Covid ’20 – a personal diary

Covid ’20 – a personal diary

28 Dec 2020

This is a personal record to help me understand how and when this shitstorm blew up and if anything of importance was missed by me (or anybody else) that should or could have been anticipated. Most of the material comes from my email in and out boxes and has not been edited. I should say that the virus itself has never particularly concerned me. I think that there are broadly two kinds of fear, both of which we all experience to varying degrees. There is the fear caused by specific and known danger in the face of which some people try to hold their nerve and respond as rationally as they can. Dorothy Parker glamourised this kind of courage by attributing to Hemingway the phrase “grace under pressure”. And there is fear of the unknown which has a tendency to induce panic and paralysis. I make no claim to be courageous but I have a certain amount of contempt for fear of the unknown, though in the UK it appears to have gripped a majority of the population. The trigger word for these people is “uncertainty” as in “markets/investors/businesses hate uncertainty”.  It seems to me that the more that is known about Covid-19 the less frightening it is. It also appears that for some reason the government, its public servants and most of the media tend to promote fear and to suppress reassuring news lest it leads to complacency and (can I really be using this word?) disobedience. As an investor, as I have written elsewhere, uncertainty is to be welcomed because it causes assets to be mispriced. The problem, as 2020 has demonstrated, is that it sometimes takes extraordinary imagination to see it. Thursday 23 January  The Foreign Office advised against non-essential travel to Wuhan province. I cannot seriously suggest that I could have interpreted that as a harbinger of what was to come.  Wednesday 29 January  BA halted all flights to mainland China. At the same time, there were reports that the virus had definitely arrived in Lombardy in Italy. This is the point when it seemed real to those of us living in Europe and if I am hard on myself...

AFTER THE PLAGUE, THE FAMINE

AFTER THE PLAGUE, THE FAMINE

26 May 2020

Despite the fact that the UK government appears, like Gilbert’s Duke of Plaza-Toro*, to be leading from behind, I suppose that this fearful fog of indecision will eventually dissipate and some kind of hobbled phoenix will stumble out of the smoking ashes of the economy. In passing, I would like to bestow their share of responsibility on the political opposition, including the trade unions, who constantly urge caution and demand something called “safety” for all, in the calculated knowledge that the worse the economic consequences of lockdown, the worse for the government.  Can they really be that cynical? Oh yes. THE DAMAGE DONE But whether you believe that lockdown was a) catastrophically late or b) completely unnecessary, (and history may one day deliver a verdict but you won’t find it on Twitter this afternoon), a vast amount of economic damage has been done. And the longer paralysis continues, the worse it will be.  And given that the government is now a follower of international decisions rather than a decision maker itself, we must look at the US, Germany, France (!), Sweden and pretty much anywhere else you care to name to see how our future might look.   Donald Trump has an election to win in November. (Ladbrokes still has him as the marginal favourite, which seems surprising). Naturally, he is desperate to get America back to work and, as his son says, make it great again, again. Whether you think he is gambling with people’s lives or trying to save them from destitution actually doesn’t matter. What matters is what has already happened.  The US unemployment rate jumped from 3.5% in February to 4.4% in March to 14.7% in April. That’s 23 million Americans out of work. But it will be more than that. The total of initial unemployment claims is at nearly 39 million by the end of last week. That looks like an unemployment rate closer to 25%, an utterly unimaginable number.  If it turns out that “it’s the economy, stupid” then Trump’s Thanksgiving turkey is cooked unless there is a near-magical recovery. Whatever you think of Trump, and there is no need to say or even think it out loud, a...

ECONOMIC SHUTDOWN! EMERGENCY!!

ECONOMIC SHUTDOWN! EMERGENCY!!

