Chancellor’s Budget Speech – Positive for Business

I listened to Rishi Sunak’s budget speech today and here is a summary of some parts of it with some comments from me.

He said that £280 billion of support had been provided, but the damage to our economy despite this has been acute. However our response to the coronavirus epidemic is working. Employment support schemes are being extended and business rates holidays also. The OBR is now forecasting a swifter recovery but the economy won’t be back to normal until the middle of next year. Unemployment is expected to rise to 6.5% but that is less than previously forecast.

There will be another £65 billion of support for the economy when we have borrowed £355 billion this year which will be a record amount.

The stamp duty holiday is extended to September. That should please my oldest son as he is trying to move house at present and delays are happening in the chain because of local authorities not responding to inquiries. There will also be a new mortgage guarantee scheme which as Keir Starmer pointed out may simply encourage a rise in house prices – OK if you already have one but not otherwise. Fuel duty will be frozen as will beer, wine and spirit duties.

Now the bad news: personal allowance tax thresholds will be frozen at the end of the next tax year until April 2026. That effectively implies a rise in tax equivalent to inflation over that period. Inheritance tax thresholds will be maintained at their current levels until April 2026 and the adult ISA annual subscription limit for 2021-22 will remain unchanged at £20,000. There is no mention of changes to capital gains tax as widely rumoured and the pension Lifetime Allowance will be maintained at its current level of £1,073,100 until April 2026 when it really should be increased to match inflation (high earners already have problems with the current limit).

Corporation tax will rise to 25%, but there will be a taper for larger companies. Only 10% of companies will pay a higher rate. Comment: that will still be a competitive rate.

The Chancellor said we need an investment led recovery. Therefore for the next 2 years companies can reduce their tax bill by 130% of the cost of capital expenditure. This is the biggest business tax cut in history he claimed.

There will be a new UK infrastructure bank and a new handout for small businesses to fund IT investment and obtain management support (see https://helptogrow.campaign.gov.uk/ for details). He also mentioned a review of R&D tax reliefs which are quite generous at present. It is planned to cap the amount of SME payable R&D tax credit that a business can receive in any one year at £20,000 (plus three times the company’s total PAYE and NICs liability), but a review is also mentioned.

There are a number of hand-outs for greening of the economy, as one might expect, but there are also more hand-outs to protect jobs and to support Covid-19 vaccination roll-out and research projects.

The FCA will be consulting on Lord Hill’s review to encourage companies to list in UK markets.

There will be more Freeports with 8 locations already identified.

In summary, this budget should be good for business but small software companies may be concerned about the changes to R&D tax credits.

More details of the Chancellors speech here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/budget-2021-sets-path-for-recovery

Postscript: Reaction to yesterday’s budget was generally negative, but nobody likes higher taxes. The general view is that the Chancellor has just kicked the bucket down the road. More borrowing in the short term to finance the recovery and keep people in employment, but much higher taxes later. I think the budget is a reasonable attempt to keep the economy afloat and could have been a lot more damaging for business if he had taken a tougher line.

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

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Boom and Bust Book Review

Avoiding buying into the peak of booms and selling at the bottom of a bust is one of key skills of any investor. But what causes them? The recently published book entitled “Boom and Bust” by academics William Quinn and John D. Turner attempts to answer that question by a close analysis of historical market manias.

I found it a rather slow read to begin with but it proved to be a very thorough and interesting review of the subject. It covers bubbles through the ages such as the Mississippi and South Sea schemes back in the seventeen hundreds, through the railway and cycle manias plus Australian land boom of Victorian times to those in more living memory. That includes the Wall Street boom and 1929 crash, the Dot.com bubble of the 1990s and the sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2007/8.

The latter resulted in a world-wide financial crisis with particularly damaging effects in the USA and UK. Banks had to be bailed out and bank shareholders lost their lifetime savings. But the dot.com bubble had relatively minor impacts on the general economy.

I managed to sell a business and retire as a result of the dot.com bubble at the age of 50 because it was obvious that IT companies in general had become very highly valued. Software and internet businesses with no profits, even no sales, had valuations put on them that bore no relation to conventional valuations of businesses and forecasts of future profits were generally pie in the sky. One of the things the authors point out is that insiders generally benefit from booms while inexperienced retail investors and unwise speculators with little knowledge of an industry are often the losers.

