It is not quite true to say that the stock market is relying on the Royal Dutch Shell dividend, but since the oil company accounts for over a tenth of the total dividends paid by UK companies, a cut would be quite a shock. The shock would be terminal for Ben van Beurden, since the Shell CEO would have broken the promise made during the takeover of BG Group.

This is why Shell will find the $8bn needed to pay out on the capital enlarged by what Nick Butler of Kings College London describes as “an act of corporate obstinacy that is still destroying shareholder value”. However, “find” is not quite the same as “afford”, as Shell shares are signalling with a yield of 7 per cent, more than twice the market average, for a company that has not cut its dividend in over half a century.

The price is, in effect, anticipating the end of the oil age; that if Shell shells out $8bn every year, it will have to keep selling assets and eventually stop exploring, turning the shares into a high-risk annuity. This case assumes that for oil, $50 is the new $100, that alternative energy sources will displace it from more and more uses, and that pressure from environmentalists will do for oil what they have done for coal.

Well, maybe the oil price is in long-term decline. Fracking activity in America is now rising again, as the costs fall and drillers adjust to their newfound role as swing supplier. Yet if “peak oil” does turn out to be peak oil demand, rather than supply, as had been generally assumed, there is no sign of it.

OECD countries have been using less, but global oil consumption rose by 12 per cent in the 10 years to 2015, despite costing over $100 towards the end of the decade. Today’s lower price is having the entirely predictable effect on consumption in the west, with Americans driving like never before. The glut looks temporary.

All the oil majors became fat and inefficient in the boom years. As BP demonstrated after the Macondo disaster, they have valuable assets that they hardly know they possess. They are also learning to make money from selling their products rather than finding more crude. We are nearly all shareholders in Shell, some of us more directly than others, but that dividend looks sustainable, and not just because Mr van Beurden wants to keep his job.

Dear Apple: don’t abandon jack

Hutber’s Law, named after a distinguished City editor of the Sunday Telegraph, states that improvement means deterioration. If the scuttlebutt is to be believed, Apple may be about to demonstrate the law’s truth, by launching an iphone without a headphone jack.

You can see why purists dislike wires, which tangle however carefully they are put away, and pull out of your ears whenever you move. How much more modern to have a wireless connection, even if the earpiece is lumpier – oh, and you need two of them.

The headphone jack is an all-too-rare example of the industry managing to agree on a standard across all brands, even extending it to in-flight entertainment. The headphones themselves cost pennies, so it hardly matters when they break. An expensive little wireless headset will inevitably get lost when you need it. Unlike a physical wire, the radio connection is vulnerable to interference, or even hacking. Memo to Apple: don’t be silly.

Now we’ll never know

Rodney Leach was that rarity among the City’s elite, a man who enjoyed talking to journalists. His views, delivered with a dreadful clarity, were delivered with a twinkle in his eye, as if the most serious subject was also slightly ridiculous. Even when disagreeing it was impossible not to like him. He was cruelly struck down in April and died last weekend. Yet even now, here is something he would have enjoyed – the arch-sceptic on the European Union had not said which way he would vote in the referendum. The mixture of logic and pragmatism that made him such a powerful figure were pulling him in opposite directions, and now we will never know which side would have won.

This is my FT column from Saturday

 

What is a stock exchange for? For the exchange of stock, obviously, matching buyers and sellers in a reasonably transparent way. Well, up to a point. For the London Stock Exchange, this workaday activity sometimes seems almost secondary to charging for the use of its benchmark indices on the one hand, and finding ways to cash in on the burgeoning derivatives market on the other.

The LSE’s portfolio of FTSE indices has become a nice little earner since it started alongside the Financial Times in 1984. It bought out the FT in 2012. Market participants provide the raw material in the form of share prices, which is put through the sausage machine and sold back to them as indices.  Every transaction on the exchange is called a “bargain”, but the participants feel that this bargain is decidedly one-sided.

