James Spence

About James Spence

James is a co-founder of Cerno Capital and lead manages a number of the firm’s collective and private portfolios. After qualifying as a chartered accountant in London (Coopers & Lybrand, 1989) he relocated to Asia. Between 1991 and 2004 he worked as an equity analyst, head of research, and latterly as an equity strategist at WI Carr, Paribas, HSBC and UBS, based variously in Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta. James graduated from the University of St Andrews, Scotland with an MA in Philosophy & Logic in 1986. James is a Member of the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment.

Equity Markets – Swords Drawn

By |2018-10-12T15:55:21+00:00October 12th, 2018|Asset Allocation, Cerno Capital, Cerno Capital Posts, Other Posts|

The sudden break-down in headline indices is stimulating a great deal of considered comment and a tweet or three from President Trump. The Fed’s fault? Well, in part. We summarise Governor Powell’s approach to monetary policy as “giddy up”: to temper the US economy during a period of extranormal growth and build some reserve for future cuts when the next crisis comes along. The second part has been referred to by past Governor Bernanke as “putting bullets in the gun”. In the very short term, portfolio managers of all stripes are assessing the collateral effects of this downward move in equity markets. Questions being asked are how is the dollar responding (down a bit), how is gold responding (up a bit), how is oil responding (down US$2bbl) and finally how is the US bond market responding (down a bit in capital value terms)? Measurement of these cross correlations allows people to assess whether the correction is a crisis - the very short-term conclusion being no. The more worrying combination would be a strong move upward in gold and downward in bond yields which would be reflective of actual cash flows out of equity markets into haven assets. This has not [...]

Ding, Dong Amazon.com – Bubble Valuation Techniques in Action

By |2018-09-17T09:00:15+00:00September 17th, 2018|Bottom Up, Cerno Capital Posts, Other Posts|

Imagine you have been diligently working away as an analyst in your investment bank and someday your boss comes to you and offers a promotion into the Technology team, specialising in e-fulfilment. The largest stock in your coverage is Amazon.com and your first order of business is to establish a price target for the stock from which a recommendation can be derived. All investment banks and brokerages require their analysts to provide price targets. Without them the sales function would struggle and it would be difficult to hang the logic of research recommendations on any peg. Amazon.com presents a particular challenge. It is the second largest listed company in the world, with a market capitalisation of US$969bn and, with US$1.68tn traded in its shares in the past 12 months, is of great economic consequence for “the Street”. Bloomberg indicates that 51 analysts have flagged coverage of the company, 47 maintaining a BUY, 3 advising HOLD and just a single SELL recommendation: from a Mr Allen Gillespie of South Carolina. Amazon.com has been a listed company for 21 years and profitable on a financial accounting basis only in the last 4. The company operates off very low margins, its net margin [...]

Investment Letter – September 2018

By |2018-09-10T13:27:54+00:00September 10th, 2018|Cerno Capital, Investment Letters|

The current economic and stock market cycles are unusually long in duration and this leads to obvious questions about what will be the cause of its ending. There are several oft mentioned candidates: protectionism, a fall in historically high margins, a strong dollar and interest rates or some combination of these factors. Students of stock market valuation over time are liable to point to how highly valued equities are and this is hard to dispute. To our minds, the biggest threats to the US stock market lies within the international (non-US) outlook combined with shifts in demand for equities and their valuation. The valuation observation is notoriously difficult to narrow down in a causal sense and apply to time frames. Current high valuations are a pointer to sub-normal returns over the medium term but not the short term. Specifically, they tell us something, in a probabilistic sense, about how returns will pan out over a seven-year time frame, not a one-year time frame. (This is what our own testing has shown). Considerations of the net-demand for equities is thinly trampled terrain for the equity market analyst. It is common place in bond circles to speak of such things – they [...]

