James Spence

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So far James Spence, Fay Ren, Michael Flitton has created 59 blog entries.

Portfolio changes to Cerno Global Leaders Strategy

By |2019-08-14T14:19:21+00:00August 14th, 2019|Cerno Capital Posts, Cerno Global Leaders, Global Leaders|

3M and Reckitt Benckiser have been sold within the portfolio and Nidec has been added. After many decades of impressive growth, we believe 3M now faces considerable pressure from lower quality substitution, powered by powerful retail and procurement platforms of  which Amazon is the most notable player. Secondly, 3M now has proportionately less growth opportunity than any time in its history – by geography and by market segment. Following a period of review, 3M has been sold from the Global Leaders portfolio. 3M is a somewhat unique company. Its corporate DNA is based on product invention and development across very wide product segments, appealing to both household and industry buyers. It has been at the vanguard of US companies pushing into a globalised world. It runs thousands of product lines across four divisions without seeming inchoate: safety & industrial (34% of group sales) , transportations & electronics (29%), health care (21%) and consumer (16%). Group sales total US$32bn, meaning that an additional US$1bn is needed to achieve 3% growth. This is a hard task in the world of materials where products can be readily substituted, in many cases. To some extent 3M is the victim of its own successes: its [...]

Range by David Epstein – Cerno Capital Book of the Year 2019

By |2019-07-18T10:40:39+00:00July 17th, 2019|Cerno Capital Posts, Cerno Global Leaders, General Investment|

We have been reading the newly published book, Range, by David Epstein. The central argument of the book is a refutation of a well circulated theory that expertise in most fields can be attained by 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. This original theory is grounded in a 1993 paper co-authored by Anders Ericsson entitled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance1. Anders and his colleagues enjoyed considerable take-up of their core thesis with books on the subject authored by Malcolm Gladwell, Geoff Colvin and Daniel Coyle2. These books occupy a burgeoning section of non-fiction where sports meets self-improvement and cognitive science. Epstein opens the book by comparing Roger Federer to Tiger Woods. Woods might be considered an exemplar of the 10,000 hour rule – intensely coached by his father and associates from a very young age to become the second most successful golfer in the modern history of the game . Federer, by contrast, despite being the son of a tennis coach (mother in his case), was allowed to play all forms of ball sports into his teens and made the decision himself to begin to specialise in tennis, a full 10 years later than Tiger [...]

What is Japanification?

By |2019-07-17T13:55:49+00:00July 17th, 2019|Asset Allocation, Asset Class Returns, Asset Classes, Cerno Capital Posts, Developed Equities|

An ugly word - even if it is a word - but what is Japanification? The central idea behind the word is that an economy loses altitude in its growth trajectory for an extended period. It is associated with low interest rates, low inflation and high government indebtedness. The extent to which these factors are causal agents, or just the side effects of, is hotly debated by economists. The notion that the economic of the future of the world might resemble that of Japan in the past 25 years took flight following a speech by Larry Summers at the IMF in 2013. Larry Summers is an economist who was Treasury Secretary in the US Government during the tenure of President Clinton. His speech featured the following section: “Yet, in the four years since financial normalization, the share of adults who are working has not increased at all and GDP has fallen further and further behind potential, as we would have defined it in the fall of 2009.  And the American experience of dismal economic performance in the wake of financial crisis is not unique, as Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart’s work has documented.  Japan provides a particularly clear example.   I [...]

Investment Letter dated 19th June 2019

By |2019-06-19T16:21:40+00:00June 19th, 2019|Cerno Capital, General Investment, Investment Letters|

The approaching half year mark is a good time to gauge the health of world financial markets. 2019 has been better than 2018. World equities fell -7.4% in 2018 in local currency terms and have risen +15.9% YTD in 2019. World Bonds (in aggregate, using the JP Morgan composite) fell 1.0% in 2018 but have returned +4.7% so far this year (data to 18th June). It therefore appears that 2018 was a pause for consolidation, permitting the full-bore late cycle rally that has since transpired. If we have enjoyed rising bond and equity prices in this most recent period, how rare of an event is this? Looking back over the last 35 years to 1984, we observe that, in 26 of those heady years bonds and equities have risen in tandem. There have been no years in which they both fell, six years in which equities fell and bonds rose, the rarest instance being the three years in which equities have risen and bonds have fallen, the last one of these being 2013. We can see, at a glance, why balanced investment (a non-determinate mixture of bonds and equities) has been such a hoot. There is considerable and understandable anxiety [...]

Investment Letter dated 6th February 2019

By |2019-02-06T11:38:44+00:00February 6th, 2019|Cerno Capital, General Investment, Investment Letters, Other Posts|

The MSCI EAFE Index is an index of performance of world shares, ex US. EAFE stands for Europe, Australasia, Far East. This index is often used as a benchmark for US pension fund allocators whose traditional view of the world is divided by US allocations and International allocations. EAFE Equity mandates are granted to invest in shares anywhere in the world, excluding the US. Performance is measured against the MSCI EAFE Index. US$2.2tn is managed this way. The reason for displaying this is to understand the trend in global equity markets, outside the US. The Index, captioned below by the blue line, achieved a recent peak on the 25th of January 2018 and has fallen 16.7% from that peak until the time of writing. The wider All Country ex US (the green line which includes Emerging Markets) peaked on the same day and has fallen 16.3% since then. This data includes the January rally. In simple terms, the world, ex US, has marginally escaped the bear market territory (defined as a 20% fall in an index) which it entered on 17th December. The bigger picture is that the world is slowing, although not abruptly and not currently in the US. [...]

Internals: The Study of Market Conditions

By |2018-11-23T12:28:01+00:00November 22nd, 2018|Investment Letters|

It has been our view for some time that the biggest issue confronting financial markets has been the markets themselves. The change in mood in equity markets has been both sudden and impactful. This Letter unpicks some of the terminology used in shorthand to identify causal factors in the correction. The study of and commentary on market conditions is sometimes called internals or dynamics. We field a number of technical terms and explain each as we go. When financial markets break-down the finger tends to be first pointed at fast money. Fast money was once loosely approximated to hedge funds where the dominant investment style is assumed to be short term and twitchy. In truth, fast money is a much broader amalgam of investment styles. It also includes quantitative investment. These strategies use powerful computer driven analysis to jockey on trends, mainly price trends. Quantitative strategies hop onto positively performing price trends whilst simultaneously shorting negatively performing price trends and when the variables change, the model buys and sells accordingly. There is a general suspicion, not fully proven, that the growth in quantitative styles amplifies market moves at points of stress. Curators of quantitative funds will counter-argue “Ah, but we’ve [...]

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 [...]