How are bubbles caused? The authors identify three big factors which they call the “bubble triangle” – speculation, money/credit and marketability. The latter is very important. For example, houses owned by occupiers tend to be part of markets that are sluggish and not prone to volatility as buying and selling houses is a slow process. But when sub-prime mortgages were created a whole new market was brought into being where mortgages could be easily traded. At the same time, the finance for mortgages was made easier to obtain.

The latter was by driven by political decisions to encourage home ownership by easier credit and by the relaxation of regulations. Indeed it is obvious from reading the book that politicians are one of the major sources of booms. Governments can easily create booms, but they then have difficulty in controlling the excesses and managing the subsequent busts.

The Dot.com boom was partly driven by technological innovation that attracted the imagination of the public and investors. It might have contributed positively to the development of new technologies, new services and hence to the economy, but most companies launched in that era subsequently failed or proved to be poor investments in terms of return on capital invested. Amazon is one of the few success stories. As the book points out, market bubbles tend to disprove the theory that markets are efficient. It is clear that sometimes they become irrational.

There are particularly good chapters in the book on the Japanese land bubble in the 1980s and the development of China’s stock markets which may not be familiar to many readers.

The authors tackle the issue of whether bubbles can be predicted and to some extent they can. But a good understanding of all the factors that can contribute is essential for doing so. Media comments can contribute to the formation of bubbles by promoting companies or technologies but can also suppress bubbles if they make informed comments. But this is what the authors say on the Bitcoin bubble and the impact of social media and blogs: “The average investor was much more likely to encounter cranks, uninformed journalists repeating the misinformation of cranks, bitcoin holders trying to attract new investors to increase its price and advertisements for bitcoin trading platforms”. They also say: “Increasingly the nature of the news media is shifting in a direction that makes it very difficult for informed voices to be heard above the noise”.

Incidentally it’s worth reading an article by Phil Oakley in the latest issue of Investors Chronicle entitled “Tech companies still look good”. He tackles the issue of whether we are in another Dot.com era where technology companies are becoming over-valued. His conclusions are mixed. Some big established companies such as the FANGs have growing sales and profits and their share prices are not necessarily excessive. But some recent IPOs such as Airbnb look questionable. Tesla’s share price has rocketed up this year but one surely needs to ask an experienced motor industry professional whether the valuation makes sense or not.

The authors suggest that buying technology shares can be like a casino. Most of the bets will be losing ones but you may hit a jackpot. I would suggest you need to pay close attention to the business and its fundamentals when purchasing shares in such companies.

In conclusion the book “Boom and Bust” is well worth reading by investors, and essential reading for central bankers and politicians!

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

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Market Musings

The stock market seems to be positively benign at present, if not almost somnambulant. While certain sections of the economy have gone to hell in a handcart, the enthusiasm for technology stocks has not abated. My very diversified portfolio is up today at the time of writing by 0.4% helped by good news from Dotdigital (DOTD) today and a sudden enthusiasm for GB Group (GBG). Optimism about a more general recovery in the economy seems to be still prevalent.

It’s probably a good time to consider overall market trends with a view to adjusting portfolios for the future. It is very clear for example that the UK at least, if not the world, is heading for a “net zero” world, i.e. a world where we are not emitting any carbon which implies a very high reliance on electricity generated from wind, solar and hydroelectric sources.

Whether that can be achieved in reality, and in my lifetime, remains to be seen. Whether it is even rational, or economically justified, is also questionable. But now that the religion of zero carbon has caught on, I do not think it is wise for any individual investor to buck the trend. As with any investment fashion it’s best to jump on the bandwagon and as early as possible. So I hold no oil companies and few interests in coal miners, except where they are part of diversified mining companies who are also mining copper (essential for the new electrification) and steel (not easily replaced). But I have recently invested in “renewable infrastructure” investment companies of which there are several, and in funds that provide battery support and load smoothing systems. Wind farms and solar panels tend to generate intermittent electricity so there is a big demand for emergency sources of power.

There was a very good article by Bearbull in last weeks Investors Chronicle headlined “The Net Zero Perversion” on this subject. He commences by saying “It is surely the new paradigm – that economic recovery from the damage caused by the response to Covid-19 can only be achieved by a fundamental shift towards a zero-emissions future. This is stated as fact – that reducing greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2035 will be the powerhouse of economic growth – when, of course, it’s just a contention; much like the complementary one that investing in companies that are wonderfully compliant in meeting their economic, social and governance (ESG) commitments will bring excess investment returns”.

