Market Trends, WeWork, Cryptocurrencies, Passive Saturation

Last week was a remarkably one for my stock market portfolio. Share prices were up on almost all my holdings. This was no doubt sparked by good news from the USA – inflation seems to be under control with CPI falling to 7.7%, and the war in Ukraine is looking up as Russia withdrew from the west bank of the Dnipro River. Stalemate in the latter war is looking increasingly likely which may encourage both Russia and Ukraine to reach some accommodation.

I also get the impression that stocks were being bought back in a panic after previous sales as they fell sharply in previous months. This particularly affected less liquid small cap and AIM stocks.

But this is surely only temporary relief from the gloomy economic prognostications. Interest rates in the UK still need to rise further as inflation is still high and real interest rates still negative. Political stability may help over the next few months but it looks like we are all going to be significantly poorer from aggressive tax rises. This will not help the UK economy one bit.

I watched an interesting TV documentary on WeWork yesterday. WeWork was essentially a company that rented out office desk space, i.e. it was a property company but ended up being valued as a high flying technology business valued at a peak $47 billion before it crashed. Led by Adam Neumann as CEO in a messianic style it developed into a cult which became further and further detached from reality. As profits were non-existent they redefined the word profit.

It’s a great example of how investors can be suckered into backing dubious companies led by glib promoters simply due to FOMO (fear of missing out). There is a good book on this subject entitled “The Cult of We: WeWork and the Great Start-Up Delusion” which I have ordered and may review at a later date.

Cryptocurrency exchange FTX became bankrupt last week. At the end it looked like a typical “run on a bank” as folks rushed to take their money out. FTX reportedly had less than $1bn in easily sellable assets against $9bn in liabilities before it went bankrupt. This has also affected other cryptocurrencies as traders take their money off the table.

Can cryptocurrencies survive? Only if backed by the state I would suggest. I am reading an interesting book – the Travels of Marco Polo which covers his time spent in the Mongol empire including China circa 1300. It describes how paper money was widely accepted in the Mongol empire which covered most of Asia at the time. But it was backed by gold or silver for which it could be exchanged. One advantage of their paper money was if you wanted a lower denomination note you could simply cut up a larger one. Paper currencies do rely on public confidence which is why state backing is so essential and also confidence that holdings are not going to be devalued by excessive printing of more money. Cryptocurrencies have tackled this issue in more than one way including the need for large power consumption to create new coins. But the whole structure still seems unsound to me.

An interesting article in the Investors Chronicle this week covered the subject of passive investing under the headline “Passive Saturation”. There has been concern expressed for some time that a high proportion of the stock market is held by index tracking funds that simply follow the herd. This might magnify trends and not relate to the reality of fundamentals in the companies they buy and sell. This was previously not thought to be a problem because the “passive percentage” of the market was estimated to be only 15%. But a new academic report suggests the real figure is more like 38%.

A very high passive percentage means that stock pickers can do well, and better than the indices as they ignore trends and look at the fundamental merits of companies. I prefer actively managed funds even if you do pay more for them in charges. Funds that rely solely on momentum may have done well historically but they are likely to exaggerate trends both up and down and the higher the percentage of the market held by passive funds, the more dangerous this becomes.

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

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How the World Really Works – Book Review

It is important for investors, and indeed for everyone, to understand what factors are driving the world’s economies. This is particularly so when there are concerns about global warming and the alleged degradation of the environment as the world’s population continues to increase.

A good primer on this subject is a recently published book by Prof. Vaclav Smil entitled “How the World Really Works”. The author covers wide ranging topics from energy supply to food supply in a very analytic way based on established facts rather than polemics which he criticises as being far too common in the modern world.

His chapter on food production is particularly interesting and he shows how we now manage to feed 8 billion people reasonably well which would have been inconceivable 100 years ago. How do we do it? By using energy supplied mostly from fossil fuels to create fertilizers and by manufacturing farm machinery and road/rail/shipping transport to distribute the products efficiently. The author points out that if we reverted to solely “organic” farming methods we would be lucky to feed half the world’s population.

He covers the supply of key products such as steel, plastics and cement which are essential for our modern standard of living and how they are not only energy intensive in production but that there are few alternatives. He clearly supports the view that the climate is being affected by man’s activities but points out that the changing of energy production, food  production and the production of key products cannot be easily achieved. Certainly it will be difficult to achieve that in the timescales demanded by European politicians when the major carbon emitters of China, India, USA, and Russia are moving so slowly.

Meanwhile any forecasts of the use of oil declining or reserves running out should be treated with scepticism as the price of oil reaches a 7 year high of $95 per barrel. Perhaps investors in oil companies (I hold none) should not be too keen to exit the sector rapidly particularly as the book teaches you that forecasts of economic activity are notoriously difficult.

The author looks at the risks in the future for the world, many of which are uncertain. He mentions the risk of a big “Carrington event” – a geomagnetic storm occurring today would cause widespread electrical disruptions, blackouts, and damage due to extended outages of the electrical grid. If that is not enough to scare you he suggests that another pandemic similar to Covid-19 is very likely as such epidemics have happened about every 20 years in the past and might be more virulent in future. But planning for such events, which were historically well known, was minimal and continues to be so.

He does not propose solutions to global warming other than that we do have many tools to enable us to adapt and cope with the issue. For example, farming could be made more efficient and wasted food reduced. Electrification of vehicles might help in a minor way and he is particularly critical of the increase in the use of SUVs in the last 20 years which has been particularly damaging (I cannot but agree with him on that point). But this is not a book containing simple remedies to the world’s problems. It is more one that gives you an understanding of how we got to where we are now and where we might be going.

For example, the use of coal in energy generation can be much reduced, and oil/gas also to some extent. Nuclear fission is a good source of clean energy and fission is a possibility even if he was not aware of the latest announcements on the latter. But it is inconceivable that there will be short-term revolutions in energy supply.

Altogether the book is worth reading just to get an understanding of how the world currently works – as the book’s title suggests.

Incidentally some of the events covered in How the World Really Works are also discussed in my own recently published book entitled “A Journal of the Coronavirus Year” which covers not just the recent pandemic but the changes that have happened in the last 75 years of my lifetime. It’s now available from Amazon – see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Journal-Coronavirus-Year-2020-2021-Biographical/dp/0954539648/ for more information.

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

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New Book Published – A Journal of the Coronavirus Year

This is a war story, but it is not a story of heroic deeds. It is how an ordinary family faced the Covid-19 epidemic that killed millions of people in 2020 and 2021. The battles were fought in hospitals and other medical facilities but the fear of infection spread panic among the population and Governments took aggressive steps, often misguided, to try and control the pandemic.

This journal was commenced in March 2020 after the Government advised the author to stay at home and not associate with anyone at all as he came into the category of someone who was especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. It provides an interesting record of events in the following eighteen months as recorded at the time, and his reactions to them, in what was a particularly historic period in more than one way.

It focuses to some extent on the impacts on the stock market and the economy in which the author had a particular interest as an active private investor, but also covers how his family and others survived the epidemic and the way life changed as a result for many people. And it gives some insights in how the author became an active and successful investor by adding some biographical notes including the successes and failures in his life in the last 70 years and other events that will be of interest to readers.

For more information and to purchase a copy go to: https://www.roliscon.com/journal-coronavirus-year.html

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

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