FIVE FALSE TRUTHS

FIVE FALSE TRUTHS

13 Dec 2016

Imagine that your morning post contains an envelope that has your name and address written by hand in block capitals. Inside is a note, written by the same unknown hand that says, “YOU ARE SMELLY”. What do you make of that? For a moment you will regret having two helpings of chilli con carne last night and you will think back to last Thursday when you had a shower. But then you will start wondering about who could have sent such a note. What kind of strange person would bother to take the trouble to deliver such childish (and doubtless unjustified) abuse. What kind of sinister creep does that? Is this the start of something that could escalate? Will it end with a chalk line on your floor marking the position of your dead body when it was discovered?   Much of what passes for “social media” on the internet is effectively a worldwide digital version of an anonymous “YOU ARE SMELLY” note. And once you have asked yourself what sort of person spends time commenting, usually negatively, on anything that takes their fancy, with their ignorance protected with the cloak of anonymity, you must then come to a more awkward question: who in their right mind takes any notice of this stuff? It is certainly the case that corporations and politicians manage their Twitter and Facebook (and doubtless many other apps that I’ve never heard of) identities carefully. They employ people to try to ensure that their public face is shiny and smiley. Television channels read out texts and tweets to give the impression that someone sitting at home sending messages to the TV is not sad at all but is really a member of an upbeat community. Everyone is frightened of provoking a Twitterstorm, defined on Wikipedia as “a sudden spike in activity surrounding a certain topic on the Twitter social media site”. Sadly, Twitterstorms are frequently responses to someone questioning orthodox or just populist opinion. We pretend to revere people who challenge consensus but in practice they are fair game for mob anger. (I appreciate that Donald Trump is the exception to the above: he is far from anonymous, he does not...

Why investors love uncertainty

Why investors love uncertainty

18 Oct 2016

Every five minutes, someone, somewhere, says that “markets hate uncertainty”. This is an example of anthropomorphism or the attribution of human characteristics to animals, objects or ideas. Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing according to Warren Buffet, wrote about Mr Market, an obliging business partner who offers to buy you out or sell you a larger stake on a daily basis. Mr Market can be generous or miserly but his defining characteristic is that he always shows up. Mr Market is in fact, a market.  Regrettably, the temptation to turn Mr Market into a soap opera character who experiences human emotions has proved too much for many commentators. Watch, read or listen to today’s news and you will find that Mr Market is an extremely judgmental fellow. Donald Trump makes him very unhappy. He is incandescent with anger about Brexit. Interestingly, Mr Market is not a great believer in democracy. When he thinks that voters in the US or the UK are making a mistake he stamps his foot in rage. He much prefers the smack of firm leadership. When Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia attempt to collude to restrict the supply of oil he performs a little jump of joy. Enough. Mr Market does love or hate anything. Markets are just places where buyers and sellers look for each other and sometimes meet. If you want to attach a smiley face to the chart of a rising market that’s up to you but remember that higher prices result in losers as well as winners. Witness the UK housing market – oldies = smiley face: youngsters = sad face. The sloppy thinking that leads people to say that markets hate uncertainty invariably evolves into the confident factual statement that “investors hate uncertainty”. This assertion is central to the fund management industry that wants to frighten you into paying to have your savings looked after. Please see my post “Clients are very nervous”. But the truth is the opposite. Investors love uncertainty because it causes assets to be mispriced. It is only the mispricing of assets that leads to good opportunities to buy and sell. I don’t want to be unkind but if someone...

