The Small Print

The contents of these muses are my own opinions, should not be taken as a personal recommendation to invest in the areas mentioned and does not replace the need for individual independent advice.

Global Stock Market Falls

They say timing is everything and on reflection the timing of yesterday’s investment blog post about price and value was inappropriate. Global stock markets have tumbled in the last week. An article yesterday on the BBC News website provides a succinct explanation:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-45820640

In summary aggressive interest rate policy in the US and US/China trade wars are the main culprits. The former has led to falling bond prices and rising yields. At certain levels these tempt equity investors to sell and switch to bonds. The trade wars now appear to be having a negative impact on the global economy. According to Luca Paolini, Chief Strategist at Pictet Asset Management global indices of manufacturing activity have fallen to a two year low whilst there has been a spike in companies cutting profits forecasts. Earnings upgrades are now lagging downgrades.

Pictet are however not too bearish pointing to more favourable indicators and valuations compared to January 2018. From my perspective seeing portfolios hit by stock market falls is never comfortable but it needs to be remembered that economic fundamentals change much more slowly than stock market prices. The latter are highly volatile, a shock to some after a very benign 2017, but sharp falls do not necessarily mean there is something rotten at the heart of the global economy or that valuations are too high.

In conclusion I don’t think the content of my blog yesterday arguing that price and value are different and markets are not especially over-valued was fundamentally flawed. Recent events demonstrate that whilst prices have fallen sharply the underlying fundamentals of the global economy have not changed that much. After all we knew about rising US interest rates and trade wars a week ago, two weeks ago and two months ago. That said I should apologise for the timing of my message or not including a comment about market events, perhaps leaving you with impression that prices are well supported and are likely to be stable.

The content of this blog is intended for general commentary only and is based on my understanding of stock market valuations. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.

Price and value are not the same

There is a difference between price and value. An asset may have a high price but be at fair value. In other words it is not necessarily expensive. Similarly another asset may have a low price. Its price may have even fallen in recent times but that does not necessarily mean it is cheap. Terry Smith, the highly respected manager of the Fundsmith Equity fund warns against the potential perils of so called “value investing” – buying stocks whose intrinsic values do not seem to be recognised by the market. Value investors buy expecting an upward revaluation. However if and when this occurs depends on market sentiment and unpredictable events. The risk is that low growth companies remain just that or their values deteriorate over time. In other words they were cheap for a reason and should have been avoided. Similarly Smith points out investors can confuse highly rated with expensive. The conclusion is that understanding price and value is essential when buying and selling as investors may make wrong calls if decisions are based on price alone.

The fact that S&P 500 recently reached a new high and technology stocks have made stellar gains have led some to conclude that the US equity markets are overvalued and prices could correct. This may be a misunderstanding as suggested below but even so I have some sympathy with the conclusion, albeit from a different perspective. It is about banking profits while you can. Take an investment of £10,000 that grows by 50% and is valued at £15,000 a year later. That £5,000 is a paper profit only. If markets fall by 20% the investment drops to £12,000. The profits fall from £5,000 to £2,000 a decline of 60% from their peak. It is not unreasonable to want to take risk off the table and crystallise paper gains by partial sales. What I advise my clients do depends on a variety of factors including their risk profile, their financial objectives, whether they need a cash injection now and their investment timescales. Sometimes it is better to do nothing and retain the profits to compound capital growth over the long term, ignoring the short term market noise and price fluctuations. There is a lot to be said for a buy and hold strategy, providing the fund manager hasn’t lost the plot.

In this blog I want to explore current equity valuations. A number of fund managers I have listened to and read recently have shed some light on the matter for me. One source was JP Morgan who produce an excellent quarterly guide to the markets, the latest was a 99 page document packed with charts and tables about the global economy and stock markets. One chart shows global forward price to earnings ratios. P/E ratios are a commonly used measure of valuations. The higher the ratio the higher the stock or index is valued. There are several measures of earnings that can be used. Arguably the use of projected forward earnings for a company or a market is more useful than historic data.

What the chart surprisingly showed was that at 30/9/18 forward P/E ratios were higher in the US, Europe (excluding the UK), Japan, the UK and emerging markets than they were a year ago and for all bar the US, valuations are below their long term average since 1990. Moreover US valuations were not excessively high. The long term average is 15.8x whilst at 30/9/18 the S&P 500 had a P/E ratio of 16.9x. (Source: JP Morgan citing FactSet, IBES, Robert Shiller and Standard & Poors). This means prices are 16.9 x earnings per share. I conclude the US is not cheap nor especially expensive whilst the fact that forward P/E ratios have declined in the last 12 months across the board means that earnings growth has accelerated faster than prices, therefore supporting the gains in prices. However JP Morgan did observe that global economic growth is less synchronised than a year ago.

