John Townsend’s Investment Opinions July 2019

Truth is always strange, stranger than fiction. – Lord Byron

Tainted politics is taking an undue place in the financial Markets: President Trump’s one man and teamless US government (with the support of a very few loyal , ambitious, but not especially capable henchmen) and Boris Johnson’s directionless  accession to the prime minister’s position in the United Kingdom both carry the hallmarks of an incoherent, disruptive and anarchistic style. To this end both countries are at risk of descending into economic and political chaos with no clear direction and no ability to protect themselves in the event of a coherent threat, whether economic or political. Mr Johnson, who once failed at a career in Journalism largely for manufacturing stories, has been unflatteringly described by his past editors. He has, by all accounts, all the moral direction of a windsock.

The US President, a self-described dealmaker, is imposing tariffs on his own international allies with Europe and Japan in particular bearing the brunt of his newly imposed penalties. There is no logic to these tariffs, other than an attempt by Mr Trump to flex his muscles in the run up to the next US presidential election. The biggest danger of his actions is that the opposing countries could feel themselves forced to devalue their currencies. In any event, it seems that the United States is also planning to devalue the US Dollar to make US exports more competitive. This devaluation competition would be destructive to all western trade.

The threatened trade war with China started by the US president (because trade wars are apparently easy to win) seems to have had little effect on China. Here the annual growth rate has slipped from 6.5% to 6.2%, though this is probably as much due to internal changes made to their economic policy by the Chinese government than any effect the US tariffs are inflicting. The 6.2 % level is still within the limits set by the Chinese government of between 6.0% and 6.5 %. Here it should be noted that the US president seems to have misunderstood the cash flow from imposing tariffs, which is an additional cost to the US consumer not to the Chinese suppliers.

The US economy is buoyant at present and interest rates seem to be set for a decrease of 0.25% again after a similar sized increase in September of 2018. There are however economic clouds on the horizon which could cause weakness in the US economy.  With money being so inexpensive to borrow, there are many US companies expanding through investment, but equally there are also many which are keeping themselves afloat with heavy borrowing. This is potentially troubling for the high yield (and therefore higher risk) investment funds which seek extra performance by investing in non-investment grade companies. They will suffer badly when interest rates begin to rise once more and the US economy weakens. I have chosen to avoid these funds in my client portfolios.

Inflation rates both in the US and in the Eurozone are at very low levels, (1.8% and 1.3% respectively). Growth is equally low at around 1% per year. It is hard to see, given how much money is being made available at present, that inflation will rise appreciably or at all. Interest rates in Europe have also been structured to stay low, even after Mr Draghi leaves his role as the head of the European Central Bank.  Mrs Lagarde will have little freedom to raise Euro interest rates when she takes over. The EU does however now have two problem members, Italy and Poland, which could affect political stability. Both have vocal anti EU Political voices. Low interest rates will undoubtedly help Italy to stay afloat, without that country having to make any difficult internal economic adjustments. Poland, which is the EU’s biggest net recipient of cash, does not pay interest on their EU support and so will be less affected by any future rise in interest rates. In truth neither can afford to leave the shielding wings of Europe, but they can and do stir up unnecessary controversy with their demands which appeal to their local constituents.

The US president’s irrational decision to unilaterally cancel the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral agreement to limit the production of Iranian nuclear material, was in truth intended as a cancellation of yet another measure signed by President Obama, who Trump loathes. Quite why former president Obama is disliked so intensely by Mr Trump is not clear, but the measures the former put in place have been cancelled wholescale without replacement.

Iran has an intractable problem in that it has different internal factions who compete for power and often do not talk to each other. There is the officially recognised government, with whom the foreign governments interact, but there is also the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, with whom foreigners do not communicate, which is the spine of the current political structure and is a major player in the Iranian economy. The IRGC has taken its own violent steps against oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf and the kidnapping of a British vessel in international waters in revenge for the seizing of an Iranian vessel full of oil destined for Syria. The revolutionary guards are not under government control and western foreign ministers’ speaking sternly to their Iranian counterparties has very little effect. The other parties are mainly religious while having an effect the Iranian people, are not important in the international field. It would have been much wiser to have left the treaty untouched.

Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf are the implacable enemies of the Iranians. This has much to do with the Sunni (Saudi et al) versus Shia (Iran and Northern Arab states) conflict within Islam. The Saudis have garnered the support of US president Trump and his son-in-law and feel themselves strong enough to take military and economic measures without regard to other international opinion. This has many of the hallmarks of the League of Nations between the two world wars.

