Tag Archives: Cambridgeshire

Stocks in Focus: Unilever

This week I am looking at Unilever, following the recent release of its half-yearly results. In addition to an encouraging set of figures, the consumer goods company also announced the $1 billion purchase of Dollar Shave Club, a California-based internet subscription business that delivers cost-effective razors and other personal grooming products. Management have previously identified men’s grooming as a growing market trend and as such it is not surprising that they are increasing their exposure to this category, although their choice of acquisition target is somewhat unexpected.

At first glance, the price paid for Dollar Shave Club appears expensive. The four-year-old start up is barely profitable and revenues are forecast at a mere $200m for this year – so what do Unilever gain from such a high price tag?

Well, what this business does offer is a completely different business model to their competitors, with a modernised approach. The subscription-based service enables direct-to-customer e-commerce capabilities, as opposed to the historical approach of selling products in stores via a third party. This new offering to consumers has already proven a success and despite the short time scale, Dollar Shave Club already holds 5% of the men’s razor blade market and is growing at an extraordinary rate, with sales growth of 30% predicted for this year. In contrast, the personal care group Edgewell, which owns the well-known brand Wilkinson Sword razors expects a modest annual growth of 2-3% over the long term.

As market conditions continue to prove difficult and consumer demand remains fragile we are likely to see an increase in unusual acquisition activity across the sector. Rather than looking at long-standing mature businesses, companies such as Unilever are progressively looking at smaller, younger companies and the passionate entrepreneurs that come with them in order to revive demand.



Reasons for Britain to remain in the EU

Girish Ramrous of NW Brown looks at reasons for Britain to remain in the EU.

The referendum is fast approaching and the debate is heating up. I have done some research on why Britain should remain in the EU.

I was specifically looking at this side of the debate partly for work and partly for my own information. I have put together a couple of interesting points from my findings, which I thought I’d share.  My sources were online articles, blogs, newspapers, magazines and the FT’s EU referendum page.

Has the EU membership been good for the UK economy?

Since Britain joined the European Economic Community (now the EU) in 1973, the nation has become one of Europe’s best-performing large economies.

During that time, domestic product per person has grown faster than Italy, Germany and France, three big economies that the UK had previously lagged behind. In 2013, the country became more prosperous than the average of those economies for the first time since 1965.

Still, most economists agree that the EU effect is at least part of the reason why the UK’s relative economic performance has improved over the past four decades. There is no evidence suggesting that the UK has not benefited economically for joining the EU.

Why does the EU membership help Britain’s economic performance?

Many economists argue that the main contribution the EU has made is to British competitiveness, which increased as the country’s companies fought for markets with rivals across the continent.

Some maintain that greater trade has helped the UK economy all the more because companies that trade internationally have been responsible for most of the country’s increases in productivity. Meanwhile, the UK has become the bloc’s top recipient of foreign direct investment.

What about the EU membership bill?

One should be wary of exaggeration. Although the headline figure for the country’s annual transfer to the EU is £18bn, the net cost of membership is £7bn — after taking into account a rebate secured by Thatcher and EU payments to the UK. This translates to about £150 for each British household, not necessarily a big factor for the economy as whole.

So what would Brexit mean for the economy?

It is much harder to specify how leaving the EU would affect the British economy than it is to examine the impact of four decades of membership. Not only is Brexit a future hypothetical event, it also still largely lacks definition.

If Britain leaves the EU, how would the effects be felt?


  • Taking in around $220 billion of its goods and services each year, the EU remains the U.K.’s single biggest regional partner for trade. The IMF reckons that as part of the club, Britain’s trade with the EU is 55% higher than it would otherwise be.
  • One of the biggest advantages of the EU is free trade between member nations, making it easier and cheaper for British companies to export their goods to Europe. Some business leaders think the boost to income outweighs the billions of pounds in membership fees Britain would save if it left the EU. In case of leaving the EU, these might no longer apply to the UK, which would have to renegotiate them, likely on less favourable terms as a smaller individual trading partner. The UK also risks losing some of its negotiation power internationally by leaving the trading bloc, but it would be free to establish trade agreements with non-EU countries.
  • For British businesses that trade in other European countries, the potential erosion of the UK’s position within Europe may deal a blow to their plans to expand on the continent, as cost and complexity of trade could gradually rise if tariff changes are made against UK goods and services
  • Being part of the EU gives the U.K. significant advantages, helping it avoid tariffs it would otherwise face. The Open Europe think tank estimates some 35% of Britain’s EU-bound goods could be subject to levies of 4% or more upon exit, with makers of cars, chemicals and food among the industries worst affected.
  • Relationships with crucial allies, like the United States, could also be jeopardized by Britain no longer being part of the Brussels machinery at a time when both sides of the Atlantic are negotiating an ambitious free trade deal.
  • If there is a No Vote, the UK will have to negotiate new trade deals with the EU and the rest of the world, as EU trade deals negotiated or nearing completion with China, America, Canada will no longer apply. This will take years to renegotiate, leading to questions over how competitive UK trade agreements will be versus those we currently enjoy as part of the EU.
  • The UK will have to renegotiate or reconfigure deals with more than 50 countries. The UK has not independently concluded such an agreement since the 1970s.
  • Air transport- Britain potentially loses rights under 78 EU-negotiated agreements. New landing and airport access rights must be agreed with the EU and scores of international governments.
  • Enforcement -National bodies replacing EU agencies need funding, manpower and legal clout to replace EU agencies. This covers competition, trade agreement and protection, farming, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and food safety standards.


