Large pipe - with the title saying it isn't. Meaning it is not what it looks like - blog illustration

It is Not a Pipe

A long view this time : Has the price of capital changed for good? How bad is the UK position? Oh, and the unusual universality of colonialism.

A Far Off Galaxy

Let’s start with colonialism. I have been reading about the benighted past of Bulgaria (R.J. Crampton, 2nd Ed, CUP). A Bulgarian I know said that the country ‘has a knack for picking the wrong side’ - a little harsh, I thought. However, it has always existed as a colony, aside from a brief imperial phase around the last millennium but one, and before that when it equated to Thrace, almost as far back again.

Given the option, Bulgaria recently opted to join the Western European empires’ current formulation as the EU and NATO - the latter being the armed wing of Western thought. Bulgaria had suffered horribly under the Soviets, with a steady and ruthless coercion of an existing multiparty democracy, at a speed just enough to keep outsiders ignorant, or if not, passive.

That history gives me a whole new viewpoint, on the string of broadly similar states. The Balkans and The Middle East all appear in a new light, and indeed I start to comprehend the bitter sideshows (as they seem now) in both World Wars, over that same terrain.

The collapsing empires (Russian, Ottoman, Roman,) seem more influential than the current rulers in so many former colonial states. They are really not, as we think now, a series of nations fighting for ‘independence’. In most cases that independence is fragile to the point of being mythical, while the internal fissures are enduring. The cracks of nations within empires, not of states within a world.

Now You See It

One passage in Crampton’s work stood out “by mid-summer social and industrial unrest were widespread with strikes by civil servants. On transport networks, and despite the provisions of the law, in the ports and medical services. The government was forced to grant a 26% wage increase to all state employees, an action which weakened its attempts to control the budget deficit and inflation and which did little to impress the international financial organisations.”

Written about conditions just before another wrenching Balkan realignment last century, this rather made me stop and reflect.

A parallel with the UK?

Just how close are we in the UK to that edge? Lost in a warm feeling for individual strikers and their causes, and a very British willingness just to plough on, there still seems to be a real danger.

I am well aware of our great national strengths, in the arts, our language, higher education, science, heritage, even logistics and retailing - they are enduring causes for optimism. But long-term investors need to weigh up the recent damage, especially the loss of political capital by the “responsible” right, the high levels of debt and taxation, which coupled with low productivity, could also spell trouble, the certainty of ongoing nationalism and the unhealed rift of Brexit.

There is danger too in the probability of a Labour government, which however centrist the leader is, will have left wing factions to assuage. It is equally dangerous to continue our recent experience of minimal ministerial experience. I hope the change won’t be as bad as I fear, but it will probably be worse than I hope.

This remains a reason for the FTSE to be anchored to late 20th Century levels, despite almost every stock I research looking cheap. The fear of being still cheaper tomorrow rules.

Do Markets Care?

 

On the other hand, re-pricing capitalism after the decade of populist nonsense by central bankers does feel pretty good. If you have no cost of money and no reward for savers, financial gambling prevails.

All of this raises a key issue: is the apparent resurgence of speculation (the greater fool theory of investing) permanent? In which case investors should probably just watch momentum. Or is this most recent re-run of the last decade’s speculative phase, really transient?

For a better view, see this page on Statista

As long as inflation exceeds the cost of money, assets will likely rise; the widespread return of real interest rates (a point we are almost at) should slow that down.

After that point what matters is cash flow, and whereas gambling will favour growth stocks, real returns come about when interest rates are high, but inflation is also falling. The gap matters and we are not there yet.

This is probably the crux of the next two years, and we doubt that having had a serene and slow drift towards recession, there is any reason either to expect a suddenly faster descent now, or really to expect the corollary, a sudden fall in interest rates, to offset a deep recession.

If rates stay high, but have indeed peaked and inflation declines, value investors should be in a better place. If they get it wrong, they are at least paid to wait.