There is however good news from the Emerging markets sector, especially in the Asian region, where good fund managers with capable analysts are now achieving good sustainable returns. In an ever more complex investment market, it is essential to use only those fund managers who have adequate corporate analysis teams  and can take decisions based on  ‘bottom up’ as well as ‘top down’ criteria. There are many excellent companies to be invested in. The big US and European companies are covered by several teams of analysts and cannot make a move without causing a reaction. Smaller, non-US and European, Companies have far fewer analysts watching them and therefore allow more room for valuable research results.

The Japanese economy is proceeding quietly along its own path. Western economic powers are lamenting the increased ‘Japanisation’ of their economies. The Japanese central bank however has been supporting its domestic economy with low interest rates and adequate financial liquidity for many years. This has included buying Japanese government debt and the equities of many big Japanese companies. The second biggest holder of Japanese government debt is the ubiquitous housewife Mrs. Watanabe, it is unlikely that these investors will ever wish to offload their investments and Japanese paper will therefore, despite being relatively unexciting, produce a steady return. While these measures have not led to a high growth rate, they have encouraged corporate profitability and Japanese companies are now healthy.

The Chinese growth rate has reduced slightly to 6.2%. But the Chinese government is working to change the direction of the economy, reduce domestic debt and he domestic dependence on loans from the unregulated banking sector. US tariffs are having only a limited effect, with most goods, such as agricultural commodities which the Chinese used to buy from the US and are now the subject of revenge tariffs, being bought from other countries. Foreign car companies however, especially those with factories in China and those selling cheaper models, are suffering badly with demand for their vehicles drying up. I suspect this is likely to be temporary as the economy gets used to the new government borrowing policies. Again the emphasis on investing in Chinese company risk is to have very highly trained and experienced analysts.

There are still major discussions relating to the difference between passive investments such as ETFs which actively follow a real or artificial index and Active investments such as managed funds. Passive funds theoretically have lower costs as they have no front end fees and no management fees, they do however have the costs of switching their investments when the indices change, though these costs are rarely if ever publicised. Actively managed funds, especially when carefully analysed and well managed, have the advantage of earning a positive margin over an index, known as Alpha. They are normally compared on a net basis after all fees and charges. A client orientated portfolio of actively managed funds is therefore likely to perform better than a portfolio of supermarket index funds. I am a firm believer in seeking out medium term ‘Alpha’ and combining uncorrelated strategies into portfolios with above average returns.

The key to successful and profitable investing in the fund markets is to plan ahead, to stay calm in financial storms and to use the best quality managers who deliver consistent Alpha and as far as possible do not all invest in the same stocks and strategies, thereby avoiding ‘bunching’ of risk.

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 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)

 

Investment Opinions 21 September 2018

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”            Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Much is being made of the insults and slights which the American president is meting out and receiving. Most of these are relevant only because they affect the atmosphere behind the global equity and fixed income markets and these markets are subject to the sentiment of investors rather than facts.

The trade war with China instigated by Mr Trump, who opined that trade wars are easy to win, will hurt mainly the US consumer and US exporters, the Chinese having deliberately targeted the economic areas which are principally Republican strongholds. On the Chinese side, there is likely to be a decline in economic growth; quite how much is difficult to say as the figures are decided in advance by the central authorities and subsequently made to fit. Equally, Chinese economic growth is currently strong and the effect of a few tenths of one percent will be minimal.

China is also pressing on with its trade growth under the belt and road plan, which effectively will cover the world outside the USA. US economic sanctions, especially those imposed with emotion and lack of clarity will cause discomfort, but are unlikely to result in major problems.

Trade between China and the US will simply cost more for the US consumer as there are so many components in every day goods that stem from China. US inflation will rise, but from a low base; the consumer will however notice, which will have political implications.

Bigger problems are arising in the Emerging and Frontier markets, where macroeconomic (governmental level looking down) issues are disguising the fact that there are excellent companies in the third world. Specialist investors and fund managers identify these companies and invest in them even though market sentiment causes unhappiness and falling prices. The market relies on positive global attitudes and still needs to recover from an American president who has destructive tendencies but little understanding of the impact that his publicity seeking actions on the election hustings have outside his immediate horizons.

Interest rates are rising to more normal (i.e. pre financial crisis levels) in the United States. This is causing inflation there to rise too, although again to more normal levels. An inflation rate of around 2% is actually healthy. US companies are profitable and US unemployment is presently low, though the statistics belie the fact that many previously unemployed workers now have crushingly poorly paid work, which can be seen by the low level of wage inflation. The time to invest in US companies is still there, but the market is likely to become overheated as the hot money invested by the so called 16 year old inexperienced traders who follow panic rather lead markets becomes scared of higher volatility.

The European markets are now moving some three to four years behind the United States. While quantitative easing is being run down, interest rates cannot be allowed to rise, because the Italians and Greeks especially simply cannot afford to pay more for the debt they are still incurring.

