Bad News Rises as Market Does Also

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stock Market Bottom and IC Share Tips?

This morning (6/4/2020) the stock market bounced upwards on faint indications that the virus epidemic might be slowing. Have we reached the bottom yet? I am not so sure. A lot of companies in the worst hit sectors are closed for business and running out of cash. They are likely to remain closed for a long and unpredictable time.

We have also not yet seen in financial results news the impact of the virus on the general economy, other than the sectors more specifically hit. But with so many people now out of work there will be a significant impact in due course on companies higher up the supply chain, i.e. the businesses that actually produce goods and distribute them.

I certainly won’t be buying many shares until a clear upward trend is apparent and where the financial results of a company are clearer.

There were a couple of companies which were tipped in this week’s Investors Chronicle as “BUYS” which are worth commenting upon. Diageo (DGE) the drinks company was one. I don’t currently hold it but did so until a few months back. The current share price is now significantly lower.

It’s interesting to look back at the forecast p/e and yield when I purchased an initial holding in November 2018. I always keep a sheet, printed out from Stockopedia, when I first take a stake so that I can look back at my good or bad decisions. The p/e was 22 and the dividend yield was 2.4%.  It’s now on a forecast p/e of 20 and a yield of 2.8%. It’s not really become much cheaper.

Analyst’s profit forecasts have come down but not by much. The company did give a Trading Update on the 26th February. It said this: “Public health measures across impacted countries in Asia Pacific, principally in China, have resulted in: restrictions on public gatherings, the postponement of events and the closure of many hospitality and retail outlets”. It hardly mentioned the impact on the rest of the world probably because on that date the epidemic was mainly concentrated in China.

We really do need more information on the sales status in Europe, the USA and South America to have any idea on the likely impact on profits for the current year. The Investors Chronicle gives positive comments about the company’s “brand power” and “global reach” but I will be restraining myself from jumping into another holding before the picture is a lot clearer. The same applies to many other companies.

Another share that IC tipped was Polar Capital Technology Trust (PCT) which I currently hold. The article included some interesting comments from fund manager Ben Rogoff. He said “We are focused on maintaining a portfolio of high-quality growth companies with secular tailwinds, and have a strong bias to those with clean balance sheets in areas we believe will be less impacted by an economic downturn and are likely to emerge stronger once this challenging period has passed. Companies with high levels of recurring revenue and strong balance sheets should be able to withstand a couple of very challenging quarters”.

He also said “We have rotated away from most cyclical areas, including travel, payments, small business and advertising, industrial/auto and associated robotics, and semiconductor stocks”.

These seem eminently sensible comments. The company’s share price has recovered from a dip in mid-March when both private investors and institutions were dumping stocks regardless and moving into cash. But after the share price bounce this morning, PCT shares appear to be at a premium to the Net Asset Value. In other words, it’s not cheap either. So another share not to rush into buying I suggest until it becomes clearer what the impact on the companies it holds in the portfolio will be. If there is a general economic recession in major countries there will be nowhere to hide.

DGE and PCT may both be quality operations but they are not great bargains I suggest at present. The only companies whose share prices have fallen a long way are those where their businesses are either closed or may be suffering in a big way. Until we have a clearer picture of the impact on the general economy, these are not ones to buy either I suggest.

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

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Should You Give Up Fags and Booze, plus Coverage of Babcock and Babylon

The title of this article refers not to your personal habits, but whether investors should give up on holdings in tobacco and drinks companies. Yesterday British American Tobacco (BATS) dropped 10% after the Wall Street journal reported that the US Food and Drug Administration was planning a ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes. They contribute a significant proportion of BATS profits.

Aside from this possible temporary issue, the key question for investors is whether to hold tobacco stocks at all. Apart from the ethics of selling products that kill people (and as a former smoker I am not too concerned about that as many people participate in dangerous behaviour of other kinds despite being warned), the key question is whether you should invest in such companies. With BATS on a prospective p/e of 10 and a yield of 6.7% (according to Stockopedia) it might seem attractive. But the share price has declined from a peak of 5,530p in June 2017 to below 3,000p now.

Smoking in the developed world is falling – down to under 15% of the population in England according to the latest statistics. But it’s still growing in less developed parts of the world such as Africa and the Middle East. However, with more Government intervention and better population education, one has to face up to the fact that it is likely to be a declining market sooner or later. It’s obviously a sector very vulnerable to Government interference which are usually ones to avoid. So I suggest investors should not just give up smoking, they should give up on tobacco companies. Investing in companies operating in declining markets is always tricky as few managements accept the party is over and tend to continue in their same old ways with damaging effects to their health – just like smokers.

