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...

NOT SO SPLENDID ISOLATION

NOT SO SPLENDID ISOLATION

29 Mar 2020

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

Left hand down, hold on for the ride

Left hand down, hold on for the ride

14 Nov 2019

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

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...

The real estate “bubble” is global

The real estate “bubble” is global

21 Mar 2019

In my round-up of Q4 2018 I mentioned three risks that I intended to keep an eye on. Here are three really bad things that could happen in 2019 or preferably later. 1) London house prices fall by 20% rapidly or 40% gradually (or both) 2) A major issuer of government debt suffers a catastrophic collapse in confidence or actually defaults (will the person who said “China” see me afterwards?) 3) A neo-Marxist garden gnome becomes Prime Minister of Great Britain. Numbers 2) and 3) remain of great interest but now I want to update myself on the developing story of property prices. Two observations are becoming quite well known: the apparent insanity of new high rise apartments shooting up all over Zone 2 London and the decline in turnover of the traditional property market. FLIPPERING HELL The FT had a good article on 20 February entitled “London’s property ‘flippers’ forced to sell at a loss”. Flippers are speculators who buy flats off-plan before construction has begun. It seems that they are often individuals either originating from or actually still living in Asia. They are probably rather ignorant about what they have agreed to buy. According to the FT, someone lost £770,000 buying and selling an uncompleted apartment in One Blackfriars, a monstrous glass eyesore (obviously that’s just my unsophisticated opinion) towering over the Thames (which has surely been punished enough). “In 2014, 21 per cent of resales in recently completed developments were sold at a discount, according to property research company LonRes. Last year that number had more than trebled, to 67 per cent. At the same time, the size of discounts has ballooned. From an average of 2.2 per cent in 2014, to 13.1 per cent last year.” To be brutally frank, most Londoners just find these stories of burnt speculative fingers quite satisfying. Some might say that it’s payback for despoiling our historic city with your greed and ignorance. Others might suggest that this attitude is somewhat hypocritical, given that mutual self congratulation about how much everyone had made on their houses was the backbone of London dinner parties for about three decades. PENSION PURGATORY Over those years many representatives of...

£££ The case for the pound £££

£££ The case for the pound £££

10 Nov 2018

  When I wrote recently about financial  contagion I pointed out that holding cash is an investment. It is effectively a bet against inflation and for political and economic stability. Moreover, holding any currency involves a potential hidden opportunity cost – that of not holding a different currency. On a couple of occasions in my lifetime, the British government has had to abandon a policy of maintaining the level of sterling against another currency; in 1967 against the dollar and in 1992 against the deutschmark. GREAT STERLING DEVALUATIONS OF OUR TIME On the first occasion, following a 14% devaluation, the PM Harold Wilson attracted a certain amount of ridicule for addressing the nation in the following terms. He acknowledged that sterling was worth less “abroad” but said: “That doesn’t mean, of course, that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or bank, has been devalued”. Essentially he said that the pound hadn’t been devalued against the pound. In truth, it wasn’t much of an argument but it relied on the fact that currency losses are largely invisible until people are obliged to make some kind of foreign transaction. I don’t remember the devaluation of 1967 but in 1992, on (Black) Wednesday 16th September I was sitting in a dealing room listening to an open line from the Bank of England’s dealer who repetitively intoned the price at which he was prepared to buy sterling. One of my colleagues told me that the Bank of England dealer always closed for the day at 4.30pm (presumably to catch the 5.07 to Sevenoaks) and wondered what would happen then. What happened is that he did indeed bid everyone a good afternoon and no doubt picked up his briefcase and headed for the door. In the time the world’s only buyer of sterling could have walked to the station, the dam had burst and he had pissed away £3.3 billion, which was real money in 1992. If that sounds like a story of pinstriped establishment incompetence from ancient British history, I must mention that the Bank of England is sitting on paper losses of some £49 billion (my estimate) from the gilts that it has bought...

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...

Populism explained!!

Populism explained!!

