Of natural beauty and interesting markets

It’s important to get a sense of perspective sometimes. We have bigger problems than the markets at the moment. Pestilence stalks the land. Let us be thankful that the fatality rate of it is in low single figures percent-wise. So far although there have been missteps I am of the opinion that the people have handled it well, and I am quite impressed that the fragile just-in time systems of delivering essentials have been adapted quite well. The Chinese managed to keep the wheels running in Wuhan as far as the essentials of life. We do face problems with food in the medium term if Tim Lang is right. Many face more immediate problems with food due to their precarious economic situation. However, so far I have been cheered by the response of the British people. Adaptable bastards, humans, even if deeply stupid in many ways. Good luck to us.

The drop in economic activity makes some things change for the better. I live in a small town so air pollution is low here, but even so the drop in traffic makes one’s sense of smell more acute as Nature blooms. Mind you, I can also smell people (not in a bad way, I’m not saying they are crusties) from further away than 2m, particularly downwind. So social distancing may reduce the likelihood of infection, but given that smell is airborne chemicals interacting with the olfactory bulb in the old hooter it probably doesn’t preclude it. It is what it is – we need to get some exercise to avoid becoming fat as moles.

Birdsong is increasing. You’re likely to have more time to listen to it – our blackbirds are lovely at this time of year.

He will become more mellifluous as he hones his art with practice. I got to middle age before realising this. With time to reflect, it’s a little piece of magic that unfolds each year, and I will try and honour the beauty. As long as one of the neighbour’s cats doesn’t get him first… The National Trust is doing this sort of thing in a bigger way on #blossomwatch.

Enough of that. Jurgen Klopp had the right idea, I have no more expertise in epidemiology than he.

of markets and mayhem

Ah, the smell of excitement on the markets. I have cleared out some of my premium bonds, shunted into Charles Stanley before this tax year end. I borrowed nearly a year’s worth of ISA from them and tossed it in premium bonds, because I couldn’t really bear to invest in the stock market at high valuations. It looks to me like valuations are getting better 😉

I am keeping a leery eye on my Gold holdings, for once I am cheered that the buggers are in my ISA. Gold is sort of like cash but with a vague anti-stocks trend in times of trouble. Apparently the correct way to do this is with long-dated bonds. But I am simple and have seen gold do this job before, twice.

In normal times it’s a deadbeat and pays no income. But Harry Browne had a point, I am roughly back to the same asset allocation I had in 2012. Except that all the numbers are a hell of a lot bigger.

I reckon this bear market has legs, and it ain’t anywhere near done and dusted. Unlike normal stock market crashes when people simply get pissed off with high valuations and look down like Wile. E. Coyote and succumb to gravity, there actually is a genuine out of the blue problem here1, which is going to result in reduced economic activity. When a lot of customers are at home and the workforce is down and it’s a global problem then the velocity of money is likely to be less. Yes, the Fed has thrown a shedload of money at it. I’d say there still be lots of trouble ahead.

In my view this is likely to be a crash and a bear market – months not weeks. I am not an unreserved buy and holder, and I don’t have much reserve to buy in, though I do have a steady income so I don’t depend on the markets.

I am going to stick my neck out. I sold out some holdings on March 10th, to give myself some ammo. I still have 2/3 of my equity holdings, all my VWRL, and all my HYP from 2009. I am happy with these, but I cleared out everything that I didn’t love. Marie Kondo would be proud of me. And I cleared out half of an IT and all my FTSE100 holdings, although they probably aren’t overvalued. I’m just a cheeky bastard and want to buy that back either as income-paying ITs, or simply for cheaper, the FTSE100 seems to have taken an outrageous hammering since I sold. All that oil, oy vey… I have a Google spreadsheet of all that I sold, what value I sold at, and what the current -15min valuation is because googlefinace makes that easy.

