THE HARSH LIGHT OF HIGH INTEREST RATES

THE HARSH LIGHT OF HIGH INTEREST RATES

8 Oct 2023

At some time I wrote that it is wrong to try to work out how much a company is worth and then compare that to the share price. It’s more productive to do the exercise backwards – look at the valuation of a business and ask if the implied outlook is plausible. You can do this equally effectively with optically high and low valuations. A bonus of this approach is that it indicates what people really think because whatever they say (e.g. about ESG…grrrr) if they don’t invest in it they don’t believe it. But it’s not as simple as that. The propensity to invest in anything is also affected by the cost of money.  If your cash earns zero you are more likely to take a bit of a punt. If National Savings is paying 6.2% (which it was until a few days ago), safety looks far more attractive.  FREE MONEY = GREEN MONEY I think we will look back on the Greta years (2018 – ?) and observe that the perceived virtue of reversing economic development was a luxury correlated with the age of QE and free money. From 2009 to 2021, the white collar classes were coddled by unprecedented government-sponsored liquidity. They worked from home while the less well-paid delivered the essentials of life to their front doors.  You could say that a general complacency crept in. Investments in electric cars and wind turbines were characterised almost as no brainers and if their promised financial rewards were rather long term, many public subsidies (more free money) were available. Low interest rates (10 year gilts still yielded only 1% at the end of 2021) apparently discouraged financial scrutiny and (historic term) cost-benefit analysis. .  In 2022 the Bank of England ceased its gilt purchases and, deliberately or not, infamously torpedoed the new PM Truss by commencing sales of its portfolio in September. Politics aside, the attitude to public and private investment has changed markedly in 2023. THE RETURN OF COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS The 2010 HS2 rail project was going to cost £33 billion. By 2020 this had risen to £88 billion and allegedly to more than £100 billion in 2023. Naturally the project...

IS CAPITALISM BROKEN?

IS CAPITALISM BROKEN?

16 May 2023

Ever since the Global Financial Crash of 2008/9, some commentators have worried that there are too many “zombie” companies that are unable to make a profit or even a self-sustaining cash flow, but which are being kept alive by the availability of cheap credit. The argument goes that in a truly capitalist world, the unviable would die and their market share would be swallowed up by companies more deserving of success.   It must be said that in today’s world, where the political centre is so far left of where it used to be, many people would approve of the use of public money to help struggling businesses. Let’s face it, there is no use of public money incapable of attracting support from someone.  UBER But the extent to which “zombie” businesses have become established household names is quite astonishing. The Oscar arguably goes to Uber which most people would regard as the epitome of a disruptive (a horribly overused word) success. Uber’s IPO price in 2019 was $45 and today it trades at $38. In the last five years it has made operating losses of $22.2 billion on revenues of $85.9 billion. In aggregate it has lost 25 cents for every dollar of fare.  The fact that the share price is still as high as $38 tells us that Uber is well funded. Its fixed borrowings mature from 2025 to 2029 and it pays an interest rate of c.7% on average. Maybe that’s all fine. Many, many people are happy and trusting customers and have no doubt been delighted to be subsidised at the expense of Uber shareholders and creditors.  Yet, how about the taxi drivers and cab companies that have been forced out of business by Uber’s comprehensive yet (so far) financially unsustainable service? This disruption of the taxi world  is not an unmitigated boon.   OCADO  Back in the UK, how lucky we were during Covid lockdowns to have Ocado bringing groceries to the doors of the sheltering furloughed classes. Householders pinned notes to their front doors saying “Dear delivery driver. Please leave the package in the porch, ring the front door bell for five seconds and then retreat back to the world...

