a faded picture of annie lennox, with the words of a song starting 'sweet dreams'

Sweet Dreams

Here we talk about the delights of the Conservative Party Conference in rainy Manchester, the failure of the in-built two-year time horizon in inflation models, and what may happen to interest rates.

 

FANTASY IN BLUE

At times in Manchester, it felt like everyone was looking for something. As government steps up spending initiatives, and empowers regional governance, and drives big spending on not achieving net zero, the chorus of demands for more taxpayers’ cash grew deafening.

There was utter silence on efficiency or capital allocation; it was all just “a good thing” to spend more.

And oddly too, with so much lip service to the long term and reducing debt and halving inflation, the ‘how’ of those was also ignored. Surely halving inflation is not even a government task? It was devolved to Bailey of the Bank - yet we heard not a word of criticism. If ever an eight-year commitment to a disastrously run project needed cancelling, his appointment looks to be just that.

This would spare him (and us) those endless letters on why he’s failing to control inflation.

For all that Conference was oddly cheerful - quite a bit of steel on show, from Suella of course, the only natural politician involved - some guts from Steve Barclay at Health, and Stride, a little less convincingly, at work and pensions - else, all rather wooden and on autocue. Although you could not help but notice that Farage still charms the fringe crowds.

 

COMPETENT DELIVERY?

The abiding issue remains competent delivery. It was odd to hear the government on HS2 arguing for accountability by sacking their own Euston delivery team. As if the failure of HS2 is not theirs, and theirs alone.

Instead of penny packet incrementalism, government needs a holistic delivery view - perhaps why France can build a TGV, and we simply cannot.

 

From this report of the Institute for Government

The Maude/Osborne “reforms” destroyed half our domestic contractors, by a short-term focus and ceaselessly moving the goalposts. As a result, home grown firms are in the minority on the HS2 contractor list, and giant multinationals with more lawyers than bulldozers were the main bidders.

They want top dollar to take on the risk of a lazy, indecisive government machine - no wonder.

 

THE CHANGE PRIME MINISTER?

 

We have been very clear since 2019, that the Tories can’t win another term, none of that changes, but the scale and composition of the anti-Tory majority next year is rather less clear.

In many ways, the best case for a Labour defeat, at the next election, is that the Tories have done it all already. They have blown the bank on out-of-control spending, splurged on unaffordable welfare, and raised taxes to unsustainable levels.

From this website

This government also crashed the pound, let inflation loose, let rhetoric overtake sense and has gone in hock to foreign debtors. I suppose they have yet to invade a sovereign country without a UN mandate, but they are working on that too.

So? Well oddly Starmer is still slightly boxed in, and in terms of polling data, not really getting much help from the weak Lib Dems, in those critical three-way marginals in the South. While Scotland clearly has had enough of the SNP running Scotland, it is less clear that they don’t want the cause of independence to be heard in London. The Rutherglen by-election could be sending both messages, but in a general election voters only send one. I would not assume that genie is back in the bottle just yet.

 

JITTERBUG BLUES

 

We continue to see US rates above inflation, which is very different from UK rates which are still below.

So exactly what Powell (and Bailey) are doing with selling down the Central Banks balance sheets at a time of maximum new issuance, is not clear; it solidifies vast paper losses, creates new losses on the rest, so seems to be quite a pricey warning shot to politicians. But it is a plausible reason (along with super high levels of new issuance) for current bond market nerves.

We have always felt the Central Bank models, where whatever the question the answer is “it will be fine in two years” are a fiction. The awareness that rates and inflation are staying high, is long overdue. But we have been in no doubt about it, for two years, nor have we ever flinched in our aversion to bonds, we were never being paid enough for the risk.

The jitters in the bond market feel more like a turning point, the sudden chop as the tide turns. The dollar has risen; people want to be there; if there is enough demand, that will lower bond yields again. So, I am not looking at US rates rising, so much as at the battle switching back to fiscal policy. Although in the end if Biden really wants 7% rates, I guess he can try to have them.

The UK and Europe are less contested, the labour market in Europe at least is not that tight, although still at record low unemployment levels, but with a lot of surplus workers in France, Spain, and Italy, and especially amongst the young. Euro interest rates are also really quite low still and are not yet looking restrictive.

So, it looks like another round of softening currencies, stagnant inflation and rate rise pressure. Central Banks still hope they have done enough. Even so it is quite odd that UK long rates are only just touching the level of a year ago, logically they should be two points higher. As for oil, we have seen this autumnal spike as a little surprising but transient, and as ever at this time of year, the short-term path is weather related.