He goes on to say, after some other comments that must have enraged the uneducated environmental enthusiasts: “Yet there is plenty of evidence that the pursuit of net zero is brimming with unintended consequences, which is what you might expect from a movement driven by a weird mixture of idealism and greed”. He points out that rewiring our homes and expanding the grid to cope with the new electricity demand might cost £450 billion, i.e. £17,000 per household. Similarly the banning of the sale of new internal combustion powered vehicles from 2035 just causes the pollution generated from the manufacture of electric vehicle power systems and associated mining activities to happen elsewhere in the world. But overall emissions might not fall.

This fog of irrationality and attacks on personal mobility via vehicles using the Covid-19 epidemic as an excuse is now happening in several London boroughs, encouraged by central Government “guidance” and funding. Roads are being closed. In the Borough of Lewisham, adjacent to where I live, road closures have caused increased traffic congestion, more air pollution and gridlock on a regular basis. There is enormous opposition as the elderly and disabled rely on vehicles to a great degree while in the last 75 years we have become totally dependent on vehicles for the provision of services (latterly for our internet deliveries). Councillors in Lewisham think they are saving the world from global warming and air pollution that is dangerous to health when they won’t have any impact on overall CO2 emissions and there is scant evidence of any danger to health – people are living longer and there is no correlation between local borough air pollution and longevity in London. Air pollution from transport has been rapidly falling while other sources (many natural ones) are ignored. Lewisham and other boroughs have partially backed down after a popular revolt but local councillors still believe in their dogma. There is a Parliamentary E-Petition on this subject which is worth signing for those who think that the policy is misguided: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/552306

The Bearbull article concludes with this comment which matches my opinion: “All of which means investors should preserve their scepticism. But they should also recall their purpose in investing – to make money, not to go to war with the climate change movement, however ridiculous they may see some of its follies. Sure, as consumers they should see much of the pursuit of net zero for what it is – another charge on their net income. But as investors they should see it as an opportunity to join the momentum and, at the very least, to park some of their capital in a fashionable part of the market”.

When it comes to investment, markets can be irrational for a very long time. That is surely the situation we are currently seeing with stock markets kept buoyant by a flood of cheap money and there being nowhere else to stash it. With traditional industries and businesses in decline, most of the money is going into technology growth stocks or internet shopping driven businesses such as warehousing. That trend surely cannot continue forever. But in the meantime, following market trends is my approach as ever.

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

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On the Wealth of Nations

The stock market’s in the doldrums and August is coming up when everyone goes on holiday. But I would guess many of my readers will not be going far, or not at all. You may need some lightweight tome to read on your sofa or on the beach though, so here is a book I have just finished and can recommend.  

It’s called “On the Wealth of Nations” by P.J. O’Rourke. First published in 2007 and claiming to be a New York Times Bestseller, it’s a digest and analysis of that venerable book of the same title by Adam Smith which was published in 1776. I tried reading that book many years ago but found it heavy going. It’s long and in a somewhat archaic style but it was the foundation of much subsequent thought in economics. For anyone interested in the worlds of business and finance, it provides a primer on the division of labour, productivity, and free markets.

P.J. O’Rourke is a very unlikely person to take a stab at popularising Adam Smith’s book but he makes a very fine job of it. He is a comic writer and wit whose reporting on the war in Iraq and in motoring stories in such books as “Give War a Chance” and Holidays in Hell” are also worth reading.

O’Rourke relates much of Smith’s adages, aphorisms, epigrams, insights, observations, maxims, axioms, judicious perceptions and prejudiced opinions (which Smith produced in large numbers) to the modern world. Here’s one example: “The freedom of the market, though of uncertain fairness, is better than the shackles of government, where unfairness is perfectly certain”.

Smith lived before the rise of modern capitalism and the importance of the joint stock company. But he wisely had this to say (as O’Rourke quotes) that as the result of an immense capital divided among an immense number of proprietors [shareholders]:  “It was naturally to be expected therefore, that folly, negligence, and profusion should prevail in the whole management of their affairs”. That’s still true of many companies is it not?

