Frying in Hell and Investing in Oil Companies

Last night and this morning, the national media were dominated by the news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we are all going to fry in a rapidly rising world temperature unless we change our ways. CO2 emissions continue to rise and even to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires unprecedented changes to many aspects of our lives.

The suggested solutions are changes to transport to cut emissions, e.g. electric cars, eating less meat, growing more trees, ceasing the use of gas for heating and other major revolutions in the way we live.

So one question for investors is should we divest ourselves of holdings in fossil fuel companies? Not many UK investors hold shares in coal mines – the best time to invest in coal was in the 18th and 19th century. That industry is undoubtedly in decline in many countries although some like China have seen increased coal production where it is still financially competitive. See https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels for some data on trends.

But I thought I would take a look at a couple of the world’s largest oil companies – BP and Shell. How have they been doing of late? Looking at the last 5 years financial figures and taking an average of the Return on Assets reported by Stockopedia, the figures are 2.86% per annum for Shell and 0.06% per annum for BP – the latter being hit by the Gulf oil spill disaster of course. They bounce up and down over the years based on the price of oil, but are these figures ones that would encourage you to purchase shares in these businesses? The answer is surely no.

The figures are the result of oil exploration and production becoming more difficult, and in the case of BP, having to take more risks to exploit difficult to access reserves. It does not seem to me that those trends are likely to change.

Even if politicians ignore the call to cut CO2 emissions, which I suspect they will ultimately not do, for investors there are surely better propositions to look at. Even electric cars look more attractive as investments although buying shares in Tesla might be a tricky one, even if buying their cars might be justified. Personally, I prefer to invest in companies that generate a return on capital of more than 15% per annum, so I won’t be investing in oil companies anytime soon.

But one aspect that totally baffles me about the global warming scare is why the scientists and politicians ignore the underlying issue. Namely that there are too many people emitting too much air pollution. The level of CO2 and other atmospheric emissions are directly related to the number of people in this world. More people generate more demand for travel, consume more food, require more heating and lighting and require more infrastructure to house them (construction generates a lot of emissions alone). But there are no calls to cut population or even reduce its growth. Why does everyone shy away from this simple solution to the problem?

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Royal Bank of Scotland on BBC2

Some readers may have watched the BBC2 programme on Tuesday about the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). It showed the hubris of Fred Goodwin – suites at the Ritz, private jets and a new headquarters opened by the Queen in which he had an enormous office. But when I posted a brief comment on the Stockopedia blog to the effect that the bail out had political overtones, it got some criticism. Indeed to my mind the programme seemed to suggest that Alistair Darling and Mervyn King were heroes who rescued the bank, and the country, from financial disaster and there was no contrary opinion on the merits of what they did.

So here’s some more explanation of the problems of RBS and how they should have been tackled.

RBS certainly was acting aggressively before the crash in 2008. It had one of the lowest capital asset ratios of any bank and then proceeded to acquire ABN-AMRO after competing with Barclays in a bidding war. RBS seemed to expect the profits from ABN-AMRO to improve its cash flow. Although it’s not easy to see the cash flows in banks, they can run out of cash particularly when loans they have borrowed become due for repayment.

One needs to understand that all banks operate on a knife edge – they have massive liabilities backed by massive assets, with only a thin slice of shareholders equity in the middle. So you will find in the December 2008 balance sheet of RBS that it had assets of £2,401,652 million, liabilities of £2,321,154 million and shareholders’ equity of only £80,498 million.

When the financial crisis arose as a result of the realisation that the US sub-prime mortgage market was heading for a fall, liquidity in the bank loan market disappeared. That is what caused the crash at Northern Rock – see: https://roliscon.blog/2017/09/02/northern-rock-10-years-after-collapse/ for past comments on that. Northern Rock was not balance sheet insolvent which would have triggered administration, it was cash flow insolvent. It just ran out of cash because folks were withdrawing cash from the bank and it could not refinance the short-term loans it had taken out in the money markets. Similar problems caused the collapse of Lehman Bros and Bradford & Bingley and the former had world-wide repercussions. The whole world was suffering a banking liquidity crisis.

