Government Powers Ahead with Decarbonising Transport

An announcement from the Government yesterday spelled out the world’s first “greenprint” for decarbonising all modes of domestic transport by 2050.

Plans include a ban on the same of all new “polluting” road vehicles by 2040 and net zero aviation emissions by 2050. The former includes the phasing out of all petrol and diesel HGVs by 2040 – subject to consultation. Consultation will be very important because the practicality of HGVs that need to go long distances without repeated refuelling is important economically. LGVs can probably be electrified but HGVs need to use alternative fuels.

The 2050 commitment applies to aviation emissions and a consultation on that is also launched under the “Jet Zero” banner. It is clear that new technologies and aviation fuels need to be developed to achieve a major reduction in aviation emissions. Whether such changes to reach zero emissions are achievable is not at all clear and the cost, which might be very considerable, is not given.

Similarly, the costs of electrification of all rail transport is likely to be enormous as the UK lags far behind other European countries in that regard. Less than 50% of the UK rail network is currently electrified. For example the cost of electrifying the Great Western mainline to Cardiff was estimated at £2.8 billion.

The Daily Telegraph has speculated on a new system of road pricing to replace the £30 billion currently raised through taxes on petrol and diesel. But the latest Government announcement leaves out any mention of how that issue is to be tackled.

As with all good political missives, the Government document contains lots of fine words about how the environment will be improved while not inhibiting us from travelling when or where we want (for example, taking holiday flights). It’s a policy statement in essence that leaves out all the detail of how this nirvana is to be achieved and at what cost. It ignores a lot of the practical difficulties. But it’s worth reading to get an impression of what might happen in the next few years.

Where is the cost/benefit analysis that justifies this revolution in transport modes? It’s nowhere to be seen. It’s as if the Government has signed up to the global warming religion so as to save humanity while ignoring the fact that reductions in UK emissions, particularly those that are only transport related, will have very little impact on worldwide emissions. The UK generates about 1% of global emissions while transport related emissions are an even smaller proportion. The UK appears to aiming to be a saint among sinners which may make us feel good but may make us economically poor.

What are the implications for investors? It’s clear that many billions of pounds will be spent by the Government to achieve this new world. But there is one simple message to take on board. The UK will be impoverished in comparison with countries that have not become quite so committed to the new religion. So investment in China, India, even the USA, in fact anywhere except the UK and the rest of Europe, might make more sense.

Government GreenPrint Paper: https://tinyurl.com/8ymtap38

Telegraph Article on “Road Toll Confusion”: https://tinyurl.com/edxxh4rp

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

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Collecting Your Personal Health Data – Should You Object?

There seems to be quite a furore developing over the plans by the NHS to make your personal medical data available for research to a wide range of organisations, including commercial companies. It is no doubt true that the NHS has an enormous amount of medical data on the UK population which is unrivalled anywhere else in the world except possibly in China.

That data which might be as simple as weight and blood pressure, through to blood tests and even DNA samples, could be exceedingly useful by using “big data” analysis techniques to identify possible causes of disease. It would of course include past diagnoses and treatments including medication.

But there have been a number of protests raised about the risk of loss of confidentiality and the fact that it might not be completely depersonalised (i.e. the data released might enable people to be identified). Even some of my neighbours on the App Nextdoor have been advising people to opt-out.

This is a complex area and I remember discussing it with my GP some years ago when it was first contemplated. He had concerns but I do not while I think such data could be enormously useful in diagnosis and the development of new treatments. The Investors Chronicle ran an informative article on the subject last week and covered some of the companies active in this area.

For example it mentioned Alphabet (parent of Google) partnering with hospital chain HCA Healthcare to develop algorithms using patient records. As I have recently been treated in an HCA facility (they own London Bridge Hospital) that might include me. The article pointed out that even your Apple Smartwatch will be recording some medical data such as heart rate exercise data.

A number of companies are developing partnerships with hospital groups to collect and analyse the data they have on patients. For example, AIM listed Sensyne Health (SENS) is doing so. They recently announced an agreement with the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine which will extend their database by 7.3 million patients to over 18 million. They obviously plan to “monetise” that data by supplying it to other companies for research purposes. I do hold a few shares in Sensyne.

What are the concerns? Insurance companies would certainly like to know who might be bad risks by looking at patient data. They are unlikely to be able to do that, particularly as any data released will be depersonalised. But will it be impossible to identify people as some might enable linkages to be made? Perhaps not totally impossible but the risks seem low to me and personally I could not care less who knows my medical history. Others might disagree on that point but the benefits of having a good database of medical data to help with research, much of which is done by commercial companies, is surely invaluable.