Now one of the LSE’s competitors, Bats Europe, is having a crack at the index business by launching its own lookalike benchmarks. Competition is all very laudable, but it looks a long haul to reach the retail customers who are used to the FTSE indices to measure their managers’ performance.

A far longer haul is in prospect for the promoters of a different kind of stock exchange. Suitably named, the Long Term Stock Exchange is the idea of Eric Ries, a silicon valley entrepreneur whose previous advice to companies thinking of going public was to lie down until the feeling went away. Today’s exchanges, he argues, reward short-termism and punish companies which take the long view. His exchange, if it ever happens, promises votes for loyalty and much longer horizons for executive rewards.

We can all support the idea of innovation and risk-taking to generate future wealth, but if all the shareholders are long term, there’s no exchange at all. Besides, it is a paradox of our zero-interest age that companies are under pressure to pay dividends almost come what may. As for the LSE, the long-term plan of its departing CEO is to push the business much further into short-term derivatives by selling out to Deutsche Borse, while trying to bat Bats out of the benchmarks park.

It’s not alright Ma

It was a bad moment when Jack Ma, the founder of internet leviathan Alibaba, claimed that fakes were often better than the brands they were faking. Made in the same factories, and from the same materials, quality knock-offs strike at the heart of what brands are all about. Fakes are not a new problem, but identical fakes easily bought on-line are something else.

You may say that the Hermes Togo Leather Birkin Tote is to die for, or at least to pay £15,000 for, but if the same product is available at a fraction of the price, it may betray that you are merely buying it to flash the label. Mind you, men never understand handbags and shoes, which might explain why Jimmy Choo caught the market on the hop (sorry) with results  after analysts had braced themselves for bad news.

The company sees China as the future for Choo shoes, as does every other major luxury brand,  but Alibaba is the gateway. These brands seek to reconcile growth and exclusivity, trying to maintain margins while hoping that nobody will notice that the emperor has no clothes – nor, indeed, shoes. By pointing it out, Mr Ma has not helped them.

Green negotiators for Brexit

Those who had never seen Philip Green negotiating had a treat last Wednesday. Ducking, interrupting, with nothing ever quite settled, Sir Philip demonstrated how he has beaten so many adversaries into submission. However, should we vote leave his talent could present him with an opportunity to repay his debt to society.

He is just the man for the divorce talks with our European partners. Come to think of it, the bunch of political second-raters (with rare exceptions) who could find themselves empowered next week should pick a team of negotiators from private equity and tell them to get on with it. Starring roles beckon for Donald Mackenzie (CVC) Sir Damon Buffini (Permira), Simon Borrows (3i) etc. The other side would hardly know what hit them.

You probably don’t think much of your bank. Mailshots of services you have happily lived without; “your call is important to us” as you wait and wait to speak to a human being; fat booklets of terms and conditions that life is too short to read; punishment charges for going overdrawn.

They are all the same – or not, according to Michael Lafferty and Jane Fuller, both formerly of this parish. Their Bank Quality Ratings, culled from those other unread tomes, the annual reports, prove that there is gold buried in the hundreds of pages of low-grade ore. They pan for sustainability in the small print, and award stars.

The answers are not a great surprise: no big UK bank gets more than three stars out of five, while Barclays gets only two – and even that is an improvement on its one-star rating the last time Lafferty looked.

When it comes to assessing sustainable models in banking, it seems that big is bad. Cleverer people are noticing. Now that ignorantia non excusat for those at the top, even persuading the best people to step up to run the big beasts is hard. Of Europe’s top 100 banks, only four can boast a CEO with a proper banking qualification.

The international monsters may never escape the sins of the past. Morgan Stanley’s  worst-case estimate of costs and fines against Royal Bank of Scotland is almost £30bn, or half as much again as its market value. That estimate includes just £500m for RBS’s treatment of distressed businesses in the crisis. A report from the Financial Conduct Authority is due shortly. If it is as damaging as the rumours suggest, Lafferty’s two-star score will look generous.