My recommendation is to focus on investing in Northern European and Japanese markets and only with experienced managers who have a proven track record. There are opportunities in China and Emerging Market companies too, though volatility will always be a problem here.

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)

Are Americans in Germany under taxation pressure?

The difficulties for Americans currently living in Germany in trying to find good solutions for their financial investments are increasing. Caught by tax obligations in both countries and the restrictions imposed on and by commercial banks in Germany, holding investments with banks in the USA, mainly in mutual funds, was often seen as the best solution.

The introduction of a new German investment tax law in January 2018 with very high additional declaration requirements and correspondingly high costs for investments lodged with foreign banks makes it essential to rethink this investment strategy.

For all Americans wanting to stay in Germany for a longer period, given the new circumstances and also to avoid currency risks, it is advisable to plan the management of their investment portfolios in Germany.

Even if the news regarding banks’ dealings with Americans paints a different picture, as experienced and completely independent investment advisors we can still arrange for a custodian bank to hold our clients’ assets here in Germany. By doing so, we enable our clients to manage their investment fund portfolios over the medium and long term.

In our view, if you want to avoid the expense of the new investment fund taxation from the outset, you should make the transfer from the USA to Germany in 2018. This should be done with the advice of German and US tax advisors in order to plan the transfer of your assets and to keep the consequential tax costs from these transfers as low as possible.

With our network of US-American and German tax consultants, we can offer you detailed and comprehensive advice.

We will happily be available to you for a personal discussion should you wish it.

Investment Opinions December 2017

Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.  Groucho Marx

President Trump has finally passed the first important measure so far of his presidency, the tax reform bill. Inevitably in his world of superlatives this is the biggest and best tax cut ever. In reality it isn’t, there have been other larger ones, but it no longer makes a difference. This particular tax cut, being undertaken with borrowed money is dangerous and shows absolutely no understanding of economic reality by a president or by the sycophants surrounding him.  The new measure is said to be a Christmas present for all Americans; perhaps more appropriately there should be an addendum in parentheses, Americans like Mr. Trump. Sadly most middle income Americans have no idea whether or not they will be better off in 2018, as the cuts to their tax deductions are desperately unclear. Mr. Trump’s other achievements to date have been to roll back anything with the name of Obama on it, whether or not it was beneficial to the citizens of the United States. We must constantly remind ourselves that he is the legally elected president of the country and until this changes, this is the price that must be paid for democracy. American influence on the global economic and diplomatic stage has declined sharply.

For investors, 2017 has been a profitable year, though with little rationality and very high volatility. The low, indeed near zero, interest rates in the United States of America and Europe have encouraged corporations to borrow to finance their operations and any kind of return on their investments. Such demand is leading to the acceptance by investors of much lower quality than in the past, which is leading to a series of irrational bubbles, particularly with junk or high yield bonds. Perhaps the most obvious bubble investment is Bitcoin, which has risen in price from US$ 1,000 in January to around US$ 19,000 in November and now US$11,000 today. This massive increase in the price of a Bitcoin is odd as it is a completely unregulated market with nothing behind it and no governing body to oversee abuse. One has to think of the London South Sea Bubble or the Amsterdam Tulip and bulb craze. The original concept of Bitcoin was as an alternative currency, but this has been lost in the panic. The main Bitcoin producers (known as miners) are in Russia and the Ukraine. Bitcoin mining is an expensive and highly technical system and despite many best efforts, uncontrolled. There is now a new futures market for Bitcoins in the US, which in the past has normally been a prelude for a disaster in the market. Investors may congratulate themselves now on the high price of their units, but when the market declines they will find no buyers for their Bitcoins and their investment will swiftly become valueless. Those whose memories are long enough will recall the dotcom era. The only advice is to stay away unless one really wants to gamble on markets more risky than even the Chinese horse races.

Other strange sectors are ETFs. I have written about these before. The market for exchange traded funds began to allow corporate investors to increase or sell equity investments quickly when they wanted to. Since then the market has exploded and even retail investors have been dragged into products which they don’t and cannot understand and where they have vaguely heard there are few costs. In fact ETFs lag behind the markets they are supposed to follow and because their investments are effectively blind, they have neither corporate analysis or governance to rely on, nor the distribution of risk by an experienced manager. This market, while not as bad as Bitcoin, is still a recipe for disaster for the private investor without adequate advice.

We can see the bubble investments in the technology sector. Companies such as Tesla may make very interesting products, but at a cost much higher than the price they can sell their cars for. They have just announced another record loss and admitted that production is way behind schedule. This is still a good company compared with some being enthusiastically supported by the market place. There are indeed good and profitable technology companies in the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) sector, but there is also an awful lot of dross which promises to go sour when the excitement dies down.

