This edition of the Market Review considers whether markets will continue to climb a “wall of worry”.
This week I have been looking at the unfolding 2017 hurricane season and the effects that Harvey, Irma and Maria could have on the US economy and the broader insurance sector. These events have caused devastation across the Caribbean, Texas and Florida. The financial impact that they will have is difficult to judge this early on. However, total losses are expected to be between $80 and $125 billion. Over the short term there will be a negative impact to the US economy. US jobs data has already shown that the number of jobs created by the economy has contracted for the first time since 2010 and the hurricanes have been seen as a large contributor. However, economic activity is expected to return as insurance policies pay out, property is rebuilt and damaged items such as cars are replaced.
Closer to home the impact will be felt by Lloyd’s Insurers, the London based, global insurance market. They have estimated that Harvey and Irma will cause around $4.5bn in losses to their members. This is expected to lead to an underwriting loss for the year but CEO, Inga Beale, has stated that this is to be expected in such events and that “this is what we are here for”.
Natural disasters are both good and bad for those insurers covering this market. On one hand, they will suffer some large capital pay-outs in the short term. On the other hand, such events inevitably help push future premiums up. This is especially relevant at the moment given that the lack of disasters in recent years has driven premiums down to a level that has caused problems in the market.
This week I am writing on Royal Dutch Shell, a company I last wrote about in 2015, when it agreed to buy BG for a consideration of £47bn.
The integration of BG’s assets remains on track and with synergies from this deal and leveraging efficiencies, Shell has stripped $10bn of annual operating costs from its business. On top of this, the enlarged company is continuing to drive down its debt ahead of targets and has reduced capital expenditure by $20bn.
While the integration of BG’s assets is running to plan, Shell cannot rest on its laurels. A switch from fossil fuels to more clean energy sources over the long term will put pressure on demand. One example of this is the move of car manufacturers towards producing electric vehicles (EV) or hybrids. To counter the move away from fossil fuels, many of the big oil and gas companies are investing heavily in renewable energy solutions. Shell has committed to invest up to $1bn per annum in “new energy” by 2020, including an investment in hydrogen production to rival the EV market. While this is a fraction of their overall capital expenditure it shows that the company is trying to future-proof its business as the demand for oil inevitably falls.
Shell also highlights that there will need to be a stable source of electricity when wind and solar are not available. The management see gas providing this stability and have increased their liquefied natural gas (LNG) capabilities with the purchase of BG.
The success of Shell compared with its peers will be determined by how well it manages this switch to renewable energy sources. Any heavy investment now would be a drag on cash and the adoption rate for electric vehicles, for example, may be slower than anticipated. However if Shell delays investing in renewable energy it risks being left behind in a declining sector.
This week I am looking at property, residential, construction and services firm Kier Group, which announced preliminary full year results last week. The performance was in line with management expectations and the results showed a group pre-tax profit of £126m, compared with £116m last year, while revenues for the year have risen to £4.28bn, 3 per cent higher than the previous year.
The results were well received in a sector where a number of Kier’s competitors had experienced problems. Investors were reassured that management’s portfolio simplification programme has been a success since they made the decision to sell the Hong Kong and Caribbean businesses earlier this year. The simplification has resulted in increased focus on its three core markets; building, infrastructure and housing, which now represent 90 per cent of the group’s revenues and profits.
Management are confident that the business will remain relatively unaffected by Brexit and the firm is likely to benefit further from the increasing government focus on affordable housing, having already secured government funding over the last year to build new homes.
When writing about Kier last year, we explained that the contractor had laid out a “Vision 2020” plan of strategic targets to reach by 2020. The reassuring recent results along with the decision by the board to raise the full year dividend by 5 per cent, should help to increase investor belief that the group is on track to hit its ambitious target of £200m in annual operating profits by 2020. However, the economic environment remains challenging.
