OpinionAug 25 2017

Why Woodford's woes remind us we're all human

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Neil Woodford is the last man standing among really big-name, super star managers.

Back in the 1990s and early noughties, there were many - think of Anthony Bolton making Fidelity the behemoth it was before 2008, for example. 

But while the US still has Soros and Buffett and Bill Gross, the UK does not really have a stand-out man, except for Neil Woodford. Perhaps that's why there was so much excitement abounding when he and Invesco Perpetual parted ways and he set up Woodford Investment Management back in April 2014.

His fund launches were met with similar levels of anticipation to a Guns 'n' Roses reunion concert, with tickets sold out well in advance. You had to be in at the start, so the marketing literature from various fund buyers and execution-only firms told us. 

And many of us bought into this story. This is the man who remained resolute on cigarettes when the Western World was turning against them.

Has he gone from a staid manager to one that puts French knickers on the portfolio and shows a bit too much leg?

British American Tobacco would continue to pay its dividends, he told us, because the Chinese really enjoyed smoking and were prepared to pay more money for good quality fags. 

Leaving aside ethical qualms, his value-oriented, long-term, patient dividend growth strategy paid off. But when it comes to recent ventures, investors are starting to get nervous. 

"Has Woodford bitten off more than he can chew?", one portfolio manager asked me last night. This is the sort of dinner-table conversation you expect when you're a financial journalist. "Has he become too racy? 

"Has he gone from a staid manager to one that puts French knickers on the portfolio and shows a bit too much leg?"

(Yep, this is the sort of analogy the industry indulges in over calamari and fine wine).

There have been several headline-grabbing stories in recent weeks, not least the latest fun and games with doorstep lender Provident Financial, which tumbled 65 per cent on Tuesday (August 22).

This was the company's second profit warning in two months, which was accompanied by the news of a cancelled interim dividend, an FCA investigation into its practices, and the departure of its chief executive. All big red flags, one might suppose.

As sister newspaper Investment Adviser reported, Mr Woodford's signature Income portfolio had 4 per cent invested in this company - that's a sizeable sum, considering Woodford Equity Income has £9.8bn in assets under management.