There are opt-out provisions for those who have any concerns.

See https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/data-collections-and-data-sets/data-collections/general-practice-data-for-planning-and-research for more information.

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

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Great British Railways Plan – But Will It Be Great?

The Government has published the Williams Review of proposals for how Britain’s railways should be reformed. The existing franchise system for the train operating companies with a separate company managing the tracks which was introduced in the 1990s has proved to be a dismal failure.

Network Rail went bust and although the franchise services have been improved in some regards, the recent collapse in ridership due to the Covid epidemic has meant the Government had to step in to keep franchises afloat. The franchise system was also exceedingly complicated with horrendously complicated contracts to supposedly provide the right incentives to train operators. It did not stop arguments over who was to blame for delays to services. But the Government (i.e. you and me via taxation) ended up providing even bigger subsidies and in ways that were not that obvious.

Train delays are common. The report says that one third of trains were late in 2019/20 and this has barely improved in the past five years.

Now the Williams-Shapps Plan is now proposing a brave new world of Government control. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said: “Great British Railways marks a new era in the history of our railways. It will become a single familiar brand with a bold new vision for passengers – of punctual services, simpler tickets, and a modern and green railway that meets the needs of the nation.”

That sounds remarkably like the ambitions of the old British Rail does it not?

New flexible season tickets are promised that will help those who are now only commuting into offices a few days per week and simpler and less confusing tickets are foretold. Paper tickets will disappear and there will be a new app to enable easy booking. This will compete with companies such as Trainline (TRN) on the web whose share price has dropped by 25% since the announcement. There were lots of people shorting the stock even before the news broke, probably because the company has never made a profit and looks financially to be somewhat unstable. Trainline issued some soothing comments including: “The Company believes the proposals will provide Trainline with new opportunities to innovate for the benefit of customers and further grow its business” but it’s clearly a major threat.

The Williams report says that train operating franchises will be replaced by “Passenger Service Contacts”. It is not clear how that is different though. More fine words from the report are: “Under single national leadership, our railways will be more agile: able to react quicker, spot opportunities, make common-sense choices, and use the kind of operational flexibilities normal in most organisations, but difficult or impossible in the current contractual spider’s web”. One claim is that Great British Railways will make the railways more efficient, long the complaint of those who have looked at the finances of the system.

Comment: There is certainly a desire for change as the existing franchise system and separate rail track maintenance system was clearly inefficient. Rail passengers still do not pay for the real costs of running the trains and building/maintaining the tracks except on heavily used commuter lines in the London area. But the essential problem is that the cost of operating trains is high when passenger usage is concentrated into a few hours per day while the public expects a service 18 hours per day or longer. Another problem is that the cost of building and maintaining the tracks and signalling is enormously expensive in comparison with roads.

For example, according to articles in the Guardian (a keen supporter of railways), the cost per mile of building a motorway is £30 million per mile. Does that sound high? But the cost of a new railway such as HS2 is £307 million per mile!

Railways are old technology that intrinsically require expensive track and expensive signalling systems to maintain safety. If a train breaks down or signals fail the whole network is disrupted while this rarely causes a problem on roads. The breakdown of one vehicle on a road makes little impact and traffic actually flows through broken traffic lights quite easily while they are easier to repair.

There is a very amusing section in the report on the “blame culture” that operates at present, and how arguments thus generated are resolved. That’s very worth reading alone.

Changing a rail timetable normally takes 9 months apparently and there have been some big problems as a result in the past. For example in 2019 Northern Rail missed more than a quarter of million stops allegedly after a botched timetable change and generated thousands of customer complaints. You don’t hear of such problems with bus services which are intrinsically more flexible.

How will Great British Railways affect services in London, where commuter surface rail lines are operated by separate companies at present. This is what the Williams report says: “In London and the South East, a new strategic partnership will be established to support housing, economic growth and the environment across the highly interconnected transport network in that part of the country. This will bring together Great British Railways, TfL and local authorities and businesses to coordinate timetabling and investments and to provide a consistent passenger experience in areas such as accessibility, ticketing and communications”. Sounds wonderful does it not, but the devil is surely in the detail.

Ultimately the Government will still be in control of the railways under this plan, so it’s effectively a renationalisation under a different name. That may please some but no nationalised industry has ever been an economic success or pleased their customers. I foretell disappointment.

