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Archive for the ‘Equity Markets’ Category

Inveighing against economic vandalism

Bruce Stout, manager of the Murray International investment trust, whose shareholders have tripled their money over the last ten years, inveighs against the “economic vandalism” of QE and unconventional monetary policy in a interview with me in the latest isssue of The Spectator. His doleful conclusion: “Savers will be watching their savings being eaten away for a long time to come”. You can read a fuller version of the interview, which includes his thoughts on where the best future investment returns can be found, on the Independent Investor website.

Written by Jonathan Davis

November 8, 2014 at 8:47 AM

Beyond the stock market correction

The current stock market correction is likely to be over quite soon, the fund manager Neil Woodford suggested yesterday, and I suspect that he is right for now. His view, sensible as always, is that the main reason for the market’s fall is that investors have taken fright at the evidence of slower than hoped for global economic growth, particularly in Japan and Europe, plus a number of other contingent factors. The market correction, the sharpest for over two years, is long overdue, given increasing investor complacency in the face of Federal Reserve and other central bank manipulation of market prices. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

October 17, 2014 at 10:28 AM

Stock market bubbles under the microscope

My thanks to Tim du Toit, founder of EuroshareLab, an excellent Europe-wide stock screening service, for alerting me to this interesting and sensible academic perspective on stock market bubbles – how to measure them, what to think about them, how to react to them.  The author is Aswath Damodoran, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University.  His article includes a number of spreadsheets which readers can usefully adapt to make their own calculations of PE ratios and future returns.

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A pause to this market march?

Andrew Smithers, as he notes in his latest World Market Update, has been saying for ages now that the equity markets are overvalued – but probably going up. In other words, while on long term valuation measures equities are priced to deliver below-average returns over the medium term, in the near term with momentum and other factors, principally central bank monetary stimulus, egging them on, they can easily go on rising for quite some time. (For what it is worth, that has been my basic stance for most of this year too: markets are far more volatile than the fundamental value changes). But is that period now due for  pause?

While we are not yet calling an end to this, we see it drawing to a close. The two key supports for the US stock market are corporate buying of equities and quantitative easing (“QE”). The former is threatened by current fiscal plans and the latter by the need to taper QE should unemployment continue to fall. If the Federal budget is finalised as currently indicated then a decline in corporate cash flow seems highly likely and corporate buying, which has fallen recently, is likely to fall further.

If the current budget is not modified, the economy is likely to slow and this would probably cause the Fed to taper its tapering. If the budget is modified, the impact on corporate cash flow would be reduced but the chances of Fed tapering would be increased. Equities have been pushed up by the combination of corporate buying and quantitative easing. It is possible but unlikely that both will remain in place during 2014.

We all know that equity markets rarely move in a straight line. 2013 has been a great year, with the main US indices driving through their pervious all-time highs early in the year and heading for full year gains of 20%-25%, with almost all the gain coming from positive rerating (higher multiples) rather than from earnings growth. The mid-year “tapering” wobble seems to have passed.  Equity fund flows have been running at their strongest since 2004, with bonds on course to produce a negative return for the year as a whole. A correction would be helpful, though I somewhat doubt we will see it before the second quarter of next year.

Written by Jonathan Davis

November 22, 2013 at 1:17 PM

Emerging markets: an accident that’s been waiting to happen

Stern words today about the roots of the current emerging markets crisis from Stephen Roach, the former chief economist at Morgan Stanley now less stressfully ensconced at Yale University, where  he is a senior Fellow. You can read the full broadside here, but this is a short extract, highlighting how the huge destabilising capital flows into – and now out of – emerging markets can be directly traced back to the policy of quantitative easing. The countries now suffering most are those, such as India and Indonesia, which have run large current account deficits and/or have failed to make necessary structural reforms during the good times:

A large current-account deficit is a classic symptom of a pre-crisis economy living beyond its means – in effect, investing more than it is saving. The only way to sustain economic growth in the face of such an imbalance is to borrow surplus savings from abroad. That is where QE came into play.