How QE plays out – and other guesses

How QE plays out – and other guesses

15 Sep 2016

This is a follow up to my last post about how QE is a wrecking ball that distorts financial markets and economic decision making. I have no opinion – despite a sceptical mindset – about whether QE is being applied correctly or about whether it will work. I doubt if even hindsight will allow people to agree about whether it succeeded. As an investor I need to weigh the probable outcomes of the distortion itself. Even this is not the same as making a definitive call on what will happen. That is gambling. As always, investing is about probability. THE WEALTH GAP – ONLY SHARES ARE CHEAP As long as QE carries on and the pool of safe assets shrinks further, savers in search of yield will keep chasing other assets. The stock market has been climbing the wall of fear this year. Before the referendum vote, George Soros and others forecast a decline of up to 20% in UK shares. Chancellor Osborne did not rule out suspending stock exchange trading in the face of the expected panic. With the atmosphere so full of “markets hate uncertainty”, that notorious cliché so readily embraced by third rate market commentators, many people will have assumed that the stock market would have performed its patriotic duty and dived after Brexit. But shares are cheap and quick to buy and sell, five days a week. I have just been offered a two year fixed rate bond by a building society that yields 0.95%. That’s a decision that ties up my money for two years. Were I to choose to buy Marks & Spencer shares instead I could get a dividend yield of more than 5% – and if I change my mind and decide that M&S is too racy, I can sell it in two minutes. Back in verdant Blackheath and vibrant Lewisham near to my house, yields on buy-to-let properties are between 3.6% and 4.5% (source portico.com). That seems like a lot of cost, time and risk compared to being a passive and better-rewarded owner of M&S. There is no hint that QE will be curtailed or reversed. On the contrary, the central banks of the UK...

QE : a wrecking ball to crack a nut

QE : a wrecking ball to crack a nut

3 Sep 2016

On 4 August 2016, the Bank of England expanded the QE (quantitative easing) programme that it had begun in 2009. This expansion, which now includes corporate bonds as well as gilts, is ostensibly in response to the Brexit referendum result on 24 June. The Treasury and the Bank had warned that Brexit could lead to a bad recession. You might need reminding that the official purpose of QE, since 2011, has been to stimulate the UK economy. You might think that, if this policy has been a success, it is rather a slow burner. But Andy Haldane (Bank of England Chief Economist) is in no doubt that it is the right thing to do and that this is no time to be faint hearted. “I would rather run the risk of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut than taking a miniature rock hammer to tunnel my way out of prison.”   Mr Haldane may be an economist but he knows how employ a ridiculous metaphor to make a point. And although he – incredibly – affects populist ignorance of financial matters (giving interviews in which he says that pensions are too complicated to understand), he does not lack respect for his own ability. He explained that the decision to cut interest rates by 0.25% was in order to save hundreds of thousands of jobs, though whether this included his own was not clear. QE actually commenced in 2009 as an emergency measure to prop up asset prices in a (so far) successful attempt to save the banking system. The banks held vast amounts of tradable assets that could become vulnerable to crises of confidence – so the central bank stepped in as a very public buyer and calm was largely restored. Phew. The official line that this was a form of monetary policy that could stimulate economic growth snuck in later and is much more challenging to justify. It seems to me to be a rather strained argument. Here is the latest official serving. BoE report 4 August 2016 The expansion of the Bank of England’s asset purchase programme for UK government bonds will impart monetary stimulus by lowering the yields on securities that...

Hidden charms of Mrs M&S

Hidden charms of Mrs M&S

5 Jun 2016

Back in November one of my first ever blogs was about M&S. The shares were trading at 389p and I wrote that only takeover interest could justify a higher price but I thought that the pension liabilities made that a very unlikely prospect. For reasons which were and remain unclear to me the shares touched 600p last year but M&S has not yet been taken over and they have now tumbled all the way back to 355p. A battered low-end competitor BHS has just been closed with 11,000 jobs lost and 164 stores closed. It is no surprise that it was the pension liabilities that provoked the final bullet to the head. In addition, Austen Reed is closing 120 outlets at the cost of 1000 jobs and Matalan is reportedly struggling under its debt burden. (Matalan’s founder loaded it with extra debt in order to pay himself a dividend – sound familiar?) A hard-headed analysis might suggest that the closure of a competitor is good news for the other clothing retailers but on 25 May M&S shares were hammered following publication of its 2015/16 results. Excluding last week’s ex-dividend adjustment they are down 17% (from 445p). For the nth year, M&S is having trouble with its Clothing business. The CEO was ridiculed for referring to the core customer as “Mrs M&S” though the results presentation offered the slightly surprising observation that 42% of its 32 million customers are men. I seriously doubt if there is any company on which more people have an opinion than M&S. There are millions of experts out there. I can read in the presentation what customers are complaining about. There is too much choice, too much fashion at the expense of style, too many sizes out of stock and not enough consistency about price and value. As someone burdened by little interest in shopping or retailing I must say that none of that looks impossible to fix. You can also shop at M&S online though I don’t know how well it works or whether that would appeal to the 78% of customers who are 35 or over (still reading the presentation). Following the rather negative publicity and the share...