As we have seen in the last twelve months, growth investors fuelled by borrowed money really do need a rising market, they get hit twice if it falls: both through a loss of capital and then the need to fund loss-making assets at real rates.

The Monogram View

 

Overall, our position has been that fundamentals should win, but we suspect momentum will win. Spotting the next momentum shift early, therefore remains a powerful driver of returns.

One narrative of 2023 (so far) is that the SVB crisis and stronger growth combined led to far more liquidity than markets expected. This fed into the gambling stocks, giving them momentum.

So, although the first half was not what we expected, the second half might still be. But it is just one narrative, and it may still be the wrong one.

 

 

 

 

Note : Further reading, for those interested in Bulgaria :

See also, The Bogomils: A Study in Balkan Neo-Manichaeism, Obolensky, Dmitri.

 


A graph showing the bullwhip effect on markets, to illustrate an article by Charles Gillams on bond markets and the bullwhip effect

Bonds and Bullwhips

What are bonds for? Not always what you think. And the whiplash of the economy, (the bullwhip effect on all markets) makes recession both inevitable and meaningless.

Corporate bonds vs government bonds

So, to compare bonds - a corporate bond is issued to fund a project to produce a return greater than the interest and principal, and then pay the lender back. Much of the value lies in the assessment of how reliable that redemption is. Some of it is also whether the bond is cheaper or more expensive than a similar one, some of it is who is allowed to hold that bond.

But value lies in redemption, especially at the shorter end.

So, on that basis, what are government bonds? Well, they are there to achieve other objectives, seldom involving either redemption or a cash positive lifetime. It is largely accepted that they are a funding device to load debt upon future taxpayers, who luckily can’t vote. And the price of the bond is just what investors will pay for it. 

Market rigging

Governments will therefore try to directly rig the market, to avoid paying too much interest, by for instance, mandating all investors and especially pension funds should hold gilts, their debts, on the gloriously fake grounds that they are “safe”. Well, just remember this year’s disastrous collapse, down by a quarter at the long end, with plenty of volatility too, ‘safe’ they are not. But the regulators and professional bodies still peddle versions of the old homily about the percentage of bonds in a portfolio should equal your age.

They can also apparently use the rate of bond interest to control inflation (so they say), so raising it (and devaluing bonds) if inflation rises, albeit the causes of inflation have little to do with the bonds (or bond investors). Then most marvellous of all, they can rig the price by easing and tightening their ‘quantitatives’ at will. Although no one is quite sure what a quantitative is, or indeed where it lives.

So, the government bond market turns out to be pretty much whatever you want it to be. To be contrasted with the weird and feckless equity, whose value can be, pretty much whatever you want it to be. Or indeed bitcoin, whose value….

A difference of degree granted, but less clearly one of substance. Rigged markets in any asset, make us nervous, and all markets are increasingly manipulated, to some degree.

What of bullwhips and earthquakes?

Well, both show a declining sinusoidal wave, that ripples prettily along and disappears. Whether it is the globe scratching its toe itch in Tierra del Fuego, or an irritated ear in Reykjavik, it is very jumpy. Where you stand now can be higher or lower than yesterday; it is erratic, chock full of faults, and crucially, not smooth and cyclical.

So, measuring whether you are higher or lower than last week’s datum matters little, if your fields have vanished into the sea, or indeed your sea has become a field.

So it is with recessions, after the shock we have had, being up or down two quarters in a row is trivial. Indeed, as that slick whipping wave races by, we will certainly be both.

Do changes in the Government bond markets matter?

And trying to decide whether the gyrations in the government bond market have any relevance to the level of the economy when the whole structure is bucking around, is slightly crazy. Nor are yesterday’s maps going to be of any use.

That is even assuming that the price of bonds has any relationship to anything except how little governments want to pay for their exorbitant debts. While I have not even mentioned the wealthy autocracies involved in the same game.

