Report on Q2 2021

Report on Q2 2021

30 Jul 2021

It was another tame and friendly quarter in the equity markets. The FTSE rose by 4.6% and the domestic orientated FTSE 250 by 3.8%. Rising commodity prices are more likely to be good for large international businesses than for domestic companies that often have to import raw materials or finished goods. Year on year, it still looks like boom time for the FTSE 250 (+31%) while the FTSE 100 was up by a more restrained 14%. The major story since Q1 has been the austere message from the bond markets. Once again the only direction for yields has been downwards, a strange reaction to forecasts of rising inflation and post-Covid consumer recovery. US 10 year treasuries which started the quarter at 1.7% and apparently looking to break 2.0% are back down to 1.3%. And UK 10 year gilt yields are down from 0.8% to 0.6%. What is going on? One point to make is that the post-pandemic bounce is being restrained by cautious or possibly panicked government intervention. In the UK, the official opposition, such as it is, is keen to accuse the government of lifting restrictions too quickly and eager to blame it for causing extra deaths in quantities and for reasons yet unknown. The leisure industries have become used to having to incinerate their plans at a moment’s notice and economically this is of course disastrous. In Australia, to take one painful example, a zero tolerance of Covid allied with a snail pace vaccination roll-out has led to huge and endless lockdowns that make Australia and New Zealand seem as if they are now situated on another planet, possibly the birthplace of Jacinda Ardern, who has declared herself the sole source of truth. Traditionally, the bond market is a better predictor of economic direction than the stock market (though to be fair the stock market generally has the predictive capacity of a dog chasing a car). There is also a spreading realisation that governments cannot afford to pay higher interest rates on their extraordinarily high debts. If there could be said to be a consensus it is that all the central banks know this and are trying to send signals that they...

A NET ZERO SUM GAME – ESG INVESTMENT

A NET ZERO SUM GAME – ESG INVESTMENT

7 Jun 2021

When money and virtue share a bed, strange and disturbing things tend to happen.  I have written before (in 2014) about the ethical contradictions concerning the destination of the UK’s Oversea Development Aid budget. Seventy three percent of it went to countries where homosexuality was illegal but if there was ever any debate about that I never heard it. Like a Christmas sweater, the giving is more important than the receiving. Once the donation box has been ticked we can pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that to enquire about how the money is spent would be colonial and racist. Seven years later, the shadow of virtue casts a much longer and no less contradictory shadow. Here is a brief case study. THE ETHICS OF TOP LEVEL SOCCER I have found the current season of the English Premier League quite hard to watch. The team with the biggest financial backing won easily. Three brave and impoverished strugglers were relegated long before the end of the season. In stadiums empty of fans (who might well have reacted with displeasure) the clubs and officials all participated in “taking the knee”, originally a show of disrespect for the US national anthem, despite it seeming obvious that the anti-capitalist vibe of Black Lives Matter could hardly be further from the realities of club ownership.  These realities came to a head when some of the owners, acting as if they thought the clubs belonged to them, tried to create a breakaway super league. The result was a mob of multi-millionaires, who, unlike the owners, owed their personal wealth to football itself, rushing to denounce the idea that money should be allowed to ruin the game, as they saw it. Many people, unless they happen to support the clubs funded by wealthy foreigners, would say that that ship sailed a long time ago.  While UK football constantly pledges to “kick out racism” and to take women’s soccer seriously there is not a whisper on the subject of sexual orientation. In the past, fans have been notoriously homophobic. They may not be now but we have no way of knowing because, as luck would have it, not one of...

Report on Q1 2021

Report on Q1 2021

6 Apr 2021

It was an amiable quarter in the equity markets, despite some warnings of bubbles and the occasional bankruptcy. The FTSE rose by 4.1%, the All Share by 4.5% and the domestic orientated FTSE 250 by 5.2%. Year on year, it looks like boom time because the end of March in 2020 was more or less the bottom of the market. A salutary reminder, in case we needed one, that stock markets try to discount news as quickly as possible. Once the pandemic and the lockdown measures had sunk in, it was panic by sundown.   With this flattering point of comparison, the FTSE rose by 18.8% over twelve months, the All Share by 23.8%% and the FTSE 250 by a drool-making 43.3%. Bond markets were stirred from their seemingly endless slumber. Those terrible twins of inflation and currency debasement might be intruding into investors’ thoughts. US 10 year Treasury yields popped from 0.9% to 1.7% over the quarter. UK gilt yields rose from 0.2% to 0.8% – not exactly a compelling offer but a serious price move. German yields “rose” from -0.57% to -0.32%.  It seems that people are beginning to believe in the vast libraries of money that central banks are printing. They expect recoveries in spending and government-inspired investment and equities are the obvious way to play the trend. If your portfolio performed disappointingly in the quarter it’s probably because you owned sensible shares that survived and prospered in lockdown. Sentiment began to move in favour of “reopening stocks” though most of the reopening that we have seen so far has come from a few US States dubbed by President Biden as “Neanderthal”. So far, the throwbacks appear to be doing rather well. As we said, stock markets try to discount news as quickly as possible, even if it’s...

