YES TO REGULATORS, NO TO MEDDLING

YES TO REGULATORS, NO TO MEDDLING

14 May 2018

Regulators should operate free of political interference. Ideally, they should be independent, honest and robust and people should both depend upon and fear them. They should be part of the judiciary rather than the executive. Above all, they should not court popularity nor try to placate the mob when it is demanding blood.  OFGEM: MORE OF A MEDDLER THAN A REGULATOR Ofgem (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets) is a UK regulator set up to ensure that competition in the energy market is fair to consumers. Its statutory duties and powers have been established by at least eight parliamentary acts and of course some EU rules too. It has a budget of £90 million and more than 750 staff. Consumers can switch freely and seamlessly between suppliers, of whom there are many. I have counted thirty seven ‘alternative’ suppliers in addition to the infamous Big Six for a total choice of 43 competitors. Ofgem’s most important responsibility concerns the electricity generators. It needs to ensure that enough capacity, of whatever kind, is built to satisfy our future energy needs. Our future consumption will not be directed mainly by economic and population growth but overwhelmingly by the plan to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. The UK’s electricity grid needs to be enlarged substantially and, given the lead times for new power stations, quite urgently. I don’t know if this was the right way to set things up but it seems reasonable to say “GO OFGEM!” and let it get on with what it has been empowered to do. I mean, how hard can it be? The answer is that if Ofgem is treated as a policy tool by the government of the day its work can be both difficult and ineffectual. For major capacity investments, Ofgem encourages competitive tendering, reasoning that the leanest transmission owner will produce the lowest prices for consumers. To this end, Ofgem sets guidelines for financial risks and cost of capital and acceptable returns. If these guidelines are too lenient, consumers might end up paying too much. If too harsh, the investments in new capacity might not happen. It is perhaps unfortunate that today’s political mantra...

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...

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...

Report on Q1 2015

Report on Q1 2015

30 Mar 2015

In Q1 the FTSE 100 rose by 3.3% and the FTSE 250 by 6.4%. The FTSE 250 is probably more sensitive to the domestic economy (or at least to how investors are feeling about it). The FTSE 100 has larger more global businesses including, of course, oil companies and banks, which received another kicking in the recent budget. That last point is a salutary reminder that investors will have to judge political risk in Q2 as the general election arrives 7th May (though the formation of a government may take weeks if the polls are correct in suggesting that no party will win a majority). I strongly doubt whether the economic outlook will be materially changed regardless of who wins. There is very little room for manoeuvre and it is painful to watch politicians trying to pretend otherwise. But where the banks have been led others could follow, particularly if the next government includes Labour. Utility companies have already been singled out to be sacrificed to the mob. No politician appears to understand that electricity supply is a very long-term and expensive commitment. It may be true that utilities are greedy cash cows but they will not invest the vast sums needed in next generation energy supply if they are treated like political footballs. Labour also wants to limit the profits available to companies who provide services to the NHS. I have no idea what they mean by this (drug companies? nursing agencies? hospital retail concessions?) but I am pretty sure that they don’t either. The point to bear in mind that stupidity is no bar to persecuting businesses that can be successfully vilified. Gilts had a relatively quiet quarter with yields falling from 1.72% to 1.57%. Last week I took profits on 25% of my gilt holdings. This was a small insurance against the political scene, but looking across the sea and seeing Irish 10 year bonds yielding 0.76% it is clear that most of us are missing something. Core eurozone bonds i.e. those of Germany saw 10 year yields fall from 0.54% to 0.18% and as I write the seven year German bonds have a negative yield. ECB QE now looks even...

Report on Q3 2014

Report on Q3 2014

4 Oct 2014

The stock market remained nervous, reportedly seeing below-average turnover in Q3. The trend that began in Q2, of the shares of smaller companies performing worse, continued. The FTSE 100 fell by 1.7% and the FTSE 250 by 2.9%. For the third quarter in a row, yields on European government bonds fell to previously unimaginable lows. German 10 year Bund yields have fallen below 1% (now 0.93%). To put this in some context, 10 year Japanese bond yields were around 1.9% before the financial crisis bit in 2008. Japan is considered to be the reference case of a country suffering from long-term deflation. Its 10 year yield is now 0.53%. Since June 2008, Japanese yields have declined by 72% and German by 80%. As I have noted before, the bond markets are shrieking the news that global growth has made a long-term shift to lower levels. Many will argue that this is bound eventually to be reflected in lower corporate profits. It is hard to argue with that but wrong to assume that share prices are consequently too high. When yields on all financial assets are falling, investors are paying higher prices for them. A dollar of corporate profit literally becomes more valuable than it used to be. Many stock market commentators, seemingly obsessed with short-term news and the aphrodisiac of growth, appear to be incapable of understanding this. Given that the cloud of deflation continues to hang over the world (see above), the traditionally nervous month of October will probably produce plenty of gloomy headlines. In my post about the supermarkets, I pointed out that, when operating leases are included as liabilities, Morrison was much cheaper that Tesco and Sainsbury. Well, the gap has reduced but not necessarily as anticipated. Morrison’s price has fallen but the others have fallen further. Tesco’s accounting practices have caught up with it and I must say that, as yet, there is no price at which I would buy it. At last I have noticed the beginning of a backlash in the press against Lidl and Aldi – our nostalgia for the 1970s must surely be limited. Sainsbury has promised a strategic review, a development that appears to have...

