“I think the dot-com boom and bust represented the end of the beginning. The industry is more mature today.” Carly Fiorina Chair & CEO of Hewlett Packard
As 2010 has drawn to a close I’m trying to clutch at anything positive from what occurred last year. Despite swathes of Quantative Easing in the western world, a continuation of malfunctioning banking, near sovereign defaults in Greece and Eire not to mention the underlying fiasco in Iceland, continued unemployment, further unhelpful regulation and a host of other equally unproductive news including England’s failure to compete with an excellent bid by Russia for 2018 World Cup I am drawn to Goldman Sachs revaluation of Facebook. The quote above from Ms Fiorina appears to have been conveniently ignored by the 35,000 employees of America’s premier investment bank, itself bailed out by the Fed and now doing rather well at the expense of US taxpayers. A share of US$13bn amongst the ‘staff’ (av. $370,000 each) on a profits collapse of -40% is almost as spectacular as Blackbeard himself. Wikipedia says of Edward Teach, “Teach used his fearsome image instead of force to elicit the response he desired from those he robbed”. I can’t help feeling that an increase of $30bn in valuation for Facebook (“fb”) throughout 2010 to $50bn with purportedly $2bn of advertising revenues and not a single subscriber paying anything for the (socially useless) service should be of some interest to SEC but I’m not going to hold my breath. With the announcement from LinkedIn (a network site for business people again with no visible earnings) as well regarding its own intended IPO it would appear that “Dot.com Part 2 boom & bust” is nearly upon us. Out of a dozen people at a xmas dinner party 11 had used “fb” in 2010 (2 had deleted their accounts incl. myself) although none had ever seen an advert. It would seem that the descendants of Blackbeard did arrive on the american shoreline as once feared. To put Facebook’s valuation into perspective BP is today valued at $140bn (no thanks to the mess in the Gulf and Mr Obama’s meddling) and Tesco at $53bn (making some progress in China). Anyway 2010 wasn’t a great year despite the arrival of the iPad. Stock markets tended to remain buoyant throughout with a positive 4Q beckoning in new year prospects.
So what does the future hold in 2011? With the unnerving scale of sovereign debt(s), especially the mind boggling US$14.29 trillion overseen by the Federal Reserve and engineered by JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs (funny how that name keeps cropping up!), not to mention UK’s National Debt of c.£3 trillion (now who’s counting?) and the shenanigans in EU accounting practices (the PIGS sovereign debt issues are coming to a head!) perhaps some acknowledgement from politicians, bankers and regulators may be forthcoming but I’m NOT going to hold my breath on this issue either. Suffice to say that the “Day of Reckoning” must arrive before our grandchildren get saddled with the consequences. The scale of the numbers, the deficits (and let’s not forget the state of the 100 or so US municipals, equivalent to UK’s local councils, who are on the edge of the precipace) and the banking crisis (Lloyds & RBS are still at systemic risk despite the previous government’s intervention) coupled with a lack of grass roots real growth in the west could well get contagious. The fate of the Euro and indeed the fate of the EU economic alliance itself is under threat but of course there is another concern too. The old chestnut, inflation is at last beginning to show its ugly hand. In China it’s already at 5% and in UK 3% or thereabouts. Many observers predict the US to experience higher inflation later this year too and as inflation resurfaces one can expect a hike (or “spike”) in interest rates too. In UK the Governor of the Old Lady, Mr King has forewarned on a move up to around 5% by 2012, a 10 fold increase, so any sudden jolt could send equities and bonds into a spirral. It’s a very difficult landscape to predict at the moment, suffice to say that everyone would prefer lower taxes, more stimulae for private investors that might just lead to job creation, lower public spending (the ConDem Coalition seems to be going down this course but arguably the cuts are being ground down by unionism and stubborn behaviour) and a magic fix to the banking debacle and the deficits. Regrettably it’s not likely to happen but as market practitioners are well aware as long as the Fed, the ECB and the Old Lady stumble around in the dark rolling the printing presses then at least equities will remain buoyant. The disturbing scenario unfolding, however, suggests that a few other issues may catalyse the return to reality. 2011 will undoubtedly be volatile at times and with Brazil, Russia, India somewhere around 5-8% GDP growth and China running at 8-9% growth the onus may be on US to surprise us all on the upside. Even the perennial arch bear, Prof. Nouriel Roubini has conceded that the US could grow at up to 3% this year. Of course, the trouble with all these growth predictions and corporate profits (especially the banks profits) is that they pale into insignificance compared to the scale of sovereign and municipal debts and deficits. Something has to give here and although most investment specialists now subscribe to significant weightings in gold (5% to 75% is the range although 25-35% perhaps is more realistic) other precious and rare earth metals it’s likely that volatility (to the upside I guesstimate) may increase in this sub-sector. Most forecasters have targets of gold at $1,300-$1,800pto already whereas just a few earmark $2,300+ by 2012. The scarcity value here could well surprise a few politicians one day especially if tensions increase in Korea, Iran or in Pakistan. Interestingly the IMF completed a 403 tonnes auction throughout 2010 and the buyers were India, Sri Lanka, China, et al helping to underpin their currencies. With America’s interest bill estimated at $413bn for 2010 alone the consequencies are that rates must rise and related currencies depreciate. Sadly companies and individuals who have managed their finances prudently over the years could well end up paying for this mess through higher taxation.
