Quotidian Investments Monthly Commentary – June 2019
You may have noticed just the slightest trace of cynicism in last month’s report as we recounted our assertion that the mark-down in equity prices in the last two weeks of May was entirely unnecessary and had not been a true reflection of economic reality.
We am pleased to say that this assertion was well-founded and has been proved to be correct thus far as share prices in June have already recovered to their levels before the synthetic May write-offs. Our irritation as these occasional periods of false pricing is unbounded as is our scepticism with regard to the financial analysts who tend to produce self-serving or badly researched reports and market makers who over-react to irrelevant market noise, gossip and waffle. Sadly, it is something we are wearily familiar with and are practised, on most occasions, in interpreting reality from a false narrative. In dynamic markets it is a skill that requires patience, practical experience and an understanding of market action.
A significant number of the analysts whose work we have observed over the years tend to have all the personality of a poker but lack even the modest benefit of its occasional warmth. They know the effect that a negative analytical report will have on a market sector or on an individual company’s share price but far be it for us to even hint that it might be in their own interests to ‘encourage’ a share price to move lower in order that they (or their organisation) can buy it for their own account at an artificially low price. Perish the thought. Strangely, though, a short time later the share price or the market itself often then tends to move higher again.
Fever Tree (the up-market mixer drink producer) is the only company specific holding we currently have in the UK market. As an example of the idiocy and absurdity too often prevailing in reports from financial analysts (Nigel Lawson used to call them teenage scribblers and he wasn’t often wrong) a report was issued by one of this happy but barmy army in mid-May in which he had taken supermarket only sales figures from the first two weeks of the month and, on the assertion that the weather was expected to be very poor over the summer months too, he then extrapolated these numberss as if they were a proxy for the entire year. On that basis he then concluded, with the full confidence of his own foolishness, that Fever Tree’s sales would fail to meet expectations and be very poor for the 2019 year as a whole. On the back of that flimsy confected ‘evidence’ the share price immediately dropped by 10%. Two days later the shares had regained that 10% and moved even higher again. Economic reality or absurd folly?
Volatility is one of the inherent features of equity investment and Quotidian has long, hard-earned and successful experience in navigating these occasional absurdities, pitfalls and stock-market gyrations.
For the past year or so one of the main areas of market focus has been the putative trade war between the USA and China. In our January report we highlighted the fact that in 2018 China had posted a trade surplus with the US of $351.76 billion, a surplus that President Trump is determined to bring more into equitable balance.
Presidents Trump and Xi were due to meet (for the first time since their positive discussion early in 2018) at the G20 gathering on 29th/30th June and we await news on the outcome of their discussions. Positive progress towards a reasonable trade deal will be a boost for equity markets (and particularly the US markets); continued negativity and entrenched positions are already largely priced in although they may still cause a short term knee jerk reaction.
The US/China trade debate has diverted attention away from the ongoing failings of the EU economy and Trump’s enduring aim to end blatant EU protectionism (which is at the heart of the declining EU federalist project). Examples of this protectionism and the trade tariffs that support it can be found in the way that French wine is traded between the EU and the USA. The EU levies rates of between 11 to 29 cents per 75cl bottle of American wine imported into the EU whereas America charges just 5 cents for similar sized bottles of French wine imported to the USA. There are similar imbalances (always, of course, in the EU’s favour) in respect of Spanish olives and German cars. The list is extensive and illustrates the ongoing legacy of economic myopia from the Obama regime.
But the real problem for the EU is that the German economy (by far the largest economy in the EU) is already in recession and the potential of increased import duty on German cars going to the USA (tariffs which Trump has already threatened to impose) would have a devastating effect both on Germany itself as well as the EU’s GDP. At a time when the German auto industry is also under threat from Brexit, Trump’s threats are well timed (from both the US and the UK’s points of view). When Brexit is finally achieved it will provide positive motivation to a UK stock-market that has been largely moribund for much of the past three years.
Of course, Trump also has an advantage in that one of the leading figures in trade negotiation from the EU side is Guy Verhofstadt…..well known for his bumbling, self-important incompetence in Brexit negotiations. I’m sorry to repeat the same (or a very similar) joke twice: Verhofstadt has all the intellectual capability of a traffic cone but sadly he also lacks its external brightness too.
You will no doubt have read about the troubles afflicting Neil Woodford and the various funds under his management. There is no doubt that Woodford is a bright and pleasant individual who has had a long period of success as an investment manager.
Sadly, though, the Americanisation of the City since the early 1990’s has brought with it the American obsession with celebrity culture and thus the creation of ‘star names’ in the world of investment management.
With that in mind and having had years of demonstrably high achievement under the Invesco Perpetual banner Woodford was encouraged to establish a fund management business under his own flag in 2013.
The trouble with being a high profile ‘star’ is that it causes a huge and uncontrollable inflow of new clients and substantial additional sums of money to manage. The danger with this is that the sheer volume of monies he then has to find investment avenues for often means that the fund manager loses the ability to be quick on his feet and be able to react quickly to market opportunities or market risks.
Star status also tends to mean that the fund manager loses touch with his clients who ( just by virtue of the over-extended business size) mutate into numbers rather than names. It essentially depersonalises the business itself which then becomes simply a vehicle for creating fees.
In Woodford’s case that size pressure played its part in forcing his hand towards investing in a large number of very small and consequently illiquid companies (and, in so doing, exceeding the fund’s maximum allowance for illiquid investments).
When clients then want to withdraw their capital a fund manager who is over-exposed to illiquid investments finds it difficult (if not impossible) to sell these illiquid positions and so is obliged to disinvest from those profitable liquid holdings that he would very much prefer to keep. This, of course, creates a domino effect and a downward spiral.
Whilst the financial media (most of whom would struggle to boil an egg and wouldn’t know one end of an equity trade from the other) are generally unforgiving and assert that his problems have been self-generated, we sympathise fully with the awful situation Neil Woodford (a decent man) now finds himself in.
In the six years and one month since 2nd June 2014 when Woodford founded his flagship fund (the Equity Income Fund) it has produced a negative investment return of -6.60% (‘A’ Share Class, Accumulation units, ie. total return) up to the present day (30th June 2019). The FTSE over exactly the same period has increased by +8.49%. Modesty forbids me from mentioning that the Quotidian Fund has returned +39.17% over exactly that same timeframe (and that figure is net of all charges).
By contrast to the Woodford organisation, and to avoid losing the personal touch that is the essence of Quotidian’s business model, we have a self-imposed maximum number of clients for whom we will act. We take great care to avoid investing in illiquid companies (or, indeed, anything that we cannot extract ourselves from at a moment’s notice). We know our clients in the fullest sense of that phrase and we never want to lose this particular level of personal service and care.