INNOVATION AND DEFLATION – THE END OF THE AFFAIR?

INNOVATION AND DEFLATION – THE END OF THE AFFAIR?

26 Mar 2021

INFLATION – WHAT THEY TEACH YOU AT SCHOOL I remember from economics lessons at school that there were supposedly two categories of inflation, namely cost-push and demand-pull. This was simple enough for anyone, even a pubescent schoolboy, to understand.  Now I can see that this was something of an oversimplification (for which I was no doubt grateful). Supply and demand do not happen in isolation. They respond to each other over time. It is instructive to remember that the price of anything will rise when the current supply is insufficient to satisfy demand and of course it works in reverse.  Yet the demand element of inflation is what occupies most “informed” chatter. That’s probably because we have a more immediate feeling for it. At present there is said to be a dam of spending waiting to spill out as soon as the first world countries are released from lockdown (I’m assuming it will happen one day – stock markets are impatiently celebrating it already).  Consensus says that this will give a transitory boost to inflation which will then subside because private sector unemployment is too high – in short, the poor sods who have been screwed by lockdown will exert a deflationary effect that prevents the economy from overheating. This in turn is offered as a justification for the probability that central banks will not raise interest rates. Well, yes. Given that the US, European, UK and Japanese economies are all funded by the state balance sheets, I think we can reasonably act as if the date for the next increase in official interest rates is approximately never.  SUPPLY SIDE INFLATION But supply side inflation – now that’s a story. Energy, commodity and shipping prices are really moving this year. Given that most of the world’s major economies are still in recessionary territory that’s quite impressive.  SAMPLE OF PRICE CHANGES IN THE LAST SIX MONTHS   Carbon steel 107.8% Container rates 81.4% Oil 49.2% Lumber 44.7% Soybeans 39.8% Iron ore 38.8% Copper 31.7% Coal 31.4% Cotton 31.3% Sugar 23.1% Aluminium 22.9% Natural Gas 21.1% Wheat 12.9% Rice 8.1% IN THE PAST, TECHNOLOGY HAS BOOSTED EFFICIENCY AND CUT COSTS So what is going on? I...

CONSENSUS – THE NEW OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE

CONSENSUS – THE NEW OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE

22 Feb 2021

The notion of “consensus” makes active investors drool in the manner of Pavlov’s dogs. This is because predicting correctly when consensus is wrong can be profitable. Consensus in itself is useless, a passive snooze, devoid of critical thought – if it were a dog it would be asleep, heart-warming to see but catching no rats and barking at no burglars. Given that consensus is essentially unprofitable, it’s current popularity is somewhat perplexing and even alarming. Everywhere one looks it is providing comfort to those who do not wish to ask difficult questions. LOCKDOWN CONSENSUS The advocates of lockdowns to combat Covid in the UK have achieved consensus and have been able to abandon any pretence of distinguishing between correlation and causation. Covid cases rise and fall – whenever they fall after a lockdown (and there’s always a lockdown) , post hoc ergo propter hoc triumphs unchallenged. If cases continue to rise it is always because lockdown was too late, too light or too short.  There is no opposition from any political party on this point, despite the probability that the lockdown of the economy is making the poor relatively poorer and it was once seen as the role of Labour to stand up for the underprivileged. HOUSE BUILDING CONSENSUS The last time I saw this level of political consensus was before the 2015 general election when every political party demanded that greater and greater numbers of houses (in practice, mostly flats) needed to be built – this on the basis of a collective mistaken understanding of the Barker report of 2003, the proposal of which was to reduce property prices by creating an oversupply.  The oversupply began enthusiastically but destroyed the middle-sized privately-owned house building industry after the financial crisis of 2008-9. Yet things soon picked up again, albeit with the big housebuilders now in full control. The consensus to build survived the crisis (presumably because it was characterised as an extraneous event) and those blocks of flats, with or without cladding, have continued to rise like willowy magic mushrooms. INTERVENTIONIST CONSENSUS In early 2021, consensus in all its manifestations is being carried through the streets on the shoulders of a cheering mob.  I...