And that’s the market muddle we are in. The US Central Bank is playing old style economics, using the interest rate to control inflation - hang the cost of debt, that’s a problem for Congress.

But the UK and European Central Banks are playing new style, because they fear that the usual medicine will be disastrous for their rather sickly patients.

Taken from this article - BBC

And US stock markets are using that funny old, discredited, yield curve to predict a recession that is by their definition (two down quarters in a row) inevitable, but ignoring the COVID earthquake which has upended all our old data and assumptions, simply because we have never had one like that before. The curse of econometrics is that we can only predict the future if it resembles the past.

EU stock markets

Meanwhile European stock markets have understood rates are not going up much more, because the EU would prefer to rig the market, so investors think they must have avoided a recession, which is equally a delusion.

And underneath all that is the great big chunk of molten sludge at the core, the vast irredeemable mass of government debt, where real yields are apparently staying submerged everywhere.

So wise men can select from all of that to predict that markets in debt and equity are going to go up a lot or down a lot, really as you wish. And they may all be right, at least somewhere on the globe.

Our own choices

But we still see no point in holding state debt, nor much in holding cash for too long. Corporate debt and equities, especially equities with a real value that you can figure out, maybe. We look at ones without state interference rigging the price, and with an ability to raise prices to hold margins, and which have a dividend yield. Those, we think, may still be attractive.       

And we are not alone, many markets and stock prices bottomed out in October and are steadily inching up. Our own MonograM momentum models (both in the USD and GBP versions, a rarity this year) have triggered a re-entry into equites, and for once in a while, not US ones.

Something is shifting under our feet. So next year at least, is very unlikely to be like this year.

When we next write the calendar will have changed and no doubt many rate rises will have happened. But we doubt if the big themes will change much.

In the meantime, Seasons Greetings and a prosperous New Year, to all our readers.


this is a photograph of a desert road, with the words written above : never reaching the end?

Seeking an end to the turmoil

This market turmoil feels interminable, as asset markets stumble to find a firm footing and churn relentlessly. Instinct says that’s a time to buy. But there is so much happening, as this multi-year trauma unwinds, it is quite hard to know what.

Although we try to segment it, the key problem is the terrible dishonesty of politicians, who have bullied their citizens into an unthinking reliance on institutionalised theft on a grand scale and a belief that nothing really matters, as long as you have a press release to deflect it.

IT IS ALL STILL COVID

So, working through piles of annual accounts, as a pleasant distraction, (I have always enjoyed history), the one repeated theme, is of shrinkage, under investment, caution. This, in a way, is natural because COVID reset two years of global production, and indeed destroyed large areas of output and services. Which also makes it terribly hard to understand what “normal” is now.

Not helped by the piteous vagaries of those craving spurious accuracy. Big banks and resource companies seem overall just to want to carry on shrinking, which is odd as their results seem very good. But they are not. All that has happened is they took big write offs and reserves in 2020 (which were not needed) and that then reversed in 2021. However, the underlying business volumes fell, the trend to more disposals than acquisitions was unremitting; these are shrinking businesses.

To the populists who believe higher taxation lowers inflation (are they mad?) and indeed, to market commentators, this looks good, but it is really not, productive employment is shrinking too, workforce participation is not roaring back.

Extracted from the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) June update.

And with inflation we will again see plenty of “top line beats” or rising revenue, but that too is an illusion. And indeed, raised dividends. For example, Shell now proudly offers a 4% dividend rise, as if that is generous; last decade it was, but not now.

That is now a real dividend cut. 

Data taken from the June update of the Office of National Statistics UK.

As we struggle with a badly damaged global economy, government policy is unremittingly wrong-headed: you wonder what we could do worse than the vast debt fuelled bubble after COVID?

