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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Polar Capital Technology Trust AGM Report

Today I “attended” the Annual General Meeting of Polar Capital Technology Trust (PCT). This was a very good example of how to run a “virtual” AGM, unlike some I have attended recently. It included the ability to vote within the meeting and ask questions. It used the Lumi platform.

The meeting was chaired by Sarah Bates, and all the directors were in attendance and introduced themselves. Sarah “dropped out” at one point but another director immediately took over. Voting was done on a poll and only the two unusual resolutions were described (the continuation vote and remuneration policy).

The main part of the meeting was taken up with a presentation by fund manager Ben Rogoff which appeared to be pre-recorded and hence lacked spontaneity. But he is always worth listening to as he covers the trends in the technology world very well. I won’t cover it in detail as the recording is available on the company’s web site and much of it is in the Annual Report.

The NAV per share value was up 18.6% on the year and has continued to rise since the year end. Large cap stocks have been the drivers. Ben stated that the aim was to beat their benchmark by 2% and he covered some examples of major holdings.

There were only a few questions answered in the meeting. One was about the concentration of the portfolio in large cap stocks. The answer in essence was that reflects the market trend and hence has been a successful strategy. Another question was on portfolio turnover which was 87%. This apparently rose during the recent market turmoil. Only one question was on the formal business which related to whether repurchased shares were ever issued at a discount. The answer was no.

This is one of the few companies I hold where I can vote “for” to all the resolutions.

In all, a very well organised and run meeting that lasted only 50 minutes. I sometimes find at some of these events I can be doing something else such as checking emails at the same time as I have two screens on my desk, but not this one. Ben Rogoff speaks so fast and without any frippery you have to pay attention.

I would just like to highlight a couple of comments by the fund manager in the company’s annual report to give some insight into the world economy. To quote from it:

  1. “Our own outlook is broadly in-line with the current consensus which (we believe) assumes a limited lockdown period (2–3 months) that is followed by a recovery hampered by social distancing restrictions ahead of a vaccine in 2021 beyond which things ‘normalise’. During this time, policymakers are likely to do whatever is required to preserve the financial system. Their efforts thus far have been nothing short of spectacular. Interest rates have been slashed to zero in nearly all developed economies, while central banks have already expanded their collective balance sheet by an estimated $4trn, led by $2.4tr from the Federal Reserve (Fed). By the end of 2021, the G4 plus China are expected to have increased their balance sheets by $13tr with the Fed and the ECB balance sheets exceeding 50% of GDP. Unlimited QE from the Fed, the world’s lender of last resort, has effectively taken on private sector credit risk. Fiscal stimulus has also been ‘eye popping’ with US efforts estimated at $2.6trn, close to double anything seen in over a century with its flagship Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act worth c.9% of GDP and double the size of the intervention following the financial crash in 2008. While different countries have adopted varied approaches, total worldwide stimulus has been estimated at $15tr to date, equivalent to c.17% of the global economy last year.

2. COVID-19 represents one of those generational moments when normality is suspended. Usually, these are deeply personal moments when the passage of time is interrupted by news of serious illness or an unexpected development that changes everything. Once life restarts, for some it simply snaps back to its earlier state. But for many, the timeout allows them to recalibrate and focus on what really matters to them. Our sense is that COVID-19 will result in societal recalibration – permanent changes that persist long after the pandemic – many of which will seem obvious in the fullness of time. The success of work from home (WFH) together with challenges to mass transit systems posed by social distancing means that many of us are unlikely to work as we did previously. This may have a profound and lasting impact on demand for commercial property, coffee shops (as a ‘third space’), business travel and even the role of cities. Rather than trying to move people at high speed in and out of business hubs (with HS2 expected to cost more than £106bn) perhaps infrastructure spending should be redirected to providing nationwide high-speed Internet. If we came to dominate the world because sapiens were the only animal able to assemble and cooperate flexibly in large numbers, then in a socially distanced world the case for universal internet access has never looked stronger”.

I totally agree with the last comment. Building railways which are certainly “old technology” at great expense seems somewhat perverse.

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

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Virtual AGMs and How Innovation Works

The Financial Times ran an article today headlined “What’s an AGM without a chat with directors over a prawn sandwich?”. It covered the lack of attractiveness of AGMs now that there are only virtual electronic ones, if any at all, that shareholders can attend. I added this comment to the article on their web site:

“It is most disappointing that many companies are failing to hold virtual AGMs while the epidemic is around. AGMs are a valuable opportunity to ask questions of directors, both formally and informally. But as most have been held in London that means physical attendance for many was not practical. The best solution is a hybrid AGM where people can attend in person or electronically.

The smaller the company, the more valuable the AGM becomes. If they don’t want to hold formal AGMs electronically they could at least provide a seminar for shareholders to attend. But the FCA should draw up some firm rules that stop companies avoiding doing anything.

I am one of those people who regularly attends AGMs and I find them essential to learn more about companies and their management”.

There were a number of other good comments posted, but it is most unfortunate that the FT’s article writer talked about the free lunches and other goodies. Personally I could not care less about the lunches and frequently avoid them. The offered buffets I have found to be a good source of an upset tummy.

Anyway it was good to see today that Polar Capital Technology (PCT) are going to hold a virtual AGM on the 2ndof September. This will not just provide on-line access to the meeting but also support on-line voting using the Lumi Global web site or App (see  https://www.lumiglobal.com/ ). They also support hybrid AGMs which may be useful when the epidemic is over. I am a firm supporter of hybrid AGMs when normality returns as not many people can spare the time to attend meetings in person, particularly if they live remotely from the venue. But physical attendance is still the best if you want to chat informally to the directors, or fellow shareholders, so I would not want to see conventional AGMs abandoned in place of solely virtual meetings.

