious position to be in – for example if your stockbroker goes out of business. In addition it means other shareholders cannot communicate with you to express their concerns about the activities of the company which you own. The only proper solution is to reform the whole system of share registration so all shareholders are on the share register of the company. Nominee accounts only became widespread when it was necessary to support on-line broking platforms. But there are many better ways to do that. We just need a modern, electronic (i.e. dematerialised) share registration system.

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

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Beaufort Settlement Improved, But…..

It’s good news that PWC have revised their proposals for the administration of Beaufort and the return of client assets. No doubt due to the efforts of ShareSoc and others. But it still leaves many issues that need properly tackling. These are:

  1. The Special Administration Regulations that allow client assets to be used to cover the costs of the administration. Client assets should be ring fenced and they are what they are called – client assets not assets of the broker or bank.
  2. The fact that most investors now have to use nominee accounts and they are therefore not the legal owner of the shares they hold. We need a new electronic “name on register” system and the Companies Act reformed to reflect the realities of modern share trading.
  3. The UK needs to adopt the Shareholder Rights directive as intended, so that those in nominee accounts have full rights. The “beneficial owners” are the “shareholders”, not the nominee account operator.

We must not let these matters get kicked into the long grass yet again due to the reluctance of politicians and the civil service to tackle complex issues.

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

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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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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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