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...

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...

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...

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,...

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...

Report on Q2 2019

Report on Q2 2019

2 Jul 2019

Falling bond yields continued everywhere in Q2. US 10 year yields are now just over 2%, UK at 0.86% and Germany at a record low of -0.3%. In the report on Q1 I wrote: “Perhaps by the end of Q2 we will be able to guess what people were worrying about.” The short answer appears to be world trade. President Trump believes that holds all the cards and, ignoring the fact that he doesn’t seem to know or care that import tariffs are a tax on his own citizens, he is not far wrong. His hostility to China is well known. Some people suspect that he next wants to turn his fire on the EU which to him essentially means Germany. Of course by implication it could also mean the UK. Assuming that Donald Trump is capable of deferring a threat, it might just be that he is waiting for the UK’s exit from the EU before firing his cannons. In the 29 quarters since the start of 2013, the average quarter-on-quarter GDP growth in the US has been 0.59%, in the UK 0.46%, in Germany 0.34% and in the euro countries (the EU 19) just 0.27%. It appears that some combination of factors – demographics, the ECB, the euro itself, the EU’s insular anti-trade practices – has produced an era of disturbingly low growth in the EU and hence the lowest, deadest interest rates since the invention of money. Many people these days are spooked by “uncertainty”. They needn’t worry. There is nothing on the horizon to rouse the economies of Europe from their slumber. When I hear endless warnings about what will happen to the UK economy when or if it separates from the EU (three and a half years of “project fear” so far – keep it up, guys) I don’t know whether to laugh or guffaw. The UK stock market indices rose by 1.9% in the quarter. They are down by 3-6% over the last year and around 1% higher compared to two years ago. So it has been hard going. There is little easy money to be made and those who try too hard can easily come a cropper....

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%...

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...

INVESTING IN SOFTWARE COMPANIES

INVESTING IN SOFTWARE COMPANIES

30 Mar 2018

Ten years ago, I was paid to write research on investing in software companies. My USP was that I was pretty much a technophobe with little or no interest in software but with something of a passion for finding how to make money by investing in companies. Back in the early 2000s the world of software was full of exclusive jargon which, deliberately or not, served to discourage scepticism. The following is selected more or less at random from the 2006 Annual Report of SAP AG. THE “NEXT BIG THING” IN INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY Today, the IT sector stands on the verge of widespread adoption of service-oriented architecture (SOA), a development that promises to change the dynamics of the software industry as much as the shift to client-server architecture did 15 years ago. In essence, SOA defines the technical standards that enable the various enterprise software applications used by companies and their business partners to exchange data effectively. Thus, SOA will help reduce the costs of creating and maintaining data exchange interfaces, a factor CIOs consistently cite as one of their top challenges. When I read stuff like this I used to think a) does this mean anything and b) even if it does, how is anyone going to persuade the board of a major company to throw money at it? That is why I hit upon a personal rule that can be usefully extended from the narrow world of software analysis to life itself – never be afraid to ask the stupid question. Experience teaches that it’s often the hardest one to answer. Fifteen years ago the normal software business model was to sell a perpetual licence that allowed the customer to use the software plus an annually payable fee that got him maintenance and upgrades. The analyst community was obsessed with the growth of software companies and consequently watched the “new licence sales” number in every quarterly earnings release. Share prices were highly volatile as a result. A “miss” from the quarterly numbers often resulted in carnage for the shares. I was actually frightened. How I could I make recommendations to buy and sell shares when my view could and probably would be...

