Euphoria All Around, But Platforms Not Keeping Up

The Conservative General Election Victory has generated large movements in stock prices with utility companies and banks some of the major beneficiaries. National Grid (NG.) rose 4% on Friday as the threat of nationalisation disappeared and Telecom Plus (TEP), which I hold, rose 11%. I sold the former some time ago as the business seemed challenged on a number of fronts and regulation of utilities in general in the UK and hence their likely return on capital seemed to becoming tougher. My view has not changed so although foreign investors might be mightily relieved, I am not rushing into buying utility companies today.

The euphoria seems to have spread to a very broad range of stocks. Even those you would think would be negatively affected by the rise in the pound, which will depress the value of dollar earnings, have risen. This may be because US markets have risen on the prospect of a US/China trade deal which was announced on December 13th.  This might roll back some of the imposed and proposed tariffs on Chinese products to the USA, and cause cancellation of retaliatory Chinese tariffs, but the details are yet to be settled. This may not be a long-term solution though as it will likely still leave the USA with a very large trade deficit with China.

One noticeable aspect of the euphoria infecting markets on Friday morning was the inability of some investment platforms to keep up. According to a report on Citywire, two of the largest operators were affected with AJ Bell suffering intermittent problems due to a four-fold rise in volumes and Hargreaves Lansdown also experiencing problems. Some of the issues apparently related to electronic prices not being quoted by market makers which was reported as a problem by Interactive Investor. This meant that trades had to be put through manually via dealers who became overloaded.

It is very disappointing to see that yet again a moderate rise in volumes caused an effective market meltdown. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) should surely be looking into this as it is their responsibility to ensure the markets and operators therein have robust systems in place. If there is a real market crash, as has happened in the past, retail investors could be severely prejudiced if platforms fail or market makers fail to quote prices.

Eurphoria also seems to have become prevalent in the market for VCT shares in the last couple of years with figures from HMRC showing that the number of new VCT investors claiming income tax relief reached a ten-year high in 2017-18, up 24% over the previous year. The amount invested increased by 33% and in 2018-19 the amount invested increased again by 1.6% to £716 million. The pension changes such as the reduction in the lifetime allowance and new pension freedoms are attributed as the causes. High earners have been flocking to VCTs to mitigate their tax bills it appears.

But the investment rules for VCTs have got a lot tougher so whether they will continue to achieve the high returns seen in the past remains to be seen.

The recently published HMRC report on VCT activity is present here: https://tinyurl.com/vuro5p8

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

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What Were the Real Returns from VCTs over 24 Years?

I wrote a previous blog article on the merits of Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs) but I thought it worthwhile to actually do some analysis of the capital and dividend returns from some of my historic holdings of such companies. This is not at all easy because most VCTs have been through restructuring or mergers over the years and actually identifying all the dividends received was not easy because I only started using Sharescope after some years which automatically records the dividends and gives the overall returns. But Stockopedia does provide historic dividends for all prior years and all past capital events and dividends were taken into account.

Due to this complexity and effort involved I have only managed to analyse Northern Venture Trust (NVT) which I first purchased in 1995 and British Smaller Companies VCT (BSV) first purchased in 1997. Note that there were later additions of shares in those companies also.

But it is interesting to note that the overall returns, including dividends, on those companies were 3.6% per annum and 2.6% per annum. That’s ignoring the zero tax on the dividend income and the initial income tax relief (and capital gains roll-over relief originally available but no longer). More on this later.

How have these companies performed in capital terms? Both quite badly, managing to both generate a capital loss of 28% and 26% respectively over the years. You can see from these numbers that the capital is effectively turned into dividends and that without the tax reliefs they would not have been good investments, particularly after taking account of inflation over the many years they were held.

However the capital losses are effectively wiped out by the income tax reliefs available. Assuming that was 30% (it was both higher and lower historically), the per annum total return increases to 5.5% for NVT and 3.9% for BSV. Those returns were less than that achieved by investing in the FTSE-100. The compound annual return of the FTSE 100 over the last 25 years was 6.4% with dividends reinvested. Again most of those returns came from dividends rather than capital appreciation.

