John Townsend’s Investment Opinions January 2020

There is only one good, knowledge and one evil, ignorance. – Socrates

A very Happy New Year and a Happy New Decade to all.

There have been many changes in the past decade. Everyone has their own list of events, some good, and some bad. The one certainty is that the next 10 years will have many more changes and there is no certainty as to what these changes will be.

The investment markets are influenced on their returns by the acts of politicians. Some acts are obvious, such as those in the US at present, some are less clear, as in Germany, but will probably have a long lasting effect.

Cleon was an Athenian General who died in 422 BC. In his lifetime he earned a reputation amongst his peers for being a loudmouthed, unscrupulous and war-mongering demagogue. He accused his peers, especially Pericles of maladministration of public money, though the latter was able to clear his name. Cleon went on to dominate Athenian Politics, misusing the democracy that was applied there. He was rough and unpolished, but he knew how raise the emotions of the poor Athenians who in turn supported him in making false charges against his political opponents so as to remove them from power. He criticised the Athenian generals, but was himself a failure when it finally came to leading an Athenian army. The actions of Cleon led inevitably to the downfall of the Athenian Golden Age.

Although an aristocrat, he found it politic to break off all connections with his own noble background. His influence lay in a forceful and bullying style of politics and a tone which was both anti-intellectual and anti-aristocratic. In his treatise ‘History of the Peloponnesian war’ Thucydides described Cleon as being an opponent of peace because if tranquillity were ever to be restored, his crimes would be more open to detection and his slanders less credited.  Lessons can be learnt from history, even from 2,500 year ago.

Careful investing means having to look beyond the immediate and past movements in the markets. Whereas major US corporations and their shares have contributed too much of the profits in the past years, some could now be running out of steam.  Many companies in the US and in Europe have borrowed heavily while interest rates were (and are) low, in part to buy back their own shares, which in turn has helped to raise equity prices. This increased debt has also been used to cover inefficiencies. The problem is that much of this additional debt will come back to haunt the lenders when interest rates begin to rise again as one day they will and when companies fail as a result. A major change in the past decade has been that it is no longer the banks that lend to companies and foreign governments, it is the investment funds. When the crunch comes, the banks will have earned their fees as arrangers, but the funds will have carried the risk and will bear the brunt of any down turn. It is time to limit investment in fixed income products severely.

Investors have to be able to understand the risks their funds are taking. ETFs are the archetypal ‘fake’ investments. An ETF does not carry out an analysis, but instead follows a market blindly; when an index changes its composition, so will an ETF.  The difference between the selling price of the old asset and the purchasing price of the new one is then disguised in the undisclosed costs. In a strong and rising market, a lack of decision making analysis does not show. When an economy weakens, critical analysis becomes essential to understand the risks and avoid or at least mitigate them. An ETF invests using borrowed money attracted by the seeming lack of costs. Analysis and risk management costs money. Analysts mitigate losses; without such knowledge there is no understanding and therefore no protection against sudden market movements.

Investment sectors in the coming decade must include equity funds which earn dividends from the companies in which they invest. These companies have to pay dividends from earnings and not from increasing their debt. Only careful analysis will identify these.

There is an increasing market for sustainable investments. This market will continue to grow rapidly and the prices of shares from companies whose activities are clearly sustainable have risen and will continue to rise based on the demand for such assets. The bandwagon effect has of course taken hold and many fund management companies have labelled their funds as being sustainable, even when their assets are not. This is called ‘greenwashing’. There are inevitably many agencies which offer sustainability ratings. Some of these are credible, others, again, are not. The United Nations has issued a list of 17 Sustainable development goals which investors should adhere to when selecting their investments. Many of these goals are contradictory and professional fund managers have had to sub-divide these criteria into five broader groups to make conscientious investing possible.

Economic markets too have their problems. Investors have benefited greatly from the rise in demand for US and European equities, but the US economy seems to have reached a plateau which Europe has yet to arrive at. The warning signs are there and caution is called for. Third-world investments especially in Asia, including China, presently show a great deal of promise.

Japanese companies have quietly become profitable again. Japanese institutions are investing domestically and abroad and the stock markets, which have been at a low level for too long a time, have begun to rise, especially as alternatives to the US markets are being sought. The usual divisions between value and growth stocks are not particularly relevant here. Good companies are being supported by rising demand. Fund investors should concentrate on finding competent and experienced fund managers to access this market.

Chinese companies have been vilified because of the involvement of the Chinese state in many aspects of their activities. In truth, those companies which are big enough to warrant overseas investment do probably have governmental oversight, but many are inherently dynamic and profitable. There is an argument that larger companies even with state oversight, still have a spirit of entrepreneurship, yet are unlikely to suffer the economic volatility in times of adversity, particularly because of government support. The banks are another matter however. The Chinese government, having clamped down on excess lending from secondary banks, especially for investments outside China, is now encouraging local banks to support small and medium companies which could be suffering from concerns over the trade dispute with the USA.

There is presently an attempt at cooling the so-called trade war started by President Trump when playing to his red-neck US crowd. He might have had more success had he reined together the other global economic players, but teamwork has seemingly never been his strength. In the end, it is US farmers and industry that have suffered more than any Chinese sector. Many US companies are now terrified that the markets for their products (the biggest market for Apples iPhones is in China) will dry up. There will be a treaty of sorts and Mr Trump will claim the usual resounding victory in this, an election year. In reality the US has missed its target and has gained only scorn and increasing distrust from China as well as from traditional US allies and much of the rest of the industrialised world.

The investment markets will not continue their steep upward path in 2020 and beyond. There will be increasing volatility and investment portfolios will need to be adjusted to meet these challenges. This means that the proportion of equities in even the most dynamic portfolios will need to be reduced. Above all, portfolios will need to be diversified within investment sectors and between them. There can be no alternative to broad diversification. The hype over low cost ETFs should be ignored in favour of safer returns from the best performing managers with real analysis, high returns over their indices (Alpha) and a proven track record.

Past performance is no guarantee of future profitability.

John Townsend’s Investment Opinions 03 January 2019

“Wall Street indexes predicted nine of the last five recessions” – the late Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson

In the last three months of 2018 we experienced a major correction in the global Equity- and Debt markets. It is the nature of a panicked market, especially one fuelled by the actions of politicians of ill-will, that there will be severe overreactions. The end of 2018 saw such a panic, coupled with an avoidable trade war with China which the US is unlikely to profit from, an expected slowdown in Chinese growth from 6.6% to ‘only’ 6%, a British exit from the European Economic Community, for no good reason other than xenophobia and a vague, though possibly unfounded hope, that other non-European countries will step in to fill the inevitable trading void. This is leading to the slow suicide of a once proud economy and political system and its fall into relative obscurity.

All of the above, despite a global growth rate of some 3.7% in 2018, caused embattled traders, who were waiting mainly to square off their trading positions for Christmas and the New Year to seriously overreact. Something which will cause a rebound in 2019.

A year-end correction had been expected. The developed economies had experienced some 10 Years of growth and a deep breath was to be expected. Equally, the global economies are at a late stage in their economic cycles, though not yet at the end of them, based on the experiences of history. Market sentiment cannot be predicted and when an unadvised US president follows his ‘gut instincts’ based on reports on Fox news rather than the advice of his own staff, the gyrations caused by ill-considered twittered announcements produce only negative results.

Yet the US and Chinese economies are both strong and growing, there is no sign of recession there, perhaps yet. In the US, a major tax relief exercise helped to boost corporate profits for the time being, though this is unlikely to be repeated. President Trump is blaming the increase in US interest rates of 0.25% for any future weakness in growth. In China, the government has realised that a relaxation in the credit availability had helped growth in the past, but is in danger of going too far. A clampdown on loan availability from the private sector and secondary banks is taking place, which is leading to insecurity on the part of the manufacturing sector which is worrying about funding for future trade and investment. This too will find a new balance in 2019.

In Europe uncertainty is being caused not only by Brexit and where to find the billions that the UK has in the past paid to Europe to support various schemes and the ever needy southern ‘olive oil’ countries. Italy and France are beginning to show signs of economic slowdown too. The French government is trying to take counter measures but is being met with predictable violent demonstrations. In Italy, a new populist government does not even want to discuss financial rectitude and the Italian economy is likely to be a source of concern in the year ahead.

The emerging markets are dependent to a large extent on the demand for their goods from the developed world. They are working hard to build some interdependence, though a decline in the developed markets will undoubtedly cause a slowdown.

The global investment markets will recover from the current panic, as the senior traders resume their work at the beginning of the year. There will be a period of calm, but the threat of a recession is never far away and portfolios should be stabilised by additional diversity to counter the buffeting to come.