Only nine banks warrant four stars, including Aldermore and Close Brothers in the UK. They are all small enough to be comprehensible to the human mind. Those running the big banks may wish to be smaller and simpler, but it is not easy. Lloyds spent as much disentangling TSB as it raised in the sale – and TSB was promptly bought by Santander. There is clearly a very long way to go.

Elliott, the long-term shareholder

There is one clear loser from the decision of Lord Rothschild’s RIT Capital Partners to abandon its pursuit of Alliance Trust. Alliance’s biggest shareholder, Elliott Advisors, had agitated for a deal to allow a profitable exit from its 16 per cent holding, but RIT, bounced into a statement when the story broke in the FT, lost the initiative and then lost interest.

Elliott has achieved much from hounding Alliance. The complacent old board has gone, and radical action is now all but certain. This is likely to mean dismantling the current structure, to turn the company into a conventional investment trust with outsourced fund management, shorn of the administration business.

However, Alliance is too entwined in Scottish politics to apply the slash-and-burn approach so familiar to Elliott. The Dundee employees must be treated carefully, which will take time. Until the end of the process, Elliott looks as though it is locked in to a holding which may prove hard to sell at anything other than a big discount to its underlying value. Be careful what you wish for.

Definitely not your usual suspect

Want to know how the markets will greet a controversial appointment? Leak to The Sunday Times. If there are signs of revolt, deny the story and blame the press. Or, nowadays, go to premier scoopist Mark Kleinman at Sky News. So it was that John Kingman, freshly into the Treasury’s out tray, was fingered as the next chairman of Legal & General.

It’s an unusual appointment, all right. He is miles away from the list of usual suspects. Not only is Mr Kingman 13 years younger than his CEO, but his extensive experience excludes anything remotely like chairing a large, complex corporation. However, there are no signs of revolt, so he looks like a shoe-in. Rather than the quasi-political appointee he appears to be, he may turn out to be an inspired choice, but it is another sign that L&G is not going to be your run-of-the-mill life office.

So the bankers to defence group Cobham have duly helped themselves to their pound of flesh. Last week’s fund-raising continues the fine tradition of price-gouging your customers, as taught to the City of London by the Americans after Big Bang in 1986.

Two years ago Cobham, advised by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, spent $1.5bn on Aeroflex, an American maker of electronic test equipment. To say the purchase was not all the buyer and its adviser had hoped is something of an understatement. The debt taken on has helped push Cobham to the brink, and the result is a rescue rights issue to raise £507m.

BofA is on hand again, but the terms, one new share for every two at a 45 per cent discount to a market price which had already priced in the cash call, are a fine example of the banker’s art. Together with the underwriters and advisers, the bank is charging £20m to cover the possibility that Cobham shares will collapse again in the next fortnight. This travesty of underwriting risk may be the norm, but it is little more than a tax on shareholders for the benefit of the banks.

There’s more. Bizarrely, Cobham is to pay the same dividend, spread over the increased share capital, at a cost of £126m, or a quarter of the net proceeds. This sum translates to 7.4p a share against a rights price of 89p, although to call it a yield is nonsense, since the payment is clearly unsustainable.

Finally, there is the curious case of the departing finance director. Simon Nicholls, Cobham’s FD since 2013, had been head-hunted by Wolseley in January but last week the buyer turned shy and said he would no longer be joining the company. He cannot escape some blame for Cobham’s troubles, but it appears that BofA can. He is out of a job, and the bankers, as usual, are counting their money for old rope.

A very odd Alliance

There are far too many investment trusts. The industry has a long tail of companies which do little more than provide sinecures for the directors, because contested takeovers are almost impossible. An approach to a poorly-performing trust will trigger liquidation unless the price is close to net asset value, while a bidding board must ask whether it is in their shareholders’ interests to take on an unattractive portfolio without a substantial discount.

The approach from RIT Capital Partners to Alliance Trust looks like this problem writ large. Jacob Rothschild’s RIT boasts much better performance, a clearer idea of what its managers are trying to do, and better PR. For years Alliance’s management ignored shareholders’ concerns, spending freely to fend off the activists from Elliott Advisers before capitulating.

A new board has shaken down the management, launched a strategic review, and seen some improvement in the performance of the portfolio. The review covers outsourcing the investment management (perhaps to a group like RIT) and the future of Alliance Trust Savings. The flat-fee charging structure of ATS is as attractive to us as customers as the trust’s long-term performance has disappointed us as shareholders.

It is not clear what, if anything, a takeover by RIT would bring to the party, and from the Rothschild camp’s signals this week, it does not seem clear to them either. RIT shares trade on a small premium to net asset value, against a discount for Alliance, but after the news broke, the difference narrowed to the point where the costs would eat any gain.

A share offer from RIT without a cash alternative at close to NAV could be easily defended by the Alliance board. With such a cash alternative, RIT would be obliged to sell the most liquid holdings in the Alliance portfolio to pay for it. The inevitable disruption costs could outweigh any gain to RIT’s existing shareholders.

The Alliance board could fairly point pout that the strategic review might produce a more attractive alternative. It could point to Alliance’s lower expense ratio, and to the Morningstar research showing that the best indicator of future outperformance is a low level of fees. It is unlikely that RIT’s managers would welcome a move from St James’s Place to the joys of Marketgait in Dundee.

This is my FT column from last Saturday

 

Marks & Spencer’s lack of street-wise expertise was cruelly exposed last week. Its profit warning dumped the shares into a pre-season sale, and with the price now at its lowest for three years, its lack of financial flair mirrors that of the clothes.

A year ago it embarked on a £150m share buyback programme, which unkind souls might now describe as reverse insider trading – you know things are going badly, but keep buying anyway. At prices as high as 543p, the company bought in shares which now cost 390p.

Not for the first time, the contrast with rivals Next is a painful one. Last year its shares touched £80, a price far beyond what CEO Simon Wolfson considered a sensible use of his company’s money. He suspended his long-running buyback programme and paid a special 230p a share dividend instead.

This year, after a decidedly unfashionable matching pair of profit warnings, Next shares have slumped. This fall produces what Lord Wolfson  somewhat contrarily described at the results as “favourable conditions”, the point where buying the shares back beats the 8 per cent equivalent return target for new investment in the business. That price is currently £69.62.

With the shares at £55, the reaction to such a collapse from many company managements would be to suspend the buyback programme, perhaps citing “unfavourable conditions”. Next has stuck to its guns. Nick Bubb, the doyen of retail analysts, dubs Lord Wolfson “Mr Buyback man” for the £75m (of £150m) spent so far.

Lord Wolfson could go further to consolidate his family’s grip on Britain’s most successful clothes retailer. Next has just raised £300m, paying 3.625 per cent for 12 year money, but in such a highly geared industry, too much debt is dangerous.

As with M&S, there is no sign of similar intellectual rigour at Burberry, which has served notice of a £150m (that sum again) share buyback, warning of tougher times but saying nothing about a target price. Burberry’s current management lacks the trust that Lord Wolfson has earned, and its buyback looks like a displacement activity to pacify nervous investors.

Perhaps Burberry will enlighten us before wading into the market. Otherwise, like some of its less well-heeled customers, it will look like a case of carry on buying until all the money is gone.

house!

You are the bursar at an Oxford college. You need more accommodation for the undergraduates, and have you seen the price of houses in Oxford? The answer, since you happen to have a suitable plot, is DIY, or rather, finance it yourself. Our college has just raised £35m over 45 years at 3.37 per cent, which will be comfortably covered by the rents from the building.

The puzzle is why this is unusual, when dirt cheap finance is available and when we need more housing. You may not own a convenient plot, of course, but there is far more land with planning permission than is being built on. Construction is sluggish because small housebuilders were cut down by the last recession and ever-increasing regulation, while it is hardly in the interests of the big groups to expand too fast.