This week I have been looking at national homeware store Dunelm. The company reported annual results on Wednesday 13 September that were in line with market expectations. The company had a weak start to the year as a result of unpredictable weather combined with the tightening of consumer spending. The second half of the year performed better with Easter falling later and improvements in the timing of promotional and seasonal events. It has been an eventful year for the company following the purchase of online homeware retailer Worldstores from administration, together with the sudden departure of CEO John Browett at the end of August.
Dunelm had been interested in Worldstores for twelve months before the company went into administration, allowing Dunelm to take the initiative to buy the assets for a nominal £1. The acquisition and ongoing integration of Worldstores is allowing Dunelm to accelerate both its furniture and online offerings. Worldstores focussed predominantly on producing and sourcing furniture and selling through their online store. These were both areas where Dunelm was underrepresented. Worldstores also owned the Kiddicare baby and infant products store. Whilst not a traditional core business to Dunelm the company believes that an integration of the brand, perhaps as a mezzanine level in existing stores, could help drive footfall of an otherwise untapped customer demographic.
The change in management at the top was not so surprising given the disappointing performance of the company over the prior two years. However, for the interim, the company seems to be in good hands under the executive leadership of Chairman, Andy Harrison (previously CEO of Whitbread), incumbent CFO Keith Down and founder and majority shareholder, Deputy Chairman Will Adderly. They have lofty ambitions to double Dunelm’s sales over the next five years or so but investors are currently wary that the company’s prospects are ultimately tied to the strength of increasingly squeezed UK consumers.
This week I am looking at Herald Investment Trust, a UK-based fund that invests primarily in small-cap companies within the technology, media and telecoms sectors. Herald has been run by Katie Potts and her team since it began in 1994, which is somewhat unusual for a fund but has ensured a consistent long term strategy for investors.
Unlike some other technology funds, Herald aims to pick stocks from the smaller end of the investment universe where the team sees significant opportunities in under-researched and often hard to access companies. These early-stage businesses are often held for long periods of time demonstrated by the fact that over 20% of the portfolio holdings have been held for over 13 years. Of course, with early stage companies there can also be considerable risks and to counter this the fund is much more diversified than other collective vehicles, with over 260 stocks in its portfolio.
The Team’s breadth of experience and extensive company meeting programme has so far proven successful, and the Fund has enjoyed annualised Net Asset Value (NAV) total returns of 12% since inception, which has strongly outperformed both small-cap and technology indices.
That said, investing in the smaller end of the technology sector has not been without its difficulties in recent years, and Katie continues to struggle with the increase of acquisition activity from larger, global companies that has diminished the pool of companies she can invest in. Following the rush of takeovers at the end of 2016 the fund has maintained a higher level of cash than usual, which currently sits at 7.5%. This is however fairly consistent across many Managers, who have found value hard to come by given many company valuations are close to all-time highs.
Several studies have found that over the last couple of decades school fees rose more than twice as fast as Consumer Prices or Average Wages. Even if this trend does not continue, it is certain you will need much more than an average wage if that is what you are relying upon to pay school fees. Of course it is not just school fees to worry about. University Tuition Fees might be funded by Student Loans, but much of the cost around attending university is not. For most people some additional planning is required.
Whether investing a lump sum, or through a regular savings arrangement, spreading the load across a longer timescale will enable the investments to grow more effectively, making the project more manageable. Planning ahead also permits a longer-term investment strategy that should deliver superior returns. In any case, it is always important to match the investment portfolio’s risk to the school fees’ liability.
For those who have already missed the long-term planning boat, there are some other ideas worth looking at. Re-mortgaging, or drawing cash from a pension, can release a school-fee-fund. For the less adventurous this can be held in an off-set account, mitigating mortgage interest, but, for the more adventurous, it can be invested – ideally within a tax efficient wrapper – to produce returns more in line with school fee inflation.
It is also worth noting that each Grandparent can give up to £3000 per annum without incurring an IHT liability; an efficient way to transfer both cash and knowledge across the generations. A final thought is that around one third of private school pupils receive some sort of scholarship or bursary, so that is always worth investigating too.