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Left hand down, hold on for the ride

Posted by on 14 Nov 2019

On 9 November, Prof. Brian Cox who is a professor of particle physics and a TV and radio presenter responded to the news that credit rating Moody’s downgraded the outlook for the UK’s debt with this Tweet: “Neither Labour nor the Conservatives will be able to borrow all the money they are pledging if international investors take fright.” Pausing only to note that anyone who relied on Moody’s credit ratings probably got wiped out years ago, Prof. Cox’s view does not seem outrageously controversial to me. Yet he was buried by a landslide of comments such as: “Don’t you just love it when experts step out of their areas of expertise and talk bollocks.” In essence the message is that if Brian Cox thinks that interest rates might rise, then he must be an economic dumbo. But the important point is not whether the professor is a financial simpleton or not but that the crowd is so emphatically behind a view that would quite recently have been unthinkable. Groupthink now knows that interest rates will never rise and that governments can...

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Quarterly review

Report on Q4 2019

Posted by on 6 Jan 2020

The last two weeks of 2019 were a good year for equity markets. The immediate cause was of course a decisive majority for the Conservatives and the apparent dispatch of Corbynism to the library shelf marked “Historical Fantasies”, perhaps one day to be studied by students who feel that their knowledge of the Venerable Bede is as complete as it will ever be. From 13 December, the day the results were known, the FTSE 100 rose by 4% to the end of the month, having been down in the quarter up to that point. The star performer in Q4 was the FTSE 250, the most domestically exposed index, which rose by 10%, compared to 2% for the 100 and 3% for the All Share. Year on year, all the indexes were stars due to a meltdown in Q4 2018 which offered a generous comparison. For 2019 as a whole, the FTse 100 was +12%, the 250 + 25% and the All Share +15%. Wow. The US 10 year yield was stable at 1.79%. 10 year gilt yields rallied from 0.55% to...

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Companies

ON BELIEF – LISTEN TO YOURSELF, TRUST YOURSELF

Posted by on 4 Feb 2019

There is a classic episode of Yes Prime Minister (“The Bishop’s Gambit”) in which Jim Hacker has to choose between two problematic candidates for a vacant bishopric. One is a “modernist” and the other is a “separatist” (of church and state). There is a famous exchange that runs as follows: Sir Humphrey : “The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England” Hacker: “What about God?” Sir Humphrey: “I think he’s what is known as an optional extra”. Sir Humphrey explains that a “modernist” is a coded word. “When they stop believing in God they call themselves modernists”. Theists tend to prefer the word “faith” to “belief”. Much blood has been spilled across the centuries over the question of whether the wafer and wine offered as part of holy communion are really the body and blood of Christ or merely symbols. If you think that the answer to that question is obvious (and the chances are 1000-1 on that you do) that is because you can’t help yourself. Belief is not a result of choice. It’s something that happens to you...

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Big picture

Left hand down, hold on for the ride

Posted by on 14 Nov 2019

On 9 November, Prof. Brian Cox who is a professor of particle physics and a TV and radio presenter responded to the news that credit rating Moody’s downgraded the outlook for the UK’s debt with this Tweet: “Neither Labour nor the Conservatives will be able to borrow all the money they are pledging if international investors take fright.” Pausing only to note that anyone who relied on Moody’s credit ratings probably got wiped out years ago, Prof. Cox’s view does not seem outrageously controversial to me. Yet he was buried by a landslide of comments such as: “Don’t you just love it when experts step out of their areas of expertise and talk bollocks.” In essence the message is that if Brian Cox thinks that interest rates might rise, then he must be an economic dumbo. But the important point is not whether the professor is a financial simpleton or not but that the crowd is so emphatically behind a view that would quite recently have been unthinkable. Groupthink now knows that interest rates will never rise and that governments can...

