Bonmarché Update, FCA Grilling over Woodford and Amati AIM VCT AGM

Yesterday Bonmarché (BON) conceded defeat in its opposition to a takeover bid at 11.4p. On the 17th May it had rejected the bid because it “materially undervalues Bonmarché and its prospects”. The share price of this women’s clothing retailer was over 100p a year ago but the latest trading review suggests sales are dire because of underlying weakness in the clothing market and “a lack of seasonal weather”. Auditors might have qualified the accounts due to be published soon due to doubts about it being a going concern if sales did not pick up before then. Bonmarché looks to be another victim of changing shopping habits and changing dress styles.

Is the market for traditional men’s clothes any better? Not from my recent experience of buying two formal shirts from catalogue/on-line retailer Brook Taverner. Cost was zero although I did have to pay postage. Why was the cost zero? Because they had a special offer of 60% off for returning customers, and I had collected enough “points” from them to wipe out the balance. Smacks of desperation does it not?

On Tuesday the Treasury Select Committee interviewed Andrew Bailey of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) over the closure of the Woodford Equity Income fund and their regulation of it. It is well worth listening to. See https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/34965022-ec99-4243-8d0b-ae3350c31fe4

It seems that technically the fund only made two minor breaches of the 10% limit on unlisted stocks twice in the UCITS rules which were soon corrected in 2018. But Link were responsible for ensuring compliance as they were legally the fund manager as they were the ACD who had delegated management to Neil Woodford’s company. But in the morning of the same day the Daily Telegraph reported that nearly half of the fund investments were actually illiquid including 20% that were nominally listed in such venues as Guernsey and not actively traded. In other words, they were perhaps technically complying with the UCITS rules but their compliance in principle was not the case. Mr Bailey suggested this is where regulation might be best to be changed to be “principle” based rather than “rule” based but surely that would lead to even more “fudges”? The big problem is yet again that the EU, who sets the UCITS rules, produced regulations that lacked any understanding of the investment world.

The Investment Association has suggested a new fund type be allowed which only allows limited withdrawals, e.g. at certain times or on notice. But that does not sound an attractive option to investors. When investors want to sell, they want to sell now.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has said open-ended funds are “built on a lie” in that they promise daily liquidity when it may not always be possible. He also suggested they posed a systemic risk to financial stability. Or as Paul Jourdan said at the Amati AIM VCT AGM: “Liquid investments are liquid until they are not”.

There is of course still no sign that Neil Woodford is taking steps to restore confidence in his funds, as I suggested on June the 5th. There needs to be a change in leadership and in name for that to happen. Once a fund has become a dog and untouchable in the minds of investors, and their financial advisors, redemptions will continue. Neil Woodford making reassuring statements will not assist. More vigorous action by Woodford, Link, and the FCA is required. Affected investors should encourage more action.

The Amati AIM VCT (AMAT) had a great year in the year before last as small cap AIM stocks rocketed but last year was a different story. NAV Total Return was down 10% although that was better than their benchmark index. AB Dynamics was the biggest positive contributor – up 93% over the year with Water Intelligence also up 93%. Ideagen was a good contributor (now second biggest holding) and Rosslyn Data was also up significantly. Accesso fell 36% but they are still holding. I asked whether they had purchased more AB Dynamics in the recent rights issue but apparently they could not as it was no longer VCT qualifying.

I also asked about the fall in Diurnal which wiped £1.2 million off the valuation. This was down to clinical trial results apparently. However, fund manager Paul Jourdan is still keen on biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms as he suggested that healthcare is being revolutionised in his concluding presentation – he mentioned Polarean as one example.

Other presentations were from Block Energy – somewhat pedestrian and not a sector I like – and Bonhill Group which was more lively. Bonhill were formerly called Vitesse Media but are growing rapidly from some acquisitions and clearly have ambitions to be a much bigger company in the media space.

It was clear from the presentations that the investee company portfolio is becoming more mature as the successful companies have grown. This arises because they tend to take some profits when a holding becomes large but otherwise like to retain their successful holdings.

All resolutions were passed on a show of hands vote but I queried why all the resolutions got near 10% opposing on the proxy counts which is unusual. It seems this is down to one shareholder whose motives are not entirely clear.

