Interest Rate Sanity and Chancellor’s Announcements

The Bank of England’s announcement of an increase in base rate to 2.25% was just one step in a return to sanity. With inflation nearing 10% why would any idiot lend money at 5% or less as many mortgage providers have been doing. In reality the last few years have seen lower interest rates than have been available for the last 5,000 years.

This has been possible because of Quantitative Easing (QE) to keep the economy afloat. A misguided policy that has resulted in horrendous side effects. It has resulted in property price bubbles and stock market bubbles. When you can borrow money at 2% and use it to buy houses which have been rising in price at 8% or more (as they have done in 2022), people will buy houses as an investment – and the bigger the better. This is one key reason why house prices have been rising to levels that make them unaffordable to those not yet on the bandwagon.

Yes it will mean the cost of mortgages will rise thus making some people poorer for a while. But it is a necessary step to return the UK economy to a rational position.

It is still some distance from enabling savings rates to return to a situation where savers can obtain a real return. This has encouraged speculation in alternative investments that might promise a higher return. This was one reason why small cap AIM shares have been popular in the last few years. But that bubble is now bursting – the AIM index is down 31% so far this year.

In summary, I welcome the rise in bank rate and it should preferably go further to match inflation rates or more.

Chancellor’s Announcements

Kwasi Kwarteng has today announced a number of things including tax cuts.

The 45% top rate of income tax is scrapped and base rate reduced by 1% earlier than planned. The planned increase in National Insurance is scrapped and stamp duty reduced, while the planned increase in Corporation Tax is also cancelled.

The chancellor confirmed that the scheme to protect households and businesses from rising energy prices is expected to cost £60bn for the first six months. With the aforementioned tax cuts, the resulting likely increase in Government debt has caused a sharp drop in the price of gilts (and rise in their yield).  

It has also meant a falling pound which will not help the cost of living but will help exporting companies and those with revenues in dollars. By making imports more expensive it should stimulate UK production – for example of food and make us less reliant on imports.

A surprise announcement is the winding down of the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) and revision of the IR35 rules. These are sensible moves as the OTS has been totally ineffective in simplifying the tax system which is horribly complex while IR35 rules have been incomprehensible and impractical to apply in the real world without adding massively to bureaucracy.

More reforms to planning laws are promised to stimulate infrastructure building and aid the Government’s growth agenda but we have heard that before. Unfortunately planners just love complex regulations as they generate work for planners and there will be resistance from nimbies so I expect this will see major objections and delays.

There will be new anti-strike laws for essential services and there will be encouragement for 120,000 people on universal credit benefits to “take active steps to take more active work or face having their benefits reduced” (the number of inactive people in the workforce has been rising while jobs go unfilled).

In summary, my personal opinion is that that these are positive moves on the whole. In the short-term, we might all be poorer but some of these reforms were well overdue.  

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

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Book Review: The Price of Time

The Price of Time is a recently published book by Edward Chancellor. Its subtitle is “The Real Story of Interest” which makes it very topical as bank interest rates are being raised in both the USA and UK in an attempt to damp down inflation. After an era when interest rates have been at their lowest levels in the last 5,000 years, and have even gone negative in some countries, a historic review of the impact of interest rates through booms and busts is certainly worth reading. But this is a difficult book in some ways.

It’s too long at 400 pages for one thing for all but the most avid reader of economic history. Why do publishers (in this case Allen Lane part of Penguin) insist on their authors padding out their manuscripts to such length? This book would have been much better at 200 pages than 400. It attempts to cover too much ground and in too much detail while not getting the key messages across.

It covers some ancient history but really gets going in a good explanation of how Scotsman John Law rescued the French economy in the 1700s by lowering interest rates and issuing paper money – similar to the modern Quantitative Easing. But thereafter that economic experiment ended in tears. The book covers the economic booms and busts in the Victorian era forward through the depression in the 1930s to the banking crisis in 2008, and the reaction of Governments.

The book attempts to answer the question of whether there is a natural rate of interest, i.e. one that would apply if the Government did not intervene as they have persistently done throughout history – from the imposition of usury laws, through debt forgiveness to modern central bank base rates.

Why is interest paid? Because an investor holding cash needs some return for the uncertainty of being repaid when money is lent. If the risk is higher then the interest paid has to be higher to attract lenders. In times of economic uncertainty such as wars, interest rates are raised.

Historically when there was a surplus of cash in the economy, interest rates would fall as there might be more lenders than borrowers. High interest rates are likely to reduce economic activity as borrowers are put off from investing in new developments such as buildings or machinery. Low interest rates should encourage economic activity and the circulation of money as opposed to the hoarding of assets.