O’Rourke relates two very amusing anecdotes about Smith and his absentmindedness. He is supposed to have gone out into the garden in his dressing gown and, lost in thought, wandered into the road. He walked to Dunfermline, fifteen miles away, before steeple bells broke his reverie and he realised he was wearing his robe and slippers in the midst of a crowd going to church.

At another time, deeply involved in conversation over breakfast, he put bread and butter and boiling water into a teapot and then pronounced it was the worst cup of tea he had ever had.

Some of the issues that Smith discussed in his book such as whether to support free trade or not, what are good taxes or bad taxes, and what level they should be at, are still the subject of topical debate.

In summary O’Rourke’s book is easy reading but still prompts much thought on the world of business, economics and politics.

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

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Economic Trends, Audit Quality and the Importance of Management

The news on the epidemic and its impact on financial news continues to be consistently bad. GDP rebounded in May to be up 1.8% but that’s a lot less than forecast. It fell 20.3% in April but as many businesses did not reopen until June perhaps the May figures are not that surprising.

Masks now have to be worn in shops. This will be enforced by the police with possible fines of £100. That will surely discourage some people from shopping on the High Streets.

The BBC ran a story today that said that scientists forecast a second wave of the virus in Winter with up to 120,000 deaths. But that is a “worse case” scenario. The claim is that the colder weather enables the virus to survive longer and with more people spending time indoors, it may spread more. I think this is being pessimistic but it’s certainly not having a positive effect on the stock market.

The London Evening Standard ran a lengthy and very negative article yesterday on the impact of the virus on London with a headline describing it as “an economic meltdown”. It suggested 50,000 jobs will go in the West End alone due to a decline in retail, tourism and hospitality sectors. Commuters are still reluctant to get on public transport – trains, underground or buses. In Canary Wharf only 7,000 of the 120,000 people who normally work there are at their desks it is reported. One problem apparently is that with numbers able to enter lifts being restricted it can take a very long time to get all the normal staff at work in high rise buildings. Hotels, clubs and casinos have been particularly hard hit with the extension of the Congestion Charge (a.k.a. tax) discouraging visits. 

Audit Quality

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) has confirmed what we probably already knew from the number of problems with company accounts – that audit quality has declined in the last year. Following reviews of audits by the major audit firms including PwC, Deloitte, EY, KPMG, BDO and Grant Thornton there were a number of criticisms made by the FRC. The firms PwC, KPMG and Grant Thornton were particularly singled out. The last firm was judged to require improvement in 45% of its audits.

We were promised a tougher stance from the FRC but it is clearly not having the required impact. Published accounts are still clearly not to be relied upon which is a great shame and undermines confidence in public companies.

There were a couple of interesting articles in last week’s Investors Chronicle (IC). One was on the investment approach of Harry Nimmo of Aberdeen Standard. He is quoted as saying: “We do measure prospective and future valuations – it’s not completely ignored. But it doesn’t lead our stock selection, and we don’t have price or valuation targets”. Perhaps he does not trust the accounts either? He does apparently screen for 13 factors though including some related to momentum and growth.

Management Competence

The other good article in IC was by Phil Oakley headlined “How important is management”. If you don’t trust the accounts of a company, it’s all the other factors that help you to judge the quality of a business and the prospects for long-term returns which are important. Phil says that “management does matter” but he thinks some investors overemphasise it’s importance.

How do you judge the quality of the management? One can of course look at the results in the financial numbers over past years but that can suffer from a major time lag. In addition management can change so past results may not be the result of work by the current CEO but their predecessor. This is what I said in one of my books: “Incompetent or inexperienced management can screw up a good business in no time at all, although the bigger the company, the less likely it is that one person will have an immediate impact. But Fred Goodwin allegedly managed to turn the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), at one time the largest bank in the world, into a basket case that required a major Government bail-out in just a few years”.

RBS was also a case where the company’s financial results were improved by increasing the risk profile of the business – the return on capital was improved but the capital base was eroded. Management can sometimes improve short term results to the disadvantage of the long-term health of the business.

Is it worth talking to management, say at AGMs or other opportunities? Some people think not because you can easily be misled by glib speakers. But I suggest it is so long as you ask the right questions and don’t let them talk solely about what they want to discuss. Even if you let them ramble, you can sometimes pick up useful tips on their approach to running the business. Are they concerned about their return on capital, or even know what it is, can be a good question for example. I recall one conversation with an AIM company CEO where he bragged about misleading the auditors of a previous company about the level of stock they held, or another case where a CEO disclosed he was suffering from a brain tumour which had not been disclosed to shareholders. Unfortunately in the current epidemic we only get Zoom conversations rather than private, off-the-record chats.