  • As a whole, entrepreneurs and business owners in Britain broadly remain in favour of remaining a member – and their enthusiasm may be growing. According to the Financial Times a survey of 3,800 businesses last year found 63% believe that leaving the EU would have a negative impact for Britain.. The sentiment seems to be reciprocated: of 2,600 senior executives in 36 countries across Europe in February, nearly two-thirds of those in the eurozone said a British exit from the EU would have a negative impact on the European economy.
  • Lack of import taxes within the EU mean British businesses compete on a level playing field with businesses across the continent. Leaving the EU would create significant uncertainty , which may be enough to cause them to cut back on investment here.
  • The consensus among business leaders appears to be that it is in the best interest of the UK’s economy to remain within the EU. In 2013 the Confederation of British Industry found 8 out of 10 of its members thought this was the case. In the manufacturing sector, 85% of business leaders considered it was best to remain within the EU, and similarly in the financial sector 84% believed it best to stay in the EU.


  • On to the thorny issue of immigration, (as opposed to refugees) having open borders across Europe isn’t some liberal, politically correct, one-nation project; it is an economic necessity. Without freedom of movement to work, the Euro currency zone would collapse and the common market would be less effective.
  • Take the situation in the early 2000’s, where unemployment in Poland and labour shortages in construction in the UK led to many polish workers coming to the UK. The UK construction sector boomed whilst unemployment in Poland fell, setting Poland up for economic recovery and increasing trade with the UK. Add to that, EU immigrants tend to be young, get married and have children and generate 45% more tax for the government over their working lifetimes than UK born peers.
  • There is a strong argument that reforming EU immigration rules should be a high priority, not least as a Brexit would probably not change anything as the UK would probably have to accept EU immigration to retain access to the common market.
  • “Twenty per cent of our top people are from the EU,” says one fund boss. “It would be very awkward if it became more complicated for them to be here than it currently is.”
  • Financial services employers rely heavily on EU workers. “The City attracts the best financial services workers from across the world,” says Chris Cummings, chief executive of The CityUK, a lobby group. “But EU nationals dominate, in large part because of the ease of working across the single market.”
  • Almost 11% of the City’s 360,000 workers come from elsewhere in the EU, according to the latest census. That is by far the biggest contingent after the 78 per cent accounted for by domestic labour. Ireland, France and Italy between them account for nearly half of all the City’s EU migrant labour.


  • Free movement of people across the EU opens up job opportunities for UK workers willing to travel and makes it relatively easy for UK companies to employ workers from other EU countries. Limiting this freedom would deter the “brightest and the best” of the continent from coming to Britain, create complex new immigration controls and reduce the pool of candidates employers can choose from.
  • If the UK looks likely to leave, then Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the UK will slow dramatically and cost jobs. Millions of jobs could be lost if global manufacturers, such as car makers, move to lower-cost EU countries
  • The No side also assumes that freedom from EU regulations will make companies more cost effective but what cost new jobs without basic workers’ rights, a limit on the hours worked, relaxed safety rules? Would these be jobs worth having? Would they exacerbate inequality and increase the number of the working poor?

EU Subsidies

  • The loss of EU farming subsidies would be extremely difficult and costly for the agricultural sector in the UK to absorb. British farmers would lose billions in EU subsidies.
  • Taken at face value there is a compelling argument about the UK’s EU membership fees but those already enjoy a significant rebate and that would have to be renegotiated.
  • Norway have to commit funds to EU development and don’t get EU grants in return, nor do they have any MEPs. EU grants can fund as much as 50% of university research and improving R&D is one of the key opportunities for UK economic growth. Also, the EU offers grant support to areas of economic deprivation, so whereas London and the South East get very little back from the EU, Scotland does well. The EU has a role in redistributing the UK’s wealth that we don’t want to lose.


