Investment opinions- October 2013

John Townsend’ Investment Opinions – October 2013

The reason we are so pleased to find out other people’s secrets is that it distracts public attention from our own. ¬- Oscar Wilde 1854-1900 British dramatist and Poet

The last month has seen much excitement over the American NSA’s collection of electronic communication between everyone else, including those who regarded themselves as friends of the Americans.

Looking back over time, it becomes clear that these complaints are hypocritical. Every country needs to know what the leaders and decision makers of other countries are thinking. Traditionally, such information has been garnered from conversations that diplomats held with individuals within government and industry or their counterparties within the foreign departments. The budget cuts that affected the CIA during the Clinton presidency resulted in an increased dependence on electronic information gathering and a reduced reliance on human intelligence (Humint) with a consequent reduction in the ability to interpret the information gathered. The electronic data collection, once started, has grown in ability and scope, to the point where every senior politician and industry leader has to be circumspect about how they communicate. A major issue is whether the scientists developing and using these electronic eavesdropping systems are in fact controlled by anyone at all.

One might be careful about being overheard by the Russians or Chinese, but few people will admit to being concerned about the American collection of military, political, economic or industrial information, especially when the British and French have been so adept at doing the same thing. The eleventh commandment ‘thou shalt not get caught’ springs to mind. Most European countries and indeed those outside Europe gather information about their allies and competitors and very often share it with each other, their own industry and even possibly with the Americans.

In the Eurozone the economic recovery, especially in the southern countries, is agonizingly slow und unstable. In Germany, the economy marches on from strength to strength and it is clear that the polarization within Europe is becoming harder to disguise. Low interest rates and a weak Euro helps German exports outside the Eurozone, even if exports to the Mediterranean countries with weak economies are reducing.

The European Commission is forecasting growth in Europe in 2014 after two years of contraction. But the numbers are feeble. Remember this is for Europe as a whole and while German economic growth will be stronger it means that other countries will fall below the average figure.

There are some dismal projections for the labour market too, with the average unemployment rate for 2014 being about the same as it is now at around 12%. These jobless forecasts – if they turn out to be right and that is a big assumption – show some improvement in some of the crisis countries, notably Greece, Ireland and Spain. Unemployment levels however, will remain high and there is little or no improvement forecast for Italy or France.

In China, the communist party will hold the third plenum of the 18th Central Committee in the middle of November. Past third plenums have produced major policy changes. In this case, it is likely that the Chinese leaders will suggest major reforms based on the ‘383 plan’ circulated by the government some time ago and which proposed a reform of the Chinese economy by 2020. In a recent ‘Data Flash’, Deutsche Bank suggested that China will reduce investment restrictions for private investors in key industries. China will also increase its openness by allowing foreign investors access to most service industries. Additionally the state owned enterprises and municipalities will have direct access to the stock and bond markets. The economy has already begun the swing from an infrastructure investment led growth model to a consumer demand pushed economy. This has a much better future, even with some near term weakness and the central committee is likely to encourage this move. On the other hand, it is likely that many more opportunist private banks will spring up. Corporate governance in China has not reached the levels one might hope for or expect in other countries and these banks could easily be a major source of losses. They are well worth avoiding.

In the United States of America, the profit announcements of many major companies are serving to generate positive surprises to investors. As a result, the prices of equities in the market as a whole have risen strongly. Not every company is producing increased profits; indeed some companies are showing no profits at all. So it is a wise choice to select experienced fund managers who have the benefit of competent research departments to select the most potentially profitable companies in which to invest.

The US equity market has seen interesting growth over the past 4 years and some commentators suggest the end of the rally must therefore be close. In reality, there is still room for growth in the market as corporate profitability and growth, combined with sharply reduced leverage and inventory lead to higher equity prices.

Many conservative investors, both institutional and private, believe they are safe by keeping their money on deposit with their banks. In reality they are burning their investments as the yields on government debt fall below the rate of inflation. The question is what should replace government bonds? On the fixed income market corporate debt from companies with high credit ratings have become popular to the point where their yields are very close to the levels of their own governments. Highly rated emerging market bonds, though not debt in local currency, carry a higher yield though there is an inherent credit and indeed market risk, where investors might find it hard to sell the paper in adverse market conditions. The best yields are still to be found in good quality corporate equities, while gold, fine art and real estate are too speculative and presently very expensive and potentially illiquid.

Changing markets require changes in traditional thinking and investment philosophy. The investment decisions taken when investing in corporate equities are much the same as investing in corporate debt from the same company. The yields are however higher and a competent fund manager should be able to maximize the returns while minimizing the risk.

Changing times require changing approaches. The strategies that worked in the past are now potentially loss-making and will remain so for many years to come.

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.