Fiasco

First Posted on 7th March 2021

WHY SYSTEMS FAIL, AND IT IS REALLY NOT ABOUT MONEY

A winter lockdown forces us all to examine our domestic interiors, with in my case perhaps a superfluity of paper, which led me to “Fiasco”, by Thomas E. Ricks. It is a seminal description of how complex systems create monsters and then fail, not for lack of effort, nor goodwill, nor money, but from thrashing about with no coherent strategy.

Indeed, arguably all those three inputs make matters worse. The tale simply told, in a largely deadpan tone, is of the greatest failure of American foreign policy since Pearl Harbour, and the greatest crime perpetuated by a British Prime Minister, since the Bengal Famine. It is how Bush, looking for revenge after 9/11, has spawned the disasters of the modern Middle East and locked us all into an unending cycle of terrorism and for the millions of people in the Middle East and beyond, brought poverty and despair.

Strategy matters

How? Well as Ricks tells it, they used the wrong tool for the wrong job: the strategy was hazy, mission creep endemic, the reporting system mangled everything to suit those making the reports. In the meantime, the aims kept shifting, and staff rotation and comfort swamped the original purpose of simply executing the mission.

While those they were sent to save, service and otherwise succour, were embittered and made hostile by the sacrifices they were expected to make, in return for specious, obscure propaganda.

So that led to the USA seeing the Iraqi people as the enemy, not just their crazed leader, while the entire Iraqi government was blamed for funding and concealing these non- existent weapons. Read it. Because from that flowed the failure of Phase IV (the post conflict reconstruction), the hostile occupation (not liberation) of Iraq, the idiocy of making that occupation subservient to Pentagon (not civilian) demands, the destruction of the fragile sectarian balance between Shia and Sunni, the rise of ISIS, the Syrian nightmare, Yemen, and the Iran nuclear programme.

Meanwhile, the attendant loss of money, the coming to power of the isolationist and militia based right wing in the US, the triumph of China in the emerging world, the resurgence of Russian thuggery all remorselessly followed on. Simply unbelievable. As Hicks writes it, you can hear the quiet click, as the lid of Pandora’s box was ever so gently released; beats bat breeding labs in Wuhan for the sheer laconic horror of it.

They did start the fire.

I do not know what the Pope going to Baghdad shows, beyond a startling personal courage, but it is no ordinary trip. The story also shows how in the modern world massive complex heavily manned delivery systems just can’t operate. They are dinosaurs. There was nothing inherently wrong with the US Army, but yet it created its own defeat.

WHY THIS SYSTEM WILL FAIL TOO, AND AGAIN, IT IS NOT ABOUT THE MONEY

So, to the UK budget, another set of tactical responses to poorly understood problems, hemmed in by contradictory rules, horribly distorted by politics. Sadly, the government really does believe it is the presentation that matters, not delivery. So, we had Rishi, spooling out unending largesse, and crudely claiming he was going to level with us, and level up North Yorkshire, and hand out freeport concessions to his chums and give Ulster another £5m for their paramilitaries (oh, you missed that one?).

A more extensive piece will shortly be on our website. It questions whether we are building back better. To me this looks more like ‘business as usual’, no growth, no decent jobs, London’s supremacy ploughing on, the regions thrown scraps. Green? When you freeze vehicle fuel prices for the eleventh year? Hardly. So yes, the budget was a relief, but no it should not have been. I doubt if markets will like it much, just because the publicans do.

DEBT AND EQUITY MARKETS AND INTEREST RATES

Markets Well, there is another puzzle, I thought the august President of Queens’ College Cambridge was going to self-combust into his tache, such was his thrill at seeing the bond vigilantes shooting up the US ten-year interest rate, during the week. Biden must pay his electoral base the bribe needed to win those Georgia Senate seats, at the full inflationary excess of $1.9 trillion, pumped onto an economy that is already visibly and dangerously overheating. The one Game Stop we do need, won’t happen.

So, you have $27 trillion and rising of outstanding US government debt, do the maths, if the bond vigilantes push rates up by 1% for the average duration of that debt, 65 months, that will cost you some $1.5 trillion back. So sure, you can cough up on your election pork, but it will cost the American people $3.4 trillion to do that.

Well, we don’t actually think that attempted rate increase can stick, for all the reasons it failed to stick over the last decade. Powell at the Fed then agrees with us, which on past form is perhaps an ominous sign of our approaching error (or possibly his gaining of wisdom).

Equity markets certainly felt unhinged; they started to whipsaw around in a frankly worrying fashion. On prior performance this does need sorting out, before it is safe to go back in. If (of all places) the US will lead on raising rates, it has to then pull up all other global interest rates, which we know will slow growth and take the wind out of the recovery. Indeed, it may threaten it, it has to cut (see above) how much governments can then borrow, has to start foreign exchange rates jockeying for position, has to question the whole free money basis of tech valuations.

I simply don’t think this recovery and these valuations can stand that just yet, and after a decent pause, the Fed (like many other Central Banks do already) will have to act to somehow hold down rates. Whatever Governments say, money does have a time value, and behaving as if it does not, is rather unwise. But I think extend and pretend will still persist for a while yet.

Charles Gillams

Monogram Capital Management Ltd


Rising Tides

First posted 21st March 2021

Interesting times.

Bond markets are out of the cage, off the deck, ready to rumble.

This week feels like another one of those big calls that investors have faced over the last year, and in many ways much less obvious. Forget the chatter, it is the bond markets that are now back in charge. While upsetting Californian law makers and the SEC is now small fry for Musk and Tesla, the bond markets will just roll over him. They are the gorilla in the room, for all those frothy tech valuations.