PROBABILITY IS THE BASIS OF REASON

PROBABILITY IS THE BASIS OF REASON

8 Feb 2021

As far as I remember, the word “philosophy” means “love of knowledge”. Some of the philosophers whose books were in my college library tried to prove that God knew all the answers and others that truth lay in empirical observation or the meaning of words. “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass over in silence” – Wittgenstein. Somewhere buried in their philosophical texts one might find a grudging reference to probability. John Locke wrote that probability “is to supply our want of knowledge”. In the search for certainty, probability was to some, it seems, as admission of defeat, a last resort. A brief disclosure: the only thing written by me in the college library are the letters zzzzz carved into the leg of a table. The fact that I couldn’t see what Locke, Descartes and Wittengenstein were so exercised about was confirmed by my examination results. But I value the awareness of probability as highly as anything else. PROBABILITY – MAN’S BEST FRIEND?  Some people point to the fact that humans initially learn by imitation and get hung up on the observation that animals do that too. The ability to observe that, if A, then B, puts animals on the first step of logical thought. When I pick up my dog’s lead she immediately starts to celebrate her forthcoming walk. You could say that she thinks the probability of a walk is 100%. In Locke’s terms, the sound and sight of the lead being picked up has supplied her want of knowledge.  The weakness in my dog Hattie’s understanding of probability is her failure to appreciate that there are any numbers between 0% and 100%. Her world is essentially binary. But she should not be too despondent. Humans sometimes think in exactly the same way. The easiest example of probability is 50/50. When we toss a coin we know, assuming no skullduggery, that a head or a tail is equally likely. (Dogs always expect tails, obviously). We should also know, though gamblers sometimes don’t agree, that no matter how many times the same side comes up in a row, the odds do not change for the next toss.  For what it’s worth, this...

CHANGE AND THE SEDUCTIVE PROMISE OF CONTROL

CHANGE AND THE SEDUCTIVE PROMISE OF CONTROL

24 Jan 2021

Change is inevitable and continuous. It is the journey of human life. We can try to preserve what matters to us – our fitness, for instance – but change has an unbeatable ally – time. In the end, change is both inevitable and fatal. For that reason, the promise that change can be controlled is very seductive. Convincing us that this promise is deliverable attracts those who would exercise political or financial power over us.  POLITICS AND CHANGE Some politicians and campaigners pledge to deliver change as an improvement – others to block or reverse it where they see it as bad for us. In each case they are almost certainly over promising by implying that controlling change is in their power.  Nonetheless, at times the public has an appetite for the idea that a government can deliver destiny. Then, perhaps, disillusion sets in. There certainly appears to be a cycle by which the message of change becomes more and then less popular. In the UK 1959 election the incumbent Conservatives campaigned on the slogan “Life is better with the Conservatives, don’t let Labour ruin it”, often summarised as “You’ve never had it so good!”. The voters agreed. But the change hounds, who can come from left or right, were back in the game in 1964. The Labour manifesto was titled “The New Britain” and its leader Harold Wilson became associated with the phrase “The white heat of technology”. In 1970 Labour was expected to win for the third time in a row and was by now warning against change. “Now Britain’s Strong – Let’s Make it Great to Live In” failed to make the grade, even against a pretty bland Conservative party (slogan “A better tomorrow”). In 1979 the Conservatives were undeniably the party of change with the famous “Labour isn’t working” poster.  Fast forward to 1997 and the Conservative were in full change denial again. Their slogan was “New Labour, New Danger” and they were obliterated by Tony Blair and his campaign song “Things Can Only Get Better”. For a while politicians like Blair and Barack Obama sold change as something progressive. The implicit message was that we are all sinners who...