IN PRAISE OF STUPIDITY

IN PRAISE OF STUPIDITY

5 Mar 2023

When I talk of stupidity I do not refer to my own which, save in painful retrospect, is an unknown unknown. For better or worse I am limited to my own perception of the stupidity of others.  My proposition is that when some people are wrong, others can profit. Like all judgements, observations of stupidity need to be subjected to a probability test.  Warren Buffett says that sometimes prices are “foolish”, absolving people of some responsibility for the valuations of “Mister Market” but he is a kindly man and evidently much nicer than me.  One advantage of our publicly-traded segment is that – episodically – it becomes easy to buy pieces of wonderful businesses at wonderful prices. It’s crucial to understand that stocks often trade at truly foolish prices, both high and low. “Efficient” markets exist only in textbooks. In truth, marketable stocks and bonds are baffling, their behavior usually understandable only in retrospect Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter, February 2022 THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE INVESTOR It makes sense that the greater the number of people that are wrong, the greater the potential rewards for those who know better. If you haven’t read The Big Short by Michael Lewis, or watched the film made of it, you should. It was a lonely life, defying consensus ahead of the great financial crisis of 2008 and it is never easy. As Keynes said, most investors would rather fail in the comfort of a crowd than risk standing out.  Holding a minority opinion can be worse than lonely. For some reason, rejecting consensus appears to provoke hostility, particularly at times of perceived emergency (see my last post). After Neville Chamberlain agreed to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Munich in September 1938, Winston Churchill denounced the deal (“England…has chosen shame and will get war”). This may look like a historical footnote but Churchill’s own constituency party attempted to have him deselected and very nearly succeeded. The appeasers of 1938 were in a large majority and the idea that Hitler could be bought off was treated as believable because people wanted “peace in our time” so much. Stupidity is surely the eager and dangerously loyal...

The message from the bond markets

Conventional theory holds that an inverted bond yield (in this case where the two year pays more than the ten year) is a negative economic forecast. I have never been quite clear on whether this is regarded as a causal relationship or simply an observable correlation. The former seems unlikely – that the sight of a threatening yield curve sparks widespread fear and recession follows as a result of cautious behaviour – but I have heard people talk as if that is the case. It seems more likely that inverted bond yields are a response to or a forecast of tough economic times. I prefer to remember that bond prices are the terms on which borrowers and lenders choose to trade. High short dated yields might imply inflationary fears but they also reflect the credibility, or lack of it, of the governments that need to borrow. Lower long dated yields imply scepticism about future growth but they also suggest the belief that returns from safe investments will revert to the modest levels that became normal in the last ten or so years. A DECADE OF BOND MARKET MANIPULATION MAY HAVE DISTORTED INVESTORS’ PERCEPTION The obvious flaw with the idea that low long term yields are normal is that it is probably wrong. We have been conditioned by more than ten years of government bond market manipulation by central banks. In some countries like the US, the UK and the Eurozone, central banks have led the way with QE. It is a matter of opinion as to how independent of government influence these central bank actions have been. The fact that they have de facto financed unprecedented government borrowing, first through the Great Financial Crisis aftermath and then through Covid-inspired lockdowns, speaks for itself. HISTORY OF UK 10 YEAR GILT YIELDS Here are UK ten year gilt yields since 1980. In the 80s they were in a 10-15% range and then a 5-10% range basically until 2008 when the estimated $60 trillion of outstanding credit default swaps began falling like dominoes, threatening numerous financial institutions around the world. The chart illustrates nicely the result of the critical need for cheap money around the world. In...

Report on Q1 2022

Report on Q1 2022

4 Apr 2022

The stock market trend that began in Q4 accelerated in Q1. The FTSE 100, with its big oil, gas and mining shares, rose by 1.8% while the FTSE 250, mostly populated with companies that use those products as raw materials, lurched down by 9.9%. I cannot recall such a divergence between those two indices in a single quarter. Despite this, the bond market action was more dramatic still. Ten year UK Gilt yields rose from 0.97% to 1.6% as purchases by the Bank of England ceased. In the US, 10 year Treasuries yielded 1.51% on 31 December and 2.34% at the quarter end. The German 10 year Bund yield rose from -0.18% to 0.56%. Despite the serious risk that Putin, net zero and raw material prices will combine to send us back to recessionary times, the main message from government bonds is that inflation is a problem that historically demands high interest rates. The theory that the cost of borrowing should rise in order to discourage speculative investment looks rather thin in today’s circumstances but markets are not famous for looking around corners to see what might lie just out of sight. . Rishi Sunak’s spring financial statement contained the inevitable tax increases that many seem to find unbelievable and the reason for them. The government is now expected to pay interest of £83 billion in 2022/3. This may include losses on its stock of redeeming gilts but even so it is a shocking number implying that the nation is now paying 4% to borrow, which is roughly twice as much as its more solvent citizens. Though the latter can only expect their mortgage rates to rise in turn. The time may have come for the idea that the credit worthiness of all governments is something that must be factored into the usual calculations about the relative cost of...