21 Dec 2017

The causes of the financial crisis have not been properly addressed. In particular, the perpetrators are widely and correctly seen as having got away with it. This, in my view, lies behind the populist behaviour that keeps giving us “anti-establishment” election results like Brexit, Trump and Corbyn. That’s the conclusion of this essay. Here are my arguments, looking at what happened in the US, the EU and the UK and the common failures of leadership in all three territories. WALL STREET AND THE FINANCIAL CRISIS I think we all know that the financial crisis involved junk debts being packaged by rogues as AAA and sold to idiots. Faults on both sides, no doubt. US officials are relatively good at hammering those considered dispensable. (Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years at the age of 71. That showed him). But the biggest banks were considered “too big to fail”. They operated with an implicit guarantee that, no matter what, they would be bailed out by the state. This was extended to the claim that they were “too big to jail”. It has been said that it would be destabilizing to the financial system if the senior management of a major institution were taken on the “perp walk”, handcuffed in front of a global TV audience. At the same time, the alumni of US investment banks seem to penetrate government at the highest levels. The original bailout was presided over by the Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, once of Goldman Sachs. Also from a Goldman career is the current Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin (there are limits to President Trump’s populism). You can read plenty about Goldman Sachs here. US politicians who complain about the big banks tend to stand out because they are unusual. Bernie Saunders and Elizabeth Warren are portrayed as “progressive liberals” (that’s an insult in establishment parlance) and possibly anti-capitalist or un-American. It is estimated that the US banking lobby spends more than $100 million a year fighting attempts to regulate it.    In 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement claimed to represent “the 99%” against income inequality and corporate influence. President Obama said perceptively that: “I think it expresses the frustrations the American...

Prepare to turn left

Prepare to turn left

14 Nov 2017

I have been on the town recently. Two weeks ago I went to see Reasons to be Cheerful, a brilliant play based around the music of Ian Dury. It is performed by the Graeae theatre company that featured in the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony. I saw it when it was produced the first time in 2010 and eagerly returned for more. Ian Dury was to say the least an anti-establishment figure and by today’s standards not politically correct. I’m not sure whether he would have appreciated the fact that a new song was tacked on to the end of the show. “If it can’t be right then it must be wrong” has rather puerile lyrics that I don’t think Ian himself would have written (“Keep the funding flowing from a loving cup”). As the song was played and sung, pictures of various politicians with devil horns sprouting from their heads were flashed onto a screen: Mrs Thatch, natch, David Cameron and, oh look, Tony Blair. But I will let someone else summarise: “This new anti austerity song from Graeae and the Blockheads captures the current mood of the country. Its lyrics bring people together in a moment of shared experience to challenge the status quo.” Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party. There I was watching a play set in 1979 and suddenly the “mood of the country” in 2017 was sprung on me. How did that happen, I wondered. Last week I revisited 1979 for the second time by paying a 2079 price to see Squeeze at the Royal Albert Hall. And it happened again. In between Cool for Cats, Up the Junction and Labelled with Love, the band naturally played songs from their new album. These included Rough Ride which laments the lack of affordable housing in London and A&E which really challenges the status quo by calling for more funding for the NHS. Perhaps I should get out more but I was struck by the way in which the anti austerity message was offered on both occasions with such confidence, as if it were not a politically contentious message but almost a fact. Perhaps I live in a London bubble but...

WE NEED TO TAX ASSETS

WE NEED TO TAX ASSETS

20 Jun 2017

Nearly every commentator admits that he or she was wrong about the recent election, in particular their belief that no one with a modicum of responsible judgement would vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I also was wrong when I wrote this: Just as the Labour party cannot afford to be a blunt advocate of public spending because it knows that government debt is critically high, the Conservatives are no longer perpetually calling for lower taxes because they know that services to which we all think we are entitled are going to become yet more expensive. So the result is that the debate at this election has become a little more subtle than usual. As it happened, Labour produced a costed manifesto in which 80% of the extra revenue was to come from corporations or rich people, those joint gold medallists in legal tax avoidance. This was anything but subtle (“people in suits can pay”) and was effectively trashed by the party itself when, in response to complaints from students who have already incurred high debts that their successors would benefit from Labour’s plan to abolish fees in future, Jeremy Corbyn promised to “deal with it”. Dealing with it sounds expensive and was not covered by the manifesto. By contrast, the Conservatives decided that it was a good time to have a grown-up conversation about relieving young people from the burden of paying for the care of the elderly by tapping the assets of the elderly themselves. It turns out that the country is not ready for this discussion which is a great shame. Time is running out. Between now and 2030, for every net person joining the major income tax paying years of 30-59, there will be nine (net) joining the over 75s. The Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan has this plausible explanation for the surprising performance of a Labour movement led by its left wing. No, I’m afraid we’re down to the simplest and most depressing explanation. Quite a few voters will support any party that seems to be offering them free stuff. Labour’s manifesto was a ridiculous list of public handouts. More money was promised for healthcare, schools, the police, public sector pay rises,...

