The Sleep of Reason

Big picture risk assessments today, and worries about the prevailing style of regulation - we look at where the next bank blow up maybe. We’re assuming this will again be caused by regulators and their herding behaviour. On the upside, an improving medium-term market outlook. Also, dollar danger.

But before I begin…

First of all, many thanks to those who replied to our sentiment survey, you are a cautious crowd! Over half (53%) sitting on the fence, alongside us. The largest directional group is bullish on equities (18%), but it is a pretty even bull/bear split with bonds, and quite a few equity bears too.

Regulatory Myopia and Declining Banks

Bank boards (and auditors) are still clearly confusing regulatory approval with sound banking, in the odd belief that excuse will wash, when they implode. In particular we worry about the vast amount of debt that is sitting on bank balance sheets, at below current market levels, and not in this case issued by governments.

We have notable anxiety about two areas, fixed rate mortgages and investment grade debt where, especially for the former, the numbers are vast. Perhaps the tightening steps to date appear so ineffective, just because so much of this old low-cost issuance, is only very slowly rolling off .

Big picture – the effect of long dated low-cost loans, with rising interest rates

This leaves cheap money in the system, funded by banks, that have to pay way more to keep funding these long-term deals. They’re doing this typically with short-term sources, like deposits. In sub-prime, asset finance, trade finance, consumer finance, none of it matters much, as they are pretty short duration.  Which is where most people worry, because of default rates, we don’t.

But in mortgages especially the regulator typically issues the future economic scenarios to banks, who then price (originate) and provide for losses against that projection.

If that projection is absurdly few rate rises, for a decade (as it was till fairly recently), it seems banks just follow obediently along. As a result, they have issued vast amounts of long dated, low cost loans based on false or unrealistic assumptions.

Those regulator driven economic assumptions/scenarios are key, and yet are lost in the detail. Each bank has to publish them if you dig deep enough.  (Some are on p155-157 of the HSBC accounts, for example, if you have the stamina.)

Re-mortgages – what they contribute to our big picture

The other part is refresh rates, in a falling interest rate world, borrowers re-mortgage every few years, but in a rising one early redemptions virtually stop. So, the whole system gums up, without fresh liquidity. Regulators have not seen, and have no data, on such a ‘higher rates for longer’ world. So, it is assumed that world cannot exist. While the key thing (still) on these scenarios is that interest rates are still assumed to be like rockets, straight up straight down.

Now if you assume that, there is some short term pain, but normal service resumes soon enough with no long-term issue. But is it realistic? It is a vast slow moving market as in this publication of the FCA’s mortgage lending statistics .

Inevitably the scenario dispersion used is small, indicating a regulatory finger remains on the scales. So, most banks take the Central Bank forecast as the middle way, with say 10% either side. All as at the historic balance sheet date. Last year they were nonsense even before publication, two months on.

That is aside from Hong Kong, where real economic models, with real outcome ranges are visible. For most markets you see a skein of twisted rope drifting laconically into the future, but on HK they produce an exploding ammunition graph, smoke trails looping everywhere.

To a lesser extent BP debt (a classic investment grade, big, global borrower) is a similar problem. It has half fixed, half floating issuance, but the fixed is at 3% with a fourteen-year average term and the floating at twice that, at 6%. Now someone holds that fixed debt, and if regulated it will have to now be held below par. Are BP going to prepay it? Despite the roar of cash coming in, why would they? It is stuck, unusable for 14 years, unless inflation (and rates) collapse as fast as predicted.

What else is driving markets?

The big upside drivers to us are, the end of COVID, the end of the energy spike and falling rates. The first two will help through 2023 and 2024. Rising rates are still hurting, but again 2024 and beyond  looks good.

While the biggest current downside driver is the recession, which will impact 2023, but again rebound in 2024. So, the issue is: will the rather timorous monetary tightening and anaemic reductions in the absurd fiscal overdrive, be enough to defuse all that good news coming in the next year?

Markets apparently think not.

We are particularly struck by the NASDAQ up 18% year to date, yet our tech bell weather share, Herald Investment Trust (HIT) is still (marginally) down YTD. So is this a bitcoin-type story (all about liquidity) or is it based on tech fundamentals? If the latter, then why is it seemingly glued to the US, and not translatable? Even failing to reach non-US holders of US companies.