Report on Q4 2021

Report on Q4 2021

4 Feb 2022

The FTSE 100 outperformed (+4.2% in the quarter) the other indices (250 and All Share) because big resource shares (oil, gas, metals) did well as the market began to realise that high commodity prices promised outstanding profits. Free cash flow would be enhanced by the fact that the environmental lobby has bullied these businesses out of making the investments that would once have been expected. Instead the likes of BP (sorry, bp) have begged for forgiveness by bidding up the price of offshore wind licences.  For the full year, all the main UK indices rose by just over 14%, perhaps a sign of a fairly indiscriminate wall of money looking for a home. This was not a great result by international standards: the S&P 500 returned 27% in 2021. Meanwhile UK gilts began to show some signs that the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility was nearly full, meaning that 2022 gilt auctions would be offered to an unrigged market. In December the 10 year yield rose from 0.82% to 0.97% and (spoiler alert) in January was set to soar up through...

POST HOC ERGO PROPTER HOC – from fallacy to policy

POST HOC ERGO PROPTER HOC – from fallacy to policy

28 Dec 2021

Post hoc ergo propter hoc, or after this, therefore because of this, is a well known logical fallacy. A sequence of events does not guarantee that there is a causal relationship between those that precede and those that follow.  Wise investors know to beware of confusing correlation with causation. A famous and surely harmless example is the Super Bowl indicator that claims that the stock market has a good year when a team from the NFL triumphs but falls if an AFC team is victorious.  Nevertheless, retrospective explanation for the movement of asset prices is a serious industry that seeks to establish an understanding of the past and, by implication, of the future, available only to a select few. I have written about this before. To an investor it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter why an asset rose or fell in price. All that matters is being aligned with the outcome. Occasionally a company that has been performing badly gets taken over at an agreeable price. Shareholders who had invested because they thought that the managers of the business were competent discover that this was not the case but ultimately are rewarded for being wrong. They give thanks and move on, as unelected leaders of their own portfolios, to their next idea without embarrassment. (Or maybe that’s just me). The so-called nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to deal with Covid-19 have elevated “post hoc ergo propter hoc” from a fallacy to the foundation of policy. Imposing lockdowns, shutting schools and destroying businesses are all actions that I consider cowardly as well as destructive, though it seems that the majority were willing to go along with them as long as the government would drive itself to the edge of insolvency to compensate them. What is, I think, beyond dispute is that the advocates of these NPIs must appear to be supported by convincing evidence that they made a positive difference. Issues of liberty, free speech, mental health and the treacherous Swedes can be relegated to background noise as long as the narrative holds.  Karl Popper proposed the Falsification Principle. It states that for a theory to be considered scientific it must be able to be tested and conceivably...

CONSPIRACY THEORY OF THE DAY

CONSPIRACY THEORY OF THE DAY

15 Dec 2021

There seems to be a puzzling disconnect between the available facts from South Africa about Omicron (that it spreads quickly but has relatively benign health consequences) and the gloomy and even panicky reaction in the UK from the government, the self-appointed “science” and the political opposition, such as it is.  It is almost as if the establishment, if that’s the right word, has an ulterior motive in keeping the fear going, even at the expense of the usual suspects such as children, people with undiagnosed conditions like cancer and, of course, the leisure and travel industries.  As this website is about money, I will speculate about financial motives. Fighting Covid has been extraordinarily expensive. The UK government has borrowed more than £550 billion since April 2020. Clearly this money has gone to some obvious recipients like vaccine manufacturers and the rapacious “approved” PCR testers but also to the NHS, to local councils and in the form of furlough payments to employers of the temporarily unemployed. I don’t suppose that many people associated with any of these groups, the pharma companies aside, actually want the pandemic to continue. But be aware that this is potentially a very big week for the UK Treasury. In March 2020 it was agreed that the Bank of England’s Asset Purchase Facility could be increased from £445 billion (it was full at the time) by £200 billion and later in the year by another £100 billion and again (in November) by a further £150 billion for a total of £895 billion (popularly known as QE or quantitative easing).  Since April 2020 the Bank has duly bought gilts steadily from institutional holders. We have only the detailed figures up to the end of September but at the consistent rate at which it was operating it should have reached its £895 billion target this very week (13th December). Over that period the Bank purchasing arm has bought £3 of gilts for every £4 that it has issued on behalf of the government. In other words, 75% of this extraordinary borrowing has been funded by what one might call an elaborate accounting trick.    Unless the QE facility is ramped up again, the government...

