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Please see below the Chairman’s Statement from the Annual Report for the year ended 31st December 2019

Highlights

  • NAV total return of 21.3%, outperforming the benchmark’s return of 20.3% by 1.0%
  • Five-year NAV total return of 73.0%, compared with 64.9% for the benchmark
  • Share price discount to NAV 0.7% at year-end (2018: 1.3%)
  • Dividend increased by 13.8% to 5.35 pence, more than double that paid in 2009 and an unbroken run of increases since 1974
  • Benchmark simplified and made more global from 2020
  • Increased emphasis on sustainability; Witan is a signatory to the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment

Strong gains from equities and a degree of relief

Witan has invested with a multi-manager approach since 2004. Over this period, we have beaten the returns on our equity benchmark and raised the dividend significantly faster than the rate of inflation.

In 2019 US growth was resilient and at a higher level than other developed markets, where expectations continued to be downgraded. With evidence of weakening corporate confidence, there were concerns mid-year that the US trade dispute with China would spin out of control and precipitate a more pronounced slowdown, or even a recession. In Europe and the UK, sentiment was held back by the unpredictability of the Brexit process and by Germany’s exposure to a weakening Chinese economy and a stalling car sector. The global slowdown was ultimately arrested by policy changes (renewed monetary easing by the US Federal Reserve and other central banks and a shift towards looser fiscal policy) and positive political developments (a tentative US trade deal with China and an unexpectedly clearcut resolution of the UK’s domestic political impasse).

Despite the various crosswinds, equity markets delivered strong gains in 2019. One reason was the weak starting point. 2018 ended with a sharp equity correction, which discounted some of the risks that became more evident in 2019. This fall was quickly reversed in the early months of 2019, followed by a period of consolidation during the middle of the year, when fears of a possible recession took hold. Markets gained further towards the year end due to reduced political risks and improving hopes for growth in 2020.

Witan shareholders enjoyed exceptionally strong returns in 2019, which were ahead of our benchmark, although patience was required. For much of the year, Witan’s gains were behind those of our benchmark, owing to relatively high weightings in the UK and exposure to more lowly-valued but out of favour stocks. However, both these factors proved beneficial towards the end of the year, resulting in a net asset value (‘NAV’) total return of 21.3%, 1.0% ahead of our benchmark’s total return of 20.3%. The share price total return was 22.1%.

Taking a longer perspective, over the past five years Witan has achieved a NAV total return of 73.0%, compared with the benchmark’s 64.9% return over this period. During the ten years to the end of 2019, shareholders have had a NAV total return of 192.0%, compared with the benchmark’s return of 154.7%.

2019’s Dividend

A fourth interim dividend of 1.825 pence was declared in February 2020, payable on 3 April 2020. As a result, the dividend for the year increased by 13.8% to 5.35 pence per share (2018: 4.7 pence), well ahead of the 1.3% rate of UK inflation at the year end. The dividend is fully covered by revenue earnings, with £6.1m added to revenue reserves. We have increased the dividend every year for the last 45 years, with the latest dividend being two and a half times that paid in 2009. The chart below shows the dividend’s growth over the past ten years, compared with inflation.

Source: Witan

Sustainability

Good governance has long been recognised as a key part of successful investing – badly-managed companies, even without actual wrongdoing, are rarely sound investments. In order to prosper, businesses also need to operate with the acceptance of society, which goes beyond simply operating within the law. The increasing focus on environmental sustainability is a particularly acute example of how a changing political and regulatory backdrop can have profound effects on the prospects for individual businesses and industrial sectors. From a risk management viewpoint, as well as in weighing the investment case for individual holdings, managing these issues is a hard-headed necessity, as well as good citizenship. For this reason, Witan has intensified its commitments in this area by becoming a signatory to the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment (‘PRI’), seen as a code of best practice on Environmental, Social and Governance (‘ESG’) issues, and by increasing the scrutiny of our managers’ policies in these areas. Further details of our approach are set out on pages 24 and 25 of the Annual Report.

Savings schemes

As announced in January 2019, Witan closed its Witan Wisdom and Jump Savings Plans in May 2019, with investors mostly transferring their holdings to the Hargreaves Lansdown platform or to a different destination if they preferred. Witan waived all transfer charges in relation to the change. I should like to thank all parties involved for their hard work in implementing the changes as efficiently as possible and for account holders’ patience at the time.

The investment management of the Witan shares transferred is, of course, unchanged by this move, which simply changed the place where the shares are held.

Board changes

Andrew Ross was appointed as a director and Chairman-designate in May 2019, following a review of the required skills and a formal externally-facilitated search process. Following a further search process, we welcomed Gabrielle Boyle to the Board in August, adding further fund management experience to the range of skills represented on the Board. Short interviews with both Gabrielle and Andrew can be found here.

Richard Oldfield will be standing down at this AGM, after nine years on the Board, serving as Chairman of the Remuneration and Nomination Committee since 2018. His investment and managerial experience and advice have been of great value to the Company and will be sorely missed. As part of the Company’s succession plans, our Senior Independent Director Tony Watson is expected to stand down at the AGM in 2021.

A search for a further director was initiated early in 2020, taking account of the need to replace the skills of the retiring directors and of diversity considerations. An announcement will be made when this search has been completed.

I shall be standing down as a director of the Company at the AGM in April after over 30 years on the Board including 17 as Chairman. It has been a pleasure and an honour to have served shareholders’ interests during a period when the investment world has experienced such unimaginable change, as indeed has the Company. I should like to thank most sincerely all those, whether they be directors, employees or service providers for their work on behalf of shareholders over this exciting and sometimes challenging time. I am pleased to be handing over the Chairmanship to Andrew Ross. As a shareholder I shall be cheering from the sidelines.

AGM

Our Annual General Meeting will be held at Merchant Taylors’ Hall on Wednesday 29 April 2020 at 2.30 pm. Formal notice of the meeting will be sent to shareholders when the Annual Report is published. We look forward to the opportunity to meet you then for the Company’s 112th AGM.

Harry Henderson
Chairman
11 March 2020

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Please remember that past performance is not a guide to future performance. The value of an investment and the income from it can fall as well as rise as a result of currency and market fluctuations and you may not get back the amount originally invested.

Discrete performance (%)

  Q4 2014
Q4 2015
Q4 2015
Q4 2016
Q4 2016
Q4 2017
Q4 2017
Q4 2018
Q4 2018
Q4 2019
Share Price  5.7 18.4 22.1 -8.1 22.1
Net Asset Value  6.4 22.9 19.1 -8.4 21.3
Benchmark#  3.5 23.0 15.1 -6.5 20.3
NAV-Benchmark Return 2.9 -0.1 4.0 -2.0 1.0


Relative numbers may not add up due to rounding

† Source: Morningstar / Witan / FTSE, total return includes the notional reinvestment of dividends.
‡ The Net Asset Value figures value debt at fair value and include the notional reinvestment of dividends.
# Witan’s benchmark is a composite of 15% FTSE All Share and 85% FTSE All World. Previously, from 01.01.2017 to 31.12.2019 it was 30% FTSE All-Share, 25% FTSE All-World North America, 20% FTSE All-World Asia Pacific, 20% FTSE All-World Europe (ex UK) and 5% FTSE All-World Emerging Markets. From 01.10.2007 to 31.12.2016 the benchmark consisted of 40% FTSE All-Share, 20% FTSE All-World North America, 20% FTSE All-World Europe (ex UK) and 20% FTSE All-World Asia Pacific. FTSE is a trade mark of the London Stock Exchange Group companies and is used by FTSE under license. For more information go to www.witan.com/support/legal-information.