Quick Market Review – November 2019

October seems to have been a month of mixed messages. After four interest rate rises in 2018, the US Federal Reserve announced an interest rate cut to 1.50% (the third cut this year) citing a slowdown in the US economy, and concerns over trade wars and a global recession.

However, markets have generally been positive last month with risk assets generally outperforming perceived safe havens. The S&P 500 posted another all time high last month, and emerging market equities posted a return of 4.20% during October. Much of this was due to market confidence that trade war concerns were receding with the announcement of a Phase One trade deal between the US and China.

Political uncertainty in the UK has reduced as well with the prospect of a non deal Brexit now looking unlikely, and sterling has rallied against the dollar and euro, but as 70% of revenue from FTSE 100 companies is earned overseas, the improvement in the value of sterling has coincided with a fall in the FTSE 100 last month.

Boris Johnson finally got his wish of another General Election, and the prospect in 2020 of maybe a stable government and perhaps an orderly Brexit would go a long way to establish market confidence after years of political turmoil.

The New Normal

Well it looks like it’s happening then. Boris Johnson has finally gotten his way and the UK will be heading to the polls for the third time in five years in what could prove to be a vain attempt to break the current political deadlock around Brexit (and almost everything else) and deliver a majority government capable of advancing a legislative agenda.

It seems this will push the Brexit date back to at least 31st January 2020. Although in theory it is possible for the UK to leave the EU before this date if the UK ratified the Brexit deal, the chances of this happening seem very slim.

Parliament will be suspended for election campaigning next week and it seems as if new MPs will be sworn in on 16th December, before parliament breaks for Christmas on the 19th December (I do sometimes wonder when parliament actually does any work!).

As such, for the moment, I would consider 31st January the new de-facto Brexit date, unless…

Unless many things really.

  1. Unless we end up with another hung parliament unable to pass the Brexit deal ahead of the deadline
  2. Unless we vote in a remain leaning government (or coalition of remain leaning parties) and we end up with another referendum.
  3. Unless we vote in a majority Lib Dem government (never say never in politics anymore) who revoke article 50.

and many many more potential permutations that are beyond me at the moment.

As such, it would seem that the current spell of uncertainty will run on for some months yet. And this really is my point. Can we really call it a ‘period of uncertainty’ anymore?

We have been doing this now for well over 3 years – it could be over 5 or 6 years before we are fully removed from the EU (if we even leave at all) and beyond that, it seems a 2nd run of the Scottish independence referendum is gathering pace as well.

As such, I have come to accept that so called ‘periods of uncertainty’ are becoming the norm. In our increasingly fractured and politically divided times, these periods are actually not really periods at all – they are just life.

This has strengthened my resolve, now more than ever, to keep calm and carry on and to advise clients to do the same. We must not use these media proclaimed ‘periods of uncertainty’ as an excuse not to take action on matters which are important to us. Otherwise we would never get anything done.

I think the time has come for individuals, businesses and, dare I say it, governments to accept that we live in volatile times and this is likely to remain the case. As such, let’s just get on with the job at hand. We do after all, live in normal times. The new normal.

Investment Portfolio Update – October 2019

I am writing today to keep you up to date on how we are positioning portfolios in the run up to the potential Brexit deadline of 31st October (although keeping in mind this is not the first Brexit deadline we have seen, and may not be the last) and in light of some weakening economic data.

The slowdown in the global economy continues and the chances of a recession developing are increasing. Some countries such as Germany are probably already in recession, that is have a shrinking economy. However, even if recessionary conditions spread to other nations, we expect the extent of the economic contraction to be shallow and well short of what occurred in 2008/9. Nonetheless, the knock to companies’ profits would be felt by the stock market and equity prices would fall. 

Against this backdrop, equity yields are generous when compared to virtually every other financial asset. We are by no means certain that a recession will develop in the US and if that pivotal economy can continue to grow, equity markets have the potential to make further modest gains over the next couple of years. Therefore, rather than reducing equity exposure, we are making changes to the portfolio to limit the damage that a recession might bring.

Yields on government bonds around the world are at tiny levels. UK gilt yields are now virtually non-existent and the government is able to borrow at long term interest rates of well below 1%. 

On such yields, any capital gain potential if a recession does strike will be small. US bonds yields are more generous at a little below 2%. This means that if the US falls into recession, US Treasury bonds can potentially deliver a worthwhile capital gain. Thus, US government bonds appear to be a better option for the portfolio. 

