The real estate “bubble” is global

The real estate “bubble” is global

21 Mar 2019

In my round-up of Q4 2018 I mentioned three risks that I intended to keep an eye on. Here are three really bad things that could happen in 2019 or preferably later. 1) London house prices fall by 20% rapidly or 40% gradually (or both) 2) A major issuer of government debt suffers a catastrophic collapse in confidence or actually defaults (will the person who said “China” see me afterwards?) 3) A neo-Marxist garden gnome becomes Prime Minister of Great Britain. Numbers 2) and 3) remain of great interest but now I want to update myself on the developing story of property prices. Two observations are becoming quite well known: the apparent insanity of new high rise apartments shooting up all over Zone 2 London and the decline in turnover of the traditional property market. FLIPPERING HELL The FT had a good article on 20 February entitled “London’s property ‘flippers’ forced to sell at a loss”. Flippers are speculators who buy flats off-plan before construction has begun. It seems that they are often individuals either originating from or actually still living in Asia. They are probably rather ignorant about what they have agreed to buy. According to the FT, someone lost £770,000 buying and selling an uncompleted apartment in One Blackfriars, a monstrous glass eyesore (obviously that’s just my unsophisticated opinion) towering over the Thames (which has surely been punished enough). “In 2014, 21 per cent of resales in recently completed developments were sold at a discount, according to property research company LonRes. Last year that number had more than trebled, to 67 per cent. At the same time, the size of discounts has ballooned. From an average of 2.2 per cent in 2014, to 13.1 per cent last year.” To be brutally frank, most Londoners just find these stories of burnt speculative fingers quite satisfying. Some might say that it’s payback for despoiling our historic city with your greed and ignorance. Others might suggest that this attitude is somewhat hypocritical, given that mutual self congratulation about how much everyone had made on their houses was the backbone of London dinner parties for about three decades. PENSION PURGATORY Over those years many representatives of...

£££ The case for the pound £££

£££ The case for the pound £££

10 Nov 2018

  When I wrote recently about financial  contagion I pointed out that holding cash is an investment. It is effectively a bet against inflation and for political and economic stability. Moreover, holding any currency involves a potential hidden opportunity cost – that of not holding a different currency. On a couple of occasions in my lifetime, the British government has had to abandon a policy of maintaining the level of sterling against another currency; in 1967 against the dollar and in 1992 against the deutschmark. GREAT STERLING DEVALUATIONS OF OUR TIME On the first occasion, following a 14% devaluation, the PM Harold Wilson attracted a certain amount of ridicule for addressing the nation in the following terms. He acknowledged that sterling was worth less “abroad” but said: “That doesn’t mean, of course, that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or bank, has been devalued”. Essentially he said that the pound hadn’t been devalued against the pound. In truth, it wasn’t much of an argument but it relied on the fact that currency losses are largely invisible until people are obliged to make some kind of foreign transaction. I don’t remember the devaluation of 1967 but in 1992, on (Black) Wednesday 16th September I was sitting in a dealing room listening to an open line from the Bank of England’s dealer who repetitively intoned the price at which he was prepared buy sterling. One of my colleagues told me that the Bank of England dealer always closed for the day at 4.30pm (presumably to catch the 5.07 to Sevenoaks) and wondered what would happen then. What happened is that he did indeed bid everyone a good afternoon and no doubt picked up his briefcase and headed for the door. In the time the world’s only buyer of sterling could have walked to the station, the dam had burst and he had pissed away £3.3 billion, which was real money in 1992. If that sounds like a story of pinstriped establishment incompetence from ancient British history, I must mention that the Bank of England is sitting on paper losses of some £49 billion (my estimate) from the gilts that it has bought above...