bp…….basely penitent

bp…….basely penitent

17 Sep 2021

The company once known as British Petroleum (a name revived by President Obama when he wanted to stick it with all the blame for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) has quietly rebranded itself in the lower case though almost nobody seems to have noticed. As if it is the corporate embodiment of white privilege, bp can only apologise and beg forgiveness for its own existence.  The splendidly named CEO, Bernard Looney (who will soon rebrand himself as Nigel Neurodiverse) has pledged to reinvent the company as a provider of multi energy customer solutions. My opinion is that if he thinks this is going to keep the eco warriors at bay he needs to change his medication, but never mind.   What interests me now is the entertaining contrast between the reinvention rhetoric and the grim reality that bp is probably having a stupendously profitable year due, of course, to the rises in the prices of oil and natural gas. How embarrassing could this get? I will save you the trouble of ploughing through bp’s 2020 annual report (tagline: “Performing While Transforming”) and take you straight to page 183 where you can get an idea of how the company actually earns its money. Essentially it is 94.5% from oil, oil products and gas. There was little bp could do in H1 2021 to avoid the surge of cash that resulted from the pop in gas prices in Q1 and the stronger crude oil price in Q2.  In its presentation about Q2 it was careful to say that it expected gas supply to remain tight and refining margins to remain roughly unchanged. In fact the natural gas price (Henry Hub) which averaged $2.9 in Q2 is now (17 September) at $5.37. And industry refining margins which for bp were strong at $13.7 per barrel in Q2 seem to be sharply higher again across the industry. It seems probable that bp will experience another embarrassingly strong quarter when it reports in late October.  The share price of bp would surely be higher were it not for the armies of Net Zero shamers whose abuse will only increase in volume as the delightful prospect of that orgy of UN...

COUNTRIES ARE BEING MANAGED LIKE BAD START-UP BUSINESSES

COUNTRIES ARE BEING MANAGED LIKE BAD START-UP BUSINESSES

8 Aug 2021

Back in 2014 I delivered a presentation on “Turning a good idea into an investment”. Among the precious jewels of advice was this observation.  Milestones should be plausible and realistic. We should feel that a start-up company knows what it hopes to do next week, next month, next quarter. If someone tries to interest me in a business that has invented a device that makes perfect poached eggs, I don’t want to be shown a graph of estimated global egg consumption up till 2020. I want to be shown a poached egg. I hardly need to point out that today’s politicians love to announce targets that are a long way into the future.  COVID 19 – HEADLESS CHICKENS GO VIRAL The Covid-19 pandemic has given us the rare sight of politicians made to take short-term decisions with quick measurable consequences. It has been their ultimate discomfort zone. It has not been pretty to watch but it has been instructive.  Responsibility has been outsourced with urgency – decision-making has effectively been devolved to rolling committees of the unelected who might or might not have the necessary scientific qualifications.  More surprising to me has been that the terror has spread to opposition parties whose positions have been as difficult to nail down as a smack of jellyfish at high tide. Perhaps it is not surprising, though it is certainly not admirable, that the leaders of nations prefer to bask in the warm waters of the infinity pool. BEING BRAVE AND DECISIVE ABOUT THE YEAR 2100 If future targets were awarded Oscars, the winner of best picture would be that one about the global temperature in 2100. Essentially it seeks to restrict the temperature rise between two dates; the first being when no one alive today had been born and the second where all today’s decision makers will be dead. It is a fine example of something that is beyond accountability due to lack of proper data.  I doubt if one person in fifty realises that the self-congratulatory COP 2016 Paris meeting was promising something to be realised 84 years into the future.  Given that there is little sign that China and India (for example) are taking...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...