  • One of the greatest reasons for economists fearing a vote to leave is that it would spark huge uncertainty, which stops companies investing and households spending, harming growth.
  • A study by the think-tank Open Europe, which wants to see the EU radically reformed, found that the worst-case “Brexit” scenario is that the UK economy loses 2.2 per cent of its total GDP by 2030. However, it says that GDP could rise by 1.6 per cent if the UK could negotiate a free trade deal with Europe and pursued “very ambitious deregulation”.
  • The Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics predicts the range of Brexit economic scenarios from something akin to the global financial crisis (-10% GDP) to a best case scenario of a – 2.2% annual loss of GDP. Other credible think tanks are more positive but none predict a boom time following a Brexit, so the case for a No vote would appear to be based more on British Nationalism than economic pragmatism.
  • A decision to leave the EU would have a significant adverse impact on economic activity. The immediate aftermath would likely result in substantial uncertainty weighing on investment, while UK households would struggle to maintain spending power amid an anticipated rise in import costs. Quantifying the impact on the economy is uncertain, but GDP may be 2-7 per cent lower than it might otherwise be, with such losses likely front-loaded.

Foreign Exchange and Interest Rates

  • Sterling would likely face a significant drop. A decision to leave would likely trigger further weakness as growth slows, policy is eased, deficits increase, capital inflows fade and questions are asked about the UK’s export capabilities.
  • Brexit would probably trigger weakness in sterling and bring forward interest rate increases. Growth will be weaker as the UK will be seen as a less attractive place to locate a business. Investment and productivity growth would be weaker as a result.


  • The financial services sector — a key contributor to British GDP — would also suffer disruption with investors potentially put off by the uncertainty a vote on EU membership would create, potentially curbing the hefty flows of foreign direct investment the U.K. has enjoyed for years. The UK’s status as one of the world’s biggest financial centres will come under threat if it is no longer a seen as a gateway to the EU for the likes of US banks.
  • Equities would also likely drop. Weaker GDP growth and more difficult export conditions would impact specific sectors, including financial services, exporters, retail and property. This should be somewhat offset by a lower level of the pound and QE. But the net effect is likely to be negative.
  • Gilt market reaction would likely be more neutral, caught between divergent forces. Concerns over UK credit quality may prompt capital flight, particularly in an economy dependent on imported capital. A short-term, sterling-inspired inflation spike would also raise nominal yields. But the prospect of additional QE and weaker potential GDP growth should tend to lower yields overall. We would also expect to see a further widening in sterling credit spreads.

Investment banking

  • Investment banks prospered as London bolstered its role as the world’s largest foreign exchange trading hub. By the same token, their future in the city could be profoundly affected should the UK leave the EU.
  • Today banks takes advantage of the ability to “passport” around the EU from the UK — exporting services without setting up fully-fledged local operations. This is not only efficient but a magnet that brings revenues and jobs to London — one that could be jeopardised by Brexit.


  • The City has always been about far more than banking. London’s pre-eminence in insurance, particularly marine insurance, dates back to the 17th century. Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop — the basis for today’s £30bn Lloyd’s of London market — started out as a venue for insuring ships and their cargoes.
  • Insurers, are careful of overstating the consequences for their industry if the UK left the EU. But many are convinced it would accelerate the shift of business to other global insurance centres, such as Singapore and Japan. The argument applies across different areas of insurance, but the impact on the London-dominated marine market could be the greatest.
  • At present London commands a third of the $18bn global marine insurance market, according to Marsh, the broker. Of that, insurers say about 40 per cent is cross-border EU business.
  • The ability to write business from London passport-free across the EU keeps prices low, says Marcus Baker, who chairs Marsh’s global marine business from the US’s group’s London base. “But if insurers do not have the freedom to write cross-border business as they do now, and have to set up local operations across the EU, there will be potential cost increases,” he says.

Asset management

  • The opening-up of the EU market has made asset management one of the most dynamic areas of cross-border financial services. London has eagerly shared in the spoils.
  • One particular cross-border product, called UCITS — which stands for Undertakings for Collective Investments in Transferable Securities — has grown dramatically, benefiting three jurisdictions in particular. According to Morningstar, the data provider, the UK is neck and neck with Ireland as a domicile for UCITS, only beaten by Luxembourg, which, like Ireland, offers tax advantages.
  • During the past five years net assets held in UCITS in all three locations have doubled, principally because of cross-border sales. For a large chunk of the industry the risk is clear: Brexit would push the UK portion of the business — worth more than €1tn last year — to Luxembourg or Dublin.


