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...

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...

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...

NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION

NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION

18 Oct 2019

This is a follow up to “The crumbling social contract”, written in March 2017. A government that is answerable to the people who elected it has a critical peacetime power that depends entirely on its perceived legitimacy. The power to impose taxes. Where would all those generous spending promises come from if they didn’t have the right to confiscate our money? The UK Parliament’s obligation to pass all taxes into law was conceived as part of the 1689 Bill of Rights which constrained the power of the monarch (James II). The quid pro quo was that the populace would give their consent to be taxed. In practice this means that the people have to believe that the parliament represents them. The slogan “no taxation without representation” is associated with the American Revolution. The colonists objected to paying taxes to the British government which seemed to them, and which was subsequently to become, a foreign power. The debate over the 2016 EU referendum was sometimes claimed (by those who wanted to leave) to be a similar question. They take our money and spend it without consulting us very much. The slogan that helped to win the day was “Take back control”. I think that most of the British public were not particularly concerned about the money. Didn’t Mrs Thatcher get us a rebate once? The attempt by the Remain campaign to turn the referendum into an economic debate, though it continues to this day, was a failure. LOOTERS Recently, though, our MPs have been daring themselves to reinterpret the meaning of democratic representation. They are like looters in the aftermath of a riot. Someone else broke the windows. Surely reaching through and nicking something isn’t such a big crime? If I don’t, someone else will. Some have merely abandoned or if you prefer reinterpreted the manifestos on which their parties stood in 2017. Others have actually changed sides and not one has taken the honourable course of offering themselves back to their voters in a by-election. Every conceivable legal chance has been taken to force through, block, delay or reverse the result of the referendum. No doubt our MPs would say that all’s fair in...

EQUITIES ARE THE NEW JUNK BONDS

EQUITIES ARE THE NEW JUNK BONDS

28 Aug 2019

Anyone who cares to investigate can discover that the equities that you probably own directly or through your pension scheme are equitable only with each other. Benjamin Graham, the so-called father of modern investing, called them “common shares” which is a better clue. When a company is wound up this typically means that it has run out of money and run out of people who will lend or give it more cash. Equities represent any surplus assets that are left when all other creditors have been paid off. Every other creditor ranks above the owners of the common shares. First are secured creditors like banks or bondholders who have lent money on fixed terms. If the company defaults on those terms it can be forced into formal insolvency, though sometimes the secured creditors will accept equity in return for a further cash injection, if they judge that their best chance of getting their money back in the end is to keep the business going. In those circumstances they will be issued shares on such favourable terms that existing equity investors are diluted to the point of worthlessness. This is happening now in the case of Thomas Cook. After secured creditors have been paid in full, anything left goes to so-called preferential creditors, including employees, and then to the luckless trade creditors and HMRC. You can infer that common shareholders will usually be completely wiped out. Unsurprisingly, people who invest in equities very rarely think about the risk of insolvency and losing all their money. We all dream of the day when the theoretical value of those surplus assets explodes upwards. Bond holders may get their money plus interest back but as Benjamin Graham pointed out many decades ago, common stocks have “a far better record than bonds over the long term past”. It has widely been accepted as a fact that equities are the answer for a long term investor. Cautious share owners look for sustainable dividends that can rise as the company grows; the more optimistic hope for rising share prices as well. Those are the two elements that drive the long-term performance of common stocks observed by Graham. But stock market investors...

ON BELIEF – LISTEN TO YOURSELF, TRUST YOURSELF

ON BELIEF – LISTEN TO YOURSELF, TRUST YOURSELF

4 Feb 2019

There is a classic episode of Yes Prime Minister (“The Bishop’s Gambit”) in which Jim Hacker has to choose between two problematic candidates for a vacant bishopric. One is a “modernist” and the other is a “separatist” (of church and state). There is a famous exchange that runs as follows: Sir Humphrey : “The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England” Hacker: “What about God?” Sir Humphrey: “I think he’s what is known as an optional extra”. Sir Humphrey explains that a “modernist” is a coded word. “When they stop believing in God they call themselves modernists”. Theists tend to prefer the word “faith” to “belief”. Much blood has been spilled across the centuries over the question of whether the wafer and wine offered as part of holy communion are really the body and blood of Christ or merely symbols. If you think that the answer to that question is obvious (and the chances are 1000-1 on that you do) that is because you can’t help yourself. Belief is not a result of choice. It’s something that happens to you based on the empirical evidence that you see. FAITH IS NOT AN INVESTMENT TOOL By contrast, faith is a great liberator. The more improbable something is, the deeper the faith required to accept it. Faith is not based on reason. Consequently, behaviour driven by extreme faith often looks like irrationality or worse to outsiders. For this reason belief is an essential tool of investment while faith is a menace. It is often difficult to distinguish one’s own beliefs from what might loosely be called wishful thinking. It is quite natural, but not good, to suffer from confirmation bias when hearing news about a company in which one has already taken the decision to invest. Confirmation bias is a symptom of faith. Not merely in investment but in all aspects of life we are keen and competitive to be clever and right and successful. I find it remarkable how hard it can sometimes be to work out what I actually believe. I would like to think that my beliefs frequently coincide with what turns out to be the truth but the relationship between belief...

