Standard Life UK Smaller Companies AGM, WPP and Tesla

For those folks who invest in smaller companies, it’s always educational to attend the Annual General Meeting of Standard Life UK Smaller Companies (SLS) which I did today. This investment trust has been managed by Harry Nimmo and his team for many years and he has consistently beaten the company’s benchmark (currently Numis Smaller Companies Plus AIM index).

Harry’s presentation highlighted that smaller companies were a “great place to be until the last 4 weeks”. He said that we often see sharp setbacks toward the end of the economic cycle. One tends to see bursts of selling in the high performing stocks with profits being taken (one example being Fevertree he mentioned). There are some concerns in the market about the US prospects, rising interest rates, Brexit and other worries. But he suggested investors need to have a long-term perspective and hold the shares for 6 years or more.

The investment process followed is unchanged. They use a proprietary stock selection process focused on quality, growth and momentum. See pages 12/13 of the Annual Report for details. Valuation is secondary, i.e. they don’t buy “cheap” stocks. New purchases for the portfolio were Gooch & Housego, Alpha Financial Markets, Safestore, Blue Prism and Gym Group (note: I have bought a couple of those recently also). As an aside, Blue Prism still looks relatively expensive to me although it’s down 35% from its peak share price in the recent market crash.

There were a number of questions on the merger with Dunedin Smaller Companies Trust which was recently voted through. I voted against it because I could see the benefit for the Dunedin holders and for the manager but not for SLS shareholders. The benefits were argued to be “reduction in on-going charges” and “enhanced liquidity”, but when I asked what the actual reduction in charges might be, nobody seemed able to supply an answer. I also have doubts about the liquidity argument as Dunedin was substantially smaller than SLS, i.e., the extra assets acquired won’t add a great deal. The disadvantage of a larger trust, particularly in the small cap sector, is that it makes the manager less nimble, i.e. more difficult to get in and out of stocks. I remain to be convinced that this merger made sense for SLS holders but it may not be too damaging.

One somewhat irate shareholder berated the board for paying out too much in dividends (most of the “income” received) when the company is supposed to be focused on capital growth. I supported the board because in fact only a very small proportion of the overall profits are paid out in dividends. The current dividend yield according to the AIC is only 1.6% and many shareholders do like dividends. Trusts that don’t pay any or have very small dividends tend to have larger discounts to NAV.

Another interesting question was on the investment in AIM shares and the risk to AIM from changes to Inheritance Tax Relief (IHT). Harry said the AIM market had improved considerably in the last 6/7 years, from being full of rather “dodgy” companies to being a broad spectrum of growth stocks. He suggested this was important to the UK economy and it both creates wealth and jobs. The Chancellor would likely be careful on withdrawing tax benefits. Comment: I don’t judge that as a big risk and even if IHT relief was withdrawn any substantial decline in AIM share prices might simply draw in other investors to replace those only interested in IHT relief.

I asked Harry Nimmo a couple of questions after the formal meeting finished. How did he avoid investing in Patisserie shares? It seems they did not altogether and mentioned the company met their investment criteria, based on the false accounts. I also asked him about the changes to the Abcam remuneration scheme, a company they hold. It seems their corporate governance team had made representation on the subject to Abcam (see my previous blog post on that subject).

In summary, a useful AGM to attend, as many are. This is a very good trust to hold in my view if you don’t wish to speculate in individual small company shares. But smaller company shares can be more volatile in times of market panics, so SLS is down 18% since late September. That’s certainly not been helped by profit taking in such shares as Fevertree (their biggest holding at the year-end), First Derivatives, Dechra, etc, although the company had often reduced their holdings below their target maximum of 5% of their portfolio before the recent crash.

Bad news today in a trading statement from WPP the advertising agency business. This was brought to my attention by one of the attendees at the above AGM as I don’t hold it. I suggested the likely problem was the advertising world is becoming digital, bypassing the traditional agency model. In addition there were few barriers to entry in the advertising agency world. New businesses could be created by two men and a dog (or two women I should probably have said to be PC). The share price of WPP is down 14% today. This is what I later discovered the company had said: “As previously stated, our industry is facing structural change, not structural decline, but in the past we have been too slow to adapt, become too complicated and have under-invested in core parts of our business. There is much to do and we have taken a number of critical actions to address these legacy issues and improve our performance”. On a prospective p/e of 9 and yield of over 5%, I think following Harry Nimmo’s policy of not buying stocks just because they are cheap is probably good advice.

But let’s talk about good news for a change. Tesla have declared a profit in the third quarter. Cash flow also improved and is expected to be positive in the fourth quarter. So the doomsayers about this company might have to change their stance. There may still be risks associated with this business, particularly the management style of Elon Musk, but they are rapidly changing the auto industry through new technology. Traditional car makers are facing major disruption to their business, or as the FT put it in a headline to a long article yesterday: “German carmakers face their i-Phone moment”. Even Dyson is getting into the electric car business and opening a plant in Singapore to produce them. Technology is changing our world more rapidly than ever, and the pace of creative destruction in business continues to rise. Smaller companies tend to be leaders of such changes, in the advertising world, in car manufacturing (relatively) and in many other fields.