But then we stumble on the idea of doubling or trebling domestic fuel prices. We do this to punish big energy exporters like Saudi Arabia and Russia. Only a simple clown could believe that will help us, and only a child-like vandal, that it will halt Russian armies. We take our own possessions out and smash them on the street, like voodoo dolls, because we are hurting and want others to hurt too. Nuts - it is tearing our own clothes in blind anger, but we ourselves are not the enemy. 

Meanwhile, underneath all this noise, is the game up?

Is the expansion we have seen for two decades based on cheap Asian product imports, and low interest rates fuelling inflation in non-traded goods now done? The non-traded category is everything that can’t be shipped in. Land, services and the like that must be consumed, where they are provided. Although with that went quite a lot of imported labour consumption too, of course.

I keep wanting to write positively on China, but I simply don’t know. Is their COVID winter politically sustainable? Is it a massive pivot back to a closed state? Was the aberration their great expansion, and they are now reverting to being a hermit kingdom? Instinct again says no, who would reverse the greatest success story of our time? But evidence the other way just slowly piles up. Another giant nation seems slowly to be sliding towards belligerent stagnation.

And so much went crazy with the toxic mix of low interest rates, and excess liquidity. We may at last have learnt that if you have a blocked pipe, spraying it with gold is not a remedy. The pipe stays blocked, but everyone gets flecks of gold on them. Better (and cheaper) to hire a plumber.

WHAT WILL BE THE THIRD POLICY ERROR?

We certainly don’t see the recent bubble implosion reversing, for all the bluster, crypto, and concept stocks, feel to us like a long term drag on the indices, remorsesly lower.

The turn feels to be more likely in bonds. The fight is between a shrinking set of outputs, but rising prices and apparently rising consumption. As long as policy blunders persist, and they show no sign of ending; then the upward pressure on rates will also persist.

But we doubt that any conceivable interest rate rise can solve this inflation. In short, the fire must burn itself out or at least no longer be stoked up.

In which case posturing about a long run 2% 3%, or 5% rate is really guesswork. But that’s the big question. If it is 3%, we are already there, but there is no great market conviction on that. At least the belated but long inevitable addition of the Europeans to rate rises, should take some heat off exchange rates.      

LETTERS I’VE WRITTEN

What about Boris? I was quite surprised at the swift and co-ordinated move to a no confidence vote. The Tory party is rubbish at a lot, but plotting it does do rather well. And also surprised at the vote itself. The rebels can not win, without a candidate that both factions like, that is the real Tory party and this odd “Cameron light” lot in Downing Street. Of course, Boris himself is already largely that candidate, talks right, acts left. Which means all sides hate him, but neither can replace him, for fear of the ‘wrong type’ of fake instead. Just what you want to be, you will be in the end.

There was also a fair bit of bile, stirred up by the media, and rather infecting what are loosely called the “activists”, who are anything but, but do bend their MP’s ears. They just want to dislike Boris and his lack of scruples, but also like the gifts he brings them.

They don’t want local trouble, so enough of those MPs voted against him, to keep their local associations happy. If that “terrible man” stays in office, they can at least claim they did their bit, but ‘others’ then let the side down.     

Will Boris last up to the election?

Our core belief remains Boris stays in power long enough to hand over to Keir and Nicola. But perhaps we have rather less conviction than last week. We thought Keir was more likely to be in trouble, but perhaps the Tory plotters could be desperate enough to finally agree on a candidate? Either way this is now a lame duck UK government.

But then like markets, outside events may rescue it, it’s just we really can’t see how at present.

As for where to consider investing? Our MonograM momentum model loves the dollar, for sterling investors and for USD ones, increasingly just cash, and decreasingly the S&P, so long the global refuge.

But that is in no way a recommendation, just an observation; more detail on our performance page.


LOCATING THE ELUSIVE BASE

the investment impact of recent events

CRANES

I spent last Sunday in the elusive pursuit of grus grus, in the upper Marne basin, East of Paris. For some reason the Common Crane had already left in a bid to cross Central Europe, heading for the Artic, weeks earlier than in most seasons. Clearly, they knew something about the airspace ahead of them.