Let’s just say it was well worth doing. When the aggregate gain from selling halves, then I should start to consider chuntering back into the market because obviously I cocked up and this bear market will have been shot on sight. However, my heart of darkness wants it to double, because that will also be a good time to buy. Valuations were too high before. I don’t regard the losses as anywhere near enough to compensate for the likely hit.

There is a second-order problem, however. We look at our share prices in GBP. If you look at how many GBP you need to buy the IMF special drawing rights, a balance of currencies, you see the GBP has been having a torrid time of late. You see a similar pattern with US Dollars and with gold, so it’s us, not them. This has an inverse relationship to international stock prices, so the falls in real value are about 10% worse than displayed on our screens.

How many GBP to buy IMF SDRs

Something really dreadful seems to be happening to the pound. ZXSpectrum48k seems to be on the money that the UK is more akin to an emerging market.

Now I’m not one of the people yelling that it will be like the 1930s again. It may be, while it is usually unwise to say it’s all different this time I would say the pestilence stalking the human population  is certainly unprecedented for 50 years.

I’m shorting some of the equities I do own.You can argue that’s barmy, why not just sell, but what I am shorting are my investment trusts. I am shorting half of my ASL, which is pretty much just as well, it’s my worst performer. That’s not that tough to understand, small UK companies are basically roadkill.

I am of the view this is going to go titsup a long way more. If shorting works out I get more working capital to put into my ISA over the bear market, and I can take some solace in the losses in the ISA as they are balanced in the gains on the short 😉 If the market suddenly has a fiery fit of the vapours and skyrockets to UKX=10,000 then I look a right tit and get soaked on the short, and get to sell out of my ISA to pay for my stupidity.

Bear markets are exciting. Things happen a lot quicker in them – spread betting which is my tool of choice for shorting is like an ISA in that there is no tax hit if it works, but has a high cost of carry and high costs of doing anything – it’s a dreadful TER. That doesn’t roll up so much in bear markets because of the faster action, I don’t expect to be in IG for more than a year.

Buying in again

I have some piss-taking limit buy orders in the ISA to buy things like VWRL and also ULVR that’s I’ve wanted for a while. I need to find out if iWeb let me do regular monthly purchases2, because I am also minded to buy VWRL steadily across the next six months.

Obviously I am not a strong believer in buy and hold, and I think valuations matter, and for God’s sake don’t even think of doing that sort of thing because its not passive. Just buy and hold… It does come good in the end, as long as you live long enough.

I don’t have any intention of selling any more in the ISA- the point of getting out of what I did when I did was to give me working capital which I will roughly double with extra cash this year and next. I hold some of that working capital in gold ETFs because I don’t trust the pound to hold value through this. I naturally take a hit on the turn and the annual costs on SGLP.  Bear markets are shorter than bulls. If I wanted to hold for 10 years then I’d sweat about the costs of carry and the opportunity costs, but I am chilled on that.

This needs to start working for me. I have the feeling income is going to be bought much easier in the months to come than in recent years. I want this to be a good bear market. I’ve seen this movie before.

So there. I’m probably going to be excommunicated because I’ve gone against the buy and hold shibboleth.  I learned that I had no stockpicking edge over the years. But I still believe in the importance of valuation, and it’s getting a lot better.

I also got a family member out of 100% equities and into VGLS80:20 favouring bonds at the end of January. She has about five years to go to call on that wedge, and a 100% equity allocation at high valuations felt bad. I am owed a beer in five years time. Mind you, if she buys into the bear market than I will buy the drinks, because that sort of chutzpah deserves a hat tip. I know from experience that it’s incredibly hard to do. I at least now have some metrics from tracking what I have sold 3.

But it still will be gut-wrenching and a bastard, because buying into a bear market still means looking at a potential 30-50% loss after you buy in. I can’t call the bottom, but I can call overvaluation. Bear markets fix that sort of problem within one to three years, whereas bull markets can stay up in the sky for years. I am glad to see this bull market get the order of the boot, though I am naturally saddened by the shocking human misery that was the coup de grace that pushed it over the edge.