Report on Q2 2018

Report on Q2 2018

5 Jul 2018

In Q1 the main UK indexes fell by between 6% and 8%. In Q2, they rose by 7% to 8%. The chart of the first six months is a “V” or perhaps a two-fingered salute to all the financial commentators who claim knowledge of the future. Bond yields again did almost nothing.   I have written elsewhere about the prevailing mood that seems to try to put a pessimistic spin on everything. As a result I would imagine that most people would be amazed to know that shares were so strong in Q2. How could they be in the turmoil of the imminent collapse of international trade, courtesy of the hardball tactics of Mr Trump and M Barnier, l’homme who loves to say “non”? The sole purpose of trade rules is to prevent trade from taking place and that these two gentlemen are both happy to use that threat as what I suppose we must call a negotiating tactic, if we could only tell what it is that they are trying to negotiate. Never mind that. The stock market doesn’t seem very concerned about it. Last quarter I listed thirteen everyday UK shares with markedly high dividend yields. Unsurprisingly, in view of the market performance, you would have done quite nicely if you had bought them. Not a single one of them went bust between April and June, I am pleased to say and the shares of none of them declined. It is better to look at valuations and to ask what they are telling us than to listen to what commentators are actually telling us. How about the yields on government bonds? I have said that there was little change in Q2 (despite innumerable predictions of falling prices) but are there trends and what do the absolute levels tell us? Germany is the benchmark bond for the EU. The ECB will continue its asset buying programme until the end of this year. It is still boosting asset prices by its own version of QE, implying that the crisis that started in 2008 continues. A year ago, 10 year Bunds yielded 0.5%. Now they yield 0.3%. Not many signs of imminent recovery there. Bond yields...

Populism explained!!

Populism explained!!

21 Dec 2017

The causes of the financial crisis have not been properly addressed. In particular, the perpetrators are widely and correctly seen as having got away with it. This, in my view, lies behind the populist behaviour that keeps giving us “anti-establishment” election results like Brexit, Trump and Corbyn. That’s the conclusion of this essay. Here are my arguments, looking at what happened in the US, the EU and the UK and the common failures of leadership in all three territories. WALL STREET AND THE FINANCIAL CRISIS I think we all know that the financial crisis involved junk debts being packaged by rogues as AAA and sold to idiots. Faults on both sides, no doubt. US officials are relatively good at hammering those considered dispensable. (Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years at the age of 71. That showed him). But the biggest banks were considered “too big to fail”. They operated with an implicit guarantee that, no matter what, they would be bailed out by the state. This was extended to the claim that they were “too big to jail”. It has been said that it would be destabilizing to the financial system if the senior management of a major institution were taken on the “perp walk”, handcuffed in front of a global TV audience. At the same time, the alumni of US investment banks seem to penetrate government at the highest levels. The original bailout was presided over by the Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, once of Goldman Sachs. Also from a Goldman career is the current Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin (there are limits to President Trump’s populism). You can read plenty about Goldman Sachs here. US politicians who complain about the big banks tend to stand out because they are unusual. Bernie Saunders and Elizabeth Warren are portrayed as “progressive liberals” (that’s an insult in establishment parlance) and possibly anti-capitalist or un-American. It is estimated that the US banking lobby spends more than $100 million a year fighting attempts to regulate it.    In 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement claimed to represent “the 99%” against income inequality and corporate influence. President Obama said perceptively that: “I think it expresses the frustrations the American...

Prepare to turn left

Prepare to turn left

14 Nov 2017

I have been on the town recently. Two weeks ago I went to see Reasons to be Cheerful, a brilliant play based around the music of Ian Dury. It is performed by the Graeae theatre company that featured in the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony. I saw it when it was produced the first time in 2010 and eagerly returned for more. Ian Dury was to say the least an anti-establishment figure and by today’s standards not politically correct. I’m not sure whether he would have appreciated the fact that a new song was tacked on to the end of the show. “If it can’t be right then it must be wrong” has rather puerile lyrics that I don’t think Ian himself would have written (“Keep the funding flowing from a loving cup”). As the song was played and sung, pictures of various politicians with devil horns sprouting from their heads were flashed onto a screen: Mrs Thatch, natch, David Cameron and, oh look, Tony Blair. But I will let someone else summarise: “This new anti austerity song from Graeae and the Blockheads captures the current mood of the country. Its lyrics bring people together in a moment of shared experience to challenge the status quo.” Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party. There I was watching a play set in 1979 and suddenly the “mood of the country” in 2017 was sprung on me. How did that happen, I wondered. Last week I revisited 1979 for the second time by paying a 2079 price to see Squeeze at the Royal Albert Hall. And it happened again. In between Cool for Cats, Up the Junction and Labelled with Love, the band naturally played songs from their new album. These included Rough Ride which laments the lack of affordable housing in London and A&E which really challenges the status quo by calling for more funding for the NHS. Perhaps I should get out more but I was struck by the way in which the anti austerity message was offered on both occasions with such confidence, as if it were not a politically contentious message but almost a fact. Perhaps I live in a London bubble but...

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,...

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...

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...

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 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...