Contagion

Contagion

16 Oct 2018

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

OVER TO YOU, KIDS

OVER TO YOU, KIDS

14 Sep 2018

“I DON’T WANT TO BE A BURDEN” People are vaguely aware that the populations of many developed and relatively wealthy nations are on average ageing and that this is likely to become a financial problem. In the UK the median age (at which the same numbers are older and younger) hit 40 in 2014 having risen from 33.9 in 1974 (source: ONS). As things stand, the pensions and care of old people are paid for by the state and the state is funded by the taxes of younger people. Hence there are many cries of protest about inter-generational unfairness.     Many of us will “blame” increased life expectancy due to rising GDP per head and advances in medical treatment. It is difficult to treat this as a problem because most people seem to assume that they would like to live as long as possible. Unless we distinctly harden our attitude, challenge the value of extending failing life and consider the idea of encouraging euthanasia, there seems little to be done that people are not already doing themselves by making poor diet and minimal exercise choices.  LAY DOWN A LIFE FOR YOUR COUNTRY  But while it is probably impractical to urge people to die, there is the better and less ethically troubling possibility of encouraging them to breed. The snag is that much of the general population sees fecund women as a potential menace – in short, a burden on the welfare state, as The Specials pointed out in 1979 (ironically a year of exceptionally low birth rate) You’ve done too much, much too young Now you’re married with a son when you should be having fun, with me Ain’t he cute? No he ain’t. He’s just another burden on the welfare state (The most shocking thing about those lyrics today is that the mother is married. In 1979 it was banned from Top of the Pops because of the line “Ain’t you heard of contraception?”) But the truth is that in most developed countries, the birth rate has been below the “replacement rate” (2.1 births per fertile woman) for decades. We have been here before, specifically in the early 1940s, when George Orwell wrote as follows:...

ARE YOU CALLING ME A LIAR?

ARE YOU CALLING ME A LIAR?

10 Aug 2018

A little more than three years ago I wrote in defence of the word “scepticism”. I said that scepticism, which was once habitually paired with the word “healthy”, was having its meaning changed pejoratively to imply that a sceptic was a borderline fanatic who was in denial of the consensus agreed by all enlightened liberals. But scepticism is essential to successful investment and it might do people some good to employ it on other occasions. Something similar but opposite has happened to the word “liar”. It seems that everyone with whom some people disagree is called a liar. It has turned into a playground taunt, an insult tossed off casually without thought as to its actual implications. I will explain at the end why this really matters. Let me insist, if I dare, on two conditions that must be satisfied if someone is to be convicted of lying. First, what they say must be false and second, they must have a reasonable expectation that it is false. According to these criteria it is a very strong accusation to make. In the House of Commons to accuse another member of lying is considered unparliamentary language and the words must be withdrawn. Of course, in a trivial way, most of us lie routinely every day. For this reason the phrase “white lie” was invented. The film “Liar Liar” is about the hilarious chaos that ensues when a lawyer is forced to tell the truth for twenty four hours. Saki’s story of Tobermory the talking cat, written nearly a century earlier, was based on similar comic consequences: as was  William’s Truthful Christmas by Richmal Compton (1925).  By and large, it is considered better to be kind than truthful in personal relationships. “What can I do, what can I do? Much of what you say is true, I know that you see through me, But there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty.” Paul Simon (Tenderness) The very existence of white lies alerts us to the fact that darker lies are serious stuff. People go to prison for perjuring themselves in court and the reason that they tend to receive custodial sentences (up to seven years) is that the law...

Report on Q2 2018

Report on Q2 2018

5 Jul 2018

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