Report on Q1 2018

Report on Q1 2018

30 Mar 2018

In my report on Q4, I wrote that “for the third successive quarter, the markets were mysteriously calm.” The calm was disrupted in Q1 for sure: the main UK indexes fell by between 6% and 8%. The German DAX was -6.3%. Supported by a falling dollar, the US markets, though volatile, did better with the DJIA -2.5%. I hinted before that the stock markets might be vulnerable to rising interest rates or, more specifically, rising bond yields. In February it started to look as if this was happening; the US 10 year treasury yield had risen from 2.40% to 2.94%; but by the end of the quarter it was back to 2.74%. A similar pattern played out elsewhere. The 10 year gilt yield rose from 1.20% to 1.69% but ended the quarter back at 1.34%. It would seem that the wait for inflation goes on. Aside from the usual nonsensical white noise about “uncertainty” it is hard to escape the conclusion that the stock market is truly concerned about the ability of large corporations that feature in our lives daily to invest capital, service debt and pay dividends. Here is your day described in terms of dividend yields: you are woken by the ringing of the house phone (BT: 6.8%) and switch on the light (National Grid: 5.6%); you turn up the central heating (Centrica: 8.5%) and clean your teeth (Glaxo: 5.7%); you decide to go into town but your car has no petrol (BP: 6.0%, Royal Dutch Shell: 5.8%) and needs a new rear light (Halfords: 5.4%) so you decide to take the bus (Stagecoach: 9.0%, Go-Ahead: 5.8%); you do some shopping in Currys PC World (Dixons Carphone: 6.0%, Vodafone: 6.7%) and M&S (Marks & Spencer: 6.9%) before treating yourself to a pub lunch (Marstons: 7.4%, Greene King: 7.0%). Is it the end of the world as we know it? Yet, against this rather sinister background something quite different has been happening. Companies who want to buy each other seem to like these prices very much. On 22 December GVC announced its intention to buy Ladbrokes plc. On 17 January, Melrose bid for GKN; on 30 January UBM agreed to be taken over;...

Report on Q3 2017

Report on Q3 2017

3 Oct 2017

In the Q2 report I said that the stock market had been amazingly calm. The amazement intensified in Q3. Political and economic commentators are so certain of impending collapse that they can hardly get the words out quickly enough. The politicians themselves are cringing in response, like the invertebrates that most of them sadly appear to be. You can be sure that if the fear gets to investors they will panic but, rightly or wrongly, they are not doing so. It has usually been a sound investment policy to say that if it’s reached the front page of the news, it’s probably in the price. In other words, the perceived risks have been accounted for.  Obviously perceived risk is a moving target and securities will continue to trade accordingly. To take a singular example, the Labour party wants to nationalise Royal Mail, probably at its issue price of 330p. The shares are down 17% this year to 385p, just a further 14% above Labour’s assumed confiscation price. The company just raised the dividend again and they yield 6%. That looks to me as if the price is discounting the risk quite efficiently. (Given that the competitors to Royal Mail are “gig economy” delivery companies I cannot imagine why Labour hates it so much). Labour’s wider threat is that it proposes to confiscate privately owned assets (starting with anything that has ever been state-owned which is pretty much everything that existed before the internet). This is potentially catastrophic (defined by Dr Johnson as “A final event; a conclusion generally unhappy”). The wing of the Labour party that hates capitalism would be delighted because capital would flee to the land of Anywhere Else. The stock market tells us that, specific victims like Royal Mail aside, it thinks that Corbyn’s electioneering pledges are hot air on which he would never be able to deliver. But the closer he comes the more frightening he will get. So watch that space.        In the quarter, the FTSE 100 was +0.9%, the All Share + 1.3% and the 250 + 2.8%. 10 year gilt yields rose from 1.26% to 1.33%. A big yawn, even if it was a nervous...

The Euro Elephant

The Euro Elephant

2 Sep 2017

Who is in the room containing those who are supposedly negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU? We seem to have sent a team of men (mostly) who are used to attending meetings without trousers which is perhaps appropriate.  The Europeans are fielding another team of men (mostly) who are seemingly permanently “flabbergasted” and like to talk about the conditions for talks about talks. Were they to remove their trousers you can be sure that they would be wearing a second pair underneath. But what is that large white quadruped that keeps sticking its proboscis where it’s not wanted? It is the elephant in the room and its name is sadly not Donald the Tusk but Erich the Euro. Here is a picture of Erich, trumpeting towards his glorious target of parity with the pound (the chart runs from 2014 to this week – click to enlarge).   No one knows for sure why currencies move against other currencies. To listen to analysts and other commentators you might imagine that it is quite obvious, in retrospect if not in advance. This is largely tosh. The best answer is the one that I heard every day when I worked on the floor of the London stock exchange: “More buyers than sellers, mate”. THE REASON FOR CURRENCY MOVEMENTS IS UNCLEAR AND UNIMPORTANT Looking at the elephant picture it appears that there have been more buyers of euros than sellers. In 2015 there were more sellers than buyers. Remind me, why was that again? There just were! Okay, okay. I suppose that Brexit uncertainty and a slowing top-end property market (yes, they might be the same thing) have caused foreign investors to buy less sterling this year. You might just about persuade me that others have been buying euros in preparation for opening new offices in Budapest, Valletta and Clermont Ferrand. But currency movements have real effects, though they take time to play out. There has been a 40% increase in UK tourists to Greece this year (doubtless fuelled partly by aversion to Turkey – people prefer oppressed governments to oppressive ones, it seems). As I write, these tourists will be asking themselves why Greece...

