Report on Q4 2018 – full of sound and fury

Report on Q4 2018 – full of sound and fury

5 Jan 2019

Over the first nine months of 2018, the UK stock market was barely changed. In Q4 the world’s obsession with uncertainty overtook it. Trump took on China again, Trump took on the Fed, Congress took on Trump, the ECB took on Italy, the Conservative party took on Theresa May, everyone took on Saudi Arabia and the oil price took fright. While a falling oil price is sometimes considered broadly beneficial to the world economy, it is currently identified as a harbinger of global recession. The FTSE 100 fell by 10.7% in Q4, the 250 by 13.9% and the All Share by 13.1%. The rule that in nervous times investors favour large international shares (i.e. the FTSE 100) overall held good, though not on a scale to promote rejoicing or relief. For roughly the 17th time since the financial crisis the fear of impending inflation faded away. The underlying assumption that we are living in long-term deflationary times held good again. Government bond yields have duly subsided again. The US ten year yield has slipped from 3.0% to 2.6%, the UK 10 year gilt yield is now c.1.2% as opposed to 1.5% three months ago. It is times such as this (when the Japanese stock market’s daily change is one of the news headlines on the Today programme) that it is most important to remember our (or my) basic investment rules. Sharp and extensive falls in the price of classes of assets are caused only by the forced capitulation of unwilling and unhappy sellers. Great market collapses are invariably accompanied by the realisation that something that everyone took for granted is no longer true. Black Monday in 1987 was, with hindsight, a financial services event. Stockbrokers, fuelled by American money following Big Bang, were being paid more than bank directors had earned only a few years before. It was the time of Loadsamoney (Harry Enfield), Money (Martin Amis) and Serious Money (Caryl Churchill) and I am prepared to say without embarrassment that it was bloody marvellous to be part of when you were in your mid twenties. But when it was over you knew it was over. When the DotCom bubble burst in 2000 it...

Report on Q1 2018

Report on Q1 2018

30 Mar 2018

In my report on Q4, I wrote that “for the third successive quarter, the markets were mysteriously calm.” The calm was disrupted in Q1 for sure: the main UK indexes fell by between 6% and 8%. The German DAX was -6.3%. Supported by a falling dollar, the US markets, though volatile, did better with the DJIA -2.5%. I hinted before that the stock markets might be vulnerable to rising interest rates or, more specifically, rising bond yields. In February it started to look as if this was happening; the US 10 year treasury yield had risen from 2.40% to 2.94%; but by the end of the quarter it was back to 2.74%. A similar pattern played out elsewhere. The 10 year gilt yield rose from 1.20% to 1.69% but ended the quarter back at 1.34%. It would seem that the wait for inflation goes on. Aside from the usual nonsensical white noise about “uncertainty” it is hard to escape the conclusion that the stock market is truly concerned about the ability of large corporations that feature in our lives daily to invest capital, service debt and pay dividends. Here is your day described in terms of dividend yields: you are woken by the ringing of the house phone (BT: 6.8%) and switch on the light (National Grid: 5.6%); you turn up the central heating (Centrica: 8.5%) and clean your teeth (Glaxo: 5.7%); you decide to go into town but your car has no petrol (BP: 6.0%, Royal Dutch Shell: 5.8%) and needs a new rear light (Halfords: 5.4%) so you decide to take the bus (Stagecoach: 9.0%, Go-Ahead: 5.8%); you do some shopping in Currys PC World (Dixons Carphone: 6.0%, Vodafone: 6.7%) and M&S (Marks & Spencer: 6.9%) before treating yourself to a pub lunch (Marstons: 7.4%, Greene King: 7.0%). Is it the end of the world as we know it? Yet, against this rather sinister background something quite different has been happening. Companies who want to buy each other seem to like these prices very much. On 22 December GVC announced its intention to buy Ladbrokes plc. On 17 January, Melrose bid for GKN; on 30 January UBM agreed to be taken over;...

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...

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...