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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Frying in Hell and Investing in Oil Companies

Last night and this morning, the national media were dominated by the news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we are all going to fry in a rapidly rising world temperature unless we change our ways. CO2 emissions continue to rise and even to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires unprecedented changes to many aspects of our lives.

The suggested solutions are changes to transport to cut emissions, e.g. electric cars, eating less meat, growing more trees, ceasing the use of gas for heating and other major revolutions in the way we live.

So one question for investors is should we divest ourselves of holdings in fossil fuel companies? Not many UK investors hold shares in coal mines – the best time to invest in coal was in the 18th and 19th century. That industry is undoubtedly in decline in many countries although some like China have seen increased coal production where it is still financially competitive. See https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels for some data on trends.

But I thought I would take a look at a couple of the world’s largest oil companies – BP and Shell. How have they been doing of late? Looking at the last 5 years financial figures and taking an average of the Return on Assets reported by Stockopedia, the figures are 2.86% per annum for Shell and 0.06% per annum for BP – the latter being hit by the Gulf oil spill disaster of course. They bounce up and down over the years based on the price of oil, but are these figures ones that would encourage you to purchase shares in these businesses? The answer is surely no.

The figures are the result of oil exploration and production becoming more difficult, and in the case of BP, having to take more risks to exploit difficult to access reserves. It does not seem to me that those trends are likely to change.

Even if politicians ignore the call to cut CO2 emissions, which I suspect they will ultimately not do, for investors there are surely better propositions to look at. Even electric cars look more attractive as investments although buying shares in Tesla might be a tricky one, even if buying their cars might be justified. Personally, I prefer to invest in companies that generate a return on capital of more than 15% per annum, so I won’t be investing in oil companies anytime soon.

But one aspect that totally baffles me about the global warming scare is why the scientists and politicians ignore the underlying issue. Namely that there are too many people emitting too much air pollution. The level of CO2 and other atmospheric emissions are directly related to the number of people in this world. More people generate more demand for travel, consume more food, require more heating and lighting and require more infrastructure to house them (construction generates a lot of emissions alone). But there are no calls to cut population or even reduce its growth. Why does everyone shy away from this simple solution to the problem?

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

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Tesla, Unilever, EasyJet IT Write-Offs and Cash Holdings

The big news today is that the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have charged Tesla CEO Elon Musk with securities fraud. This charge relates to his comments on Twitter that he would likely be taking Tesla private. To quote from the SEC complaint: “Musk’s statements, disseminated via Twitter, falsely indicated that, should he so choose, it was virtually certain that he could take Tesla private at a purchase price that reflected a substantial premium over Tesla stock’s then current share price, that funding for this multi-billion dollar transaction had been secured, and that the only contingency was a shareholder vote. In truth and in fact, Musk had not even discussed, much less confirmed, key deal terms, including price, with any potential funding source”. Mr Musk vigorously rejected the charges, as did the company.

The full SEC complaint is here: https://www.sec.gov/litigation/complaints/2018/comp-pr2018-219.pdf

Comment: it is of course the oldest trick in the book if you are unhappy with the share price of your company to announce a potential bid from yourself or a third party. Making such an announcement via Twitter, if that was the motivation which has yet to be proven, would certainly be something new though. Making any announcements via Twitter is exceedingly risky and Tesla’s advisors must be tearing their hair out over this sequence of events. Who else if anyone reviewed the tweets before they were sent? Probably nobody I suspect. And anyone who uses Twitter will know it’s very easy to let typos, grammar errors and Spoonerisms creep in. Such important announcements should only be issued by the proper regulatory news channels. Elon Musk should have known better.

But if Elon Musk was forced to step down from Tesla, which might be the outcome, would it matter? I suspect not. The merit of Tesla as a company is in the technology in the cars which is still ahead of most potential electric car competitors. I have driven a Tesla Model S and it is a very good car indeed. But unfortunately my wife thinks I don’t need to buy expensive, flash cars to impress people any more so I’ll have to wait for the cheaper Model 3 to become available in the UK.

Unilever and Shareholder Voting

Unilever is planning to consolidate the two arms of the business in Holland, and drop the dual listing. UK shareholders would end up holding shares listed only in Holland, and as a result the dividends would be subject to Dutch withholding tax which is currently at the rate of 15%. Such taxes always cause problems although sometimes they can be refunded by submitting claims to do so. There is also the possibility that the withholding tax will be dropped. Another difficulty is that as Unilever is in the FTSE100, any funds running a FTSE-100 tracker would have to sell the shares. The Investors Chronicle ran a longish article on this subject and suggested it was a “no-brainer” for UK shareholders to vote against it.

But it seems that might be easier said than done. According to a report on Citywire, any shareholders in nominee accounts (i.e. in ISAs, SIPPs or other broker accounts – which means most UK shareholders now) will have to “rematerialize” their shares if they want to vote them, i.e. convert them to a paper share certificate. The company is not accepting votes submitted by nominee operators. Dematerialising shares is typically a costly and time-consuming process and is actually impossible to do if the shares are in an ISA or SIPP which have to be held in nominee form. This is truly outrageous news and any shareholders holding Unilever shares who wishes to oppose the move by the company should complain to the FCA, your Member of Parliament, the Company Chairman Marijn Dekkers, and anyone else you can think of.

[Postscript: the issue here seems to be the votes for the Court Hearing where the number of individual voters is taken into account. But for the shares held by a nominee operator, which may represent many thousands of underlying beneficial owners, only one vote would be counted even if it was submitted as there is only one holding on the register. ]

It has been reported that a number of institutions might oppose the unification of the company but it would certainly help to get retail shareholders voting.

Incidentally I attended a meeting today with Link Asset Services (one of the largest registrars) where the problem of retail shareholders not voting was discussed. I’ll write a separate blog post on that later.

EasyJet

If you recall, I mentioned previously the large expenditure on a “big-bang” IT project at Abcam which is clearly over-budget and over-time. That might have contributed to the 35% share price drop immediately after their recent preliminary results announcement. Now EasyJet have made a similar announcement today in their trading update. To quote: “…easyJet has now made the decision to change its approach to technology development through better utilisation and development of existing systems on a modular basis, rather than working towards a full replacement of our core commercial platform.  As a result of this change in approach, we are recognising a non-headline charge of around £65 million relating to IT investments and associated commitments we will no longer require. EasyJet will continue to invest in its digital and eCommerce layers that will enable it to continue to offer a leading innovative, revenue enhancing and customer friendly platform.”

That £65 million is no small sum and just shows you how IT is so critical to how businesses are managed in the modern world. Similar problems arose at TSB where they attempted to replace their old Lloyds systems with completely new software which was allegedly not adequately tested. But any IT professional will tell you that you cannot test and anticipate all the problems in a diverse customer environment ahead of going live with new technology. The NHS was another prime example of a “big-bang” approach to IT system development that ended up costing the Government, and us as taxpayers, at least £10 billion (that’s not a typo – it was ten billion and more). Evolution rather than revolution is the way to develop IT systems as EasyJet and Abcam seem to be learning, the hard way.

Cash Holdings

I suggested in a previous blog post that a newly available easy-access deposit account might be a suitable place to move cash from your stockbroking account to get a decent rate of interest rather than none. The problem of course is that most retail investors have most of their money in ISAs and SIPPs and taking cash out is problematic.

For ISAs, you may not realise that you can actually take cash out of a “flexible” ISA (which most ISAs are such as Stock & Share ISAs or Cash ISAs) and put it back in later. This was a recent change to the ISA regulations. However you can only do that within the same tax year without affecting your ISA allowance.

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

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