The cheapest market based on a comparison of the long term average is Japan which is trading at a P/E ratio of less than 50% of its long term average. A word of caution though. The long term average in Japan is much higher than other markets I suspect due to a bubble in property and equities. Very high P/E ratios have skewed the long term average.

Finally turning to technology. You know you are advancing in years when fund managers look no older than your children. At a recent seminar I listened to Richard Clode, one of the fund managers of the Janus Henderson Global Technology fund who presented a compelling case for the tech sector. He was an impressive young man who clearly knew his stuff and communicated it very well. There is a lot going for technology. It is dynamic and innovative; technology companies lead the way in research and development, an attribute Terry Smith thinks is very important in stock selection. The terrific performance of tech stocks in recent years* has been driven by superior earnings growth whilst valuations are in line with the long term average. Large cap technology stocks have huge amounts of net cash estimated to be in excess of $285 billion at the end of July whilst non-technology large cap companies (I think in the US) had net debt of more than $60 billion (Source: Bloomberg, cited by Janus Henderson). That said Clode thought some technology companies are overpriced meaning stock selection is important. I conclude as long as tech stocks are cash generative and are growing their earnings then this sector has further to run.

Those who follow the markets know the FTSE 100 index has lagged the S&P 500 across the pond. In the last five years data from BBC News online show the FTSE 100 rose 12.8% (from 11/10/13 to 5/10/18). In contrast the S&P 500 rose 73.9% over the same period. This lesser known index is more representative of the US economy than the more famous Dow Jones Industrial Average. These return figures exclude dividends.

I had always thought the poor performance of the FTSE 100 was due to its heavy weighting in banks, oil majors and miners. These stocks have had massive headwinds since the great financial crisis and have delivered awful returns in the last 10 years. Whilst this is true what I hadn’t taken into account was that at 30/6/18 just 0.6% of the FTSE 100 index was represented by technology stocks (Source: Bloomberg, cited by Janus Henderson). According to CNBC in an online article on 6/8/18 26% of the S&P 500 was in technology. No wonder the S&P 500 has done so well whilst the FTSE 100 has been as exciting as a wet blanket on a cold January day. It is a lesson for UK investors who are too UK centric in their portfolios. Their home preference or bias, in part due to thinking Sterling was the place to be, to mitigate currency risk, fell victim to the unintended consequences of being underweight in technology.

*The average IA Technology & Telecoms fund has delivered a total return of 121.2% in the last five years whilst the average IA Global fund gained 67.3% (FE Trustnet, 10/10/18). Bear in mind funds IA Global sector include some technology stocks meaning if the non-tech returns could be stripped out the disparity would have been greater.

The content of this blog is intended for general commentary only and is based on my understanding of stock market valuations. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.

Do equity returns justify the risk?

The answer to this question is one all investors need to consider but it should be determined by a comparison of returns from other investment types that carry low risk or “no risk.” By risk I refer to volatility of returns. Although investment risk is multi-faceted and means more than just volatility of returns, as highlighted in the next paragraph, for the purposes of this article volatility will be my focus.

I don’t consider any investment is risk free. The real value of cash is eroded by inflation whilst highly secure UK, German or US government bonds are subject to interest rate risk, if not credit risk. This means although the issuing government almost certainly will not default on its loans, bonds are driven by other market influences for example interest rate rises and consequently bond prices can fall. In some developed markets investors are paid a negative yield on holding government debt, meaning they are paying for the privilege of investing.

For an investor the question is can I get the same return elsewhere but with lower risk? If you can why invest in riskier assets? Consequently professional investors talk about risk premiums. It is commonly used in bond markets. Let’s say you can get a 2% p.a. interest rate on government debt. This is often referred to as the risk free rate. The question how much extra interest will investors demand for holding corporate debt, whether investment grade or sub-investment grade? In the US the latter are called junk bonds, a kind of reverse euphemism. Corporate debt carries credit risk (as well as interest rate risk) and the lower the credit rating of the issuing company of the bond the higher the interest rate they must pay to compensate investors for the extra risk. For investment grade bonds interest rates might need to be 3% p.a. and for sub-investment grade 4% p.a. You get the idea. The figures are for illustration only and don’t necessarily reflect current market rates.

Risk premiums are also applicable in the equity market too and here I want to share the thoughts of Glenn Meyer, head of managed funds at RC Brown Investment Management, a firm of discretionary fund managers that I have used for a few clients. In a recent newsletter he wrote:

“Mehra and Prescott found that between 1889 and 1978, the risk premium on US equities was 6%, but the largest premium they could derive from their model (by using standard measures of risk – which are focused on volatility) was 0.35%.”