The next addictive product to talk about is alcohol which is also vulnerable to Government regulation. Diageo (DGE) is a company with leading brands in the sector. Strong brands can enable companies to earn a superior return on capital and some Annual Reports from the company talk about nothing else. Indeed they have so many brands that they recently announced they were selling off a few of them. Does that make sense? Probably because does one really need multiple gin and whisky brands? Personally I find great difficulty distinguishing the multiple brands of gin now on the market – most of them seem to be marketing gimmicks rather than really different products with different tastes. By the time they are diluted with your favourite tonic such as Fevertree, there’s not much difference. Diageo has one particular strength in that booze sales are less affected by general economic trends just like tobacco. People don’t give up drinking and smoking in a depression so are unlikely to be affected by Brexit, whatever the outcome. But health concerns and Government intervention are still risks – for example Diageo has potential problems in India. But I consider the risks worth taking in Diageo so I do hold a few shares in the stock.

Babcock International (BAB), the defence contractor, is another stock to avoid if you have environmental or social concerns. But that’s not the main reason the share price has been declining of late – the share price is down from a peak of about 860p in June this year to about 600p. The prospective p/e is now 7.3 and the yield about 5% which certainly makes it look cheap.

One reason for the decline is an attack by an investment firm called Boatman Capital. They allege (to quote from their web site): “Babcock has systematically misled investors by burying bad news about its performance. We believe it faces potentially massive exceptional costs, revenue pressure and declining margins”. They also suggested the company’s relationship with the Ministry of Defence had soured. Nobody knows who is behind Boatman and BAB say they are “untraceable” so this looks like yet another of those shorting attacks preceded by a damaging report that mixes up mud-slinging and innuendo with dubious financial analysis and a few real facts that add credibility. BAB issued a response to the Boatman report yesterday which is worth reading. Babcock investors can download the report from the Boatman web site.

Such attacks have been common among smaller cap stocks for some time. Sometimes the attacks have an underlying basis of a few facts, but sometimes they do not. As I have said before, I think this is an area that needs regulation, although how that can be done when often the material is published overseas is not easy to see.

But there is one thing that is certain. Any major Government contractor is vulnerable to changes in Government policy and financial retrenchment. Will the UK Government really be spending more on defence on future? I rather suspect not as other social priorities take precedence.

One of the Government’s priorities is to spend more on healthcare. There was a very interesting report on the activities of a company called Babylon Health in a recent BBC Horizon programme. Babylon, via their app called Babylon which anyone can download, provide an on-line symptom screening and G.P. service. This is an area I have taken an interest in for several years as it has always seemed to be that this is potentially one of the most effective uses of AI and medical technology to improve healthcare. Not that I have ever doubted the wisdom of doctors to diagnose my complex medical problems effectively but I do believe some intelligent assistance might speed diagnosis.

At present Babylon is focused on G.P. services although they are moving into more specialist secondary areas. In London they offer the service under the name “GP-at-hand” with support from the NHS. But some doctors are complaining they are pinching their registered patients which reduces their income in local surgeries, and leaves them with the relatively unhealthy and elderly who don’t have access to on-line services but are more expensive to service.

Babylon do not offer on-line diagnosis at present for legal reasons, which in my view is a pity. They just provide a “triage” service and pass you to a G.P. when required for an on-line video consultation. But would it not save the NHS an enormous amount of money to have patients doing their own diagnosis using an intelligent app? But the current “GP-at-hand” service is a step in the right direction.

Babylon have recently done a study of how their system compares to the diagnostic skills of real G.P.s and they came out of it well – see their report here: https://marketing-assets.babylonhealth.com/press/BabylonJune2018Paper_Version1.4.2.pdf . For some more critical comments on the company and a summary of its history, see http://www.nhsforsale.info/private-providers/babylon-health.html . I fear G.P.s will resist this innovation because the NHS is notorious for its slow take up of technology. As the BBC programme reported, the NHS is now the biggest user of fax machines in the world when most organisations gave up using them years ago and turned to more direct digital channels. This is symptomatic of the NHS’s continuing reliance on paper processes.

Babylon is a British company but it is private equity funded and not a public company. But this is surely the kind of company than should be listed. It’s one of the best applications of AI. Undoubtedly I would have a lot more confidence in medical diagnostic software supported by a trained doctor than I have in self-driving cars. At least you can get a second opinion on the former before you crash.

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

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