Saturday was Pensions Awareness Day, which was a relief to many, since they will now assume they can be unaware for the other 364 days of 2018. In fact, “unaware” just about describes the general knowledge of the subject, even among those who have followed the official advice and put more money into their pensions.

They are probably unaware that one of the core holdings in their fund is about to be snitched and replaced by something less attractive. This week the directors of Unilever published their formal plans to take this important Anglo-Dutch business to the Netherlands.

In the six months since the less-than-ecstatic reception of the original announcement, their minds are completely unchanged. Disguised as “simplification” their intention is to take Unilever away from beastly Brexitland to The Netherlands, land of extra protection from takeovers, fewer irritants from an intrusive press and where the CEO can retire in a blaze of patriotism.

Unilever will drop out of London’s top index, and shareholders must take on trust that their dividends will not be damaged. The Dutch (coalition) government has pledged to remove the 15 per cent withholding tax from 2020, but its majority is tiny and already there are mutterings about “tax breaks for foreigners.” It would have made more sense for Unilever to wait until the legislation had passed, but that would have spoiled the timing for the current CEO’s retirement next year.

Still, all is not lost. The scheme needs a 75 per cent voting majority of plc shareholders, and if enough of us decline to take one for the team and the greater glory of the Unilever directors, it might fail. It will only do so if the fund managers who control most shares nowadays understand how their customers are being disadvantaged, and are prepared to do something about it. Pressure from the customers to vote against the scheme will concentrate the mind.

Even if the scheme passes, this episode has not enhanced the reputation of a company which has painstakingly built an image as a socially-responsible organisation which looks to the long term for all its stakeholders.

It seems this caring, sharing attitude does not extend to the plc shareholders. Perhaps the projected start of trading in the replacement shares on Christmas Eve is a subtle Dutch joke. Like the pensioners, we are not aware of it.

Just a minute

Things are grim at Just Group, provider of annuities for those expecting short lives, but better known for its lifetime mortgages. These allow ageing homeowners to cash in on their property gains with loans where the interest is not paid, but rolls up with the debt.

This latter business is relatively new, and pricing the risk that the house will be worth less than the accumulated debt at the homeowner’s death is exercising the Prudential Regulation Authority. It will want more capital from the lenders, and Just has already sacrificed its half-time dividend in anticipation, warning of a capital raise to follow.

The shares have halved in four months, and at 74p are discounting a thumping rights issue to appease the PRA. Only then can the market price the risk that the mortgaged property will fetch less in 20 years’ time than its value today. It does not seem remotely likely. At this price, Just shares are discounting housing Armageddon.

Down with the KIDs

“Past performance is no guide to the future” is the familiar little disclaimer accompanying information on pooled fund investments. It has been there for decades, but now potential buyers find it has a new friend which, in effect, says the opposite.

The Key Information Document is a fine demonstration of a baleful European Commission directive producing the opposite effect to that intended. For reasons lost in the mists of committee rooms, KIDs oblige funds to project past returns into the future. So the Association of Investment Companies finds that one in 10 investment company KIDs imply gains of 20 per cent a year in “moderate” market conditions, while over half produce between zero and 10 per cent even in “unfavourable” markets.

These are such laughably optimistic projections that seasoned investors will simply ignore them. For the rest of us, the best response is to follow the latest advice from the AIC: “Burn before reading.” No kidding.

This is my FT column from Saturday

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