The Custom Option

By |2018-07-11T08:54:19+00:00July 9th, 2018|Cerno Capital, Cerno Capital Posts, Cerno Global Leaders, General Investment, Global Leaders, Investment Quarterly, Other Posts, Strategy|

Conducting big business in the decades following the industrial revolution normally entailed the marshalling of labour and resources in a profitable sinecure. Fur trappers and tin miners, agriculture and energy, railroads and steel all fit this model. These industries persist today but are becoming scarce in the pantheon of very top companies measured by market capitalisation or economic value addition. Labour has mobilised, a thicket of laws exists to prevent excessive exploitation and monopolies of international scale are prohibited. Only perhaps in the world of software and social media have we seen the kind of recently accrued market share power that breeds exploitative practices: Microsoft’s dominance of operating system software is a matter of historic fact and Facebook’s control of the network effect across its platforms are prime examples of predatory corporate behaviour: rabid until checked. Outside these large and unusual cases, successful companies conducting business across multiple continents need to balance of standardisation against customisation. Standard so often entails stand-still which is a death curse for companies. At the other end of the spectrum, few businesses can adopt a fully bespoke offering and hope to grow beyond their artisanal roots. There is another category, companies and sometimes just one-person [...]

A short Investment Letter from Rome – May 2018

By |2018-06-01T08:27:41+00:00June 1st, 2018|Cerno Capital, Investment Letters|

The writer first visited Italy in 1983 and experienced the ochre strade of Florence on a tight budget. Caffè was taken al banco non al tavolo. A fruit cake from home served for lunch so an evening meal could be taken in a restaurant. It did no harm and sparked a deep affection for the place that will last this life. Italy is an effervescent place to visit but a deeply frustrating place to be a national of. It took many years and the wry books of Tim Parks to realise this. With more acquaintanceships, especially that of young Italians, the disfunction of the place became apparent. The narrowness of opportunity is a shock when compared to, for example, the UK. The most recent plot of youth unemployment was 31.7%, the second worst in the G20. Italians themselves will often point out that they have not been a country for long and in many respects the place still aligns to stati della città (city states). The preminent of which being Rome, where dark arts are practiced. Given the institutional stasis, ossified professional cabals and general sense that politics is a game for the rich played by the rich, it is [...]

Going, Going, Gold

By |2018-05-03T15:44:24+00:00May 3rd, 2018|Asset Allocation, Asset Classes, Cerno Capital, Cerno Capital Posts, General Investment, Other Posts, Strategy|

Our view on gold has changed recently and we have sold the positions in full across all portfolios. Gold has a few things going for it. It has had a prescribed value for thousands of years – stemming directly from the fact that it was, for much of the past three millennia, a medium of exchange, a savings product - in effect a currency. In 1971, when the US finally came off the gold standard, the direct link between paper currencies and gold was lost. Forty years is a relatively short time in a period measured in centuries, so institutional and personal memories of the linkage remain strong. However, Gold is an example of a putatively safe asset which is, on investigation, not reliable in all environments. Gold is not necessarily a beneficiary from higher inflation, as is commonly thought. The price of gold demonstrates no stable statistical relationship with the measured rate of inflation. No matter whose CPI series one adopts, the relationship is unstable by virtue of the very large swings in the gold price. The case for believing that gold offers a very long run store of value is not well constructed. In face of these inconvenient [...]

Investment Letter from Hong Kong March 2018

By |2018-05-15T09:39:40+00:00March 27th, 2018|Cerno Capital, Investment Letters|

At the National People’s Congress in Beijing, 2,958 of 2,963 cowed delegates approved the change in China’s constitution to allow the Presidency to be extended beyond the two-term limit set by Deng Xiaoping in 1982. Deng’s then reform was promulgated to prevent the repeat of the Maoism’s attendant madness. In a very large country, disastrous policies have terrible effects on millions. Back then in was murder and starvation, what might be the longer-range effects of a resuscitation of one-man rule in China? For surely all dictatorships go bad, even the ones that start out well? The possible outcomes need to be understood in a modern context. In today’s world, even in China where an invisible blanket of surveillance and censorship wraps its citizens, it is possible to lampoon the leaders. Xi’s avatar is Pooh Bear: the tubby fellow attaching himself to a pot of honey. “Find the thing you love and never let go.” When you rule by fear you do not know what your friends let alone your enemies think. All the problems that bestow China from the 12th of March onwards are Xi’s to own. Cadre may be fired, booksellers disappear, businessmen and women interned with impunity but [...]