The picture may be bleaker than Brandon Lewis, the housing minister, keeps claiming. Daniel Bentley, the editorial director of Civitas, the think tank, cannot make the sums add up. Mr Lewis boasts that 181,000 homes were built last year. Well, yes, if you include 20,650 from change of use, 4,950 by subdividing existing homes, and exclude the 10,610 that were demolished, some to make space for new ones. Not quite 181,000 homes “built”, then.

Oh Benny, say it ain’t so!

Benny Higgins was the man who spotted the overheating housing market in 2007. As boss of the Halifax, a leading mortgage lender, he  raised the bar for borrowers. When, inevitably, Halifax lost market share to others like the soaraway Northern Rock, his bosses at HBoS fired him. Sadly, his admirers among us have now suffered a great disappointment. Despite earning £2.2m for running Tesco Bank, it seems that Mr Higgins has been stretching the definition of reasonable expenses with his taxi bills, clocking up £18,000 in eight months. O tempora! O mores! Oh Benny!

This is my FT column from last Saturday, before the Bank Holiday got in the way

It was not a red-letter week for Alex Chisholm. His swansong report at the Competition and Markets Authority into retail banking was greeted by raspberries all round. Still, never mind, he is shortly off to run the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and best of luck with that, with the magnificent money sink of the Hinkley Point nuclear power station to contemplate.

The day before urging us all to shop around for a bank, he popped up with an assessment of the decision by the CMA’s predecessor body, the Competition Commission, to force the break up of BAA. The assessment concludes that this was a fine decision, claiming that it was frightfully controversial at the time, because the owner of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted maintained that airports did not compete. How clever, then, of the CC to see through this, thanks to its “market investigation regime”.

This is first-class piffle. Five minutes’ analysis was enough to conclude that BAA was cynically privatised as a monopoly in order to maximise the proceeds. The argument that there was competition from Schiphol or Charles de Gaulle was risible, as many of us pointed out at the time. The takeover approach from Ferrovial finally concentrated bureaucrats’ minds to see the bleedin’ obvious, and they rushed to start a competition enquiry before a deal could be consummated. Persuading the bidders to pay up anyway was BAA chairman Marcus Agius’s finest hour.

Competition has clearly worked, and gains from the break-up will, in the bizarrely precise estimate in the latest assessment, be worth £870m by 2020. At Heathrow, staff now act as if they want to help passengers, rather than seeing them as obstacles to the smooth running of the airport.

Mr Chisholm is far too civil a servant to express a view on a new runway, except to say that we need one. He may be wrong about that, too. The Heathrow Hub proposal to extend an existing runway would reduce the early morning noise by having planes land further west, cost much less than Heathrow’s own plan, and allow the prime minister to keep his pledge not to build a third runway. Mr Chisholm has at least got one thing right: it is time to make the call.

 

A happy ending for POG the dog

They laughed at Peter Hambro last year when Petropavlovsk fell into the 99 per cent club, along with the inevitable cracks about going bust in a gold mine. The company nearly went under, thanks to a convertible bond his advisers had earlier urged him to launch “to make the balance sheet work harder”.

To keep the company going, he bet the family wealth on a rescue rights issue at 5p a share. You could have bought as many of the 3,102,922,510 new shares as you wanted at that price, but then a funny thing happened. The gold price recovered, the cash flow from POG’s low-cost, high grade mines in the Russian far east has melted the debt, the shares are now 8.5p, and the prospects look quite good.

Whether the shares are still cheap depends on your view of gold, but even if it slips, POG will see strong cash flow, boosted by the weak rouble. You may be sure that, whatever else the company plans, Mr Hambro will not be tempted into making the balance sheet work harder.