Meyer also quoted a further study from Fama & French that found:

“…the long-term equity risk premium on the US equities was 6% between 1963 and 2016, but their data also encouragingly showed that as the time horizon increases bad outcomes generally become eless likely and extremely good outcomes become more likely…the high volatility of monthly stock returns and premiums means that for the three year and five-year periods used by many professional investors to evaluate asset allocations, the probabilities that premiums are negative on a purely chance basis are substantial, and they are non-trivial even for ten-year and 20-year periods.”

The clear conclusion is that long term equity investors are very well compensated or even over compensated for the extra volatility they experience compared to holding “risk free” government debt. This is certainly my experience in reviewing the profitability of long held equity investments and portfolios through thick and thin.

Glenn Meyer suggests that the risk premium for equities may fall as investors cotton on to the fact that the measured risk is much smaller than the equity risk premium but in the meantime he is happy to bank these incremental returns for his clients. I concur, and like Meyer as this point in the cycle I strongly favour equities for long term investment. However this is not to suggest that valuations are unimportant. Gary Potter co-head of the multi-manager team at BMO Global Asset Management suggests most assets are not cheap and expects returns over the next 10 years to be lower than the last 10. Investors should perhaps lower their expectations, be more discerning about what they buy and pay attention to true valuations. With the withdrawal of central bank monetary support, so called Quantitative Tightening (QT) active fund management is favoured in my view.

The content of this blog is intended for general commentary only and is based on my understanding of Glenn Meyer’s and Gary Potter’s views which they may not necessarily endorse. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.

Investment Risk & Reward

Risk and reward are often seen as two sides of the same coin. Reward is easy to measure. It is the investment gains achieved – what your fund or portfolio is worth minus how much you invested. Of course judging the value of that gain is a different issue and until you crystallise gains you merely have paper profits.

But what about risk? Risk when investing in funds such as unit trusts or OEICs, investment trusts or exchange traded funds is normally viewed as volatility of value, peak to trough fluctuations, not the potential for investors to lose all their money. Volatility of fund or portfolio value is caused by multiple factors including market sentiment, currency movements, the asset allocation of a fund or portfolio and the stocks held. In general government and corporate bonds are less volatile than equities, emerging markets assets are more volatile than developed markets and mixed asset funds fluctuate less than pure equity funds.

Conventional wisdom suggests that in order to achieve higher returns investors need to take greater risk. However there is evidence to suggest the opposite may be true. In a recent blog by Terry Smith, manager of the Fundsmith Equity, a brilliant global fund he cites research by Robert Haugen and Nardin Baker from 2012. They analysed stock returns in 21 developed markets from 1990 to 2011 and found that counter-intuitively low risk stocks outperformed high risk ones. They concluded:

“The fact that low-risk stocks have higher expected returns is a remarkable anomaly in the field of finance. It is remarkable because it is persistent — existing now and as far back in time as we can see. It extends to all equity markets in the world. And finally, it is remarkable because it contradicts the very core of finance: that risk bearing can be expected to produce a reward.”

The explicit implication here is that investors can achieve higher returns without taking extra risk. One way this can be achieved is by blending assets that you would instinctively think increases risk. Smith gives an example of adding smaller companies to a global equity portfolio. A change from 100% invested in the MSCI* World Index to 35% in the MSCI World Small Cap and 65% MSCI World Index increases returns but with no additional risk as measured by volatility. For the technicians among you this is an example of an “efficient frontier.”

A similar conclusion is supported by Financial Express (FE) Risk Scores. These are volatility measures of funds over a three year period. The scores and methodology can be found on the FE Trustnet website. Uniquely FE Risk Scores are relative not absolute** measures of risk. This is because the FTSE 100 index is used as a benchmark and this has been assigned a constant volatility measure of 100. For example the Fundsmith Equity has a current FE Risk Score of 108 whilst that for the M&G Corporate Bond is 32. What this means is the Fundsmith Equity is 8% more volatile than the FTSE 100 and the M&G Corporate Bond is 68% less volatile than the FTSE 100 over the last three years. However what I find especially interesting is that if you consider the Investment Association UK Smaller Companies sector 46 funds are listed that have FE Risk Scores. All have scores of less than 100, with many in the 70s and 80s. This seems to blow a hole in the theory that smaller companies are more risky than larger ones. Moreover many of the UK smaller company funds have delivered returns in excess of 50% in the last three years. For example the Marlborough Special Situations rose 59.3% (FE Trustnet 1/9/18). Its FE Risk Score is 83. In contrast the HSBC FTSE 100 Index Tracker (Accumulation share class) which mimics the performance of the FTSE 100 index and re-invests dividends gained just 38.7%. Its FE Risk Score is 100.