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Report on Q2 2017

Report on Q2 2017

5 Jul 2017

The UK stock market was on a rollercoaster ride to nowhere in Q2. The FTSE 100 fell by -0.3% and the 250 managed a rise of +1.8%. Given that we had a shock election, a shock result, a hung parliament and that the shadow Chancellor thinks that democracy has failed, you could say that the stock market has been amazingly calm. Likewise the government bond market. The 10 year gilt yield was 1.23% at the end of Q1 and 1.26% at the end of Q2. This is the dog not barking in the night time. We are widely told that the pale imitation of austerity that has been attempted for the last eight years is to be abandoned but the bond market is not panicking yet. Here is a picture of gilt yields since 2007.    One of the lessons of the election was that voters under the age of fifty or so are not frightened of the things that made the 1970s rather messy. Inflation, double digit interest rates and labour unions challenging the government’s right to run the country to name but three. It remains the case that the return of inflation is what bears warn about most frequently. In the 1970s the best way to protect oneself against inflation was to buy property. House prices rose by 492% over the decade. I wouldn’t advise the same strategy now. In fact I would consider doing the opposite. The world still seems pretty deflationary to me. You can choose your own explanation and file it under “uncertainty” but it still seems to me that listed companies are still being very cautious about capex and expecting their shareholders to approve of this caution. Here are five domestically exposed UK companies that have reported March or April year-end results recently. Halfords cut capes by 11% and raised its dividend by 3%. Dairy Crest cut capex by 62% and raised its dividend by 2%. M&S cut capex by 25% and kept its dividend unchanged. Stage Coach cut capex by 18% and raised its dividend by 4%. Royal Mail cut capex by 16% and raised its dividend by 4%. All these are behaving in a risk averse...

WE NEED TO TAX ASSETS

WE NEED TO TAX ASSETS

20 Jun 2017

Nearly every commentator admits that he or she was wrong about the recent election, in particular their belief that no one with a modicum of responsible judgement would vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I also was wrong when I wrote this: Just as the Labour party cannot afford to be a blunt advocate of public spending because it knows that government debt is critically high, the Conservatives are no longer perpetually calling for lower taxes because they know that services to which we all think we are entitled are going to become yet more expensive. So the result is that the debate at this election has become a little more subtle than usual. As it happened, Labour produced a costed manifesto in which 80% of the extra revenue was to come from corporations or rich people, those joint gold medallists in legal tax avoidance. This was anything but subtle (“people in suits can pay”) and was effectively trashed by the party itself when, in response to complaints from students who have already incurred high debts that their successors would benefit from Labour’s plan to abolish fees in future, Jeremy Corbyn promised to “deal with it”. Dealing with it sounds expensive and was not covered by the manifesto. By contrast, the Conservatives decided that it was a good time to have a grown-up conversation about relieving young people from the burden of paying for the care of the elderly by tapping the assets of the elderly themselves. It turns out that the country is not ready for this discussion which is a great shame. Time is running out. Between now and 2030, for every net person joining the major income tax paying years of 30-59, there will be nine (net) joining the over 75s. The Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan has this plausible explanation for the surprising performance of a Labour movement led by its left wing. No, I’m afraid we’re down to the simplest and most depressing explanation. Quite a few voters will support any party that seems to be offering them free stuff. Labour’s manifesto was a ridiculous list of public handouts. More money was promised for healthcare, schools, the police, public sector pay rises,...

Are you rich and is everything your fault?

Are you rich and is everything your fault?

28 Apr 2017

THE PARADOX OF SPENDTHRIFT AUSTERITY It may be stretching a point to say that any of the political parties in the forthcoming “snap” election will make interesting financial arguments but it does seem that the days of competitive spending pledges might be behind us. That would be a relief and at least we could say that the continuing nine year fallout from the financial crash was not for nothing. I will generalise by saying that opposition parties have a strategic problem. They would like to criticise the Conservatives for allowing government debt to rise from 76% to 90% of GDP during a number of years labelled as a period of “austerity” but they are also against austerity in principle and disinclined to criticise the Tories for pursuing it with insufficient discipline.    Yet it seems that calling for even more government borrowing is not regarded as an option for a party with serious ambitions to be elected. So the debate, if that is not too dignified a word, is turning towards where the burden of taxation should lie and whether the status quo is “unfair” (a word that we all remember well from the school playground). LET’S TALK ABOUT TAX We can all agree that tax evasion, which is illegal, is a bad thing. Unfortunately tax avoidance, which is not illegal, is frequently lumped together with evasion and cited as part of the evidence that some wealthy people or companies are not doing their share. It is certainly the case that some tax avoidance is morally dubious and some tax advisers come close to crossing legal lines. But much tax avoidance is the result of behaviour that has been encouraged by the government of the day. I avoided income tax by paying money into my pension. I was deliberately incentivised to do this. Children are encouraged to avoid tax by putting their savings into a Junior ISA. The fact is that you are unlikely to meet anyone who wants to pay more tax but it would be equally unusual to find a person who doesn’t think that someone else should. Just as the Labour party cannot afford to be a blunt advocate of public...