The ECB, QE and the waiting game

The ECB, QE and the waiting game

12 Feb 2015

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

Jittery January

Jittery January

6 Feb 2014

“The bond markets are suggesting that we are looking at a fairly gentle, low inflation recovery.” The dangerously alluring feeling of comfort that I wrote about in my Q4 report did not last long. Major stock markets have fallen this year: FTSE -4%, Dow Jones -6%, Nikkei -13%. Many financial commentators are saying that this is the result of weakness in emerging markets which are in danger of being starved of investment dollars as the Federal Reserve continues its tapering policy. Even writing that makes me feel slightly ridiculous. It is typical of the confusing non-explanations offered by the financial services industry, helping only to encourage ordinary punters in the belief that all this is far too hard for them to understand. “Emerging markets” is an inherently biased way of referring to exotic countries in need of investment.  The term seems to have been invented in the 1980s. According to Wikipedia, prior to that the label Less Developed Countries (LDCs) was used. In 2012, the IMF identified 25 emerging markets. For the record: Argentina;  Brazil; Bulgaria; Chile; China; Colombia; Estonia; Hungary; India; Indonesia; Latvia; Lithuania; Malaysia; Mexico; Pakistan; Peru; Philippines; Poland; Romania; Russia; South Africa; Thailand; Turkey; Ukraine; Venezuela Note, sadly, that that the only African country is RSA. Looking again at the list, if you are particularly attached to democracy, private ownership rights or tolerance of homosexuality, you might find the thought of investing in some of these countries hard to digest. You might also ask how many countries have succeeded in emerging since the 1980s. The answer to that would appear to be zero. Foreign investment in emerging markets tends to be tidal: it flows in and it flows out again (if it can). Why then should this concern the risk-averse investor? There are two reasons, one specific and one general. The specific reason is that businesses in which we might be invested could be hit by diving emerging market economies. Global companies that sell consumer products are especially prone to this. Last week, Diageo the drinks company reported weakness in China and Nigeria. The general reason is that nervousness is infectious (especially in the banking industry). Undoubtedly, we have both these...

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...

The dangerous comfort of crowds

The dangerous comfort of crowds

30 Aug 2013

The British football season is back. After a few weeks’ break, perhaps spent on surprisingly hot beaches, the fans have returned to the comforting warmth of whichever partisan crowd they belong. The Latin for crowd is “vulgus” and the word “mob” derives from “mobile vulgus” meaning, roughly, a movable (or swayable)crowd. When waging war, nations need to mobilize their armies – effectively to persuade crowds of generally quite harmless people to unite with the intention of killing other people. Armies are notoriously intolerant of any individual considered to be breaking rank. In WWI, the British executed 306 men for “desertion”. Almost all were young men from non-commissioned ranks and their punishment was seen as exemplary in the most sinister way. DH Lawrence, who was, awkwardly, a pacifist married to a German, wrote of the “vast mob-spirit” of the war. Those lucky enough to survive WWI were sent home to lives of economic uncertainty and a widespread fear of Bolshevism, which meant that organised labour was regarded with hostility by what we can call the ruling classes. The hindsight of history judges that the ordinary “heroes” of WW1 were treated pretty shabbily. Their experience was called being “demobbed”. Crowds are needed to fight wars and insult referees but what else are they good for? Political extremism and hard-line religion spring to mind. Come to think of it, these sometimes result in wars too. In all cases, the crowd induces people to behave in a way that might not seem obvious or even wise to according to rational introspection. This is an investment website and it must be obvious where I am heading but there is one general point that I would like to emphasise: crowds are comforting to belong to and can be uncomfortable (to say the least) to be excluded from. This leads straight to what is, in my view, the saddest sentence ever written about professional investors. “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” J M Keynes (The General Theory…) What a bleak observation of human mediocrity. Long before Keynes (in 1841), a Scot called Charles Mackay published “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness...