You can read the full Williams report, which is a panegyric to the future of rail travel in the country here: https://tinyurl.com/3rhcd8e5

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

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Rampant Speculation, Cryptocurrencies, Buffett Meeting and Ridley Blog

With a long weekend for the May bank holiday, I took the opportunity to prepare the information required by my accountants to submit my and my wife’s tax returns (it’s many years since I completed my own Self Assessment tax returns – my financial affairs got too complicated).

After reading a good article in this weeks Investors Chronicle on Inheritance Tax (IHT), entitled “Eight things executors need to know”, I think I should have simplified my financial affairs long ago! My executors are going to have quite a job on their hands. But IHT is just ridiculously complicated. It looks like a “make work” scheme for accountants.

I have of course tried to simplify matters recently by consolidating two SIPPs on different platforms into one. The process was started on the12th January and is still not complete although most of the assets have now been transferred. As I have said before, the time and effort required to move platforms is disgraceful so I will be preparing a complaint to go to the Financial Ombudsman this week.

Having reviewed my income and expenditure figures for last year, it’s also a good time to review the state of the market. Should I “Sell in May and Go Away” as the old adage goes? Not that one can go far these days without a lot of inconvenience and expense.  

My portfolios contain a mix of individual shares and investment trusts, with a strong focus on technology stocks and small cap stocks. I certainly have some concerns about small cap technology stocks which seem to be fully priced at present, even if their futures look rosy. There are a large number of new IPOs of late where the valuations seem very optimistic. Meanwhile there is rampant speculation being pursued by inexperienced investors, particularly in cryptocurrencies and NFTs.

This is what Warren Buffett’s partner Charlie Munger said at the recent Berkshire Hathaway Meeting: “Of course, I hate the Bitcoin success and I don’t welcome a currency that’s useful to kidnappers and extortionists, and so forth…Nor do I like just shuffling out billions and billions and billions of dollars to somebody who just invented a new financial product out of thin air. So, I think I should say modestly that I think the whole damn development is disgusting and contrary to the interests of civilization. And I’ll leave the criticism to others”. That’s very much my opinion also.

Government debt has been ramped up to meet the Covid epidemic and interest rates are at historic lows. The concern of many is that inflation will increase as a result requiring Governments to clamp down on the economy to stop it overheating. This was a useful comment recently from the editor of Small Company Sharewatch: “The solution to the problem of lower interest rates is self-evidently higher interest rates. But the US Federal Reserve is having none of it. In the 1970s. inflation of around 15% was the problem. This was cured by higher interest rates, which got inflation down, and allowed interest rates to fall – for the next 40 years! The problem has now flipped. Low interest rates are the problem. Debt is encouraged: complacency grows; savers take on more risk; and investor mania grows. These are all likely to persist until the Fed acts”.

The economy is certainly buoyant. I learned today from attending a webinar of Up Global Sourcing (UPGS) that even pallets are in short supply. Commodities are also increasing in price as a result. I have not lost faith in technology stocks but perhaps it is best to look for new investments in other sectors of the economy – and certainly UPGS is a very different business which I now hold.

For another topical quote, here’s one from Matt Ridley in an article in the Telegraph (he always has something intelligent to say):

“The whole aim of practical politics, said HL Mencken, ‘is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’

It is hard to avoid the impression that officials are alarmed rather than pleased by the fading of the pandemic in Britain. They had a real hobgoblin to hand, and boy did they make the most of it, but it’s now turning into a pussy cat. So they are back to casting around for imaginary ones to justify their draconian – and deliciously popular – command and control over every detail of our lives. Look, variants!

And yes, the pandemic is fading fast. The vaccine is working ‘better than we could possibly have imagined’, according to Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, based on a study which found that it reduced hospitalisation by 98 per cent……”.

If the pandemic and the associated fear of the population is over, no doubt the Government will ramp up the concern about global warming despite the fact that we had the coldest April for almost 100 years. Government actions in this area are already having a significant effect on some sections of the economy and I have been putting a toe into that pool. No I am not buying electric car stocks but the power generation area is certainly of interest. How to avoid the speculations and just buy good businesses that are not totally reliant on Government funding is surely the key.

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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The Season of Goodwill – But Not Everywhere

As this is may be my last blog post before the New Year, other than a review of the book “Boom and Bust” which I have just finished reading, I would like to wish all my readers a Happy Christmas and best wishes for the New Year. It cannot be a worse one than this year surely!