Report on Q4 2020

Report on Q4 2020

2 Jan 2021

The European bond markets signalled nothing other than the expectation that cheap or free money is expected to be available sine die. German 10 year yields slipped from -0.50% to -0.57% implying that an extended “oven ready” depression awaits Europe. UK 10 year gilt yields loitered at 0.2%. Only the US, with a rise from 0.7% to 0.9% hinted at any future sign of life as we knew it. It was a much more cheerful quarter in the equity markets. The FTSE rose by 10%, the All Share by 12% and the domestic orientated FTSE 250 by a fairly whopping 18%. This left the FTSE down 15% for the year as a whole, the All Share -13% and the FTSE 250 just -6%.  Despite the obvious fact that the lockdown fanatics are apparently delighted to keep the economy on life support and regret only that we have not shut down sooner, harder or for longer, the stock market is eagerly anticipating a reviving spending spree. Those who find this almost morally objectionable should remember that share markets always try to discount everything as quickly as possible. The FTSE 250 that turned out to be the brightest spot of the year melted by 31% in Q1. I just checked to see what I wrote at the end of Q1: The sight of a self-inflicted depression is unprecedented outside of wartime. It is worth bearing two points in mind: 1) you can’t buy bargains without cash and 2) remember to look down rather than up. Up will look after itself. Eventually. Obviously I could have been more bullish but I did spend plenty of cash while looking down. And I would re-emphasise that up takes care of itself. Stock markets always want to go up. In December we discovered that the UK’s regulatory agency was the fastest in the world to approve the first vaccine and repeated the trick at the end of the month with the Oxford university product. I suppose that this proves how keen or desperate the country is to escape the pandemic. Other nations are more cautious about cutting corners on their regulation processes.  So although the number of people who have...

Covid ’20 – a personal diary

Covid ’20 – a personal diary

28 Dec 2020

This is a personal record to help me understand how and when this shitstorm blew up and if anything of importance was missed by me (or anybody else) that should or could have been anticipated. Most of the material comes from my email in and out boxes and has not been edited. I should say that the virus itself has never particularly concerned me. I think that there are broadly two kinds of fear, both of which we all experience to varying degrees. There is the fear caused by specific and known danger in the face of which some people try to hold their nerve and respond as rationally as they can. Dorothy Parker glamourised this kind of courage by attributing to Hemingway the phrase “grace under pressure”. And there is fear of the unknown which has a tendency to induce panic and paralysis. I make no claim to be courageous but I have a certain amount of contempt for fear of the unknown, though in the UK it appears to have gripped a majority of the population. The trigger word for these people is “uncertainty” as in “markets/investors/businesses hate uncertainty”.  It seems to me that the more that is known about Covid-19 the less frightening it is. It also appears that for some reason the government, its public servants and most of the media tend to promote fear and to suppress reassuring news lest it leads to complacency and (can I really be using this word?) disobedience. As an investor, as I have written elsewhere, uncertainty is to be welcomed because it causes assets to be mispriced. The problem, as 2020 has demonstrated, is that it sometimes takes extraordinary imagination to see it. Thursday 23 January  The Foreign Office advised against non-essential travel to Wuhan province. I cannot seriously suggest that I could have interpreted that as a harbinger of what was to come.  Wednesday 29 January  BA halted all flights to mainland China. At the same time, there were reports that the virus had definitely arrived in Lombardy in Italy. This is the point when it seemed real to those of us living in Europe and if I am hard on myself...

WELCOME TO THE SECOND WORLD

WELCOME TO THE SECOND WORLD

24 Nov 2020

The Oxford Languages word of the year is usually a horror show for anyone who has any affection for the English language. There is no single word or expression for 2020 because apparently 2020 was an “unprecedented” year. I had previously supposed that all years were unprecedented but it seems that at some point a repeat was sneaked past us. (Was 1975 the same as 1974? I’m trying to remember). So for 2020 we have a projectile word-vomit of lockdowns, circuit-breakers, covidiots, furloughs, infodemics and many, many more. Including this: “The word staycation is well-established in English – it is first recorded in 1944 in the OED – but its frequency has increased by almost 380% this year compared to last, and there is also growing evidence of its use as a verb.” So let us staycation, you and I, when the smog of kettled cars is spread out against the sky.  But we all know what a staycation is. It is a holiday spent in one’s own country or even at one’s home (see “furlough”).  There is a point to this very interesting but slightly rambling introduction. While we have been cowering in our lockups, the UK has become a foreign country in the space of just nine months. And it all happened while most of us travelled nowhere. Other, perhaps, than back in time. WHAT IS A SECOND WORLD NATION? It seems to me that the UK is changing from a first world to a second world nation. The second world was the post-war term used to describe countries that were affiliated to the Communist bloc. According to dear old Wikipedia, the term “second world” has become obsolete since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not so fast, Wiki old chap, it’s surely time for a revival. Here are four characteristics of second world nations. CIVIL LIBERTY DEFICIENCY Barring a revolution and a military coup, the removal of civil liberties must be executed in small increments. It starts by appealing to the people to make small and time-limited sacrifices in the cause of a much admired state institution. In this case it was “our NHS” because the enemy was a virus.  Had...