In summary, an educational event and worth attending as most AGMs are.

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

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FairFX AGM Report, Woodford Fund Issues and Zero Carbon

Firstly a brief report on the Annual General Meeting of FairFX (FFX) which I attended today in the City. Only I and one other shareholder asked any questions, and there may not have been many others there.

This is a payments company which had an initial focus on the provision of foreign exchange but they now do a lot more. They are planning to change the name in the near future and there was a resolution tabled to change the articles to enable them to do this without reverting to shareholders. I abstained on that because I prefer companies to put a change of name to investors. But talking to one of the directors after the meeting it sounds like they are taking a professional approach to the name change.

Revenue of the company was up 69% last year to £26 million with profits of £2.6 million. Adjusted EBITDA was up 687% if you wish to look on the bright side. There was a positive AGM announcement with phrases such as “a strong year to date” both in revenue and margins. Full year trading should be in line with market expectations.

The accounts of payment/credit card companies can be complex as I know from being a director of one of them in the past. So I asked a few questions on that area.

FairFX now exclude customer deposits from their accounts which is a definite improvement. But it does capitalise a lot of software development – £4.7 million last year, which I have no concerns about so long as it is in accordance with accounting standards. In response to a question I was told this level of expenditure might be a bit more in the current year. They are building a new unified front end on their 3 applications (platforms) – some of which were acquired.

I queried the collateral requirements of financial institutions they deal with (see page 6 of the Annual Report) and was told this is taken out of the cash figure on the balance sheet and is now in “Other receivables” – hence the large increase in that figure plus the impact of acquisitions on it and general increase in turnover.

Wirecard was mentioned during these questions. Apparently FairFX has historically used them as a “Card Issuer” but they now have the capability to issue cards themselves which will improve margins – customers will be migrated over. That’s reassuring because Wirecard has been getting some very negative publicity in the FT lately.

The other shareholder attending asked about the economic trends and their impact. Corporates are apparently sitting on their hands re FX and clearly Brexit risk might be impacting the demand for personal FX credit cards as holidays in Europe might be impacted by the uncertainty. However the CEO seemed confident about the future.

I might sign up for one of their “Everywhere” Pre-paid Credit Cards which looks cheaper than the company I am using at present.

This is one of those companies that has stopped issuing paper proxy forms – promoted by their Registrar Link Asset Services. I complained about that. I was also not happy that the resolutions were taken on a poll rather than a show of hands. But I understand the proxy counts were all higher than 99% so that was an academic issue.

Link acting as ACD for Woodford Funds

Link, in the guise of “Link Fund Solutions”, also got their name in the FT today over their activities as the Authorised Corporate Director (ACD) of the Woodford Equity Income Fund. An ACD is supposed to ensure that a fund sticks to the rules. They would have been involved in the decision to close the fund to redemptions.

It also seems very odd to me that they approved the listing of some fund holdings in Guernsey to get around the limitations of unlisted holdings. That was clearly an abuse as the reality was that these were not listing that provided any significant liquidity, with minimal dealing taking place. It’s the substance that counts, not how it might simply appear to meet the technical rules.

This looks to be yet another case of those who are supposed to be keeping financial operators in line not doing their job properly. But ask who is paying them.

FT article on Net Zero Emissions

I commented previously on Mrs May’s commitment to go for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. I called it suicidal.

There is a very good article on this topic in the FT today by Jonathan Ford (entitled “Net Zero Emissions Require a Wartime Level of Mobilisation”). The article explains how easy it is to get to the £1 Trillion cost mentioned by the Chancellor on required housing changes alone to remove all fossil fuel consumption. There may be some payback from the investment required but the payback period might be 37 years!

The whole energy system will need to be rebuilt and some of the required technologies (e.g. carbon capture) do not yet exist on a commercial basis. For more details go to the web site of the Committee on Climate Change and particularly the Technical Report present here: https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/net-zero-technical-report/

If this plan is proceeded with there are enormous costs and enormous risks involved. But it will certainly have a major impact on not just our way of lives but on many UK companies many of which consume large amounts of power. That is definitely something investors must keep an eye on. Companies like FairFX may be one of the few that are not affected in a big way as they only manufacture electronic transactions. That’s assuming the rest of the economy and consumers are not too badly depressed by the changes as a result of course.