Germany has been the powerhouse of the European Investment markets for several years; however the German economy has been largely focussed on engineering and technology companies. These two sectors have been suffering badly as confidence has drained from the institutional investors. The diesel scandal affecting many if not most of the car manufacturers and their declining support they are receiving from the local politicians causes concern about profitability, although not their actual survival. Technology stocks have been hit because of the general concern about this sector on a global sector. Let us be clear; there is a very good future to be seen in both the German engineering and technology sectors  and investors would do well to sit on their hands here too until the malaise has passed.

Funds following mixed strategies have traditionally been a safe haven to reduce risk, yet it is this mixed strategy sector which has also taken an unexpected beating in the past crisis. 2019 should see a reduction in the proportion of a portfolio which is allocated to equities. However, past academic studies have shown that there are only some eight to ten days in an average year which offer strong growth to investors.  If these days are missed, a portfolio will have minimal, though positive returns. In the same average year there are normally only some five or six days which suffer heavier losses. No one can say in advance which the profitable or losing days are. The message is that investors have to remain invested and to be patient.

Investing in cash is also not advisable in the long term. Inflation rates are rising and an investment needs to earn more than the rate of inflation, currently 1.8% in Germany in order for investors and savers to retain the spending power of their money.

The final economic recession before the start of the next cycle is now probably due in 2020, having been pushed back by the turmoil created by the present market upheaval. The timing is impossible to predict, as the event has been widely discussed, possibly resulting in a move in anticipation of the reality. The very few ‘experts’ who predicted the major crash of 2007/9 are also making their predictions, though these should be discounted to some extent by the fact that so many experts are judged on the one  event they possibly foresaw and not by the ones they did not.

The sectors to follow in 2019 include those where sentiment has swung against them in 2018. These are Germany, China, Japan and technology. The US equity markets are overvalued due mainly to the fact that they are supported by major local financial institutions. This gives them inadequate value for money and buffering when it comes to a down turn.

Emerging markets depend on efficient companies selling to strong economies as long as the Chinese, European and US markets continue to prosper, they will also offer adequate returns. The New Frontier Markets, those where countries are too economically small to count even as emerging markets, can produce windfall returns, but in a volatile environment the risks and the liquidity of their investments make them increasingly dangerous.

Past performance is no guarantee of future profitability.

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.

(Townsend@insure-invest.de)

 

John Townsend’s Investment Opinions June 2017

Henry Ford was right. A prosperous economy requires that workers be able to buy the products that they produce. This is as true in a global economy as a national one. – John Sweeney

Despite all the happenings in the political world, now is actually an excellent time to invest in equities. The financial crises happened 10 years ago and companies are once again running profitably and investing. International and domestic trade has picked up again and there is no point – at all – in investing in the fixed income markets or keeping money with the banks where the returns are negative. Investment in real estate for letting, which is in or near big cities has become wildly over-priced, is incredibly inflexible and is no longer a profitable alternative.

It is the loudest trumpet that most often has the least meaning. The United States of America under President Trump is fast losing its credibility as a world power. The Russians, Chinese and Saudi Arabians, having learned that flattery was extraordinarily productive in gaining the friendship and attention of Mr. Trump, soon realized that the benefits of such flattery had only a short life span.  Mr. Trump seems be growing old disgracefully; one can use the analogies of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (off with his head) or the Emperor’s new clothes by Hans Christian Anderson, where the courtiers are too afraid to say that the emperor is, in fact, naked. Then there is Shakespeare’s play the tragedy of Julius Caesar where a dominant and arrogant Caesar is murdered by his courtiers. Each work has its parallels in the court of Donald Trump. The effect on the outside world is however minimal.

Mr. Trump’s announcement that the United States of America is to walk away from the Paris climate accord has much to do with the fact that this agreement was negotiated and signed by former President Obama.  It makes absolutely no economic or social sense at all to leave the accord and merely leaves the way open for other countries to fill the economic and leadership void left by the US departure.

The US president was elected on a populist ticket. The result is, disappointingly, anything other than populist; the actions suggested so far are those that will exclusively benefit the American elite. The next big question is how the midterm elections will affect support for or pressure against this president and whether US politicians will take the chance and insist on a change at the top before then.

Within the presidential medieval court in Washington, there seems to be chaos with policies being announced off the cuff by the president using Twitter, even if this directly contradicts the statements and efforts of his ministers. Many of the administration’s more senior positions remain unfilled and stories about fits of rage and tantrums in the corridors of power abound. Policy is not being made in the White House; it is up to individual members of the Senate to guess the right moment to present their measures to the president or his coterie of close advisors. In the end however, little or nothing is being accomplished.

