“Buy not on optimism. Buy on arithmetic” - Benjamin Graham
Analysts and fund managers rarely agree, but on one thing they are united; the UK stock market is cheap, at least in relative terms. Since the Brexit Referendum, the UK All Share Index has lagged the World (ex-UK) by over 6 percentage points per annum on an annual basis and now stands on a Dividend Yield of 4.22% (as of 17th May) and a Price Earning Ratio of 16.05x compared to 2.32% and 18.63x for the World ex-UK Index. There has been a flurry of articles proclaiming that the UK share market is cheap,, with a JP Morgan fund manager declaring that they have not been this cheap since World War One! The charts below show the damage wrought since the Brexit result.
"We have to work towards free trade because otherwise we will miss out on many opportunities for cooperation, and relations amongst countries will become much more difficult" - Lee Hsien Loong (Prime Minister of Singapore).
With the S&P 500 Index having just touched all-time highs and Donald Trump deciding that now is a good time to demand a cut in interest rates by 1% and to re-start QE, contrasting their timidity with that of the Chinese Central Bank, averring that the US economy would go up "like a rocket" if they followed his advice. This would appear to be akin to fighting a fire with gasoline, but that doesn't mean the Fed won't do it anyway, (though not this week it seems!)
Outside of US markets, however, things are not quite so rosy, as indicated by the fact that the MSCI World Index ex-US Index is nearly 11% below its highs (reached in January 2018), and nearly 20% below its 2007 highs, indicating that, once again, the US is leading the charge higher.
China has become an increasingly important player in the Global economy in recent years. As the economy has grown, its effect on world liquidity has also expanded. In the middle of February, the Bank of China announced that "Total Social Financing" (a metric that includes Renminbi loans to the real economy as well as Shadow Banking credit growth), exploded by a factor of three, to 4.64 trillion Yuan ($685 billion). The amount of outstanding loans in the Chinese financial system is now $30 trillion, more than double the GDP of that country. This has more than offset the declines seen in 2018, suggesting that the Government has once more opened the credit spigot, possibly in response to the economic slowdown caused by the on-going US/China trade dispute.
This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” - Woody Allen (Annie Hall).
A robot walks into a bar and takes a seat. The bartender says, “We don’t serve robots.”
The robot replies, “Someday – soon – you will.”
One only has to watch financial TV for a few minutes to hear some pundit or other lower their voice and intone sagely, that "markets hate uncertainty". But when exactly was anything about markets NOT uncertain? What the speaker is actually saying is that market participants hate losses, (which is why they were so keen to see the Fed bail them out in 2008-09, a habit that both parties have since found hard to break).
"When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact" - Warren Buffett.
In recent years, the role of the Chief Executive has become increasingly high profile. They are widely recognised (at least in the media) and feted as veritable supermen, taking a firm by the scruff of the neck and leading them to greater glory. They are interviewed by business media with a reverence that borders on awe and they wield a great deal of influence on governments - the near-universal belief in their judgment on the part of MPs, for example, may help to explain why the latter are (mostly) against Brexit. A "loss of confidence" is often a precursor to an economic slowdown (and job cuts), which may also justify parliamentarians' attentiveness.
"Reversion to the mean is the iron rule of the financial markets" – John Bogle.
Last week it finally happened; the US Yield curve inverted (i.e. interest rates for longer-dated bonds went below those of shorter-dated ones). The rates available on 10-year bonds are now the same as those of 3-month bonds and the premium for investing over 30 years is now just 0.38% per annum. As the chart below shows, market expectations for interest rates now expect declines rather than rises in 2019. Last week, equities sold off sharply as recession fears intensified, amidst a big slowdown in Global Trade.
“Still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” - Simon and Garfunkel (The Boxer).
Ten years ago last week (March 9th, 2009), the S&P 500 hit a low point of 666.79, from which it has subsequently risen to 2,940 in October of last year, for a gain of 441%. A recurring theme throughout this time has been the degree of skepticism, cynicism and general disbelief that accompanied this rise. After a sharp fall into year end 2018, global markets have recovered and currently stand just 3% or so off those highs, as once again, bearish US investors have been "forced in" to the market, as their selling in early January 2019 has led to nothing but frustration.
"Successful investing is about managing risk, not avoiding it" - Benjamin Graham.
