Monthly Archives: April 2016

Breakfast with Hot Commodity: the Brexit debate

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Hot Commodity’s inaugural event, held yesterday morning at The Clubhouse in Mayfair, went off with a bang! JD Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin and Philip Davies MP went head-to-head with economist Vicky Pryce and entrepreneur Alex Mitchell to debate the highly topical issue of Brexit ahead of the EU referendum.

The well-informed panellists did not hold back – from Philip calling Vicky’s pro-EU arguments “drivel” to Tim calling the Treasury “George Osborne’s PR department” and the chancellor “disreputable”.

The be-leavers

Publican Tim gave a spirited argument as to why we should leave the EU, centred around democracy and the need to control our own laws.

“If you look around the world, the successful economies are democratic and have a very high level of democracy that you don’t have in Europe,” he said.

“The European Court judgements, we have no control over and are supreme. The European Commission isn’t elected. It frames the laws and we cannot sack them. It is not democratic. And the 751 Members of European Parliament are too remote to be democratic,” he added.

Eurosceptic Tory MP Philip Davies, who founded the Better Off Out campaign in 2006, focused his argument on how much we could save by leaving the EU.

“We should be ashamed of ourselves that we are handing over £10.2bn this year to be part of a backward looking, inward-facing protection racket set up to prop up inefficient European businesses and French farmers,” he said. “This is not what the UK has ever been about and should not be what the UK should ever be about.”

Stronger in

But remain-ers Vicky and Alex fought back with equal force. Vicky, who is on the board at the Centre for Economics and Business Research, argued that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of being in the EU.

“There is no doubt at all that having been part of the EU has helped us quite substantially in the past few decades,” she said, explaining that it helps “productivity, innovation and investment”.

“What it also does for the consumer and of course any entrepreneur who has to sell the goods is that it is a very keen market in terms of prices,” she added. “Look what’s been going on as the markets opened up in the airline sector…and the telecoms sector. There has been a huge consumer benefit coming out of this, with a huge increase in the number of possibilities in terms of what can be offered.”

Alex, an entrepreneur and UK President of the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance, conceded that Brussels is “a difficult beast” that “needs change”, but emphasised the benefits of being part of a larger economic union for smaller and fast-growing industries.

He made the point that UK businesses have benefited hugely from EU programmes such as the Horizon 2020, which is providing nearly €80bn of funding for research and development projects over the seven years to 2020.

Trade deal or no deal?

Tim made the point that there is currently no trade deal between the UK and the US and that “it hasn’t done us too badly for the last couple of hundred years”.

“We buy our wine from South America, Africa, New Zealand and Australia. For many years I asked why aren’t we able to get better deals from the French, but we just can’t,” he said, disputing the idea that there are better trade deals to be had in the EU.

And Philip argued that with Britain’s £62bn trade deficit with the EU, it would be easy to secure a free trade agreement – as we have far more to offer the bloc than the likes of Norway.

Vicky came back with a strong riposte to the leave team, who also had concerns about the high levels of immigration coming from EU countries:

“It’s interesting to think we can have an even better deal, with completely free access to the market…Are you telling me we can have everything we want if we leave, but [without] people coming into this country? The chances of achieving that are peanuts.”

She also hit back at Philip’s criticism of the EU being a declining part of the world economy, saying: “If you look at the growth of the countries that we are dependent on and that we would like to be trading more with – and nothing has stopped us so far doing this – or the BRIC countries with the exception of India, they are all in recession. We can’t rely on those parts of the world.”

Rates and rumours

Tim blasted chancellor George Osborne for warning that a Brexit could lead to higher interest rates, labelling him “disreputable”.

“After the 2008 economic crisis, the pound went down, inflation went up for several years and what happened to mortgage rates? They went down,” he said.

“It was highly disreputable for the chancellor to give rise to headlines that say that mortgage rates will go up in an economic crisis, when the last time, they went down.”

Vicky qualified the central bank action by saying that the Bank of England had “very sensibly decided not to raise interest rates in the middle of a recession”.

Interested in taking part in – or supporting – the next Breakfast with Hot Commodity event? Email info@hotcommodity.co.uk.

Exclusive: GMO’s CEO Brad Hilsabeck to depart

The chief executive of US investment giant Grantham, Mayo, & van Otterloo (GMO) is stepping down after five years in the role, Hot Commodity has learnt.

Brad Hilsabeck, who joined the Boston-based asset manager in 2003, will quit as chief executive on 30 June 2016, GMO confirmed today.

The reason behind his departure was not disclosed. He will remain a member of the GMO board of directors.

GMO, which has more than $118bn in assets under management, said that Peg McGetrick will succeed Hilsabeck as chief executive on an interim basis.

McGetrick previously served as a portfolio manager for GMO’s international active equity team from 1984 to 1996, and was a partner at the firm from 1988 until 1997. She then left GMO to set up Liberty Square Asset Management and re-joined GMO as a member of the board of directors in 2011.

GMO was co-founded by British-born financier Jeremy Grantham, who is known for his correct predictions of various stock market crashes including the dotcom bubble and the global financial crisis.

The bearish investment strategist said in an interview with the Financial Times last year that the stock markets “will be ripe for a major decline” at some point in 2016, which could result in several government defaults.

