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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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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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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Scottish Mortgage Investor Meeting

Yesterday I went to the meeting for investors held by Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (SMT) in London. This was a useful event as they normally hold their AGMs in Scotland. Needless to say this company’s name is now grossly misleading as it does not invest in mortgages nor in Scotland but is a “global” investment trust. It has a great track record in the last few years and has a focus on growth companies. Their top 10 investments are Amazon, Alibaba, Illumina, Tencent, Tesla, Baidu, Kering, Inditex, Netflix and Ferrari which gives you a good idea of their focus. Here are some of the words of wisdom from manager James Anderson:

He finds the stock market ever more puzzling. Investors think daily headlines help you to invest but there is no correlation. Comment: I think he is saying ignore the political gyrations and such matters as Brexit. He suggested that people way cleverer than us get the world wrong and referred to the work of Hans Rosling and that of Hendrik Bessembinder who reported that 0.4% of all US stocks created half the wealth. Comment: Anderson implied that the key was to pick a few of those really successful growth companies because they will have the biggest impact on overall returns.

SMT therefore tries to identify businesses that are focused on growth markets with great potential – at least 40% per annum. Typically they are also run on a completely pragmatic basis.

Anderson thinks that deflation is highly likely in the next few years as companies they are investing in are reinventing the world. For example healthcare may become a lot cheaper as diagnostics improves and reduces the burden of expensive late stage interventions in cancer and heart disease.

Catherine Flood talked about the companies they are invested in and about the biotechnology sector where genome mapping is creating major opportunities. They have a rising number of private companies in their portfolio.

In response to questions, Anderson said they sold Apple two years ago because growth prospects seemed limited and had reduced their holding in Facebook for other reasons. He also questioned whether the kind of investment strategy following by Warren Buffett will continue to work in future as markets get disrupted by new companies using innovative technology. We may be facing a different world in future where “value” is less important.

As regards their large number of holdings in Chinese companies, Anderson was not worried about the political risks in China and expected China to become the dominant world economy in the near future. They are leading in technology in some areas (e.g. NIO in electric cars).

Overall this was an educational presentation as we got some understanding of the investment strategy of the company which clearly has worked well when economies have been buoyant and markets have been heading consistently upwards. The share price is at a premium to assets of 3.6% at present so might be vulnerable to a correction if there is any hiccup in the global economy. There was no mention of cash flows, return on capital or other “fundamental” measures of value in companies which tells you something does it not. But if you wish to invest in global growth companies, this is certainly one investment trust to consider.

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

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