Nobel prize winning economist William Nordhaus has shown how a zero-carbon target is unwise. See this note for more information: https://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2018/MurphyNordhaus.html

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

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Paying Illegal Dividends, Burford Capital, Woodford Patient Capital Trust and Zero Carbon Objective

A group of investors including Sarasin, Legal & General, Hermes and the UK Shareholders Association (UKSA) has written to Sir Donald Brydon who is undertaking a review of the audit market. They have yet again raised the question of whether the International Financial Accounting Standards (IFRS) are consistent with UK company law. In particular they question whether profits are sometimes being recognised, thus allowing the payment of illegal dividends. The particular issue is whether profits can arise on certain transactions under IFRS from transactions between parent and subsidiary companies or by the use of “mark to market” accounting. The problem is “unrealised profits” that might turn into cash in the future, but may not.

This may appear a somewhat technical question, but it can in practice lead to over-optimistic reporting of profits, leading to excessive bonus payments to managers, and the general misleading of investors. Actually calculating when a dividend can be paid as dividends are not supposed to be paid out of capital is not easy and is not self-evident to investors. The published accounts do not make it obvious. Regular mistakes are made by companies requiring later “whitewash” resolutions to be passed by shareholders. The ICAEW has previously rejected complaints on this issue but it is surely an area that requires more examination.

Incidentally I was reading a book yesterday entitled “White Collar Crime in Modern England” (from 1845-1929) which is most enlightening on common frauds that arose when limited companies became popular – many of the frauds still persist. In the “railway mania” of the 1840s it was common to set up companies and raise the capital to build a railway when the chance of it operating profitably was low. To keep the share price high, and the directors in jobs, dividends were paid out of capital. To quote from the book: “unscrupulous directors could easily pay dividends out of capital undetected – projecting a false image of profitability and enticing further investment in their lines”. That was an era when auditors did not have to be accountants and were often simply the directors’ cronies. Standards and regulations have improved since then, but there are still problems in this area that need solving.

There was an interesting discussion on Twitter recently on Burford Capital (BUR) with regard to their accounting methods. Not that I am an expert on the company as I do not hold shares in it, it but as I understand it they recognise the likely future settlements from the litigation funding cases they take on. In other words, they estimate future cash flows based on projections of likely winning the case and the possible settlements. As I said on Twitter, lawyers will often tell you a case is winnable but they will also tell you the outcome of any legal case is uncertain.

It’s interesting to read what Burford say in their Annual Report under accounting policies where it spells it out: “Owing to the illiquid nature of these investments, the assessment of fair valuation is highly subjective and requires a number of significant and complex judgements to be made by management. The exit value will be determined for each investment by the contractual entitlement, the underlying risk profile of the litigation, a trial or an appellate outcome or other case events, any other agreements in respect of settlement discussions or negotiations as well as the credit risk associated with the investment value and any relevant secondary market activity”.

The auditors no doubt scrutinise the reasonableness of the estimates but any outside investor in the shares of the company will have great difficulty in doing so.

Neil Woodford’s Equity Income Fund has a big holding in Burford Capital. I commented on the Woodford Patient Capital Trust yesterday here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/06/11/woodford-patient-capital-trust-is-it-an-opportunity/ and suggested the Trust made a mistake in naming the Trust after him. It makes it more difficult to fire the manager for example. But the FT reported this morning that the Trust has indeed had conversations about doing just that. Woodford’s firm has a contract that only requires 3 months’ notice which is a good thing. At least they can keep the “Patient Capital” moniker because investors in this trust have already had to wait a long time for much return and it could take even longer to improve its performance under a new manager. But as Lex in the FT said, “patience is now in short supply” so far as investors are concerned.

Another major item of news yesterday was soon to be ex-Prime Minister May’s commitment to enshrine in law a target for net zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2050. This is surely a quite suicidal path for the UK to follow when most other major countries, including all the big polluters, will be very unlikely to follow suit. Even Chancellor Philip Hammond has said it will cost about £1 trillion. It will effectively make the UK completely uncompetitive in many products with production and jobs shifting to other countries. We might become the first really “de-industrialised” country which is not a lead that many will follow, and it will actually be practically very difficult to achieve if you bother to study what is required to achieve zero emissions. It will completely change the way we live with the transport network being a particular problem (trains, planes and road vehicles).

