Taxation of Trusts, LTIPs and Technology Stocks

The Government has announced a review of the Taxation of Trusts. You can read the consultation document and respond thereafter here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/the-of-taxation-of-trusts-a-review

It’s not about investment trusts, but all kinds of traditional trusts whose origin goes back hundreds of years and enables “settlors” to move assets into a trust and out of their personal wealth. There are a number of different reasons why trusts are created as the above document explains. The Government does not dispute that they have genuine uses but wishes to ensure that they are not used for tax avoidance. They also wish to try and simplify the taxation of trusts if possible.

One particular concern they have is about foreign resident trusts controlled by UK residents where they cannot necessarily see what is going on, i.e. they lack “transparency”.

I do have an interest as a settlor in a simple UK based family trust. These are not straightforward things to set up but as for many people it was created to try and move some assets out of the scope of inheritance tax. However, apart from the fact that you can retain some control of where the money goes as a trustee, you may almost as well just give your money to the beneficiaries directly. But you can include minors and unborn offspring as beneficiaries so there are some advantages in the trust form.

Taxation is paid on trust income and capital gains but in a somewhat different form to personal tax. I won’t even attempt to explain the differences here as it would take too long. You can be worse or better off than having it in a personal name, but it won’t be as tax free as ISAs or SIPPs. The major income tax benefits of trusts have long ago disappeared. But certainly one problem with trusts at present is that calculating tax and making tax returns is no simple task so trusts tend to be used by those who can afford professional assistance or have a trustee who can do the necessary work.

But the expense of preparing trust accounts and tax returns are deductible which does not apply to personal tax returns. They suggest this is unfair in that trusts are being favoured which I certainly would not agree with! Of course if the taxation of trusts was simplified so that any amateur could do the work, I might take a different view. But certainly dealing with trust accounts at present is not simple.

Indeed the whole area of trust creation and management is too complex but no doubt there are lots of professionals who make a good living out of advising on them so their consultation responses might be somewhat biased.

I have not yet gone through the document in detail and I’ll probably even need to take some advice on it before responding, but this consultation will be very important to some people.

LTIPs

The case of Persimmon and the value that departing CEO Jeff Fairburn obtained from their LTIP scheme continues to get a lot of media coverage. Best guess seems to be about £75 million, but there are similar every large sums of money to other executives and there could be millions also to each of more than 100 staff under the same scheme.

This comment in the FT’s LEX column this morning is very much apposite: “There are two lessons. First, UK boards should ditch LTIPs in favour of vanilla stock awards. LTIPs are too complicated, sometimes delivering fat payouts when investor returns are thin. Second, chief executives should avoid saying they have no responsibility for their own pay. No one believes them”.

Why did shareholders vote for the original LTIP at Persimmon? Probably because nobody anticipated what the scheme might pay out after the housing market became buoyant and the Government introduced the “Help-to-Buy” scheme. There was of course no cap imposed on the payout which should have been done. But LTIP schemes are so complex many shareholders can’t be bothered to read the details (as I found out talking to one investor at the recent Abcam AGM).

I very much agree that LTIPs would be best replaced by conventional share options.

I have never liked LTIPs for a number of reasons: 1) typically too complex with confusing targets rather than simple numeric ones; 2) they are too long term – incentive schemes need to pay out quickly if you want behaviour to be incentivised by them. Short term cash bonuses are simple to administer and have some merits but there was a demand a few years back to make remuneration relate to long-term performance as short-term schemes can create perverse incentives. Share options do at least align employee interests with that of shareholders.

One change that is also required to avoid executives determining their own pay is to take remuneration setting out of the control of directors and into the hands of shareholders, e.g. via a Shareholder Committee for which ShareSoc has been campaigning.

Technology Stocks Due a Revival?