In this traditional season of goodwill, it seems rather thin on the ground of late. The French have blocked lorries from crossing the Channel ports because they apparently fear the spread of the new Covid-19 strain. The result is that at least 150 trucks are queued up on the M20 in Kent with more spread around the country. On a normal day as many as 9,000 lorries cross the Channel and there is a fear we might run out of lettuce and strawberries over the holidays.

In reality the French are mainly blocking their own countrymen and other European truck drivers from returning home for Christmas. They will be stuck on the motorway with no toilets or other services. How uncharitable is that! And it’s all pointless as the new virus strain is undoubtedly already widespread on the Continent.

Meanwhile the Brexit free trade negotiations are still stuck on arguing about fish. Let us be generous in this season of goodwill and let the French have some cod, haddock and mackerel which can swim over the border anyway. They have for hundreds of years traditionally fished in English waters so to abruptly kick them out along with the Spanish and other European fishing fleets just seems spiteful when we otherwise might get what we want from a trade agreement. It’s not being fair to put much of the French fishing industry out of work on New Year’s Day for the sake of a principle.

We need a new Entente Cordiale and to stop this petty bickering.

Have a good Xmas.

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

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The Advantages of Investment Trusts

The AIC has issued a video which spells out some of the advantages of investment trusts over open-ended funds. They spell out that with most investment products you don’t have a say, but with investment trusts you do because you can vote on important decisions about how your company is run and what it invests in. You can also attend the Annual General Meeting (AGM) to meet, and question, the board directors and the investment manager. Investment companies also have independent boards of directors.

You may think that all of this is theoretical and in practice shareholders have little influence. But that is not the case. When push comes to shove, shareholders can change the fund manager and even the board of directors. I have been involved in several campaigns where this actually happened – not just in smaller companies such as in VCTs but at Alliance Trust. The outcome is usually positive even if a revolution does not actually take place.

But attending AGMs is now only available as an on-line seminar using various technologies. I have attended several in the last few weeks of that nature, and they are less than perfect in some regards. Technology is not always reliable and follow up questions often impossible. But they do save a lot of time in attending a physical meeting and they are certainly better than nothing. I look forward to when AGM events can return in a “hybrid” form where you can attend in person or via a webinar.

The AIC video is available from here: https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/videos/your-investment-company-having-your-say

Brexit

I see my local M.P. Sir Bob Neill, is one of the troublemakers over the Internal Market Bill. He gave a longish speech opposing it as it stands in the Commons. But I was not convinced by his arguments. Lord Lilley gave a good exposition of why the Bill was necessary on BBC Newsnight – albeit despite constant interruptions and opposing arguments being put by the interviewer (Emily Maitlis). A typical example of BBC bias of late. Bob Neill is sound in some ways but he has consistently opposed departure from the EU and Brexit legislation. To my mind it’s not a question of “breaking international law” as the unwise Brandon Lewis said in Parliament but ensuring the principles agreed by both sides in the Withdrawal Agreement are adhered to. Of late the EU seems to be threatening not to do so simply so they can get a trade agreement and fisheries agreement that matches their objectives.

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

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EMIS Interims, AstraZeneca and Brexit

Healthcare technology company EMIS Group (EMIS) issued some interim results this morning. This is one of my longest standing holdings first purchased in 2011 although it has not been one of my greatest investments – overall total return over the years of only 9% per annum. But I did buy some more in March as I considered it would be a defensive share during the epidemic and might actually benefit from the medical crisis. That has turned out to be generally true.

Revenue was down by 2% however and adjusted profits likewise and it appears that business-to-business activity has been constrained but the share price has risen by 5% today (at the time of writing). Some effort has clearly been put into meeting new requirements from the epidemic but a new EMIS-X module was announced (EMIS-X is a new modular platform they are developing). However, it does seem that EMIS-X is slow in arriving in comparison with my expectations.

The health system is becoming more digitised so EMIS is in a good place and unlike other companies who are chopping their dividends, EMIS announced a 3% increase in the interim dividend.

For those who are not big consumers of health services like me it is truly revolutionary how the world has changed of late. Email discussions with GPs and video conversations are now enabled and the whole health system is more responsive. But it is getting more difficult to actually see a doctor in person which is sometimes still required.