A word of caution is needed here. Firstly the FTSE 100 has a high weighting to oil majors, miners and banks which generally have been eschewed by investors in recent years, dampening returns. Moreover commodity stocks are especially volatile being highly geared to the strength of the global economy. This means the FTSE 100 has been hit by a double whammy of low returns and high volatility. If market sentiment changes towards commodities and financials the FTSE 100 could rally and its risk reward profile will improve. On this point banks are looking more attractive with rising interest rates and stronger earnings and balance sheets, allowing a return to payment of dividends. Conversely the fair wind for smaller companies could deteriorate if there is a UK recession. Secondly although there is clear evidence that risk and reward are not correlated it would be wrong to assume this is true in all circumstances. It all depends on what you are looking at. The Haugin and Baker study focused on low and high volatility stocks but that is not the only comparison we can make. As noted equities typically outperform bonds but are more volatile. Similarly an investor moving from a cautious risk portfolio to pure equities should expect better long term returns but more volatile prices.

Finally to assume risk is only about volatility of value is simplistic. There are plenty of other snakes in the jungle ready to take a bite out of your money. Government and corporate bonds carry interest rate or duration risk. Then there is currency risk and fund manager risk. The latter is the potential for fund managers to make big mistakes in their asset allocation and stock selection and for star fund managers to go from hero to zero. Then there is inflation risk which is especially relevant to multi-asset, targeted absolute return and other cautious risk funds. The point is these are all low volatility investments but are subject to a risk that pure equity funds do not carry.

In respect of inflation risk I have recently been assessing the performance of cautious risk funds I have recommended in recent years. I have taken the view that to justify inclusion in a portfolio a fund should have beaten inflation over the last three years. If it hasn’t then the investment has lost value in real terms i.e. it has lost purchasing power. The benchmark I have used is RPI inflation. From July 2015 to July 2018, the latest published data, I calculated RPI was 8.9%. Whilst many defensive funds have significantly outperformed inflation others have failed to do so and have faced the axe.

To finish we need to consider cash. In absolute terms cash has no volatility. If £100,000 is held in a savings account and interest is paid out, the value of the cash will always be £100,000. If interest is accumulated the cash value rises steadily. However its purchasing power or real value decreases if inflation exceeds interest rates. If for example inflation is 1.5% p.a. higher after ten years the real value of the cash drops to £85,973. The point here is there is no such thing as a risk free investment. Risk in one form or another is a necessary evil all investors must take. Hiding your money under the bed is not a solution.

*MSCI – Morgan Stanley Capital International. They produce stock market indices used for benchmarking portfolios and exchange traded funds (ETFs).

**Absolute volatility is measured as the standard deviation of returns around a mean.

The content of this blog is intended for general commentary only. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.

Crystal Balls, Yield Curves & Old Folk

Arguably the greatest challenge that faces fund managers, those who give investment advice and investors alike is to correctly assess the strength and direction of the global economy and stock markets. Get those calls right and it should be evident whether to adopt a cautious or adventurous investment strategy. Good asset allocation will then follow. Currently that question is very pertinent to US, the driver of the global economy. Is the US heading for recession? Is the bull market in US equities coming to an end? After all it is the second longest rally in history and rather long in the tooth as some claim. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a crystal ball. Well funnily enough maybe we do – it is called the yield curve. The yield curve is a graph of government bond yields over different time periods. The yields are the interest rates a government must pay for borrowing. In general the longer the loan period the higher is the interest rate that is demanded by investors. This principally reflects the risk of future inflation to capital, the longer the term of a loan the greater the risk. The normal yield curve is upward sloping but there are times when long term borrowing costs are the same or even less than short term rates. In these circumstances the yield curve is flat or inverted.

In an article I read by Darren Ruane, Head of Fixed Interest at Investec, he notes the US yield curve is currently flat with interest rates on 2,10 & 30 year Treasuries* at 2.7%, 3.0% and 3.1% respectively. These are market rates determined by investors buying and selling US government bonds and thereby setting prices and hence their yields. What the yield curve shows is that the market is not placing a premium on buying long term US debt. In other words investors don’t think that inflation risk is high. This suggests the market is predicting economic slowdown. Historically a flat or inverted yield curve has been a reliable indicator of recession in the following 6 to 24 months. Ruane cites several examples including the inflation/interest rate recession of the late 1980s, ahead of the dot com crash in the early 2000s and prior to the global financial crisis in 2006/07. But is the yield curve a reliable indicator this time around?

