Appraising The Stock Market: Part 1

As part of my attempt to be the next Warren Buffet, this week I undertook an appraisal of my stock market portfolio. Unfortunately, I am around $72 billion behind Buffett at the moment, although it is worth pointing out that, in truth, I do have my sights set a little lower than that.

I have made a modest but positive return of 2.4% in the past 12 months. I’ll take that, bearing in mind declines over the same period in both the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 indexes of -16% and -1.7% respectively. Strictly speaking, the time and effort made is not worth the profit I’ve made – especially when I could have chucked it into the bank and earned up to 1.5% risk free in a ‘high interest [insert joke here]’ account. However, there has been a lot of learning over the past year, and as the old adage goes “you’ve got to be in it to win it”.

My next task is to use my learning experience to best advantage.

My Methodology: Digging Into The FTSE 100

As such, I’ve taken a look at the FTSE 100 Index and delved into each company. For starters I have:

  1. taken the current price (as of May 29th 2020)
  2. Looked at the share price of the same company 12 months ago
  3. Identified the difference in % terms for each company share price

This first task has been instructive in itself. Some companies leap out for the change in share price over the last year. The biggest riser is Polymetal International, a mining company that has grown 98%. Following close behind are the gambling company Flutter Entertainment (86%) and online shopping firm Ocado (83%).

At the bottom of the scale is the cruise ship operator Carnival with a -73% drop. No surprise there given that Covid-19 has decimated the travel industry. Rolls Royce and Centrica are close behind at -69% and -61% respectively.

Next Steps: Segmenting the FTSE 100

The whole idea of putting a value to a business is that the value should reflect future earnings potential. The more likely the business is to make money – based on the evidence available to us – the higher the value of the business. This simple approach helps to explain the 12-month Carnival nosedive: the evidence points to them not earning very much, comparatively to the recent past, in the near future.

Some of this evidence is based around key financial metrics, but it seems to me that the key to beating the stock market longer term is to look at factors that perhaps the general herd are not paying attention to. So, while the financial fundamentals are important, I’d rather try and look at broader societal, economic and consumer trends first, and see how these might be reflected in current stock market trends, and then understand the fundamentals for any potential individual companies second.

In practice, I have segmented the FTSE 100 Index companies into broad sectors, then added up the before and after share prices for each constituent company in each sector. This gives us a rough and ready guide to growth or otherwise over the past year. I’ve used my own categorisation, rather than what ‘official’ sources might say. Just because I can.

Yes, I know… Adding all share prices together is not the way a lot of people would approach this. But I shall return to this below.

Segmented FTSE Constituent Companies

My segments look as follows:

This paints a slightly different picture of the FTSE 100 Index. The bare facts are that, if you owned one single share in each company 12 months ago, over that time the value would have risen by 3,836 pence, or £38.36. This is a rise of 2%. Hardly enough to set the pulse racing, but equally, not the same as a -16% drop for the FTSE 100 Index either.

The sector changes are interesting too.

There are four definite growth areas: ‘Building Things’, ‘Data’, ‘Lifestyle Choice’, and ‘Science & Tech’. These should be self-explanatory, but it would seem in the past 12 months the people of Britain have thrown up a lot of new buildings (which is a famous indicator of recession, unless I am misremembering that?), begun to fully understand the value of science and data, while smoking, gambling, drinking and wearing Burberry.

Of these four categories, Data seems far and away the most interesting to me. If we are on the cusp of a recession, I’m not sure there will be much demand for houses. I do however believe that Data – and our exploitation of it as a society – is only going to develop further, so this is a sector that I would expect to continue growing apace. I know that is hardly revelatory, but some things seem so obvious at times that it pays to say it out loud so that you don’t forget.

I do also feel like the companies in the Lifestyle Choices sector won’t be going anywhere soon. People may spend less on treating themselves though, which has to be a consideration when assessing future value.

As for Science & Tech, on a very broad basis you have got to think that in times of hardship and financial pressure, innovation will be of increased importance. It can’t be a surprise that the iPhone debuted in 2007 and went onto plough through the worst recession in living memory, making Apple the most valuable company in the world.