Report on Q1 2017

Report on Q1 2017

1 Apr 2017

The UK stock market had a sound quarter with the post Brexit vote devaluation effect fading. The FTSE 250 resumed its customary outperformance. It rose by 5.1% in Q1 compared to 2.9% for the FTSE. This is typically a sign that people are feeling less defensive or fearful. Given the somewhat alarmist nature of news headlines in the last months this might seem strange but as ever when something is on the front page of the news it is generally already absorbed by the stock market.          The rollercoaster performance of gilts continued. Having risen to 1.41% in December 2016, the 10 year gilt yield has sunk again to 1.23%. Many financial commentators talk as if the return of inflation is a certainty but the bond market apparently does not believe it. I was thinking seriously about investing modestly in long-dated gilts if the 10 year yield went above 1.5% but it didn’t happen and for now that ship is sailing away. In January I wrote about investing with a view to changing demographics and the rapidly growing elderly population. I recommended three shares. McCarthy & Stone – which builds retirement homes – has done quite well. It has risen 17% from 162.5p to 190p. Saga – which offers insurance and other services tailored for the over 50s – is up by 6% (to 203p) and the share price appears to be recovering nicely from the trauma of having 68% of its stock drip fed through various placings over a period of less than two years. The disappointment has been Pets At Home which delivered a somewhat bleak trading update due to its failure to increase sales of merchandise in its stores. There was a better story from the services (vets and grooming) part of the business (which is where the growth is supposed to be). The shares are down by 24% to 180.5p where they yield 4.4%. All three shares continue to be suggested by me as long term investments.      In December 2016 I wrote about Five False Truths, one of which was that “EVERYONE LOVES THE NHS”. Here is an extract: The brutal truth is that if you give something away...

The crumbling social contract

The crumbling social contract

15 Mar 2017

THE LAND OF THE FREE-FROM-RESPONSIBILTY The Occupy protesters (what was it they were protesting about again?) used to chant “We are the 99%”. The 1% were portrayed as the selfish and/or crooked people who had appropriated most of the wealth. It is demonstrably easy to be part of the 99% – in fact, it’s darned hard not to be. Rarely had so many ever been against so few. The trouble with being part of a 99% majority is that it is difficult to be focused. Even the French revolutionaries of 1789, who had pretty much the same numbers on their side, could not agree on their objectives and ten years later succumbed to dictatorship (by a chap named Napoleon). But the recent UK budget, delivered by the harassed Chancellor, Philip Hammond, highlighted one point on which close to 99% of politicians, lobbyists and commentators are agreed. They all have limitless opinions about how public money should be spent but next to no constructive suggestions about how that spending should be funded. There is no responsibility for funding that is commensurate with the responsibility for spending. This seems unfair because the latter offers all the joys of patronage and moral superiority and the former, as Mr Hammond might agree, is like having toothache in a land of no dentists (whose absence is widely attributed to your own austerity policy).      I believe that most citizens are supportive of the idea that they should pay their fair share of taxes. But what weakens their support is any suggestion that the government is misusing their money, either by waste and incompetence or by channelling it to family and friends or by funding causes with which they do not agree. (The 2016 EU referendum ticked all those boxes for many people). There was a great experiment in California in the 1970s that showed what happens when people revolt against their social obligation to pay taxes. PROPOSITION 13 Essentially, Proposition 13, passed overwhelming in a referendum in 1978, imposed severe restrictions on the ability of local Californian politicians to raise taxes. Its genesis was the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The US has a history of taxing real estate that...

Investing for our old age

Investing for our old age

16 Jan 2017

Here are two pieces of great news for the citizens of relatively rich, relatively developed, relatively Western economies. Women can increasingly combine career and motherhood rather than having to choose between them: and improved healthcare (if not exercise and diet) mean that people on average are living to greater ages. Fifty years ago, the UK average birthrate per woman was 2.9 (over her fertile life, not per pregnancy, obviously). Now it is 1.8. No doubt this is down to a combination of reasons which you can work out for yourself. Given that medical science has not yet worked out how to allow men to give birth you might imagine, if the UK’s experience is typical, that in the long term the global population will decline, on the rough basis that each woman should on average have two babies to replace those falling off the perch at the far end of life’s journey. Were it not for the fertility of some African countries, where birthrates of >5 per woman are quite common, mankind might become an endangered species.  According to the World Bank, the average fertility of women in the world was 2.5 in 2016 and the necessary “replacement rate” is 2.1. So the human race looks as if it will walk on for a while. Yet the story for developed nations is quite different. BIRTH RATE IN DEVELOPED NATIONS – FLACCID France (2.0), the US (1.9) and the UK (1.8) are doing their best (all, note, countries with histories of racially diverse immigration). The EU, which only promotes immigration from within itself, is overall at just 1.6 and Germany (1.4), Italy (1.4) and Spain (1.3) are below average. China, just unwinding its one child policy, is at 1.6 and Japan, perhaps the world’s most notorious ageing nation, is at 1.4. But the populations of established nations like the US, Germany and the UK are certainly not declining yet. Instead we have decades ahead in which the population will continue to grow but will age significantly. This is important for all kinds of financial reasons, none of them good. The last time that the fertility rate in the UK was at the “replacement rate” of...