As we have no wish to take any currency risk on this position, we are buying the sterling hedged Vanguard US Government Bond Index fund. If global growth rebounds, the price of this fund is likely to fall, however, the equity positions held in the portfolio should gain to a far greater extent.

We will of course be watching events closely over the coming weeks and I shall write again if we feel that any further changes are required in the portfolios.

If you have any questions on the above, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us.

Kind regards
The Buckingham Gate Investment Committee

Investment Update – August 2019

Matthew Smith, Director of Buckingham Gate Chartered Financial Planners, provides his clients with an investment update for August 2019.

Headlines:

UK GDP Numbers

US/China Trade War

Possibility of a No-Deal Brexit

Markets Posting Impressive Gains Year-To-Date

The value of investments can rise as well as fall and you may not get back the full amount you invested. Income from investment is variable and not guaranteed. The statements in this video are for information only and are not designed to constitute personal advice. If you are unsure, you should seek advice from a qualified financial adviser.

The Only Constant Is Change

If you are anything like me, you will have been fascinated by the seemingly never-ending political surprises over the past few days, not least Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament.
All of this would make for fantastic watching if it were a political TV drama, but unfortunately it is real life.
In some people’s minds, Mr Johnson’s actions have made a general election more likely and by extension the prospect of a labour government more likely as well.
Many will use these potential changes on the horizon as an excuse not to take action on something. Not to invest. Not to get that updated will drawn up. No to [insert any other thing you might want to do here].
Although potential changes are always unsettling, it is important not to use them as an excuse for inaction. Because, the thing is, once one change has happened, there will always be another one on the horizon.
If we have a general election this year, who’s to say that there wont be one next year? (and in the current political climate, I wouldn’t bet against it). Once we have had this years budget, there will be the Spring statement and then next years budget.
There will always be changes on the horizon, but at some point we must act if we want to achieve anything.
I always say to clients that we must plan based on what we know today and then adapt and change the plan in the future when the inevitable changes happen!

Office Of Tax Simplification IHT Review – Some Interesting Insights

There were a few interesting insights to be gleaned from the OTS Inheritance Tax Review, in addition to the much-covered suggestions for changes to the IHT regime.

First is the seemingly profound under-use of the ‘gifts from regular income exemption’. We have often made the point that this is the most underutilised and misunderstood IHT exemption and figures from the OTS seem to confirm this point.

In the 15/16 tax year, there were only 579 claims in total for the gifts from income exemption with well over half of these claims being for less than £25,000.

As such, it could be argued that there is a huge missed opportunity out there for additional IHT savings, without the hassle of the 7-year rule. Of course, the OTS has made some suggestions to abolish the gifts from income exemption, but for now it lives on and it might be wise to make hay while the sun shines.

Another notable point raised in the review is the fact that of the estates that paid IHT in the 15/16 year, only 20% had any form of lifetime gifting within the 7-year cycle.

Now of course in some cases, this would simply have been unaffordable, however surely there are a host of missed opportunities for IHT savings in the 80% of estates which had engaged in no gifting at all.

The Balance of Life

“Life is what happens when your busy making other plans” – John Lennon

“I’m busy.”

“Work’s good thanks, it’s busy at the moment.”

“Sorry, we’re busy.”

As human beings we seem to be busy with our busyness and often, if it’s not managed properly, we get out of balance. We’re working too hard. We’re not seeing friends and family as much as we would like. We’re not enjoying the activities that give our lives fulfilment and energise us. We have no time to think – to think about what really matters most.

Achieving balance is a constant push and pull, and deep down you can feel when it is out of kilter. We must constantly reevaluate whether we have the right balance, if we’ve moved too far in one direction, or if we’ve given up on an element completely.

Every single person has a different definition of what they would consider balance. This evolves over different stages of life and as it evolves, so must the individual. My balance will not be the same as anyone else’s, although it may be similar. What constitutes as balance to me may be boredom to you. What I consider a balanced weekend – seeing friends, going to the gym, swimming with the kids, walking to a cafe, popping into my sister’s may be perceived as “too much going on” to someone else.

Friends, pastimes, family, work – when we get them in balance, we enjoy life. It is said that when you’re having fun in life, then you have struck some kind of balance. How many people do you know that have worked so hard for retirement that when they get there they don’t know what to do because working is all they’ve ever done? How many people do you know that are so busy supporting their family that they never actually see them?

Society has got better at addressing these issues and employers and employees are far more aware of work life balance than they were even 10 years ago.