Talking to competitors of a business can tell you a lot, as is talking to former employees who frequently attend AGMs. Everything you learn can help to build up a picture of the personality and competence of the management, and the culture that they are building in the company. The articles being published on Wirecard and Boohoo in the last few days tell us a great deal about the problems in those companies but you could have figured them out earlier by some due diligence activity on the management.

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

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Oxford Tech VCT3 and other VCTs, and the Coronavirus Bandwagon

One of my shareholdings, Oxford Technology VCT3 (OTT), fell 44% this morning. Am I concerned? No because I have only ever held 10 shares in the company. I cannot even recall why I bought the shares back in 2014 but it was probably to keep an eye on their interest in unlisted Ixaris Group Holdings Ltd. That company was a major part of their portfolio and was still 65% of the net assets at the 29 February. It is also held by other VCTs. To quote from the ITT annual report, issued today, “For OT3 the initial Covid-19 pain has been most strongly felt by Ixaris, a travel payments company as a result of knock on impacts from Thomas Cook’s failure and a decline in Asian travel. Subsequent to our year end the downward pressure has increased on Ixaris with major airline disruption”. It also discloses that Ixaris received an offer during the financial year which would have meant a major exit at an uplifted price, but it collapsed at the last minute.

As a former director of Ixaris, and a very minor shareholder still, I was aware of this bad news. It looks like they are almost back at square one. That is the nature of early stage venture capital. Two steps forward and one step back, or vice versa in this case. I always took a sceptical view of the value put on Ixaris by OTT and other VCTs as I always considered it a highly risky investment.

OTT also wrote down Orthogem as it was sold for a nominal amount. This is what they said about that: “Although Orthogem had made significant technical progress with the launch of its putty product and appointment of international distributors, it was unable to raise sufficient funding to be able to continue to trade.  The OT VCTs were willing to continue supporting the company, especially given we believed the company was very close to commercial success, but the VCT rules governing the age of companies and the use to which any new funds can be applied prevented us from doing so”. VCT rules are now preventing some follow-on investments.

OTT also has a holding in listed Scancell (SCLP) which OTT says has had a moderate uplift after announcing the start of its research programme to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. They also say this: “Scancell is our third largest holding and had a disappointing year of regulatory and clinical delays in its flagship melanoma trial and its share price fell over the course of the year. Its planned Phase 2 combination trial with their initial product SCIB1 ran into difficulties with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) due to the delayed approval by the FDA of the upgraded delivery device from 3rd party Ichor. In the event, the trials started in the UK later than expected. Subsequently the required US approvals were received but a year has been lost and results will now be correspondingly delayed. Post period end the UK trial went on hold as a result of Covid-19 risks. Nevertheless good data from these trials could represent a significant value inflection point for Scancell and are eagerly awaited”.

There were big hopes for Scancell a few years ago but that has long since evaporated and revenue has remained at zero. It’s a typical story of early stage drug development companies which I avoid for that reason.

The Net Asset Value of OTT fell by 33% from the previous year-end, and hence the share price drop on what is a very illiquid share, like most VCTs. Normally VCTs are immune to general stock market fluctuations but not in the current recession. Some of my VCT holdings have fallen sharply no doubt because of downward valuations of some of their unlisted holdings but also because of sharp falls in many AIM shares which are a significant proportion of some VCT portfolios. This has also been compounded by the halt to share buy-backs in some VCTs – the result is just a few shareholders selling causing a sharp fall in their share prices.

Are their opportunities in VCT shares appearing, or should I be selling also? Perhaps is the answer, but VCT shares I consider to be very long-term holdings with a lot of the value coming from their tax-free dividends. I only tend to sell when I have lost confidence in the board or the investment manager.