But the VCT returns (which are mainly obtained via dividends) ignore the fact that the dividends for those are tax free whereas those from the FTSE-100 would be taxed at high rates. Currently that is 32.5% for Higher Rate taxpayers but the rates have varied in the last 25 years so it’s difficult to work out the exact impact. But one can estimate that the benefit of the VCT dividends being tax free probably raises the total return to be similar if not greater than that from investing in the FTSE-100.

Note that I have ignored the capital gains roll-over relief on VCTs that was available on my early investments. It was only a roll-over relief so it can come back and hit you later anyway.

These calculations show how important the tax reliefs on VCTs are to investors. Without the up-front income tax relief and the dividend tax relief, they would not be good investments. That is particularly so bearing in mind the risks of VCT investment – although they have diversified portfolios of smaller companies, some have performed quite badly in the past. The VCTs mentioned happen to be two of the more successful ones. Future Chancellors please note.

VCTs have been very successful at stimulating investment in smaller companies which has contributed to the vibrancy of the UK company in recent years so any withdrawal of reliefs would be very negative.

VCTs are a tricky area for investors in that corporate governance is not always good and management costs are high, particularly due to excessive performance fees. I feel the managers often do better than the investors in such trusts. But VCTs, at least the better ones, do have a place in the portfolios of higher rate taxpayers.

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

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Are VCTs Worth the Risks, and 40-Year Mortgages?

The FT Money supplement on Saturday ran a big article on Venture Capital Trusts which was headlined “Are VCTs worth the risks for higher earners?”. As a long-standing investor in such companies, having first invested in some in 1995 soon after they were launched, it made for interesting reading.

It seems that wealthy investors are flocking to these funds due to the generous tax breaks and now there are few other good alternatives so the amount invested in them reached near record levels in the last tax year. The article suggests that performance can be volatile but that’s not my experience – at least in terms of share prices. I now hold over 15 different VCTs. Some have certainly performed better than others over the years and in the early years of VCTs there were some absolute stinkers as fund managers seemed to lack experience of investing in early stage companies and investors focused primarily on the tax reliefs that were even more generous than now.

But in recent years, a portfolio of VCT shares would likely be less volatile than a portfolio of FTSE shares. This is for two reasons. First the managers of these trusts try to smooth out the dividend returns which are a big component of the returns from these trusts and secondly the valuations of unquoted companies in which they mainly invest are driven by trade prices of companies rather than stock market hysteria. When stock markets plunge on depresssion, or spike upwards on euphoria, as seen recently in the impact of Brexit politics, VCT share prices can remain very stable.

VCTs do have major tax benefits. They offer 30% tax relief on the amount invested and all dividends are tax free. Capital returns are also tax free after 5 years but the chance of much capital growth is low. In reality capital is often turned into dividends as such trusts can pay out the profits on realisations while ignoring the losses. In effect capital invested (at a 30% tax discount in real terms) is recycled into tax-free dividends so investors need to reinvest the income generated regularly into new share offerings. VCTs therefore do regular new share issues to meet that demand and maintain or grow their assets under management.

It’s not difficult for an investor who puts the maximum £200,000 a year into a VCT portfolio to after a few years be generating a tax-free income of over £30,000 a year based on the current dividend yields. Grossed up at 40% for higher-rate taxpayers that’s equivalent to an income of £50,000 per annum. However as the FT article suggests it might be unwise to hold more than 10% of your overall investment portfolio in VCTs.

What have been the real returns from such trusts? The AIC gives figures for most VCTs and they give the overall share price total return from “Generalist” VCTs over the last ten years as 157%. For example a couple of such better trusts I invested in 24 years ago and still hold returned 207% and 201% over the last ten years. But those figures grossly under-estimate the real returns achieved by investors because they ignore the tax reliefs.

There are risks of investing in such trusts the biggest being the chance that any future Government would change the tax reliefs, perhaps even retrospectively affecting current holdings. But VCTs have been very successful in developing a vibrant small company investment scene. Growing small companies is the key to developing employment in the UK economy. The other big risk is that the recent change in VCT rules mean they might be investing in more-risky earlier-stage companies rather than “asset-backed” or “management buy-out” ones. How that pans out remains to be seen and many VCTs have said that dividend returns might be more volatile in future. But what I have seen so far gives me hope that past mistakes will not be repeated.