Sophos (SOPH) shares tumbled yesterday. The cyber security group closed down 28% after a disappointing report about future revenues in a half-year statement. This was one of those UK stocks that reached very expensive valuations until about July since which it’s been heading south. Indeed that’s a common story among small cap technology stocks with many having fallen back sharply in the last few months. That’s despite the fact that many are still growing revenues and profits well above inflation, i.e. they are still growth stocks. Sophos did have a particular problem of comparability with previous year’s figures which were very buoyant after numerous cyber attack scares. The valuation of Sophos now appears more sensible and it would seem other folks also feel it is time to dip their toes back in the water because the share price rose. Or was that a “dead-cat” bounce today? But there do appear to be some buying opportunities appearing in this area, although nobody would say it’s not a high-risk field for investors. At least the valuations are not so daft as they were only a few weeks ago.

Note: I do hold both Persimmon and Sophos shares.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Productivity, Sage, Sophos and Investment Trust Discounts

There was an interesting article last week in Investors Chronicle where Bearbull attempted to analyse the variations between company productivity. Productivity, or the lack of it in the UK, is one of the big issues weighing on the minds of politicians of late. Is the productivity of UK companies getting better or worse was one of the questions he attempted to answer.

For investors, productivity is surely one thing we should look at when deciding in which companies to invest. Those businesses that get the most out of the capital they employ (measured by Return on Capital, or ROCE), and also get the most out of their employees, are surely the ones most likely to be successful and generate the profits and dividends we like as investors.

But one needs to combine the two because obviously employees can be traded off against capital. By investing in more automation, employees can be reduced. But there is also the problem that businesses vary in nature. So natural resource companies such as oil producers can have large revenues and profits generated by relatively few staff, while retailers generate equivalent profits from much larger staff numbers.

Bearbull had a stab at producing a combined productivity index for a range of large cap companies, but as the results were still very wide ranging ended up focusing on whether their productivity was increasing or decreasing. Results were still varied.

There is a way to make use of such figures and that is to compare companies in the same business sector. For example software companies employ a lot of staff, but generally little capital apart from their past investment in developed software or in acquisitions. One way I used to look at companies in the software industry when I worked in it was to look at the revenue and profits per employee and I still find those useful measures. They can tell you a lot about the nature of the business.

It’s informative for example to compare two of the larger UK software businesses – Sage (SGE) and Sophos (SOPH). Sage has recently been the subject of a downgrade by analysts at Deutsche Bank and the shares have been heading south for some time as competition from new entrants into the accounting software space seems to be increasing. But at least they are making profits. Sophos is in the hot IT security sector but is still reporting operating losses.

But it’s interesting to look at their sales per employee – that was £124,320 in the case of Sage (13,795 employees) and £116,975 in the case of Sophos (3,187 employees) from the latest Annual Reports that are available. In other words, very similar. Operating profits per employee were £25,154 at Sage while Sophos reported a loss of £8,000 per employee.

The big difference was in average employee costs which were £57,194 at Sage and £95,387 at Sophos. The latter is a very high figure which helps to explain why they are losing money.

Sophos looks to be an example of where the directors and employees are taking most of the profits leaving very little for shareholders – indeed a negative return to them.

Investment Trust Discounts

I mentioned in a previous article the high share price discount to Net Asset

Value at RIT Capital Partners which encouraged me to sell the shares. The discount was actually a premium of 6.8% which I reported although I am advised it had actually been even higher in the recent past.

It is common knowledge with anyone who invests in investment trusts that discounts have narrowed in the last year with popular trusts now often on premiums. The dangers of buying trusts that trade at a high premium was recently evidenced by the fall in the share price of the Independent Investment Trust (IIT). As reported by Citywire recently, the share price unwound by 10.9% in one week after the premium shrank from a peak of 20% in June. It’s now only 6.2% but that’s still too high in my view.

The company performed exceptionally well in 2017 (NAV up 53%) but even so this is surely a case of investors expecting “past performance to be indicative of future performance” when every health warning on stock market investments tells you the contrary. The long-term performance record is good but there is a limit to the price one should pay for anything.

You can track the company’s performance, and the discount it trades at on the Association of Investment Companies (AICs) web site. There are many other relatively high performing investment trusts that still trade at a discount.