At Buckingham Gate we’re in the business of having our clients reach the right balance.

We hope you have a lovely balanced week.

Tip The First Domino: How One Change Can Lead To A Happier Life

I (Kayleigh) read an article this week and wanted to share it with you. It was posted by Start Living Richly and as the title suggests it shows how one change in your life can create a domino effect resulting in a much happier life. You can read the full article here.

Maybe there could be a change in your life which you haven’t considered?

Maybe there is something you want to change but aren’t quite sure how to do it?

Or maybe you don’t have the confidence to make a change?

This is one of the reasons why I love working at Buckingham Gate. Buckingham Gate really care about our clients and their happiness. One of our biggest sources of pride is giving our clients the confidence to make a change. Whether it be to move house, quit their job, buy a new car or go travelling and so on.

If you think there is something that you might like to change in your life, please get in touch with us as we would be delighted to help you.

The Great Wealth Divide

After clicking on the title of this post, you are probably expecting me to be talking about the gaping chasm between the rich and poor in our society or across the world.

Perhaps I might mention the huge wealth inequality between young and old or the huge differences in wealth levels across different parts of the world.

Well, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I write to you today with a much more balanced and well-informed world view.

You see, I have been reading a book called ‘Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling, a man who dedicated his life to correcting the fundamental misconceptions that human beings have about the world.

I must point out that I am only 1 chapter in, but already the book has changed the shape of my world view about wealth.

In this first chapter, the author points out that the media very much likes to characterise things as two opposite ends of a spectrum. The media also likes to portray the idea of conflict between two groups. Think rich vs poor, good vs evil, small business vs huge corporations, the man on the street vs the government. You get the idea.

The reason the media do this (according to years of academic research by the author) is twofold; 1. Because characterising things using two extremes portrays a sense of drama and excitement, things which get us to consume media and 2. Because human beings love things to be simple and having just 2 options makes things easy to understand.

However, when it comes to wealth and living standards (which is largely the topic of chapter 1), things are not so simple. Hans Rosling advocates that we think of wealth across the world and within countries in terms of 4 different levels and not just two extremes.

For example, at wealth level 1, you are living on around $2 a day and have little in the way of basic human needs. You are unlikely to have shoes and will only eat what you can manage to grow. You then progress through wealth level 2 ($8 a day), level 3 (up to $16 a day) and then level 4 (over $32 a day).

The data shows that the vast majority of people across the world live in level 2 and 3. So while the media characterises this ‘gap’ of wealth and inequality across the world, in fact there is simply a range of different options with most people sitting in the middle, exactly where the media tells us the ‘gap’ is supposed to be.

The same can be said in most individual countries as well. In the UK, the vast majority of people will live in group 4 and some in group 3, but yet our media still tells us of this ‘battle’ between the rich and poor, suggesting that there is a huge chasm between them.  However, in truth, there is no chasm, simply a range of people, most of whom are somewhere in the middle.

If you pick the most extreme examples from a set of data, there is always likely to be outliers and extreme examples, but these represent only a minute percentage of the total sample. What you will find in the vast majority of cases is that there is no gap, no chasm – most people are in the middle.

This manipulation of data is one of the ever-growing list of reasons why the media is not a good source of reliable information about the world (and by extension investments or the health of our economy).

My other gripe with the media is that they like to peddle a largely negative world view. They like to tell us that things are getting worse. However, the data shows that by almost any meaningful measure of human progress, health, living standards and prosperity, the world is getting better. Exponentially, dramatically better.

I have probably not done this excellent book (or the first chapter anyway) justice with my waffle today so I strongly recommend that you read this book.

In the space of 30 pages or so, it is quickly changing my world view and I’m sure it will continue to do so.

A Fallen Star: Neil Woodford

It’s with a heavy heart this week that we learned the news of the suspension of the Woodford Equity Income Fund.

Only a few years ago, Neil Woodford was the shining star of the fund management world. If there ever has been a household name in the fund management world, Neil Woodford surely has to be that name.

To give you some background on what’s happened, the Woodford Equity Income Fund has always had a relatively small proportion of its investments in unlisted or smaller companies. Neil Woodford has always maintained that these companies have incredible growth potential.

The problem with unlisted or small companies is that they are hard to value, illiquid and sometimes hard to sell (especially when under duress as is the case now).

In recent years, the performance of the fund has been very disappointing, to the extent where the Woodford Equity Income Fund has been at the bottom of most league tables for at least two years now.