For now, until the price of global tech shifts, I treat the US as a special case; growth is not back yet.

While the currency charts are unclear, it does also feel like the beginning of the end of the great dollar story, with sterling persistently ticking higher of late.

Graph showing the dollar share of global reservesFrom: this page published by the NY federal reserve.

That’s a real danger for portfolios that thrived on dollar power last year.

We close wishing you a happy Easter break. We will be back with St George.


The Art of the Possible

Image from Wikemedia - by Neide José Paixão

Looking at Absolute Return – Can it be Done?

A wise old hand once told me that all investors want is protection from inflation; do that, earn your fees and your job’s done. Read more


WHAT DO THEY KNOW OF ENGLAND?

Let us look at tech, private equity and this seeming market bounce, driven by those sectors. The NASDAQ is up almost 10% at 11,320 after a trio of twelve-month lows in the mid 10,300’s, the latest of those lows just this week. Meanwhile it looks like the US Elections have delivered both gridlock and a rebuff for Trump, which some see as a perfect mix.

Today’s post title is derived from Rudyard Kipling at his most sanguine and reflective.

I HAVE FLUNG YOUR STOUTEST STEAMERS TO ROOST

The true horror of the tech wreck has also been concealed for UK investors, by the climb in the dollar, a move that seems to be going into reverse. In terms of closing prices sterling has rallied hard from 1.08 to 1.18 in a little over a month. This has left the NASDAQ collapse, from touching 16,000 - brutally exposed, now without much of the concealing currency appreciation.

Where is the Nasdaq headed?

We suspect that the NASDAQ is heading lower still, but accept that is a big call.

Nasdaq over the year January to Mid november 2022

From this page on Tradingeconomics

It remains a crowded space for a lot of unprofitable companies to jostle, as they build market share. This disguises the possibility that in some spaces, even owning the entire market will still be loss making.

However, market sentiment has perhaps turned, the tech rubbish generally got chucked out early. The subsequent switching out of the tech majors probably had to be into Treasuries, where their recent price rises suggest some demand, or into cash.

It remains a crowded space for a lot of unprofitable companies to jostle, as they build market share. This disguises the possibility that in some spaces, even owning the entire market will still be loss making. Bumping up against that is the second phase of the market collapse, as the multiples on profitable tech giants returned to earth.

And cash (and oddly apparently the S&P) has also been seeing inflows from China and crypto, as those areas have sold down hard. There is also the unpleasant negative impact of holding cash, on returns. Put this together with sentiment, and this may well help the NASDAQ bounce into the year end. However, many fund managers cite the dotcom bust as meaning this is now starting a multi-year sideways recovery phase, not a quick bounce at all.

LONG BACKED BREAKERS CROON

A concurrent look at Private Equity is important. NASDAQ multiples drive much of their values and are falling, and with such a recent twelve-month low, Q3 valuations (private equity valuations are always lagged) have further losses built in. And a sprinkling of those will now also be based on a significantly higher dollar too. That won’t be pretty either.

Plus, as we know there are some spectacular blow ups lurking in there, the insolvent FTX was a big investor in, and investee company for, some well-known PE names. Overall, despite solid reports, I am still expecting some fair-sized holes in quoted private equity, as either the NASDAQ rises and the dollar falls, causing currency losses, or the NASDAQ falls and the dollar rises and the one again masks the other.

Access to distress financing, has it seems largely vanished, as it does at times like this, making the chance of highly damaging wipe outs, not just down rounds, much greater.  

A possible dollar sterling parity?

But those talking of dollar sterling parity are surely way off now. So, regardless of future disasters, I want more information before seeing UK Quoted Private Equity Investment Trusts as a buy. About six months after the NASDAQ bottom, will be a good valuation point, and that likely means Q3 2023. At that point we will know what the current large discounts really refer to; I don’t expect them to look anything like as generous.

THE UK - UNDER A SHRIEKING SKY

There is a lot of market optimism about the next UK budget, based on Hunt being really nasty. That may overstate his hand, as the Government has long abandoned reform, it can only support out of control spending by harsh tax rises, which will certainly kill jobs, but probably the wrong ones.

Nor can it do much to enhance investment and has foresworn labour market reforms, so both of those, with existing policies and more rate rises, must encourage the persistence of poor productivity.

Although of course the real budget numbers will be barely mentioned; energy, rate rises, and inflation are largely out of Hunt’s hands. He is lucky all three do look a lot better than when he was installed. So, the need for harsh medicine is rather reduced, and may even disappoint.

But just as the rally helped US risk assets, so it helped others, like property, come off a deeply oversold floor. TR Property Investment Trust has jumped 30% in a month, for example, and still yields over 4%.

Post Mid-term elections for the US

And coming full circle, although slowing inflation took a lot of the credit, at least some of the post Mid Term bounce came from realising that the Federal Reserve now has an ally in the legislature. It can be less vigorous in steering the economy, just relying on the brake pedal, as Biden and Congress are no longer able to simultaneously hammer the accelerator.

Overall, however we still remain cautious, we expect this pre-Christmas rally to fade, rate rises to persist into at least Q2 2023 and rate cuts to be a 2024 feature. And peak gloom lies ahead as those rate rises conclude and then start to actually bite.

Looking ahead

In general markets have had a solid look at the worst case this year, from famine to invasion and nuclear war, to out-of-control Central Banks and deluded politicians, and nothing terribly dramatic has transpired. So even with bad things still happening, we don’t see a repeat of this year’s dramatic falls either. 

Charles Gillams

  

  • The Kipling Society meets on November 16th, at the Royal Overseas League. 

The Turn of the Screw

So, we have Truss now. The continuity candidate, not the dull man who would take away our sweeties. But also, the same old Fed, keen to do just that. And its time we took a look at Starmer, the other continuity candidate and an excellent book on him; required reading for serious investors.

Otherwise, it is always a good summer when nothing changes. Markets swoop and soar vainly trying to catch our attention, but the reality remains that rates have to rise enough to destroy the excess demand that causes inflation. And they have to rise to equal or surpass that level, eye-watering as that prospect is. It will not be over until the US jobs report goes negative, and stays negative; anything less is prolonging the pain.   

Presentation over substance

But this is a time of intensely political Central Banks, headed up by people without a grounding in economics, but a lot of “presentation skills”. They will be dragged kicking and screaming and smiling to do what they should have done last year, hoping vainly for some supply side reform or windfall to help out. But largely still facing the exact opposite, populists who think subsidies “cure” or ameliorate inflation.

Markets are oddly buoyant; they get like this at times, but we see that as a mix of delusion, the self-reinforcing strength of the dollar (be very careful of that one, it is a new bubble) and the spluttering remnants of buying on the dip.

But be under no illusion, Central Banks trying to guess where the economy is going is like fly fishing with a jar of marmite. Entertaining, but highly unlikely to catch anything.

Truss: Issues and options

Truss meanwhile looks like a re-run of Boris; it won’t be quite that simple, but it looks like more style over substance, a different set of lobbyists, but nothing really changing. The idea either she or the EU can afford a bust up with the UK, just shows how silly markets can get.

Some of her programme may make sense, both the NI (tax) rises, and the corporation tax increases were badly timed and should be reversed, given inflation is doing the hard work already through fiscal drag (or frozen tax thresholds).

The rises were proposed when we were exiting the COVID crisis, but before we understood the energy one. We said so the last time we wrote to you.

Ditching a few Treasury backed white elephants (HS2, Freeports, the crazy fiddling fetish on capital allowances) would do no harm either, but overall, the market’s verdict is clear: fiscal responsibility is still a long way out. We can all see how sterling has collapsed against the dollar; it is less clear why it has fallen against the Indian Rupee or the Chinese Yuan.

Source: See this website for all the daily data.

A book to read for all investors

So to Starmer, the likely next UK prime minister, where we need to pay more attention. Both on his  mindset and on why the Labour Party hates him so much. Which in turn explains why (and with the Tories fatal ideological split heading them into Opposition), he is so fixated on party control.

Oliver Eagleton writes very well. His recent book The Starmer Project looks at four episodes, his left wing legal start, his transformation into a Tory enforcer with a penchant for exporting judicial expertise to the colonies (don’t laugh), his alleged machinations to back the People’s Vote nonsense to bring Corbyn down (pretty dense stuff, even now) and his use as the Blairite stalking horse to put a stop to Corbyn’s chiliastic tendencies, (which also gives you a trigger warning about a light dusting of Marxist ideological claptrap).

So Starmer is all about what works, which would make a nice change.

We’re looking at a very global mindset, apparently quite a strong Atlanticist outlook, keen to work with European authorities, but aware that the Brexit boat has sailed. An interest in devolving power down, but keenly alert to the risk of anarchy that entails. Indecisive, a Labour Party outsider (on his first election in 2015, apparently his nomination had to be held back to ensure he had the minimum length of prior party membership). Starmer is not exactly collegiate, but he has run a Whitehall department (as Director of Public Prosecutions) so not a loose cannon.

Very London too, Southwark, Reigate, Guildhall School of Music (sic), Oxford for post grad law, Leeds as an undergraduate. So should at least know where the Red Wall was. But lest you relax too much, a total ignorance of economics or business, let alone how to create growth. It won’t be easy.

And what about Markets?

Well for a UK (or non US) investor you only had one question this year. If you ditched the local currency you made money, and if you held onto sterling you got hit. Our GBP MonograM model is doing fine, it got that one big call right: kind of all you need. If you are a dollar investor, outside of energy your best place was cash. And our USD model took longer to spot that shift. As for active investing, sadly pretty much the same, the dollar is the story, or dollar assets. All of which perhaps makes dollar earners in the UK look cheap still.

But for now we see the story as a currency one, and at heart that is just about the timing of tightening interest rate spreads. The widening of those spreads has caused the recent havoc.

So when (finally) the European and UK Central Banks abandon futile incrementalism and get the big stick out, that will call the turning point.

Charles Gillams


This is a collage of images illustrating the argument being made by Charles Gillams in his blog post 'every dog' that changes in the perception of Boris Johnson and Chinese policies should be noticed by professional investors

EVERY DOG

Boris seems slowly to be turning into the opposition to his own party, which I suppose is not new for him. Meanwhile China also seems to be hitting an identity crisis. Neither bodes well for investors.

We apparently have a real budget due soon, but this vain Prime Minister seems bent on upstaging his own team, so we had a pile of tax rises and changes to tax law bundled out in a haphazard fashion in response to the endless (and insatiable) demands of one ministry.

A likely collision course with natural Tories

That pretty well defines bad governance, and these ad hoc excursions into major spending plans are a hallmark of waste and short termism. So, to me the investor headline should be about planning ahead for the Tory government to either fail in front of an exhausted electorate, or less plausibly given the large majority, to implode. But have no doubt that No 10 and the mass of the Tory party are now set on a collision course.

The extraordinary extravagance of the blunt furlough scheme has always been the fiscal problem, and it is hard to believe, as many bosses are clamouring for new migration to solve multiple labour problems, largely in some measure of their own making, that the government has still parked up a fair chunk of two million workers, on pretty close to full pay.

I struggle to comprehend that number in a hot summer labour market, nor do I see why employers would cling onto staff until October at which point, presumably they take a decision? Are these ghost workers? Already happily in new jobs, but having done a deal with their bosses to split the loot, their fake pay for not being? Are these people HR have forgotten or are too scared to fire? Will they really try to pick up work they put down eighteen months back, in a largely different world and probably for a now quite alien organisation?

Who knows, but the whole thing cost £67 billion (so far) and that’s what Boris needs back. I challenge anyone to give a lucid explanation of how his latest proposal “fixes” social care for the elderly. Nor to explain how in parts of the country like this, with no state care home provision anyway, it can ever be called “fair”. So, to me, it is just bunce for the ever-gaping maw of the state, and the idea, with Boris in charge, that it will ever be temporary or even accounted for, is somewhat risible.