There were of course subsequent steps taken to tighten up on the bank asset ratios which meant they had to raise more capital. That put many banks into an even more difficult situation. There also was a growing realisation that many banks had assets on their balance sheet that were questionable in value, i.e. debts might not be repaid but they had not been written down because of defective accounting standards (see more in today’s FT on that subject).

In addition the UK Government made the mistake of nationalising Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley which told any international investor of equity, or even debt, into UK banks that they had no real security. The Government could prejudice their investment using the new legislation that was introduced, at the drop of a hat.

As the BBC programme described, there came a day when RBS had to tell the Governor of the Bank of England that they would run out of cash in a few hours. The collapse of RBS would certainly have undermined the whole UK banking system with other banks also crashing as they had outstanding loans to RBS. The Government’s answer was to launch a massive “recapitalisation” of RBS and other banks via forcing then to sell equity stakes in return for cash. They were given no option but to accept overnight. This effectively meant a nationalisation of RBS because they acquired control of it, along with major stakes in other banks.

Was there a different way they could have taken? Banks frequently run out of cash because of the narrow equity they hold. They can go for years without a hiccup, paying out good returns to shareholders in the meantime, until minor events disrupt this idyll. But the Bank of England can always provide loans to relieve the cash flow pressure if nobody else will. The Bank can of course effectively print money if necessary to do that. RBS did of course undertake a massive rights issue (the largest ever) to strengthen its balance sheet but that was not sufficient. Could they have got by with funding from the Bank of England when the crunch came? I suggest they might. I suggest the prime reason for the approach that was taken was the desire of the Labour Government (headed by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling) to take control of the banking sector.

In reality other countries tackled their similar problems in different ways. But the UK was the most severely hit by the financial crisis. It was of course not just RBS that had exposure to US sub-prime mortgages. Other major world banks had similar difficulties. But the approach taken in the UK destroyed confidence in the UK financial sector in very short order.

That does not of course make any excuse for the mismanagement of RBS by Fred Goodwin and the general incompetence of the board of RBS in the critical period. But it is all too easy to lay the blame for the UK banking crisis on one individual – it’s called “personification”. But there were no heroes either.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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The Impact on Investors of the Labour Party’s Plans

I commented briefly yesterday on the plans by John McDonnell of the Labour Party to give employees shares and possible future nationalisations – see: https://roliscon.blog/2018/09/24/labours-plans-for-confiscation-of-shares-and-rail-system-renationalisation/

More information is now available on the share scheme and the more one studies it the more one realises that whoever devised it does not understand much about business and the stock market. In other words they were typical politicians with no experience of the real world I would guess.

The scheme would apparently operate by companies with more than 250 employees being forced to hand over 10% of the shares in a company to an employee trust fund. That would be over a period of time – possibly ten years – and presumably that would be by the issuance of new shares rather than confiscating existing shares, but it still means 10% dilution for investors.

Shareholders normally get a vote on the issuance of new shares but presumably that could be legally subverted. Otherwise the scheme would cover about 11 million employees. However, foreign owned companies would not be covered so that excludes perhaps a third of the employees (the Labour Party apparently admits they would not be and it is difficult to see how legally any such law could be enforced on them).

One simple way for companies to avoid the scheme would be to move their country of registration elsewhere – no need to change where their shares are listed, just move domicile. We could see a host of companies re-registering in such places as Panama! An unintended consequence that I am sure the Labour Party would not like.

The shares accumulated in the trust fund would pay dividends to the individual shareholders out of the dividends paid to the fund by the company. But there would be a cap of £500 per employee. Any amount payable above that cap would revert to the Government. It is estimated this might generate £2 billion a year to the Government after 5 years – another large tax hike in addition to proposed increases in Corporation Tax the Shadow Chancellor is promising.

Employees could not buy or sell the shares held on their behalf, so presumably could not take them away when they leave or retire. So in practice those companies with high staff turnover would see the dividends accumulating for the benefit of the Government, particularly if the £500 cap remain fixed, i.e. unindexed.