  1. there is an argument that things like the GFC were also an out of the blue problem, inasmuch as knowledge of the rot was not widely disseminated. Some crashes are a crisis of confidence, however – October 1987 springs to mind. 
  2. Maybe they do let you do regular purchases, but I sure as hell aren’t bright enough to see how. If you know, please enlighten me! 
  3. I will see if googlefinance lets me scale that dynamically to IMF SDRs, I am tired of having to mentally offset the vagaries in the pound to get a clear picture 

Shiny shiny starts to gleam as fear rises

Fear usually means a fire sale in the markets. MedFi gives you the graphical take straight between the eyes using the gold price vs the S&P500. Market valuations have been high in recent years so I feel this one will have legs. Officially the selloff is attributed to coronavirus, so let’s start off with a bit of old Leonard, RIP.

Everybody knows the plague is coming,
everybody knows it’s moving fast

You’re going to get covid-19. So am I. Most likely in months, not years. Not sure I’m smart enough to even imagine how they’re going to isolate London, but hopefully some bright minds are on it. Let’s hope they’re not all Dominic Cummings’ weirdos and misfits with their charming views about creating a master race 😉

Our Sab, with the all-knowing clarity of youth. Bless…

Selective breeding works a treat – for us, rather than the selectively bred species. Closing that loop doesn’t seem to end well.

The odds of surviving Covid-19 seem good, so game theory shows us that in the financial aspects it’s the opportunities that are worth looking at. If you aren’t going to survive it then your investments aren’t your problem – in five years’ time you’ll know if you were hardy enough. If you aren’t then you’re not going to experience the downside of getting it wrong. You shouldn’t have money in the equity markets that you will need in the next five years.

It’s early days yet, but I wonder if the coronavirus is gaining extra traction in the markets by pushing a stale long bull run over into its natural nemesis, the bear market. We aren’t there yet, but the markets could get more interesting.

The fear/greed index has shifted into fear

If you’re under 40 this should be a cause of celebration. Firstly because you’re very low risk from covid19, and secondly because you are a net buyer for a long time. A low stock market early in your investing career is all to your benefit.

 

VWRL in early March 2020

Bear markets declines are steeper than bull market rises , presumably because fear is more contagious than optimism. The bull run has been very long, and for the last ten years stock markets have been inflated by funny money as interest rates have been depressed. The bloodletting could be stiff.

I am not under 40. I have now come to the end of my investing career, I was  unlikely to make a contribution to my ISA ever again, and I will only wash £2880 through my SIPP as cash to collect the free £180 a year from the government because it’s rude not to.

Unlike every other bugger in the FI/RE blogosphere, I am done, I have turned the engine off and pulled out the key. All around there are many FI/RE protagonists intoxicated with ten years of bull run, and the the air is heady and ripe, the smell of Autumn in the stock market all around although it is only Spring in the landscape. Winter is coming.

Over the last few months I had shifted my holdings more defensively, largely as a result of high valuations and my impending shift towards drawing an income from the ISA. Most of that income I can get from the natural yield, and I have a chunk of cash in Premium Bonds that I was going to slowly decumulate over the next few years to boost that ISA top-up to smooth my income ahead of getting the State Pension.

I am not a passive investor, that heavy cash/gold policy was set because I looked at the high valuations of the markets as I came up to drawing down and felt meh about it. I haven’t sold any of what I did have, but didn’t add much to the equity sections at these valuations.It’s fine to draw down from the natural yield of what I have bought.

The natural yield will probably be reasonably stable, as it is largely from investment trusts and the high-yield portfolio. But there’s a lot of gold in my ISA, which was there because of the high market valuations and the fact I don’t have decades of accumulation ahead of me.

no battle plan survives contact with the enemy

I am wondering if I shouldn’t sell some of that gold over the next few months and run the other way, into beaten down ITs. And/or take some of the cash and use next years ISA allowance, which would mean I would have less yearly income in running it down.