How QE plays out – and other guesses

How QE plays out – and other guesses

15 Sep 2016

This is a follow up to my last post about how QE is a wrecking ball that distorts financial markets and economic decision making. I have no opinion – despite a sceptical mindset – about whether QE is being applied correctly or about whether it will work. I doubt if even hindsight will allow people to agree about whether it succeeded. As an investor I need to weigh the probable outcomes of the distortion itself. Even this is not the same as making a definitive call on what will happen. That is gambling. As always, investing is about probability. THE WEALTH GAP – ONLY SHARES ARE CHEAP As long as QE carries on and the pool of safe assets shrinks further, savers in search of yield will keep chasing other assets. The stock market has been climbing the wall of fear this year. Before the referendum vote, George Soros and others forecast a decline of up to 20% in UK shares. Chancellor Osborne did not rule out suspending stock exchange trading in the face of the expected panic. With the atmosphere so full of “markets hate uncertainty”, that notorious cliché so readily embraced by third rate market commentators, many people will have assumed that the stock market would have performed its patriotic duty and dived after Brexit. But shares are cheap and quick to buy and sell, five days a week. I have just been offered a two year fixed rate bond by a building society that yields 0.95%. That’s a decision that ties up my money for two years. Were I to choose to buy Marks & Spencer shares instead I could get a dividend yield of more than 5% – and if I change my mind and decide that M&S is too racy, I can sell it in two minutes. Back in verdant Blackheath and vibrant Lewisham near to my house, yields on buy-to-let properties are between 3.6% and 4.5% (source portico.com). That seems like a lot of cost, time and risk compared to being a passive and better-rewarded owner of M&S. There is no hint that QE will be curtailed or reversed. On the contrary, the central banks of the UK...

QE : a wrecking ball to crack a nut

QE : a wrecking ball to crack a nut

3 Sep 2016

On 4 August 2016, the Bank of England expanded the QE (quantitative easing) programme that it had begun in 2009. This expansion, which now includes corporate bonds as well as gilts, is ostensibly in response to the Brexit referendum result on 24 June. The Treasury and the Bank had warned that Brexit could lead to a bad recession. You might need reminding that the official purpose of QE, since 2011, has been to stimulate the UK economy. You might think that, if this policy has been a success, it is rather a slow burner. But Andy Haldane (Bank of England Chief Economist) is in no doubt that it is the right thing to do and that this is no time to be faint hearted. “I would rather run the risk of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut than taking a miniature rock hammer to tunnel my way out of prison.”   Mr Haldane may be an economist but he knows how employ a ridiculous metaphor to make a point. And although he – incredibly – affects populist ignorance of financial matters (giving interviews in which he says that pensions are too complicated to understand), he does not lack respect for his own ability. He explained that the decision to cut interest rates by 0.25% was in order to save hundreds of thousands of jobs, though whether this included his own was not clear. QE actually commenced in 2009 as an emergency measure to prop up asset prices in a (so far) successful attempt to save the banking system. The banks held vast amounts of tradable assets that could become vulnerable to crises of confidence – so the central bank stepped in as a very public buyer and calm was largely restored. Phew. The official line that this was a form of monetary policy that could stimulate economic growth snuck in later and is much more challenging to justify. It seems to me to be a rather strained argument. Here is the latest official serving. BoE report 4 August 2016 The expansion of the Bank of England’s asset purchase programme for UK government bonds will impart monetary stimulus by lowering the yields on securities that...

Report on Q2 2016

Report on Q2 2016

6 Jul 2016

On the face of it, the quarter was dominated by the UK Brexit referendum decision on 24 June though, in the main, trends were consistent throughout the quarter. The FTSE 100, which delivers its rare moments of outperformance in times of nervousness, had continued to do better than the FTSE 250 up to 23 June. After the referendum result this trend was dramatically extended, partly fuelled by the sharp fall of sterling against the US dollar. At the close of business on 30 June, the 100 was up by 4.9% in the quarter and the 250 was down by 4%, a huge difference in fortunes. (Despite this, over the last 5 years the 250 is +35% and the 100 just +8%). If this signalled nervousness about the future viability of the UK there was no sign of that in the performance of gilts. 10 year gilts yielded c.1.50% three months ago. Now they pay just 0.80%. What this seems to tell us that a prolonged depression is more likely than either a renewal of inflation (normally a probable result of currency devaluation) or a default by the UK government (even though we don’t really have a government at present). The message from elsewhere, especially the EU, is the same. 10 year bund yields were 0.14% three months ago. They are now, as predicted, negative (-0.17%). In Switzerland, even 30 year government bonds yield less than zero. This seems to be confusing aversion to risk with a disinclination to continue to remain alive. The future is unknown. Get over it. I sold some shares ahead of the referendum result on the mistaken view that we would probably vote to Remain. I think that the EU economy is burdened by many problems – unreformed labour markets, burdensome state pension liabilities, unfavourable demographics and ailing banks. European politicians have been allowing the ECB to carry the burden with its “whatever it takes” monetary policy. As I wrote before, “QE looks desperate and desperation does not promote confidence”. It is the banks that really concern me. The share prices of some of Europe’s best known banks are trading near or even below their financial crisis lows. Deutsche Bank...