As a result, investors have been withdrawing money at a fairly rapid rate. This all came to a head last week, when Kent County Council requested 250 million pounds back out of the fund.

When a fund manager gets withdrawal requests of this size, they generally have to sell assets in order to meet the redemption. Given the illiquid nature of some of the assets at the bottom of the portfolio, Neil Woodford has been selling the larger and more liquid companies that sit within the fund in order to meet these redemption’s. As a result, the percentage of smaller and unlisted companies within the portfolio has grown over the past 12 months to the point where it’s exceeded the 10% limit imposed by the regulator.

Neil Woodford then listed some of the smaller holdings within the fund on the Guernsey Stock Exchange and has also exchanged some of the smaller assets within the fund for his own Patient Capital Trust shares (this is an investment trust, also run by Neil Woodford, which specialises in smaller company investments). Many commentators have expressed concern over these actions and how legitimate they are.

Even if they do comply with the letter of the law, I am almost certain they don’t comply with the spirit and indeed the regulator is now investigating these Guernsey Stock market listings.

There are lots of lessons to be learned from this debacle.

First of all, I think it highlights the risks involved in self-investing. Most self-investors use the research and recommendation tools from the broker or the platform that they use to purchase investments.

In this particular case, the Woodford Equity Income Fund was heavily, heavily marketed by some of the biggest names in the self-investing (and advisory for that matter) world. Self-investors bought the fund in their droves and while they may have been aware of the poor performance, I would be surprised if many of them had been aware of the developing liquidity problem within the fund.

Although clearly, I have an element of self interest in promoting the value of professional financial advice. I think it is probably fair to say that the vast majority of self-investors do not have access to the level of information required to make an informed judgment on how suitable the Woodford Equity Income Fund was for their needs, especially as time went on.

What started as a traditional large cap UK equity Income Fund, ended up becoming arguably quite a risky small cap speculative investment. Unless you had your eye on the ball, this shift in style and strategy may not have been obvious.

The vast majority of well-run advisory firms I know (ours included) pulled the fund out of most client portfolios a couple of years back. I recall the Buckingham Gate Investment Committee agonising over what, at the time, felt like quite a controversial decision. “Pulling Neil Woodford out of the portfolio just because of 12 months of under-performance, you must be mad” was uttered to me by one interesting individual at an investment seminar!

2 years later that decision looks incredibly sensible, although I don’t profess to have foreseen the liquidity issues ahead of time. Basically, the data was telling us that there were better options out there, so we followed the data. It is as simple as that.

It seems the only organisations that continued to promote the fund, despite what has now been a very extended period of significant under-performance were those who had too much skin in the game or who had some sort of commercial arrangement with the now embattled fund manager.

I think another issue, which becomes clear here is people getting carried away.

I think it’s fair to say that Neil Woodford probably got a bit over excited when it came to re-positioning the portfolio in line with his once-famous conviction. What started as a slight transition towards some of the smaller and more domestically focused stocks (in the belief that they would out-perform after the Brexit uncertainty fades away – a point on which he could still be proved right, if we can ever break the Brexit impasse), turned into a wholesale shift away from the large-cap income stock on which Woodford made his name into medium and smaller companies, many of which the average investor has probably never heard of.

Finally, there is an air of desperation about the actions taken within the fund. As the performance got worse and worse and the losses got deeper and deeper, it seems that more and more risk was taken within the fund in order to try and recover some of those losses. A strategy which has now failed spectacularly.

What happens next is unclear. The fund is now suspended for 28 days and this may be extended. Given the severe outflows from the Woodford funds over the past week (by my count, he has lost in excess of £4bn this week alone) I wouldn’t be surprised if the fund gets merged into a larger UK equity fund or it could even be wound down.

With all of this said though, things might not be quite as bad as they seem!

The UK regulatory system ring-fences client assets and within an open-ended fund, the value investors receive is simply the value of the underlying assets within the fund. Neil Woodford’s demise doesn’t really do much to change that value, to the extent that share prices come under pressure because he is a forced seller.

When it all boils down though, those who will be most impacted by the suspension and the resulting fallout will be those who did not follow the basic rules of investing in the first place.

Have your money in a range of different funds, from different fund managers.

Diversify across sectors, geographies, assets classes and strategies.

Don’t take more risk than you need to.

Continually monitor and review your investments.

These rules have worked for the past couple of hundred years and I suspect they will continue to do so. It is those who don’t follow the rules who get hurt!