Overall if the start is any guide, October yet again could be rough for markets, but longer term still looks brighter.

 


By their works . . .

Well, the works this week: a pensive Jerome Powell does nothing, a reckless Andrew Bailey does nothing, Canada joins Biden in picking fights, and the bulk of most equity markets are stuck, going nowhere.

NO MORE US RISES

So, the apparently knowledgeable financial press said that Powell predicts rate rises? He said nothing of the sort of course. True the other members of the FOMC dot plots were in aggregate higher than the current rate, but by a fraction, it is like the average family being 2.4 children, meaning everyone, in the absence of King Solomon, has three children. No, it does not, it means on average there are no more rate rises.

So, Powell has stopped the runaway train, by lighting red flares in front of it and throwing railway sleepers across the track. Job done. Inflation is way below base rates. Bailey has asked nicely and tried to lasso the inflation express from half a mile down the track - won’t work. Inflation above base rates is misery, inflation below base rates is time to loosen.

Powell did start rambling, describing parts of the economy with “by their works ye shall know them” but decided that was all a bit erudite, before he had even finished the thought. He then reverted to the old saw, “forecasters are a humble lot, (with much to be humble about)”. Presumably that is unlike Central Bankers? I still think that judging them by their works makes sense.

But Powell is happy: the Q&A session threw him a litany of gloom, government shut down, students having to repay debt, auto plant shut downs, but no, all is fine.

The core US consumer and therefore the US economy, is in a good place was his verdict.

BAILEY DITHERS

Bailey seems to like to crash the pound every October, which is not good for inflation, just as picking fights globally is not good for oil prices. And it is also bad for inflation.

From This Website

And either the UK government will cave in to public sector strikes or productivity will keep falling due to said strikes. Neither are much good for the economy. Nor is it good for the markets: in performance terms, the UK remains the sick man of Europe, amongst major markets.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE ON

I was at the annual Quality Growth conference in London again, a stock picker’s feast as usual. It seems that if enough stock pickers can agree on the menu, as the dominant prevailing theory of investments, they will drive the prices of their favoured stocks ever higher. Which they do, it seems. This is helped by the ‘over the long run valuations don’t matter’ line, pushed hard by Baillie Gifford (amongst others). You might recall my article on Scottish Mortgage a while back.

And of course, as we know from both index and momentum investing, once something starts to move in a flat market, it keeps moving.

But that leaves the vast bulk of quoted stocks flat or down on the year, which makes some sense. When rates rise, bonds are substituted for stocks. The last two quarters in particular have been flat to soft, and while some of these stocks may have hit a bottom, it is still very hard to tell.

The only good news for UK investors is that Andrew Bailey has ensured their overseas (especially US) stocks have a nice currency tailwind.

MADE IN JAPAN

Meanwhile from Comgest there’s a radically different view of Japan. The equity rally there has been fantastic, but it is not the typical exporter boom of a weak yen, in their view, but more about bank stocks soaring on the expectation of the end of Central Bank rate control. This allows their vast balance sheets to earn a real return, at last. This is quite a departure from the general explanations about “this is Japan’s time”. That one has caught me out far too often, but explains the horror show from respected funds like Baillie Gifford Shin Nippon - small and illiquid is just nasty everywhere.

So, although the global rally looks to be strong, it is terribly narrow, and built on different foundations in different places. Or more positively, a broad advance awaits the first rate cuts, either from triumph (US) having controlled inflation or disaster (Europe) having created a recession and left inflation out of control. Either route to rate cuts wins, it seems.

GLASSHOUSES AND THROWING STONES

Oddly, I feel the Canadian spat with India is really quite serious, the tendency of rich Northern countries to preach, in this case standing very carefully behind the only global superpower’s shoulder, really annoys the global South. It has been going on for centuries and is at heart simply the old colonial mindset.

India’s continuing reaction may well portray the accuracy (or otherwise) of the allegations, as on the face of it this is deeply insulting to the world’s largest country, and one that has tiptoed down the line between offending the West and creating starvation and destitution for millions in the South.

I don’t believe it - murdering virtuous plumbers in Canada over the Punjab, which has long ceased to be a primary source of domestic concern, is plain weird.

All things are possible, and India cares far more about Kashmiri terrorism (for instance), but if it is false, expect a sizable slap to Canadian interests, and more accommodation for Putin.

After all, if you are treated as if you are behaving like Putin, why would you ostracize him?