Flexible forecasting

Goldman Sachs has decided that oil is going up from today’s $50 a barrel or so. This is quite a change of view because “the oil market has gone from nearing storage saturation to being in deficit much earlier than we expected.” It is only a few months since its analysts concluded that the world’s tanks were so full of crude that the price might get down to $20. When oil was surging past $110 in 2011, Goldman’s top oilman feared a “super-spike” to take it towards $200. Elsewhere in the Goldman empire, its economists now recommend avoiding shares for the next year. To be fair, hardly anyone saw the collapse of the oil price coming, but can the squid really be so consistently wrong?

 

BHS and Thames Water do not appear to have much in common, but Martin Blaiklock, a scourge of utilities and their financing, can see some uncomfortable parallels. Studying their pension funds, or more accurately their deficits, he has found a growing hole in the accounts of Thames Water Utilities, the subsidiary that actually runs the water. The hole has been there for a decade, but it has grown from £38m in 2005 to £246m last year.

Unlike shopkeeping, water is not a labour-intensive business, and on his calculations, that sum is equivalent to £51,154 for each employee. [His comparable figures for BHS as a going concern are £111m and £10,900. The much-quoted £571m is the cost of paying an insurance company to assume the whole liability immediately].

There’s another common thread. The owners, both based in tax havens, have eviscerated the companies’ balance sheets. The dividends paid to Philip Green’s wife are now well documented. Thames Water’s various owners have taken nearly £3bn in dividends since 2006/07. The debt on the balance sheet has risen from £1.6bn to £10bn in a decade, equivalent to seven times the barely-changed equity. A whole new utility is needed to pay for the proposed super-sewer under the River Thames.

Thames Water has the sort of opaque, debt intensive financial structure that private equity owners prefer, and which bankers love for the fees the debt issues generate. Like all but three of the 10 privatised water companies, Thames is out of the gaze of the public markets. It is constrained only by the regulator and the market’s willingness to buy its debt at rising risk. As a result, there is little meaningful outside scrutiny of the business.

Thames’ monopoly means its employees are unlikely to need the Pension Protection Fund, now reeling from the double whammy of the failure of both Tata Steel and BHS. Its chief executive says he is confident it can cope with both if needs be, but the collapses highlight the fundemental  instability of a system which obliges a dwindling number of solvent schemes to pay up to help those which fail.

The PPF was, obviously, not designed to allow owners to slough off their obligations. BHS may provide a test of the limits, while the Pensions Regulator, who is supposed to oversee the health of the industry, might usefully enquire how Thames intends to bridge its troubled pensions water.

To be franc, it must be Swiss

Like most of us, you may never have seen a “Bin Laden” E500 note. They are likely to be even rarer in future, now the European Central Bank is to stop issuing them. In a fine example of euro-fudge, they will remain legal tender, a great comfort to savers who like to keep the odd million euros in a briefcase under the bed.

The boys at Bond Vigilantes  asked  readers whether the notes would now command a rarity premium or a hot money discount. A discount, of course, since the notes imply money laundering or worse. They may be a useful store of value, but they fail miserably as a medium of exchange, even before the ECB stops the presses.

For a real store of value, the Swiss 1000 franc note is peerless. Over the years it has become progressively more valuable as other currencies crumbled. It is also splendidly cheap funding for the government, since the notes are effectively unsecured, zero coupon irredeemable bonds. No wonder the Swiss have no intention of scrapping them.

Doing good, but is he doing well?

Nigel Wilson is not like other insurance company bosses. He rails against excessive executive pay. Rather than hand-wringing over the lack of houses, he plans to get Legal & General building them. He was one of the first CEOs in the life insurance business to understand the importance of cash flow.

Now, encouraged by another Wilson, Rob, who is apparently Minister for Civil Society, he is to chair a committee to discover how to grow “mission-led businesses”, defined as “profit-driven businesses that make a powerful commitment to social impact.” Well, best of luck with that, Nigel. Just don’t forget the day job. L&G shares are close to their lowest for two years.

This is a modified version of my Saturday FT column

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