But the company could avoid paying out this windfall to the Government simply by not paying dividends. Many companies don’t pay dividends anyway. Alternatively they could pay a dividend in shares (a “scrip” dividend), or offer to buy back shares occasionally via a tender offer or market share buy-backs– these would not be dividends and hence would be excluded.

Another problem with the scheme is that companies who had a few less than 250 employees could decide not to expand and hence become subject to this scheme, i.e. this would discourage companies from growing which is not what the Government wants. Alternatively they could create new separate companies owned by the same shareholders to expand their business and avoid it that way.

Apart from the 10% dilution that will hit not just direct investors but those investing via pension schemes, you can see that this scheme is not just daft because of its unintended consequences and likely avoidance, it’s an insidious way to raise taxes on companies and investors very substantially.

The only good aspect of the scheme is that it would help to give employees a stake (albeit indirect) and hence interest in the company they work for. It might also ensure some representation of their interests because the trust fund would be controlled by employees and could vote the shares. But there are much better ways to provide both those benefits.

In conclusion, the idea of an employee trust fund sounds attractive at first glance but it has not been properly thought through. A lot more consideration needs to be given to come up with a workable scheme that does not prejudice companies and their investors. Any foreign investor who saw such a scheme being imposed on his UK investment holdings would promptly run a mile – and don’t forget that most of the UK stock market is now owned by foreign investors. The impact on the Uk stock market, and the economic consequences of investors taking their businesses and investment money elsewhere beggars belief.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Lehman Collapse, Labour’s Employment Plans, Audit Reform Ideas and Oxford Biomedica

There was a highly amusing article in today’s FT by their journalist John Gapper explaining how he caused the financial crisis in 2008 by encouraging Hank Paulson, US Treasury Secretary, to resist the temptation to rescue Lehman Brothers. So now we know the culprit. Even more amusing was the report on the previous day that the administrators (PWC) of the UK subsidiary of Lehman expect to be left with a surplus of £5 billion. All the creditors are being paid in full.

Why did Lehman UK go bust then? They simply ran out of cash, i.e. they were cash flow insolvent at the time and could not settle payments of £3bn due on the day after their US parent collapsed. Just like Northern Rock where the assets were always more than the liabilities as also has been subsequently proven to be the case.

Perhaps it’s less amusing to some of the creditors of Lehman UK because many sold their claims at very large discounts to third parties rather than wait. Those that held on have been paid not just their debts but interest as well. So the moral is “don’t panic”.

Lehman’s administration is in some ways similar to the recent Beaufort case. Both done under special administration rules and requiring court hearings to sort out the mess. PWC were administrators for both and for Lehman’s are likely to collect fees of £1billion while employing 500 staff on the project. It may yet take another 10 ten years to finally wind up. Extraordinary events and extraordinary sums of money involved.

An editorial in the FT today supported reform of employment legislation as advocated by Labour’s John McDonnell recently. He proposed tackling the insecurity of the gig economy by giving normal employment rights to workers. I must say I agree with the FT editor and Mr McDonnell in that I consider that workers do have some rights that should be protected and the pendulum has swung too far towards a laissez-faire environment. This plays into the hands of socialists and those who wish to cause social unrest. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested the gig economy was a “reincarnation of an ancient evil” and that it meant many companies don’t pay a living wage so employees rely on state welfare payments. A flexible workforce may give the country and some companies a competitive advantage but it takes away the security and dignity of employment if taken to extremes. The Conservative Government needs to tackle this problem if they wish to be certain of getting re-elected. If you have views on this debate, please add your comments to this blog.

Mr McDonnell also promoted the idea of paying a proportion of a company’s profits to employees – effectively giving them a share in the dividends paid out. That may be more controversial, particularly among shareholders. But I do not see that is daft either so long as it is not taken to extremes. After all some companies have done that already. For example I believe Boots the Chemists paid staff a bonus out of profits even when a public company.