The Falling FTSE 100 Segments

Without digging deeper, it kind of feels like Banking (which is constituted of four companies) has gone too far the wrong way. The market might have overreacted to pressure placed on them of late, but I could be wrong of course – this is something I shall have to dig into.

Media and Comms seems a bit funny. I am not sure why that has fallen so much at first glance – I  am presuming it is because the sector is ultra-competitive – but it warrants a bit of a deeper dive.

Travel is no surprise. Indeed, I am surprised it has not fallen lower.

The Middling FTSE 100 Segments

Insurance is worth a second look, bearing in mind that is an industry that will never, ever die (I need to look for dividend potential there, I would say).

Shopping is another surprise, as I would have expected this to be slightly lower. That said, I have lumped in the supermarkets into this category so that means Ocado (which perhaps, arguably could belong in Science & Tech, or even data) is boosting it. And yes – I know Ocado are an online supermarket! Some of these companies can straddle more than one sector though, depending on the view you take.

Finally, Magic Money Tree companies will be left alone. These are companies that invest money to make money, which has always given me this nagging feeling that they are part of some highly elaborate Ponzi scheme… Is it a bit strange the FTSE 100 Index can include companies whose business it is to invest in the FTSE 100 Index?

Anyway, I digress.

Natural resources is a peculiar one. Why would it decline by 6% year on year? I need to look at that more as it instinctively feels like there has been too much of a downward swing. Like it or not, we need oil and gas (and water) to live our lives. A naive, overly simplistic view: yes. But I am invoking the Occam’s Razor here. The simplest explanations are often the best.

Finally, ‘Make Things’ is essentially B2B and manufacturing. They are basically there to serve other companies, and in a time of recession I would not fancy the challenge of being a link in a supply chain. I’d rather not get involved in this sector.

Initial Conclusions

So, my next steps are to focus on the sectors that might be of interest and from there see if I can dig out some potential investments. I’ll be look at data more closely, as well as the more traditional Insurance, Banking and Natural Resources. Science & Tech will have to be on the radar too.

I shall follow up when I have done some more in-depth research…

P.S. If anybody wants a breakdown of my data, add a comment and I will find a way of getting it to you.

Dominic Cummings: Lessons In Bias

Who’d be a politician? Or, even, a politician’s special advisor? Whatever your politics, the reaction to Dominic Cummings and his explanation for driving from London to Durham in March – in spite of Covid-19 regulations and advice that Cummings himself helped draw up – has been eye-opening to say the least. ‘Eye-opening’ might be particularly apt, considering Cummings said he went for a 30-mile drive to make sure his eyes still worked.

Normally when public figures make defensive statements to argue a position, at least one national newspaper would do a ‘Fact Check’ on any claims made. I can’t see any such articles in the mainstream press for what Twitter was calling #CumGate, so just for the sheer hell of it here is a bit of my own fact checking and the questions it throws up around bias.

  1. Drove from London to Durham without stopping.

London to Durham is 267 miles. Judging by press coverage, Cummings drives a Land Rover Discovery (not sure of the model though). At worst, these do around 25.8 miles per gallon. So, that means 10.4 gallons are needed to complete the journey.

Even if we assume Cummings drives the Land Rover Discovery with the smallest fuel tank, that would be a 65 litre engine. Converting those gallons to litres, this is 47 litres of fuel need to make the journey.

Conclusion: Plausible

2. Drove from London to Durham without stopping with a small child in the back.

The child is reported to be 3 or 4 years old. The journey takes around 4 hours 30 mins in normal traffic, driving to appropriate speed limits. Unknown information here is whether or not the child is still in nappies (all children are different so no judging going on here). If so, the trip was possible.

Conclusion: Plausible.

3. Drove 30 miles to a beauty spot (on his wife’s birthday) to test his eyesight.

Not sure where to start here. I guess the key thing here is to understand whether Covid-19 can impact eyesight, and whether or not it takes 30 miles (between 30-50 minutes) to figure out whether or not you can see properly. Scientific advice varies here, seemingly depending on how much bias you have one way or the other.