DEPRESSION DOMINOES

DEPRESSION DOMINOES

25 Oct 2020

It has been a point frequently well made that the people who appear to be in charge of Covid strategy are not on the whole in fear of losing their jobs. Be they health experts, university professors, politicians or civil servants, they have one eye on tomorrow’s headlines and another on the verdict of history. This results in a strong bias in favour of caution. There are some signs that the public is starting to question the Orwellian mantra of “Save the NHS” as it becomes increasingly clear that this was no reciprocal arrangement. Excess deaths from cancer and heart disease are estimated by some to be likely to exceed the number of deaths attributed to Covid and the average age of those unfortunates is likely to be well below 82 (the average age of a Covid victim). THE SHAPE OF THE RECOVERY The slowly developing realisation that the economy is being damaged has given way to talk of the shape of the recovery. When lockdown was assumed to be a one-off treatment we were going to have a “V-shaped” recovery, like a rubber ball. Now it would appear, as the country is encouraged to retreat back into a state of fear, that the best we can hope for is a “W-shape”. Or perhaps, as one lockdown gives way to another, a “multiple-W shape” like the World Wide Web (WWW….). Pessimists who think that we are trapped in a deflationary spiral talk of an “L-shaped” recovery which is patently not a recovery at all but an endless road of flatness. Those who prioritise the environment over all else might welcome this. It should reduce carbon emissions. Sadly, even the L-shapers might turn out to be optimists. A recession is usually defined as a cyclical downturn, even, as was the case with the 2008 financial crisis, it is caused by human folly. Human folly goes in cycles too. Collective memory fades and the mistakes of the past are repeated. DEPRESSION IS NOT CYCLICAL But the deliberate and relentless deconstruction of the economy in 2020 is not cyclical. As each domino falls, it topples the next and waiting at the end of the line is not...

Report on Q3 2020

Report on Q3 2020

22 Oct 2020

The third quarter was dull and unrewarding, despite the sadly temporary return of sanity to some human activity. The FTSE 100 fell by 5.2%, having rallied by 9% in Q2, meaning that it is down by 21% year to date. The FTSE 250 has done better (+1% in the quarter, -13% YTD). The main reason for the poor FTSE performance was the oil majors, aided in their dirty work by the banks, especially HSBC. Given that the oil price fell little over the quarter, the problem for BP and Royal Dutch may be perceived to be more existential, which is worrying. Poor old BP bangs away about becoming a renewable energy company and no one listens. I read somewhere that the US oil majors are funding the Biden campaign on the basis of its promise to stop fracking. This will eliminate thousands of jobs but it should reduce the supply of oil. The banks are perhaps more worrying. We hear plenty about the various parts of the economy that are being kneecapped by our apparently random and barely comprehensible lockdown policy but the market seems to be acknowledging that the banks will always be manning the rear of the destitution queue. Remember how the taxpayer rescued RBS (now renamed NatWest Group)? The share price fell from c£60 in 2007 to 120p in early 2009. Eleven years later, the share price was 106p. Our banks are zombies and in my view shouldn’t be listed on the stock market at all. The ten year gilt yield crept up from 0.15% to 0.20%. Cheap borrowing is constantly cited as the reason why the government can pay for everything. The fact that the government is borrowing from and lending to itself (“Thank you so much!”; “Don’t mention it old chap!”) is rarely pointed out. Attempting to avoid a depression by printing money is an experiment that most of us hoped never to witness. The bond market will warn us if inflation appears on the horizon. On a more cheerful personal note, I bought some William Hill at 108p on 3 August (not my first but certainly my cheapest investment in that share). Before the end of the quarter,...