Four kinds of bias

Four kinds of bias

30 May 2016

1)      SELECTIVE USE OF FACTS It is not news to say that people will select facts and opinions that appear to favour their side of an argument. There was a good example last week from the pro-Remain CBI which wants to demonstrate that the possibility of Brexit is already hurting investment. “Overall, surveys of investment intentions have shown a deterioration in investment plans, particularly in the services sector. Some of this is likely to be related to uncertainty ahead of the EU referendum. Although our April investment intentions data for the manufacturing industry actually strengthened, anecdote from the sector suggests some specific factors at play – in particular, replacement spending in the food & drink sector (following flood-related damage earlier in the year) and buildings investment by chemicals manufacturers looking to expand production on the back of solid export demand.” CBI Economic Forecast 16th May 2016 Did you get that? The latest data suggest that their view is wrong so they have concluded that the data are wrong. The CBI is supposedly a highly respectable organisation (so respectable that the EC contributes money to fund some of its publications) and can get away with substituting anecdote for data, or so it seems.    The Leave side is mostly less respectable and, partly by virtue of the necessity that it is promoting something of a leap in the dark, rarely seems to attempt to employ hard facts. But you can be sure that it is highly selective in what it says. You would imagine that the UK is full of people who are deeply worried about immigration. According to a survey that goes back to 1962, the peak year for UK citizens thinking that there are too many immigrants was 1970 when the level reached 89%. In 2014 it was 54%. Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech was made in 1968 and probably contributed to the high level of antipathy to immigration that the chart shows. During the speech, Powell quoted a white constituent (in Wolverhampton) as saying: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” As it happened, the period...

Trade Agreements – the New Protectionism

Trade Agreements – the New Protectionism

2 May 2016

THE “UNREPEATABLE” MISTAKES OF THE 1930s According to the IMF (and pretty much everyone else, I believe) the Great Depression of the 1930s was made worse by protectionism. After the financial crisis that blew up in 2008, leaders of the Group of 20 (G-20) economies pledged to “refrain from raising new barriers to investment or to trade in goods and services, imposing new export restrictions, or implementing WTO inconsistent measures to stimulate exports.” They all agreed that a return to protectionism would be a disaster. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is not a promotor of liberal free-for-all trade. It is an organisation of 162 countries based in Geneva (where else?) that employs 640 Secretariat staff. It particularly promotes the interests of developing nations and negotiates and monitors international trading rules. As we shall see in a moment, developed nations are showing an increasing wish to do their own thing. In its own words: “WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. They spell out the principles of liberalization, and the permitted exceptions.” Agreements are negotiated and then ratified by member countries one by one. Many of them ratify with qualifications that they individually require. The phrase “bureaucratic nightmare” comes to mind. The Doha development agenda has been under discussion since 2001. It is easy to suspect that these negotiations will occupy entire (probably highly agreeable) working lives. Consider this sinister undertaking: “Virtually every item of the negotiation is part of a whole and indivisible package and cannot be agreed separately. This is known as the “single undertaking”: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.” Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Wow. IS INTERNATIONAL TRADE REALLY CONDUCTED BETWEEN NATION STATES? The WTO was founded in 1995 on the premise that international trade is an activity that takes place between nations. As far as this applies to undemocratic nations it is at least partly true. North Korea, for example, exports a fair amount to China. I’m guessing that the nations involved monitor this pretty closely. Yet much of what passes for political debate seems to assume that we all function in this way. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Donald J Trump on...

BREXIT special. Does politics affect asset prices?

BREXIT special. Does politics affect asset prices?