Conclusion: Completely implausible if you read the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, or very plausible if you are a right-leaning Daily Telegraph reader.

Bias permeates this whole Cummings story from beginning to end. Whatever the ins and outs of the actions Cummings made and has since tried to explain away, it is probably fair to say that he’s come in for excessive vitriol from the general public and press because of his free-wheeling, yet hard-edged, ruthless public persona.

It probably doesn’t help that Cummings isn’t elected, either. The public feel like they can get rid of politicians, but perhaps the public at large might not feel like they can get rid of Cummings, and this in turn is causing an even more extreme reaction to his behaviour than might have otherwise been the case.

Maybe, maybe not? All I know is that for me, on one level, the Cummings debacle does at least reinforce the idea that if you are using information to serve any neutral purpose, you really ought to be sense-checking for bias that might sway your opinion either way (the stance taken by the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph illustrates this perfectly). On another level, the story is just one more crazy story to reflect the crazy times we are living in.

Pac-Man: Looking Good For Your Age

Pac-Man turned 40 this week, even though you wouldn’t know it to look at him. There isn’t a line or wrinkle on his perfectly round face / body / pie chart.

When I was a young teenager in the early 1990s, and I would go down to the arcade in town with my friends to waste money on the gaming machines, Pac-Man was still capable of attracting an audience. I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as saying that playing Pac-Man was in anyway the cool thing to do – you had to be good at ‘Street Fighter’ to be considered cool – but Pac-Man was still a game people would be happy to play. (By the way: to this day I don’t know how my mates had so much change to put in the machines. Not when I got only £3.50 a week from a paper round!).

One thing for sure is that Pac-Man has stood the test of time. I can’t claim to have ever been any good at the game, but in the course of reading coverage of Pac-Man’s birthday some interesting facts and stats have come up, including tales about the small number of people who really are stellar players and have managed to achieve ‘the perfect score’.

It turns out the perfect Pac-Man score is 3,333,360. This score is achieved over 256 levels, and this latter number leaps out (geek alert) because the square root of 256 is 16. Computer programming languages often use a hexadecimal counting system, which means 16 is used as the base rather than base ten in the decimal counting system that we typically use day-to-day. Binary coded-values are easily enough represented in a hexadecimal system, which might explain why Pac-Man crashes when you complete level 256 and try to go any further. The 8-bit game coding results in a lack of memory for the game to continue, so the goes kaput without so much as a ‘Well Done’.

There is some controversy attached to the 3,333,360 number, too. The first person to ever achieve this feat was a famous gamer called Billy Mitchell. This Billy Mitchell is American, rather than the fictional British soap opera character.

Mitchell completed this feat in 1999, some 19 years after Pac-Man was first unleashed on the world. However… Mitchell was also the record holder for the highest score at Donkey Kong too, until sufficient doubts were raised around the veracity of his achievements that all of Mitchell’s gaming records were struck from the book in 2018.

That said, if we include Mitchell’s dubious achievement, at the time of writing only six people have achieved a perfect score on Pac-Man. Six people in forty years deserves a tip of the hat to the original Pac-Man game designer, Toru Iwatani, for making a game so difficult that it is almost impossible to complete.

Post-Script: Many thanks to Tony at the Arcade Blogger for letting me know that another person has achieved the magical 3,333,360 maximum score in Pac-Man. Congratulations to Greg Sakundiak in Canada! That means there are now seven people in the Pac-Man perfect score club. You can find a link in the comments below.

Attracted To A Disaster Movie Plotline

As a genre, the “disaster movie” is a just about as old as cinema itself. The movies themselves seem to get ever more implausible with the passing of each year, with every type of disaster getting explored, and with the next threat to humankind needing to be a tiny bit madder than the last. Remember all those films from the 1990s and 2000s when the world was going to end? Deep Impact, Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow in particular spring to mind.

But can you remember Absolute Zero or Polar Storm? Me neither. Both dealt with the effects of a change in the Earth’s magnetic field – with typically outlandish consequences. However, it would seem that they might have been onto something judging by an interesting news story this week (albeit there is no current indication that Florida is about to enter an ice age).

