Neil Woodford once had a reputation as Britain’s answer to Warren Buffet, with the celebrity kudos to bring in more than £10bn of other people’s money to manage on their behalf.
Stock watchers used to refer to the “Woodford effect” of investors picking a star manager, rather than a particular asset class or market. The situation could not be any more different today with his Equity Income Fund in crisis.
The £3.5bnfund will remain gated until December to give Woodford more time to sell stakes. The idea is to steady the ship and build up enough cash to repay investors when the gates finally reopen.
But when that day comes, the fund manager will struggle to rehabilitate himself, such is the battering his reputation has taken. Brand Woodford has gone from being an asset to a liability.
In a sign of his fall from grace, the board of another Woodford fund, Patient Capital Trust, revealed on Monday it was considering replacing him as the manager of its assets. Imagine Henry Ford was sacked and someone considered better at making cars was installed in his place? This is the City equivalent.
The damage might not yet be terminal for Woodford’s City career but things are coming perilously close. Results have not gone his way and a period of beating the market would help. But in an industry based on trust as much as hard numbers, he could do much more.
A good start would be heeding the advice of MPs and regulators who argue he should waive the management fees he is still taking. Hundreds of thousands of customers are trapped and forced to keep paying them. As much as £10m could be taken by Woodford while the fund is suspended.
Woodford said he’s sorry for putting investors through the wringer but scrapping his management fees would show he is serious. His reputation could depend on it.
A chaotic result for Sports Direct
Mike Ashley’s retail empire managed the unthinkable last week: coming close to upstaging the chaos in British politics, with an omnishambles update on Friday 10 hours later than planned and packed with grizzly news.
On a bizarre day in the City even for the maverick Newcastle United owner, Ashley went on a rant about “self-interested” advisers, argued that company bosses should face drug tests and suggested he regretted buying House of Fraser.
The problems at the department store chain are “terminal” and there is a €674m (£605m) Belgian tax bill to contend with, Sports Direct finally got around to saying at 5.19pm on Friday, an hour after markets closed. Updates usually come out at 7am, an hour before the opening bell, to give investors time to digest the news.
The weekend clearly did little to calm furious investors: the shares tanked by a quarter before recovering to end the day down 6.5%.
“A case study in failed corporate governance,” one money manager told the BBC. “Frankly a pathetic way to run a business,” said another.
Trading conditions might be tough on the high street. Retailers are facing a losing battle against online rivals, consumers are hard-up and Brexit could make matters much worse. But Sports Direct is an unusual case because Ashley has put himself at the centre of the storm by buying up firms in trouble. Friday’s farce exposed a business that has spun out of the control of its excessively acquisitive owner.
The financial markets are finally waking up. After barely budging as Boris Johnson took power last week, sterling fell sharply on Monday as his government talks up no-deal Brexit.
Markets don’t have the best track record of reading politics. The City has always assumed some form of Brexit deal can be reached: it is the central scenario at the Bank of England. But this looks increasingly at odds with reality.
Threadneedle Street could change tack when it publishes its inflation report on Thursday. But it probably won’t, as Johnson’s stated policy is still to pursue a deal, even if his rhetoric suggests otherwise.
Taking Britain over the cliff would mean another Wile E Coyote moment for the financial markets.