How do you pick the best VCTs in which to invest? Certainly look at their track record by using the AIC web site. Don’t invest in any newcomers until they have proven their investment experience over more than 5 years, i.e. they have been through more than one investment cycle – there are plenty of established VCTs so why bother with newbies?

Secondly look at their management and overhead costs which can be very high in VCTs. They usually have management performance fees that can be both very generous and impossible to comprehend due to complexity. Particularly avoid those that are based on dividend payouts as dividends can be paid out by VCTs even when there are losses being made on their investments. In other words, managers can be paid a performance fee even though they are reporting overall losses!

Thirdly beware of glowing prospectuses covering past performance written by VCT managers, particularly where the company has been subject to restructuring in the past or a limited time period is selected for the performance figures. Some VCTs seem able to raise more equity even though they have poor performance records simply because of recommendations by IFAs and other promoters. Inexperienced investors in this sector tend to look at the tax reliefs and the “name” on the fund rather than the important factors. Those who bought into the Woodford funds will know the latter syndrome well.

40-Year Mortgages

In the same edition of FT Money there was another interesting article on the growth of 40-year mortgages. Over 50% of mortgage product offerings now offer such terms. As house prices have risen, buyers have apparently looked to reduce their mortgage costs by repaying the capital over a longer period. When mortgage interest rates are so low the focus is more on the capital repayments it seems.

This might make sense if there was any certainty over the future value of property and interest rates over the next 40 years but another article in the FT on Saturday tells you that is a dangerous assumption. People are obviously expecting to repay these long-term mortgages by selling their house and downsizing when they retire. But house prices do not always go up. They can stagnate over very long periods or drop sharply in the short-term. Hence the FT showed how house prices in Dublin fell by nearly 50% from their peak in 2012.

I suggest 40-year mortgages are positively dangerous and should come with a “health” warning. This looks like another “mis-selling” scandal unregulated by the FCA which will come home to roost in the future. When you borrow money, you should pay it off as soon as possible. A house you buy to live in should be considered to be just that – an operating cost not an investment, and cutting your operating costs should always be a priority.

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

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Should Trust Managers Attempt to Unseat the Board in a Dispute over Fees?

Investment trust directors should be independent of the manager. But sometimes the latter appear to think otherwise. Such is the case at Invesco Perpetual Enhanced Income Ltd (IPE), an investment company that invests in high yield bonds and other assets. It is managed by Invesco Perpetual. The latter have resigned as fund manager after a dispute over fees it is alleged. They have now also requisitioned a general meeting of the company to remove the trust’s Chairman, Donald Adamson, and director Richard Williams and to appoint two new directors. The two new directors who are proposed are currently directors of Aberdeen funds which is an odd coincidence – see below.

Invesco hold 17 percent of the shares and are supported by two other large institutional investors but a lot of the shareholders in this trust are private individuals.

The dispute over fees arose apparently because the trust wished to reduce the level of fees, and possibly remove the performance fee. The AIC gives the “ongoing charge plus performance fee” of 2.16% which is surely high for what is primarily a bond fund. Performance fees in trusts are also, and quite rightly, becoming unpopular with investors.

Historically the performance of this trust looks good but the company says it has received attractive offers from well qualified alternative managers. However the key question is whether it is morally right for a fund manager to challenge the board of directors in this way. How is that in shareholders’ interests and clearly there is a conflict of interest here. What is in the best interests of shareholders is surely for the board to decide, not the fund manager.

I have come across this situation once before some years ago when Aberdeen attempted to thwart the change of fund manager of a Venture Capital Trust (VCT) where the shareholders (including me) had caused a revolution that resulted in a change of board after a quite dire performance track record. I was not best pleased with that attempt although it was unsuccessful and the manager was changed.

My view is that fund managers should not interfere in this way and the FCA should introduce rules to ensure that trusts are truly independent and not poodles of the manager (a common problem in VCTs for example). The directors should be independent and threats to try and remove them by the fund manager should be treated with contempt. I hope shareholders in this trust will vote against the requisition.