Report on Q4 2016

Report on Q4 2016

13 Jan 2017

The UK stock market continued to climb the wall of fear or crawl forward in the sea of uncertainty or whatever you will in Q4. The FTSE 100 outperformed the FTSE 250 for the third time (out of four quarters) in 2016. Rising interest rates helped the UK banks index rise by 16% in the quarter. Some people think that lending margins will improve as interest rates “normalise”. Good luck to them. I will not be making that trade. Over the year as a whole the FTSE 100 rose by 13.9% having fallen by 4.8% in 2015. The FTSE 250 was up by 3.5% after +8.4% in 2015. The bond market was a bigger story in many ways with the 10 year gilt yield falling from 1.93% in December 2015 to 0.58% in August and then back up to 1.41% in December 2016. That is quite a rollercoaster dip. Many people believe (or hope) that the rise in interest rates will continue.  In many ways it would be helpful if they did (to help savers rather than borrowers) but I am not convinced that it is going to happen. The trading statements that January has seen have mostly been very encouraging. Marks & Spencer actually sold more clothes. I must admit I didn’t see that coming. I was less surprised that Morrisons sold more food. That has been a slow burner for me but it has started to come good. Let me say that I bought both these shares because of their financial strength (M&S’s cash flow, Morrison’s balance sheet) on the assumption that they would have the time to sort out their retailing problems. I know next to nothing about retailing but I can see that burdensome debt must make it much harder (eg Tesco). I was also amused and pleased to see that Sainsbury is now being helped by its acquisition of Argos. That stock (Home Retail Group) was my one attempt to take a view on a retail model and I just got away with it. The post that is most often called to mind at present is Four kinds of bias from May. The selective use of facts is all...

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...

Report on Q3 2016

Report on Q3 2016

5 Oct 2016

The second quarter ended just after the Brexit vote and the stock markets were in a state of shock. The FTSE 100, which is where frightened investors go to hide, had one of its rare periods of outperformance over the FTSE 250 in Q2. (The FTSE 100 includes large multinational businesses, the FTSE 250 is a better reflection of the UK economy). In Q3, the FTSE 100 rose by 6.4% and the 250 by 10%, a strong indication that investors recovered their nerve during the summer. Mark Carney would probably claim that this was the result of the Bank of England’s interest rate cut and expansion of QE on 4 August, though much of the stock market recovery had happened by then. European government bond yields have remained low but have had a fairly quiet quarter as people begin to question how much further central banks can go. The consequences of central banks’ actions were addressed by Crowknows in Q3. First in a post called “QE: a wrecking ball to crack a nut“, I suggested that, whatever its ultimate outcome, the predictable side effects of QE are quite disturbing. I looked at the widening of the wealth gap, the rising cost of pension liabilities (see the Tesco half year results on 5 October) and the piling up of the debt burden to be dealt with by future generations. The Bank of England does not print free money: it draws relentlessly on an excellent credit facility better known as the UK economy and its tax receipts of the future. The second post was about how QE plays out. This suggested that shares and arguably only shares are cheap relative to other investable assets. (Never forget thatvalue is always relative and never absolute, unless you believe that there is an investment god). It then suggested that if your house is your pension, then cashing it in is going to become what investment wonks call a “very crowded trade” one day. I don’t know when that will be but included in the possible dates is tomorrow. The third conclusion was that national debt will continue to grow (confirmed by the new Chancellor this week) and that the...

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...