15 Mar 2016

A STUPID ARGUMENT THAT YOU WILL CERTAINLY HEAR ENDLESSLY One of the most commonly and confidently asserted falsehoods is that markets hate uncertainty. Without uncertainty there would be nothing for markets to price. The pricing of assets is about probability. All questions of probability involve uncertainty. If you ever meet someone who believes in certainty sell them something because they will overpay. Politicians, particularly conservative or establishment ones, often try to scare voters with the unknown. In the current “Brexit” debate, the stayer camp is accused of conducting a Project Fear campaign. One of the central points of this argument is that foreign investors will be put off by the uncertainty that would result from Britain voting to leave the EU. This ignores the fact that almost everything in Britain already seems to be owned by foreigners. Politicians and other public commentators like to pretend that trophy assets are quintessentially British long after they have been sold off.  Witness the farcical outbreak of faux patriotism when a takeover of AstraZeneca by a U.S rival was suggested. The reason why there has been so much foreign investment in Britain is, ironically, politics. More specifically, it has been the lack of interference by politicians in ownership rights. British politicians do not, by and large, confiscate privately owned assets. The downside of this is that rather a large number of exotic individuals with wealth accumulated in dubious circumstances are attracted for this very reason. And there are more on the way, according to today’s news. “Ultra high-net-worth investors from Iran are poised to go on a buying spree of properties around the world – and London is likely to be the top location.”  City A.M. 15 March 2016 This is in many ways very annoying and even shameful unless you happen to be the legal vendor of an asset that has just been sold for a price beyond your greediest dreams. We can’t have it both ways, though it would be gratifying if there were some kind of effective test to verify that the funds used for the purchase had been lawfully acquired. This is supposed to be the function of money laundering laws but these appear...

OSTRICH POST II – DADT

OSTRICH POST II – DADT

25 Jan 2016

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) was a (now repealed) US official policy that insisted that gays serving in the military must take part in a cover-up. On the grounds that they kept their sexual preferences a secret they were excused from being openly bullied, discriminated against and dismissed. Something that everyone knew to be untrue (the idea that the US military was staffed entirely by patriotic heterosexuals) was sanctioned in a big game of “let’s pretend”. If everyone acted as if it were true it would be just as if it were actually true. But DADT turned out to be too convenient a device to be confined to such a narrow issue. It was perfect for the treatment of subprime mortgages! It was clear to many insiders that people who had no realistic chance of repaying were being granted loans to buy properties that had to rise in value to bail out the borrower, that these debts were being insured on terms that didn’t come close to reflecting their risk and that the loans were being repackaged and sold on, backed by credit agency ratings that were uninformed and irresponsible at best. Yet even when the crisis was unfolding at speed, banks and other financial institutions were saying publicly that everything with which they had been stuffed was AAA quality. Check out The Big Short for a great explanation of the story. The trouble with DADT is that it is like a Ponzi scheme. Once you have started to pretend, you have to keep going. The morons working at the soon-to-be rescued banks did not mean to buy toxic junk. But once the mistake was made the easier option was to keep playing along. Like a trader who hides loss-making positions in the bottom drawer (or a secret computer file), the final thing you can try to buy is time. You literally decide to wait for a miracle.    Something like this is going on with Quantitative Easing (QE = DADT). As I have pointed out elsewhere, the truth that QE was a device for inflating asset prices in order to save the banks from marking them to market was spun into an officially...

Melting capex

Melting capex

24 Dec 2015

This seems to be a time in which people have a touching faith in the idea that progress can be achieved through international negotiations. Certainly, the mutual back-slapping following the Conference Of Parties (COP21) in Paris implied that a new era of cooperation has arrived. COP21 had 25,000 official delegates and an estimated further 25,000 fellow travellers (doubtless all busily offsetting their air miles). The direct aim of this conference was to agree to a temperature target for the earth in the year 2100. With nearly 200 nations represented, it is understandable that everyone was pleased and relieved that everyone agreed that something had probably been achieved. The obvious problem is that in 85 years (2100) almost none of the 50,000 attendees will be alive. COP21 is a group-hug endorsement of the contemporary notion that everything that is hard to face now can be flipped into the future. The tendency to defer tough decisions is arguably human nature (though there must be some humans out there somewhere who prefer to face up to difficulties – where are they?) Certainly, putting off the evil hour has dominated central bank policy for nearly ten years to the point that markets were effectively begging Janet Yellen  to pull the trigger on the first rate rise of what might turn into the new current cycle. Avoiding short-term unpleasantness has resulted in a massive build-up in off-balance sheet liabilities for future UK taxpayers through an expensive policy known as PFI. It has allowed students to be obliged to fund their own education on penal terms, using teaser rates to distract attention from the financial burden that will dog them in years ahead. The probable widespread default that will hit the Student Loans Company will be underwritten by all taxpayers in the future. While much political capital is made out of trying to deny benefits to immigrants, nobody seems inclined to address the monumental unfunded liability that arises from the need to pay pensions to and healthcare costs for our dramatically aging population. We’re probably going to need a large number of working age, tax paying immigrants to help us out at some point. The inevitable car crash that will...