Governments have taken a stance in recent years that lowering interest rates must be good to maintain a healthy economy but the result has been asset inflation. From stock market booms to house price inflation, if you can borrow money at very low rates it encourages speculation and the borrowing of money to buy assets.

Lenders also need a return to cover the future value of the money lent. If inflation is high, then interest will be high. Recently the Bank of England has had an inflation target of 2% while interest rates have been less for many borrowers. That made little sense. Inflation has now got out of hand but real interest rates are still effectively negative. That is essentially irrational.

The book covers the history of Government and central bank interventions in interest rates and the economy, often with unintended consequences. In that regard, it is a good education on what should or should not be done. One message is clear – artificially low interest rates are as bad for the economy as high interest rates.

The book is very well researched with numerous apposite quotations. I would recommend it to anyone interested in economic history and the trends that have made the modern world. But it could do with being shorter and having a more defined structure.

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

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Market Trends, Interest Rates, and Yu Group Accounts

Yesterday was another dismal day in the markets. The US fell significantly allegedly caused by the rise in interest rates announced by the Federal Reserve and the UK market followed it down this morning. The US rate rise was widely expected although perhaps slightly lower estimates for US economic growth had an impact. But when the markets are in a bear mood, excuses for selling abound. Meanwhile the Bank of England has announced today that their base rate will remain at 0.75%. The UK market recovered somewhat after it’s early fall, even before that announcement at 12.00 am. Did it leak one wonders, or is it those city high fliers with big bonuses stimulating the market before it closes for Xmas? Or was it the news from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) that a de-merger was to take place? Many market trends are unexplainable so I won’t say any more on that subject.

The general state of markets was highlighted in a recent press release from the Association of Investment Companies (AIC). They represent investment trusts and reported that the industry’s assets hit an all-time high of £189 billion in September but pulled back subsequently. At the end of November the average investment company returned 1.3% over the prior year they said, but that suggests that when the year ends most will be lucky to show any return at all. Investors who manage to beat zero for 2018 should consider themselves either lucky or wise.

But the good news the AIC reported was that many investment trusts, 37 of them, have reduced fees in 2018. Even better news was that 9 of them abolished performance fees which I believe is a good move for investors. There is no evidence that performance fees improve investment managers’ performance and they just lead to higher fees. Needless to point out that the lack of returns in 2018 might have encouraged the trend to cut performance fees!

Not only that but the average return of 1.3% by investment companies beat that of the average of open funds who showed a loss of 2.6% and the FTSE All-Share with a loss of 6%. Perhaps this is because there are more specialist or stock-picking investment trusts as opposed to the many open-ended index trackers and heavy weighting in a few large cap dominated sectors in the FTSE. That shows the merits of investment trusts (I hold a number but very few open-ended funds).

Coming up to Xmas and the New Year, it’s worth warning investors about share trading in small cap stocks and investment trusts though. Both often have low liquidity and this is exacerbated over the holiday season as active investors take a break. The result is that such stocks can spike or decline on just a few trades. Might be a good time to take a holiday from following the markets even for us enthusiastic trend followers.

Yu Group (YU.) is the latest AIM company to report fictitious financial accounts. Yu Group is a utility supplier to businesses and only listed on AIM in March 2016, reached a share price peak of 1345p in March 2018 and is now 68p at the time of writing, i.e down 95% – ouch!

An announcement by the company yesterday, following a “forensic investigation” of its past accounts, reported more bad news including serious deficiencies in the finance function. They are now forecasting an adjusted loss before tax of between £7.35 million and £7.85 million for the year ending December 2018, but that excludes lots of exceptional costs including possible restatement of prior year accounts. Future cash flow is also called into question. In summary it’s yet another dire tale of incompetent if not downright fraudulent management in AIM companies which it seems likely the auditors did not spot. The FCA and FRC should be investigating events at this company with urgency. The AIM Regulatory and NOMAD system has also again failed to stop a listing or what clearly has turned out to be a real dog of a business.

Let us hope that the mooted changes to financial regulation in the UK bear some fruit to stop these kinds of disasters in future years. Risks of business strategy failures and general management incompetence we accept as investors. Likewise general economic trends, even Brexit risks, and investor emotions driving markets to extremes we accept as risks. But we should not need to accept basic accounting failures.

On that note, let me wish all my readers a Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

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

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A Bad Day in the Market, but Good News from Unilever and BEIS

It was a bad day in the market yesterday, with the FTSE All-Share falling over 1%. This seems to have been driven by a sell off in bonds. Equity prices are usually linked to bond prices simply because as bond yields rise from a fall in bond prices, it becomes more attractive to hold bonds relative to equities. That particularly applies to shares that are “bond proxies”, i.e. ones bought because of their high yields for income seeking investors.

