Economic and Investment Opinions September 2016

Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain – Friedrich Schiller, German Dramatist 1759 – 1805

There is a great deal happening in the global economic market, much is important but little has an immediate impact on the way that institutional traders think and act.

In China, the economy is moving from an infrastructure investment base to a consumer driven one. The economic growth rate is slowing and lending from mainstream and secondary banks is at very high levels. That economic growth is declining from incredibly high figures is not news. The data is widely held to be unbelievable with numbers dictated by the government. However, even with real growth of 3% instead of the official 6%, there are still many non-government sector domestic investment opportunities with good corporate governance. A good fund manager will find these and avoid the banks, many of which seem to be headed for disaster through their unskilled lending, having wrongly believed that the state would bail them out. China’s imports are also changing, with consumer demand driving imports rather than engineering or raw materials. It is not that demand for steel, energy and engineered goods will cease, far rather demand for them is declining in favour of other imports.

Brexit, having caused two days of uncertainty in the investment markets then became less of an issue and calm promptly returned. The messages from the leaders of the weaker countries and the bureaucrats nominally at the helm of the European Union, that Britain should leave quickly and quietly – in other words, to fall on its own sword – have been ignored. Europe now has the opportunity to make changes within the Union, though bearing in mind the unlikelihood of reaching any decision; it is unlikely this will happen. At the recent meeting in Bratislava where the future of Europe was discussed, a number of suggestions were made. One glares out as an example of startlingly opportunistic but depressingly unrealistic thought. France suggests there should be a united European military headquarters, (presumably in France) controlling a European military force which would act in support of the European government. This is of course an interesting suggestion from the only European country capable of fielding a modern fighting force and one of only three remaining countries, after the United Kingdom’s departure (the others being Greece and Poland), to have adhered to the 2% of GDP minimum spending on defence. The major problem with this idea is that any pan-European decision, including military action, will take so long to achieve that any war would be lost long before agreement was reached to fight one. Such a force becomes meaningless because its political leaders, each with their own policies, would never willingly agree on a coherent decision. So it is with the reform proposals put forward in outline terms in Bratislava. They are unlikely to be agreed by all the states at any time in the future and so are in practice meaningless.

There is still a marked imbalance between the economic strength of the European States. The Northern Sates led by Germany for whom the Euro as a currency is too weak and the Southern States led by France, whose internal domestic issues and ensuing economic weakness make their current value of the Euro against world currencies too strong. This cannot be muddled through over the long term and a two speed Europe with different currencies and different economic strategies has to be the outcome. If one wants swift action, rather than just a swift Brexit, there should be a clear and rapid North South split in the structure and policies of the economic union. A removal of the bureaucratic overlay could be an additional advantage.

Bureaucracy makes itself felt in Germany too. The former German health minister Andrea Fischer recognized that she had a problem with the four permanent secretaries of her ministry when she took over in 1998. She swiftly removed three of them, but in a recent speech, she reflected that the fourth one undermined her just as effectively as the other 3 would have. She left office in 2001. It is clear that the whims of an unelected bureaucracy, without reference to their elected Political masters, make the execution of German policy. This is true through the length and breadth of German society and it is then left to the German courts to decide what policy was intended and what the laws actually mean.

In the USA there is a presidential election looming. What makes this one special and interesting is that the choice is between two deeply unpopular candidates. The least disliked candidate will probably win. The suggestion is that there is so much hostility towards both candidates that many more undecided voters than normal will actually get out and vote.

Under the democratic candidate, there will probably be very few changes to current policies. The Republican candidate has promised far reaching changes, not all of which are honest, logical or feasible. It must be remembered that the US Bureaucracy as much as in Germany, can dampen or alter the reality of policies.

The US economy is gaining ground and US corporations are growing in their profitability. Now seems a very good time to switch from European equities into the US Markets. However until the result of the US election is known, there is much to be said for holding back for the time being.

Risk and its management is now all-important. Where the traditional fixed income markets are showing negative returns, there is a temptation to diversify into hitherto unknown areas such as the Emerging Markets and corporate debt with much lower risk ratings than most investors had previously experienced or understood. Indeed many companies are capable of issuing debt at effectively no cost and are steadfastly doing so. Investors in such bonds are not being rewarded for the risks they are taking. Yet there is a danger of believing that these conditions will last forever and therefore acting, or not acting, accordingly. They won’t; the ancient dictum “These times will change” will inevitably make itself felt. Fund managers with analysts who are capable of assessing lower quality risk and taking coherent decisions will be able to avoid the inevitable future problems with debt from companies that fall by the wayside.

