Posts in category Buttonwood’s notebook


Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Can you afford to retire?

HOW much money do you need to retire? Depending on your age, it is a question you think about a lot (if retirement is imminent) or barely at all. For younger people, the subject is a combination of too far away, too complex and too boring, and too depressing. When you consider that you might live for 20, 25 or even 30 years after you stop working, it is a pretty important issue.

Say you want to retire on £20,000 a year (not a fortune) and you are 65. The best annuity rate at the moment in the UK is just under 5.2% which means you would need a pot of £385,000 to afford this. But hold on a minute. That is a flat £20,000 which does not account for inflation; if prices rise at 3% a year, the value of that pension will halve by your 90th birthday. To get an income of £20,000 that is guaranteed to rise in line with prices, you would need a pot of £619,000. (For American readers, the dollar amounts won’t be exactly the same, but they will be in the ballpark). 

These are very big sums and explain why private sector…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Picking a fund manager? The odds aren't great

WHO wants mediocrity? That is what a lot of people say when the subject of index-tracking, or passive fund management, comes up. They would rather choose a fund manager (an active manager in the jargon) who tries to beat the market by picking the best stocks. It does sound like a good idea.

The tricky bit is finding the right manager. The temptation is to look at past performance but fund managers rarely beat the market for long.

The average fund manager is always going to struggle to beat the market (this is a separate argument from whether markets are “efficient”). That is because the index reflects the performance of the average investor before costs. In a world dominated by professional fund managers, there aren’t enough amateurs for the professionals to beat. Even the hedge funds, those supposed “masters of the universe”, haven’t been able to do it; Warren Buffett looks…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The bond market defies the doomsters

THE yield on the ten-year Treasury bond fell to 2.13% on August 28th, after North Korea fired a missile over Japanese territory. Investors tend to buy government bonds when they feel risk-averse. That will have come as a surprise to those commentators who have called the bond market a “bubble” that is sure to burst; one British magazine made this a cover story back in September 2001. Every time the ten-year yield falls close to 2%, press references to a bond bubble seem to increase (see chart; the yield is inverted).

It is not just the press. Investors have been cautious about bonds for a while; the vast preponderance of fund managers polled by Bank of…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Where might the next crisis come from?

TEN years ago, BNP Paribas, a French bank, temporarily suspended dealings in three funds, citing “the complete evaporation of liquidity in certain market segments of the US securitisation market”. Many people treat this as the start of the credit crunch but one can trace it back to the need for Bear Stearns to rescue hedge funds that invested in mortgage-backed securities in June, or the signs of home loan defaults and failing mortgage lenders that emerged in late 2006. The subsequent tightening of credit and loss of confidence in the banking system eventually led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when the crisis reached its height in the autumn of 2008 (see picture).

The inevitable question on the occasion…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Where might the next crisis come from?

TEN years ago, BNP Paribas, a French bank, temporarily suspended dealings in three funds, citing “the complete evaporation of liquidity in certain market segments of the US securitisation market”. Many people treat this as the start of the credit crunch but one can trace it back to the need for Bear Stearns to rescue hedge funds that invested in mortgage-backed securities in June, or the signs of home loan defaults and failing mortgage lenders that emerged in late 2006. The subsequent tightening of credit and loss of confidence in the banking system eventually led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when the crisis reached its height in the autumn of 2008 (see picture).

The inevitable question on the occasion…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Capitalism and the absence of creative disruption

NINE straight highs for the Dow Jones Industrial Average might suggest that all is well with capitalism. But on the contrary, they could be a sign that things have been going profoundly wrong with the way the system is working.  

The main driver for the surge in share prices this year has been the strength of profits; second quarter profits for S&P 500 companies are around 12.6% higher than a year ago, according to Andrew Lapthorne at SG, a French bank. As the chart shows, relative to GDP, profits seem to be regaining their levels of recent years. And those levels are much higher than they have been in much of the post-war era (see chart).

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

A tale of two markets

THE DOW Jones Industrial Average closed above 22,000 on August 2nd, something President Trump is almost certain to mention in a tweet soon*. So it might seem as if the “Trump bump”, which began on the night of the election, is continuing smoothly. But the picture is a lot more complex than that as a look at the euro/dollar rate shows (see chart). The euro fell (and the dollar rose) between election day and the end of 2016. But then came a turning point. The euro has been climbing (and the dollar retreating) for much of 2017.

For dollar-based investors, that means European shares have been a much better bet this year. As of august 2nd, euro zone shares (as measured by the FTSE Euro 100) were up 19.9% since the start of the year, while the S&P 500 was up10.7%. Looked at another way, the American market has dropped by 8% in euro terms since February 2nd.  