Getting around – transport investment in a pandemic

Getting around – transport investment in a pandemic

29 Sep 2020

AIRLINES – INSOLVENCY DENIAL IMPEDES RESTRUCTURING The airline industry as we know it is finished, according to Hubert Horan, a transport and aviation consultant.  After the dotcom bubble downturn in 2001 airline revenues fell by 6% and this resulted in much consolidation of the industry with transatlantic services becoming concentrated in the hands of a handful of players. Long haul and business travel has fallen this year by up to 90%. For US airlines, whose domestic business has held up better, this amounts to a 75% fall in volumes and an 85% revenue decline.  Horan estimates that the airlines might be able to shed up to 40% of their costs over the next two years. Meaning that they will be burning cash as fast as they burn jet fuel. Back in Europe, IAG (which is the holding company of BA) reported an impressive decline of 96.7% in Q2 passenger revenues. Easyjet, which was effectively grounded by pan European closed borders saw its revenues decline by a scarcely credible 99.6% over the same period. Things started to look up for the European domestic companies in Q3 but the latest warnings of a second wave of infections have, according to Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, dealt another mortal blow to winter bookings.  The business models of Easyjet and Ryanair are based on the economics of full planes and they are both in balance sheet survival mode. Easyjet has raised a total of £2.4 billion through a combination of capital increase, aircraft sale and leaseback and government and bank loans. Easyjet burned £774 million cash in calendar Q2 so we can all do our own sums. Hubert Horan believes that all the major airlines are effectively bust and should rightly file for bankruptcy. Yet the managements, supported by government aid, are trying to preserve the companies’ equity capital (and their own jobs and shareholdings). I hear a lot about the EU’s aversion to state aid (apparently a sticking point in any Brexit deal) but it hasn’t stopped the German Federal Republic from offering aid of up to €9 billion to keep Lufthansa airbourne. Air France/KLM has done even better with €10.4 billion from the French and Dutch governments....

Report on Q2 2020

Report on Q2 2020

9 Jul 2020

In isolation, Q2 was quite good for stock markets. But in the context of what happened in Q1, we are still in the mire with our Wellington boot just out of reach of our hovering, stockinged foot. The FTSE 100 rose by 9% but is still down 17% year on year. The FTSE 250 recovered by 14% in Q2 (having been down 31% in Q1) but is -12% year-on-year. As usual, the All-Share was between the two. It seems fair to say that we are no wiser about the probable economic outcome of the pandemic though we can see that there is a consensus that central banks can print any amount of money on the single condition that they don’t admit that that is what they are doing. In the US it is more explicit because it is more acceptable to say that anything large is too big to fail when it would involve the loss of large numbers of jobs. Even if you are not seeking re-election as President, it is hard to argue against that. The response to Covid-19 is becoming highly political in the UK, despite there being no general election scheduled until 2024. Mass unemployment cannot be deferred indefinitely, even by money printing. Everyone must know this but no one wants to say it – governing politicians are terrified of hard truths unless they can be floated under a halo of brave sacrifice and oppositions bide their time until they can feign shocked surprise at how badly things turned out.   So we are left with a pretend future funded with pretend money.  Pretend money is far from being just a UK phenomenon.  The euro was infamously pretend money before the financial crash. Greece, Italy etc thought that they could borrow extravagantly but cheaply because their euro liabilities were implicitly guaranteed by the ECB. Kyle Bass, who, in around 2008, took long positions in German Bunds matched against shorts of Greek government bonds, called it the greatest asymmetric trade of all time.  Eight years ago this week, Bunds yielded 1.5% and their Greek equivalents 26%. The spread between the two was 24.5% having been around 0.5% when Bass took his position....

AFTER THE PLAGUE, THE FAMINE

AFTER THE PLAGUE, THE FAMINE

26 May 2020

Despite the fact that the UK government appears, like Gilbert’s Duke of Plaza-Toro*, to be leading from behind, I suppose that this fearful fog of indecision will eventually dissipate and some kind of hobbled phoenix will stumble out of the smoking ashes of the economy. In passing, I would like to bestow their share of responsibility on the political opposition, including the trade unions, who constantly urge caution and demand something called “safety” for all, in the calculated knowledge that the worse the economic consequences of lockdown, the worse for the government.  Can they really be that cynical? Oh yes. THE DAMAGE DONE But whether you believe that lockdown was a) catastrophically late or b) completely unnecessary, (and history may one day deliver a verdict but you won’t find it on Twitter this afternoon), a vast amount of economic damage has been done. And the longer paralysis continues, the worse it will be.  And given that the government is now a follower of international decisions rather than a decision maker itself, we must look at the US, Germany, France (!), Sweden and pretty much anywhere else you care to name to see how our future might look.   Donald Trump has an election to win in November. (Ladbrokes still has him as the marginal favourite, which seems surprising). Naturally, he is desperate to get America back to work and, as his son says, make it great again, again. Whether you think he is gambling with people’s lives or trying to save them from destitution actually doesn’t matter. What matters is what has already happened.  The US unemployment rate jumped from 3.5% in February to 4.4% in March to 14.7% in April. That’s 23 million Americans out of work. But it will be more than that. The total of initial unemployment claims is at nearly 39 million by the end of last week. That looks like an unemployment rate closer to 25%, an utterly unimaginable number.  If it turns out that “it’s the economy, stupid” then Trump’s Thanksgiving turkey is cooked unless there is a near-magical recovery. Whatever you think of Trump, and there is no need to say or even think it out loud, a...