As I have said before, if we really want to cut air pollution and CO2 emissions, then we need to reduce the population as well as rely on such wheezes as electrification of the transport and energy systems. Mrs May’s last act as Prime Minister might be to commit the UK to economic suicide. It might not be a good time to invest in UK manufacturing companies.

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

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Woodford Equity Income Fund Suspension – Analysis and Solutions

The business media is awash with analysis and comment on the closure of the Woodford Equity Income Fund to redemptions – meaning investors cannot take their money out, much to their dismay. I write as an innocent bystander as I have never held any of the Woodford managed funds.

But I have not been totally unaffected by the problem of investors taking their money out, which has led to the suspension, because it has resulted in Woodford needing to sell some of the fund holdings. One of the few companies in his portfolio I hold, and have done for a long time, is Paypoint (PAY). The share price of that company fell in the last 2 days probably because Woodford has been selling it – about 1% of the company yesterday for example reported in an RNS announcement. Paypoint share price has been rising recently so this looks like a case of selling a winner rather than a loser, which is never a good investment strategy.

Standing back and looking at the Woodford Equity Income Fund, even its name seems quite inappropriate. Income funds tend to be stacked up with high dividend paying, defensive stocks. But many of the holdings in the portfolio look very speculative and many pay no dividends. These are the top ten holdings last reported:

Barratt Developments (7.5%), Burford Capital (5.8%), Taylor Wimpey (5.4%), Provident Financial (4.8%), Theravance Biopharma (4.7%), Benevolent AI (4.5%), IP Group (3.3%), Autolus (3.1%), Countryside Properties (3.1%) and Oxford Nanopore (2.6%). Other holdings are Kier (recent profit warning dropped the share price by 40%), NewRiver Reit (I sold it from my portfolio in early 2018 as I could not see how it could avoid the fall out on the High Street), Purplebricks (a speculation which I held briefly but concluded it was unlikely to succeed and was grossly overvalued) and Imperial Brands (a bet on a product which kills people). He is also stacked up with house building companies and estate agents – a sector that many people have exited from including me as house prices look unsustainable with the threat of higher interest rates. However you look at it, the Woodford portfolio is contrarian in the extreme. It even includes some unlisted companies which are totally illiquid and not good holdings for an open-ended fund where investor redemptions force share sales.

The last time big funds closed to redemptions were in the property sector where owning buildings in a downturn showed that the structure of open-funded funds was simply inappropriate for certain types of holdings. Much better to have those in an investment trust where fund investor sales do not force portfolio sales on the manager.

Note that another reason I prefer Investment Trusts to Open-Ended Funds is that they have independent directors who can, and do occasionally, fire the fund manager if things are obviously going wrong.

Part of the problem has been that despite the poor performance of the Woodford Equity Income Fund over the last 3 years (minus 17% versus plus 23% for the IA UK All Companies Index, and ranked 248 out of 248!), platforms such as Hargreaves Lansdown and wealth advisors were still promoting the fund based on Woodford’s historic reputation at Invesco. So investors have been sucked in, or stayed in on the promise of the fund’s investment bets coming good in due course.

What should be done about the problem now? That’s undoubtedly the key concern for investors in the fund. Even if the fund re-opens to redemptions, folks will still want out because they will have lost confidence in Woodford as a fund manager.

It has been suggested in the media that investors might be pacified if fund management fees were waived for a period of time. But that’s just a token gesture to my mind.

I would suggest some other alternatives: 1) That Neil Woodford appoint someone else to manage the fund – either an external fund management firm or a new fund management team and leader. Neil Woodford needs to withdraw from acting as fund manager and preferably remove his name from the fund; 2) Alternatively that a fund wind-up is announced in a planned manner; 3) Or a takeover/merger with another fund be organised – but that would not be easy as the current portfolio is not one that anyone else would want.

One difficulty though is that with such large funds (and it’s still relatively large even after having shrunk considerably), changing the direction and holdings in the fund takes time. So there is unlikely to be any short-term pain relief for investors. Smaller investors should probably get out as soon as they can, but the big institutional investors may not find it so easy.

If readers have any other solutions, please comment.

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

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