Quotidian Investments Monthly Commentary – March 2019
The large and medium sized company sectors of the UK market (as represented by the FTSE100 and 250 indexes) continue to wallow in the fog of Brexit and so (with just one exception) we remain shy of anything other than generic exposure to UK smaller companies.
Our only stock-specific company holding in the UK is Fever Tree, the premium tonic water and mixer maker. Fever Tree declared its latest set of results on 26th March and their figures were spectacularly good. The company reported a 40% increase in sales for the 2018 year and a 34% increase in profits for that same period. Sales in the UK rose by 53% and the company’s expansion into the USA is set to add further impetus to this demonstrable success story. Fever Tree’s share valuation is already returning to a level that reflects its continuing growth.
A recent official report from Germany’s ‘Centre for European Policy’ shows that the euro has brought a net gain 0f 21,000 euros per person to the Germans, whereas in France it has cost 56,000 per capita and in Italy 74,000 euros……and both France and Italy are expected to accept this disadvantage on the basis that it is apparently all for the greater good of the European ‘project’.
As we have stated many times over the years, there has only ever been one economic beneficiary of the EU project and that is Germany. We remain deeply sceptical of European stock-markets too as the Eurozone’s three largest economies (excluding, of course, the UK) are in recession and the ECB have run out of ammunition in respect of the financial levers that have papered over the cracks and brought superficial short-term relief in the past. Even the golden tongued Mario Draghi is struggling to put a positive spin onto his usual propaganda as the realities of the EU’s financial and economic woes mount. He is reduced to following his well trodden path of obfuscation, denial and bluff.
Markets are fully aware that the ECB cannot raise interest rates (for fear of turning a recession into a full blown slump) and, with brilliantly inept timing, the ECB terminated its quantitative easing programme at the end of 2018, just as it was about to be needed most.
The incompetent, indecisive and weak ongoing efforts being made by the UK parliament to resolve Brexit in a democratic, realistic and equitable way continue to suppress any substantial and sustainable progress in the UK’s stock market. Devoid of leadership and lacking even basic negotiating skills we are still no nearer to a satisfactory denouement than we were two years ago.
There are fundamental but vitally important differences between the UK and the EU project that never seem to have entered this unending debate. For example, the basis of British law is that an individual is free to do anything he or she wishes unless it is specifically and legally prohibited. An endearing element of British culture to counterbalance any potential misuse of that freedom is that (even in today’s more cynical and less gracious world) the majority of people self-police their behaviour and take care not to infringe, impair or reduce the freedom of others.
The basis of EU law, however, is that nothing can be done unless it is specifically permitted. These differing approaches and the philosophies behind them (freedom of choice , freedom of speech and free trade versus governmental diktat, command and control) are in direct opposition to each other. This has an impact on economics, finance and, in particular, their approach to trade.
Historically the UK has a long-standing belief in free trade and, by extension, its close association with capitalism and democracy.
Free trade is a positive means by which we can spread prosperity as wealth cascades through the economy. Prosperity underpins social cohesion and, in turn, social cohesion underpins political stability. Political stability is the bedrock of a collective (and peaceful) society.
The EU adopts a different philosophy. It is deliberately anti-democratic and its innate protectionist approach abhors free trade (other than internally between the EU27 where it is largely for the benefit of German manufacturing industry and French farmers). Instead, the EU adopts a command and control economic system hand in hand with a tax and spend fiscal philosophy. This can be likened to giving £20 to an alcoholic; you know exactly what he’s going to do with it, you just don’t know which wall he’s going to use.
Taxation is an innately unfair and negative way of redistributing wealth and is typically favoured by a socialist goverment (which of course is what the EU is). Taxation penalises success and progressively reduces the motivation to achieve further success (either through taking business risks or simply by working harder) whilst it encourages a reliance upon a benefit culture within a welfare state and thus rewards idleness and economic inactivity.
Given the very different legal systems, political beliefs and economic cultures between the UK and the EU, negotiations to achieve Brexit were always going to be complicated. Sadly, the ineptitude of the UK side in lacking courage, lacking imagination, lacking belief, lacking even a scintilla of negotiating skill and meekly allowing the EU to hold the initiative and manipulate the agenda has resulted in a cul-de-sac (I wonder what the French for ‘dead end’ is) and an increasing likelihood of the entire circus continuing for a few more years into the future.
In the meantime stock-markets both in Europe and the UK will, by and large, remain hobbled and of little or no investment interest. Much better opportunities continue to exist elsewhere.