Housing demand and demographics

Housing demand and demographics

5 Nov 2015

If you arrived today from Mars and the first human you met tried to explain the housing market, you might hear that average prices are >10x average earnings for the first time and that interest rates are at a 3000 year low. If he then told you to invest all your savings in a property you would probably zap him into a little pile of ashes. Because Martians can do that. Yet you would soon find that this apparent rogue adviser would have felt (were he still capable of it) unlucky to have been zapped because he was part of a crowd and people in crowds typically feel (unjustifiably) secure. He could have pointed you at newspaper stories following the latest population estimates from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).    Britain’s population set to rocket by 10 million over next 25 years   Migration will cause UK population to explode by almost 10 MILLION over the next 25 years I suppose that headlines of “UK population to grow by compound rate of 0.54% per annum” would have seemed less exciting though that is exactly what the estimates amount to. While I think that 25 year projections are so likely to be wrong as to be next to useless it is worth remembering that average GDP growth in the last 60 years has been 2.5%. It is also worth mentioning that population growth from 1981 to 2015 was compound 0.44% per annum. On a per head basis we have all become much better off. This may be why old people of today have trouble reconciling what counts as poverty today with what they remember from their childhoods. But an increase in the annual rate of population growth from 0.44% to 0.54% is an increase and is clearly a very important matter to some people. What particularly seems to strike fear and loathing into the population is that the ONS estimates that half of the extra 10 million will be from net migration. (The government’s annual net migration target of c.100,000 is ignored by the ONS which assumes a persistent long term rate of 185,000).      But 10 million extra people will need somewhere to...

Monday 19th October

Monday 19th October

14 Oct 2015

Next Monday is an evocative date for those of us who worked in the City of London in 1987. The nineteenth of October became known as Black Monday (not the first or the last) as global stock markets went into meltdown. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 22.6% in that single day. At one point during the trading day it was reported that the Chairman of the SEC (the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) had mentioned the possibility of suspending trading. Naturally this increased the level of panic. It felt all the more dramatic because the previous Friday, the 16th, had seen the Great Storm that felled trees all over Southern England. My wife and I drove into work that morning through streets that had been laid to waste a few hours before. The City was spookily quiet and the stock market felt abandoned but was also very weak. It turned out to be an eerie harbinger of the full scale panic that was to follow. If you search for explanations of Black Monday you will generally read that the stock market was overheated, partly inflamed by excited takeover activity. In September 1987, the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi made an approach to buy Midland Bank. Nothing better exemplified the mood of the time – that anything was possible for the new money of the eighties. The Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Nigel Lawson, had won the General Election on 11th June, seemingly confirming that the corpse of socialism had been buried and that capitalism could bring prosperity to anyone with the ambition to pursue it. It is certainly true that the developed world stock markets had risen substantially in 1987. By mid-July the FTSE 100 was up by 45%.  In that sense, prices were high though of course that is not the same as saying that they were expensive. All value is relative, as we know. As stock markets rose, bonds fell. This is a classic danger sign. Ten year gilt yields rose from 8.8% in May to 10.1% in September. High street savings accounts paid 9%. From today’s perspective, it seems incredible that equities were so popular. In relative...

Dare you trust these dividends?

Dare you trust these dividends?

21 Sep 2015

Perhaps the most pertinent question for UK stock investors today is “can I trust those high dividend yields?” Glaxo has pre-announced that it will maintain its dividend at 80p per share this year and next year. That’s a yield of 6.2%. Royal Dutch appears to yield 7.5% on the basis of paying $1.88 (c.120p) also “guaranteed” for 2015 and 2016. If these companies can be relied on to continue these pay-outs, it matters little whether Janet Yellen dares to raise the federal funds rate from irrelevant to insignificant or indeed whether Mark Carney goes mad and does the same with the bank rate.  Here is what I previously wrote about the interpretation of high dividend yields. Shares that yield 5% The market does not like these companies. They are seen as unreliable. This may be because there are external threats that are beyond the power of management to prevent or mitigate or it may be that management is simply mistrusted. It might also be the case that they are mature businesses that are, rightly or wrongly, thought to be approaching the end of their life-cycle.   Shares that yield 6% The market does not trust the dividend. It expects it to be cut (or “rebased”, in modern corporate terminology). Naturally I agree with every word of this and everything that follows should be seen in the context of those comments. I will briefly discuss Glaxo and Royal Dutch before moving on to some humbler companies. There is a summary at the end. GLAXO           Price:  1296p                    Hoped for dividend:  80p                       Yield: 6.2% Glaxo is showing off by paying a bonus 20p in respect of Q4 (year-end March 2016). This seems to me an unnecessary answer to the sceptics who would anyway be confounded merely by flat progress. People dislike Big Pharma about as much as they dislike Big Tobacco and they both look like industries that spend a fortune on lobbying. Glaxo needs to generate $3.8bn of free cash flow to pay its 80p dividend without adding extra debt (nearer $5bn this year with the bonus). In 2014 it made free cash flow of $5.5bn; in the year to March 2015 free cash flow was...