Bond holders are just dumping their holdings as fast as they can; like tectonic plates they move slow, but like any earthquake, you get the sudden shift, then the aftershocks, and then it will all settle down. But the landscape will have changed.

What has woken them up? Well inflation and the conviction that the colossal election bribes handed out by Joe Biden will cause inflation to go over 3% and perhaps, as important, possibly stay there. It is the stay there or persistency risk, we are looking at. We can all see a short-term inflation spike, from commodities and logistics snarl ups.

Now, everyone (including us) have been focused on excess capacity and deflationary forces. Indeed, as we keep being reminded, over 10 million Americans are out of work; but for some reason the nasty bond markets have decided giving those citizens jobs is not the priority.

So, the naïve equation Powell (at the Fed, who I keep reminding readers, is not an economist by training) is working on, is if you stuff circa 20% of US GDP in one end, all of course borrowed, out pops nationwide low paid jobs, focused on the low skilled workforce, by the ten million or so. Now that’s the bit which is no longer credible.

It seems more likely all that stuffing is instead creeping into asset price inflation, with virtual currencies attracting a lot of speculative flows and likewise hot stocks, be it SPACS or GameStop. None of these areas provide much of the required nationwide low skilled employment. 

A Detailed Look at the UK Employment Statistics

So, what is happening? Well, a more detailed look at the labour market in the UK (not the US), provides some clues. My source is the Office for National Statistics, February Labour Market report. Not a bad date, as the year-on-year figures are clean; from the March one onwards, we will have the COVID shocks in the annual comparator.

The employment crisis is hitting the young hardest, under 25 employment is dire, of the job losses year on year, 58% were in those below 25. While we have both lower employment (so people exiting the labour market) and also higher unemployment (so not working, but available). Noting that furlough for these purposes remains classified as employed, which is a little moot. 

But here is the paradox, wage inflation is also very apparent, hitting 4.7%, which is recorded as 3.8% above actual inflation, so a pretty high real rate. Now that’s not causing deflation at all.

While the furlough impact, doubled to December (from 5% to 10%) of the workforce, and no doubt has now gone up again, with the arts, entertainment and recreation industries (sic) and food service industries, each having over half their workforces on furlough. 

So, while the claimant level has been stabilized quite well, we see relatively lower levels of actual employment, but with the secure workforce getting good pay rises, well over inflation, and those in less secure positions, or who are younger or in the wrong sector, hit hard.      

Should Preserving Capacity be the Real Concern?

The assumption then is that the labour market is clearing, indeed faces inflation, for those in work, but for those who are not, there is a big presumption that the leisure sectors will bounce back hard and take up the slack. You wonder if just more money across the board, is the right way to tackle this specific problem. Oddly if this was in banking or steel, a targeted approach aimed at preserving capacity would now follow. Time to rethink that? Although if everyone gets a “gift”, then fewer people will complain they missed out, given how politically charged both steel and banks became, you can see why; but it is poor economic policy.   

This two-speed position is also apparent in other Government statistics, tax gathering is going well, the annual self-assessment returns were higher than a year ago, and total tax returns only marginally lower due to reduced VAT income from the leisure sector. The strain on Government finances is on the other side, excessive spending, not reduced tax. On tax receipts, inflation via fiscal drag, is already working its magic.

What the Bond Market is Afraid of?

So, the bond market fear is that more of the stimulus will go to the “wrong” places, than the “right” places, creating inflation in areas that are already running hot. While Central Banks have apparently decided they no longer think about money, just the jobs market. Which is also odd, because they have so little control over it.

Indeed, the heavy political pressure in the US to sharply raise the minimum wage, must work in the opposite way, as must the surge in automation and home working. It is noticeable that when Trump tried to turbocharge labour markets with a tax cut, we had a pre-emptive rate rise from the Federal Reserve. Clearly this time round Janet Yellen has told Powell that if he tries that stunt again, he is out.

So, What do Investors do?

We did not expect this rise in rates so soon, but nor do we see it automatically stopping at this level, as Powell has clearly said he won’t intervene more to hold rates down, nor will he acquiesce by raising overnight rates.

Broadly rising rates, with rising inflation is good for equities, but the end of free money is less good for the out and out speculators, who can gamble on trivial things, without a great deal of care.

It is these periods of cross currents, short sharp movements, that are toughest to navigate. While the first order effects will be in falling bond prices and the badly overvalued tech markets globally deflating; so, all of that stuff with inflated multiples or no real sales. But the second order impact will be on equity markets overall and on currencies.

At some point if you can get a nice return in bonds, even better a real return for holding them, there will be a lot of money heading that way. It is a finely judged switchback, taken at speed, if they raise rates and then find inflation (and employment) actually starts to fall, the Fed can again wreak havoc by going too fast.

While elsewhere boring may in the end be best, especially in well run financials.  There is an old market saying that a rising tide lifts all boats, but perhaps not the electric ones this time?

Our own Performance

Our own VT Global Total Return Fund has now had three distinct patches of outperformance, in the last year, as against behemoths in the Absolute Return space. All, as it happens, since Monogram joined the team, as investment advisors, although that really is co-incidence.

One such good patch would be fine for us. It is of course partly good timing (for whatever reason), but it may also be that small, focused funds like ours, can simply turn that much faster and make the needed adjustments more quickly.

Which then generates patches of outperformance, three in a row is starting to make a real difference compared to just “buying IBM”.

While we are now running unusually high cash levels, we know markets don’t stay this kind for long.

Charles Gillams

Monogram Capital Management Ltd