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...

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...

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,...

Left hand down, hold on for the ride

Left hand down, hold on for the ride

14 Nov 2019

On 9 November, Prof. Brian Cox who is a professor of particle physics and a TV and radio presenter responded to the news that credit rating Moody’s downgraded the outlook for the UK’s debt with this Tweet: “Neither Labour nor the Conservatives will be able to borrow all the money they are pledging if international investors take fright.” Pausing only to note that anyone who relied on Moody’s credit ratings probably got wiped out years ago, Prof. Cox’s view does not seem outrageously controversial to me. Yet he was buried by a landslide of comments such as: “Don’t you just love it when experts step out of their areas of expertise and talk bollocks.” In essence the message is that if Brian Cox thinks that interest rates might rise, then he must be an economic dumbo. But the important point is not whether the professor is a financial simpleton or not but that the crowd is so emphatically behind a view that would quite recently have been unthinkable. Groupthink now knows that interest rates will never rise and that governments can borrow whatever they like. Happy days. And talking of financial simpletons, Donald Trump keeps criticising the Federal Reserve because other countries have negative interest rates on their government debt.  “Give me some of that. Give me some of that money. I want some of that money. Our Federal Reserve doesn’t let us do it.” Source: Speech to the Economic Club of New York 12 November 2019 The remarkable fact is that Brian Cox is regarded as the one who “doesn’t get it” whereas President Trump thinks that he is espousing “the new normal”. HOW DID WE GET HERE? How did we get here and what happens if the consensus is as wrong as usual? “I am concerned that this emerging anti-austerity consensus, driven as it is by the desire for perceived “fair” outcomes, could get messy. Meddling is in the air. An outbreak of doing the wrong thing cannot be far off.” Source: CrowKnows “Prepare to turn left” I wrote that exactly two years ago in the post “Prepare to turn left”. It is surely time to follow up because the steering wheel...

The crumbling social contract

The crumbling social contract

15 Mar 2017

THE LAND OF THE FREE-FROM-RESPONSIBILTY The Occupy protesters (what was it they were protesting about again?) used to chant “We are the 99%”. The 1% were portrayed as the selfish and/or crooked people who had appropriated most of the wealth. It is demonstrably easy to be part of the 99% – in fact, it’s darned hard not to be. Rarely had so many ever been against so few. The trouble with being part of a 99% majority is that it is difficult to be focused. Even the French revolutionaries of 1789, who had pretty much the same numbers on their side, could not agree on their objectives and ten years later succumbed to dictatorship (by a chap named Napoleon). But the recent UK budget, delivered by the harassed Chancellor, Philip Hammond, highlighted one point on which close to 99% of politicians, lobbyists and commentators are agreed. They all have limitless opinions about how public money should be spent but next to no constructive suggestions about how that spending should be funded. There is no responsibility for funding that is commensurate with the responsibility for spending. This seems unfair because the latter offers all the joys of patronage and moral superiority and the former, as Mr Hammond might agree, is like having toothache in a land of no dentists (whose absence is widely attributed to your own austerity policy).      I believe that most citizens are supportive of the idea that they should pay their fair share of taxes. But what weakens their support is any suggestion that the government is misusing their money, either by waste and incompetence or by channelling it to family and friends or by funding causes with which they do not agree. (The 2016 EU referendum ticked all those boxes for many people). There was a great experiment in California in the 1970s that showed what happens when people revolt against their social obligation to pay taxes. PROPOSITION 13 Essentially, Proposition 13, passed overwhelming in a referendum in 1978, imposed severe restrictions on the ability of local Californian politicians to raise taxes. Its genesis was the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The US has a history of taxing real estate that...

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...

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...