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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FRC Report on AGMs and Defensive Tech Stocks

 The Financial Report Council (FRC) have recently published a report on AGMs with a subtitle of “An opportunity for change”. The report covers how Annual General Meetings have functioned during the Covid-19 epidemic.  With restrictions on physical meetings, companies have adopted different approaches. Some have provided only the legal minimal which means ordinary shareholders have not been able to attend or ask questions. Other companies have provided virtual AGMs, with questions needed to be asked in advance, while others have provided a more comprehensive solution with questions capable of being asked and answered on the day, and votes capable of being submitted on the day.

I have commented on these different approaches and on the general issue of how to operate hybrid AGMs in future on this blog – just use the search function to search for “AGM” to see the articles.

The FRC report is a very good analysis in general of this subject (see below). It’s not too long or tedious for the casual reader but there are a few points worth noting:

They suggest that all shareholders be encouraged to use electronic communication and that they should provide an email address when purchasing shares.  It would certainly be good to have an email address on the share register which I have long argued for. It would assist communication from companies to their investors, and enable other shareholders to communicate with their fellow shareholders (a basic prerequisite for shareholder democracy). But the need to have the same information on the register for those in nominee accounts is also required.

Some share registrars already maintain a record of email addresses of shareholders and have electronic systems for recording voting but these can be complex and waste shareholders’ time. They also claim that these records are not part of the official “share register” which is dubious.

However, there are practical issues here that are not mentioned. I don’t mind receiving some information from companies via email but maintaining a record of which companies have my email address (and which one from multiple email accounts, particularly after I have changed them) would not be easy. We really do need a secure central register of all public company shareholders that the shareholders can maintain themselves as regards names, postal addresses, bank accounts (for dividend payments) and email addresses. Also there is the problem that I don’t like trying to read Annual Reports that can be several hundred pages long, on-line. Much better to receive a paper Annual Report.

For the above reasons, I gave up opting in for on-line communication and have all my reports on paper.

It is important for shareholders to be able not just to ask questions at AGMs but to “speak” on anything relevant to the business of the company. Some companies have adopted Articles providing for virtual AGMs that limit this. They also need to be able to ask “follow-up” questions.

The FRC suggests splitting the AGM into two meetings – an initial one for presentations and questions/answers with a formal meeting for voting later. That seems a good approach.

The FRC Report is present here:  https://www.frc.org.uk/getattachment/48c4ee08-b7be-4b7c-8f19-bcaf3d44e441/Corporate-Governance-AGM.pdf

The FRC is proposing to bring together a “stakeholder group” to consider the need for legislative changes or propose alternative means to achieve the required flexibility.

Defensive Tech Stocks

On another subject, why have technology stocks proved to be such good defensive holdings during the pandemic?  The editor of Techinvest spelled it out in these words in a recent edition:

“Driving the high demand for FAANG stocks since the start of the Covid-19 crisis has been the flight to safety after markets sold off heavily in early March. While it may seem counterintuitive, big tech has been attracting buyers-this-year because if its perceived defensive qualities. At a time when many other industries are being adversely affected by the Covid-19 disruption, tech appears to be emerging in a stronger position, with demand increasing in areas such as online shopping, remote working, and digital connectivity. According to research by McKinsey, the speed of digital adoption has been so quick in response to the pandemic that five years’ worth of progress has been made in just a few weeks. Big tech, in particular, is seen as a major beneficiary of the accelerated demand for digitalisation and investors have been backing this theme”.

Yes the world is changing rapidly and investors need to take note of that.

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

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Share Centre Future and FT Spoofing Article

The Share Centre recently advised their customers of “Our Future with Interactive Investor”. It gave details of the transfer of accounts to the Interactive Investor platform following the acquisition of the Share Centre business. However they failed to point out one important point which customers need to be aware of.

Share Centre ISAs are “Flexi ISAs”. This means that you can take cash out of the ISA and put it back in so long as you do it in the same tax year. Many people may have taken cash out this year after stock markets fell and put it on deposit, with the intention of putting back in later.

But Interactive Investor do not offer a Flexi ISA so if a Share Centre customer took cash out they won’t be able to put it back in after the account transfer. The Share Centre should surely have warned people about this but I can see no reference to it in their literature.

Spoofing

There was a very interesting article in the Financial Times today on the subject of “spoofing” – the practice of entering and cancelling orders in rapid succession to manipulate the prices of shares, bonds or commodities. The article was headlined “US regulators step up battle with spoofing” and mentioned the $920m fine imposed on JPMorgan Chase this week. Apparently the company’s traders had been using this abusive practice for years. The size of the fine should surely deter the practice if companies can actually control their traders.