  • UKIP leader Nigel Farage believes Britain could follow the lead of Norway, which has access to the single market but is not bound by EU laws on areas such as agriculture, justice and home affairs. But others argue that an “amicable divorce” would not be possible. The Economist says Britain would still be subject to the politics and economics of Europe, but would no longer have a seat at the table to try to influence matters.
  • Britain may lose some of its military influence – many believe that America would consider Britain to be a less useful ally if it was detached from Europe.
  • A likely outcome is that Britain would find itself as a scratchy outsider with somewhat limited access to the single market, almost no influence and few friends. And one certainty: that having once departed, it would be all but impossible to get back in again.
  • Free trade, economic cooperation, free movement of people and goods and the bringing together of independent nations in a war torn Europe in friendship and co-operation has protected Europe’s diminishing place as the world’s political and economic axis swiftly moves East.
  • Scotland would re-emerge, possibly leaving to another referendum on independence — and maybe to a break-up of the UK.


If the U.K. decides it does want to go it alone, figuring out how to do so will be the other significant hurdle to overcome. The country has several options, none of them particularly appealing.

  • UK outside the EU could either choose to follow Norway, which pays into the EU budget and implements the bloc’s regulations or opt for a much more distant relationship, with trade governed by World Trade Organisation rules.
  • It could follow the example of Norway and join the European Economic Area (EEA) but EEA members have to apply all of the EU trade and employment directives in order to access the EU common market. Norwegian Foreign Minister, Børge Brende, said “Norway was one of the fastest to apply EU directives without being ‘around the table’ to have a say in new rules and regulations”.  And that “Britain would be forced to implement every rule from Brussels, even if it leaves the European Union”.
  • What’s more, the U.K. would still have to pay into the EU budget. Norway, for example, contributes 100 euros per person compared with the U.K.’s 180 euros today, according to Open Europe.
  • From here, the issue is whether the UK (or what’s left of it) would follow Norway in taking everything from Brussels (unlikely), or try to negotiate everything (Switzerland model) —considering it has taken years to strike 100 trade deals with individual EU and EFTA states, that hardly seems practical.
  • Perhaps the most simple — if risky — strategy could be to shun all of the above and fall back on Britain’s membership of the World Trade Organisation as a basis for favorable terms. Doing that would see the country automatically forfeit about 50 EU trade deals at a stroke, surrendering large amounts of bargaining power.


Points of View: Inflation

Consumer prices in the United Kingdom increased 0.3 percent year-on-year in May. At this low level, and after years of falling headline numbers, investors may be forgiven for not giving this too much thought. However, despite the historically low inflationary environment, the longer term effects and the power of compounding cannot be ignored – the value of £100 ten years ago, for example, is worth less than £80 today.

Einstein once said “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it, he who doesn’t, pays it.” Inflation can be seen as a compound interest which we are all forced to ‘pay’, and by understanding it we should seek to find assets which consistently protect against it in the long term.

Equities, property, inflation-linked bonds and commodities are often championed as hedges against inflation, but none of these are perfect; property is illiquid and vulnerable to prolonged periods of depressed values; inflation-linked bond prices are influenced by inflation expectations, which are only loosely correlated with changes in actual inflation; and commodities can be volatile and do not provide an income. Equities are also volatile in the short term but are arguably the most reliable source of real returns over the long-term, not least because the underlying companies buy and sell products at prevailing market prices. In any five year holding period over the last 30 years, for example, UK equities produced a real (above inflation) return 80% of the time.

It is this relatively reliable ability to generate attractive real returns over time that leads us to build long term portfolios around a dominant core of equity exposure.


Stocks in Focus: Interserve

This week I am looking at Interserve, the UK-based support services and construction company that operates predominantly in the UK but also has international exposure, including substantial operations in the Middle East. Having begun primarily as a construction and equipment services company, the business has gradually transitioned to focus on support services in recent years and this division now accounts for roughly 64% of operating profit.

Of late, Interserve has fallen out of favour with investors due to concerns over its exposure to the Middle East, where decreasing oil revenues seems likely to put pressure on spending budgets and the construction industry. In addition to this, management credibility has come into question following a £70m exceptional provision made on a mispriced construction contract in the UK.

Despite this setback, management continue to focus on the transition towards what is now the core part of the business – UK support services.  Drivers of this division seem favourable as more customers want to specialise in their core activities and outsource the likes of cleaning and security in order to reduce costs. With contracts lasting multiple years the business also enjoys relatively good earnings visibility. Furthermore, management have announced a strategic review of the equipment services division, which designs, builds, sells and hires specialist scaffolding equipment for major infrastructure projects. This seems likely to result in its sale and would allow management to simultaneously reduce their Middle East exposure whilst raising funds for reinvestment into the UK support services division.

Investors must consider whether the depressed valuation offers a good entry point into a business that is becoming ever more focussed on UK support services. If this transition can be successfully managed then the shares should earn a significant re-rating from their current valuation. However, investors cannot ignore the potential for deterioration in the Middle East and/or the risk of other contracts becoming unprofitable.


Stocks in Focus: Next

This week Oliver Phillips looks at Next plc, a former stock market darling that has recently fallen out of favour with investors.

Next is divided into two divisions, Retail and Directory. The Retail division represents the bricks & mortar side of the business which sells to consumers on the high street and in retail parks. The retail sector as a whole is under strain and this division has seen a modest decline in recent years – management have attempted to cushion this by focussing on their retail park offerings and increasing average store size. The Directory division, the online business which has evolved from a mail-catalogue offering, has been the main driver of growth in recent years and has enjoyed a reputation for setting industry standards for logistics infrastructure and delivery capabilities.

Having reached a high of £80 last October on the back of consistently strong growth within Directory, the share price has since slumped to around £54 – so why have investors decided to take such a different view on the business? First and foremost, growth has been beginning to slow in the Directory division and there is a fear that the business has reached maturity in the UK market. Trends in the retail sector are also uncertain, and some predict the polarisation of consumers towards either premium or value products, away from the middle ground that Next currently occupies.

Looking forward, investors need to consider whether or not the business can continue to drive profitable growth. On the one hand, management has a strong track record of delivering, even in tricky circumstances. On the other hand, the fate of BHS shows that failure is punished hard in the retail sector.


Stocks in Focus: Intertek

This week I am writing about Intertek following the announcement that Chief Executive, André Lacroix has purchased a further 100,000 shares, costing approximately £3.27m.  This effectively doubles his investment in the company.

Intertek is a global testing, inspection and certification company.  They are one of three major players in an otherwise fragmented market and have a breadth of skills and knowledge which provides opportunities in a number of different sectors.  The markets that Intertek operates in include testing children’s toys as well as electrical testing and certification and checking oil shipments.

The fall in the oil price at the end of 2014 sparked fears that Intertek’s profits would be hit by a number of contracts being cut due to their exposure to this sector.  However the company’s profits remained more robust than investors feared and consequently the share price has rallied.  With the share price up 23% over one year investors may start to worry that the shares look expensive.

The announcement that the Chief Executive is willing to increase his holding suggests that the board is confident that the current price still offers value, despite its recent strong performance.   Since taking the Chief Executive role a year ago Mr Lacroix has indicated that he will continue to make bolt-on acquisitions focussing on the higher margin and higher quality parts of the business.  Clearly he feels confident that this will continue to add value for shareholders.


Points of View: Witan Investment Trust

This week I am focusing on Witan, an investment trust aiming to provide investors with a balance of capital growth and income over the long term through a portfolio of global equities.

Witan’s structure has been significantly overhauled since 2010 following the appointment of Chief Executive Officer Andrew Bell, who selectively employs reputable, specialist fund managers to run different portions of the portfolio. The managers are considered by Mr Bell to be the best in their assigned regions and likely to generate long-term outperformance. Indeed, the strategy has proved successful thus far given that Witan’s net asset value (NAV) has grown by 53% over the past five years compared with 39% from the IMA Global sector.

Despite this outperformance, the price at which Witan’s shares are trading has shifted from a 2% premium to NAV in January to a 5% discount at the time of writing. While turbulent stock markets have led to many investment trusts’ discounts widening year-to-date, for Witan this is only part of the story. Specifically, the price weakness can also be attributed to a large shareholder that was recently forced to sell their 16% stake due to the holding no longer being compatible with its new mandate.

On the one hand, it could be argued that Witan is relatively expensive as it has historically traded at significantly wider discounts to its NAV. On the other hand, it could be argued that wider discounts are unlikely to be reached again given the Board’s ability to buy back shares as part of its discount control mechanism as well as the fund’s excellent track record under Mr Bell.