As with the mention above of Scancell, almost all biotechnology companies are now trying to get into the coronavirus space by developing interests in vaccines, antibody tests and diagnostic products. Such an entry does wonders for the share prices. This ranges from the very largest companies such as Astrazeneca and Glaxosmithkline who are both gearing up for vaccine production to the smallest start-ups. One example announced today is that of Renalytix AI (RENX) who announced a joint venture with the Mount Sinai school of medicine to produce Covid-19 antibody test kits. RENX are focused on renal diseases which is why I picked up this news as I have an interest in this area but I do not hold the shares – historically no revenue to date. But RENX will only have a minority interest in the joint venture. I would not get too excited about this, particularly as it is possible that the epidemic will die out and there are lots of people producing test kits. But the company may be of interest otherwise as it does seem to be making some progress in renal diagnostics. There are 40-45,000 premature deaths in the UK every year due to kidney disease so you can see that it is comparable to the coronavirus epidemic and with still no effective treatments.

The coronavirus epidemic is clearly creating a bandwagon for companies to jump on. That can be a minefield for investors. Or to put it another way, an enormous amount of venture capital is being put into research of treatments and diagnostic production. It may produce results sooner or later, but a lot of the investment might produce nothing.

Lastly, it’s worth covering the dire economic gloom. Unemployment has reached record levels and Rolls-Royce (RR.) are making 9,000 employees redundant as new aero engine demand will clearly be non-existent for some time – maybe years.

To quote from the FT: “Rishi Sunak [Chancellor] has warned that the economy may not immediately bounce back from the corona-virus crisis and could suffer permanent scarring, as jobless claims soared at a record rate to more than 2 million. The chancellor struck a sombre note on a day that saw the biggest month-on-month increase in out of work benefits claims since records began in 1971. A further 10 million are now precariously relying on the state to pay their wages. He said ‘We are likely to face a severe recession, the likes of which we haven’t seen, and, of course, that will have an impact on employment’”.

Some of my readers may be facing redundancy or soon will be. Clearly we are living in exceptional times, but on a personal note it’s worth mentioning that I have been out of a job more than once in my past career. Recessions tend to only last a short time so the answer short-term is simply to take any job going. Longer term the answer is to ensure you can never be fired in future is to set up your own business. CEOs rarely fires themselves, and there is the possibility that a new business might make you rich. So that is what I did a few years later.

I don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs but from people who worked in big businesses. But it is easier than ever to start-up from scratch and redundancy pay can give you the initial capital required. Recessions don’t make it harder to start a new business but easier in some ways. As companies lay off full-time staff that gives opportunities for others, and any service or product that saves a company money can be immediately attractive. So redundancy just needs to be faced up to with some energy and initiative.

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

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Covid-19 Economic Impact and Was It All Based on Faulty Analysis?

Readers don’t need to be reminded on the damage being caused to the UK economy as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. Most of the damage has been caused by the “lock-down” that has closed whole swathes of UK business and industry. There can’t be many readers’ stock market portfolios which have not suffered as a result. The lock-down was all done based on the advice of Prof. Ferguson of Imperial College and a computer model that he used.

This is what Steve Baker, M.P. tweeted today: “Today, I read the Imperial College Covid-19 Code: https://github.com/mrc-ide/covid-sim . I then read this for a second time with growing horror: https://thecritic.co.uk/a-series-of-tubes/ . Software critical to the safety and prosperity of tens of millions of people has been hacked out, badly. It is a scandal.”

This is what I wrote yesterday in my diary (which I have kept since the start of the epidemic to make interesting reading for my offspring in future years):

“There has been a lot of controversy of late over the role of Professor Neil Ferguson in the epidemic crisis.  He is professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London and has been advising on the UK government’s response. His virus modelling led to the current lockdown being put in place. It seems his past forecasts of the impact of epidemics of other diseases have been wildly pessimistic. He has now resigned from the Government advisory body after ignoring the lock-down rules to meet a paramour.

But when people looked at the software code that he has been using to forecast epidemic spread, it seemed to be unreliable. It consisted of 15,000 lines of undocumented and unstructured code that allegedly gave different answers when run more than once. It very much appears to be a rather unprofessional approach to software development that one might expect from a scientist rather than an IT professional”.

I then covered my past career as a programmer and lamented the lack of professionalism in some parts of the world as regards software development, 40 years after I gave up programming. This is a good quotation from the Daily Mail on the latest fiasco: “David Richards, co-founder of British data technology company WANdisco said the model was a ‘buggy mess that looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming’. He also said: ‘In our commercial reality we would fire anyone for developing code like this and any business that relied on it to produce software for sale would likely go bust’.”