This practice is not just confined to the USA of course. It was also alleged to have taken place in Burford shares recently. It just needs large transaction volumes in an order book system to make it viable.

It is symptomatic of the sharp practices that are rampant in the financial world. It is of course a practice to be abhorred as it creates a false market in the shares of a company. It suggests that there are buyers or sellers queuing up to buy or sell the stock, and a general impression of activity when none might exist.

Why not put a stop to it by imposing a time limit before an order can be cancelled?  

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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Terry Smith on Market Timing and PI World Presentation by David Thornton

David Thornton, who is the Editor of Growth Company Investor, did an interesting presentation for PI World this week. He made an interesting observation in that he likes to avoid stocks that are both highly valued and lowly valued, i.e. on high or low P/Es. This is very wise. The high P/Es are typically discounting a lot of future growth and show the enthusiasm by investors for the business. In reality the high valuation may be a mirage and is being driven by share price momentum and the keenness by retail investors to get on the bandwagon for small cap shares. At the other extreme, they may be lowly valued because the business has some fundamental weaknesses or big strategic problems. Growth at a Reasonable Price (GARP) may be a better investment strategy for overall long-term performance.

See https://www.piworld.co.uk/2020/07/03/piworld-webinar-david-thornton-small-is-beautiful-why-small-caps-what-to-buy-now/

Terry Smith of Fundsmith has written an interesting article on market timing for the Financial Times. He is very opposed to trying to time the market and suggests that taking your money out of the market, as many people did in March, was a bad mistake. He equates it to driving while only looking in the rear-view mirror.

For an institutional fund manager, who cannot move large positions easily, that may be wise. It has certainly worked out well for the Fundsmith Equity Fund which has bounced back, and more, from its low in March.

But I am not totally convinced that it is wise for all investors. Markets do not always recover rapidly as they have done from the Covid-19 epidemic – at least so far although that story may not yet be ended. In the case of the Wall Street crash of 1929 it took 25 years to fully recover. So taking money out of the market early on might have been very wise.

Hedging your bets by taking some money off the table and hence managing your risk exposure is surely a sensible thing to do when the market is heading down. There are three things to bear in mind though:

  1. Small cap shares such as those on AIM can be very illiquid and hence a few sellers can drive the shares well below fundamental value. These are not the kinds of shares to dump in a market sell off unless they are directly impacted by the negative news (e.g. by the virus epidemic closing their businesses and they are at risk of going bust).

 

  1. You also need to be wary about Investment trusts. These again are often not actively traded so they can suffer not just from declining share prices in their portfolio holdings but from widening share price discounts. When the discounts get very wide, it is time to buy not sell.

 

  1. If you have moved into cash, it is very important to know when to buy back into the market. You need to keep a close eye on the direction of the market because bounces from market lows after a crash can be very rapid. Many retail investors sell at the first hint of a crash, but miss out on the recovery which is very damaging to overall portfolio performance. They miss out because they are demoralised and have lost faith in stock market investment. You do need to take a view though on whether a bounce is just emotional reaction to the realisation that the world may get back to normal, and how the recovery may affect individual stocks. In other words, you may want to move your cash back into different holdings.

As a holder of the Fundsmith Equity Fund, I would not normally argue with his investment wisdom but he may be in a different position to many retail investors. I did take some cash out of the market after the peak bull hysteria of late 2019 and in March after it was clear some companies would be badly hit by the epidemic. This provided some funds for picking up other depressed companies. But Fundsmith was not one I dumped.

The Terry Smith article is here: https://www.fundsmith.co.uk/news/article/2020/07/02/financial-times—there-are-only-two-types-of-investors

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

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Coronavirus Impacts – Victoria, Auto Trader and Bowling Alleys

Stock market investors are clearly becoming nervous again following a rise in Covid-19 infections in the UKA – particularly in the Southern and Western states. This has affected the US stock markets and, as usual, it has affected UK markets in sympathy.

There were two announcements this morning that were interesting as regards the impact of the virus epidemic and the resulting “lockdown” of the population. Home working has become more normal or people have been “furloughed” or permanently laid off.

Victoria (VCP), a manufacturer of floor coverings, had to close their factories but they have all now reopened. Their customers are mostly retailers and many of them had to close but are now reopening or already have done. The company says group revenues for the last three weeks are now at 85% of pre-Covid-19 budgets.

