I went to the High Court in London this morning to hear the grilling of witnesses in the case brought by shareholders over the acquisition of HBOS by Lloyds. But I was disappointed to find when I got there that the first session was to be held in private – presumably the judge wants to discuss some legal issues with counsel for both sides. So I went to the AGM of City of London Investment Group (CLIG) instead where I hold shares.
The aforementioned legal case will be running for some weeks yet to hear various witnesses – it’s being held in Court 15 at the Rolls building in Fetter Lane if anyone cares to drop in. I shall try to visit another day when I am in London.
This was the first opportunity I had to attend the Lloyds hearing but the national media have reported the opening submissions by the respective QCs. To remind you this is a case where disgruntled former Lloyds TSB shareholders are suing the former directors (Sir Victor Blank, Eric Daniels, Truett Tate, et al), and Lloyds Banking Group as a company, over the takeover of HBOS in 2008. This resulted, directly or indirectly, in a massive share price decline and the cessation of dividends. The commercial loan book of HBOS turned out to be very poor quality, and Lloyds had to take on more capital to meet its capital ratio requirements.
What’s the legal basis of the claim? Simply that the prospectus issued to Lloyds TSB shareholders at the time was defective. Among other things that it failed to disclose the true position of HBOS and the fact that the company had received emergency funding in the form of secret loans from the Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve and Lloyds. A prospectus needs to be honest, not misleading and not omit significant information. The litigant’s QC, Richard Hill, said that “shareholders were indeed mugged”. He also argued that Lloyds was under pressure from the Government to conclude the deal, otherwise HBOS would have had to be nationalised because it was on the verge of collapse, when the directors of Lloyds loyalties should have been to their shareholders.
The defendents QC argued the claims have no merit because it was in the best interest of shareholders. In addition, that they would have voted for it regardless if they had been aware of the aforementioned loans. Bearing in mind that a lot of institutional investors held both Lloyds and HBOS, you can understand that point perhaps. The usual defence of the directors having taken expert advice on the matter from a host of advisors has been invoked, but how they can overcome the defective prospectus argument remains to be seen.
Now one topical item of news today is the disclosure that the EU is looking at establishing a pan-European framework for collective redress. See this press release from shareholder representative organisation Better Finance for more details: http://betterfinance.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/documents/Press_Releases/en/Financial_services_users/PR_-_COLLECTIVE_REDRESS_-_231017.pdf
There are many difficulties in the way of shareholders pursuing litigation or enforcement action over investment abuses. One just has to look at the HBOS/Lloyds case and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) cases to see how difficult and expensive they are. The RBS case, which was a similar claim over the prospectus issued in 2008, has recently been settled. But only a minority of shareholders affected are likely to get compensation, and it will only be a small proportion of their losses. Legal and other costs will consume a large proportion. One only has to look at the time these cases have taken to get into, or near, a Court (nine years) that tells you there is something seriously defective in the process. Many of the claimants are likely to have died in the meantime as the shares of these banks were typically purchased by pensioners for retirement income.
The problem is the UK has no direct equivalent of a US “class action”, or the arrangements for collective cases as operates in Holland. There are “Group Litigation Orders” in the UK, but these are not directly equivalent and the Lloyds and RBS cases have relied on a representative group of litigants. Many other European countries have similar problems. So this initiative looks potentially useful, although if Brexit proceeds, the UK might miss out on participating in this concept, albeit that it might be many years before it progresses into reality because changing legal systems in a country can be complex and is often resisted by vested interests. Simplifying legal processes is not always in the interests of lawyers for example.
The complexity and length of the legal processes, and the difficulty in raising funds to finance such cases, as evidenced by the Lloyds and RBS cases, surely demonstrates that reform is necessary. But it will be interesting to see the outcome of the Lloyds case.
Just brief coverage of the CLIG AGM follows. There were about half a dozen shareholders present, but the company was also holding a seminar for investors (current and potential) in the afternoon so I presume most people would have gone to that instead.
CLIG is an investment company that specialises in holding closed end investment companies (e.g. investment trusts), with a large exposure to the far-east. The CEO is long standing director Barry Oliff who is finally planning to retire in a couple of years time, so one question raised was about succession planning – it is in motion apparently. As one shareholder intimated, it will be important to maintain the culture that Barry Oliff has established where there is great openness about the performance of the company (comprehensive disclosure of the business model and the likely outcome of profit trends). Barry even tells shareholders at what price he will be selling some of his large shareholding and when.
This company regularly gets substantial votes against its Remuneration Report, and it was no different this year. Two million proxy votes against, no doubt by institutions prompted by proxy advistors because they have a bonus scheme which does not follow the normal rules. It is more group performance related, than individual person related. They choose to be “different”. Barry explained that he thought individual targets provided the wrong incentives and that group bonuses encourage staff and customer retention. Another director said it was more like a traditional “partnership”.
Anyway the shareholders are probably happy because the share price has increased over the last year and the dividend (already high) has been increased for the first time in five years.
As I intimated in another recent blog post, it is always useful to attend AGMs, and this one was no different. According to a report in the FT, a number of US companies are moving to “virtual” AGMs, but are getting some objections from shareholders. Surely the best solution is to combine the physical meeting with an on-line equivalent so you get the best of both worlds. A virtual on-line meeting can be usefui for those shareholders who have difficulty in attending in person, but certainly actually meeting the directors is more useful in many ways.
Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )