What doesn’t sink me makes me stronger

First published on 20 December 2020

A strange old year winds down, with proof once more of the exceptional power of suggestion and the great strength of cohesion.

Tired Markets, Bullish Investors

So what now? Clearly markets are tired, we have the odd position that investors are almost universally bullish on next year, that fund managers report unusually low uninvested cash, and yet it still feels like there’s no great power behind the mainstream markets. Indeed, over much of the developed world after the November vaccine/Biden sudden jump in markets, not that much has happened overall, a slow grind higher at best.

We see that lull as temporary, reflecting the month or so of pain and uncertainty before the onset of spring. Yet if anything we ourselves also want a little more liquidity, driven in part, by our awareness that markets are always thin and unstable going into the year end, so we can see little to be gained by jumping in this week.

Typically positions for 2021 will be taken in mid-January, once we have a reasonable steer on how 2020 ended. Not that that matters greatly either, neither of the next two quarters (or indeed the last two) will be in any way normal, Q1 2021 will be heavily influenced by COVID, but 2021 Q2 will see it fade very fast in the sunlight. Lots of scope for extreme volatility in that switch around.

But then, why rush in?

A lot could still go wrong. We assume Brexit disputes are just typical posturing for the crowd, but given those involved, maybe that’s brave. We assume the vaccines will work, which is one of the key points in this whole saga. Indeed, almost everything has been conjecture and spin, with the virus seeming to come and go regardless of our frantic efforts and illusions. It has been barely possible to discern cause and effect for all our demented jumping about. However, the vaccine is going to be at last a single, vital, fixed data point.

By late January if we (and the markets) are right, the most vulnerable will have been given a 95% effective shot, excess mortality should tumble, indeed you should almost be able to watch the vaccine defences build week by week, as ICU’s empty. The rush to start vaccination, played far better by the UK (a rare event it is true) was all about getting the vulnerable sheltered before the very worst of the winter. In that case this epidemic is over, and the fearsome fangs will have been drawn in a few weeks. 

So, in that case, why dive in now, if waiting a short while answers that most fundamental question. Besides nearly everything looks too good to be true. Our own returns are clearly too good, typically they have been double figures for most managers, even our low volatility products are (depending of course on the next week) going to end up there, which is truly exceptional for a good year. For a year in which economic growth has been halted for so much of the time, it is downright amazing.

Overbought?

We have already (in the VT-GTRF) shifted into slightly higher risk areas, such as Listed Private Equity, where we see good value. But we are reluctant to go much deeper just yet. Every emerging market that feels half credible is already at a twelve month high, and frankly the data from those is even less reliable than ours. All the Wall Street overbought signals are flashing red. There is clearly too much speculative cash racing about looking for a home, be it DoorDash or those irrepressible SPACs.

Government debt is in an elegant swallow dive onto the zero axis, you are getting very little return to lend to some odd places.

So, we will enjoy some pensive digestion after the feast, if we are somehow wrong to the upside, we almost don’t care, what’s better than best? Being wrong to the downside, seems the graver error.

Echoes of the Weimar

We started with a quote from one of the trio of great Weimar philosophers; now there is a history to conjure with. In a year when democracy seemed set to topple, when there are indeed no facts only interpretations and when it became government policy globally to stoke up inflation to destroy the value of money and create negative interest rates, Weimar has many echoes. Throwing in its capture by a communist dictatorship and assault by ideological zealots, leading to near terminal decline, means comparisons just get too spooky.     

So, to leave you with one of the Weimar trio, as you head into whatever glee Boris has left with you, “Man muss noch Chaos in sich haben, um einen tanzenden Stern gebaren zu konnen”.

That is, we all need, in whatever we do, a bit of luck, inspiration or indeed plain chaos to pick up the inspiration to move on to better things.

We wish you well for Christmas and the New Year.

We will return to the fray on the 10th January, no wiser, but we will hopefully know more.

Charles Gillams