This article represents the views of its author and not necessarily those of ShareSoc.
It’s the mid-summer doldrums in the stock market and with investors having more time on their hands, what better time to issue a 265 page document entitled “UK Secondary Capital Raising Review” (see link below). This document covers a number of very important issues to investors after a review by Mark Austin as Chair of a committee that has looked at the way the UK stock market operates in certain areas. I will only cover some of the key points below because it is a long and complex technical document but Mr Austin has done a fine job in bringing out the key issues in his report to the Chancellor:
- He spells it out early on in these sentences: “…….we as a market need to be bold and brave in our thinking. We need to look at our existing rules and practices with a fresh set of eyes and a blank sheet of paper, and ask ourselves with a bottom-up rather than top-down approach – what is the right regime for us as a market for the next decade and beyond? …….That requires bold thinking and potentially addressing vested interests that have organically (and understandably) grown up in the past couple of decades due to how the system currently operates – and that may have made our capital markets fit for purpose in the past couple of decades but will not necessarily make it fit for purpose in the coming two decades”.
- Secondary capital raising is one area he looks at in detail. He says: “There are many – sometimes competing and overlapping – structures, views and guidelines that create a complex architecture. Practice has built up over many years. It is, for want of a better phrase, an area that is very ‘whack-a-mole’ in nature, in that when one issue is addressed, it often causes another that needs to be addressed to pop out elsewhere – usually for a different set of stakeholders”. Retail investors are ill-served by existing practices and have been missing out on placings for example. Mr Austin says, and quite rightly, that “As much of a company’s existing shareholder register as possible – including, importantly, retail investors – should be able to participate in any capital raising in a timely way, whatever its structure. Again, technology and digitisation have a key role to play here”.
- Pre-emption rights are important to shareholders to avoid dilution but the rules on what is allowable are not defined in law but are promoted by a “Pre-emption Group” – in essence a club of city grandees. The Austin Review suggests it should be put on a more formal basis which is surely sound policy. The Review also covers the use of “Cash Box” transactions to get around the current legal limits on share issuance which should surely be outlawed and is one option suggested in the Review.
- One matter discussed is the complexity and delays that occur when a rights issue or open offer is chosen as the fund-raising method. This discourages their use and the reliance instead on placings to expedite matters and reduce costs which prejudice private shareholders and smaller institutions. The key problem is the lack of a complete digital register of shareholders (including beneficial owners who hold shares in nominee accounts). That frustrates rapid communication with investors. Where a general meeting to vote on a proposal is required this currently requires 14 or 21 days notice to shareholders but the proposal is to reduce that to 7 days – an impractical objective unless electronic communication is possible. That will certainly assist rapid fund raisings which are sometimes required but it might also obstruct the ability of shareholders to communicate their concerns to other shareholders in time to oppose a vote. I suggest this requires more consideration.
- The Review spells out the key priority in this sentence: “Raise the priority of an ambitious ‘drive to digitisation’ to facilitate innovation, stewardship and improved market infrastructure, which is actioned by a Digitisation Task Force with an independent chair and a clear set of principles to be followed”.
- That will include “the eradication of paper share certificates” and that “– it should seek to ensure that rights attaching to shares flow to end investors quickly and clearly and that investors are able to exercise those rights efficiently”. That is currently obstructed by the prevalent nominee system and the obstruction of some nominee operators (stockbrokers and platforms).
- I have of course written extensively on the issue of dematerialisation and the use of nominees extensively in the past – in fact for more than 15 years with little action on the issue being decided. It is well overdue! ShareSoc has run a campaign on this issue where you can see the issues explained – see https://www.sharesoc.org/campaigns/shareholder-rights-campaign/ . There needs to be a “bottom-up” reform of the ways shares are held and transactions recorded as the Review suggests. The current system is way too complicated and needs reform to improve shareholder democracy and market efficiency. Dematerialisation of all shares in public companies is a given requirement and all shareholders should be on the share register so that issuers (public companies) know who their investors are and can communicate with them quickly and easily. That is also a requirement for improved shareholder democracy.
I was pleased to learn that ShareSoc and UKSA had been closely involved with the Austin Review and helped to achieve this outcome.
In conclusion, the Austin Review is a well-researched report and is essential reading for anyone who invests in the stock market. It includes detailed reviews of how other international markets such as Australia operate. Let us hope that its recommendations are followed through with some urgency. For retail investors the proposals should be welcomed not feared.
Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )