Return of Britain's fallen star fund manager sparks concern

Woodford Investment Management, which once boasted billions of pounds in assets under management, collapsed in 2019 having taken on too much risk
Woodford Investment Management, which once boasted billions of pounds in assets under management, collapsed in 2019 having taken on too much risk Ben STANSALL AFP
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London (AFP)

The return of Britain's former star investor Neil Woodford has caused concern in London's City finance district, where his spectacular fall from grace is still fresh in the memory.

Woodford Investment Management, which once boasted billions of pounds in assets under management, collapsed in 2019 having taken on too much risk, handing vast losses to pension funds, wealthy individuals and other fund managers.

Last weekend however, Woodford, 60, shocked commentators and investors alike with news that he would establish a new finance firm.

"I'm sorry for what I did," he told the Sunday Telegraph in an interview and revealed that his new investment venture that will be called Woodford Capital Management Partners (WCM).

"What I was responsible for was two years of underperformance. I was the fund manager, the investment strategy was mine, I owned it and it delivered a period of underperformance."

- Call for independent probe -

In response, activist investment group the True and Fair Campaign -- which promotes greater transparency in the finance sector -- urged an independent probe.

The campaign, founded by activist Gina Miller and her husband Alan, voiced concern Woodford would return to the financial world just 20 months after notorious failure.

"It is high time there was an independent investigation into the Woodford scandal," the campaign wrote in a letter to parliament's Treasury Select Committee.

"We believe it ought to be a very serious source of public policy concern that high profile individuals such as Mr Woodford can be allowed to re-commence trading when over 300,000 people... are scrabbling to make ends meet after seeing their life savings decimated."

The campaign also slammed Britain's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) regulator for its failings over the collapse.

The FCA however stressed in a statement on Tuesday that Woodford's new business needed to apply for appropriate permissions before commencing any regulated activity.

The watchdog also confirmed that its official probe into the WIM collapse was still ongoing.

Woodford -- once nicknamed "Britain's Warren Buffett" by media after the US investment guru -- forged his name as a top stockpicker in a 30-year career in asset management.

In 2014, he established his Woodford Investment Management.

Five years later, a series of disastrous investments turned sour after Woodford ploughed cash into a number of unlisted healthcare and technology companies, alongside poor stock market bets.

As investors clamoured to withdraw their money, Woodford ran into trouble raising cash.

- 'Damage in trust and confidence' -

Most market watchers are surprised over the comeback, according to Ryan Hughes, head of active portfolios at stockbroker AJ Bell.

"The news that Neil Woodford is looking to make a comeback will come as a surprise to many, especially those thousands of embattled investors who are still waiting to get the last of their money back," Hughes said.

"He clearly hopes that much of the emotion and fury that he has faced over the past two years will disappear.

"However, given the broader damage in trust and confidence that this whole affair has caused to the investment industry, it looks unlikely that investors of any kind will find it so easy to forget."