Why should investment trusts trade at a discount? Because just looking at the income they produce, if the management and administration charges reduce their income by 1%, when their yield was otherwise 5%, then the share price should be at a discount of 20% because otherwise people can buy the individual holdings of the company directly and increase their income in that proportion. That ignores the relative proportion of dividends paid out of income versus capital growth. Of late we have had lots of capital growth but that is not always the case. If the market starts to go down then share price premiums on investment trusts could well collapse.

A particular problem with investment trusts, and the reason why discounts, or premiums, can sometimes become extreme, is the relatively low volume of share trading even in large trusts, i.e. there is low liquidity. Buyers are often long-term holders with few active traders speculating in the shares. This problem tends to worsen in the summer months when many investors are on holiday so one needs to be wary of trading such shares in that period.

I hold none of the companies mentioned above, for the avoidance of doubt.

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

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

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 )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

 

Halma AGM and Sophos Capital Markets Day

On Thursday (20/7/2017), I attended the Annual General Meeting of Halma Plc (HLMA). Not exactly a household name so you may not know what they do. In summary, they have a “diversified portfolio of businesses” that are focussed on safety, health and environmental products. Lots of niche businesses in growth sectors and they define their segments as Medical, Infrastructure Safety, Environmental & Analysis, and Process Safety. Revenue last year was £961 million, with post tax profits of £129 million.

What attracted me to this business was the steady, consistent growth over many years and good return on capital (they give as 15.3% Group Return on Total Invested Capital) with good cash flow and moderate gearing. This has been achieved under CEO Andrew Williams who has been in the role since 2005 which must make him one of the longest serving CEOs in a FTSE company. In addition, the Finance Director, Kevin Thompson, has been in the role since 1997 although he is planning to retire in 2018.

Mr Williams gave a short presentation (interesting to note that the Chairman said little and the Annual Report only contains a statement from the CEO, not the Chairman, as would be more normal.

He said that Halma has a simple growth strategy. Focus on growing markets, e.g. healthcare, while looking to acquire businesses with technology or application knowledge. Wrapped around this is a simple financial model – they aim to double earnings every five years, without becoming highly geared or seeking further equity, provided there are similar rates of organic, acquisitive and dividend growth (to quote from the Annual Report – which is a very comprehensive document if somewhat weighty). Yes they do make acquisitions but these seem to be mainly smaller ones that are complementary and easily integrated.

As Mr Williams said, this strategy has “consistently delivered”.

Questions from shareholders were then invited.

I asked whether they hedged against currency fluctuations because I noted that the increase in profits last year (up 16.9% on an “adjusted” basis) included 10.5% that arose from exchange rate movements (Note: pound falling as a result of the Brexit vote when the company is a very international business – clearly it may be that the pound will move in the opposite direction sometime). The answer given by the FD was that they don’t hedge profits in the group structure. I also asked about the possible impact of Brexit. The CEO said as only 10% of company trading was to/from Europe they did not consider it likely to be a significant problem. No plans to counter had apparently been made.

In summary, on a prospective p/e of 25.3 and yield of 1.3% this company does not look particularly cheap but that’s true of most quality businesses in the current bull market. As most of their revenue and profits are from outside the UK, you might look at it as a hedge against Brexit damage but the company is certainly vulnerable to swings in the pound/dollar/Euro exchange rates.

There is a fuller report of this AGM available to ShareSoc Members.

Sophos

One thing I noted when I read the Annual Report of Halma was that the Chairman was also a director at software security company Sophos. They are holding a “Capital Markets Day” on September 6th, the day before their AGM. As I hold the shares, I asked investor relations if I could attend. They suggested it was really only for “analysts” and “institutional investors”. Now this is prejudicial to private investors and I reckon I have enough knowledge of the sector, and a large enough investment portfolio to justify attendance. But they fobbed me of with an offer of being able to attend on-line. Will that happen? We will see. For those who are not familiar with Capital Markets Days, these are much more in-depth reviews of a company than most investors see.

But in the meantime, I complained to Paul Walker who will take it up. I may go to the AGM also to complain.

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

Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.