Another revolutionary idea came from audit firm Grant Thornton. They suggest audit contracts should be awarded by a public body rather than by companies. This they propose would improve audit standards and potentially break the hold of the big four audit firms. I can see a few practical problems with this. What happens if companies don’t judge the quality of the work adequate. Could they veto reappointment for next year? Will companies be happy to pay the fees when they have no control over them. I don’t think nationalisation of the audit profession is a good idea in essence and there are better solutions to the recent audit problems that we have seen. But one Grant Thornton suggestion is worth taking up – namely that auditors should not be able to bid for advisory or consultancy work at the same company to which they provide audit services.

Oxford Biomedica (OXB) issued their interim results this morning (I hold the stock). They made a profit of £11.9 million on an EBITDA basis. OXB are in the gene/cell therapy market. What interests me is that there are some companies in that market, at the real cutting edge of biotechnology with revolutionary treatments for many diseases, that are suddenly making money or are about to do so. That’s often after years of losses. Horizon Discovery (HZD) which I also hold is another example. Investors Chronicle recently did a survey of similar such companies if you wish to research these businesses. It is clear that the long-hailed potential of cell and gene therapy is finally coming to fruition. I look forward with anticipation to having all my defective genes fixed but I suspect there will be other priorities in the short term particularly as the treatments can be enormously expensive at present.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Trump Impeachment and No Deal Brexit Planning

Donald Trump has suggested that if he was impeached the stock market would crash and everyone would become poorer. And make no mistake, if the US market crashes then so will other worldwide stock markets including the UK as there is a high correlation between international stock markets.

Is that likely if he was impeached? No it is not. Stock markets can be remarkably immune to political crises. Just look at the negligible impact of the turmoil in the UK as politicians debate Brexit and there is the major threat of a very left-wing Government. What moves stock markets is economic crises, not political ones. Changing the US head of state would have little impact on the US economy.

In any case, the chance of impeachment looks relatively low. Paying hush money to past contacts is not a crime unless campaign funds were misused which currently appears unproven.

In the short term there is perhaps more threat to the UK stock market from a “no deal” Brexit. Having had a quick read of the papers published yesterday by the Government on planning for such, I am not panicking (see https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/how-to-prepare-if-the-uk-leaves-the-eu-with-no-deal#money-and-tax ). The regulatory issues can be accommodated without too much difficulty. What concerns me more is that if customs facilities are not improved well in advance, we might have long queues of vehicles on the motorways here in Kent.

Meanwhile Chancellor Philip Hammond has been stirring the Brexit debate pot with a letter to the Treasury Select Committee which includes this statement: “This January provisional analysis estimated that in a no deal/WTO scenario GDP would be 7.7% lower (range 5.0%-10.3%) relative to a status quo baseline. This represents the potential expected static state around 15 years out from the exit point.”

Anyone who thinks they can forecast the economy so far as 15 years ahead is plain bonkers in my opinion. Economists don’t manage to accurately forecast the UK economy one year ahead let alone 15. Such long-range forecasts are always based on numerous assumptions, most of which are undermined by unforeseen events which have not been taken into account. The Chancellor also forecast that Government borrowing might increase by £80 billion a year because of the reduced GDP by 2033 unless spending or taxation was changed. All this looks like scaremongering to me of the worst kind.

I may favour doing a deal with the EU along the lines of Mrs May’s proposals to assist with trade, but having a no-deal Brexit does not scare me.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Lax Regulation (Globo, GRG) and Japanese Trust AGM

Globo was one of those AIM companies that turned out to be a complete fraud. Back in December 2015 the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) announced an investigation into the audits of the company by Grant Thornton (GT). Even the cash reported on the balance sheet in the consolidated accounts of the parent company proved to be non-existent (or had been stolen perhaps). I have previously complained about the slow progress and the lack of any information on this investigation.

But former shareholders need no longer hold their breath – the FRC have announced that they have dropped the investigation on the basis that there is no realistic prospect of a finding of “misconduct” by Grant Thornton UK. It would seem that GT relied on the audits of the subsidiary companies in Greece and elsewhere over which the UK authorities have no jurisdiction.

