August 23, 2019 / 11:17 AM / a month ago

Woodford struggles to build bridges with UK financial advisers

LONDON (Reuters) - With his flagship 3.7 billion pound fund frozen, money manager Neil Woodford has been travelling around Britain trying to convince independent financial advisers (IFAs) his firm remains a good long-term bet.

FILE PHOTO: British fund manager Neil Woodford is seen in this undated handout image released July 18, 2019. Jonathan Atkins/Handout via REUTERS

Many of those IFAs surveyed by Reuters remain sceptical.

Woodford, one of the UK’s best-known fund managers, has given no media interviews or made any public appearances since his Equity Income Fund was suspended on June 3 after it ran out of cash to pay back investors seeking to leave.

But he has been giving presentations to independent IFAs, defending his investment thesis as he tries to convince them to tell their clients to stand by him.

Woodford has been “fighting his corner” said one source who attended the meetings, explaining his view of the markets and receiving a positive response, though two others said they did not find his arguments convincing.

The bulk of Woodford’s business is won through IFAs directing client money to him, so winning them round will be crucial if he is to have any chance of salvaging his business. But a poll by Reuters suggests he has his work cut out.

A survey of 10 IFAs, which collectively direct around 50 billion pounds of retail fund investors’ savings, found nine agreeing the damage to his reputation was “irrevocable and a serious threat to his future career”.

Three said they were “not very likely” and seven “very unlikely” to recommend his funds in future. The survey was carried out between July 18 and Aug. 7.

Of the ten, five had clients invested with Woodford at the time of the suspension.

All were asked their views on damage to his brand, how likely they were to recommend him in future and why, and if they had attended a meeting with Woodford since the suspension.

Some of the respondents asked not to be named, though one less negative response came from Ben Benson, investment analyst at Gibbs Denley, who said he believed Woodford had not suffered permanent damage to his reputation.

A Woodford spokesman declined to comment on the poll but confirmed that since the suspension, “Neil has met several hundred financial advisers, wealth managers and private client managers from across the UK.”

GOALPOSTS MOVED

Poll respondent David Inman at Chantler Kent said several of his clients had invested in funds run by Woodford when he was at his former employer Invesco and in the early days of Woodford Investment Management, but had got out more than two years ago.

Inman had grown concerned about Woodford’s increasing exposure to unlisted and rarely traded stocks. “The goalposts were somewhat significantly moved from when he started. At first it was a mirror image of Invesco, it kind of changed a bit.”

Two of the polled advisers had attended meetings with Woodford after the suspension but said they did not find his arguments convincing. “He did not take enough responsibility for the position he has found himself in,” said one.

Meetings took place in cities such as Bath in southwest England, Leicester in the Midlands and Harrogate in northern England, each attended by around 25 people, sources said.

Frank Corrigan from smaller financial advisory firm Corrigans met Woodford in Leicester in June and was more positive than the larger advisers polled by Reuters.

In a June blog post, Corrigan said the sale of two small company holdings at a premium to their valuation was one factor supporting Woodford’s belief that current investors will be rewarded by a rise in the unit price by the time the Financial Conduct Authority and Woodford agree to restore daily trading.

The suspended fund’s administrator has since said the fund will likely be closed until December. Corrigan did not respond to a request for an update on his comments.

Woodford had made a string of bets on domestically focussed UK companies hit hard by Brexit concerns, and prior to the suspension there had been criticism of the fund’s slant towards unlisted assets and persistent backing of poorly performing stocks such as Provident Financial (PFG.L) and Kier (KIE.L).

Hargreaves Lansdown (HRGV.L) had the fund in its “Wealth 50” best-buy list until the day of the suspension and wealth managers St James’s Place (SJP.L) and Omnis had also given Woodford money to manage.

Hargreaves alone has nearly 300,000 clients trapped in the suspended fund and has led calls for Woodford to stop charging fees. Hargreaves dropped the fund from its best-buy list immediately after it was locked and has said it is considering its position on including it in its multi-manager funds.

Even individual investors with financial acumen have been caught out. One financial analyst who spoke to Reuters said he has more than 10,000 pounds of his own money invested.

“My advisers would say they have been blindsided, they weren’t on top of the situation,” he said. “Because it was Neil Woodford, they gave him a bit of a longer leash.”

Editing by David Holmes

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