This phenomenon describes the adverse selection / knowledge asymmetry between buyers and sellers in, for example, the used car market. As prices (or in this case, standards) fall, the only willing sellers at a given price will be those that have “lemons” (defective goods) to sell. Thus, the average quality of goods available in the market gradually falls, leaving only poor quality goods left, which is a form of Gresham’s Law.
“When stock can be bought below a business’s value it is probably the best use of cash.” - Warren Buffett (at the 2004 Berkshire Hathaway AGM).
We covered this issue previously in June of last year, primarily from the economic angle, but recent events have appeared to politicise the issue. Several prominent Democratic Senators (Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders) want to prevent firms from buying back their shares unless they also increase worker pay and benefits, implying a link between low wage growth and high share buybacks. Marco Rubio, a Republican Senator has joined in. He wants to end the favourable tax treatment afforded to share buybacks (so that they are treated the same as Dividends for tax purposes). Thus, it is believed, firms may be more inclined to either pay out higher dividends or invest more in their businesses.
A common saying in finance is that “markets take the stairs up and the elevator down.”
We are often asked by clients to explain the reasons for the dramatic fall from grace of UK equities relative to the rest of the world. Many suppose that it is a function of the fall in Sterling as a result of Brexit (and the political paralysis that has followed). In fact, all other things equal a fall in Sterling would serve to raise UK plc's earnings due to the translation effect (i.e. a lower value of the pound would mean a higher return on the overseas income, once that money is converted into Sterling) and as domestic revenues for FTSE 100 firms are fairly low (c.22%, meaning 78% of the revenue is generated overseas),a fall in Sterling is seen as good news for UK share prices.
[The above appeared on the window of a Bookshop, "Bookends of Fowey" in Cornwall].
We don't often do market commentaries in this blog, but after the biggest January gain for 32 years, it might be useful to look at what drove asset markets to such giddy heights, whereby nearly ALL asset classes went berserk. Once one pores over the fine print regarding performance, some interesting pictures emerge.
The first is the economic backdrop, which does not appear overly helpful. Interest rate markets imply no more rate hikes, as the US economy appears to be slowing substantially, potentially taking the global economy with it.
You may not have heard of Modern Monetary Theory, but you soon will do; it is becoming increasingly popular in the US as the "democratic left" searches for an alternative narrative to that of Donald Trump and a way to harness popular discontent with the way capitalism appears to be working. As we have discovered recently, economic illiteracy is no barrier to popular acceptance and though this ideology is clearly of that idiom, it does look set to go mainstream in the run-up to the next Presidential election, set for November 2020. I will not attempt to debunk the theory itself (as my view of it is entirely independent of the likelihood of its' coming to pass) but instead look at the consequences for asset prices in general should it do so. Forewarned is most definitely forearmed.
So what is Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)?
"He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup.” - Noel Gallagher on brother Liam, (Q Magazine, April 2009)
The passing of Jack Bogle this week leaves the world of investing much poorer, but his career has benefitted investors enormously (nearly $1 trillion) according to some. He eschewed the riches that most on Wall Street seem to covet and genuinely helped millions of investors get cheap access to capital markets returns. This post sums up what many of us owe to him; he has truly left an enormous legacy, which we should all try to keep alive.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” - Winston Churchill
As our clients are well aware, EBI uses "Factors" within our portfolios to "tilt" our holdings towards those areas that exhibit a premium over and above that of the market for exposure to various specific characteristics. All portfolios have a tilt towards Small Cap and Value shares, but for the World Portfolios, we also employ Momentum, via iShares and Vanguard managed ETFs. It begs the question as to why we don't use more "Factors", which we shall attempt to address here.
As the chart below describes, the growth of Factor Investing has been enormous, quadrupling in the last 6 years, as US investor interest has mushroomed.
"Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan". - John F. Kennedy
As ESG/SRI goes mainstream, with more providers offering ethical options for investors, the spotlight has fallen on those shares that do not fulfill the criteria required for inclusion in "Responsible" portfolios. As a result of the potential tracking error risk for Investors arising from wholesale deletions of a large number of firms from the mainstream indices, Fund Management firms have been cautious in what they omit from their Index funds, mostly restricting themselves to 3 main sectors; controversial weapons, Coal producers and those firms that fail to comply with the UN Global Compact on Corporate sustainability.