It provided a surplus of yield-seeking capital from investors in developed countries, thereby allowing emerging economies to remain on high-growth trajectories. IMF research puts emerging markets’ cumulative capital inflows at close to $4 trillion since the onset of QE in 2009. Enticed by the siren song of a shortcut to rapid economic growth, these inflows lulled emerging-market countries into believing that their imbalances were sustainable, enabling them to avoid the discipline needed to put their economies on more stable and viable paths. Read the rest of this entry »

Abenomics is a vote-winner

Buy on the promise, sell on the news? That may be the initial temptation of those of us who have been happily playing the Japanese recovery story for the last few months, now that Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has won a resounding victory in the Upper House elections at the weekend. The result means that with a comfortable majority in both chambers, the flag-waving Prime Minister is well placed to push through his programme of economic reforms, aided by the expansionary monetary policies now being embraced by the Bank of Japan. Despite the size of his majority, some will worry that the impetus to complete the much-needed structural reforms – the so-called third arrow of Mr Abe’s strategy – will weaken now that the election is over. The LDP traditionally represents many of the powerful vested interests that have killed reform agendas so many times in the last 20 years; could they do so again?

It is possible, but my instinct is that answer will be no. The Japanese equity market retains its attractions. The key insight that the professional investors I talk to keep bringing back from Japan is that for the first time in living memory all the interested parties – the government, the central bank, companies and now the electorate – are all aligned in the same direction, prepared to give Abenomics its head. The programme is certainly not without its risks, and it  has important implications for investors in other countries around the globe, as Henry Maxey, the CEO of Ruffer LLP, points out in its latest investment reviewRead the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 22, 2013 at 11:46 AM

Debt: still very much in favour

Reports by the Wall Street Journal that officials at the Federal Reserve are drawing up plans for starting to rein in the current programme of QE are worth noting. Jon Hilsenrath, the Journal reporter who wrote the story, is widely held to be the Fed’s favourite unofficial channel for making known its future intentions.  Could it be that even the Fed is starting to get concerned about the runaway effect that its monetary stimulus is having on asset prices? Throw in Mr Bernanke’s warnings about excessive risk-taking last week and it is tempting to suppose that even the Fed would be happy to see a pause in the the advance of risk assets, at least for now.

That would certainly seem to sit quite well with the normal midyear seasonal pullback that we have seen for each of the last three years. The worry with QE has always been that it is easy to get started on it, but very difficult to stop. Now that the Japanese have joined the QE party in an even more dramatic way, the ripples are being felt in financial markets all round the globe, compounding the scale of the eventual problem. Yields in a number of credit markets (eg junk bonds, leveraged loans) have fallen to what look like dangerously complacent levels. Companies such as Apple are obviously happy to take advantage of the ultra-low rates on corporate debt, but whether that achieves any longer term benefit remains to be seen – not so obvious when the purpose of the debt is committed to share repurchases rather than new capital investment. All the while a return to the levels of economic growth we witnessed before the crisis broke in 2008 remains stubbornly distant. Read the rest of this entry »

Rich valuations for the stock market’s global elite

The news that Paul Walsh, the CEO of Diageo, has unloaded a huge amount of stock (£16m) after exercising a raft of share options draws attention to the extent that the prices of high quality companies with strong global business franchises and the ability to generate cash have been bid up to very rich levels. The veteran market-watcher Richard Russell has observed something similar on the other side of the Atlantic.

What do billionaires Warren Buffett, John Paulson, and George Soros know that you and I don’t know?  I don’t have the answer, but I do know what these billionaires are doing.  They, all three, are selling consumer-oriented stocks.  Buffett has been a cheerleader for US stocks all along. But in the latest filing, Buffett has been drastically cutting back on his exposure to consumer stocks.  Berkshire sold roughly 19 million shares of Johnson and Johnson.  Berkshire has reduced his overall stake in consumer product stocks by 21%, including Kraft and Procter and Gamble.  He has also cleared out his entire position in Intel.  He has sold 10,000 shares of GM and 597,000 shares of IBM. Read the rest of this entry »

Even cash is now at risk

Albert Edwards, the lead strategist at Societe Generale, has added some typically forthright (and witty) comments on the latest developments in Euroland. By making explicit the fact that both uninsured bank depositors and all classes of bondholder have been required to take part in the rescue/liquidation of the two largest Cypriot banks, the troika (EU, IMF and ECB) has highlighted the fact that cash itself is now officially potentially an unsafe asset. He wonders also (as do I) how long it will be before a Eurozone country finally decides that remaining in the single currency is not worth the trauma that staying in involves.

Most economic analysis concludes, probably correctly, how much more costly it would be for either a creditor or debtor nation to leave the eurozone system compared to struggling on within it. Indeed for Germany, despite becoming increasingly irritated by having to dip their hands into their rapidly fraying pockets, the crisis in the eurozone has been accompanied by the lowest unemployment rates since before re-unification in 1990. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

March 27, 2013 at 5:42 PM

Reality and euphoria in the equity market

In the modern era strong equity market performance in January is not, as used to be believed in days gone by, a reliable forerunner of a good year ahead for the stock market, which is a pity as 2013 has certainly got off to a roaring start, with both the S&P 500 and the world index up by 5.0%, and the main Japanese indices up by nearly twice that amount.  After its lacklustre performance in 2012 the UK equity market produced an impressive 6.4% and China, a dark horse favourite for top performing stock market, a tad more.  However, as this useful corrective note from Soc Gen’s top-rated resident quant Andrew Lapthorne makes clear, there are some curious features of the markets’ generally impressive performance that give cause to doubt quite how enduring this rally will in practice prove to be.

Firstly debt issuance by companies is riding high and a large chunk of this debt is being used to buy back shares. This creates a virtuous circle, where increasing debt issuance supports share prices, pushing down implied leverage and volatility at the same time, which in turn supports ever cheaper credit for the corporate. So, once again, with one of the key marginal buyers of equities the corporate, using capital raised in the debt market means that, as ever, the fate of the corporate bond and equity market are intertwined and as such last week\’s weakness in the high yield bond market is worth keeping tabs on. Read the rest of this entry »

Hold on to your hats in Japan

The dramatic upwards move in the Japanese equity market since the autumn has plenty further to go, according to Jonathan Ruffer, the founder of the private client fund management group Ruffer LLP, one of the professionals whose latest thinking I (and many others) like to follow closely.  Ruffer as a firm has held an overweight position in Japan for quite a long time, and now stands ready to be vindicated if Japan’s new reflation policy takes hold, as the markets now seem to be assuming. Writing in his latest quarterly review, he comments as follows:

We hold roughly half of portfolios in equities, in the UK, Europe, US and Asia, but the largest geographic position is in Japan. This market was broadly flat when we last wrote to you, although we had made good money in financial and property stocks. In the last quarter these and other holdings surged further, providing a strong finish to a dull year. The rationale in Japan remains intact; it is the warrant on world economic growth, and so more of the same in terms of monetary stimulus should favour Japan without the rest of the world’s downside. The stability of Japan, its lack of overcapacity, and the absence of financial or labour fragilities, give some protection, and afford it the ability to generate a self-sustaining economic recovery. The low expectations built into the possibility of a Japanese economic recovery provide the opportunity for further sharp market rises. The major obstacle to a more bullish backcloth has disappeared with the appointment of Abe as Prime Minister, and the forthcoming retirement of Shirikawa as Governor of the Bank of Japan. In this new world, the investment danger for foreigners is a weak yen (we have been fully hedged), but this is a benefit to the equity market. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

January 21, 2013 at 3:33 PM

Fools rush in while wise men take their time?

The New Year has started well, with plenty of evidence that professional investors are continuing to rediscover their appetite for risk assets, with the price of equities, corporate bonds and high yield debt all heading higher. The charts for leading equity indices, including the S&P 500 and the FTSE All-Share, have been trending higher ever since Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, announced last summer his intention to “do whatever it takes” to prevent the eurozone from falling apart. He has every reason to be pleased with the response to his intervention, which to date has been effectively cost-free. Would it were always so easy! European stock markets, having been priced for disaster before, have led the way up as fears of the euro’s fragmentation recede. Volatility, as measured by the VIX, has meanwhile fallen to multi-year low levels. Read the rest of this entry »

Myopia in the stock market

We all know that private investors are typically scarred and scared out of owning equities by their aversion to incurring losses. Yet the scale of that aversion is staggering, according to some research recently reported by the Franklin Templeton fund management group.  Its annual survey of investor sentiment allows it to ask investors what they think has happened to the stock market each year, and then compare that perception to the reality.

So for example the proportion of the 1000-investor sample which thought stocks had fallen in 2009 was 66%. Yet the S&P 500 index in that year was actually up 26%. The comparable figures for 2010 were 48% (who thought the market had fallen) and 15% (the actual market rise). More than half the survey also thought stocks had fallen in 2011, when the market in practice was flat.

The fund manager’s theory is that these figures are testament to the behavioural bias which prompts humans to give undue importance to one bad experience – the 2008 crisis, which sent the S&P index down 40% – and ignore more favourable outcomes. Whatever the explanation, the data certainly helps to explain why so much money has flowed out of equity funds into bond funds since the crisis broke, in apparent contradicton to common sense and historical experience.

Written by Jonathan Davis

October 17, 2012 at 3:59 PM

The risk of a short circuit in markets

Richard Burns, until recently the senior partner at Baillie Gifford, is now chairman of a range of the firm’s investment trusts, including Mid Wynd International, a special situations fund that holds positions in interesting companies that are too small to make a difference to its flagship funds. This is his most recent take on the investment environment, taken from the trust’s annual report. With the Eurozone crisis continuing to cast a shadow over events, and equity markets not obviously cheap, cautious and pragmatic investors (a type much in evidence in Edinburgh) are mostly marking time for now.

Repeated central bank stimuli have managed to contain, for now, what would otherwise have been a combination of Western debt deflation and deep recession. These interventions buy time, but not an indefinite amount. Policy making in the afflicted parts of the Western world appears to be running up against the laws of diminishing returns. Underlying sovereign balance sheets are deteriorating further meantime. What has happened is akin to stripping insulation from the bare economic wire – governments and central banks are that insulation. As time goes on, and in the absence of a more potent recovery, the risk of short-circuit increases.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

August 30, 2012 at 9:04 AM

Ruffer: the right question to ask

The estimable and splendidly ideosyncratic private client fund manager Jonathan Ruffer, whom I profiled a couple of years ago in The Spectator, has some thoughtful points on the prospects for Europe in his most recent monthly investment review. Here is a short extract, in which he points to the underlying frailty of the European project, about whose future he is not optimistic:

The Treaty of Rome in 1957 was a great moment for the peacemakers, but now its architects are dead, as are pretty much all those who felt the visceral despair in the darkness of the late 1940s. That hope has been replaced with a sort of Communism: power divorced from economics. Just as Russia could not keep control when the figures didn’t add up, nor can Europe. It is only a question of time. So, when does it all end? I think it is a mistake to try and guess. Observers of 1980s Russia fell into two categories: those who thought things would continue as they were forever, and those who could see the pressure, the inconsistencies, and imagined that the crisis would strike a week on Thursday. Nevertheless, it is striking on my return to find how far the status quo has shifted in Europe since March. It’s the same tune, to be sure, but the violins have been replaced by cellos.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

August 20, 2012 at 4:39 PM

Why quality stocks pay off

It is no accident that some of the best performing fund managers of the last few years have been those who have stuck to investing in powerful global equities with a consistent history of profitability and sustainable earnings and dividends. In the UK those who fall into this camp include Neil Woodford at Invesco Pereptual, Nick Train of Lindsell Train, Sebastian Lyon at Troy Asset Management (mentioned in my last post) and Terry Smith, whose equity funds solely buy and hold this kind of high return on equity stock. It is also of course at the root of Warren Buffett’s long success as an equity investor.