What would “fix” social care is transparent, autonomous, local provision, not bullied by a dozen state agencies, not run by money grubbing doctors, not harried by property developers and absurd land costs, nor daft HMRC grabs on stand-by staff pay, and it needs to be highly invested in simple technology, all IT integrated with the NHS; not this crippled, secretive, subscale mess.

It is not that there is no problem, but it is as much operational as financial. A recent Bank of England paper looking at wealth distribution highlights how in retirement property comes to both dominate assets and also shrinks far more slowly with age.

A chart showing average wealth by age group, to illustrate an argument in the article by Charles Gillams that we should look at who benefited from the furlough scheme.

(Sourced from this speech given at the London School of Economics, by Gertjan Vlieghe, member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.)

Of course, the crux here is seeing a family home as both an asset and an essential for life. That is the distortion, and this fiddling with care rules attacks the symptom, not the cause.

Can you trust a word he says?

So, now tax on income rises, a broken promise, employer tax rises, broken promise, the ‘triple lock’ on pensions is ditched, broken promise, and to top it off those working beyond normal retirement age (now 66) get a 25% tax penalty, via another broken promise. Oh, and if you are mug enough to save, then dividends will get hit too.

Again, there is a real problem but this is by no means a logical answer either: I guess the Treasury were applying heat on excess debt, and this is sand kicked back in their face, but it shows no sign of anyone solving anything. The UK has both high debt levels and no supportive currency block around it, sure France and Italy look bad, but they have Germany to help. The UK does not. Hence the anxiety.

So, Boris has had a fine Cameron-like bonfire of dozens of electoral promises; the worm turned on Cameron (and Clegg) when he couldn’t keep his word, and so it will turn on Boris. This time he won’t have Corbyn as the pantomime bete noir to bail him out. Indeed, Kier Starmer’s response linking this problem to inflated property prices is remarkably prescient, even if his typically confiscational solution is not.

These tax levels (as a % of GDP) have not been seen in fifty years, for an economy with a noticeably less effective grasp on government expenditure and a rather less globally competitive commercial base.

This is a clip from a published UK government source showing local tax increases anticipated in 2021-22

While tax rises are emerging everywhere (see below), and public service reform has become a simple money equation, need more service, spend more money, a dangerous one-way road.

Source: from this primary report

While notably, ‘buy to let’ is again left untouched. London house prices have doubled in this century, the FTSE 100 has moved from circa 6800 at its late 1999 peak to 7030 now and remains below pre-pandemic levels. So clearly this is not the time to hit the investors in jobs and business, who have had a 5% nominal gain (that is a 60% real loss) in twenty years and yet to leave the buy to let rentiers trading in second-hand hopes, with their 60% real gain in that time, untouched.

And don’t give us the dividends argument; the buy to let plutocrats get plenty of rent and all their sticky little service charges.  This measure simply hits the workers and investors in business and pampers the bureaucrats and the rentiers. It makes very little sense, unless you are a senior civil servant or a retired prime minister, like Blair, of course.

Chinese insularity - the new version

Meanwhile China I feel is now detaching itself from both the rule of international law (in so far as it ever bothered) and more interestingly the world financial system. It may indeed end up better off, but for now (and this is also a change from much of the last 50 years) it does not feel it needs to attract external capital.

So much of its trade and capital markets engagement has been predicated on securing capital; this is an odd and novel twist. Although perhaps a logical response to the West, who rather than conserving capital as a scare resource, are immersing the world in torrents of surplus cash and inflation.

Much of China’s policy about their own global investment (so outside China) also used to have the same theme, driven by the desire for returns, influence and to hold their own export-based currency down.

But no more, it seems, and their inherent desire for autarchy, the hermit kingdom trope, has only been emphasized by Trump, WHO and the madness of the internet. It apparently wants to be the new Germany, (no longer the new USA), so it will be insular and conservative: cautious, not driven mad by debt and the baubles it procures.

Well, if true it will be different, whether it can really be done, without a wave of disruptive defaults is unclear, but don’t doubt the length of vision, so unlike our own government. While a theme of this century has also been where China leads, the rest must reluctantly follow.

Even a dog has its day, but for investors both the UK and China now feel significantly more canine than at the start of the summer.