Ruane says the yield curve should be split into two, the short end of the curve and the long end. The former is dominated by movements in US base rates and they are rising steadily to help cool the economy. Interest rates are expected to reach 3.25% in 2019. Global trade barriers may also lead to an economic slowdown in the US.

The long end of the curve is more responsive to long term inflation expectations and interest rates. However Ruane notes that other factors are in play, notably that the unprecedented programme of money printing (QE) has reduced bond yields. In addition inflation has been muted in part from technological solutions in industry pushing down the price of goods but also from an ageing population in the West. Apparently old folk prefer to save rather than spend! I also wonder whether the influences on the short and the long end of the curve are easily separable. Is it not reasonable to think that rising US base rates is also a major influence on the long end of the curve? Investors could argue the Federal Reserve, the US central bank clearly has a grip on ensuring the economy does not overheat and fuel rampant inflation.

Putting this together, short term interest rates may be high due to base rate rises and long term rates may be low due to QE and disinflationary forces. If so the flat yield curve may not be a reliable indicator that recession is coming. However Ruane says Investec are wary of saying this time is different. All we can conclude is that the crystal ball has got a bit cloudy.

My own view is the yield curve should not be dismissed nor given too much weight. A factor in favour of ongoing expansion of the global economy is that the recovery since the financial crisis has been slow and muted. Emerging markets have been hit recently by a strong dollar whilst Brexit concerns are also weighing on investment decisions and UK equities. Trade wars are also a headwind. With many new jobs in the UK at least being low paid, part-time or zero hours I don’t see runaway inflation. This is supported by the breakdown in the Phillips Curve, something I mentioned in a recent blog. To remind you the normal Phillips Curve states that inflation rises with falling unemployment and vice versa. It hasn’t happened in this recovery. I think this is down to poor quality household earnings and the jobs market is not as rosy as politicians would claim. In summary I conclude there is room for steady ongoing expansion of the global economy and company earnings which drives share prices. However I wouldn’t bet my house on there being no recession in the US in the near future. If there is we all know what happens when the US sneezes. Consequently I am still recommending a generally cautious core investment strategy in my advice to clients but with satellite risk assets to capture any upside to markets. Adventurous investments are of course a good hedge against getting a bearish view wrong. Naturally what to do all depends on individual client circumstances and financial objectives, risk profiles and timescales.

*Treasuries are US government bonds, equivalent to UK government gilts.

The content of this blog is intended for general commentary only. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.

Bank of England Raises Interest Rates – Does it Matter?

The widely expected rise in the Bank of England base rate by 0.25% p.a. to 0.75% p.a. was announced yesterday. A surprise however was the unanimous 9-0 vote in favour by the members of the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee. Was the rise justified and what will the consequences be? To set the context, a rate of 0.75% p.a. is hardly worth shouting about, historically it is well below its long term average – apparently this is 5% since the Bank of England was created in 1694. I recall paying 15% p.a. interest on my mortgage around 1990. For the large numbers of people on fixed rate mortgages the cost of borrowing will not increase, at least until their current deal comes to an end.

Mark Carney, the Bank’s Chairman argued the rate rise was justified as CPI* inflation at 2.4% is above its target of 2%. In addition unemployment is at a record low and there are signs of real wage growth. I am not convinced by the “full” employment argument. I suspect a lot of the new jobs are poor quality – low paid, part-time or zero hours’ contracts. A neighbour of mine is a care assistant on £7.83 per hour working her socks off, five or six nights a week just to pay the bills and save for a trip back to Albania. Night shifts in the health care profession can be as long as 12 hours. She is pretty exhausted.

Personally I am not sure that wage growth and consumer spending are causing inflation. This is evidenced by a slowing UK economy – we have gone from the fastest growing G7** economy to the slowest. Inflation would appear to be imported due to a weaker pound and from rising oil prices and weather related factors. I don’t see consumers with lots of money to burn going out on a spending spree and fuelling inflation. Moreover Brexit uncertainty is a headwind for the UK economy. This makes the decision to raise interest rates somewhat strange for me. It has been suggested that a reason for doing so was that it gives the Bank of England more leeway to lower rates again if the economy deteriorates but surely rate changes should be driven by current conditions not future potential issues.

The final point to note is that CPI inflation has been above 2% p.a. since February 2017. This has not triggered a series of rate rises to curb rising prices, there was just one in November 2017. All in all I am not convinced it is the right action at the right time. It appears to be a solution to a problem that does not exist! Then again what do I know? I am not an economist.