Report on Q2 2016

Report on Q2 2016

6 Jul 2016

On the face of it, the quarter was dominated by the UK Brexit referendum decision on 24 June though, in the main, trends were consistent throughout the quarter. The FTSE 100, which delivers its rare moments of outperformance in times of nervousness, had continued to do better than the FTSE 250 up to 23 June. After the referendum result this trend was dramatically extended, partly fuelled by the sharp fall of sterling against the US dollar. At the close of business on 30 June, the 100 was up by 4.9% in the quarter and the 250 was down by 4%, a huge difference in fortunes. (Despite this, over the last 5 years the 250 is +35% and the 100 just +8%). If this signalled nervousness about the future viability of the UK there was no sign of that in the performance of gilts. 10 year gilts yielded c.1.50% three months ago. Now they pay just 0.80%. What this seems to tell us that a prolonged depression is more likely than either a renewal of inflation (normally a probable result of currency devaluation) or a default by the UK government (even though we don’t really have a government at present). The message from elsewhere, especially the EU, is the same. 10 year bund yields were 0.14% three months ago. They are now, as predicted, negative (-0.17%). In Switzerland, even 30 year government bonds yield less than zero. This seems to be confusing aversion to risk with a disinclination to continue to remain alive. The future is unknown. Get over it. I sold some shares ahead of the referendum result on the mistaken view that we would probably vote to Remain. I think that the EU economy is burdened by many problems – unreformed labour markets, burdensome state pension liabilities, unfavourable demographics and ailing banks. European politicians have been allowing the ECB to carry the burden with its “whatever it takes” monetary policy. As I wrote before, “QE looks desperate and desperation does not promote confidence”. It is the banks that really concern me. The share prices of some of Europe’s best known banks are trading near or even below their financial crisis lows. Deutsche Bank...

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...

Report on Q1 2016

Report on Q1 2016

8 Apr 2016

Following a nervous rally in Q4, in Q1 the UK stock market was merely nervous. For the first time in seven quarters, the FTSE 100 (-1.2%) outperformed the FTSE 250 (-3.0%). This is a small indication that investors were becoming more worried about the outlook for earnings, I suppose. Since the Fed made the first tiny upward move in rates (0.25% in December), the economic smoke signals have deteriorated. Janet Yellen has publicly backtracked on the outlook for more rate rises this year. The ECB has signalled that more stimulus may be needed. Then there is China, Brexit and, most particularly, blah blah.      As usual, market commentators think that equity prices should reflect their view of the world. As usual, they miss the fact that equities are merely assets that compete with the value on offer elsewhere. The implicit secondary purpose of QE (the primary purpose was to bail out the banks) is to make the value of every other investment so unattractive that people begin to invest directly in riskier ventures that are more likely to help the economy. That’s the theory on which, despite its having the weight and robustness of a Twiglet, the world seems to be relying. How’s it going? Well, the price of “safe” investments has climbed to yet more prohibitively unattractive levels. The yield on German 10 year Bunds was 0.63% on the 30th December 2015 and 0.14% on 30th March 2016 and is thought by some to be heading negative. Well, why not? The Bank of England started its QE purchases of gilts in March 2009. At the time, the average UK dwelling cost £157,500 (its low point of the last ten years). In March 2016, the average dwelling cost £224,000 a nifty rise of 42% or 5.2% compound over seven years. No wonder that most Britons think that housing is the best possible investment and that we must have a housing shortage. Memo to everyone: house prices have been inflated by a deliberate and unprecedented policy of monetary easing, not by supply shortage. This is not going to end well. How about the next stage? Are people helping the economy by making riskier investments? Today’s...

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...

Report on Q4 2015

Report on Q4 2015

5 Jan 2016

Following a very wobbly third quarter, we saw a nervous rally in Q4. As usual, the FTSE 250 (+4.5%) did better than the All Share (+3.5%) and the FTSE 100 (+3.1%). As a reminder, over ten years the 250 has performed more than ten times as well as the 100, yet index trackers continue to offer the 100 or the All Share (than which the 250 returned 5x over 10 years) as the default choice. Quite by chance today I read this from Ross Clarke in the Spectator blog. Jeremy Corbyn wants to get rid of the British Empire Medal and David Cameron wants to ditch the Human Rights Act. But I have a different nomination for the national institution most desperately in need of abolition: the FTSE 100 index. It is harming our economy by consistently underplaying the returns to be made on stock market investments and encouraging us all to invest in property instead. Despite the first nudge higher in the Federal Reserve interest rate government bond markets were quiet. The 10 year Bund yield slipped fractionally from 0.61% to 0.58%. Ten year gilt yields nosed up from 1.8% to 1.9%. The weakness in commodity prices is making people nervous about global GDP growth and the next cycle of rising interest rates seems no closer than it did this time last year or this time the year before…. One of the features of Q4 was the relative scarcity of actual bad corporate news and the relative abundance of negative opinions. The latter seem to suit the spirit of the times. Stock market analysts invariably provide opinions for which there is a demand – don’t be hard on them, it’s the nature of what’s left of the job – and if investors wanted bullishness they would get it. At the moment, anyone putting the view that China is going to be ok, that global demand will eventually underpin commodity prices and allow investment in production again, that middle-Eastern politics are ultimately pragmatic and that the effects of terrorism are statistically trivial would be accused of being naive, stupid or wilfully misleading. This is interesting because one would normally expect Cassandras prophesizing doom to...