ECONOMIC SHUTDOWN! EMERGENCY!!

ECONOMIC SHUTDOWN! EMERGENCY!!

6 May 2020

Things are starting to get serious. The SAGE committee is vast and its remit is the virus and nothing but the virus. It has saved the NHS to the extent that the new Nightingale hospital near the O2 in London is shutting after four weeks. Job done except that most of the public is either scared out of its senses or, more worryingly, preferring a life of leisure on 80% wages. The government is now directly supporting more than half the adult population. Normally I would say that a minority of taxpayers is bearing the burden of the rest but that is nowhere near the truth. Taxpayers are being furloughed too. The printers are rolling and the government is set to borrow from itself. The question is, how long will people be able to live on these new government tokens (once known as sterling currency)? CURRENCY DEBASEMENT My son Leo has just written about the use of the first ancient coins. Greek traders who knew nothing of coinage were happy to use them, even though the gold/silver content was lower than natural bullion of the same weight. Leo was puzzled as to how items of lower intrinsic value continued to be accepted. My answer was that a coin’s real intrinsic value is the belief that if you accept it in return for a “real” good you will be able to pass it on to someone else in return for goods of the same value. But once that belief falters the coins will be swiftly debased. The debasement of our currency will manifest itself as inflation. If you weren’t an adult by the 1980s you will not remember a time when people bought assets today for fear that they would cost more tomorrow. I knew a couple in about 1985 who agreed to buy a small house off the King’s Rd. It was suddenly withdrawn from the market and re-listed at a £50k premium. To their credit, I guess, they did not blink and paid up at once. The US is issuing $3 trillion of debt this quarter. (That’s $9146 for every man, woman and child, or $11,363 for every adult). The US can get...

PANDEMIC POLITICS

PANDEMIC POLITICS

20 Apr 2020

Just as I failed to forecast the 30% fall in stock markets, I also never expected the reaction to Covid-19 to begin to diverge along traditional political lines. Life is just one bloody surprise after another these days. It turns out that people on the right, among whom for this exercise I number myself (though see below) think that national lockdown and uniform loss of personal liberty is a dangerous and irrational reaction to a pandemic that primarily targets the old and medically vulnerable. The economic cost is probably both huge and beyond the understanding of the people who are taking medically-driven decisions. People on the left are more likely to worship the NHS and to think that protecting it is worth any cost. They think that complaining about job losses and more trivial inconveniences is in extremely bad taste and that “we’re all in it together” is the right spirit. Though we’re not all in it together because the virus discriminates against some groups that the left favours, including, of course, frontline medical workers and ethnic minorities. The numbers say that the real victims of viral discrimination are the elderly and particularly elderly men. Unfortunately their care is not funded by the NHS and even a 99 year old man walking around and around his garden is not raising money for them. These are not groups that appeal much to the left because, on average, they tend to vote the wrong way. Remember the calls for a second Brexit referendum in 2019 because it was felt that enough Leave voters might have died to reverse the decision? These are all relatively (I use that word carefully) mainstream views. Criticisms of China and the WHO, though contentious, fall under the same heading. But there are plenty of extreme conspiracy theories. Round up the usual suspects. “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant rise in accusations that Jews, as individuals and as a collective, are behind the spread of the virus or are directly profiting from it.” Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress. Some people seem to think Covid-19 is our punishment for screwing with God’s planet, which...