But why do so-called quality equities (defined as stocks which have low leverage, high returns on equity and consistent earnings) perform so well, yet are so regularly overlooked by the majority of investors in favour of more speculative growth stories? A recent research note from Jeremy Grantham’s team at GMO uses long run US data to highlight the persistently superior performance of quality stocks and their particular attractions in today’s binary (“risk on, risk off”) market conditions. The primary driver behind this superior performance is the ability of these companies to preserve and grow capital, not to lose or squander it as many do, either through incompetence or normal competitive pressures.

Here are a couple of short extracts from the GMO research paper:

True competitive equilibrium is a rarity in the global economy. Instead, we find persistent winners and persistent losers. The competitive paradigm says that highly profitable activities attract capital, and that capital flees those with low profits. This is the market mechanism behind mean reversion, which is supposed to close the profitability gap. In reality, certain companies earn persistently high returns on equity. Superior returns are delivered to investors in the form of dividends, stock buybacks, and accretive growth.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

August 18, 2012 at 12:17 PM

The truth about future economic growth

Rob Arnott, the chairman of Research Affiliates, is one of the most articulate and interesting market analysts in the States, and someone whose ideas and research I have followed for a number of years. In my latest 30-minute podcast, I discuss with him the outlook for investment returns – and how they will be dramatically influenced by what he calls the three Ds now hanging over the world – debt, deficits and demographics. All three are conspiring to drag down likely future rates of economic growth in the developed world. Investors need not despair however, Rob argues: better returns are available if investors switch their focus from conventional benchmarks to a multi-asset strategy based on broad economic, rather than purely financial, criteria. Before listening in, click the link below to download a copy of the slides he used to develop his arguments at a recent presentation to a London Stock Exchange seminar. The podcast can be downloaded from here. Recommended.

Arnott LSE Presentation July 2012

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 29, 2012 at 5:30 PM

Looking beyond Greece

We don’t know whether the Eurozone agreement on Greece will hold – let alone for how long. My guess is not for long. In any case, for investors this long-awaited deal looks like a classic case of buy on the story, sell on the news. Financial markets have run up so strongly in anticipation of such an outcome that equities now look massively overbought, implying that the short-term reaction is more likely to be negative than positive. Longer term it is still impoosible to know for certain how this great drama reaches its endgame.

My view remains, as it has done for some time, that the best outcome now, as Bill Emmott was saying in The Times yesterday, is for a managed default (and probable exit) by Greece at some point in the course of this year, as it becomes apparent that the country cannot meet the demands which have now been placed on it. I suspect that this is the outcome which the Germans have been after for quite a while now, without of course being able to say so in so many words. It is also in the best interests of the Greeks themselves over time.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

February 21, 2012 at 9:45 AM

New Year hopes

My suspicions back in the autumn that a market rally was on the way have, I am happy to say, been borne our by events. Not for the first time, the peak of rhetorical despair – this time about the dire outlook for the world economy should the Eurozone crisis not be resolved – has turned out to be the moment to turn bullish. The rally since the failure of the Cannes summit has been impressive.

The MSCI world index is up by more than 20 per cent since its October low and has risen for seven straight weeks in a row, something that has not happened since the spring of 2009, according to the equity strategists at Societe Generale. Equity markets have made an even stronger start in 2012, with January producing one of its best monthly returns for many years. Contrarian sentiment indicators, such as the venerable Investors Intelligence survey of investment advisors in the United States, once again proved invaluable in identifying a turning point back in the autumn.

Read the rest of this entry »

Talking markets: Jim Rogers

Global investor Jim Rogers thinks that the world is heading for an economic depression unless political leaders finally grasp the nettle of the debt burden they have accumulated over the past decade. He is not optimistic about the outcome. Bankrupt countries such as Greece need to default – and soooner rather than later. The longer they leave it, the worse the eventual outcome will be. Hear more of this – and how Jim is seeking to protect his own wealth in these difficult times – in my latest podcast, a 30-minute interview with one of the smartest investors I know. It is available to download from the Independent Investor website now. An edited transcript will be available in the New Year.

Written by Jonathan Davis

January 3, 2012 at 5:56 PM