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...

OSTRICH POST II – DADT

OSTRICH POST II – DADT

25 Jan 2016

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) was a (now repealed) US official policy that insisted that gays serving in the military must take part in a cover-up. On the grounds that they kept their sexual preferences a secret they were excused from being openly bullied, discriminated against and dismissed. Something that everyone knew to be untrue (the idea that the US military was staffed entirely by patriotic heterosexuals) was sanctioned in a big game of “let’s pretend”. If everyone acted as if it were true it would be just as if it were actually true. But DADT turned out to be too convenient a device to be confined to such a narrow issue. It was perfect for the treatment of subprime mortgages! It was clear to many insiders that people who had no realistic chance of repaying were being granted loans to buy properties that had to rise in value to bail out the borrower, that these debts were being insured on terms that didn’t come close to reflecting their risk and that the loans were being repackaged and sold on, backed by credit agency ratings that were uninformed and irresponsible at best. Yet even when the crisis was unfolding at speed, banks and other financial institutions were saying publicly that everything with which they had been stuffed was AAA quality. Check out The Big Short for a great explanation of the story. The trouble with DADT is that it is like a Ponzi scheme. Once you have started to pretend, you have to keep going. The morons working at the soon-to-be rescued banks did not mean to buy toxic junk. But once the mistake was made the easier option was to keep playing along. Like a trader who hides loss-making positions in the bottom drawer (or a secret computer file), the final thing you can try to buy is time. You literally decide to wait for a miracle.    Something like this is going on with Quantitative Easing (QE = DADT). As I have pointed out elsewhere, the truth that QE was a device for inflating asset prices in order to save the banks from marking them to market was spun into an officially...

Report on Q1 2015

Report on Q1 2015

30 Mar 2015

In Q1 the FTSE 100 rose by 3.3% and the FTSE 250 by 6.4%. The FTSE 250 is probably more sensitive to the domestic economy (or at least to how investors are feeling about it). The FTSE 100 has larger more global businesses including, of course, oil companies and banks, which received another kicking in the recent budget. That last point is a salutary reminder that investors will have to judge political risk in Q2 as the general election arrives 7th May (though the formation of a government may take weeks if the polls are correct in suggesting that no party will win a majority). I strongly doubt whether the economic outlook will be materially changed regardless of who wins. There is very little room for manoeuvre and it is painful to watch politicians trying to pretend otherwise. But where the banks have been led others could follow, particularly if the next government includes Labour. Utility companies have already been singled out to be sacrificed to the mob. No politician appears to understand that electricity supply is a very long-term and expensive commitment. It may be true that utilities are greedy cash cows but they will not invest the vast sums needed in next generation energy supply if they are treated like political footballs. Labour also wants to limit the profits available to companies who provide services to the NHS. I have no idea what they mean by this (drug companies? nursing agencies? hospital retail concessions?) but I am pretty sure that they don’t either. The point to bear in mind that stupidity is no bar to persecuting businesses that can be successfully vilified. Gilts had a relatively quiet quarter with yields falling from 1.72% to 1.57%. Last week I took profits on 25% of my gilt holdings. This was a small insurance against the political scene, but looking across the sea and seeing Irish 10 year bonds yielding 0.76% it is clear that most of us are missing something. Core eurozone bonds i.e. those of Germany saw 10 year yields fall from 0.54% to 0.18% and as I write the seven year German bonds have a negative yield. ECB QE now looks even...