While the largely empty Lac du Der, also had lessons on levelling up; here was a vast and disruptive engineering scheme, it seemed executed without too much controversy, operating well and with the surrounding villages wealthy, quietly prosperous and largely content. Or so it looked in the February sunshine. It was all in pretty harmonious concord with nature too.

THE FRENCH MODEL

It seems the French can see the grand scope of government, the need to provide top class infrastructure. Here is their France Relance plan up to 2030. Up to 3-4 billion Euro is likely to be spent in 2022 alone.

The issue is perhaps not just politics, but the unspeakably low quality and lack of vision of the UK governing class. The French cities have retained their great buildings, the administration is a high profile and visible force, not something to park in the burbs, having ejected them from city centres to grab their assets for still more rentier housing. Nor does the state foolishly aim to do everything, the peage (and TGV) enable high class fast communication, but certainly not always for the lowest price. Nor is health care completely and absurdly free, irrespective of demand. But it is effective.

Power is cheap and plentiful, no hysteria about nuclear there, and the military proud and visible, even the transport police are packing heat. So, watch that off peak ticket schedule.

Of course, not all is rosy. COVID hysteria still ruled, masks and vaccine passes were required for everyone, for everything.

Yet if any UK government is serious about leveling up, (as in the recent White Paper) here is both a lesson, and an indication that Gove’s piffling attempts are a mockery; he needs more like £48 billion to start it, not £4.8 billion.

You feel they just picked up the easy option from the choices their tired civil servants had suggested. Perhaps it was the one that said, “No real impact, but sounds OK for now”.

UKRAINE - Did Putin miscalculate the West’s indifference?

Ukraine? Not a lot to add to that. We were wrong that Putin was not stupid enough to do it. Wrong too that it would be over in hours. So, treat our topical ignorance with care. Also, wrong that the West would shilly-shally over piecemeal sanctions. Whether we are wrong yet again in assuming that without a quick win, the sanctions will now damage the global economy quite badly, remains to be seen. I also suspect seizing Central Bank assets can only be done once and once done, global finance and investment will become far more fractured, forever.

But in truth, it was going that way already.

However, this blind market panic seems absurd. I really doubt if Putin, at this point, wants to line his battalions up on a border to provoke NATO, who are I suspect closer to an aerial counter strike than he thinks, and would indeed now love the excuse of any incursion on NATO soil.

He has made it into a popular potential war for the West, the most dangerous sort.

War Tactics

It looks to me as if Russia wants a pincer movement, to isolate Ukraine’s forces in the Donbass, plus a threat to Kiev to topple the government, but has he the muscle to take and hold all of the vast country? Even if he does, that does not suggest he will go further than Ukraine, just now.

While his aims are so blatantly false, success can be easily claimed for almost any outcome.  So, a collapse in currencies, and stock markets across Eastern Europe, looks an exaggerated response. True, this is Germany’s worst nightmare come true, no competent military and a gun-shy US, so they must now realign fast, and where Germany goes, so goes the EU. It is not going to fold or fissure in the face of this explicit threat. Although Germany at heart is much more like the UK than France; rapid execution will not be quite as easy as simple announcements. Remember the farce over moving Tempelhof airport?

(link to the article)

As yet, the final step of directly locking in Russian energy supplies, large parts of which go to German consumers, has not been taken, but that would, in the short term, be very costly.

Although high taxes on energy give governments a great incentive to let prices rip, (and demand destruction is great for the climate lobby too), but they are rather less popular at the ballot box.

Interest Rates

Meanwhile Powell remains determined to stay behind the curve on rate rises, it is as if the received wisdom on rates, indeed on Central Bank power, has been quietly ditched, and instead he is hoping inflation burns itself out through demand destruction/supply creation. Well, an interesting experiment, but if that’s the game, as we have predicted for a while, inflation will remain gently smouldering, but rate rises will still be very gradual.