So what did happen in stock markets during 2010? The BP saga apart and Apple’s cementing of its position with the iPad markets tended to trade sideways until the final Q. Towards the end of the year much focus was directed at China and its control over 90% of the world’s rare earth metals sub-sector involving dozens of metals ending in “ –ium” which are essential to hybrid cars, cell phones and computer drives. The pendulum has swung and apart from Silicon Valley and a western specialisation in oil exploration and extraction it would appear that China is now dominant in most departments of the world economy.
In terms of stock selection I still continue to recommend the 2 oil majors, Royal Dutch Shell & BP (the recent problem with the Alaska pipeline can be fixed relatively easily) although I’d expect a small pull back to below £20 for RDS. There is unlikely to be any significant pull back on the oil price much below $80pbo (JPMorgan forecast $120pbo by end-2012 with a Brent average at $95pbo this year). Again I still await a buying opportunity in GlaxoSmithKline (below £12) and a host of other FTSE100 constituents which all appear to be ahead of themselves. Randgold (despite the election stalemate in Cote d’Ivoire) and African Barrick, however, still appeal at the current levels (£51 & 575p approx. respectively). Earnings could well surprise to the downside particularly in UK where consumers lower down are having a rough ride. Retail sales and 4Q growth was pretty static to say the least. In addition I continue to recommend Tullett Prebon now 416p yield 3.6% as the inter-broker-dealer should benefit from the volatility hereon. Amongst other miners on LSE I like Petropavlovsk (could be a takeover later this year), Anglo Pacific (a mining royalty play), the 2 canadians Yamana & Kirkland Lake, the smaller gold miners such as Chaarat, Mariana, Obtala, Orosur, Patagonia and Shanta, the tungsten play Ormonde Mining and amongst oils, Dominion (the Uganda situation appears more positive), Heritage (awaiting developments), Petroceltic (has been quiet of late but the hiring of ex-Tullow FD is bullish) and Soco Int’l (a takeover play on its Vietnam and Congo prospects). I’m hesitatingly awaiting a slowdown in China as I don’t believe its current growth can be maintained ( a 3-5% GDP rate is much more realistic) and if this happens then the knock on could be dramatic for the west as well as for emerging markets. Of course the focus should continue to be on natural resources (oil & gas), specialist metals (precious & rare earth), and moderately geared companies. Recently I have advocated more exposure in a few overseas investment trusts with decent yields although it should be stressed that only ½ units should be committed at this juncture with a proviso to add to on any pullbacks. They are the new trust, JPMorgan Global Emerging Markets Income Trust (prospective 4% yield), Henderson Far East (4%), Schroder Oriental (3.4%), BlackRock Latin America (1.2%) and I think the following also merit a look; BlackRock Brazil, JPMorgan India & JPMorgan Russia. The leader in the emerging markets pack, Mark Mobius’s Templeton Emerging appears to be pretty unwieldy these days and I’m not convinced by Anthony Bolton’s Fidelity China Fund either.
Hold on to your helmets! A bumpy ride is forecast particularly in the Eurozone although judging by the state of bonds in the zone the EU may have its first ejection sooner than predicted. The inability of virtually every nation in EU to balance the budgets and keep to the guidelines set by the bureaucrats does not bode well.
Anyway England stormed the Ashes series down under and the Royal Wedding should at least be good for the merchandising industry (Portmeirion PMP should perform well). All we need now is some sunshine.