Interestingly they say this in today’s trading update: “It is important to remember that 93% of Victoria’s revenues are derived from consumers redecorating their homes, not construction or commercial projects, and consumer demand for home decorating products appears to be strong across the world. This is not altogether surprising, given the extended period consumers have spent in their home over the last four months, which is likely to have encouraged the impulse to redecorate”. Clearly it’s time to do some DIY jobs.

Auto Trader Group (AUTO) announced their final results for the year ending March 2020, which contained an update on current trading. They provide a web portal for car dealers, who all had to close. Auto Trader provided free advertising in April and May plus a 25% discount in June. As a result they lost money in those months. The company has also chopped the dividend, cancelled further share buy-banks, did an equity placing and used the Government’s Job Retention Scheme. A vigorous response in essence, rather like that of property portal Rightmove.

Car dealers are reopening but for most you cannot just walk in to the dealer. You have to make an appointment. This encourages web shopping for a new car which is to the advantage of Auto Trader. The company announcement (and what was said in their web cast which was otherwise somewhat boring as it consisted mainly of reading a script), was generally positive but it leaves a question as to how soon car sales will recover. They don’t seem to be losing many dealers and dealer stock figures are what matter rather than sales. But dealers’ revenue and profits might come under pressure as many car purchases can be postponed. Cars do wear out of course, but with mileage reduced as there were, or are, few places open to go to and more home working is taking place, this could reduce car sales.

This is therefore a company where one needs to look to the future and how they can capitalise on the trend to shop for cars on the internet, like one might shop for groceries or clothes of late. One competitor mentioned in the conference call was Cazoo who sell (or lease) cars directly on the internet. No test drives or inspection first. You just get 7 days to trial it before acceptance. This is clearly a different business model that might affect traditional dealers although they also provide service of course and concentrate on new cars which is a more complex sales process. There may also be an issue of trust when using an on-line service. But the process of buying and selling cars certainly needs simplifying from my last experience of doing so.

At least bars and restaurants can reopen, albeit with severe restrictions on social distancing. That will certainly reduce their sales volumes and increase their costs, resulting in a big hit to profits. Still a sector to avoid I think.

Bowling alleys were expecting to be able to open from the 4th July based on what Ten Entertainment (TEG) and Hollywood Bowl (BOWL) said. But the recent Government announcement has put a stop to that along with the reopening of gyms and swimming pools. They now hope to reopen in August.

Is this ban rational? I can see why indoor gyms might need to remain closed. A lot of heavy breathing and sweating in close proximity. But bowlers don’t exert themselves much from my experience and if alternate lanes were used social separation would be good so long as they used their own shoes.

Note that I hold shares in some of the above companies. But thankfully not in Wirecard which I previously commented upon and which is now filing for bankruptcy proceedings.

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

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Why Do People Queue, and Retail Renaissance?

This blog post was prompted by pictures of people shopping on Oxford Street last night and a tweet from Emilios Shavila showing a queue for Primark at my local shopping centre in Bromley – it looks to be at least 100 yards long. Why does anyone queue to buy non-essential items? Have they not discovered internet shopping?

This is very puzzling as personally I can’t stand to queue for anything and I don’t think I have been in a shop for over 3 months, and very rarely also in the last year. Do people like the social interaction of shopping? Or is it because they can take a friend along and ask them “do I look good in this?”. Perhaps retail shops are not quite heading for extinction just yet, but I certainly would not be investing in them at present unless they had a very strong on-line business element. I feel that shopping habits really are changing and the epidemic has  hastened the move to on-line retail therapy.

The good news is that US retail sales bounced upwards by 18% in May which is a record since 1992 according to the FT and confounded forecasts of a rise of only 8%. That followed a decline of 15% in April. Will the UK follow a similar pattern? Let us hope so because retail spending can have a big impact on the overall economy.

One company that might be affected by High Street footfall is Greggs (GRG) who gave an update on their plans for outlet reopening this morning. Many of their shops are still on High Streets although they have been diversifying into other locations such as motorway service stations and train stations. Greggs has over 2,000 shops altogether and plan to reopen 800 on the 18th June. The rest will reopen in July.

The share price has jumped by 7% at the time of writing, but they do say that they “anticipate that sales may be lower than normal for some time”. Shore Capital reiterated its “Sell” rating on the share because they consider the High Street will take time to adjust to life in a post-coronavirus environment”. They also consider that Greggs will incur significant extra costs as a result of the measures they need to take.