Investment Letter Feb 2018 Cobras in the Basket

By |2018-05-15T09:41:15+00:00February 5th, 2018|Asset Allocation, Cerno Capital, Cerno Capital Posts, General Investment, Investment Letters, Strategy|

Cobras in the Basket: Bonds, their curves, their relationship with equities and market tops In the last two months, we have seen a meaningful rise in bond yields. Key maturities in the US curve have crept up. The 2Y US Treasuries now stand at 2.15%, the 5s (5 years maturity) have moved up to 2.53% and the 10s to 2.73%. This has not been accompanied by any visible change in central bank policy or rhetoric. It is our belief that investors should take heed and begin to adjust their portfolios, if they have not already done so. This is not the first time in the post crisis period (a period that will soon be 10 years long) that bond yields have fluttered. During the so called “taper tantrum” that occurred between February 2013 and January 2014, those same maturities ran up considerably: 5s went from 0.63% to 1.86% and 10s 1.62% to 2.80%. There were other noticeable sell offs after the post 2008 low. The 10s moved from 2.0% points in early 2009 only to crest at 4.0% in 2010. As we can see, in those previous periods, yields then proceeded down, with the curve compressing to new lows. [...]

Investment Letter – January 2018

By |2018-01-09T11:43:05+00:00January 9th, 2018|Investment Letters, Other Posts|

2017 was a decent year for the firm’s investment strategies, all of which delivered against their objectives. A little more information can be found here: https://cernocapital.com/2017-performance-summary With the books closed on 2017, we reserve the rest of this short letter to matters pertinent to the near and far futures. It remains our somewhat paradoxical view that investors should be more concerned about good economic news than bad. Somewhat against the general habit of doubting the underlying forces that have been moving economies and markets, our view is that that more concern should be directed toward the consequences of the recovery being too good, too wholesome and too universal. For, the more widely accepted that conditions are positive, the more universal the bullishness and the quicker the central bank response to normalise liquidity and interest rates. The economic world is running counter to that of politics. For most folks with an international outlook, whether owed to their origins, migrations or mindsets, global politics have become stinky. Far from advancing toward the End of History suggested by Francis Fukuyama, we are snaking off in another direction. It has all been a reminder that life, especially the life of nations, is not an [...]

2017 Performance Summary

By |2018-04-06T08:23:05+00:00January 8th, 2018|Cerno Capital, Cerno Capital Posts, Cerno Global Leaders, Global Leaders, Other Posts|

2017 Performance Summary Performance summaries for the main investment strategies, all numbers after fees. Note past performance is not a guide to future performance. Global Multi-Asset TM Cerno Select and its sister fund Cerno Unconstrained are global strategies investing across multiple asset classes with an unconstrained approach to asset allocation. The return target is UK CPI +3% by investing in an approved range of investment vehicles, including direct securities, passive funds and specialist active managers. Fund/Strategy 2017 3 Year Inception** Annualised since inception** TM Cerno Select +8.0% +18.9% +62.2% 4.9% CPI +3%* +5.7% +14.1% +71.5% 5.5% *Dec-17 CPI calculated using 3.0% YoY forecast**Strategy inception October 2007: EF Global prior to September 2013, TM Cerno Select thereafter Global Equity The Global Leaders Equity Strategy invests in global companies with sustainable competitive advantages delivering above average returns. Its target is to deliver performance above that of the MSCI World Total Return (GBP) Index on a 3-year rolling basis. The fund will hold 25-30 securities, equally weighted, selected according to a distinct investment thesis that accents industry structure, the sustenance of return on capital and secular growth. [...]