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...

Report on Q3 2015

Report on Q3 2015

2 Oct 2015

According a chap on Bloomberg TV, $11 trillion was lost from the value of global equities in Q3. The FTSE 100 fell by 10.2% and the FTSE 250, as usual doing better, fell by 5.8%. In the three years since I set up this website, the FTSE 100 is up by just 5.6% and the FTSE 250 by 42.2% which is a shocking disparity. The FTSE 100 is the top 100 companies by market capitalisation and contains many international banking, pharma, oil, mining and commodity businesses. The FTSE 250 is companies ranked from 101 to 350 and contains more domestic household names. I suspect that these companies are of a more easily manageable size and have more scope for growth. That may be a story worth looking at more closely but there is an interesting question to ask at once: if you own a tracker fund (as I do in a small way) what is it tracking? Most UK tracker funds follow the FTSE 100 or the FTSE All Share. Over the last five years, the FTSE 100 is cumulatively +8.4% and the All Share is +15.2%. These returns exclude dividend payments. The tracker fund should retain the dividends (after it has taken its fee) to boost the fund performance, so tracker funds should really beat the index (shouldn’t they?). These performance statistics indicate that the question of what your fund is tracking is rather important. And guess what? Over the last five years the FTSE 250 is up by 57.5%, an amazing outperformance of the other two indices. Over the last ten years it looks like this: FTSE 100 + 11%, FTSE 250 + 110%, FTSE All Share +21%. These are remarkable numbers. You might wonder why there are so few 250 trackers on offer. It might be because it’s much easier and cheaper to track an index that consists of 100 large shares rather than 250 medium-sized ones.  Or you might prefer your own conspiracy theory. Government bond markets did not share the sense of near-panic that infected equities. German 10 year Bund yields fell from 0.84% to 0.61%. UK 10 year gilt yields from c.2.1% to 1.8%. Nothing much to smell...

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...

Report on Q2 2015

Report on Q2 2015

6 Jul 2015

In Q2 the FTSE 100 fell by 3.3% but the FTSE 250 was up by 2.8%. In the first half year of 2015, the FTSE 100 was flat but the 250 was +9.2%. This divergence is probably indicative of two factors. The FTSE 100 is heavily weighted with banks and resource and mining stocks, few of which have looked like attractive investments for some years. The 250 is more reflective of UK PLC. Second, despite nervous headlines about (in no particular order) Greece, China, the interest rate cycle and the various consequences of terrorism, large companies have not benefitted from any move to perceived safe havens. Blue chip oil and pharma companies yield 5%+ but the average investor doesn’t seem to care. To put it another way, investors are not particularly nervous. European bond markets have normalised to some extent. The UK 10 year gilt yield has risen from 1.6% to 2.1%. Way back in September 2103 I recommended (and bought) a gilt, UNITED KINGDOM 1 3/4% TREASURY GILT 22. It was trading at 92. Having touched 103 in Q1 it now trades at just under 99, yielding 1.9%. This is not yet tempting me to get back in but it’s movement is worth following. Very little happened to the share prices of the major food retailers in Q2. They have all begun to tackle their structural problems. My view is that the market is now ignoring a trickle of good news. While Tesco is taking small steps at the start of a very long road – because Tesco needs to overhaul its financial structure – Sainsbury reported that the performance in its large stores had improved in June. It implied that the appeal of discount stores like Aldi and Lidl was waning slightly. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but Sainsbury is making an effort and its new joint venture with Argos is interesting. Morrisons has a new chief executive, David Potts, who seems to be making the right noises. When the (dull) Q1 numbers were released he said: “My initial impressions from my first seven weeks are of a business eager to listen to customers and improve“. He seems to be as good as his...

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...