There may be on-going investigations by other bodies including a review of the activities of GT in Greece but this makes it appear that the chance of action is fading away. Not that shareholders were ever likely to recover their losses. It is disappointing that the FRC have not taken a tougher line on this matter as questions about the accounts of Globo were publicly raised a long time before it went bust, and I even spoke to some staff of Grant Thornton UK at a Globo meeting telling them they needed to examine their accounts carefully. One would have thought that they would have done a very thorough examination of the subsidiary audits, but it seems not so.

I was about to submit my comments on the Kingman “Review of the Financial Reporting Council” – all ten pages of it – but will now have to amend it to include more criticism. I’ll publish it on the Roliscon web site a.s.a.p.

Another example of regulatory inaction is the announcement that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) will not be doing anything about the past activities of the Global Restructuring Group (GRG) at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). After a review they found no evidence that RBS artificially distressed firms for their benefit (that’s not what the complainants say) although they did find inappropriate treatment of customers. But the FCA decided they could do nothing because some parts of the activities of GRG were unregulated and action against the senior management had little hope of success. So the perpetrators are off the hook.

I received an interesting newsletter from White & Case, one of the leading commercial law firms, which summarized the latest report from the FCA on their enforcement activities. It was headlined “FCA Enforcement – More cases, increased costs, fewer fines” which put the report in context. The number of “open cases” has doubled in two years while the number of staff has remained the same, i.e. more work but no more resources. Enforcement action has slowed down, probably for that reason, and fines have also dropped. Only 16 fines were imposed in the last year.

JPMorgan Japan Smaller Companies Trust

Yesterday I attended the AGM of JPMorgan Japan Smaller Companies Trust (JPS) which turned out to be a more interesting meeting than I anticipated. This is one of my Brexit hedges – pound falling means any overseas investment is likely to be a good one, and I always like small cap funds.

This trust has a good track record – NAV up 27.8%, 20.8% and 12.2% in the last three years so it is well ahead of its benchmark. Not knowing much about the Japanese market the presentation from the fund managers (via video from Japan) was particularly interesting. Equity markets in Japan have been buoyed by QE activities from the Bank of Japan – apparently they have not just been buying bonds but also equities in the stock market! But the economy is facing major structural challenges from an ageing and declining population. This was one slide they presented:

Japan's Structural Challenge

However, the managers are not too concerned because they ignore “macro” trends when investing anyway. They clearly think they can still achieve good results because of a focus on specific areas of the market, e.g. healthcare, employee benefits (staff are being paid more as they become in short supply), robot appliances, etc. Also corporate governance is improving, albeit slowly, which is of benefit to minority shareholders.

The other interesting issue that arose at this AGM was the proposed new dividend policy. They changed the Articles at the meeting to allow the company to pay dividends out of capital and also proposed a resolution to adopt a new dividend policy of 1% of assets per quarter, i.e. 4% dividend yield per annum when it was nil last year. This prompted a vigorous debate among shareholder attendees with complaints about it meaning shareholders will be paying more tax, often on unwanted dividends. The retiring Chairman, Alan Clifton, said the board had proposed this because they were advised that this would help to make the company’s shares more attractive to investors. The shares are currently on a persistent wide discount of about 11% and it was hoped this would close the discount. Also as most private shareholders now hold their shares in ISAs and SIPPs, there would be no tax impact on them. I pointed out direct shareholders could always sell a few shares if they wished to receive an “income” but there are obviously many small shareholders who do not understand this point or prefer to see a regular dividend payment. At least the above summarized the key points in the debate.

When it came to the show of hands vote on the resolution, it looked to me as though there were more votes AGAINST than FOR. The Chairman seemed to acknowledge this (I did not catch his exact words), but said that the proxy votes were overwhelmingly in favour. He then moved on to the other resolutions. I suggested he needed to call a poll, which of course nobody fancied because of the time required even though it would be legally the correct thing to do. So instead it was suggested that perhaps the count of hands was wrong so that vote was taken again – and narrowly passed this time. My rating as a trouble maker has no doubt risen further.

Anyway, I actually abstained on the vote on that resolution because I am in two minds on the benefit. As Alan Clifton pointed out, the impact of a similar change at International Biotechnology Trust (IBT) where he was also Chairman was very positive. My only comment to him was I thought 4% was a bit high. The board will no doubt review the impact in due course, but it seems likely that it will have a positive impact on the discount as the shares will immediately look more attractive to private investors.