There is however now much to be said for investing in the Equities of the same high quality companies, where the yields, made up by equity market price increases and dividends, at least provide a passable return. Once again the skill of a management team and a wide distribution of risk will play key roles.

Looking into the future, there are industries that are once again flourishing after a longer term global economic downturn. Examples here are efficient oil and raw material producers. Increased consumer confidence also means an increased demand for the so-called next generation resources, such as lithium, battery storage production, renewable energy and coatings and packaging companies. These are detailed operations and need thorough competent analysis. They do however have a very strong future.

The major victims of the economic changes and zero or negative interest rates are the banks, which cannot make a profit with their lending when competition from other lenders is driving interest rates to effectively zero. Many funds from the major fund management companies had and still have a cushion of bank equities. These are now suffering badly and the entire sector is in urgent need of a substantial review. There is already a rescue scheme being organized for at least one Italian bank, even if this goes against European regulations. In Italy, regulations which would normally be adhered to rigidly in the Northern States are adjusted – almost with impunity- to meet specific political and economic needs.

Japanese and Western central banks have kept their interest rates – the rate at which the Central bank lends to commercial banks, at zero for a considerable length of time. The policy began in Japan in 1992 and was then taken up by the US Federal Reserve in 2008 to stave off economic collapse. In Europe, the ECB followed suit in March 2016. A zero interest Rate Policy was originally intended as an emergency measure to provide liquidity to the banks. As happens so often with emergency measures, they are clasped very tightly even when the need for them has disappeared. At the same time, the Fed, the ECB, Switzerland, Sweden and the Bank of England have Quantitative Easing Programs by which they buy high quality debt from the commercial banks to inject more money into their respective economies. Such cash injections were intended to increase investment demand and lift inflation rates from near to zero at present to a more normal two percent. This has not happened and has left the central banks with inflated balance sheets and often questionable assets, but without ammunition, other than the fear of uncertainty amongst investors, to steer their economies. The emergency measures have continued and will continue unabated until someone, somewhere, comes up with a better idea.

The outcome is that fixed income investments, needed by so many institutions to secure their obligations in the future, now have a zero and sometimes negative yield. Insurance companies have to incur costs to manage and meet their obligations and cannot now do so with the present low and indeed negative yields in their investments, The result is that investors, both institutional and retail have to increase the risk of their investments in order to achieve a higher yield. The concern once again is that many investors really do not understand what it means to take higher risks. Their nervous reactions to bad market news means that suddenly bonds and to a lesser extent equities will be dumped wholescale into the markets, almost at any price when the computers, who are not programmed to understand risk, signal a sell order.

Where does this leave the private investor? The safe investment havens of the past have disappeared. Not only will some life insurance companies no longer be able to meet their guaranteed payments and may be threatened with having to avoid making payments under their policies with guaranteed interest rates, but the wholesale stampede into previously unknown investment markets, such as the Emerging Markets in an attempt to improve returns, has dropped many bond prices in this sector. Some well managed funds, such as those from Nordea have seen a massive influx of institutional and other fund of fund money and have had to close their doors to further new investment. The fact that this is hot money and can just as quickly disappear as happened with the property funds in Germany in 2011, should be clear.

There is no realistic alternative to investing in Equities, either through equity funds or as part of mixed strategy strategies. The aim has to be to build up a carefully diversified portfolio of well-managed funds and be prepared for the many changes that will inevitably happen in the near and medium future.

John Townsend advises clients on their investment portfolios for Matz-Townsend Finanzplanung.

He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment in London.



Unsettled Markets

John Townsend’s Investment Opinions – Mid June 2016

There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.
Gertrude Stein American writer 1874-1946

The panic that gripped the equity markets at the end of 2015, reached its low point on 11th February 2016. No-one noticed, because the fear affecting the markets was still so clear that it took a while for the memory of the pain to subside. There was no logic to the panic, just a number of seemingly dislocated events, such as the low oil price (which should have been seen as positive), China’s slowing economic data, terrorist acts, the EU refugee crisis, the unrest in the Ukraine, the fact that the Syrian war has de facto turned into Sunni versus Shia, and the weaker employment figures in the US all played their part. The MSCI in Euros dropped 12%, the DAX some 16%. The doom mongers who perhaps once guessed the markets decline, are now deemed to be expert prophets. I don’t believe the markets are in decline, but are instead vulnerable to volatility, especially as the downward movements in prices had no intrinsic logic, based as they were almost entirely on emotion and fear. It is also important not to confuse the national economies with the equity markets and well managed Funds. A good fund manager will find opportunities even in poor economies.