My view (as a shareholder in Greggs) is that I still find it impossible to judge the likely profits (or losses) at Greggs in the short term despite quite a lot of detail in today’s announcement. It’s really a bet at present whether you see it as a valuable property in the long term or not while ignoring the short-term pain. That’s not the kind of investment bet I like to take so I will simply wait until the picture becomes clearer. Regrettably the same logic applies to many other companies at present.

On a personal note, one organisation that has solved the queuing problem is the NHS. Apart from converting my hospital appointments to telephone consultations, the latest manifestation was a new “drive-thru” blood testing service. You get a timed appointment so I drove up on the dot and immediately had it taken through the car window. No need to even get out of the vehicle. Absolutely brilliant. But I am not sure that will be quite so practical in mid-winter.

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

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Business Trends, Speedy Hire and the Hospitality Sector

After my negative comments in a previous blog post on Friday about the short term prospects for share prices bearing in mind all the uncertainties that face us, there were several other commentators over the weekend who suggested the market was ignoring the realities. Too much exuberance in expectation of a quick recovery was a common theme. That may be why the market opened in a sluggish manner this morning when Monday morning is often a time when share prices rise after investors read share tips over the weekend.

What is really happening in the real economy is the key question? Just walking around the streets near my home it is clear that builders and home improvers have got back to work. This is also apparent in the trading statement issued by tool/equipment hire company Speedy Hire (SDY) this morning, in which I hold a few shares. Their revenue is only 17% down on the prior year for the last week, whereas it was down 35% in April. With aggressive cost cutting measures already taken, the “Board remains confident that the Group can operate within its existing debt facilities and covenant tests during a prolonged period of reduced trading activity”.

However the bad news is that the accounts have been delayed and they are investigating a claim against a subsidiary named Geason acquired in 2018. They are also writing off the carrying value of goodwill and the contingent consideration payable on that acquisition. It only represents c.2% of group revenues but they say it has not performed in line with management’s expectations. It looks like an acquisition that was unwise. It is probably no coincidence that the finance director is soon departing.

One indicator of investor confidence is of course the state of the housing market. When house prices are rising, investors feel wealthier, and when they are falling, confidence is undermined. Knight Frank reported a 2.1% decline in central London property prices in April and Nationwide reported a national 1.7% fall in May. That is not surprising though bearing in mind that the Covid-19 epidemic may have discouraged house purchases given the economic uncertainty and job losses. Will people really be buying houses when they have just been “furloughed”? In addition, estate agents have been closed and house buyers deterred from visiting properties by isolation restrictions. But in the real world, this may be rapidly changing. A neighbour of mine in our outer London suburb decided to sell her house recently. In just a few days she had a number of inquiries and there were several offers received in no time at all. She did lower the price somewhat as against what I would have asked, to achieve a quick sale no doubt, but it is clear the market is alive and well.

Retailers are getting back in operation – there have even been two new shops opened recently in our local High Street. But the travel and hospitality sector firms are furious about the new quarantine rules for visitors coming into the UK. They claim, perhaps rightly, that it will kill their businesses and they would have to cease trading. A group called “Quash Quarantine” claims the quarantine rules are unjustified and not based on any science, i.e. they are disproportionate. A “letter before action” has apparently already been submitted to the Government. Comment: This looks like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted as checking incoming visitors and enforcing quarantine might have had some effect in the early stages of the epidemic in the UK but it will now have minimal impact. It surely makes sense to have some targeted restrictions (e.g. visitors from known “hot-spots”) and more checks/testing of visitors in general but a blanket set of rules with little chance of 100% enforcement seems very unreasonable. Otherwise the tourism industry will be destroyed at enormous financial cost, and the whole hospitality sector damaged.

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

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Market Trends, Big Miners and Will the Music Stop?

Stock markets continue to rise. They seem to be ignoring the bad company results that are going to come out in the next few months. Although there are signs that the Covid-19 epidemic is weakening, some sectors such as hospitality are going to be in lock-down for some time. The economy is clearly going into recession with many employees being laid off. The lack of consumer spending, not just because some people have less money to spend, but because others are growing more nervous of spending money or finding fewer things to spend it on, is going to have a wide impact on the economy.

Cash is being put back into the stock market, simply because with very low interest rates there seem to be few good alternatives. The measures taken by central governments to refloat the economy will promote asset inflation so these trends may continue.

Investment trusts I hold which are popular with private investors seem to be some gainers from this market enthusiasm with their discounts narrowing again. Small cap stocks are also recovering and with very low liquidity just a few trades can raise their prices dramatically for no good reason. Or sharply reverse when a few sellers think the prices have risen too far. Rational judgement on share prices flies out the window when share prices are being driven primarily by momentum.