 

 


JENSEITS VON GUT UND BOSE

We ponder the point of the UK markets, ignore clashing BRICs, set up for the slow fall in interest rates in 2024, yes, long lags are long.

There are two investor markets, one akin to gambling and speculation, one allocating capital efficiently to invest capital or fund governments. But like weeds in a nutrient rich field, spare liquidity attracts the rankest growth of useless vegetation. There’s no clear way of knowing which is which. Money famously does not smell, and clients don’t really care much about how they earn a return, whatever they may say.

A graph showing how often investment clients have asked about Environmentally friendly activities of the company in which they are about to invest

From: The FT Adviser Website

Fads and fashions in investing fuel some success at first - then they can no longer conquer new lands, and deflate, dragging down asset values as they go.

 

ARE INDIVIDUAL UK STOCKS WORTHWHILE?

 

I look back, as all investors should from time to time, at my successes and failures. Luckily out and out failures are pretty rare, and in some measure, so are successes, as I quickly milk the wins (usually from takeover bids), so they disappear from the record.

This leaves me a pretty solid mass of fairly dull UK equity holdings, I slightly favour value over growth. So, I know a simple snapshot won’t reveal the steady benefit of, at times, decades of good dividends.

But at the end of it all, for a UK investor, what remains is a mass of general mediocrity. Resource stocks have been good to me, still are, but the mass of industrials? Not really.

Or property companies?

Well big dividends from REITS, but again not really. Of financials? Again, long years of high dividends, but capital values stay scarred by the GFC. Chemicals, retailers, distributors, tech, utilities: well, all fascinating, with some good runs, often good yields. But in the end?

I could ignore such perennial plodders when their yields were far above base rate, but they are now surpassed, by a simple savings account.

So, I do wonder at times like this, why I hold them. Doubtless we will get rallies, but the tone feels a tad discouraging just now. And I sense the politicians of all hues, who seem to be eager to relieve me of anything that looks like a nominal gain, or enforce their often extreme views on my assets.

 

PERHAPS OTHERS DO IT BETTER

 

My long-term winners by and large stack up in investment companies, with specialist fund managers, and almost entirely overseas, or at the very least global. Not that is much of a surprise, we have mentioned before how the FTSE100 has not moved much in twenty, going on twenty-five years. Yet again it has flattered to deceive this year, yet again it has that slumping dinosaur feel to the graph.

The UK is not alone in that. Most of Western Europe shares that fate, and Eastern European investing has been a good way to create losses. Somehow Europe’s governments have done just enough to keep investing alive - and somehow the stock markets have had just enough liquidity to avoid collapse.

It is partly why so many investors love small companies, but they are savagely cyclical, as we are seeing just now.

I could blame management, and their apparently limitless greed, but while many quoted boards maybe have rogues or knaves, but nigh on all of them? No, I won’t accept that.

Globalization has freed capital to move easily and fast. Far faster than any real business can adjust, and in this world the ability to attract capital is vital. True many attract it, to waste it, like a meme stock, or Peloton, but it would be wrong to see that as a line of tricksters repeatedly finding ways to con the market (although many have) more about the power of liquidity to inflate prices, attract buyers, inflate prices once more, in an unending climb. That is until the last buyer has paid up, and the tipping point is reached.

 

Graph showing the price of the Peloton stock, over the last five years

Taken from this website

 

Then the whole thing unwinds downwards, down to a true value, or less.

WHERE NOW?

On the one hand, as interest rates fall, and they will do soon, even if that one last hike is much discussed and may well happen, the path looking forward is downwards.

FED rates in the last 5 years

This should benefit value stocks, as more and more dividends emerge once more above the high-water line of cash deposits. Rates won’t go all the way back to zero, that is gone, but should start on the way down.

On the other hand, the liquidity trade is here to stay, money attracts money until the thermal tops out and the vultures glide along to the next spiral, or indeed back to the last one.

And looking over decades, as fund managers must, that is all that happens in most markets globally, one or two have true secular growth that also gets returned to investors (a key caveat), most seem not to. Investors become either hobbyists in love with a stock or short-term traders. It is notable how many of the new breed of big company directors spurn the shares of their own companies, bar a token few thousand.

Markets seem to have progressively been made easier for momentum, versus ‘true’ investors, allocating capital to create real jobs. The capital allocation bit is worthy but dull, and arguably governments and regulators seem to have strangled it into stasis.

The endless, joyful, mindless dance of momentum, is simpler, prettier, easier to tax, cheaper to trade; quite wonderful really. But is it much else besides that, or is it substance without meaning?