Edison have published a video interview with the CEO of EMIS which you can watch here: https://www.edisongroup.com/edison-tv/emis-group-executive-interview/

As regards the epidemic AstraZeneca have indicated they have put their clinical trial of a vaccine on hold due to a possible adverse reaction in one patient. It may purely be a random effect. But with lots of competitors for a vaccine and a low probability of any one making money, this is not necessarily significant news.

Brexit

I was very amused to see Government Minister Brandon Lewis admitting in Parliament that it will break international law over the Brexit withdrawal treaty, in an attempt to “rewrite” it or “clarify” it depending on who you care to listen to. I would not rate Mr Lewis very highly in terms of his knowledge of the law having met him when he was a Government Minister in a different role. We discussed the use of police waivers of prosecutions for speeding offences which I consider an abuse and a perversion of justice. He simply suggested it was a form of “plea bargain”. Not that they are part of the UK judicial system of course so it was a very odd response.

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

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Boris Johnson Not Backing Down and the Technology Stocks Bubble

Today I received an email from the Conservative Party signed by Boris Johnson and entitled “I will not back down”. The first few sentences said:

“We are now entering the final phase of our negotiations with the EU. The EU have been very clear about the timetable. I am too. There needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on 15 October. If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on. We’ll then have a trading arrangement with the EU like Australia’s. I want to be absolutely clear that, as we have said right from the start, that would be a good outcome for the UK”.

But he says the Government is still working on an agreement to conclude a trade agreement in September. However the Financial Times reported that there are problems appearing because the “UK government’s internal market bill — set to be published on Wednesday — will eliminate the legal force of parts of the politically sensitive protocol on Northern Ireland that was thrashed out by Mr Johnson and the EU in the closing stages of last year’s Brexit talks”. It is suggested that the EU is worried that the Withdrawal Agreement is being undermined. But reporting by the FT tends to be anti-Brexit so perhaps they cannot be relied upon to give a balanced commentary on the issues at present.  

Of course this could all just be grandstanding and posturing by both the UK Government and the EU to try and conclude a deal in their favour at the last minute. But we will have to wait and see what transpires.

Well at least it looks like Brexit news will dominate the media soon rather than the depressing epidemic stories.

Technology Stocks Bubble

Investors seem to have been spooked last week by the falls in the share prices of large technology stocks such as Apple and Tesla (the FAANGs as the group are called). This resulted in overall market falls as the contagion spread to many parts of the market, particularly as such stocks now represent a major part of the overall indices. I am glad to see my portfolio perked up this morning after substantial falls in my holdings of Polar Capital Technology Trust (PCT) and Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (SMT) both of whom have big holdings in technology growth stocks although they are not index trackers.

I’ll give you my view on the outlook for the sector. Technology focused companies should be better bets in the long-term than traditional businesses such as oil companies, miners and manufacturing ones. There are strong market trends that support that as Ben Rogoff well explained in his AGM presentation for PCT which I mentioned in a previous blog post.

But in the short term, some of the valuations seem somewhat irrational. For example I consider Tesla to be overvalued because although it has some great technology it is still in essence a car manufacturer and others are catching up fast. Buying Tesla shares is basically a bet on whether it can conquer the world and I don’t like to take those kinds of bets because the answer is unpredictable with any certainty. I would neither buy the shares nor short them for that reason at this time. But Tesla is not the whole technology sector.

Some technology share valuations may be irrational at present, but shares and markets can stay irrational for a very long time as different investors take different views and have different risk acceptance. In summary I would simply wait to see if there is any certain trend before deciding to buy or sell such shares or the shares of investment trusts or funds focused on the sector.

Investment trusts are particularly tricky when markets are volatile as they often have relatively low liquidity and if stocks go out of favour, discounts can abruptly widen. Trading in and out of those kinds of shares can be very expensive and should be avoided in my view.

I don’t think we are in a technology stocks bubble like in the dot.com era and which I survived when anyone could sell any half-baked technology business for oodles of money to unsophisticated investors. But it is worth keeping an eye on the trends and the valuations of such businesses. Very high prospective/adjusted p/e ratios or very high price/sales ratios are still to be avoided. And companies that are not making any profits or not generating any free cash flow are ones of which to be particularly wary (Ocado is an example – a food delivery company aiming to revolutionize the market using technology). Even if the valuations are high, if a company is achieving high revenue growth, as Ocado is, then it might be able to grow into the valuation in due course but sometimes it just takes too long for them to do so. They risk being overtaken by even newer technologies or financially stronger competitors with better marketing.

