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.

The Custom Option

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

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 Capital Posts, Cerno Global Leaders, Global Leaders|

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. [...]

Investment Letter – November 2017

By |2017-11-13T17:15:38+00:00November 10th, 2017|Cerno Capital Posts, Investment Letters|

Stock markets could fall 10% next week. This is a perfunctorily true statement but not worth tuppence as a prediction. For it is true every week of the year. 2017, so far, is an unusual year in that it has not featured a correction of 5% or more in world stocks. It remains our view that the chief risk in front line asset classes is the gravitational pressures exerted by valuations which have crept ever higher in the past 5 years. A correction in the equity market would have the effect of clearing the air. We are of the view that it would be unwise to be active selling during such a correction. For, in the lee of any correction, the proximate fundamentals will remain shaped by a picture of synchronous global growth, rising aggregates of industrial production, recovery in Europe and rising market shares of the world’s best companies in many industries. None of this plausibly presages a recession in corporate profits, in the near future. Other fundamentals to keep well in mind are interest rates and inflation. We are in the upward swing of an interest rate rising cycle and ultimately rates may do for the market but [...]

Investment Letter September 2017

By |2017-09-15T14:57:13+00:00September 15th, 2017|Investment Letters|

Over the past 10 years - in the liberal parts of the world at least - political and financial economies have forked apart. The large scale corporate world has become stronger as government authority has paled. Doubtless, on the government side of the ledger, this is partly due to an erosion of faith in governments following their interventions to save banks and shore up the indebted after the Global Financial Crisis. Large companies which are not banks have been able to take a free ride on a progressively cheaper cost of capital and load up on cost-saving technologies. With freely available capital and cheap debt, companies have variously invested, bought out competitors, lifted their dividends and bought back their own shares. In the US, buy-backs have become a mania. Strong companies have become stronger and companies of all types have become greatly better at marshalling technologies. Technology, often spoken of as a disrupter and a general threat, has in fact facilitated a multitude of improvements in the way in which business is conducted: benefits that accrue to the adopting company if not always their customers who rightly sense they are being kept at bay. For example, by computer driven enquiry [...]

Cerno Global Leaders – The Podcast

By |2017-10-17T10:30:22+00:00September 15th, 2017|Cerno Capital, Cerno Capital Posts, Cerno Capital Posts, Cerno Global Leaders, General Investment, Strategy|

On November 1st, Cerno Capital will launch a concentrated, low turnover, global equity fund, TM Cerno Global Leaders. The strategy has been active in client accounts since 2013 and target 25-30 holdings are identified via proprietary research from our investment team. In the captioned podcast, Lead Manager James Spence explains the underlying thinking and portfolio structure and protocols which we believe make it a unique offering in the global equity sphere. Listen to the podcast here, or using the player below.