“Clients are very nervous”

“Clients are very nervous”

28 Aug 2015

Like many people, I hoped and almost believed that the financial services industry would reform itself after the global disaster for which it was largely responsible. Sadly, there is plenty of evidence that the “leaders” of the financial community are merely waiting to resume their old behaviour. No one appears to be trying very hard to stop them and, if one can stay out jail (and almost everyone does!), taking advantage of stupid but solvent people is very lucrative. As that schoolboy joke goes: “Why does a dog lick its own private parts?” “Because it can”. And so to this week’s story about the giant asset management firm Pimco.  A story on Bloomberg states that Pimco’s assets under management peaked at $2.04 trillion in March 2013 but subsequently declined by almost 25 percent. Pimco’s funds have not performed as well in the last two or three years as they did in the past and its two most high profile names, Mohamed El-Erian and Bill Gross, both left in 2014, with rumours that they had fallen out (with each other). Senior staff at Pimco were partly paid (in cashable internal currency known as “M shares”) on the basis of the firm’s profitability which is dependent on fee income which naturally rises and falls with funds under management. According to Bloomberg, Bill Gross “took home” $290 million in 2013 (a real hunter-gatherer of the 21st century). As the funds’ performances have faltered and the funds under management have declined the group’s profitability has fallen and the performance award has turned south. This is how capitalism works you might justifiably say to yourself: and these financial superstars must understand and even appreciate that: this, surely, is the game they have chosen to play. But wait! Not so fast there! According to the impressively well-informed Bloomberg reporter, “clients are very nervous”. Are they nervous because they are paying top performance fees for mediocre performance? No! They are scared that the threat of lower rewards will motivate their money managers to take their talents elsewhere. According to Mary Childs (she’s the journalist in the pink cocktail dress if you watch the video), it is too much to expect that...

Gifts in the mail

Gifts in the mail

15 Jun 2015

The privatisation of Royal Mail in October 2013 was a lesson in how the City can run rings around politicians who fancy themselves as financial sophisticates. In this case the sap-in-chief was Vince Cable, a man whose CV includes many “economics advisor” titles. Despite this supposed in-house expertise, his department for Business, Innovation & Skills hired a vast syndicate of City banks, perhaps believing in the wisdom of crowds. It is well known that the shares were priced at 330p, that the institutional offering was oversubscribed by 24x and the retail portion by 7x. Most applicants for shares got none at all but 16 priority investors shared 38% of the entire offer (representing 22% of the company). On the first day of trading the shares closed at 455p. Within a few weeks, seven of the sixteen priority shareholders had cashed out completely. The grounds on which the priority investors had been selected were said to include their willingness to be long-term shareholders. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the government behaved with a mixture of ignorance and fear. For many years, financial institutions have gorged themselves on the naivety of their customers but, as a citizen, I find it very disappointing that my elected representatives are quite so useless. The underpricing and mishandling of the IPO was something of a public humiliation that may have contributed to the ejection of Vince Cable in the recent general election. It took only until March 2014 for the National Audit Office to publish a report that criticised the government for being cautious and pointed out in restrained language that “the taxpayer interest was not clearly prioritised within the structure of the independent adviser’s role”.  Royal Mail was something of a dinosaur company in stock market terms. It was a state-owned business that retained a highly unionised workforce and huge defined benefit pension liabilities. Moreover, it was obliged to maintain a national postal delivery service while the potentially more lucrative parcel delivery service was open to new competitors who could to some extent cherry-pick the services that they fancied. Letter volumes are in clear decline as most of us prefer e-mail while parcel volumes are rising...