Polar Capital Technology are of course one of the big investors in innovative technology companies. I am just finishing reading a recently published book by Matt Ridley entitled “How Innovation Works”. I can certainly recommend it for summer holiday reading.

He dispels the myth of the lone inventor or genius creating leap forwards in products by covering many of the histories of past inventions such as the steam engine, the light bulb, the computer, the airplane and the adoption of farming – in other words a very wide period of history. The research that has gone into this book must have been very extensive indeed as so many examples are covered.

What conclusions are drawn? That innovation is typically a collaborative process of many minds and it is frequently difficult to pin down the first inventor. They often all learn from each other. He also looks at what environments encourage innovation and what discourage them. A wealthy and free society helps, while Government direction and monopolies are disadvantages. Few innovations come directly from scientific research financed by Governments or others.

The author emphasizes that innovation is often a gradual process with no great leaps forward in reality – it often just appears so in hindsight. For those investing in technology companies it’s well worth reading to understand why some companies are successful and others not. It certainly matches my experience of working in the software industry.

Now it’s the height of summer, and our windows are open, the flies are swarming into our houses. I recently purchased a great product which I consider a major step forward in fly killing. It’s a typical innovation in other words. It’s like a tennis racket but has wires connected to a battery in the handle that enable you to swat the flies and they instantly get fried when they touch the wires. No more swatting flies with newspapers and leaving squashed flies. Who invented this product? I have not been able to find out. But it is clearly a development of large mains powered fly killers that one saw on the walls of shops in the past. A photograph is below.

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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Brexit Investment Strategies

Investors may have noticed that the pound is in free fall and heading towards US$1.20. That’s near the low after the initial Brexit vote. Pundits, not that they can be relied on for forex forecasts, suggest it could go lower now that we seem to be heading for a “no-deal” Brexit.

With the pound falling, and potential damage to the UK economy from a hard Brexit, investors should surely have been avoiding companies reliant on UK sales, or UK consumers, or those such as engineers and manufacturers that rely on just-in-time deliveries from Europe. The key has been to invest in those UK listed companies that make most of their sales overseas in areas other than the EU.

One such company that announced interim results today is 4Imprint (FOUR), a supplier of promotional merchandise. Most of its sales are in the USA and its accounts are in dollars. Revenue in dollar terms was up 16% at the half year and pre-tax profit up 22%. The share price rose 6.5% yesterday and more this morning but the former suggests the good news leaked out surely. With the added boost from currency movements, this is the kind of company in which to invest but there are many other companies with similar profiles. For example, many software companies have a very international spread of business, or specialist manufacturers such as Judges Scientific (JDG). Those are the kind of companies that have done well and are likely to continue to do so in my view if the US economy remains buoyant and the dollar exchange rate remains favourable.

The other alternative to investing in specific UK listed companies with large export revenues and profits is of course to invest directly in companies listed in the USA or other markets. But that can be tricky so the other option is to invest in funds such as investment trusts that have a global spread of investments with a big emphasis on the USA. Companies such as Alliance Trust (ATST), Scottish Mortgage (SMT) or Polar Capital Technology Trust (PCT) come to mind. Alliance Trust has a one-year share price total return of 11% according to the AIC and the share price discount is still about 5%. I received the Annual Report of PCT yesterday and it makes for interesting reading. Net asset total return up 24.7% last year and it again beat its benchmark index. The investment team there has been led by Ben Rogoff for many years and what he has to say about the technology sector is always worth reading. Apparently the new technology to watch is “software containerisation” which is compared to the containerisation of cargo shipments in its revolutionary impact.

Another interesting comment is from the Chairman complimenting Ben on having the skill of buying shares and holding those which go on to outperform, but also knowing when to sell at the right time which the Chairman suggests is not common in fund managers.

Another hedge against a hard Brexit is to invest in companies that own warehouses because a lot more stockpiling is already taking place as a protection around the Brexit date by importers, but also more will be required to hold buffer stocks for manufacturers in the future. Companies such as Segro (SGRO), Tritax Big Box (BBOX), and Urban Logistics (SHED) have been doing well for that reason. They have also been helped by the trend to internet shopping which requires more warehousing space and less retail space. These trends are likely to continue in my view and the retail sector is likely to remain difficult for those retailers reliant on physical shops. You can see that from the results from Next (NXT) this morning. Shop sales down while internet sales up with the overall outcome better than expected as on-line sales grew rapidly. Anyone who expects the high street or shopping malls to revive is surely to going to be disappointed in my view.

There are bound to be some problems for particular sectors if we have a hard Brexit. The plight of Welsh sheep farmers was well covered by the BBC as Boris Johnson visited Wales yesterday. Most of their production currently goes to Europe but they may face 40% tariffs in future. The Prime Minister has promised assistance to help them but they have been heavily reliant on subsidies in the past in any case. There will need to be some difficult decisions made about the viability of farming on marginal land in future.

The falling pound has other implications of course. It will help exporters but importers will face higher prices with the result that inflation may rise. However, there are few products from Europe that cannot be substituted by home grown or produced equivalents, or by lower cost products from the rest of the world. With import tariffs lowered on many imports the net effect may be very low in the long term. But it will take time for producers and consumers to adjust. Tim Martin of JD Wetherspoon is well advanced in that process so you can see just how easy it will be to adapt.

In summary, investors should be looking at their current portfolios and how they might be impacted by Brexit now, if they have not already done so. There will clearly be winners and losers from the break with Europe and investors should not rely on any last-minute deal with the EU even if Boris is expecting one. Any solution may only be a temporary fix and the policies suggested above of international diversification are surely wise regardless of the political outcome.

Note: the author holds some of the stocks mentioned.

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

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