* To cut use of debt to near zero over 12 months
* Toughens up oversight of deals in suspended fund
* Hires new audit committee chair; shares up 3.5% (Recasts, adds detail, share price, analyst reaction)
By Simon Jessop
LONDON, June 28 (Reuters) - The listed investment fund of embattled British money manager Neil Woodford plans to cut debt and bolster its board after pressure from shareholders spooked by a steep slide in its share price.
Woodford Patient Capital Trust (WPCT) has a number of the same holdings as a suspended fund run by Woodford, one of Britain’s best-known managers, and has been hit hard by concerns it may be impacted by any forced selling of assets.
Taking heed of investor concerns, the board of the trust announced on Friday a series of changes including reducing its use of borrowed money to fund the many small, unlisted companies in its investment portfolio.
After falling almost a quarter since Woodford’s 3.7 billion pound ($4.7 billion) LF Woodford Equity Income fund (WEIF) was suspended on June 3, shares in the trust were up 3.5% at 0737 GMT.
Investors had been most concerned about “gearing levels, the share price discount to net asset value, valuations, Board composition and the ongoing developments at the Portfolio Manager”, WPCT Chair Susan Searle said in a statement on Friday.
The trust said it had borrowed 126 million pounds ($160 million) as of June 26 to help fund its investee companies, equal to 16.8% of the value of its holdings and just shy of a 20% cap.
Given investors’ concerns, though, the company said it aimed to reduce the level of gearing to below 10% within six months and to be “generally operating ungeared within 12 months”.
Any future use of debt would be for short periods only and paid back by the proceeds of disposals and realisations, a number of which were expected over the next 12-18 months, it said.
In addition, borrowings that take gearing past 10% of the firm’s net asset value would require board approval.
The suspension of WEIF came after it was unable to free up enough cash quickly enough to pay back clients who wanted to leave, following a prolonged period of underperformance.
Its inability to pay was linked to its large number of holdings in unlisted or illiquid companies. As the trust also has stakes in some of the companies, its shares fell as markets bet the suspended fund may be forced to sell holdings cheaply.
Prior to Friday’s announcement, shares in WPCT were trading at a discount to the value of its holdings of just over 33%.
Seeking to allay investor fears of contagion from the suspended fund as Woodford looks to sell assets and raise cash, WPCT reiterated its assets were independently valued and would not necessarily be impacted by sales at the equity income fund.
If a sale by the suspended fund was considered ‘forced’, “it is not necessarily expected that the company’s assets would be marked to the same value”, the trust said.
The trust sought to push back against criticism it may be too close to the management of the suspended fund, flagging what it said were “robust” processes to avoid conflicts of interest.
Since the fund suspension, it had toughened up controls to ensure greater oversight of the investment process at Woodford’s other funds, including on proposed investments or disposals.
In a separate statement, it announced a series of board changes that would see former Mercury Asset Management executive Stephen Cohen join as an independent non-executive director, to lead the Audit, Risk and Valuation Committee.
Carolan Dobson, a non-executive director, would step down with immediate effect, with her replacement and an additional non-executive director expected to be announced in due course, it said.
$1 = 0.7892 pounds Reporting by Simon Jessop Editing by Rachel Armstrong, Edmund Blair and Emelia Sithole-Matarise