These changes have been driven by the realisation that the US economy is booming. The Federal Reserve has already raised US interest rates and is therefore likely to do so again if the US economy continues to race ahead. But a booming US economy is of course good news for many companies. Higher interest rates may mean that some companies pay more on their debt but that it a longer-term impact and many “new economy” companies do not have any debt.

When markets are falling in general, there is no place to hide. My over-diversified portfolio, mainly in UK small cap stocks, fell about 1%. Not every share declined but the majority did. It affected particularly highly rated, go-go stocks such as Fevertree (FEVR) which was down 8% yesterday. I am glad I now only have a nominal holding in the company. But also affected were many investment trusts which I hold as their typical low liquidity compounded by a few private investors panicking drove down the prices. Some fell more than the underlying shares they hold.

Property companies have also been affected as interest rates have an impact on their business model, despite the fact many have locked in low rates on long-term debt. Safestore (SAFE) for example was down 3.9% yesterday (I hold it).

The share price declines spread like a contagion to many other stocks who should be positively affected by a booming US economy and not impacted by higher interest rates. The rise in interest rates is hardly a surprise though it has been well signaled in advance in both the US and UK. It was unrealistic to expect the historically exceptional low interest rates to continue forever.

My reaction when there is carnage in the stock market is to stand back and wait to see whether it develops into a trend or is simply a short-term blip. There can be buying opportunities if the reaction to economic news is too severe. But interest rates are nowhere near low enough yet to cause me to abandon the stock market and move into bonds. I feel there is more destruction to come in the latter. 

Unilever and Enfranchising Nominee Shareholders

Today we have some good news from Unilever. They have backed down on their proposal to merge their dual legal structure. The announcement said “We have had an extensive period of engagement with shareholders and have received widespread support for the principle behind simplification. However, we recognise that the proposal has not received support from a significant group of shareholders and therefore consider it appropriate to withdraw”.

There was opposition from both individual shareholders and institutions in the UK and there was a risk that they might fail on the Court hearing vote to gain enough support. It’s always good when shareholders make their voice heard, although it still leaves the issue that shareholders in nominee accounts were likely to be disenfranchised.

The good news in that regard is that I have received a letter today from the BEIS Department which says “BEIS is sponsoring a project by the Law Commission to examine the UK system of intermediated securities”. I will try and find out more, but don’t get too excited – it might not report before 2020!

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

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Interest Rates and the Gig Economy

You probably don’t need to be told that interest rates are at their lowest for several centuries, if not in recorded history. The fact that the Bank of England is making noises about possibly raising base rate could just be a way to try and rein back inflation (a higher base rate, or prospect of it, causes the pound to rise and that makes imports cheaper – and import costs have been one of the factors in inflation rising). But unemployment is also at its lowest level for 40 years which usually indicates a booming economy and the prospect of higher inflation to come.

Inflation is now at 2.9% measured by the C.P.I., or 3.9% based on R.P.I. which a lot of us like to use instead. Now to me the really astonishing item of news last week was that the large City of London Investment Trust managed to borrow £50 million at a fixed rate of 2.94% for 32 years (I do hold some of their shares). That’s must be one of the best deals ever surely, and shows how investment trusts have the advantage of being able to gear up by borrowing money – and why not when interest rates are so low?

In reality, the lender is not even getting a real positive rate of interest at current inflation rates, and is also betting that it won’t get any worse for the next 32 years. Astonishing, and just shows how the world economy is awash with cash.

Another couple of interesting items of news last week were that Deliveroo lost £129 million in 2016 according to accounts filed at Companies House, on revenue of £129 million. In other words, for every pound paid by customers, they lost a pound. It’s raised $472 million from investors to achieve this wonderful business model (source: FT).

Deliveroo use “self-employed” bike couriers to deliver restaurant meals. Another exponent of this “gig-economy” model is Uber who received the bad news last week that Transport for London were terminating their license to operate in London. More information on that in this blog post I wrote for the ABD: https://abdlondon.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/uber-kicked-out-of-london/ . In there I praised the merits of the service and suggested people sign the petition against it (which is rapidly heading for a million signatures).

But one reason that it is so low cost is because like Deliveroo, Uber loses money in a big way at present. To quote from one report on its financials, “Uber is cheap because the company is heavily subsidising each trip” where it was suggested that Uber’s losses as a percentage of revenue were 129% in the last quarter of 2016. Like Deliveroo, revenue is rising rapidly though.

Do we mind if these companies lose money hand over fist? If they are fool enough to do so in the race to dominate a new market why not let them. But the long term viability of both when there are obviously lots of competitors providing similar services does raise doubts about these businesses, even if London Mayor Sadiq Khan relents over Uber’s license.

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

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