In conclusion, what I expected to be a somewhat boring event turned out to be quite interesting. That is true of many AGMs. Japan might have more difficult “structural” challenges even than the UK, with or without Brexit. As regards the regulatory environment covered in the first part of this article I suggest the laws and regulations are too lax with too many loopholes. I think they need rewriting to be more focused on the customers or investors interests.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Hedging Against Brexit

As we edge towards an abrupt Brexit as agreement with the EU has turned into a game of chicken, it’s worth considering some options. Or as my M.P. Bob Neill said about divorce on Twitter “the current system of divorce creates unnecessary antagonism in an already difficult situation” (he was talking about personal divorce in the UK as head of the Justice Committee but our EU divorce is looking very similar – acrimony is the word for it).

Perhaps the Prime Minister will find a way through to a sensible settlement now she is reported to have personally taken charge of the matter. But as investors we should not rely on such a chance.

One solution is simply to move your share investments into companies that are listed overseas and do most of their business elsewhere than the UK. Don’t wish to buy overseas companies directly? Simply buy one of those “global” investment trusts or trusts focused on particular sectors – Europe, the USA, China, India, et al. Or ensure you invest in UK companies with large exposure to overseas markets other than the EU – there are lots of those.

One aspect that caught my attention this week was the suggestion that the UK should stockpile food and medicines to ensure there were no shortages. But taking food alone, fresh food does not generally keep for very long unless you have a refrigerated warehouse. Even then there are limits. As one supermarket chief was reported as saying in the FT today that it was “ridiculous” and showed “complete naivety”. The reason is simply that supermarkets and their suppliers operate “just in time” systems where deliveries often depend on overnight shipping of goods from Europe. Likewise car manufacturers and other engineering companies rely on complex supply chains that depend on the same “just in time” processes and very quick delivery times. There is a solution to this problem which is to store more items. Non-perishable goods can be stored for a very long time to provide a buffer to the flows of goods. One hedge tactic might therefore be to invest in warehousing companies – Segro and Tritax BigBox REITs come to mind (I own them), although Lex in the FT suggested today that “optimism is already baked in” to the share price of Segro after their interim results announcement. The share prices of those companies have been driven by the internet shopping boom where goods are held in warehouses rather than shops, and rapid delivery is essential. More warehouse demand caused by Brexit might add another wave of warehouse building and increase rents.

When it gets nearer the date next March for Brexit, perhaps we should be doing some personal hoarding of French cheese, Dutch salami and German sausages to guard against short-term supply chain disruptions, but I doubt I will be panicking. UK producers can gear up and many other suppliers in the rest of the world will suddenly find they are much more price competitive. Tariffs on imports of food from outside the EU can currently be very high (e.g. an average of 35% on dairy products which is why you don’t see much New Zealand or Canadian cheese in the shops lately – see https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/bns/BN213.pdf for details).

That does not mean of course that food will be much cheaper as the UK Government might impose some tariffs to protect our own farmers, but you can see that it is quite possible that the supply chains will rapidly adapt once we are outside the EU regime. But long haul supply lines will require more warehousing and more dock facilities.

Or our Government could take the Marie Antoinette approach to food shortages – “let them eat cake” she said, or “let them buy British products” instead perhaps. Was that not a past Government campaign which could be revived? Such “Buy British” campaigns ran in the 1960s and 1980s to inform my younger readers. I am of course joking because so far as I recall they had little public impact. They did not have any influence on the preference to buy German or Japanese cars, although many of the latter are now made in the UK. But in a new post-Brexit world we should expect some surprises and the need to change our habits.

One joker suggested we might need to eat more non-perishable food, i.e. tinned peaches rather than fresh. But that just shows that there are ways around every problem. If the current heat wave persists we will of course be able to grow our own peaches. But betting on the weather is as perverse as betting on the outcome of Brexit. All I know is that we are likely to survive it. Hedging your bets is the best approach.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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