September 2018: whiplash

The major UK news in September was the Salzburg EU summit, which saw the UK PM become a victim of political whiplash.  This affected the markets, but not entirely predictably.  If you’ve been asleep in September, you’ll struggle to see the ‘surprise’ summit result in the financial charts.

The Trump saga was preoccupied with the Supreme Court last month.  This doesn’t obviously translate into market sentiment, thank goodness.

Image result for whiplash cartoon

Nonetheless, from a UK markets point of view, September had its own form of whiplash.

Taking just the UK, for instance, consider equities (FTSE-100) and sterling. FTSE-100 veered between 7550 and 7250, a swing of 4%. By contrast, the S&P-500 nudged between 289 and 295 – about half as much change in the month. Meanwhile, GBP:USD veered between 1.282 and 1.328, a swing of almost 4% as well.

The FTSE-100 and GBP:USD are correlated, of course.  The USD is the ‘currency of the world’, and FTSE-100 companies mostly are global businesses, trading heavily in USD.  So when the GBP falls, the FTSE-100 goes up – these are the same companies, and valuing them in USD makes in many ways more sense than valuing them in pounds.

But the total swing of the FTSE, measured in dollars, was over 5% in the month.  And back again.  This means any particular snapshot of returns feels very arbitrary indeed. Those of you who ignore month to month movements are definitely on the high ground here.

Anyway, be that as it may, as at the end of September FTSE was up just over 1%.  Sterling itself rose too, about half as much.  And, so it happens, so did the S&P.

2018 09 FIRE v London markets

Bonds, on the other hand, are heading down.  With rate rises firmly on the agenda, the economy ‘booming’ (ish), now isn’t a very bonds-friendly time.  Or at least that is my superficial read on the situation.

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Complexity costs

A recent piece in the FT by Jason Butler mentioned some advice the author received from Peter Hargreaves, one of the UK’s richest men, a few years ago:

I asked Peter if he could share some of his money wisdom. He thought for a moment and then replied: “As you know I’ve got a few quid and I can pretty much have anything I want in life. I’ve got one car, one house and one wife, and that’s the way it’s staying. No matter how much you own or earn, keep your life as simple as possible.

Now, (both) long time readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of the firm Hargreaves Lansdown (though I have professional respect for it as a very effective way to part wealthy fools folks from their money). Nor, for various reasons I won’t cover here, am I generally an admirer of its founder Peter Hargreaves, notwithstanding that he is clearly a very talented entrepreneur/businessman.

However, this blog believes in playing the ball not the man.

I can recognise wisdom when I see it.  And I think Mr Hargreaves’ advice to keep life as simple as possible is profoundly good advice.

How financial progress breeds complexity

For those of us who manage to grow our net worth, saving money, simplicity is an uphill battle.

That first thrill of making more money than you need to live will invariably result in some temptations.  Time to ‘treat yourself’ with a new holiday?  What about new clothes?  Or some art?  Or some furniture?  Maybe even a new car?   Carry on this way and pretty soon you’ll need more space, parking, garage, a yard, who knows.

But, once you’re making decent money regularly you will start wondering how/where to save it.  Now, don’t misunderstand me, there are definitely simple ways to save/invest.  But if you are tempted by property, EIS/angel investing, or extreme diversification, then care is certainly required.  All of this increases your financial complexity pretty quickly.  Carry on this way and pretty soon you’ll need an accountant to help with your tax return, and you will probably seriously consider talking to a financial adviser.

Once you start investing, time can be a surprising enemy.  Most of us investors learn about ‘buy and hold’ as a strategy pretty early on.  And twenty years in, I would say that ‘buy and hold’ works pretty well.  But buying and holding can nonetheless result in an increasingly sprawling portfolio – as my recent ‘overdiversification‘ blog highlighted.

Property is particularly beguiling.  As a reader of this blog, you probably don’t consider property to be the only way to invest. But is certainly one way to invest.  You might, like me, consider that property has a place in a diversified portfolio, either via REITs or via ‘buy to let’. But have you considered / aspired to owning a weekend place? A holiday home?  A ski chalet? Carry on that way and you’ll probably need a gardener, a handyman, maybe a builder.  That’s one thing if it’s local but it’s another prospect if it’s in another country. Carry on further and you’ll be tempted by a second car, you’ll want access to the business lounge every trip or, worse, you’ll start seeing private jet ads follow you round the web.

Or perhaps, like me, you have become an ‘accidental landlord’.  That ‘accident’ – your first place – is, in London, more likely to be leasehold than freehold, so maybe the maintenance/etc is not your responsibility.  But if it’s leasehold you will have some form of service charge/sinking charge to budget for, and it’s freehold you’ll know all about every roof repair, damp patch, and boiler problem.  Repairs and maintenance are all tax deductible, but make sure you keep those receipts.  Carry on this way and even your accountant will start complaining.

Have I got a complexity problem?

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August 2018: US 1, UK 0

I’m not really sure what happened in August.

At least, you’d think something quite significant happened, given that UK equity markets fell over 3% and US markets rose over 4%.

The swing of the US:UK currency itself was notable during the month but over the month fairly minor – with the USD gaining slightly based on 1 August (but the gain having been much bigger only a week ago).

The Australians have joined the Brits, Americans, French, Italians and Swedes in bewilderment at the nonsense their politicians can get up to.  But the Australian markets haven’t moved much; the currency fell and the equities rose in compensation.

The USA appears to be making more ‘progress’ on trade, with the news at the end of the month being about some Mexico/NAFTA-related agreement.  Maybe that helped.  Maybe.

In the UK we saw the media running with the ‘no deal’ ball.  How much of this was silly season, and how much reflected the overlooked aspect of the Cabinet’s Chequers deal in which they agreed to take ‘no deal’ planning much more seriously, I couldn’t say. It has certainly nudged me to move my portfolio a bit more out of the UK than I might have done.

So, all in all whatever drove the big market movements in August somewhat passed me by. But 6 point swings between UK and US equity markets, after currency effects, are not common.  Thank goodness I have almost double the allocation to the USA – which rose by over 4% – than to the UK – which fell by almost as much.

2018 08 FIREvLondon weighted markets

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