Global interest rates have fallen as low as they are likely to. The end of Quantitative Easing is being seen in the United States and in Europe.  US interest rates have begun to rise slightly and Quantitative Easing is being cut back slowly, but American corporate profitability and efficiency is such that equity prices should not be affected. In Europe however, the head of the European Central Bank Mr. Draghi has a problem. He knows that the QE program needs to be cut back to reduce the Central Bank’s balance sheet and that interest rates have to begin to rise. However, as a good Italian, Mr. Draghi also knows that the inefficient Italian economy and banks coupled with the massive Italian national debt, cannot afford higher interest rates. So these have to be held back as much as possible. However, there is very little chance of Italy becoming more efficient or disciplined and repaying its debts, so the next crisis is destined to come in the near future.

The rise in the equity markets is largely based on the fact that most of these different markets declined sharply 10 years ago. Most of the efficient companies remained profitable and the present artificially low interest rates leave investors desperate for positive returns.

The American equity markets are presently strong, having undertaken the necessary measures to improve their efficiency. The Trump tax easing measures have helped, of course, but these were largely discounted.  The US technology sector is flourishing and housebuilding has renewed confidence relying on wage growth in all sectors from the lower to the higher incomes. Coupled with that, American equities have always traded at a premium to equities elsewhere in the world; their present levels should not be seen as being excessive especially as many US pension funds and institutions only invest in their domestic markets.

Europe is also booming, especially Northern Europe. Here the Goldilocks environment where everything is felt to be ‘just right’ exists at present and many companies are showing profitability and growth. The economies of France and Spain are also showing signs of strength, though South Eastern Europe is still heavily dependent on the largesse coming from its more northern neighbours.  As long as investors rely on fund managers who have the ability to select profitable companies from the Northern European states, Europe is still a sound investment.

A decade of stimulus has helped the Asian markets to finally regain enthusiasm but has also stoked speculative fervour. Japan has now begun to find new confidence in both the blue chip and the small company sectors, with foreign investors having been reluctant to step in. This has now changed, especially as just these foreign investors need to find a profit from the money under their control. The Japanese market is showing a great deal of promise.  India too is gaining ground as a source of profitable investment. Of the original BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) India and China are showing most promise, though perhaps India more so than China at present. The other two, riddled as they are with corruption and failing corporate governance are well worth avoiding.

Some property markets are still more or less booming, Australian house prices have been fuelled by very low interest rates, with Sydney’s house prices having risen almost 70 percent and Melbourne’s 57 percent over the past five years. This has all the hallmarks of a bubble which will burst at the latest when interest rates begin to rise and demand from Chinese investors falls away. Much the same is true of property markets in Hong Kong with residential prices having risen over 180 percent since 2008. The Chinese central bank is clamping down on excessive lending by secondary tier banks and the ability of normal Chinese investors to compete in the monopoly world of Hong Kong is being severely reduced, something that will only be exacerbated as US Dollar interest rates rise again.

The almost desperate struggle to find a return on investments has meant that many banks, institutions and funds have begun to lower their risk thresholds and invest in debt from companies and countries they would otherwise never have considered. Ample liquidity has to be used, is the feeling not only by the traditional markets but also by the Chinese financial sector. Prudential lending and probably prudential reserve positions are being ignored, and once again investors need to observe fund managers carefully to see which are following careful strategies and which are merely seeking yield at the expense of quality. It is worth mentioning that the growth in high yield bonds, known in the 1980s as junk bonds is likely to be one of the first victims of a new realism.

The market for multi-asset investments has begun to prove itself, especially when equity volatility and thereby perceived risk has grown. Rising inflation and interest rates, albeit only slowly increasing, make it necessary for investors to seek new sources of diversifications. Funds that invest in Equities but also fixed and floating rate debt, commodities and currencies all have their place in this category, as long as the fund managers have shown their track record of being able to handle such strategies. Some, especially the black-box trend following programs have sadly completely failed; which is precisely why careful analysis and due diligence in reviewing fund managers is so essential.

In 2018 we will see tax changes in Germany, which have a small impact on private investors but which, together with the new MIFID II regulations will increase the amount and clarity of information that has to be supplied by intermediaries and Fund managers. This is nothing to be alarmed about and will hopefully ease the dangers of the miss-selling of inappropriate investments. The days of miss-selling to the ‘A&D’ (alt und doof) clients by the German banks in particular will be thankfully numbered.

There is still strong life in the global equity markets, as long as investments are carried out carefully and with due care and analysis. These markets will become increasingly volatile as institutions become nervous. One cannot discount a sudden nuclear or intense war between, for instance the USA and North Korea which would stir financial disharmony among the inexperienced ‘16 year old institutional traders’ who have no experience, but crises in Bitcoin, Block chain and the Technology stocks are unlikely to prove a ‘Black Swan’ moment and trigger total panic as in 2007/8. It pays to be wary and careful.

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)

Investment Opinions December 2017

Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.  Groucho Marx

President Trump has finally passed the first important measure so far of his presidency, the tax reform bill. Inevitably in his world of superlatives this is the biggest and best tax cut ever. In reality it isn’t, there have been other larger ones, but it no longer makes a difference. This particular tax cut, being undertaken with borrowed money is dangerous and shows absolutely no understanding of economic reality by a president or by the sycophants surrounding him.  The new measure is said to be a Christmas present for all Americans; perhaps more appropriately there should be an addendum in parentheses, Americans like Mr. Trump. Sadly most middle income Americans have no idea whether or not they will be better off in 2018, as the cuts to their tax deductions are desperately unclear. Mr. Trump’s other achievements to date have been to roll back anything with the name of Obama on it, whether or not it was beneficial to the citizens of the United States. We must constantly remind ourselves that he is the legally elected president of the country and until this changes, this is the price that must be paid for democracy. American influence on the global economic and diplomatic stage has declined sharply.

For investors, 2017 has been a profitable year, though with little rationality and very high volatility. The low, indeed near zero, interest rates in the United States of America and Europe have encouraged corporations to borrow to finance their operations and any kind of return on their investments. Such demand is leading to the acceptance by investors of much lower quality than in the past, which is leading to a series of irrational bubbles, particularly with junk or high yield bonds. Perhaps the most obvious bubble investment is Bitcoin, which has risen in price from US$ 1,000 in January to around US$ 19,000 in November and now US$11,000 today. This massive increase in the price of a Bitcoin is odd as it is a completely unregulated market with nothing behind it and no governing body to oversee abuse. One has to think of the London South Sea Bubble or the Amsterdam Tulip and bulb craze. The original concept of Bitcoin was as an alternative currency, but this has been lost in the panic. The main Bitcoin producers (known as miners) are in Russia and the Ukraine. Bitcoin mining is an expensive and highly technical system and despite many best efforts, uncontrolled. There is now a new futures market for Bitcoins in the US, which in the past has normally been a prelude for a disaster in the market. Investors may congratulate themselves now on the high price of their units, but when the market declines they will find no buyers for their Bitcoins and their investment will swiftly become valueless. Those whose memories are long enough will recall the dotcom era. The only advice is to stay away unless one really wants to gamble on markets more risky than even the Chinese horse races.

Other strange sectors are ETFs. I have written about these before. The market for exchange traded funds began to allow corporate investors to increase or sell equity investments quickly when they wanted to. Since then the market has exploded and even retail investors have been dragged into products which they don’t and cannot understand and where they have vaguely heard there are few costs. In fact ETFs lag behind the markets they are supposed to follow and because their investments are effectively blind, they have neither corporate analysis or governance to rely on, nor the distribution of risk by an experienced manager. This market, while not as bad as Bitcoin, is still a recipe for disaster for the private investor without adequate advice.

We can see the bubble investments in the technology sector. Companies such as Tesla may make very interesting products, but at a cost much higher than the price they can sell their cars for. They have just announced another record loss and admitted that production is way behind schedule. This is still a good company compared with some being enthusiastically supported by the market place. There are indeed good and profitable technology companies in the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) sector, but there is also an awful lot of dross which promises to go sour when the excitement dies down.

Global interest rates have fallen as low as they are likely to. The end of Quantitative Easing is being seen in the United States and in Europe.  US interest rates have begun to rise slightly and Quantitative Easing is being cut back slowly, but American corporate profitability and efficiency is such that equity prices should not be affected. In Europe however, the head of the European Central Bank Mr. Draghi has a problem. He knows that the QE program needs to be cut back to reduce the Central Bank’s balance sheet and that interest rates have to begin to rise. However, as a good Italian, Mr. Draghi also knows that the inefficient Italian economy and banks coupled with the massive Italian national debt, cannot afford higher interest rates. So these have to be held back as much as possible. However, there is very little chance of Italy becoming more efficient or disciplined and repaying its debts, so the next crisis is destined to come in the near future.

The rise in the equity markets is largely based on the fact that most of these different markets declined sharply 10 years ago. Most of the efficient companies remained profitable and the present artificially low interest rates leave investors desperate for positive returns.

The American equity markets are presently strong, having undertaken the necessary measures to improve their efficiency. The Trump tax easing measures have helped, of course, but these were largely discounted.  The US technology sector is flourishing and housebuilding has renewed confidence relying on wage growth in all sectors from the lower to the higher incomes. Coupled with that, American equities have always traded at a premium to equities elsewhere in the world; their present levels should not be seen as being excessive especially as many US pension funds and institutions only invest in their domestic markets.

Europe is also booming, especially Northern Europe. Here the Goldilocks environment where everything is felt to be ‘just right’ exists at present and many companies are showing profitability and growth. The economies of France and Spain are also showing signs of strength, though South Eastern Europe is still heavily dependent on the largesse coming from its more northern neighbours.  As long as investors rely on fund managers who have the ability to select profitable companies from the Northern European states, Europe is still a sound investment.

A decade of stimulus has helped the Asian markets to finally regain enthusiasm but has also stoked speculative fervour. Japan has now begun to find new confidence in both the blue chip and the small company sectors, with foreign investors having been reluctant to step in. This has now changed, especially as just these foreign investors need to find a profit from the money under their control. The Japanese market is showing a great deal of promise.  India too is gaining ground as a source of profitable investment. Of the original BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) India and China are showing most promise, though perhaps India more so than China at present. The other two, riddled as they are with corruption and failing corporate governance are well worth avoiding.

Some property markets are still more or less booming, Australian house prices have been fuelled by very low interest rates, with Sydney’s house prices having risen almost 70 percent and Melbourne’s 57 percent over the past five years. This has all the hallmarks of a bubble which will burst at the latest when interest rates begin to rise and demand from Chinese investors falls away. Much the same is true of property markets in Hong Kong with residential prices having risen over 180 percent since 2008. The Chinese central bank is clamping down on excessive lending by secondary tier banks and the ability of normal Chinese investors to compete in the monopoly world of Hong Kong is being severely reduced, something that will only be exacerbated as US Dollar interest rates rise again.

The almost desperate struggle to find a return on investments has meant that many banks, institutions and funds have begun to lower their risk thresholds and invest in debt from companies and countries they would otherwise never have considered. Ample liquidity has to be used, is the feeling not only by the traditional markets but also by the Chinese financial sector. Prudential lending and probably prudential reserve positions are being ignored, and once again investors need to observe fund managers carefully to see which are following careful strategies and which are merely seeking yield at the expense of quality. It is worth mentioning that the growth in high yield bonds, known in the 1980s as junk bonds is likely to be one of the first victims of a new realism.

The market for multi-asset investments has begun to prove itself, especially when equity volatility and thereby perceived risk has grown. Rising inflation and interest rates, albeit only slowly increasing, make it necessary for investors to seek new sources of diversifications. Funds that invest in Equities but also fixed and floating rate debt, commodities and currencies all have their place in this category, as long as the fund managers have shown their track record of being able to handle such strategies. Some, especially the black-box trend following programs have sadly completely failed; which is precisely why careful analysis and due diligence in reviewing fund managers is so essential.

In 2018 we will see tax changes in Germany, which have a small impact on private investors but which, together with the new MIFID II regulations will increase the amount and clarity of information that has to be supplied by intermediaries and Fund managers. This is nothing to be alarmed about and will hopefully ease the dangers of the miss-selling of inappropriate investments. The days of miss-selling to the ‘A&D’ (alt und doof) clients by the German banks in particular will be thankfully numbered.

There is still strong life in the global equity markets, as long as investments are carried out carefully and with due care and analysis. These markets will become increasingly volatile as institutions become nervous. One cannot discount a sudden nuclear or intense war between, for instance the USA and North Korea which would stir financial disharmony among the inexperienced ‘16 year old institutional traders’ who have no experience, but crises in Bitcoin, Block chain and the Technology stocks are unlikely to prove a ‘Black Swan’ moment and trigger total panic as in 2007/8. It pays to be wary and careful.

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.

John Townsend’s Investment Opinions February 2017

Circus Ringmaster :-“Ladies and gentlemen! We will now present for your entertainment the most stupendous, magnificent, super-colossal spectacle! On this tiny, little, insignificant ball, we will construct for you a pyramid! Not of wood, not of stone… a pyramid, of ponderous, pulsating, pulchritudinous pachyderms! I give you the elephants.”

President Trump enjoyed the campaign trail leading to the Presidential Election and now has the appearance of a circus ringmaster with top hat and bright jacket and tie, still wishing to play to the crowds. It is unusual to have a western democracy governed by decree, more unusual still to have a country where policy is partly controlled by two unelected individuals, in this case Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, both of whom have a capacity for promoting ‘alternative facts’.  A thin skinned and paranoid president with the reputation of having a dislike of detail, a short attention span and only wanting to accept good and indeed fake news being filtered to him by his aides, Mr. Trump’s advisers will carry an unusual amount of power when he acts as a mouthpiece for their views. President Trump’s rhetoric is full of bellicosity but contains very little actual detail. His actions will for the most part have to be sanctioned by the two US elected chambers of Congress. The project costs suggested so far are reminiscent of a spendthrift suddenly having access to someone else’s money; Mr. Trump’s track record in this regard with his projects in Atlantic City using borrowed money is not exemplary.

Despite the above, this is an interesting time to invest in US Equities, not because of President Trump and his policies, often called the Trump surge, but because the economy and the companies themselves are doing well. Indeed after a difficult and at times confusing 2015 and 2016, the US economy is very positive. The Trump election has brought with it a rally in the US equity markets, which rally would probably fizzle out if it were not for the underlying economic strength.

President Trump has promised tax reforms including sharp reductions in the corporate tax rate as well as economic stimulation including greater (and sorely needed) investment in infrastructure of up to $1 TRILLION. (For the sake of clarity, a Million Million dollars). This is in addition to the additional $54 Billion he wishes to spend on the US armed forces. This latter sum sounds impressive, until it is remembered that President Obama had already requested an additional $38 Billion in defence spending. The larger sum seems to be an uncalculated figure, chosen because it was larger than the plan of his predecessor. President Trump is also insisting on building a wall along the border with Mexico, which is over 3000 kilometers long. By comparison, the Berlin Wall was a mere 160 kilometers long. Recent estimates suggest President Trump’s wall will cost over $21 Billion. It is unclear whether these election promises will or can be met; but if they are, the big engineering companies especially will benefit.

On a different level, The Federal Reserve, the US central bank, has already signaled that it proposes up to three interest rate increases in 2017. The Fed is by design independent of the US Government and it is likely that these increases will occur. Such moves will bring back a measure of inflation and begin to bring an end to the financial repression which has existed in the US and in Europe.

Low global interest rates producing zero or negative yields have allowed a heavy issuance of debt by companies.  Demand is now available to buy this debt in large amounts. The issuing companies have of course to pay a risk margin on top of the base rate for their new debt, but this is relatively small. International institutions have a problem with the fact that government debt has a largely negative yield; the insurance company trustees do not allow them to invest in large amounts of equity; they therefore have instead to find bonds to fill their investment requirements.  Interestingly, the gap between the margins between AA and BBB debt has shrunk to very low levels, reflecting the reality that the default levels in the investment sector are universally very low.

The price of oil has risen, albeit slowly. The increase from a very low level has clearly had an impact on reported inflation, but it is important to recognize that the inflation surge will pass by the end of 2017. If one wishes to wait that long, the economists from Flossbach von Storch suggest that price of oil per barrel could reach $80 in about 5 years.  This is of course unhelpful to those countries reliant on oil exports, but is manageable to those oil importers.

In Europe, the markets for Pan European equities have performed relatively weakly. There are indeed good and profitable companies in Europe, but the economic and political uncertainties give investors cause for concern.  A presidential election in France, with the possibility of a president who is hostile to the European dream, a general election in the Netherlands with an equally populist potential winner who is also hostile to Europe and the (almost) certainty that the United Kingdom will initiate a withdrawal from the European Unioin  under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty,(A Brexit) all give cause for concern. Greece is still a major problem, but the willingness amongst European leaders and bureaucrats to cut Greece loose from economic strangulation and the crippling debt means that more money will be poured into that particular drain.

The British Economy is performing well and has a higher growth than the average for Europe as a whole. Germany and the northern European countries are flourishing economically, as much due to a Euro currency which is too weak for their economies, as much as it is too strong for the southern countries. There is no willingness on the part of the European powers that be (not leadership, there is none) to discuss such problems. Now is therefore a good moment in history to invest in German and related equities.

Japan has suffered for more than two decades under the economic shocks resulting from a burst asset price bubble and poor lending quality based on a corporate and social system which was followed blindly. This collapse also caused a great loss of self-confidence in companies, banks and their employees. Despite high national debt, low global interest rates have allowed investment to resume. The three arrows of Abenomics, aimed at reducing Japan’s chronically low inflation, battling low worker productivity when compared with developed countries and the expenses of an aging population, have slowly taken hold in a country where change is regarded with deep suspicion. Now seems to be a good time once again to renew investments in Japanese equities.

In China, economic growth has slowed to some 6.8% a year, better than had been expected. Although Chinese national debt is high, most has been taken up by the private sector. This could bring problems to a very large secondary finance sector, but Chinese industry seems strong and has many opportunities.

A relatively new sector for investors lies in the Frontier Markets. These are countries which are smaller than even the emerging markets but have economic potential. The risks, both political and economic are higher and it takes a great deal of careful analysis in order to understand and manage the resulting risks. Potential rewards are however high for skilled analysts. It won’t be long before unskilled analysts from the big fund managers find their way to this sector and take unacceptable risks. Therefore investors should watch the original skilled analysts and not allow themselves to be seduced by unproven new competition.

To conclude, equity markets are becoming stronger, especially in the United States of America and Northern Europe, with a stronger economic support for the business of large US corporations that are already showing profitability. German companies too are in a strong position. The Equity markets will always fluctuate, nature has no straight lines, nor does investor sentiment, but the trend is important. The fixed income markets should be avoided as much as is possible outside the needs of a diversified balanced investment portfolio, until they show a much greater yield.