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Foreign investors snap up London's iconic buildings

LONDON’S skyline has altered a lot in the last 30 years. While it can’t match Manhattan or Chicago, there are quite a few trophy buildings that can be seen from this columnist’s office window (for the moment*). The British sense of humour means these offices often acquire their own nicknames, regardless of the developer’s intentions—the Cheesegrater or the Gherkin, for example.

And the buildings also tend to get snapped up by foreign investors (see map). The latest to go is the “Walkie talkie” at 20, Fenchurch Street which has been bought by Lee Kum Kee, a Hong Kong food company, for £1.3bn, the highest amount ever paid for a British building. Presumably the company, best known for its oyster sauce, is not planning to transfer production to the site; this is a punt on the London property market.

Ironically, it was only a year ago that many Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The euro’s obituaries were premature

FIVE years ago, Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, pledged to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. At the time, many people were predicting that the euro zone would break up. But Mr Draghi pulled off the trick; no countries have left the single currency. Borrowing costs have come down and even Greece has been able to tap the markets.

Keeping the euro together may have been the aim of the game, but was it worth it? As M&G, the fund management group, points out, the record has been mixed. Economic growth has rebounded to a respectable 1.5% year-on-year. This is not stellar but it is hard for the euro zone to grow rapidly when its population is ageing; the IMF suggests a greater proportion of older workers may weigh on productivity growth.  

Of course, the euro zone could get more of the current…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Britain: back to being the sick man of Europe?

IN THE 1970s, Britain was dubbed “the sick man of Europe”, a role previously played by the Ottoman empire in the late 19th century. A poor growth record since the second world war combined with terrible industrial relations (29m days lost to strikes in 1979) to make many ask the question “Is Britain governable?”.

The reason Britain joined what was then the EEC in 1973 (at the third attempt) was, in large part, a desperate attempt to find a way of forcing the country to become more competitive. Whether Europe was the key factor, or whether it was Margaret Thatcher’s reforms, by the mid-1990s, the trick seemed to have worked. In particular, London, which lost a quarter of its population between 1939 and the early 1990s, became a global, self-confident city, attracting expats from…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The psychic Brexit ballot paper

DR WHO, the long-running British science-fiction hero, has a long-standing device to get him out of tricky situations; a piece of “psychic paper” that lulls the viewer into accepting the doctor’s credentials. Apparently blank, the paper says whatever the Doctor wants it to say.

The British government under Theresa May apparently thinks the 2016 EU referendum ballot paper had psychic qualities. The question merely asked “Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU?”. But on BBC Radio 4 this morning, Damian Green, who is (in effect) deputy prime minister, said Britain had to leave bodies like Euratom because the people voted for it. 

The argument seems to be that Britain must rid itself of all traces of the EU like someone leaving an area of intense radiation needs a complete detox. So no EU means no single market, no customs union, no free movement and no regulation by the European Court of Justice. It is the ECJ’s role that dooms Euratom, apparently.

Euratom governs the Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Can the fund management industry deliver a better deal for investors?

IMAGINE an industry where the average profit margins were 36%, where the regulator found little evidence of price competition and where the average person did not get the benefit of the lower charges available to the wealthiest customers. You would probably expect the regulator to throw a book the size of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” at it. The industry’s executives ought to be as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot.

But that has not happened with the report of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), Britain’s regulator, into the fund management industry. What the FCA proposes in terms of greater transparency of fees and better governance standards is fair enough. But one wonders how much difference it will make. The industry has reacted to the findings with equanimity.

Perhaps the most damning of the report’s findings is point 1.9

We find weak price competition in a number of…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Why the falling oil price isn’t hurting markets

INVESTORS could easily get confused about the impact of oil-price rises on the economy and markets. The story seemed to be clear: high prices bad, low prices good. The two great oil shocks in the 1970s were unambiguously bad for Western economies—ushering in stagflation and transferring spending power to the oil-producing countries. In turn, low oil prices in the late 1990s coincided with the dotcom boom.

But when oil fell in the second half of 2015, that was seen as a bearish sign for the global economy and markets. Now oil is falling again, with both Brent crude and West Texas intermediate dropping more than 20%. But the decline has barely made a dent in the upward march of the S&P 500 index.

The key to the differing market reaction is why the oil price is falling. Back in 2015, the fear was falling demand. Investors worried in particular that the Chinese economy was slowing. If that assumption had been right, demand for much more than oil would have suffered. The equity markets did not…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Britain’s political outlook seems toxic to investors

SUDDENLY Britain looks a lot less attractive as a home for international investors. The Conservative party under Theresa May gambled on a snap election to deliver a “mandate for Brexit”. It unveiled a muddled manifesto that alienated voters and was out-campaigned by the veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. The party lost its overall majority and will now be propped up by the very odd ducks in Ulster’s Democratic Unionist party.