Investors, particularly institutional ones, often feel they have to invest in the big growth companies because they cannot risk standing back from the action and need to hold those firms in the sector that are the big players. Index hugging also contributes to this dynamic as “herding” psychology prevails. But private investors can of course be more choosy.

This is where backing investment trust or fund managers who have demonstrable long-term record of backing the winners rather than you buying individual stocks can be wise. Keeping track of the factors that might affect the profits of Apple or Tesla for an individual investor can be very difficult. Industry insiders will know a lot more and professional analysts can spend a lot more time on researching them than can private investors. It is probably better for private investors to look at smaller companies if they want to buy individual stocks, i.e. ones that are less researched and are somewhat simpler businesses.

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

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Big Miners, Moneysupermarket and Winning Against the Odds

Looks like we are back to a normal English summer – rain every other day and cool. But there are a few things to talk about.

Yesterday BHP Group (BHP) published their results to the end of June yesterday. Revenue and earnings were slightly below forecasts and the dividend was reduced by 10% as profits were down. But hey, when so many companies are cutting out their dividends altogether this is surely not going to worry many people. They still managed to achieve a return on capital of 17% and underlying eps was up. The shares fell only slightly as a result.

Today Rio Tinto (RIO) reported that production of refined copper in 2020 is now forecast to be lower by about 30% due to delays in restarting a smelter after planned maintenance. The share price is actually up today slightly at the time of writing, perhaps because copper is a relatively small part of their portfolio.

Both companies are very reliant on consumption of commodities such as iron ore in China, and China is still forecast to have economic growth this year despite the Covid-19 epidemic, unlike many other countries. Both companies are working hard to improve their ESG credentials after some recent mis-steps. Ignoring that, these companies still look good value to me (I hold both).

I used to be a holder of Moneysupermarket (MONY) shares but sold most of them in March when I was cutting my exposure to the stock market and weeding out the underperformers in the epidemic rout. Recently my house insurance came up for renewal and the broker I had used for many years gave a renewal quotation that was up 12% on last year. So I thought I would look for a cheaper quote on Moneysupermarket. They produced three quotations only one of which was cheaper and they insisted we replaced our newly installed alarm system for reasons I could not understand. So I then looked at other alternatives and got a quote from LV (Liverpool Victoria as was) that was less than 50% of all the other quotations. The moral is that it can be cheaper to go to direct providers. Is this why Moneysupermarket has not been growing earnings of late? Perhaps they are not producing competitive quotations?

Another good book for summer holiday reading is “Winning Against the Odds”, the recently published autobiography of Stuart Wheeler. He died in July and had a very interesting career.  He was a big gambler and founded IG Index which developed into a major spread-betting company from which he made many millions of pounds eventually.

One section of the book talks about his visits to Las Vegas where he made money by using a card counting technique on Blackjack. But he clearly liked to bet on almost anything.

I visited Las Vegas several times for computer software conferences. But I avoided the gaming tables and slot machines.  I did have some interest when a teenager in betting but not after the age of 18. To win at card games, betting on horses or sports results requires a great deal of hard work to be successful. I think there are easier ways to make money such as betting on stock market shares.

One of Stuart Wheeler’s friends was the late Jim Slater, financier and author of books on stock market investment. One of his sons is Mark Slater who runs a fund called the Slater Growth Fund, and others. I don’t hold them because I prefer investment trusts to open-ended funds but he is certainly a good “active” manager. They sent me the latest update on the Growth Fund today and it’s good to see that their fund asset chart over the last few months appears to match my portfolio. At least I am keeping up with the professionals.

The latter part of Wheeler’s book covers his involvement with politics although he seemed to have no great adherence to any political stance, apart from his belief in capitalism and his desire to depart from the EU. He did donate £5 million to the Conservative Party which was the biggest donation at the time to them. But they later expelled him from the party after he started to support UKIP.

Politically the last few years have been some of the most exciting in my lifetime. Politics used to be a very boring subject but now it has captured the imagination of the public with everyone forming opinions on the parties, their leaders and their policies. Rational analysis often gets lost in the fierce debates. Brexit alone was and is a very divisive subject. 

The leaders have been a very mixed bunch indeed and Wheeler sticks the knife into both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May. But he was careful not to say a lot about Boris Johnson. I think he might have preferred Michael Gove as Conservative Party leader but I do not see him as being very electable.

In summary, it’s an interesting book and an easy read.

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

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