On Scepticism – can we have our word back?

On Scepticism – can we have our word back?

9 Jun 2015

Scepticism is essential to successful investment. At its simplest, it implies recognising the possibility that anything the market prices as certain or very likely, might turn out to be false. This practical application of scepticism should feature in all investment decisions. Given the priceless value of scepticism, it seems wrong and somewhat suspicious that the word has acquired pejorative connotations. In Britain, “eurosceptics” are taken to be anti-Europe and specifically against the UK’s membership of the European Union. There are plenty of such people, but they seem to me to have made up their minds. If you are decided on a matter you are not sceptical. It may be that people against Europe like being called sceptics because it makes them seem more open minded. But this use of the word has started to turn it into a term of abuse, specifically in relation to the belief in climate change. Climate change deniers are referred to in language that implies them to be corrupt criminals or merely idiots and they are rarely if ever distinguished from those who choose to treat all arguments about climate change with scepticism. Here is Kofi Annan talking to the Guardian last month. “We seriously have to question the motivation of those people referred to as climate change sceptics, who are denying the evidence of human-caused climate change and preventing us from moving forward by spreading disinformation and supporting unchecked carbon pollution.” Climate change believers frequently state that 97% of all climate scientists agree that the consensus view – that global warming is caused by human activity – is true. As an investor, this assertion discomforts me. It makes me think of packages of securitised junk mortgage loans being given AAA+ scores by ratings agencies. If everyone thought or more precisely said that they thought they were OK, what could possibly go wrong? Ratings agencies were, it would seem, paid to award high ratings to rubbish. Whether climate scientists have a financial incentive to swim with the dolphins in the warm waters of the consensus I don’t know. But it is clear that on numerical grounds alone, publicly expressing scepticism will make you stand out a bit.   It...

Our fictitious “housing crisis”

Our fictitious “housing crisis”

6 May 2015

IT’S NOT ABOUT HOMES, IT’S ABOUT HOUSE PRICES Politicians, journalists and sundry do-gooders seem, against the odds, to have discovered one fact on which they all agree. It seems that Britain has a housing shortage and, to paraphrase the late Vivian Nicholson, we must build, build, build. Whenever an opinion, no matter how compellingly simple, is presented as a fact with which no one could disagree it is wise and even compulsory to question it. I bought a dead tree copy of the Times last week (28 April 2015) and there was an opinion piece about housing that contained this sentence: “It’s reckoned that we need about 250,000 new homes a year”. It didn’t add who reckons that or why. But once you start googling “250000 new homes” you quickly light upon a report written in 2003 by Kate Barker, a one-time stalwart of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee. It is reckoned, as they say, that this report demanded 250,000 new homes a year and eleven years on that has not been achieved once. It would appear that the nation has accumulated a bit of a backlog: to be more precise, a backlog of 845,000, that being the difference between the actual number of completions and 2.750,000 (11x 250,000). So what did the esteemed Kate (now Dame) Barker actually say in her report? Did she really demand that 250,000 new homes should be built every year? (Spoiler: no). The first line of the report is this: “The UK has experienced a long-term upward trend in real house prices.” And there’s a clue. I think it is fair to say that the primary motivation of this report is to make housing more affordable by increasing the supply in order to restrain prices. Here is the section that deals directly with the question of how many new houses are desirable: “Looked at purely from the perspective of the UK economy, more housing would be beneficial. Different approaches to measuring the shortfall, produce a range of estimates: • projections of population growth and changing patterns of household formation (a proxy for future demand), compared to current build rates implies there is a current shortfall of...