It would seem there have been odd goings on with the Earth’s magnetic field in the South Atlantic. Since 1970 the strength of the magnetic field in this region has dropped by 8%. This in turn has been creating problems for satellites flying overhead, some of which have been malfunctioning because they rely on the Earth’s magnetic field to work as intended.

Now, I know next to nothing about satellites, but it is pretty astonishing to think that some geological happenings taking place within the core of the Earth are enough to break some spacecraft flying overhead.

It was enough to prompt me to find out more. This led me to discover that, apparently, the Earth’s magnetic field has lost around 10% of its overall strength over the past two centuries.

10%! As if dealing with Covid-19 wasn’t enough, it now seems our compasses are about to stop working too!

As ever, the headline writers are quite possibly exaggerating about what is going on here.

First of all, let’s deal with the purpose of the magnetic field. Yes, it helps us navigate around the globe by telling us where the magnetic north is, which itself means that we can plot where everywhere else is on Earth in relation to this point. This is clearly very important for all manner of reasons. GPS wouldn’t work without this reference point, for example, which would make global navigation less accurate, and which itself would carry some potentially serious economic implications. Nobody wants a cargo ship going the wrong way due to human error, and thus causing expensive disruptions to a global supply chain.

However, perhaps more importantly for life on Earth, the magnetic field dictates the presence of the ‘magnetosphere’ around our planet which helps repel deadly radiation particles emitted from the sun. I’d place this at the top of my ‘magnetic field importance list’, well ahead of my wristwatch being able to track my latest slow run for uploading to Strava.

Is there any indication at all that the magnetosphere is suddenly going to vanish? No. While some changes to the strength of the magnetic field might have been detected, there is zero indication that deadly radiation is going to stream through the atmosphere and kill us all.

I do find the idea of the impact on satellites intriguing, though, and mainly because of the size of the numbers involved. There are around 5,000 satellites currently orbiting Earth, not counting the debris that has ended up in orbit, of course, over the last seventy years. Just think of all the money spent on getting those satellites up there. Not all satellites are created equal, but it would seem that the cost of building one could be around the $290 million mark (various websites disagree on the cost, and this figure appears to be somewhere in the middle).

Using this number – and using back of a fag packet maths– then we might estimate that there is $1.45 trillion whizzing around our planet in hardware. And that’s before counting the cost of getting it there in the first place – somewhere between $50-400 million per satellite, depending on the payload – as well as the cost of ongoing maintenance once it is up there.

These are mind-boggling sums, of course, and it seems inconceivable that so much money would be spent on thousands of machines that are capable of breaking down because of things occurring thousands of miles deep within the Earth.

The fact that this is true, and is actually happening… Well, the mysteries of space and our planet will never cease to be a cause of fascination to me. Nor will our collective ability to spend lots of money on things that don’t work properly. Most importantly, for now, I’m glad we’re not in disaster movie territory just yet. Phew.

Amsterdam: “Don’t Visit Our City!”

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 is going to throw up all sorts of books and films in the future. You can be sure of that.

Top of my list for a guaranteed interpretation of recent events is a docu-drama-cum-satire on Channel 4 which will focus on what the UK government has been doing to deal with the crisis. Expect exaggerated performances mimicking Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and chief science boffin Chris Whitty, and quite possibly an over-the-top comic turn from a Nicola Sturgeon soundalike who provides ridicule from a (non-social) distance.

More pressingly, the global economy is in a bit of a mess and doesn’t seem likely to get better any time soon. Unlike the Great Recession of 2008, which few people seemed to see coming at the time (even though some revisionism has it that it really all began in 2006), the general view at the moment is that we’re taking our cue from Back To The Future Part III. We’re hurtling along on Doc Brown’s train and we just know that we’re all heading into that ravine. Hopefully, though, things are not going to turn out as bad as it might seem right now.