 

The US presidential election in November 2016

Too much of something can be wonderful – Mae West

The United States of America has held its presidential election and the winner, against most hopes and expectations, was Donald Trump.

As the duly elected president of a great nation, Mr. Trump must be treated with the respect that a holder of this office merits. It therefore behooves us at least to attempt a reconnaissance through the smoke of the political battlefield and the exaggerated rhetoric, to see where the new president Trump and his putative team might be likely to act and how such actions will affect the rest of the world. The campaign slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’ has done the country a great disservice. America always has been great and presently risks being dragged down by political incompetence.

First of all, in all election campaigns there is a surfeit of hyperbole. Mr. Trump himself has traditionally had more interest in the chase and the capture (whether of women or in business) than in management. There is however a major difference between campaign platitudes and rhetoric and the reality of government. His interest is likely to be much lessened now that reality bites. There is for instance unlikely to be a wall separating the USA and Mexico. There is already a fence along the entire distance. It is equally unlikely that many or most Mexicans, legal or illegal will be sent back to Mexico; who would then harvest the fruit and vegetables in California and Florida? The landowners are mainly republicans anyway as George W. Bush discovered when he voiced similar attention grabbing ideas. There will also probably be no major renegotiation of the NAFTA and other trade agreements. It is possible there might be some tweaking to save face, but the threatened peremptory withdrawal from NAFTA would severely hurt U.S. companies with operations in Mexico such as Ford and Wal-Mart.

Trade with China was also a favorite target during the election campaign; remember however that U.S. companies such as Apple have very larges sales to Chinese consumers. Any sanctions would probably hurt the U.S. A. more than China, which has already begun to extend its interests globally away from the U.S.A. There is a suggestion that instead, the new U.S. Government will wish to impose sanctions on Chinese Steel, where overproduction resulting from the Chinese economy’s switch from industrialized growth to consumer spending has caused the Chinese to dump low quality steel on the world markets.

The forthcoming President Trump will face more problems at home, but here again the exaggerated rhetoric and untruths will probably not be reflected in the watered-down reality. The promised return to employment in the US rustbelt is unlikely to occur in the form that the voters had hoped. There could well be support for more technological activities, though it is unlikely that the miners and metal bashers without training or modern skills will benefit. There are probably less expensive options for technological manufacturing outside the U.S.A than within it.

Mr. Trump will find himself continuing his war with the major American corporations whose chief executives have never seen him as coming from amongst their own ranks and although the hedge fund managers criticized him at every turn prior to the election, they are likely to kowtow in front of the Trump tower in the hope of currying favour. Mr. Trump has promised tax breaks to industry and substantial infrastructure spending. This should, on the face of things, greatly support U.S. Industry.

The BBC reports that there is a funereal mood amongst the 4,000 or so staff members in Washington. All are likely to lose their present jobs and must stand for re-selection. The corollary is that many of the skills accumulated by these staff members over decades could be lost and it will take some time to rebuild a functioning administrative system. The Trump promises of ‘draining the swamp’ in Washington could well lead to an ungoverned country.

Mr. Trump’s oft reported lack of interest in detail (other perhaps than in his private jet) will mean he will have to delegate many decisions. At present the situation looks somewhat incoherent, but if a competent team is appointed this may change.

Foreign policy is, again despite the campaign rhetoric, likely to take a much less important role in the future administration. Many of the election promises, such as revising the defence agreements with Japan and South Korea simply cannot be met. They sounded good at the time. Israel hopes that the new government will support a stronger Jewish state. Political reality however will probably mean this dream will not be fulfilled and the Jewish voters within the United States will be disappointed. No matter, Mr. Trump has been elected and the next election is seemingly a long way away.

How does all this leave investors? U.S. industry, especially the many modern technological and pharmaceutical companies are very likely to prosper. They will probably not be allowed to be sold to Chinese investors, but their business will happily thrive none-the-less.

Interest rates were going to rise irrespective of the election results, the bond markets are likely to reflect a move toward higher inflation with higher yields and new issues will probably be less aggressively priced that in the past months.

Now is the time to look very carefully at U.S. equities, corporations will be able to thrive for the foreseeable future and there are some very good companies for disciplined analysts to consider.

A carefully constructed mixed portfolio of U.S. assets will have the potential for combining yield but without the downside volatility of pure Equities. Now that the uncertainty has passed, investors should, at the very least, consider diversifying their portfolios away from only European Equities and look seriously at the American equity markets, especially large and medium cap orientated funds to augment the diversity of their portfolios.

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 Market Opinions Autumn 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.

(Townsend@insure-invest.de)