Report on Q2 2013

Report on Q2 2013

5 Jul 2013

The FTSE fell by 3% in the quarter meaning, obviously, that the easy wins of Q1 (+8.7%) were unavailable. My Q1 recommendations of Enterprise Inns and Go-Ahead trod water. Home Retail Group fell after its last trading update, apparently on the basis that the rain kept people away from Homebase. Such absurdities provide buying opportunities for investors and would-be barbecue chefs. At 138p it has a historic FCF yield of 29% (admittedly 2012 was an exceptionally good year for its free cash flow.) In May, I updated on ICAP which was still at 327p. The volatility of this share can be unnerving but right now it is 15% higher at 378p and it has maintained and paid its large dividend. In May I wrote that I would not be buying FirstGroup at its ex-rights price of 111p. At today’s price of 97p I am still not buying but I’m still watching. I also offered a list of twelve yield stocks. So far, so good. Ten are essentially unchanged or higher compared to a slight (0.8%) fall in the FTSE. Only UBM and Royal Dutch are down (I don’t know why). For anyone fretting about my worst ever investment (in Taylor Wimpey), it just released a positive trading statement and is trading at just over 100p – and yes, I have sold some. In April I wrote dismissing gold as an investment after it fell below $1400 an ounce. It is now $1242 and as unappealing as ever, in my opinion. My view on QE, available here and there, is that it probably does nothing to stimulate economic growth but that it will continue to be favoured by the Treasury which influences the Bank of England decisively. Yesterday the MPC under its new Governor Carney stated that: “..the implied rise in the expected future path of Bank Rate was not warranted by the recent developments in the domestic economy.” In other words, the Bank Rate is going nowhere from its 0.5% base and QE is safe in their hands. The stock market duly rose 3% in...

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love QE

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love QE

3 Jul 2013

The recent correction in world stock markets was widely attributed to comments made by Ben Bernancke on 22 May, such as this: Asked whether the Fed would curtail the pace of its bond purchases by the September 2 Labor Day holiday, Bernanke said simply: “I don’t know.” The word of the moment is “taper” meaning “to reduce gradually” indicating that one day the Fed will buy fewer long dated assets through its QE programme until the day arrives when it will buy none at all. This vague prospect is thought to have caused the US S&P 500 to fall by 6%, the FTSE 100 by 12% and the Japanese Nikkei 225 by 20%. In theory QE might be reversed. Instead of being a buyer of assets the Fed might dispose of them as confidence rises. That day is hard to imagine now, given the panic that would presumably ensue. Financial markets in the US speak very loudly to the senior executives of the Federal Reserve and the recent historical evidence of the latter standing up to the former is negligible. This implies to me that QE asset purchases are likely to be strung out for as long as financial credibility permits and that many of the purchased assets will be held to redemption. The persistence of QE provides short-term gratification to financial markets (the words “short-term” are probably redundant – markets know no other kind of gratification) but as I have argued elsewhere it probably has a negative effect on the rest of the economy – liquidity turns to ice when its primary purpose is to prop up zombie banks. All this and more applies in the UK. The Bank of England’s relationship with HM Treasury (effectively the government of the day) has long been the subject of interesting debate but in practice it has been subjected to increasing statutory control since it was nationalised by the Atlee government in 1946. The Blair government famously gave it the power to set interest rates, a move that was spun as allowing it to pursue monetary stability independent of interference from politicians. Yet, read the bank’s own summary of that 1998 act: In 1997 the new...

The Big Easing – QE and the big picture

The Big Easing – QE and the big picture

15 May 2013

The financial press always loves to offer sage rationalisation for asset price movements after the event. (Have you ever tried forecasting the future? It’s darned tricky). Today, we have enjoyed months of a rising stock market. Sub-investment grade financial analysis always thinks it is wrong (possibly morally wrong) for share prices not to reflect the perceived state of the economy. The UK economy has barely avoided a triple-dip recession but the FTSE 100 is +14% in the last six months. Problem for Johnny Journo. Someone or something must be blamed for this abuse of reason. Consequently, the financial commentating community now “gets” quantitative easing (QE). There is the basic point that central banks buy “safe” long term assets (government bonds) for cash, thereby simultaneously supporting the price of those assets and putting cash in the hands of the sellers. The theoretical justification for this is that it curbs panic in a time of crisis and keeps the banks (which invariably own mountains of junk assets at the top of the market) solvent while someone works out whether they are worth saving. The second rationalisation of QE is that eventually it will stimulate growth. With savings rates driven down, all those liquid assets will start to be spent. The third rationalisation, favoured by fans of conspiracy, is that QE will boost inflation and reduce the real value of public and private debt at the expense of prudent savers. As far as the rise of the stock market is concerned, the first rationalisation of QE looks good. Japan announced at the start of this year that it will significantly expand QE (so-called Abenomics) and its stock market is has jumped by 45%. Inevitably, there is much discussion trying to justify this economically – for some it is Yen devaluation, for others, domestic spending stimulation – but why go beyond the observation that there is extra cash chasing a diminishing supply of financial assets? In the UK, the high prices and low yields of government bonds still make the value of equities relatively attractive. Obviously that attractiveness diminishes as share prices rise but there are still plenty of financially sound companies yielding >3%, which, with inflation at...