It is odd how governments moan about the lack of growth and yet cripple capital allocation. In a market system, the best capital allocator wins. It is really quite simple.

 

Once the tightening stops, there should be more currency stability (of sorts) as all the Central Banks realign their rate patterns again. In (to us) an unresolved month, the dollar’s strength has been notable, when not a lot else was.


This is an illustration for an investment blog - which questions what we believe about markets

All mimsy were the ‘borrowgoves’

Away from all the shenanigans with base rates and currencies, earnings seem to be showing a pattern. We look at the possibility of an unshackled NatWest and India’s renaissance after the Hindenburg disaster.

 

START OF EARNINGS SEASON

In so far as reported earnings have a pattern, it reflects the actual position, not the fears of a hidebound analyst community imprisoned by useless economic models. Statistics are not predictive.

There is no recession, whatever all those clever models predicted, never could be one with the extreme fiscal stimulus (quite unlike the private sector fuelled inflationary blow outs of previous downturns), high employment and plenty of liquidity. So, real life earnings are in a purple patch, high and in cases rising demand, with falling or stable costs.

Meanwhile wage costs are perhaps stabilising and the labour supply position seems less frenetic.

In-house graph from published UK Government statistics – real time statistics

But dividends are generally ticking up, a nice bonus to collect when interest rates do start to fall next year, and valuations based on yields look low again.

 

FLAVEL OF THE MONTH

Nat West really is a sorry tale. The government stupidly sold off the crown jewels at give-away prices, and it now seems to be clinging on to the chaff for no good reason. The dead hand of the state permeates the place, and given the huge interest being paid on the vast national debt, surely a sale of all the government holding is long overdue.

You read the voluminous annual accounts and somewhere about page 180 the PR guff gives way to the reality of declining business lending, a worsening net promoter score and that ultimate civil service fudge, of combining two corporate departments to obfuscate.

Does NatWest actually dislike its customers?

I speak from experience – NatWest seems to dislike small business: we moved the last of our corporate accounts from there this year. Why? In striking contrast to the PR flim-flam that dominates the annual accounts, it seems that making life easy for us, is nowhere on their agenda.

At some point, it was just easier to go than fight – somewhere around the twentieth demand for the same details, and the endless Orwellian (“does not agree with other data”), even after the written confirmation that they were now content; so we quit. Always there was that threat to close the account, but not release our funds, for some arcane procedural reason.

I found the bloated pay packet for the CEO (and CFO) pretty hard to swallow for that performance. It just seems that they don’t attract good staff, and like the slow pacing of caged animals wearing their lives away, those that remain pick away at the residue of their customers.

As for valuation? Nat West would still be cheap, but I felt if it broke above £3.00 (as it did earlier this year) again, on present form – that’s not a terrible exit.

Let’s hope this starts a basic rethink and some real value creation.

RISING IN THE EAST

We noted when the Hindenburg short-selling started in India, and we doubted that it was much more than a clever speculator, despite the sad sight of the neo-colonial British press (and a few Americans) lining up to say “I told you so”.

Friday’s FT was discussing India and still called it “low-growth… dependent on commodities… hampered by political dysfunction and corruption”. Extraordinary –  stale, lazy, stereotypical.

The reality is as we predicted: after a pause while stock markets looked for a systemic problem, and the short sellers booked their profits, the Indian market strode on to a new height.

this is a graph showing what the Indian stock market did after the Hinenburg sell off

From Tradingeconomics

Not that the biased UK financial press would ever mention that story. Far from the mud hut image they seemingly seek to portray, plenty of IPO (and deal making activity) is showing that India, not Europe is becoming the true challenger in high tech.

The SENSEX started this century at 5,209, the FTSE 100 started at 6,540. The FTSE 100 has made it to 7,694, and the SENSEX? It has powered past to 66,160. One is up some 18% in 23 years, (not enough to even cover advisor and custody costs), the other 1250% in the same time.

No sensible portfolio can have omitted India this century, but the UK press will have worked hard to ensure most UK ones still do.

 

 

Well, that’s the half year done, we will resume on the 10th September, expecting markets to be drifting sideways, but that gives plenty of time for the traditional summer bursts of excess or despair.

Although if it is performance you want, getting the big moves right, and the right markets, is far superior to the timing of most individual stocks.


Reserve in Reverse

Fallen Emperor?

 

With almost two thirds of global equity markets represented by the US, the fall in the dollar so far this year is quite dramatic, and for many investments, more important than the underlying asset.