What then are the consequences of the interest rate rise? Tracker mortgages will rise by 0.25% p.a. as I suspect variable rate mortgages will do so too. In theory the rate rise will be good for savers who have been paid thin gruel for many years for keeping money in cash. It is generally accepted that banks benefit from higher interest rates and I presume the reason for this is that they can create bigger margins between what they earn, interest from loans and what they pay out to savers. I would be surprised if banks and building societies pass on the full interest rate rise to savers. There is evidence they have not done so in the past. Despite the Bank of England’s base rate being 0.5% p.a. from November 2017 to July 2018 savers in the worst accounts were getting 0.1% p.a. or less. The lesson here is to check the interest rate you are getting on your cash and shop around for a better deal. Three sites worth checking are Savings Champion, Moneyfacts and Moneysupermarket.com.

There is a salutary lesson here for savers investing solely in cash (none of my clients), hoping in vain in the last nine years that interest rates would go up. They have lost money in real terms. £10,000 in 2009 is still £10,000 today but its purchasing power has fallen with inflation which has carried a bigger punch than interest earned on cash. The point here is there is no such thing as a risk free investment. Being overly cautious has cost them money. This is not to suggest they should have gone gung-ho into pure equities but they would have been better served investing some of their cash into multi-asset and other cautious risk funds where above inflation returns have been achieved.

Finally in theory rising interest rates should boost Sterling as it attracts foreign investors. However the pound fell yesterday due to Carney’s caution on the economy and unknown Brexit outcomes. He even said if the negotiations with the EU go badly, interest rates could be cut. Foreign investors will have picked up a mixed message on the direction of Sterling. They were clearly unimpressed.

*CPI is the Consumer Prices Index

**The G7 are a group of leading democratic economies. The members are the US, Japan, UK, France, Germany, Canada and Italy.

The content of this blog is my own understanding of interest rates and the UK economy. My comments are intended as general commentary only. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.

Is the bull market long in the tooth?

The current global economic expansion or cycle has been going for just over nine years since the global financial crisis. Equities keep on rising and seem to shake off bad news. It is the second longest bull market in US history since records began in 1850. Next year it will become the longest. So is it long in the tooth as some believe or is it the case that bull markets don’t die of old age as other investment professionals have opined? Certainly it is a market that keeps on giving. Some of the best performing funds in the first half of 2018 were US equity funds and US heavy global technology funds. In contrast emerging markets performed poorly. I remember about three years ago asset allocators and fund managers were suggesting the US equity market was fully valued and they shifted money out of the US to Europe and the UK where valuations were more attractive. They clearly underestimated the strength of the US economy, the ability of US companies to continue grow their earnings and the potential for equity prices to carrying on rising. Fortunately I never bought into that argument.

So what is going on? According to Iain Stewart lead manager the Newton Real Return fund QE has been the greatest monetary policy experiment the world has ever seen. It was designed to inflate asset prices and it has achieved that. Investors have become conditioned to expect further central bank support every time there is a problem – remember for example Mr Draghi’s promise to do whatever it takes. Moreover this expansion has been characterised by low growth, the real economy has hardly recovered, so investors have had little fear of the economy overheating and interest rate rises. So they feel the outlook remains good and carry on investing. In contrast Stewart says there is now a broad based bubble in asset prices. He argues that the previous two bubbles were quite narrowly focused – the one in the late 1999s was on technology and second on banking and US real estate. This time cheap money from the developed world has spread around the world inflating all asset classes. Stewart refers to this as the financialisation of economies.

Stewart thinks it is tempting to think that if the authorities can extend the cycle this long, why not indefinitely? Such a thesis would suggest the end of boom and bust but don’t however ask for Gordon Brown’s opinion on that! Stewart is concerned about the tremendous amount of debt which has increased by 40% since the financial crisis, not so much by households but governments and corporates. This is hardly surprising with very low interest rates and plenty of cheap money.

He also highlights issues arising out of new regulations on banks and market participants since 2008 with concerns about liquidity in both the bond and ETF market and increased volatility. ETFs, exchange traded funds are traded securities that passively track stock market indices. There has been massive inflows into ETFs in recent years driven by very low charges compared to actively managed funds and the belief that stock pickers can’t beat the market. Richard Buxton of Old Mutual Global Investors, a highly respected UK fund managers is concerned about the “dumb” money flowing into ETFs. It means large amounts of cash is being pumped into mega-companies who have high weightings in indices that ETF track pushing up their share prices for reasons that are unrelated to fundamentals.

