By Simon Jessop, Sinead Cruise and Carolyn Cohn
LONDON (Reuters) – Neil Woodford has been ousted from his flagship LF Woodford Equity Income Fund which will be shut down to pay back investors whose money has been trapped since June.
Trading in the now 3 billion pound fund managed by Woodford, one of Britain’s most high-profile money managers, was suspended four months ago after poor performance led to an increase in demand from clients to take their money back.
At the heart of Woodford’s troubles was the scale of his holdings in unlisted or illiquid assets, which have become a focal point for the UK regulator in subsequent weeks – especially as Woodford continued to charge investors management fees.
Despite Woodford trying to sell its illiquid holdings ahead of a planned December fund reopening, administrator Link Fund Solutions (LFS) told investors the process had not gone as planned.
As such, Link said the fund risked an extended suspension in December, potentially leading to unequal treatment of investors.
“Whilst progress has been made in relation to repositioning the Fund’s assets, this has unfortunately not been sufficient to allow reasonable certainty as to when the repositioning would be fully achieved and the Fund could be re-opened,” Link said.
Neil Woodford, in a separate statement, firmly rejected the move to shut the fund and oust him as manager.
“This was Link’s decision and one I cannot accept, nor believe is in the long-term interests of LF Woodford Equity Income fund investors.”
A source close to Woodford told Reuters that Link’s decision was a “complete surprise” and the manager had only learnt of Link’s intention to close the fund late on Monday.
The Financial Conduct Authority said it “welcomed the removal of uncertainty” provided by Link’s decision to shut the fund.
It “means investors should receive some of their money back sooner than had the fund remained suspended for a longer period,” the regulator said.
Woodford will cease to be the fund’s investment manager with immediate effect and its assets will be split into two portfolios, LFS said in a statement.
BlackRock Advisors <BLK.N> will take charge of selling the fund’s listed assets while PJT Partners will continue with its previously agreed role in helping to sell the fund’s illiquid assets, Link said. PJT declined to comment.
The winding up of the LF Woodford Equity Income Fund – which will be stripped of Woodford’s name – will begin on Jan. 17, 2020, Link said, when investors should receive an initial payment.
A spokeswoman for BlackRock said it would “seek to maximise value for investors, balancing the need for a timely return of capital with the challenges of the illiquidity profile of the portfolio”.
Stocks in the fund, as per the last portfolio data published in April, include housebuilders Taylor Wimpey <TW.L>, Barratt Developments <BDEV.L> and subprime lender Provident Financial Group <PFG.L>.
Darius McDermott, managing director of financial adviser Chelsea Financial Services, described the situation as “a mess” and the closure of the fund will make it “a forced seller of all stocks”.
Oxford-based Woodford made his name at Invesco Perpetual in part after famously avoiding the collapse of the tech bubble at the turn of the century as well as banks ahead of the financial crisis.
After more than two decades at Invesco, he set up his own eponymously titled firm in 2014, quickly amassing billions in mostly retail investor assets, much of it from investment platform Hargreaves Lansdown <HRGV.L>, which continued to back the troubled fund right up to its suspension.
At its peak the fund managed more than 10 billion pounds.
Shares in Neil Woodford’s separate listed fund Woodford Patient Capital Trust (WPCT) <WPCT.L>, which shares some of the same holdings as the suspended fund, slid to a record low at the open on Tuesday, and by 0910 GMT were trading down 8%.
Wealth manager Alan Steel, a long-term Woodford investor, told Reuters he had discussed the potential merits of liquidating the fund with the fund manager at a private meeting “months ago”.
“It would have been better than giving up now after all the hassle investors like me, my children and my grandchildren have endured,” Steel said, adding that he had been well rewarded by Woodford’s investment approach over the past 30 years.
(Editing by Susan Fenton)