Report on Q1 2020

Report on Q1 2020

4 Apr 2020

It is difficult to remember now but UK equities had a storming close to 2019, driven by the Conservative victory in the General Election and the release from the threat of becoming a loose money, centralised, statist economy. But, as Corbyn finally goes, the UK enters a period of unknown duration featuring the most fiscally “irresponsible” government ever, a nearly universal bailout for the private sector and social rules that are martial law in all but name. Back to Q4 for a second to note that the star performer was the FTSE 250, the most domestically exposed index, which rose by 10%, compared to 2% for the 100 and 3% for the All Share. With the leisure industry shuttered and its quoted representatives suddenly revenue-free and left with only their balance sheets between them and oblivion, it is no surprise that the FTSE 250 was -31% compared to a sprightly -25% for the FTSE 100. With the world now able to agree that any doubt of a severe global recession has been removed, government bond yields fell again. The US 10 year yield fell from 1.79% to 0.62% and the 10 year gilt yields from 0.74% to 0.33%. Despite the proposals of bail out packages which are worth numbers that are too large to have meaning for most people, there is apparently no general worry about governments’ ability to sell debt. I find it hard to believe that this will last, not least because the default solution appears to be that countries buy their own debt. Perhaps I am too dim to understand how this would work but, at least in the case of the UK, it implies devaluation and inflation to me. Most listed companies have issued Covid-19 trading updates in the last week or so and most are assessments of the probability of survival, coupled with cancelled dividends. It is important to remember that a business can continue while its equity becomes worthless – for example, the government seems disinclined to be generous to airlines because it knows that the grounded fleets will fly again one day, regardless of who owns them. Bus and train companies are by contrast largely having their...

NOT SO SPLENDID ISOLATION

NOT SO SPLENDID ISOLATION

29 Mar 2020

On the 23rd of February I published these seemingly prophetic words. SPLENDID ISOLATION Another idea that we are rowing back from is internationalism. To put it another way, nationalism appears to be on the rise wherever you look. A better word might be insularity because this is not primarily about xenophobia. It is mostly an economic phenomenon again. For some reason we don’t really care about global poverty half as much as we care about global warming. Of course I didn’t have the slightest idea of what was about to happen. So sadly this blog is not a description of how I moved all my assets into cash and am now reinvesting at a 30% discount. While the world appears to have been turned upside down in the last four weeks, people everywhere were very already receptive to turning their backs on the rest of the world. And I was too kind when I downplayed the role of xenophobia. Every country seems to want to lie in its own dirt now and in many countries’ foreigners are regarded with suspicion or even hostility.  I am absolutely not referring to the UK, which is a highly diverse and generally welcoming country, but rather to more monocultural nations. I was in Sri Lanka last week just as the country started to go into lock down. Sri Lankans are and were almost uniformly delightful but when I found myself on a crowded bus with many people standing and the seat next to me vacant, no one wanted to sit next to the white man.  There are reports that African countries are wary of Europeans and Mexicans are demanding to be protected from US citizens.   Here is a comment found on Twitter: Today on my final reporting trip in China, my colleague and I are eating when a man walks up: “You foreign trash. Foreign trash! What are you doing in my country? And you, with him, you bitch.” I think he wanted to fight, but we stayed silent and let him rant. Quite the farewell. Poland closed its borders, causing huge disruption to citizens of Baltic states trying to get home. Given how many Poles work abroad,...

ROLLING BACK THE 20th CENTURY

ROLLING BACK THE 20th CENTURY

23 Feb 2020

The generation known as baby boomers (b.1946-64) looks at 21st century technology and gradually realises that almost all the important, everyday, societal functions with which it is familiar have been usurped by the digital age. Writing letters, making telephone calls, watching television, shopping, going on holiday, banking, insurance and, hell’s teeth, even paying your bloody tax – online, online, online, online……. Everyone younger (b.1965-) is likely to be unsympathetic to any moaning and to suggest that these crotchety ingrates wake up to the fact that the internet age has opened up a new world of opportunities. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and in the end the younger people win by staying alive. TECHNOLOGY DRIVEN JOBS But there is irony in the nature of the jobs that technology creates. They are largely pre-industrial. Collection and delivery about sums it up. The new service economy is unskilled, low paid and part-time. Every time you search via Amazon and click on “Add To Basket”, the company’s software will be contacting one of twenty two fulfilment centres in the UK and in one of them someone wearing trainers will soon be sprinting to find your product. The next morning, if you are lucky or have paid up, a fleet of trucks will arrive to pick up and deliver the results of all those clicks. The fast food delivery industry has moved way beyond Indian and Chinese takeaways. Now someone is offering to bring you Big Macs and Greggs sausage rolls. Two companies that were built on the idea that you could drop in and get fed almost instantaneously are now going to save you the trouble of getting out of your chair. Someone will be paid to deliver your order. This is sometimes known as the gig economy. FAITH IN NEW TECHNOLOGY The key to the business models of most technology businesses is scale. One reason why most global technology companies come from the USA rather than, say, Finland, is that the former has 300 million eager consumers. There is no market testing like launching a product for free and seeing who wants it. Technology successes are not only hard to predict but often seem to come...