Suzanne Hutchins, a co-manager of the Newton Real Return argues that because there is earnings momentum it does not mean that equities market can’t fall. She observes that in the last 13 bear markets there have been three common threads, strong earnings growth, very elevated valuations and no volatility or very little. Spot the similarities with today’s markets! It is evident Stewart and Hutchins do not subscribe to the view that boom and bust has died and they see plenty of risk. Hutchins quotes data from Professor Schiller that suggests the average bull market has been around 131% whilst this one is well over 300%. Moreover investors have been benefiting from 18% to 20% p.a. returns from equities whereas in the very long term the real returns (i.e. after inflation) have been closer to 5% to 6%. There is plenty of scope for a sell-off and bear market.

So what do I conclude? I find these views compelling and remain cautious although not ultra-cautious. I see no need to sell all and buy cash but to position portfolios defensively investing in funds that focus on preserving capital or limiting volatility. The minimum goal however for any investor is to beat cash and inflation.

The content of this blog is intended for general commentary only. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.

Upbeat on the UK

When I read articles this morning from two independent investment commentators making positive assessments of the UK stock market I had to take note. For those of you who follow the figures the FTSE 100 has recently posted a new record closing high and is threatening to hit 8,000. So what is going here? Russ Mould, Investment Director at AJ Bell cites four factors that are driving returns:

1. The FTSE 100 index has underperformed its global market peers in 2016 and 2017 and is attracting contrarian investors with a bullish outlook. Brexit uncertainty has undoubtedly been a key factor in creating poor sentiment.

2. The UK is an unloved and undervalued market. It is not expensive compared to its international peers and relative to its historical earnings.

3. The dividend yield is above 4% p.a. attractive to income investors.

4. A weak pound has boosted the overseas earnings of UK companies and makes the UK a more attractive place to invest.

I would also add a rising oil price has boosted the commodities heavy FTSE 100 index specifically the oil majors. For example Royal Dutch Shell B shares have risen 29% in the two months from 19/3/18 to 21/5/18. This is highly significant as Shell and BP are the 1st and 3rd biggest constituents of the FTSE 100 by market capitalisation, so when their share prices motor the index puts on the after burners.

Coming at the UK market from a broader economic perspective Neil Woodford is similarly upbeat. He argues that economic fundamentals are improving and the consensus view has been too pessimistic. Woodford is a contrarian by nature, so cynics might claim, “he would say that wouldn’t he!” Woodford cites multiple factors including higher employment, less inflation, wage growth, better public finances and a recovery in manufacturing and exports. In addition he argues that valuations are very attractive in out of favour domestically focused companies. For example he considers housebuilders and retailers are far too cheap and growth expectations are too low. He predicts a recovery in 2018 and has positioned his portfolios accordingly.

From my perspective I am minded to agree although I remain very bearish on UK retailers. In addition I have had a long term bias to smaller companies in the UK and elsewhere and instinctively prefer additional allocation to them rather than to FTSE 100 companies, certainly for UK domestic exposure.

The content of this blog is my own understanding of the UK economy and stock market. My comments are intended as general commentary only. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.

Second quarter rally – Is the pesky blonde girl back ?

In the last investment blog I reported that global stock markets retreated in the first quarter of 2018. How things change! Half way through the second quarter there has been a marked improvement in investor sentiment and stock returns. The FTSE 100 index for example closed yesterday at 7,711, a significant recovery from its March 26th low of 6,889 and not far off the all-time high of 7,769 on January 15th. Other market indices have rallied albeit not to the same extent. So what is going on? My reading is there has been a combination of positive factors. One commentator from The Street suggested that in the US first quarter company earnings were impressive but investors have taken time to appreciate this. In the UK inflation fears have abated as economic growth has slowed and according to Charles Stanley & Co Ltd the Bank of England, expected to raise interest rates just a few weeks ago, voted to keep them at 0.5% p.a.

On theme of inflation various commentators including the Chief Economist of Invesco Perpetual, John Greenwood have noted the normal Phillips curve has broken down. The Phillips curve is an inverse relationship between the unemployment rate and inflation. The argument goes as unemployment falls inflation rises and vice versa. It is a very logical assumption borne out in the past by actual data. As unemployment falls not only are there more workers earning and spending but the shortage of skilled labour drives up wages. However in the US Greenwood noted that the tight US labour market has only had a modest impact on wages between 2009 and 2017 and the Phillips curve has been almost flat with a similar result in the UK, Germany and Japan. With inflation fears abating interest rate expectations are muted. This scenario is good for both bonds and equities.

Greenwood also concluded that fears of a US recession are misleading. He said there are three key indicators of recessions and all cases evidence is lacking:

1. The yield curve being inverted. The normal yield curve is based on interest rates on government bonds being correlated with the maturity date of the bond i.e. the longer the term the higher the interest rate paid. This is because investors in longer dated bonds demand higher interest rates to offset the greater risk of uncertain future inflation and interest rate rises. Greenwood noted the yield curve is not inverted and unlikely to become so in the near future.