President Trump has yet to have a single success story in his tenure so far. His aim seems to lie principally in trying to remove the measures passed by his predecessor, President Obama. In order to do so however, there has to be a willingness on the part if the entire Republican Party to support him, but this is simply not there. Overseas, the high point seems to have been the awarding of a big shiny gold medallion from the Saudi King to Donald Trump upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia. This was followed by the signing of an agreement in principle for a 110 Billion Dollar 10 year arms deal, which is at present being held up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s refusal to give permission.

At the end of the day what actually matters to investors is the fact that the US economy is performing well and that US companies are profitable. It has taken about 10 years for industry and the banking sector to recover from the market panic of 2007 to 2009.

The defeat of so-called Islamic State or Da’ish in Syria and Iraq has little economic consequence, but is more emotive. A caliphate, or territory under an Islamic steward, was declared in Mosul by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the nom de guerre of Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, with himself as caliph in 2013.  Before its final defeat, Al-Baghdadi ordered members of Da’ish to form their own one, two or three person caliphates wherever they happened to be in the world. These have been ordered to destroy society wherever they find themselves. The weapons to be used are anything that comes to hand, with vehicles, bombs and knives being specifically mentioned. Very few young men and women will finally heed the call, but some have and still will and there will be enough for the security forces to worry about particular targets; otherwise the main aim is to destabilize western society.

The myth of Arab brotherhood in the Gulf Area is becoming apparent in Qatar, where the country is being isolated and pressured by its conservative Sunni neighbours led by Saudi Arabia. The aim is to force Qatar to cut communication with Shi’ite Iran and to curtail the freedom of the more or less independent press. The Saudis have been emboldened by the support they believe has been promised them from the US president supported by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, however short lasting this may be.

In Europe the economic picture is also looking positive. Despite Brexit, many European and British companies are showing increased profitability are expanding and are paying dividends, all the better to meet the investors’ demand for risk assets offering a positive yield. Economic growth has returned, albeit in parts in Germany and is expected to appear in France under the new President Macron. Corporate efficiency is improving with costs being kept under control. At the opposite extreme, in Italy and Greece, the upward pressure on wage costs reinforces their uncompetitive position. The Italian and Spanish banking systems are also in a very weak state. This conundrum can only be solved by a two tier European Economy with two separate currencies. Uncertainty also arises from the forthcoming Italian election where a populist and anti-European party is gaining strength and must be reckoned with.

In the United Kingdom, a needless and incredibly badly handled snap general election has left the present ruling conservative party with a minority government, supported at present by a small Northern Irish party. The present prime minister Mrs. May has run out of her own feet to shoot into and is unlikely to last much beyond the autumn party conference where she will be expected to ‘do the right thing’.  Not only that, the present government is filled with characters more often found in a kindergarten. On the other hand, to allow the left wing Labour Party leader to run the country with populous messages that make absolutely no economic sense and seem to be dependent on spending money which does not exist would be a disaster. Mrs. May with an astonishing lack of skill has plunged the country into chaos just at a time when it needs to focus on negotiating even a halfhearted exit from the EU.

The conservative British government must now be seen to be supporting British Industry and the financial sector, something it had ignored in its political machinations. The British economy is still surprisingly strong, though there is cause for concern with a government that is woefully weak.

China is seeing subtle but important changes. The Chinese central bank is clamping down on the export of capital for foreign investment, while also putting pressure on the domestic secondary finance markets. The Chinese expected growth in GDP is expected to be between 6.5 and 6.7% in the present year.

There are two important developments in Chinese policy; the first is the Belt and Road initiative, a development strategy proposed in 2013 by the Chinese president Xi Jinping. The Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road focus on the economic links between Europe and Asia as well the ocean-going supply routes which will provide China with a source of necessary imports. ‘Belt and Road’ is a long term project and is made possible by the Chinese tradition of long-term leadership.

The infrastructure initiative covers mainly Asia and Europe, but also includes Australasia and East Africa; it will include investments of up to 8 Trillion US Dollars and will ensure that China has the necessary import of raw materials for its industry and the necessary transport means to export its industrial production. Politics aside, there will be a significant future for Chinese industries.

The economic crisis of 2007 – 2009 has passed, the global economy has recovered and companies are thriving for the right reasons. At the same time there is no sense at all in investing in Government Bonds or putting money in the banks, which pay negative or very low interest rates, are themselves not customer friendly and are in need of reform. The only real alternative for private investors is to invest in very carefully chosen equities, using fund managers with a proven track record of managing risk and diversifying markets as widely as makes sense.

 

Past performance is no guarantee of future profitability.