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 representations 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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