2. A sharp slowdown in money and credit growth. These have been low and steady for several years.

3. Over-leveraged balance sheets; too much debt in plain English. Consumer balance sheets are in good shape and Greenwood reckons even if interest rates do rise US consumers should be resilient.

In conclusion Greenwood stated that in the US, Japan and the Eurozone low inflation will continue for the next few years and there is a low risk of recession. Greenwood is someone I respect and listen to. I find his analyses of the global economy to be measured, balanced and compelling.

Other factors have contributed to the recent market rally. The easing of tensions between North Korea and the US has been positive, although this has been followed by a deterioration in the Middle East, with the US pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. The technology sector has recovered from its mauling earlier in the year. Charles Stanley’s Chief Investment Commentator, Garry White noted in a recent blog that Apple shares have climbed to a new high whilst Facebook has clawed back its losses from the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal. Finally mergers and acquisitions are expected to spike in 2018, driving stock prices.

In the first quarter Goldilocks did a runner (see blog of 24/3/18). The bears ate their porridge in peace. However it seems Goldilocks was just being sneaky, hiding in the woods and is now ready to make another foray into the bears’ house in search of goodies. Perhaps the not too hot, not too cold economy is back. We shall see.

The content of this blog is my own understanding of the global economy and stock markets. My comments are intended as general commentary only. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.

Markets Retreat in Q1 2018

Global stock markets ended the first quarter of 2018 down. Data from HSBC Global Asset Management and Datastream showed the following index returns,*

UK Equities: -7.3%

Asia Pacific (excluding Japan) -7.2%

Japan Equities: -5.5%

European Equities: -3.3%

Emerging Market Equities: -2.3%

US Equities: -2.2%

*MSCI are an independent producer of stock market indices widely used in the industry. These are total returns including re-invested dividends.

You will recall there was a sharp global stock market sell-off at the end of January and early February, and generally negative sentiment and higher volatility in evidence since then, triggered by fears of a trade war between the US and China. Property and investment grade corporate bonds also fell during the quarter whilst global government bonds rose a tad, 0.3%, in the first three months. On Monday 5th February the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged more than 1,500 points, its biggest one day fall in history. In percentage terms however, the drop was more modest and certainly not a record.

The principal reason for the February sell-off was a fear of rising interest rates in the US caused by stronger than expected wage growth. Perversely, good economic data is sometimes viewed suspiciously by investors. Whilst rising wages should boost domestic spending and lead to a reduction in personal debt, they threaten a spike in inflation. Moreover wage growth for employees is an added cost for companies and a drag on their profits.

The first quarter of 2018 has been a wake-up call for investors who had become rather complacent given that 2017 was a very benign year with strong equity returns and very low volatility. Commentators are now calling the end of the Goldilocks economy, one that is not too hot or not too cold and doing very nicely, thank you very much. So what is the problem? When inflation bites bond prices fall and yields rise. For example the benchmark 10 year US Treasury yields recently hit 3%, for the first time since January 2014. This means investors can now buy “risk free” government debt and earn 3% p.a. so rising yields tempts investors out of equities and into bonds.

What I found surprising though is that US equities fell much less than in UK equities in Q1 2018 and less than in other markets. This is odd given the trigger for the market falls in February was an issue with the US domestic economy. When America sneezes the world catches a cold, but the US proved more resilient this time around.

To finish I thought it would be instructive to see how a number of targeted absolute return funds and cautious multi-asset funds I have recommended to clients have fared over the same period. These should have protected capital, if not in absolute terms, relative to pure equity funds. Here are the results, they are total returns including dividends or interest re-invested and are net of all fund charges:

M&G Episode Income: -0.67%

Henderson UK Absolute Return: -1.3%

Baring Multi-Asset: -2.5%

Santander Atlas Portfolio: -2.73%

Cornelian Cautious: -3.23%

Premier Multi-Asset Distribution: -3.26%.

Clearly all funds performed better than UK equites, a key comparator for UK investors, although none provided absolute capital protection over the quarter. To be fair most of these funds do not target a positive return over all periods.

The last three funds lost more than I might have expected but I don’t judge investments based on three month performance figures. A final point to make is that charges are not relevant to index returns, unlike with managed funds. In many cases these are more than 1% p.a. when transaction costs are taken into account.

The content of this blog is my own understanding of the global economy and stock markets. My comments are intended as general commentary only. Nothing in this article should be construed as personal investment advice. You should seek individual advice based on your own financial circumstances before making investment decisions.