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

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The Market, Dunedin and Standard Life Smaller Companies Merger, and Aston Martin IPO

Is it not depressing when you go away for a week’s holiday and your portfolio falls every day in that time? I do monitor any exceptional movements while on vacation but try to avoid trading. It just seemed to be a general downward trend and reviewing the movement over that week my portfolio is down 1.73% while the FTSE All-Share is down 1.72%. So that is what I had already surmised.

Those stocks that seemed to have become overblown did fall and there were some like Scottish Mortgage Trust (SMT) were hit by specific news – in their case the events at Tesla. But the fall in my portfolio last week was less than it went up the previous week. I feel not quite so depressed now I have done the analysis.

Anyway, I am back from holiday now and on my desk is a proposed merger of Dunedin Smaller Companies Investment Trust (DNDL) and Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Investment Trust (SLS). I need to take a decision on this as I hold the latter.

DNDL is smaller than SLS and following the merger of DNDL’s manager, Aberdeen Asset Management, with Standard Life the merged manager now has two trusts with a similar focus. SLS has a superior performance record – 100.7% net asset value total return versus 68.9% for DNDL over the last 5 years. The merged trusts would be managed by Harry Nimmo who has managed SLS for some years.

The directors argue that the merger makes sense because it will result in reduced on-going costs and improved liquidity in the shares, although they don’t quantify either claim. There is no immediate change proposed to the fund management charges on SLS. DNDL will be paying the costs of both parties if the merger goes through.

It no doubt makes sense for the manager to merge these trusts. Not much point in having two trusts in the same stable with a similar focus and they will save on management costs. It also makes some sense for DNDL holders but does it for SLS shareholders?

Enlarging a trust or fund can degrade future returns particularly in small cap funds. This is because buying larger quantities of smaller company shares is more difficult and exiting is also difficult. In other words, the manager may find they cannot be as nimble as before. Alternatively the number of companies in the fund has to grow and we surely know that this is a recipe to reduce returns as there are only so many “good ideas” out there. The more companies in a portfolio, the more likely it is to approximate to a tracker fund.

Therefore, I think I will vote against this merger for that reason.

But what alternatives were there for DNDL shareholders? The company could have changed the manager to avoid the conflict of interest. Or simply wound up if it was too small to be viable. Perhaps a wider international focus when SLS is UK focused would be another alternative.

Luxury car maker Aston Martin is to float on the market. I agree with Neil Collins comments in the FT this weekend – “never buy a share in an initial public offering”. He suggested those who are selling know more about the stock than you do. Car companies, particularly of niche brands, are notoriously tricky investments. Aston Martin has been bust as many as seven times according to one press report. As Mr Collins also said “The private equity vendors are dreaming of a £5 billion valuation for a highly geared business with a decidedly unroadworthy past”.

Car companies exhibit all the worst features of technology businesses. Product reliability issues (which was a bugbear for Aston Martin for many years), very high cost of new model production, Government regulatory interference requiring major changes for safety and emissions, competitors leapfrogging the technology with better products, and sensitivity to economic trends. In a recession few people buy luxury vehicles or they simply postpone purchases – so it’s feast or famine for the manufacturers.

There can be some initial enthusiasm for companies after an IPO that can drive the price higher but the hoopla soon fades. Footasylum (FOOT) was a recent example but McCarthy & Stone (MCS) was another one where investors found that the market proved more challenging than expected.

Resist the temptation to buy IPOs!

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

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Standard Life UK Smaller Companies and FRC Meetings

Yesterday I attended two meetings in the City of London. Here are brief reports on each.

Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Trust Plc (SLS) held a meeting for investors to “meet the manager” in London as their AGM was in Edinburgh this year – only about 10 people attended the latter so there were more in London. I have held this trust for some years and the manager, Harry Nimmo, who has been with the company for 33 years has been a consistently good performer. The management company has recently merged with Aberdeen and is now called Aberdeen Standard Investments but apparently there have been no significant changes internally as yet. Mr Nimmo’s comments are summarised below.

He said they have a discount control policy which is unique to UK smaller companies trusts. They buy back shares if the discount gets about 8%. The investment policy is unchanged and they are not keen on blue-sky or concept stocks. AIM is now a better place than 5 years ago as it is now more broadly based and no longer dominated by mining stocks and blue sky tech stocks.

They have put a new debt facility in place which will ultimately replace their CULS (Convertible Unsecured Loan Stock). The final date for conversion is coming up and investors need to pay attention to that as they are “well in the money”.

The trust shows a ten year CAGR dividend growth of 23.7% and the capital return since 2003 is 851% (plus dividends of course). But there have been some bear markets during his management which one needs to allow for as investors. However, if you had sold the trust after the Brexit vote you would have made a terrible mistake – the company is up 54% since June 2016.

