Two quite technical topics this week, hinged on the persistence of old viewpoints on current markets: pricing in UK stock markets, and China, and how we might look into emerging market funds. Plenty of good regulatory intentions, but rather less than welcome outcomes.

 

FIXED ODDS

Little in the debate on UK markets has looked at the major role played by an increasingly poorly performing small UK bank, Close Bros. Even when it was doing well, it felt odd to have a vital market role being undertaken in a backwater, but as its capitalisation dwindles, the core task of equity market maker, which it provides, seems oddly misplaced.

In smaller UK stocks, we therefore still have a ring holder who, it is said aligns buyers and sellers’ interests. Not mine.

Given the fortunes at the disposal of state banks or indeed the London Stock Exchange, why is Winterflood (a part of Close Brothers) still trying to provide this vital service in the style of an old-fashioned bookie?

It matters greatly, because in many UK stocks and investment trusts, the wide bid offer spreads make dealing almost impossible. If you are eking out a high single figure return, and in these markets not doing badly to do so, Close Brothers scooping 10% off a single trade, in the bid offer spread, is pretty lethal.

With them restricting trade, liquidity disappears, without liquidity so does price discovery, and it is not a stock market any more.

Close has itself also suffered a number of hits lately. It is a hotch potch of old merchant banking activities, along with an expensively acquired asset management business, plus a shocking venture into litigation funding that might ultimately (it is itself a matter for litigation) cost almost as much as they paid for it.

While just lately the FCA has been asking (dear CEO…) about insurance premium finance, oh, and Close has a lot of motor finance too, an area of recent expansion, but also another hot spot for the FCA, after issues on commission. The latter Close has known about for a while, it was a disclosed risk in their last accounts.

All places where margins are quite high, perhaps in the view of the FCA too high.

 

A screenshot of a section of Close Brother's website

From: Close brothers website – section on ‘who we are’ – their business model.

Given the lack of any announcements, the 40% share price decline in Close (CBG) over six months, to levels seen just after the GFC, is remarkable. Perhaps this benign graphic is not quite the whole picture?

Premium financing is ironically a good business, because the FCA’s wide and unpredictable view of its own remit makes financial services insurance premiums rather high, but that’s another story.

And market making is run as a bookie, not as a market utility. Winterflood itself can be taking a long or short position. So, investors must fathom both the share price, and which way their market maker is facing. In big stocks with lots of choices that’s all fine and pretty transparent. But in small ones, they can look (and behave) like the only game in town.

And it looks as if last year, they possibly went too short in the autumn. So, when the market turned on a dime in November, a fair bit of short covering took place, prices leapt, in places by over 20% and spreads opened out. And market size dwindled to penny packets.

It matters how? Well, you can get ripped off to deal in smaller UK stocks, where smaller is up to about £300m, and the price can be “wrong”, volatility increases, and liquidity goes. Do companies or investors like any of that? Nope.

It is notable that their trading profits in this area seem to far exceed both their gross (long and short) and net (long less short) positions.

Every big company was small once, and if you choke off the supply you get an ossified market, like the current moribund main FTSE index.

Perhaps the FCA could start to look more at best execution and market depth, and less at arcane ways to double count costs, or ‘protect’ those trying to enter the primary market from strict rules. This interview with Witan makes a reasonable case for looking after the secondary market first, not just the big IPO’s, with their juicy listing fees.

Investor protection is about investors making money, not about them losing it as cheaply as possible.

CHINESE BURNS

After our piece last time, we have been looking at Emerging Market funds ex China, because far from being the great hope of EM investors, China (and not just the PRC, but also Hong Kong) has become the rock that shatters fragile performance.

The role of benchmarking

There are several structural problems in EM funds, one is the role of benchmarking. A good idea at one time, it allows investors to compare performance to something specific. But it has become quite expensive (guess who pays?), as benchmarks don’t come cheap, if you now have to have them.

It also rather neatly points out to investors, when an index fund might do a better job than active managers, and worst of all, especially with the oddly amateur directors of most UK investment companies, leaves them ‘hugging’ or enslaved, to the benchmark. For good reasons in one sense (you don’t get fired for just about beating the benchmark) but for bad in others (all the funds are boringly similar). They just make the same mistakes together. And a beaten benchmark, that is itself falling, means the investor still suffers losses. I have yet to meet an investor that liked those.

The impact is both direct, so you can’t find India funds without Reliance Industries (the biggest stock), for example, and indirectly so as to “generate alpha” funds take bigger risks within a market, rather than have a below benchmark position in that market, even if all their analysis says they should just quit that particular town. Which is why funds find reasons to linger in bad neighbourhoods.

Another bias that hits the EM sector (which for a decade now has flattered to deceive) is that their stock analysis is focused on stocks they have held, while the investor wants to hear about stocks they should hold.

So, a fund manager typically gives a detailed list of analysts and companies followed by their firm, and it is full of what looked sensible when all those analysts were hired. So, in EM, there are stacks of China analysts, of organisations based in Singapore (the preferred offshore China centre, after Hong Kong got too hot), hundreds (if not thousands) of Chinese stocks covered, but all the buying is now into India. With quite nominal stock coverage; and hardly anyone based in the country.

Just as to a hammer, every problem is a nail, so to those EM analysts every opportunity is in China. Until outfits like Janus Henderson and Templeton stop having toolkits full of hammers, they won’t be able to stop breaking investors’ hearts with China. Nor will investors realise quite how much this infects their performance.

This will slowly correct, but small funds that can exit China totally in a week, and have a global remit, with no equity benchmark, dare I say it, have quite an edge.

It is a vast and nuanced space, Lazards provides a good overview.

And it is not just EM specialists, we looked at Ruffer of late, it has got broken China littered amongst its portfolios.

So, we worry that the Christmas rally looked broad based, because of a bear squeeze over a range of stocks, that then reversed with early January selling, based rather more on fundamentals. In which case 2024, so far, is in danger of looking more like 2023, less like the cyclical turning point many hope for. We do see earnings falling, of course and then ultimately rate cuts rescuing valuations. But ultimately may be quite a while.