Report on Q2 2017

Report on Q2 2017

5 Jul 2017

The UK stock market was on a rollercoaster ride to nowhere in Q2. The FTSE 100 fell by -0.3% and the 250 managed a rise of +1.8%. Given that we had a shock election, a shock result, a hung parliament and that the shadow Chancellor thinks that democracy has failed, you could say that the stock market has been amazingly calm. Likewise the government bond market. The 10 year gilt yield was 1.23% at the end of Q1 and 1.26% at the end of Q2. This is the dog not barking in the night time. We are widely told that the pale imitation of austerity that has been attempted for the last eight years is to be abandoned but the bond market is not panicking yet. Here is a picture of gilt yields since 2007.    One of the lessons of the election was that voters under the age of fifty or so are not frightened of the things that made the 1970s rather messy. Inflation, double digit interest rates and labour unions challenging the government’s right to run the country to name but three. It remains the case that the return of inflation is what bears warn about most frequently. In the 1970s the best way to protect oneself against inflation was to buy property. House prices rose by 492% over the decade. I wouldn’t advise the same strategy now. In fact I would consider doing the opposite. The world still seems pretty deflationary to me. You can choose your own explanation and file it under “uncertainty” but it still seems to me that listed companies are still being very cautious about capex and expecting their shareholders to approve of this caution. Here are five domestically exposed UK companies that have reported March or April year-end results recently. Halfords cut capes by 11% and raised its dividend by 3%. Dairy Crest cut capex by 62% and raised its dividend by 2%. M&S cut capex by 25% and kept its dividend unchanged. Stage Coach cut capex by 18% and raised its dividend by 4%. Royal Mail cut capex by 16% and raised its dividend by 4%. All these are behaving in a risk averse...

Investing for our old age

Investing for our old age

16 Jan 2017

Here are two pieces of great news for the citizens of relatively rich, relatively developed, relatively Western economies. Women can increasingly combine career and motherhood rather than having to choose between them: and improved healthcare (if not exercise and diet) mean that people on average are living to greater ages. Fifty years ago, the UK average birthrate per woman was 2.9 (over her fertile life, not per pregnancy, obviously). Now it is 1.8. No doubt this is down to a combination of reasons which you can work out for yourself. Given that medical science has not yet worked out how to allow men to give birth you might imagine, if the UK’s experience is typical, that in the long term the global population will decline, on the rough basis that each woman should on average have two babies to replace those falling off the perch at the far end of life’s journey. Were it not for the fertility of some African countries, where birthrates of >5 per woman are quite common, mankind might become an endangered species.  According to the World Bank, the average fertility of women in the world was 2.5 in 2016 and the necessary “replacement rate” is 2.1. So the human race looks as if it will walk on for a while. Yet the story for developed nations is quite different. BIRTH RATE IN DEVELOPED NATIONS – FLACCID France (2.0), the US (1.9) and the UK (1.8) are doing their best (all, note, countries with histories of racially diverse immigration). The EU, which only promotes immigration from within itself, is overall at just 1.6 and Germany (1.4), Italy (1.4) and Spain (1.3) are below average. China, just unwinding its one child policy, is at 1.6 and Japan, perhaps the world’s most notorious ageing nation, is at 1.4. But the populations of established nations like the US, Germany and the UK are certainly not declining yet. Instead we have decades ahead in which the population will continue to grow but will age significantly. This is important for all kinds of financial reasons, none of them good. The last time that the fertility rate in the UK was at the “replacement rate” of...