The trust looks for companies that can grow irrespective of the economic cycle, and those with good cash flow and strong balance sheets. Mr Nimmo covered their investment process which is somewhat formulaic using a screening process (I have covered it in past articles) but they do meet investee companies twice a year. They have about 50 holdings in the fund which is a “bottom-up” stock selection actively managed fund.

He mentioned they have 10% in animal care and still hold NMC although as it is now a FTSE-100 stock they have been selling out. They still have a large holding in Abcam and have bought RWS recently. Their second largest holding is First Derivatives where most profits come from outside the UK. They generally do not hold oil/gas/mining stocks and are very light on real-estate [note: I agree with the former and many of my individual holdings overlap with the trusts but I do hold some real estate companies]. An exception though is Workspace who recently produced an excellent set of results with a rapid growth in dividends.

They have also been selling Fevertree as it exceeded 5% of their portfolio value.

I did not manage to stay until the Q&A session as I had to go to a meeting organised jointly by ShareSoc and UKSA with the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). This was a long meeting and I hope one or other organisations will produce a lengthier report on it because it was an exceedingly useful meeting. I will simply highlight a few points of particular interest.

FRC Meeting

The FRC is responsible for audit policy, standard setting and audit quality including investigation and enforcement of past transgressions. So it is a rather important body for those private investors who have come unstuck on an investment because the accounts of the company turned out to be misleading – for example the recent debacle at Carillion was mentioned by one attendee, but I can think of numerous other examples.

The speakers covered the role of audits, both currently and how they might develop in the future (partly as a result of technology changes such as the use of data analytics). After Brexit it is likely there will be a broadly equivalent regime as investors are opposed to “unpicking”.

The FRC reviews about 150 audits every year and grades them into four categories (the reviews are listed on the FRC web site). By 2019 they want 90% to be in the top two ratings which they are not at present. It was noted that KPMG come out worse of the big audit firms. A common reason for audits falling short are lack of professional scepticism.

The FRC also undertakes thematic reviews of particular issues. I raised the issue of the lack of common standards for “adjusted” data commonly reported by companies (such as earnings, or return on capital that I mentioned in previous recent blog posts). The response was it was mandated to explain the definitions of such adjustments but I pointed out this did not help with comparability (e.g. of broker forecasts). The FRC said they will be consulting on this issue shortly, which is good news.

The role of the FRC in “enforcement” was covered. They stressed that their remit does not cover crime, they merely regulate accountants and actuaries although it is of course true that the failure of auditors to identify false accounts is one area they often investigate. It was mentioned that the size of the team on this had grown from 11 people in 2013 to 30 now and they are still looking for more bodies. This really just shows how under-resourced the FRC has been in the past. A total budget of £15m per year was mentioned. Comment: this seems hopelessly inadequate to me bearing in mind the number of public companies (and other organisations) and the number of auditors they have to monitor. It explains partly why complaints to the FRC often seem to disappear into a black hole, or why investigations often take so long as to be pointless. A list of cases under formal investigation is on the FRC web site (See here for that and two linked pages for the full list: https://www.frc.org.uk/auditors/enforcement-division/current-cases-accountancy-scheme which of course will tell you that Globo was commenced in December 2015 and Quindell in August 2015 and have yet to report).

I did suggest to the speaker that the FRC should be a party to the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (as some audit failures involve the crime of fraud) as the Police, the SFO and FCA are, and which has improved their disclosure culture. This might assist those who report failings to get some feedback on the progress of a case. But the FRC argue that their role is not to investigate crime as such and they are inhibited by legislation/regulation on what they can disclose. However it is very clear to me that too often complaints get made to the FRC, but the complainants are not advised of progress and often have no idea on the outcome. This is an issue they will be looking at.

They hope the extra staffing will speed up investigations. The investigation process was discussed, but for example, Carillion had not even been placed under formal investigation as yet. It was suggested by audience members that the FRC was quite ineffective but recent cases such as AssetCo and Healthcare Locums were mentioned as demonstrating strong action and they have issued fines of £12 million in the last year which is the biggest ever. It was mentioned that fines go to the Treasury which is not ideal.

Confusion between the different regulatory bodies (e.g. the FRC, FCA, SFO, etc) was mentioned by attendees and the speakers, not helped by similar three letter acronyms. One attendee suggested that a unified regulatory body would help (such as the SEC in the USA). Comment: I agree at present it is unclear except to experts on who is responsible for what and the accountability of these bodies to the Government or to any democratic body of investors.

The FRC also has an interest in the UK Corporate Governance Code and the Stewardship Code. A consultation on a new Corporate Governance Code is imminent. There was also a session on the role of the Financial Reporting Lab where both ShareSoc and UKSA members have been involved in the past.

I’ll have to stop here because the budget speech by the Chancellor will commence soon and I wish to listen to it as there may be some major changes on investment tax reliefs. I’ll do another blog post later on it.

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

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