My portfolio continues to follow the market trend as it is very diversified even though I don’t hold shares in the sectors worse hit by the epidemic. I may have to put cash back into my ISAs which I withdrew only in March after making some sales. I have been buying a few large cap stocks which is not usual for me. I tend to avoid FTSE-100 companies as their share prices are driven by professional analysts’ comments, by geo-political concerns, by general economic trends and by commodity prices. You can buy a FTSE-100 company and soon find it’s going downhill because one influential analyst has decided its prospects are not as they previously thought.

But I did start buying a couple of big miners, BHP and Rio Tinto, in March which has worked out well. I considered the fundamentals sound and China, which is their major market, was clearly recovering and getting back to work rapidly. There was an interesting article in the Financial Times a couple of days ago highlighting other reasons why they are doing well. It was headlined “Australia’s iron ore miners exploit supply gap as Covid-19 hobbles rivals”. It explained how BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group were capitalising on the production problems of their competitors in Brazil and South Africa who have been badly hit by the epidemic, while demand has remained buoyant. In Australia, where most of the mining is in Western Australia, they took vigorous action to halt the virus early on and most of the workers fly in and out so are easy to monitor. It seems that this unexpected turn of events has helped rather than hindered my investment performance for a change.

Although I am confident that the economy will recover in due course, and stock markets will follow that trend as they always must do, in the short term I find it difficult to be positive. It is hard to identify companies where one is both confident that they won’t be badly affected by the epidemic in the short term and where one can reasonably accurately forecast their future earnings. It’s the opposite of shooting fish in a barrel to use a bad metaphor. Together with the uncertainty of whether we will get a second virus wave, whether a working vaccine will be found, the impact of Brexit and the prospect of higher taxes, mine and the confidence of other investors must surely be low. In the short term, growth in company profits is going to be hard to come by, which is often the major driver for improving share prices.

But the market is ignoring that. It reminds me of the infamous saying of Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince during the last big financial crisis – “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

Unfortunately judging when to move in and out of markets is not a skill that most investors have and so I will stick to trend following while keeping a sharp eye on events.

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

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Scottish Mortgage Investment Policy and LSE RNS Announcements

The Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (SMT) have issued their Annual Report and AGM Notice. Readers who hold this trust will not need reminding that it has shown a remarkable performance over the last few months. That’s when the stock market has been decimated by the Covid-19 epidemic and the share prices of many other similar trusts and of the companies they hold have fallen sharply.

Last year SMT achieved a total share price return of 12.7% to the end of March and in the current year it achieved a share price increase of 23% to the 12th May. How has it achieved this return? Primarily by holding “hot” stocks like Tesla, Amazon.com, Illumina, Tencent and Alibaba to name the top five holdings. Over a third of the current holdings are unlisted ones. They claim the flexibility to invest in such companies “has been an important driver of returns over the last decade”. I do not dispute that but they are now proposing to change the “investment policy” of the company to raise the maximum amount that can be invested in such companies from 25% to 30%, based on the proportions when invested (that is why they have managed to already exceed that figure).

Is this a good idea? Should investors support it? Bearing in mind the travails of Neil Woodford where the funds he managed had large numbers of unlisted holdings, is it wise one has to ask?

Personally, I do not think it is and will be voting against. I am not suggesting that Baillie Gifford, nor the individual fund managers they employ, will make the same mistakes as Woodford. Just that valuing unlisted companies is a different matter to that of listed companies where there is always a market price. In addition unlisted holding are very illiquid in nature. Disposing of them can be very difficult. Private equity investment trusts often trade at a considerable discount to their net asset values for those reasons, while SMT currently trades at a premium of 2%.

Retaining the existing limit would prevent more unlisted investments being made, unless some of the unlisted holdings are disposed of, but that may be no bad thing given the current market enthusiasm for them.

I also note that Prof. John Kay is retiring from the board after serving since 2008. Much as I admire the wisdom of Prof Kay, I welcome this change. I hate to see directors of trusts serving more than 9 years and ignoring the UK Corporate Governance Code, as they so often do.

LSE RNS Announcements. I use the London Stock Exchanges free service to deliver RNS announcements via email. This morning it suddenly changed to a new format without prior notice. The first such notice I received was not in the best format in several ways. Wasted space in a right-hand margin, and no way to print just the announcement text and not the excess.

The second announcement I received just led me into an incomprehensible dialogue. I have sent them a couple of complaints.

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

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