There is something suitably seasonal about Sprouts Farmers Market. Perhaps that’s why its private equity shareholders chose December to sell. Or perhaps it was the price, 140 times last year’s earnings. Either way, Sprouts is obviously an exceptional company.

It is, apparently, eating the lunch of conventional food retailers. The splendidly cynical Grant’s Interest Rate Observer quotes the Nutrition Business Journal (do keep up) in rhapsodies about the trend towards organic food. From its base in Phoenix, Arizona, the company’s existing 167 stores are set to sprout to 1200 in 20 years. The competition will never notice.

It’s one of Mr Grant’s “story stocks” for 2014, shares with little or no visible means of support. Opko Health has failed to find a cure-all, but has a diagnostic test for prostate cancer which has met with mixed reviews. There is nothing so vulgar as a profit at Opko, whose shares sell on 42 times expected 2013 sales.

Before you gasp at American investors and these Panglossian ratings, look closer to home. That of Foxtons, recently returned to market, implies not only that London’s property boom will never stop, but that there’s as much scope outside the glamorous boroughs as in them. Once again, the opposition will never notice.

Graphene may be the new wonder material, but it’s nothing compared to the wonder of Applied Graphene Materials, listed a month ago at 155p, and now 446p. Not only are there no profits, there are no sales to speak of; it’s a concept stock, which has discovered alchemy with carbon.

With stories like these, it’s hardly surprising that 2014 is supposed to be a bumper year for new issues. Buyers might reflect on the three ways to realise the value in a business: trade sale, buyout or flotation. The private equity houses, which finance buyouts, are complaining that attractively-priced businesses are hard to find, while M&A conspicuously failed to join the party in 2013.

That leaves initial public offerings, where prices are determined by the level of the stock market, and a spate of them indicates that share prices are quite high enough. Mind you, the experts have shown they haven’t a clue about pricing. Please don’t mention the Royal Mail to Goldman Sachs.

Ra, ra, RDR

Two cheers for 2013’s Retail Distribution Review. This seemingly arcane piece of legislation really has done what it was designed to do, and forced the fees charged by fund managers into the open. The market failure the RDR addressed is glaringly apparent from the weekday FT, where four pages of fund prices are followed by less than two listing the shares which are the funds’ principal investments.

Once investors can see just how much they pay for so little real value, the fund managers are forced to cut the fees that have made them fat. However, Michael McLintock, who has run M&G since before the Prudential bought it in 1999, thinks that cutting fees is the road to hell.

He believes that the right idea and effective distribution pulls the money in almost regardless of the fees. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to distinguish the right idea from the fashionable idea. Fashions change, fees remain. Mr McLintock looks like the exception that tests the rule.

101 uses for a bank branch

What is a bank branch for, exactly? The manager is long gone, and won’t be back. Dreaming up new uses for high street premises proved ruinously expensive, as employees smooth-talked customers into buying useless insurance. Now the government wants to close that mysterious gap between paying in a cheque and the proceeds appearing on your account, suggesting that banks might accept a snap from a mobile while awaiting the actual cheque.

Well, if London Underground thinks it can do without ticket offices, surely banks can do without branches? It’s 24 years since Midland Bank launched branchless First Direct, yet the others are still there.Turning bank branches into coffee shops may be a sign of advancing civilisation, but it’s not all one-way. Mobile phones needed no physical presence. Their shops are now ubiquitous, so bank branches are likely to be with us for a good while yet. Let’s hope the staff can be given more constructive things to do in them.

This is my FT column from Saturday

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