Report on Q1 2014

Report on Q1 2014

22 Apr 2014

The FTSE 100 fell by 2.2% in the quarter. The FTSE 250 (that’s companies from 101 to 350) rose by 2.1%. I wrote in the Q4 report that it is generally the case that smaller companies’ share prices are relative beneficiaries of improving confidence. Large blue chips do better when investors are seeking protection. It is worth noting that in the first three weeks of April, FTSE 250 shares have become more jittery, falling by 2.2% compared to a modest 0.4% recovery in FTSE 100 stocks. It looks as if there has been plenty of profit taking in the best performing shares of the past year, many of which are those of FTSE 250 companies. These were relatively trivial ups and downs in UK equities. Of more consequence for relative valuations is the continued strength of major government bonds. Yields on US, German and UK 10 year bonds have continued to fall, despite much talk of stronger economic data and falling unemployment. More impressive still has been the rebirth of demand for the bonds of Greece (yield on 31 December 2013, 8.41%; today, 6.12%), Portugal (5.9%; 3.73%), Ireland (3.43%; 2.83%) and even France (2.46%; 1.99%). Cash continues to chase yield and is becoming less fussy. At a time when the price of assets regarded as safe continues to rise, it would seem irrational to turn negative on the shares of established and financially sound companies. On that basis, this year’s flat equity market is probably resting rather than expiring. Turning to shares that I have recommended, in December I highlighted four companies with long-term strategies. UBM, whose share price is nearly unchanged since then, has just acquired a new CEO. I must admit that I had missed the declared intention of the CEO David Levin to retire in 2014. He has now been replaced by Tim Cobbold, ex-CEO of De La Rue. There is no reason to think that this will change the company’s long-term strategy. UBM raised its dividend slightly in 2013 and, with its low capex requirements, is confident of maintaining its “progressive” dividend policy. But, there is inevitably a risk that a new CEO will surprise investors (new managers are usually...

Report on Q4 2013

Report on Q4 2013

7 Jan 2014

The FTSE 100 rose by 4.4% in the quarter for a full year gain of 13.9%. The FTSE 250 (that’s companies from 101 to 350) performed twice as well in 2013, rising by 28.8%. There are never truly hard factual reasons why share prices move but it generally remains the case that smaller companies’ share prices are relative beneficiaries of improving confidence. Large blue chips do better when investors are seeking protection. It is also probably the case that smaller companies are less well known and consequently deliver more surprises. Note that in bad times they typically deliver more bad surprises which point takes us back to why large stocks do better when investors are nervous. It is reasonable to conclude that confidence improved in 2013. The mood implied by the yields offered by government bonds rose from clinically depressed to merely grumpy – in the case of the UK this was from 2.0% in January 2013 to 3.0% now. In the US the rise was slightly sharper, from 1.8% to 3.0%, but it was much the same story. The bond markets are suggesting that we are looking at a fairly gentle, low inflation recovery. Analysts sometimes name this “Goldilocks” (not too hot, not too cold) and it feels like a very comfortable investment environment. Comfort eventually causes complacency and this is exactly why it is wrong to commit one’s investment strategy to an opinion about the future, no matter how tempting. Investment is always about how probability is priced. Consensus rarely offers compelling value. I am pleased though not surprised to say that my satellite index of companies with female executives quite dramatically extended its outperformance against the FTSE 250. After the first nine months of 2013, the FTSE 250 was +25% but the 27 companies with female executives had risen by 35%. After the full twelve months, those numbers were +29% and +46% respectively. As for the shares that I recommended this year, in Q3 I wrote that I was surprised that Enterprise Inns rose by 40% in Q3. In Q4 it was much quieter, rising by 6.5%. I am not attracted by the value of the company now and I don’t...

Calmly seeking companies with long-term strategies

Calmly seeking companies with long-term strategies

6 Dec 2013

It may seem odd but it is harder than you might think to find companies with clear and measurable strategies. It is depressing how many listed companies offer nothing but a “mission” to be the “best of class”, to be “passionate about their customers” (yuk) and to pursue “value for all stakeholders”. In these challenging times when (thanks to QE) all assets are being priced as if they offer outstanding long-term value, I am inclined to seek companies with reasonably clear medium to long-term strategies. These generally feel obliged to keep their shareholders up to date with progress. Their executives generally accept that their careers depend on their achievements. If the strategies are realistic, they should be quite easy for investors to understand. To be fair, it is easier for a business to offer a clear strategy if it needs to undergo some kind of transformation. It is tougher for e.g. Coca Cola whose strategy understandably consists of flooding ever more of the world with its yummy syrup. The same could be said of Microsoft which has torched billions and billions of dollars trying to add other products to its ubiquitous desk software. There is no call to criticise successful businesses for failing to reinvent themselves – all we need to do is to check their attitude to shareholder value. But if we want to make serious money we should be looking for successful transformations. The simplest but most dangerous transformations are those, like Enterprise Inns, that involve financial rehabilitation. Share investors can be well rewarded if the equity portion of the business rises as the debt decreases. The purpose of this piece is different. It is to look for companies that are taking on the challenge of adapting their business model to changing times. Beware of companies that focus purely on financial targets, especially when these are linked directly to executive remuneration. A German company that I once followed made a quite inexplicable acquisition. While the company’s core business was in software with an operating margin of 25%, it bought a ragbag IT service company with a margin of approximately 0%. The justification offered by the management in defence of the deal was...