Why investors love uncertainty

Why investors love uncertainty

18 Oct 2016

Every five minutes, someone, somewhere, says that “markets hate uncertainty”. This is an example of anthropomorphism or the attribution of human characteristics to animals, objects or ideas. Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing according to Warren Buffet, wrote about Mr Market, an obliging business partner who offers to buy you out or sell you a larger stake on a daily basis. Mr Market can be generous or miserly but his defining characteristic is that he always shows up. Mr Market is in fact, a market.  Regrettably, the temptation to turn Mr Market into a soap opera character who experiences human emotions has proved too much for many commentators. Watch, read or listen to today’s news and you will find that Mr Market is an extremely judgmental fellow. Donald Trump makes him very unhappy. He is incandescent with anger about Brexit. Interestingly, Mr Market is not a great believer in democracy. When he thinks that voters in the US or the UK are making a mistake he stamps his foot in rage. He much prefers the smack of firm leadership. When Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia attempt to collude to restrict the supply of oil he performs a little jump of joy. Enough. Mr Market does love or hate anything. Markets are just places where buyers and sellers look for each other and sometimes meet. If you want to attach a smiley face to the chart of a rising market that’s up to you but remember that higher prices result in losers as well as winners. Witness the UK housing market – oldies = smiley face: youngsters = sad face. The sloppy thinking that leads people to say that markets hate uncertainty invariably evolves into the confident factual statement that “investors hate uncertainty”. This assertion is central to the fund management industry that wants to frighten you into paying to have your savings looked after. Please see my post “Clients are very nervous”. But the truth is the opposite. Investors love uncertainty because it causes assets to be mispriced. It is only the mispricing of assets that leads to good opportunities to buy and sell. I don’t want to be unkind but if someone...

Hidden charms of Mrs M&S

Hidden charms of Mrs M&S

5 Jun 2016

Back in November one of my first ever blogs was about M&S. The shares were trading at 389p and I wrote that only takeover interest could justify a higher price but I thought that the pension liabilities made that a very unlikely prospect. For reasons which were and remain unclear to me the shares touched 600p last year but M&S has not yet been taken over and they have now tumbled all the way back to 355p. A battered low-end competitor BHS has just been closed with 11,000 jobs lost and 164 stores closed. It is no surprise that it was the pension liabilities that provoked the final bullet to the head. In addition, Austen Reed is closing 120 outlets at the cost of 1000 jobs and Matalan is reportedly struggling under its debt burden. (Matalan’s founder loaded it with extra debt in order to pay himself a dividend – sound familiar?) A hard-headed analysis might suggest that the closure of a competitor is good news for the other clothing retailers but on 25 May M&S shares were hammered following publication of its 2015/16 results. Excluding last week’s ex-dividend adjustment they are down 17% (from 445p). For the nth year, M&S is having trouble with its Clothing business. The CEO was ridiculed for referring to the core customer as “Mrs M&S” though the results presentation offered the slightly surprising observation that 42% of its 32 million customers are men. I seriously doubt if there is any company on which more people have an opinion than M&S. There are millions of experts out there. I can read in the presentation what customers are complaining about. There is too much choice, too much fashion at the expense of style, too many sizes out of stock and not enough consistency about price and value. As someone burdened by little interest in shopping or retailing I must say that none of that looks impossible to fix. You can also shop at M&S online though I don’t know how well it works or whether that would appeal to the 78% of customers who are 35 or over (still reading the presentation). Following the rather negative publicity and the share...

Report on Q1 2016

Report on Q1 2016

8 Apr 2016

Following a nervous rally in Q4, in Q1 the UK stock market was merely nervous. For the first time in seven quarters, the FTSE 100 (-1.2%) outperformed the FTSE 250 (-3.0%). This is a small indication that investors were becoming more worried about the outlook for earnings, I suppose. Since the Fed made the first tiny upward move in rates (0.25% in December), the economic smoke signals have deteriorated. Janet Yellen has publicly backtracked on the outlook for more rate rises this year. The ECB has signalled that more stimulus may be needed. Then there is China, Brexit and, most particularly, blah blah.      As usual, market commentators think that equity prices should reflect their view of the world. As usual, they miss the fact that equities are merely assets that compete with the value on offer elsewhere. The implicit secondary purpose of QE (the primary purpose was to bail out the banks) is to make the value of every other investment so unattractive that people begin to invest directly in riskier ventures that are more likely to help the economy. That’s the theory on which, despite its having the weight and robustness of a Twiglet, the world seems to be relying. How’s it going? Well, the price of “safe” investments has climbed to yet more prohibitively unattractive levels. The yield on German 10 year Bunds was 0.63% on the 30th December 2015 and 0.14% on 30th March 2016 and is thought by some to be heading negative. Well, why not? The Bank of England started its QE purchases of gilts in March 2009. At the time, the average UK dwelling cost £157,500 (its low point of the last ten years). In March 2016, the average dwelling cost £224,000 a nifty rise of 42% or 5.2% compound over seven years. No wonder that most Britons think that housing is the best possible investment and that we must have a housing shortage. Memo to everyone: house prices have been inflated by a deliberate and unprecedented policy of monetary easing, not by supply shortage. This is not going to end well. How about the next stage? Are people helping the economy by making riskier investments? Today’s...