Valuations haven’t yet fallen to levels that are usefully lower than say a year ago – f’rinstance if you take a look at VWRL

VWRL in early March 2020

while there is a tip at the end where it has nutted down, but it’s not as if it is down to this time last year. For me to exchange some of the shiny shiny for VWRL I’d say I don’t want t pay more than say £52, as it was way back when in 2016.

If I am going to surrender some of my guaranteed income or my shiny tokens for income, ITs give a good income stream, particularly when bought at a discount due to bearishness. It’s been over ten years since I last saw that advocated, but I took action on that message – and these investment trusts have been paying me steadily for over ten years. I’d like some of those low prices, please.

So I need to take some time out and do some research, ask myself what sort of prices/discounts I would consider ITs better value than some of the guarantees of cash or gold, and start sticking some alerts out. The time may never come, in which case nothing to see here, move along now.

I’m using natural yield, not a SWR

I am not going to sell stocks to derive income. I want more income from the ISA but I don’t have to thrash it; I get over 3/4 of what I want already off the natural yield.

It’s all very well for people to sit in their ivory tower and say sell off units of VWRL to achieve your wanted SWR, but I am not going sell off units of anything, because I only started to get ahead in the markets when I stopped selling equities. I am a jumpy seller and that’s bad. But I do skew buying choices.

Natural yield is despised by people in the accumulation phase – see the stick Greybeard took in this article for advocating investment trusts. ITs form a large part of my high yield approach, much of mine were bought early in my investing career, because IT prices get thrashed more in times of turmoil as discounts open up due to their closed-endedness. Which is a bug when you’re selling and a feature when you’re buying in a down market

Written before the recent falls, this interesting throwaway line in Monevator’s SIPP/ISA article

For eight-year periods or less: save enough in cash to cover your spending needs plus an inflation top-up. The potential upside of equities isn’t worth the risk of grievous loss with so little time to bounce back.

made me change my mind about adding to the ISA for one last time next tax year, because my distance to the State Pension is of this order. I could add to my ISA to top up my income to the amount of the SP, trying to smooth my income, but I could also run down cash savings over a decade to make up the difference that way. At valuations a couple of weeks ago I’d need to spend about 30 times the desired uplift in annual income to get it from the stock market.

Using the rough rule of thumb that inflation halves your money over 15 years I’d need about 15 times the desired annual income to draw cash down over 10 years. The catch is, of course, that drawing down the cash means it’s all gone after 10 years. The plus is that it’s not sensitive to bear markets.

I normally used within five years as the sort of time horizon where one would steer clear of the markets and hold cash, but as I said above, valuation matters. At high valuations the cash-favouring time horizon drags out for two reasons.  You’re paying more for less expected income. Plus the risk of capital loss gets higher.

the smell of fear in the morning

The ermine snout twitches, wondering if there is the scent of one last chance to purchase income at low valuations. That time is not right now, but it may be soon. My investing career would then be bookended by bear markets, a fitting swansong. The first one served me well, more so than anything I could do with what’s developing. There’s only a couple of year’s worth of ISA allowance I could commit to this one so it would be more of a fillip to my income rather than a heavy lift, like the years starting from 2008.

There’s certainly mileage in yanking out some of the Premium Bonds and replacing the amount I borrowed from my Charles Stanley ISA earlier this year, that needs to happen this month. If I decide that I don’t want to buy into the ISA I can shove the money back into Premium Bonds next tax year.

To make this worthwhile I need a bloodbath in the markets. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to swap some income for about a decade into some income for longer. And I need a strong enough immune system to fight down covid-19 to carry off the spoils of war. If not – then it’s not my concern…

I’m going to take time and look at what happened to various ITs in the last crash including their payouts, what their prices were over the years I have been an investor, and determine a price that I would think was really good value to buy. And set these alerts for if/when the price falls below that. I will be looking for valuations closer to 2009-2012 than 2013 to now. The opportunity may never come. But if it does, then sometimes you just have to hold your nose and do it…