The Fed should have turned off the monetary stimulus and reset to ‘normal’ six months ago, by the time they finally move, it will be a full twelve months late. Real rates are deeply negative, levels not seen in decades, and moving fast, this is really not quarter point stuff.

Link to source article

All of the above implies on-going nominal economic growth, ongoing share price appreciation (at least in nominal terms) and an ongoing reward for borrowing to excess.

But despite the rush to safety currently supporting the US dollar (and US assets) the danger to markets is not just from the noisy, tragic, East but also from experimental monetary policy in the US.  


River Deep, Mountain High

Welcome back Mr. Powell - so what is a good response to impending inflation?

After nine months or more the newly reappointed Fed Chair conceded the blindingly obvious: we have an inflation issue, along with the equally transparent need to tighten monetary conditions to quell it. At least he’s fronted up to that, unlike the position in Europe.

What diverts us is what the right response is. Some things are perhaps obvious: gold at least in sterling terms now has positive momentum again. But there is a tremendous volume of liquidity to soak up still, while stimulus will keep being pumped in for a long time. But fixed interest just looks hopeless, credit quality is plummeting, rates are rising, and returns are poor, even in high yield.

Are we clear of COVID effects?

Nor are we really clear of COVID effects. We are yet to pass beyond all the “emergency measures”. So here in the UK, VAT is still reduced, commercial evictions banned, and government departments are still showing that odd mix of budget destroying costs and below normal productivity. So, spending pressure will stay elevated for a good while. Tax rises on corporate profits and on labour through National Insurance hikes, will therefore start to bite, well before the last variant has caused another pfennigabsatze-panik. (spike/trough related panic)

Markets have also been jittery. In general, the buying opportunities just after Thanksgiving have held, which is a good sign. The subsequent gyrations have (so far) indicated a good weight of money ready to buy the dips. But there is little doubt cash is fleeing the overhyped stocks, which are far more prevalent in the US, than in the UK. The shift out of basic commodities is also apparent. So, I would still expect enormous cash balances to build up into the year end in the banking sector, albeit maybe not always in the right places. Any Santa Claus rally will be strictly retail elf driven; the old man is self-isolating this year.

Characteristics of this inflation

Our view remains that the expected high inflation is systemic, simply because of the structural damage and inefficiency inflicted by COVID. So, it maybe transient, but multi-year transient. In this case while the seasonal moves down in energy prices will be a welcome relief, assuming Northern Hemisphere temperatures stay around seasonal norms (and that’s what mid-range forecasts are indicating) - it is not a solution to the inflationary pressures.

Nor do we see the any unwinding of the inventory super cycle caused by the holiday season and the ending of lockdowns, all at once, as having much beneficial impact on price levels.

Businesses all want inventory and will keep rebuilding it across their full ranges for a while. After all, right now holding stock has little financial cost attached.

See this article published by Markit.

Most corporates are at heart squirrels; it won’t be easy to break a new habit. 

So how should we play this?

The bigger issue is how to play this - the received wisdom is pile into the US, probably the NASDAQ, while having a side bet on bitcoin or some less disreputable alternatives.

That’s where most investors knowingly or otherwise have their funds.

NASDAQ may churn as dealers try to create some volatility, but the overall (and in our view inflated) levels will most likely remain.

This Omicron variant episode at least has halted the IPO madness, and the whole SPAC nonsense is washed up. Sadly, not a big surprise to see portly old London has just tried to catch a train that left the station last year.

The longer view

But it is a bubble we think - our icf economics monthly looks in more depth at how these played out the last couple of times. Not pleasant, but oddly familiar.

NASDAQ and Bitcoin may yet scale new peaks, but the river below is very deep. Perhaps that old affection for base gold is not just nostalgia?

Time for some year end reflection.

Charles Gillams

Monogram Capital Management