6 May 2020

Things are starting to get serious. The SAGE committee is vast and its remit is the virus and nothing but the virus. It has saved the NHS to the extent that the new Nightingale hospital near the O2 in London is shutting after four weeks. Job done except that most of the public is either scared out of its senses or, more worryingly, preferring a life of leisure on 80% wages. The government is now directly supporting more than half the adult population. Normally I would say that a minority of taxpayers is bearing the burden of the rest but that is nowhere near the truth. Taxpayers are being furloughed too. The printers are rolling and the government is set to borrow from itself. The question is, how long will people be able to live on these new government tokens (once known as sterling currency)? CURRENCY DEBASEMENT My son Leo has just written about the use of the first ancient coins. Greek traders who knew nothing of coinage were happy to use them, even though the gold/silver content was lower than natural bullion of the same weight. Leo was puzzled as to how items of lower intrinsic value continued to be accepted. My answer was that a coin’s real intrinsic value is the belief that if you accept it in return for a “real” good you will be able to pass it on to someone else in return for goods of the same value. But once that belief falters the coins will be swiftly debased. The debasement of our currency will manifest itself as inflation. If you weren’t an adult by the 1980s you will not remember a time when people bought assets today for fear that they would cost more tomorrow. I knew a couple in about 1985 who agreed to buy a small house off the King’s Rd. It was suddenly withdrawn from the market and re-listed at a £50k premium. To their credit, I guess, they did not blink and paid up at once. The US is issuing $3 trillion of debt this quarter. (That’s $9146 for every man, woman and child, or $11,363 for every adult). The US can get...

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...

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...

Report on Q4 2018 – full of sound and fury

Report on Q4 2018 – full of sound and fury

5 Jan 2019

Over the first nine months of 2018, the UK stock market was barely changed. In Q4 the world’s obsession with uncertainty overtook it. Trump took on China again, Trump took on the Fed, Congress took on Trump, the ECB took on Italy, the Conservative party took on Theresa May, everyone took on Saudi Arabia and the oil price took fright. While a falling oil price is sometimes considered broadly beneficial to the world economy, it is currently identified as a harbinger of global recession. The FTSE 100 fell by 10.7% in Q4, the 250 by 13.9% and the All Share by 13.1%. The rule that in nervous times investors favour large international shares (i.e. the FTSE 100) overall held good, though not on a scale to promote rejoicing or relief. For roughly the 17th time since the financial crisis the fear of impending inflation faded away. The underlying assumption that we are living in long-term deflationary times held good again. Government bond yields have duly subsided again. The US ten year yield has slipped from 3.0% to 2.6%, the UK 10 year gilt yield is now c.1.2% as opposed to 1.5% three months ago. It is times such as this (when the Japanese stock market’s daily change is one of the news headlines on the Today programme) that it is most important to remember our (or my) basic investment rules. Sharp and extensive falls in the price of classes of assets are caused only by the forced capitulation of unwilling and unhappy sellers. Great market collapses are invariably accompanied by the realisation that something that everyone took for granted is no longer true. Black Monday in 1987 was, with hindsight, a financial services event. Stockbrokers, fuelled by American money following Big Bang, were being paid more than bank directors had earned only a few years before. It was the time of Loadsamoney (Harry Enfield), Money (Martin Amis) and Serious Money (Caryl Churchill) and I am prepared to say without embarrassment that it was bloody marvellous to be part of when you were in your mid twenties. But when it was over you knew it was over. When the DotCom bubble burst in 2000 it...

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:...

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...

EVERYBODY KNEW

EVERYBODY KNEW

27 Oct 2017

There was a glorious time – and it was just a few weeks ago – that I had never heard of Harvey Weinstein. Apparently he was thanked over the years in thirty four Oscar acceptance speeches because although it was widely known “what he was like” there was some kind of implicit consensus that his behaviour, though reprehensible and pathetic, was a price worth paying for the chance of more Oscars. I may have misunderstood, but if it is true that many people knew or suspected and turned a blind eye then it was an inconvenient truth. There is often a financial motive behind the ignoring of inconvenient truths. Enron was a notorious example. It was widely admired: according to various articles it was named “America’s Most Innovative Company” by Fortune magazine for six consecutive years between 1996 and 2001. When a lone Wall St analyst asked on a recorded conference call in April 2001 why the company hadn’t published a balance sheet, Jeffrey Skilling, Enron president, replied, “Well, thank you very much, we appreciate that … asshole.” The company filed for bankruptcy before the end of that year. “As of last month, 13 analysts covered the company. Eleven recommended it as a “buy” or “strong buy.” Just one said “sell” and the other said “hold.” This was just one week before the roof fell in”. (Forbes magazine on Enron, 29 November 2001) There were a couple of brave analysts who waved a red flag about Enron just as there are some brave women who spoke out against Harvey Weinstein. But stating inconvenient truths does not make you popular at the time. Once the truth is out, the righteous mob surges forward like a tidal wave. Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in prison and Harvey Weinstein might lose his honorary CBE and who knows what else.     How do we identify inconvenient truths that “everybody knew” before anyone realises that everybody knows them? Merely holding a view with which everyone disagrees is not the answer. (Would that it were: making money would be so easy).   It is important and potentially lucrative to question consensus views, if only to check that they...