Brewin Dolphin, a leading retail broker, has supported the board in resisting Invesco’s desire to retain a performance fee. Guy Foster, Head of Research, has been quoted in Citywire as saying Invesco should “leave the board to continue working to reduce fees and shore up the uncovered distribution for the benefit of shareholders”. Let us hope other retail brokers take the same stance.

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

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Chancellor’s Statement, EIS Funds and EMIS Results

The Chancellor’s Spring Statement yesterday was generally positive but there are some aspects that it’s worth talking about. Mr Hammond was right to be cautious because although new Government borrowing is falling, the total debt is still rising. It’s only forecast to fall as a proportion of national income by 2020-21 because of rising GDP. There is “light at the end of the tunnel” as the Chancellor put it, but it’s still some distance away.

GDP is only rising slowly and it is forecast by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) to be rising at near 1.5% in the next few years which is not exactly rapid. The OBR also forecast that we will have to pay £41 billion to the EU after Brexit as a settlement of our obligations, although it will also free up £3bn or more per year that can be spent on other things, i.e. they suggest in the long term we will save money but the impact of changes in migration and trade terms might be more significant.

The Labour party wants the Chancellor to free up the purse strings and increase expenditure on the NHS and other areas. The Government could only do that by borrowing more which would not only increase the cost of their debt but would seem unwise given the economic outlook and the uncertain impact of Brexit. Because of an ageing population, but a growing one, more money will need to be spent on local authorities and the NHS anyway but the growth in productivity remains poor which ultimately determines the wealth of the nation.

Will the estimated figures have an impact on likely future interest rates (which have a significant impact on stock market investment)? Interest rates might need to rise somewhat to make Government debt continue to be attractive but it is not obvious that the economy is overheating as yet – inflation seems to be driven more by rising import prices as the pound has fallen rather than wage rises. The Government will no doubt be keen not to increase the cost of its debt, even if it has only indirect influence on the rate. Interest rates lower than real inflation are a good way for the Government to reduce its debts however much it prejudices savers.

One interesting mention for investors was a mention of a consultation on EIS funds that includes several options for more tax reliefs to encourage investors to put money into early stage “knowledge-intensive businesses”. That might include tax free dividends (only available on VCTs at present), or capital gains exemptions. I may write some more on this topic after reading the full consultation document which is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/financing-growth-in-innovative-firms-enterprise-investment-scheme-knowledge-intensive-fund-consultation . Investors interested in this subject should of course respond to HM Treasury’s consultation.

Some Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs) have fallen in price today. Perhaps because they might be perceived as less attractive to investors if such new EIS funds were introduced. But they would surely be very different beasts even if they might provide more competition for new investor subscriptions.

Comment: having invested in both EIS funds and directly in EIS qualifying companies in the past, I have vowed only to do the latter in future. Finding an experienced fund manager in early stage companies who can pick out the good EIS businesses is not easy and the lemons they pick ripen quickly (a common VC adage) while the good investments can take years to mature. If there is very generous tax relief (at a level where investors ignore the merits of the underlying investee companies because the tax reliefs are so generous it looks like they can’t lose money), then this will encourage all kinds of dubious promoters to enter the field.

One company that is sensitive to Government spending on the NHS is EMIS Group (EMIS). They announced their Final Results this morning. They previously warned in January that they had breached their service level obligations to the NHS and the cost might be “in the order of upper single digits of millions of pounds”. I commented on the company then and still hold some shares in it. The actual damage is a provision of £11.2 million in these accounts for a “financial settlement and costs to remedy past issues”. The share price rose today perhaps in relief that the news was not worse.

Few more details of the contract breach are provided and when I talked to my GP who uses EMIS-Web and used to be active in their user group, he knew nothing about any service failures. All rather odd.

Even excluding that item which is being treated as an exceptional cost, the figures were disappointing though. Revenue was only up 1% and adjusted earnings were down 4%. The CEO commits to a “robust management of legacy matters” and a commitment to being “more performance-led with greater accountability, improved operational execution and an increased focus on our customers”.

Dividend has been increased though which suggests some confidence in the future, putting the shares on a yield of 3.5% and a possible forecast p/e of 16, but the company certainly needs to show better signs of growth if the share price is to get back to where it used to be a couple of years ago.

The Government might spend more in the Autumn budget, but whether EMIS will see much benefit remains to be seen.

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

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