Sex and money – we need to talk

Sex and money – we need to talk

10 Mar 2015

Calm down now. This post does not address the alleged aphrodisiac qualities of wealth or any other aspect of paying for sex. It is about taboo subjects. A combination of embarrassment and distaste tends to prevent the discussion of topics that should properly be addressed. Hence our nation’s ludicrous history of sexual secrecy with its toxic residue of unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and child abuse. Absurdly, forty years after homosexuality was legalised in England, the CEO of BP felt it was necessary (in 2007) to go to court to stop himself being “outed”.   You might think that the sexual inclination of a CEO or any employee is of no interest to anyone else. But a judgemental attitude persists in the UK and it motivates people to behave as if work relationships have to be furtive. Indeed, many organisations take this much further and require all relationships between employees to be confessed. The implication is that such behaviour is sinful. It is quite true that good or bad relationships, sexual or otherwise, can influence the way that people behave at work. And it is essential that unwanted sexual attention is prohibited. But this no excuse for prurient gossip dressed up responsible human resource management. A purely practical point is that many single people who work long hours will spend half their waking time in the company of colleagues. It is nonsense to pretend that professional relationships will not merge with personal life. But I have known couples who have gone to extreme and potentially damaging lengths to disguise relationships that started at work. And once the lying starts it is hard to stop. You think that employment law gives protective rights to woman who become pregnant? It doesn’t if they feel that they must retire to protect the identity of the father whom they met at work. I know of a case just like this. In the UK, a similar damaging reluctance accompanies discussion of financial affairs. While a certain restraint is appropriate when discussing both sex and money – as the Facebook generation might find out to its cost – there is nothing shameful about needing either. And need is not greed. It...

The ECB, QE and the waiting game

The ECB, QE and the waiting game

12 Feb 2015

Quantitative easing is a process by which a central bank buys relatively safe assets (mostly government bonds) and thereby puts cash into the hands of the newly-ex owners of those assets. In the early years of the financial crisis, this was effectively a life-support system for financial institutions which, post-Lehman Brothers, looked like they might fall domino-style. As the central bank bids up asset prices it creates a rising tide that floats many boats. One side effect of this is that the wealthy become wealthier. QE is quite tricky to justify from this point of view. If it is necessary to prevent the collapse of the banking system it is a jagged pill that needs to be swallowed. As I have written before, this is broadly how the Bank of England justified QE in 2009. “Purchases of assets by the Bank of England could help to improve liquidity in credit markets that are currently not functioning normally.” But gradually, while the music remained the same the lyrics changed. Expressing an idea that was essentially imported from the US, the justification from the Bank in 2011 was quite different. “The purpose of the purchases was and is to inject money directly into the economy in order to boost nominal demand.” You see what they did there? Once again, it was party time in financial markets. Bonds and equities were rising nicely. Bonds were rising because the Bank was buying them and other people were buying them because the Bank was buying them and equities were rising because they looked cheap compared to bonds. And property in the areas where financial people live began to go up again, despite the fact that prices appeared to require mortgages that quite high incomes could not plausibly service and that damaged banks could not reasonably be expected to offer. My friends and I have done splendidly from this once we had “got it”. And although I don’t know any influential people, some of my friends do. Call me a conspiracy theorist if you want but these influential people soon popped up all over the place saying how brave and wise central bankers were to extend QE. THE HIGH MORAL...

OIL…….Something Happened

OIL…….Something Happened

7 Jan 2015

The recent sharp fall in the price of crude oil is one of those rare financial events whose importance is appropriately reflected in press headlines.  Oil has a strong claim to be the world’s most important commodity and also the most political. OPEC was founded in 1960 by the charming quintet of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Venezuela. According to its website: “OPEC’s objective is to co-ordinate and unify petroleum policies among Member Countries, in order to secure fair and stable prices for petroleum producers; an efficient, economic and regular supply of petroleum to consuming nations; and a fair return on capital to those investing in the industry.” Were these companies rather than sovereign nations, this would be an illegal price rigging cartel subject to enough lawsuits to employ every lawyer until the end of time. As it is, it’s a legal price rigging cartel that everyone else has to live with if they wish to continue consuming oil. In 1973, OPEC became explicitly political when the US supported Israel in the Arab-Israeli war. It banned exports to the US and the barrel price of crude quadrupled from $3 to $12. It was a shocking inflationary impact that the world did not need. The Iranian revolution in 1979 saw a further leap from $14 to $40. The next great move came in the 21st century as global economic growth was propelled by developing countries such as China and India that became huge importers of oil. The price touched $140 until the financial crisis torpedoed the world economy in 2008 and the price fell right back to the 1979 price of $40. It is worth making a couple of points here. One is that the oil price has shown itself to be very volatile with changes in marginal demand having a huge impact. The other is that, partly thanks to OPEC, the market’s opinion of whether oil is cheap or expensive has largely relied on referencing its own history – the most unsophisticated way of valuing anything. That having been said, it is obvious that oil over $100 makes costly oil supply viable, notably from Canadian oil sands but also from fracking. The world...