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...

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,...

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...

FIVE FALSE TRUTHS

FIVE FALSE TRUTHS

13 Dec 2016

Imagine that your morning post contains an envelope that has your name and address written by hand in block capitals. Inside is a note, written by the same unknown hand that says, “YOU ARE SMELLY”. What do you make of that? For a moment you will regret having two helpings of chilli con carne last night and you will think back to last Thursday when you had a shower. But then you will start wondering about who could have sent such a note. What kind of strange person would bother to take the trouble to deliver such childish (and doubtless unjustified) abuse. What kind of sinister creep does that? Is this the start of something that could escalate? Will it end with a chalk line on your floor marking the position of your dead body when it was discovered?   Much of what passes for “social media” on the internet is effectively a worldwide digital version of an anonymous “YOU ARE SMELLY” note. And once you have asked yourself what sort of person spends time commenting, usually negatively, on anything that takes their fancy, with their ignorance protected with the cloak of anonymity, you must then come to a more awkward question: who in their right mind takes any notice of this stuff? It is certainly the case that corporations and politicians manage their Twitter and Facebook (and doubtless many other apps that I’ve never heard of) identities carefully. They employ people to try to ensure that their public face is shiny and smiley. Television channels read out texts and tweets to give the impression that someone sitting at home sending messages to the TV is not sad at all but is really a member of an upbeat community. Everyone is frightened of provoking a Twitterstorm, defined on Wikipedia as “a sudden spike in activity surrounding a certain topic on the Twitter social media site”. Sadly, Twitterstorms are frequently responses to someone questioning orthodox or just populist opinion. We pretend to revere people who challenge consensus but in practice they are fair game for mob anger. (I appreciate that Donald Trump is the exception to the above: he is far from anonymous, he does not...

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...

Report on Q3 2016

Report on Q3 2016

5 Oct 2016

The second quarter ended just after the Brexit vote and the stock markets were in a state of shock. The FTSE 100, which is where frightened investors go to hide, had one of its rare periods of outperformance over the FTSE 250 in Q2. (The FTSE 100 includes large multinational businesses, the FTSE 250 is a better reflection of the UK economy). In Q3, the FTSE 100 rose by 6.4% and the 250 by 10%, a strong indication that investors recovered their nerve during the summer. Mark Carney would probably claim that this was the result of the Bank of England’s interest rate cut and expansion of QE on 4 August, though much of the stock market recovery had happened by then. European government bond yields have remained low but have had a fairly quiet quarter as people begin to question how much further central banks can go. The consequences of central banks’ actions were addressed by Crowknows in Q3. First in a post called “QE: a wrecking ball to crack a nut“, I suggested that, whatever its ultimate outcome, the predictable side effects of QE are quite disturbing. I looked at the widening of the wealth gap, the rising cost of pension liabilities (see the Tesco half year results on 5 October) and the piling up of the debt burden to be dealt with by future generations. The Bank of England does not print free money: it draws relentlessly on an excellent credit facility better known as the UK economy and its tax receipts of the future. The second post was about how QE plays out. This suggested that shares and arguably only shares are cheap relative to other investable assets. (Never forget thatvalue is always relative and never absolute, unless you believe that there is an investment god). It then suggested that if your house is your pension, then cashing it in is going to become what investment wonks call a “very crowded trade” one day. I don’t know when that will be but included in the possible dates is tomorrow. The third conclusion was that national debt will continue to grow (confirmed by the new Chancellor this week) and that the...

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...