China floated its currency, the Renminbi Yuan (RMBY) last year. At the same time the Chinese central committee’s decision to turn the Chinese economy from an investment in infrastructure driven economy to a consumer demand driven one has inevitably caused a change in the rate of economic growth, but as the Chinese growth figures were largely artificial anyway, the effect should have been minimal and an encouragement of the view that the world outside China would one day see real figures. The fact remains that the Chinese economy is still very large and is showing growth; the demand for consumer products from domestic as well as foreign sources is growing. A weaker RMBY also makes imports more expensive which encourages domestic suppliers to grow.

In Europe the crises bumble on unabated. The possibility of Britain leaving the European Union (known as Brexit) has caused and is causing turmoil. Once again experts and pollsters are having a wonderful time making predictions, some for a British exit, some against. The British government has not helped their cause with the ruling conservative party being deeply split. The opposition Labour party, under its new and ineffectual leader, is effectively rudderless, though theoretically in favour of remaining within the European Economic Community, but unable to provide any consistent lead. Bookmakers and betting shops still suggest (just) that Britain will remain within the fold, but the 23rd June is the deciding date and the expert opinions will then have to be tempered by reality. It is the older generations from the comfort of their armchairs who are demanding a Brexit; the younger generation is much more pro-European and will benefit most from Britain remaining within the EU, but many either do not yet have the vote or won’t vote for whatever reason. In the meantime, the investment markets will continue to be volatile but post-election markets will show investment opportunities both in the UK and in a more stable Europe.

The ECB’s policies have caused interest rates and bond yields to drop to never before seen depths. 10 year German government bonds are now much sought after, despite the fact that yields are now firmly in negative territory. The argument is that the institutions do not expect to hold the paper to maturity anyway, but need a safe haven until the ever present uncertainty prevails. Bond fund managers have taken to increasing their returns by taking more risk, though still within the BBB investment grade boundary. By investing in corporate bonds, many of which are in any event more highly rated than some European governments, as well as selecting different maturities within their portfolios, the fund managers can protect the stability of their yields.

In the US, the Federal Reserve has begun to raise interest rates. It was at first only a token gesture but a signaled intention and more is certain to come. Europe is inevitably some way behind the US with the ECB continuing to expand the purchasing program of investment grade bonds from European banks. It seems that the major beneficiaries of the ECB’s liquidity measures are the banks (and therefore the governments) of the weaker southern European states. The Banks within northern Europe, with the occasional hiccup, do not need this stimulus, nor indeed do the northern European governments.

Rock bottom interest rates have encouraged some investors to consider investing in houses, not for their own residential needs, but rather to rent out as an investment. This needs to be treated with caution. Even houses in reasonable condition outside the biggest cities cannot, with the best will in the world, make a comparable return even to the negative yields in the 10 year Government bond markets. One has to take into account the costs of purchase (some 10% of the purchase price) the fact that prices are unlikely to rise appreciably over 10 years, the fact that all buildings will need to be repaired at the owners’ cost and also that there will inevitably be times when a property is unlet. These factors will reduce the returns of rental property to a point where a well balanced fund portfolio will provide a much better return.

Gold has once again become a topic for serious discussion. The market collapse of the past few years has caused discipline to be re-imposed, with unprofitable mines and mining companies being shut and less ill-thought out investment in new mines taking place. A certain, but small amount of physical gold – in sellable form – might be worth considering as a defence against disaster as long as it is kept somewhere safe from theft , where investors can access to it in the event of a true crisis. Banks are not ideal depositories as they are likely to remain firmly closed when disaster strikes.

Investors should, above all, seek a broad diversification within their portfolio. There are many fund managers who skillfully find sound equity investments, but these investments should be balanced with well managed bond funds. Investors should also consider mixed strategy funds, covering the equity and the bond markets as well as absolute return funds, where performance is not necessarily correlated with movements in the markets.

Many new funds and new strategies have sprung up since the markets became volatile. Not all are managed with the skill that makes them worth considering and many will not survive. Therefore, when selecting funds for a well-diversified portfolio, only fund managers who can show at least a three year track record of managing risk, including in adverse markets, should be considered.

Much is made of the costs contained within a fund (the Total Expense Ratio or TER) and the fact that fund managers might have the gall to pay themselves too much, including sometimes with performance fees. This is nonsense. Funds should be selected purely on the basis of net returns to investors over a longer period when compared to their peer group and the ability of the manager to manage risk. A successful fund manager deserves to be well rewarded as long as the investor gains the benefit. Funds that in yield and risk terms fall below the top quintile of their peer-group should not be selected for investment anyway and if they are already in the portfolio should be considered for replacement.

John Townsend advises clients on their investment portfolios for Matz-Townsend Finanzplanung.
He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment in London.