The ECB, QE and the waiting game

The ECB, QE and the waiting game

12 Feb 2015

Quantitative easing is a process by which a central bank buys relatively safe assets (mostly government bonds) and thereby puts cash into the hands of the newly-ex owners of those assets. In the early years of the financial crisis, this was effectively a life-support system for financial institutions which, post-Lehman Brothers, looked like they might fall domino-style. As the central bank bids up asset prices it creates a rising tide that floats many boats. One side effect of this is that the wealthy become wealthier. QE is quite tricky to justify from this point of view. If it is necessary to prevent the collapse of the banking system it is a jagged pill that needs to be swallowed. As I have written before, this is broadly how the Bank of England justified QE in 2009. “Purchases of assets by the Bank of England could help to improve liquidity in credit markets that are currently not functioning normally.” But gradually, while the music remained the same the lyrics changed. Expressing an idea that was essentially imported from the US, the justification from the Bank in 2011 was quite different. “The purpose of the purchases was and is to inject money directly into the economy in order to boost nominal demand.” You see what they did there? Once again, it was party time in financial markets. Bonds and equities were rising nicely. Bonds were rising because the Bank was buying them and other people were buying them because the Bank was buying them and equities were rising because they looked cheap compared to bonds. And property in the areas where financial people live began to go up again, despite the fact that prices appeared to require mortgages that quite high incomes could not plausibly service and that damaged banks could not reasonably be expected to offer. My friends and I have done splendidly from this once we had “got it”. And although I don’t know any influential people, some of my friends do. Call me a conspiracy theorist if you want but these influential people soon popped up all over the place saying how brave and wise central bankers were to extend QE. THE HIGH MORAL...

Jittery January

Jittery January

6 Feb 2014

“The bond markets are suggesting that we are looking at a fairly gentle, low inflation recovery.” The dangerously alluring feeling of comfort that I wrote about in my Q4 report did not last long. Major stock markets have fallen this year: FTSE -4%, Dow Jones -6%, Nikkei -13%. Many financial commentators are saying that this is the result of weakness in emerging markets which are in danger of being starved of investment dollars as the Federal Reserve continues its tapering policy. Even writing that makes me feel slightly ridiculous. It is typical of the confusing non-explanations offered by the financial services industry, helping only to encourage ordinary punters in the belief that all this is far too hard for them to understand. “Emerging markets” is an inherently biased way of referring to exotic countries in need of investment.  The term seems to have been invented in the 1980s. According to Wikipedia, prior to that the label Less Developed Countries (LDCs) was used. In 2012, the IMF identified 25 emerging markets. For the record: Argentina;  Brazil; Bulgaria; Chile; China; Colombia; Estonia; Hungary; India; Indonesia; Latvia; Lithuania; Malaysia; Mexico; Pakistan; Peru; Philippines; Poland; Romania; Russia; South Africa; Thailand; Turkey; Ukraine; Venezuela Note, sadly, that that the only African country is RSA. Looking again at the list, if you are particularly attached to democracy, private ownership rights or tolerance of homosexuality, you might find the thought of investing in some of these countries hard to digest. You might also ask how many countries have succeeded in emerging since the 1980s. The answer to that would appear to be zero. Foreign investment in emerging markets tends to be tidal: it flows in and it flows out again (if it can). Why then should this concern the risk-averse investor? There are two reasons, one specific and one general. The specific reason is that businesses in which we might be invested could be hit by diving emerging market economies. Global companies that sell consumer products are especially prone to this. Last week, Diageo the drinks company reported weakness in China and Nigeria. The general reason is that nervousness is infectious (especially in the banking industry). Undoubtedly, we have both these...

Calmly seeking companies with long-term strategies

Calmly seeking companies with long-term strategies

6 Dec 2013

It may seem odd but it is harder than you might think to find companies with clear and measurable strategies. It is depressing how many listed companies offer nothing but a “mission” to be the “best of class”, to be “passionate about their customers” (yuk) and to pursue “value for all stakeholders”. In these challenging times when (thanks to QE) all assets are being priced as if they offer outstanding long-term value, I am inclined to seek companies with reasonably clear medium to long-term strategies. These generally feel obliged to keep their shareholders up to date with progress. Their executives generally accept that their careers depend on their achievements. If the strategies are realistic, they should be quite easy for investors to understand. To be fair, it is easier for a business to offer a clear strategy if it needs to undergo some kind of transformation. It is tougher for e.g. Coca Cola whose strategy understandably consists of flooding ever more of the world with its yummy syrup. The same could be said of Microsoft which has torched billions and billions of dollars trying to add other products to its ubiquitous desk software. There is no call to criticise successful businesses for failing to reinvent themselves – all we need to do is to check their attitude to shareholder value. But if we want to make serious money we should be looking for successful transformations. The simplest but most dangerous transformations are those, like Enterprise Inns, that involve financial rehabilitation. Share investors can be well rewarded if the equity portion of the business rises as the debt decreases. The purpose of this piece is different. It is to look for companies that are taking on the challenge of adapting their business model to changing times. Beware of companies that focus purely on financial targets, especially when these are linked directly to executive remuneration. A German company that I once followed made a quite inexplicable acquisition. While the company’s core business was in software with an operating margin of 25%, it bought a ragbag IT service company with a margin of approximately 0%. The justification offered by the management in defence of the deal was...