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...

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...

Contagion

Contagion

16 Oct 2018

  “The least thing upset him on the links. He missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows. ” PG Wodehouse Financial contagion is a phrase employed by those who try to explain a fall in an asset price that they didn’t see coming.  If it means anything, which is not certain, it describes the fallout from the volatility that results when any market falls because people are forced sellers. This is prone to cause panic which in turn means that the attraction of holding cash rises. Given that no one likes to sell a falling asset (a psychologically taxing experience) people prefer to raise money by selling things that haven’t fallen in price but look potentially vulnerable (especially if viewed with a newly sceptical eye). As the quote from PG Wodehouse shows, when things go wrong we tend to cast around for something to blame. Bad things happen to relatively overpriced assets and the nature of the event that triggers their decline is really of no consequence. The need to explain what happened is driven by a reluctance to take responsibility for a poor investment decision. Hence we are allegedly the victim of the devaluation of a currency, the collapse of an obscure foreign bank, the failure of a harvest or the uproar of beating butterflies’ wings. In reality, contagion is not a hidden threat but a constant reality that we should never forget. All assets are in competition all the time, subject to perceived risk and liquidity. All asset values are relative to each other. The most crass mistake that financial analysts make (and I certainly write from experience) is to compare the price of an asset with its own history and to declare that this proves it to be cheap or expensive. Here are ten assets in which you, if your assets and liabilities are UK based, might conceivably invest, ranging from cash (the most liquid) to commercial property arguably the least liquid). Note that all savings are investments, even cash.   Gross yield Cost of ownership Net yield Capital gain/loss? Building society 2.0% 0.00% 2.0% No Government Gilt 1.7% 0.25% 1.5% No Cash 0.0%...

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...

EVERYBODY KNEW

EVERYBODY KNEW

27 Oct 2017

There was a glorious time – and it was just a few weeks ago – that I had never heard of Harvey Weinstein. Apparently he was thanked over the years in thirty four Oscar acceptance speeches because although it was widely known “what he was like” there was some kind of implicit consensus that his behaviour, though reprehensible and pathetic, was a price worth paying for the chance of more Oscars. I may have misunderstood, but if it is true that many people knew or suspected and turned a blind eye then it was an inconvenient truth. There is often a financial motive behind the ignoring of inconvenient truths. Enron was a notorious example. It was widely admired: according to various articles it was named “America’s Most Innovative Company” by Fortune magazine for six consecutive years between 1996 and 2001. When a lone Wall St analyst asked on a recorded conference call in April 2001 why the company hadn’t published a balance sheet, Jeffrey Skilling, Enron president, replied, “Well, thank you very much, we appreciate that … asshole.” The company filed for bankruptcy before the end of that year. “As of last month, 13 analysts covered the company. Eleven recommended it as a “buy” or “strong buy.” Just one said “sell” and the other said “hold.” This was just one week before the roof fell in”. (Forbes magazine on Enron, 29 November 2001) There were a couple of brave analysts who waved a red flag about Enron just as there are some brave women who spoke out against Harvey Weinstein. But stating inconvenient truths does not make you popular at the time. Once the truth is out, the righteous mob surges forward like a tidal wave. Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in prison and Harvey Weinstein might lose his honorary CBE and who knows what else.     How do we identify inconvenient truths that “everybody knew” before anyone realises that everybody knows them? Merely holding a view with which everyone disagrees is not the answer. (Would that it were: making money would be so easy).   It is important and potentially lucrative to question consensus views, if only to check that they...

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,...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

The paradoxical results of education for the masses

The paradoxical results of education for the masses

2 Dec 2014

The Churchill wartime government was kicked out by the electorate less than three months after the German surrender in May 1945. Labour won a huge majority and set about a radical socialist programme of nationalisation of key industries and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. That story is quite well known. What will surprise many people now is that Churchill’s government managed to pass one dramatically progressive piece of parliamentary law in 1944: Rab Butler’s Education Act. There would be free education for all with selection at the age of 11. Children who passed the 11 Plus were eligible for places in grammar schools – it was intended that the top 25% should reach that standard. Places for the other children were to be offered at either secondary modern schools or technical schools which specialised in scientific and mechanical skills. Sadly technical schools were expensive and hard to staff and there were few set up. This gradually created the impression that the majority of children “failed” at the age of 11 and were sent to schools for underachievers. The 1944 act also allowed for the creation of comprehensive schools that could incorporate all standards. Perhaps grammar schools were burdened with having been promoted by a Conservative politician, but socialist politicians grew to dislike their perceived elitism and the Wilson governments of the 60s and 70s embarked on a determined programme of abolition. This culminated in an education act in 1976 which stated that state education “is to be provided only in schools where the arrangements for the admission of pupils are not based (wholly or partly) on selection by reference to ability or aptitude.” The class warrior secretary of state for education leading this was Shirley Williams (St Paul’s School for girls and Somerville College, Oxford). It is a matter of wonder that the most privileged members of the establishment tend to be dismissive of grammar schools and the upwards social mobility that they seem to offer. Our Old Etonian Prime Minister called arguments about grammar schools “splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate” and “clinging on to outdated mantras that bear no relation to the reality of...

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...