So now you know why we are all stuck at home and in such a financial mess.

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

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Why I Am Optimistic

The UK death count from the Covid-19 virus is now 25,785 and continues to grow, albeit at a slower rate. There is a lot of bad news about the economy still being reported – new car sales have fallen to the level last seen in 1946 and according to the Daily Telegraph the state is now paying more than half of all adults. The same dire economic picture is also seen in the USA and most other countries. But I am still optimistic for the following reasons.

Apart from being a naturally optimistic person, which is a required attribute for any entrepreneur, the medical scene is looking better for several reasons. Below is a chart issued by the Government today which shows the daily number of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Reported Covid19 Cases 2020-05-05

It is clear that the spread of the disease is falling rapidly and hence the “R” (reproduction) rate is probably less than 1. If the same conditions persist then the disease will gradually die out. Emergency “Nightingale” hospitals are already closing because of a lack of patients. With fewer new cases, the spread of the disease declines. Tracing of infected people and ensuring they are isolated, plus the new phone App to help identify contacts, are two ways the Government hopes will assist in this process. That’s ignoring the potential vaccines or medical treatments on which a lot of money is being expended worldwide at present. It has even been suggested that taking Vitamin D supplements might avoid the worst symptoms of the disease.

But the Government is concerned that if the “lock-down” restrictions are relaxed to enable people to get back to work then the virus may stage a resurgence and we will be back at square one.

Bearing in mind that the current very severe restrictions are causing enormous financial damage to the economy and costing the Government (and by implication, you and me) billions of pounds in paying the wages of furloughed staff and providing loans to companies, the question is how to make a rational decision on when to relax the restrictions and by how much. One way to look at this is how much you value a life. If you know what that value is then you can do some calculations to see what the cost might be and whether it is justified to relax the restrictions.

The Government already has that figure. For example, when calculating the benefit of road safety measures a figure of about £2 million is put on the benefit of saving one life. That is a somewhat optimistic figure though because it not just includes the cost of lost economic contribution and the cost of medical treatment but also what people say they would pay to avoid the loss of life, i.e. it’s a subjective figure to a large extent. However, it is a good starting point.

In the case of Covid-19 deaths, many of the cases are of the elderly or those with existing medical conditions who cost the state money rather than contribute. So the loss might be much less than £2 million from a Covid-19 death. Maintaining the existing strict lock-down might actually be causing some deaths from lack of attention to the early symptoms and treatment of some diseases such as cancer.

You can see therefore that it might make some sense to do some calculations on the impact of relaxing the restrictions to enable the majority of people to get back to work even if it means the deaths might increase. I won’t even attempt to do such a calculation but the Government should.

Those people who are particularly vulnerable could of course choose to continue to self-isolate but there is no reason to have a lot of the economy shut down. It would also be wise to have a phased relaxation of the restrictions so that meetings of people in confined spaces are still banned until the picture is clearer.

There would still be some sectors of the economy that will be severely affected. So restaurants other than those providing take-aways would need to remain closed and hotels be very restricted. Even if they opened they might have few customers. Airlines and trains would also suffer and it’s perhaps no surprise that Warren Buffett has sold all his shares in airlines. He had acquired stakes of about 10% in American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines in 2016 which rather surprises me as surely he used to say these were typically bad businesses. I would guess he lost a few billion dollars on that punt. It seems most people don’t expect airlines to recover for at least a couple of years and aircraft leasing companies are in major difficulties as are aircraft and engine producers such as Boeing and Rolls-Royce. Nobody will be buying new planes for a while.

But a lot of the economy can surely get back into action over the next few months if the Government makes some sensible decisions which is surely good news for investors – so long as you are selective about the companies you hold.

In conclusion the panic should be over. We are not all going to die from Covid-19 although a few of us might do so. But in comparison with the normal hazards of living it may not be significant. For example, about 6,000 deaths happen each year from accidents in the home which is many times the figure for accidents on our roads but little attention is paid to the former mainly because the cost of preventing them would be very high and they do not attract much public attention. Average UK deaths from common influenza are 17,000 but it can be as high as 30,000 in some years.

The Government just needs to take some rational economic decisions on lifting the restrictions.