The markets reacted less severely than might have been expected. That seems to be based on the view that a “soft Brexit” looks more likely. But it is far from clear that this is the case. David Davis, Britain’s Brexit minister, seems to be ploughing ahead with plans to leave the single market and the Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Markets struggle to make sense of the election chaos

THERESA MAY decided to call a snap election on a walking holiday in Wales. History will regard it as the most disastrous ramble since Captain Oates wandered out of the Antarctic tent in 1912. Having failed to anticipate the result, investors (like everybody else) are struggling to understand what will happen next. 

It looks as if the Conservatives can carry on in power, with the support of the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland. This would give them a bare majority. But Mrs May’s position has been severely weakened ahead of Brexit negotiations. Another election later this year is possible.

For the markets, two factors are offsetting each other. On the one hand, there is uncertainty and the possibility that a left-wing Corbyn government could still take power in the near future. On the other hand, this result may change calculations about a hard Brexit. The Unionists backed Brexit but they will not want a hard border with the rest of Ireland; something that may require Britain to make concessions to the EU….Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Britain’s vote catches out the markets—again

SO AN election that was called to give Theresa May a mandate to negotiate Brexit looks like it has done anything but. The exit poll suggested that the Conservatives would have the most seats, but short of a majority with 314. Add in the Ulster Unionists and allow for the fact that Sinn Fein MPs don’t take their seats and Parliament would be a virtual tie.

This would lead to enormous uncertainty. Just before the polls closed, the pound was trading at $1.2950, while the euro was worth £0.866. Within minutes of the exit poll, the pound had dropped nearly two cents to $1.2768, while the euro was up to £0.8791.

If this poll is borne out by the results (and it was pretty close to the mark in 2015), there will be turmoil in the markets in the morning. The FTSE 100 index closed on Thursday down 0.3% at 7,449.98. Ten-year gilt yields rose three basis points to 1.03%. That left share prices close to a record high, and gilt yields close to a record low. That leaves plenty of scope for disappointment.

On the plus side, this…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

What will the markets do if Labour wins?

WHEN the British election started, a victory for Theresa May looked a nailed-on certainty. The Conservative lead was as high as 20 percentage points and the party was 1/20 on to claim the most seats. But a poorly-run campaign means that the gap has narrowed; the latest from Survation had the Conservatives with just a one-point lead

The betting markets still assume that the Tories will win, albeit with a majority of 70 or so rather than the 100 plus that was assumed earlier in the campaign. But what if the gambling markets are wrong, as they were about Brexit and Trump? Nate Silver, the US polling guru, argues that the Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

May’s mandate melts

THERESA MAY, Britain’s prime minister, called a surprise election for June 8th arguing that she needed a strong mandate for negotiating Brexit. The pound rallied on the news, in the belief that a large Conservative majority would allow Mrs May the flexibility to do a deal with the EU, and see off the hard-liners among her party.

For a while, it looked as if the plan was going well. The Conservatives had a 20-point lead in some polls. But the party’s campaign, heavily reliant on the appeal of its leader and the repeated use of soundbites like “strong and stable”, has been misjudged. The manifesto launch was disastrous and included a pledge to charge the elderly (a key Tory demographic) for social care. That pledge was quickly reversed, but Mrs May’s refusal to admit to an obvious U-turn undermined her strong leadership…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The “I’ve paid in all my life” fallacy

SOCIAL security is often described as the “third rail” of American politics—touch it and you die. Britain’s prime minister has just tied herself into a tangle over the way to fund long-term care for the elderly.

The problem is made more difficult because of the way that such benefit schemes were established and marketed to the public—as insurance schemes in which what you receive in benefits relates to what you put in. When pension schemes were set up by Franklin Roosevelt (pictured left) in the 1930s or in Britain, by David Lloyd George (pictured, right) in the Edwardian era, the insurance notion was something people could easily grasp (private schemes already existed) and could be seen as fair. 

This was fine in the early years of such schemes when the number of people contributing was far greater than the number of people taking benefits. But as our societies age, the costs rise and the inadequacy of…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Not Maggie May, but muddled May

THE Conservative election campaign so far has been duller than an afternoon looking at Jeremy Corbyn’s collection of pictures of manhole covers. Blessed by an extremist opposition and a big opinion poll lead, the government is coasting, muttering platitudes like “strong and stable” and emphasising its newish prime minister, Theresa May, rather than its party name.

The odd thing is that the Conservatives are trying to develop a personality cult based on someone who (to put it politely) does not have a particularly fascinating personality. Perhaps that’s the point; people are looking for someone calm and competent.  Labour tried something similar with Gordon Brown – “Not flash, just Gordon” was the slogan – with little success. The Conservative strategy seems to be working for now but one…Continue reading

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