UK retail investors are especially exposed to this, as although Jeremy Hunt (UK Chancellor) may not notice it, the US is where most UK investors went, when his party’s policies ensured the twenty-year stagnation in UK equity prices.

While Sunak continues to pump up wage inflation, which he claims, “won’t cause inflation, raise taxes or increase borrowings” Has he ever sounded more transparently daft? Sterling, knowing bare faced lies well enough, then simply drifts higher. Markets know such folly in wage negotiation can only lead to inflation and higher interest rates.

We noted back in the spring, in our reference to “dollar danger” that this trade (sell dollar, buy sterling) had started to matter, and we began looking for those hedged options, and to reduce dollar exposure. To a  degree this turned out to be the right call, but in reality, the rate of climb of the NASDAQ, far exceeded the rate of the fall in the dollar.

While sadly the other way round, a lot of resource and energy positions fell because of weaker demand and the extra supply and stockpile drawdowns, which high prices will always produce. But that decline was then amplified by the falling dollar, as most commodities are priced in dollars. So, a lot of ‘safe’ havens (with high yields) turn out to have been unsafe again.

The impact of currency on inflation

Currency also has inflation impacts. Traditionally if the pound strengthens by 20%, then UK input prices fall 20%. The latest twelve-month range is from USD1.03 to USD1.31 now, a 28% rise in sterling.

In a lot of the inflation data, this is amplified by a similar 30% fall in energy, from $116 to $74 a barrel for crude over a year. In short, a massive reversal in the double price shock of last year. In fairness this is what Sunak had been banking on, and why the ‘greedflation’ meme is able to spread. But while that effect is indeed there, other policy errors clearly override and mask it.

 

A Barrier to the Fed.

In the US we expect the converse, rising inflation from the falling currency, maybe that is creeping through, but not identified as such, just yet, as price falls from supply chains clearing lead the way, but it is in there.

Finally, of course, this time, the dire performance of the FTSE is probably related to the same FX effect on overseas earnings assumptions. Plus, the odd mix of forecast data and historic numbers that we see increasingly and idiosyncratically used just in the UK. If the banks forecast a recession, regardless of that recession’s absence, they will raise loan loss reserves, and cut profits, even if the reserves never get used.

Meanwhile, UK property companies are now doing the same, valuing collapsing asset values on the basis of the expected recession, and not on actual trades. So, if you have an index with heavy exposures to stocks, that half look back, half reflect forward fears, it will usually be cheaper than the one based on reality.

 

Why so Insipid?

OK, so why is the dollar weak? Well, if we knew that, we would be FX traders. But funk and the Fed’s ‘front foot’ posture are the best answers we have, and both seem likely to be transient too.

If the world is saying don’t buy dollars, either from fear of the pandemic or Russian tank attacks or bank failures, that’s the funk. As confidence resumes and US equity valuations look more grotesque, the sheep venture further up the hill and out to sea. To buy in Europe or Japan, they must sell dollars.

The VIX, in case you were not watching, has Smaug like, resumed its long-tailed slumber, amidst a pile of lucre.

a graph showing market volatility

From Yahoo Finance CBOE Volatility Index

 

So as the four horsemen head back to the stables, the dollar suffers a loss.

The Fed was also into inflation fighting early; it revived the moribund bond markets, enticed European savers with positive nominal rates, (a pretty low-down trick, to grab market share) and announced the end of collective regal garment denial policies. But having started and then had muscular policies, it must end sooner, and perhaps at a lower level. So that too leads to a sell off in the dollar.

 

Where do we go instead?

So where do investors go instead?

In general, it is either to corporate debt, or other sovereigns. Japan is not playing, the Euro maybe fun, but not so much if Germany is getting back to normal sanity and balancing the books again. So, the cluster of highly indebted Western European issuers are next.

Sterling now ticks those boxes, plenty of debt, liquid market, no fear of rate cuts for a while, irresponsible borrowing, what is not to like?

 

For How Long

When does that end? Well, the funk has ended. You can see how the SVB failure caused a dip in the spring, but now the curve looks upward again. Although fear can come back at any time, as could some good news for the UK on inflation.  However even the sharp drop the energy/exchange rate effects will cause soon, leave UK base rates well south of UK inflation rates.

So, every bit of good news for the Fed, is bad news if you hold US stocks here.

How high and how fast does sterling go?

Well, it has a bit of a tailwind, moves like any other market in fits and starts, but could well go a bit more in our view. Oddly the FTSE would be a hedge (of sorts).