On the subject of Covid-19 related finances, something caught my eye in the news today. One of the big Covid-19 impacts has come from travel – or, more pertinently, the lack of travel. For many people in 2020, a fancy holiday is not going to be a ‘thing’ this year. Bunkering down and saving the pennies seems like the only option available as the whole world tries to control the spread of this virus.

Clearly, the knock-on effect for business from reduced travel is large. Not being able to do deals face-to-face across international borders, apart from via Zoom or such like, will benefit only the most creative and resourceful of companies. But even more obvious is the impact we have been seeing on tourism.

You would think that tourist hotspots would be bursting at the seams to get visitors back into their shops, cafes and bars. I include the place I have made home, Gibraltar, in that category. But this is not the case in Amsterdam, it would appear. The mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, has said the city should be “extremely cautious” about welcoming back the 9 million or so people who visit and stay in this wonderfully eclectic city each year (some of the more outlandish – and possibly barely credible – estimates have annual Amsterdam visitor numbers at more like 19 million). The reason given is the fear of a second wave of Covid-19.

However, that might not be the whole story. On the face of it, 9 million is a hell of a lot of people for a city that already squeezes around 900,000 people into the city centre proper. And let’s face it, the vast majority of those 9 million won’t be visiting the suburbs. They want to be taking a stroll along the Leidseplein or Prinsengracht, taking photos of the narrow houses and thinking about where they should try their next pint of white beer.

There has been a lot of noise in recent years from Amsterdam politicians – and members of the public – that they would like their city back. There has been a campaign underway to actively reduce tourist numbers and “return the city to its people”.

For a place I love so much, what does this mean for those of who enjoy visiting this city built on sticks? Well, if Halsema and the other like-minded politicians get their way, there could be all sorts of negative consequences for people like me.

Could some novel form of taxation be introduced to discourage visitors? It isn’t difficult to imagine a world where you have to pay a surcharge to visit Amsterdam, one even greater than the current existing city tax which is set at 5%. Would a 20% tax put people off?

Or, perhaps, a minimum number of nights might need to be booked at a hotel? Pitching the number of nights you can stay in the city at seven nights minimum would certainly deter plenty of people from booking a visit, but might not be enough to put the rich people off. In such a scenario, maybe Amsterdam could become a kind of Northern European St Tropez, an exclusive destination attractive only to the hoi polloi?

Of course, these are simplistic scenarios and unlikely to happen in the way described. Especially when tourism is reported to be worth around €87.5 billion a year to the wider Dutch economy. You might expect that, in this instance, these numbers will do all the talking. But in a world where a virus can bring the world to a standstill, anything is possible.

It is worth pointing out that, in terms of population density, Amsterdam is a village compared to Paris, with inhabitants per square kilometre coming in at around 4,500 and 21,500 respectively. Imagine if tourism was curtailed by the French authorities? There would be a riot.

I won’t be surprised if some other quirky political outcomes are pursued over the next year or so should we enter into a deep global recession, and this includes on the travel and tourism front, but it is difficult to see offbeat schemes working. Not when there is so much money at stake. Look what happened after the 9 / 11 attacks in New York in 2001 as an example.

If anything was going to discourage flying it was that shocking terrorist attack, but the absolute opposite happened, despite airport security being tightened up so much in the time since that, all too often, going through the airport feels as straightforward as making water run uphill.

In the years since 9 / 11, air travel has increased by a much greater rate than it did in the previous comparable time period: there were 4.2 billion air passengers in 2018, 1.66 billion in 2001, and a relatively puny 654 million in 1982. If we characterise the post-9 / 11 aviation industry as a battle for hearts and minds over fear versus money, money definitely won. It might give us some reassurance that the crisis facing the aviation industry at the moment is a relative blip.

Since the 2008 recession, we seem to have entered a period which future historians might characterise as one exhibiting increased nationalist sentiment. There has in recent times been some well-documented comparisons of the last ten years or so with the Great Depression of the 1930’s that preceded World War II, for example. To an outsider like me, it might seem like those Amsterdam politicians are displaying a bit of that same kind of inward thinking. For the sake of me and those like me, I just hope those same politicians don’t make it too difficult, or too expensive, for me to revisit one of my favourite cities.