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

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Bad News Rises as Market Does Also

Stock markets continue to rise when the economic news is generally bad. Is the market rise based on relief that it does not look like all our shares our going to become worthless, or relief that we have not yet caught the coronavirus personally? Although I know a few people who have – thankfully all recovering.

But companies continue to issue announcements of the kind that say “too early to tell the full impact” while reporting negative sales trends in the short term. Meanwhile the Bank of England is going to simply print money to finance government spending rather than raising debt in the gilt markets. If that is not a negative sign, I do not know what is.

A couple of companies are worth mentioning: 1) Speedy Hire (SDY), a company who rent out tools and equipment and hence are a good bellwether for the construction and maintenance sectors. They report “reduced activity levels” but they have “retained a substantial proportion of its revenues”. They are cutting costs, it is uncertain whether it will pay a final dividend in August and it “suspends all guidance until the position stabilises”. That does not sound very positive does it?

2) Diageo (DGE) also gave a trading update today. They give very little in the way of specifics about actual sales. They are reducing costs and are still paying the interim dividend this month, but have stopped the share buy-back programme. More information would have been helpful.

Those investors who rely on dividend income are being hard hit as many companies are cutting them out so as to protect their balance sheets due to the uncertainty of the economic impacts of the epidemic. Some of the big insurers are the latest to stop paying dividends and this has a very negative impact on their share prices as institutional investors who run income funds dump them for other shares. Private investors are probably doing the same.

But the really bad news yesterday, although not totally unexpected, was from NMC Health (NMC) who announced they expected to go into administration. The likely outcome for ordinary shareholders is zero. In normal times this would have been a headline story but almost all news is now being swamped by coronavirus stories.

NMC was valued at £2 billion when the shares were suspended but were worth four times that in 2018. So this will be one of the biggest stock market wipe outs in history, probably arising from some kind of financial fraud. I hope those responsible do not escape justice.

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

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Extreme Weather Events – Are They a Problem?

Before the national media became dominated by coronavirus news, the most common news story was about global warming and how it was causing extreme weather events such as fires, heatwaves, tropical storms and floods. Fires in Australia and floods in the UK were the headline stories in the past year.

As investors it is clearly something that you need to be informed about. Such natural catastrophes won’t just affect insurance companies but the economy overall if such events are becoming more common. But are they?  The following note has been recently published by Paul Biggs, an environmental scientist and writer on the subject.

It shows that media coverage of national disasters makes for good news stories but the comments on it by journalists and broadcasters are often inaccurate. We probably have a lot more to fear from global pandemics.

Abbreviations: IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, SREX: Special Report on Extreme Weather.

Weather Disaster Losses

Peer-reviewed science does not support any claim that disaster losses have been increasing due to climate change, man-made or otherwise (Reference 1).

Hurricanes and Tropical Cyclones

The detection and attribution in trends due to human-caused climate change in Tropical Cyclones, including Hurricanes, has NOT been achieved (1) (2).

Floods

UN IPCC AR5 concludes: “In summary there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus ‘low confidence’ regarding the sign of the trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale.” IPCC SREX authors helpfully conclude that “the problem of flood losses is mostly about what we do on or to the landscape and that will be the case for decades to come.” (1)

Tornadoes

IPCC SREX: “There is ‘low confidence’ in observed trends in phenomenon such as Tornadoes and Hail…the data are suggestive of an actual decline in Tornado incidence..” (1)

Droughts

IPCC/SREX: “There is ‘low confidence’ in detection and attribution in changes in drought over global land areas since the mid-20th century. (1)

Extreme Temperatures

High temperatures are not a big driver of disaster losses. The IPCC says that there is ‘medium confidence’ that globally the length and frequency of warm spells, including heat waves, has increased since the mid-20th century. The IPCC believes that it is ‘very likely’ that human influence has contributed to these changes, but this relies heavily on climate models that are unable to pin down the exact climate sensitivity to CO2. The extreme 6C model known as RCP8.5 is now generally regarded by more rational scientists as ‘implausible.’ The range is now effectively 1.5C to 3C, with recent published evidence supporting a sensitivity below 2C. (3)

(1) The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change: https://tinyurl.com/yx5kfyos

(2) New WMO Assessment of Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change, Lee et al 2020: https://tinyurl.com/wgqoxm6

(3) Climate sensitivity in the light of the latest energy imbalance evidence: https://tinyurl.com/sawhd28

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

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