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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