Rio and BHP’s share price rally show the mining recovery is in full swing

This week, Mike van Dulken and Augustin Eden from Accendo Markets explain why bad news can be good news when it comes to mining…

Logistical problems (weather, transport) would normally be considered a negative for a dual-listed mining giant such as BHP Billiton (BLT) or Rio Tinto (RIO). However, trouble getting stuff like the iron ore required to make steel to market in the first quarter of the year has actually proved perversely beneficial to the recovering mining pair.

The news may have impacted recent quarterly financials and resulted in cuts to full-year production guidance, however, prices of the raw material have been buoyed by the interpretation of restricted product supply helping with a slowly reversing global glut. Rather than hurt the companies’ shares, they have maintained their recovery trajectories, even accelerating to make bullish breakouts to levels last seen in October/November. This may serve to attract even more interest, which could prolong the trend.

If I were to tell you that BLT has rallied over 70 per cent from its January lows and RIO by more than 55 per cent, these are exciting moves within the space of three months. Annualise that! Note that their peer Anglo American (AAL) is up 250 per cent from its lows. This is not a typo. It is trading at 780p vs Jan lows of 225p.

No surprise then that commodity prices are well off their lows too, and while the circa 50 per cent oil price recovery has been well documented, and given a depressed commodity sector a boost, it’s the 10-60 per cent rebounds in metals prices (aluminium, copper, nickel, zinc) that have really helped, and iron ore in particular (the winner, up 60 per cent).

This stems from a host of drivers. Tough decisions by the miners included reducing output by abandoning no longer viable projects to stem the supply glut. They have also cut costs and dividends to save money.

A weaker US dollar based on a more gentle normalisation of US monetary policy is also helping by making dollar-denominated commodities that bit cheaper. Short-covering of bearish bets will have added handsomely to early 2016 recovery momentum.

Furthermore, a slower growing China has become more acceptable to the investing masses, the belief being that it is no longer set for a hard landing (the government and central bank will intervene do whatever’s necessary). With China and the rest of the world still requiring mountains of commodities like iron ore for future growth, the outlook is not as bad as it was.

While corporates remain cautious, markets are cautiously optimistic. After the great sell-off we look to be in the midst of a great recovery. The big question now is how far it will run?

This commentary was provided exclusively for Hot Commodity by Accendo Markets: https://www.accendomarkets.com.

BP boss Bob Dudley’s proposed pay rise is arrogant and offensive

Bob Dudley is usually pretty good at PR. The BP boss took the helm of the FTSE 100 oil major just after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster – the biggest oil catastrophe in history – when its reputation was in tatters. Since then, the American executive has had to steer the company during an eye-wateringly difficult commodities rout, with the future of the oil market still in question.

At results conferences he usually made an effort to greet all us journalists individually, with a little comment to show that he actually registered who we were (“Ah City AM is a great paper” he said, having seen my name badge), something which I have found that few CEOs bothered to do.

But today it seems that he’s lost his touch. Unsurprisingly, the majority of shareholders voted against BP’s remuneration policy, which proposed hiking Bob’s pay up by 20 per cent to almost $20m (£14.1m) for 2015.

Put this figure alongside BP’s mammoth $5.2bn loss last year and 7,000 job cuts and it looks bad. Marie Antoinette bad.

I’ve seen commentators today argue that poor, overworked Bob has had a tougher time of it last year than a CEO would during a commodities boom (which is undoubtedly true) so he deserves the extra cash.

With this, I whole-heartedly disagree. I am sure that Bob’s job has been more stressful than any of us can envisage; trying to satiate employees, shareholders and everyone else while oil prices remain so painfully low must be nearly impossible. But I cannot imagine anyone in any other job being able to justify earning MORE money by arguing that the company – and their industry – is doing badly.

If that were the case, most journalists in the country would have been raking it in over the last decade, let alone supermarket employees etc etc. There are plenty of people all over the country working harder in tough conditions – this is no excuse for higher remuneration amid a backdrop of job cuts.

The other factor making Bob look bad is that his counterpart at FTSE 100 competitor Royal Dutch Shell, Ben van Beurden, took a whopping pay cut last year to €5.6m (£4.5m).

When we’re talking about such huge, incomprehensible sums it seems unfathomable why Bob would not have followed suit. He’s not stupid; he must have realised what the reaction would have been.

I’m not left-wing by any means – I support wealth creation and capitalism. But surely taking a salary of, say, a mere £5m would be enough for Bob and his family to live in the lifestyle they have become accustomed to, while sparing his reputation?

For sadly I think today’s events show that Bob now appears out of touch with his shareholders and – even worse – that he doesn’t care.

M&S should have patched up the holes in its clothing division by now

The phrase “progress is a slow process” could have been written to describe Marks & Spencer’s long-awaited turnaround of its lacklustre clothing division.

Today’s fourth-quarter trading update showed yet another decline in sales (down 1.9 per cent, or 2.7 per cent stripping out any new acquisitions or non-comparable aspects) that once again contrasted dramatically to its buoyant food business.

New(ish) boss Steve Rowe has deemed the results “unsatisfactory” and vowed to address it – just as his predecessor vowed to do and no doubt a flurry of highly-paid creative directors and marketing consultants etc etc.

The real question is why is it taking so long? Does the M&S team not read the multitude of commentary about why its fashion lines are so undesirable? Admittedly, certain newspapers that count Marks and Sparks as advertisers will be giving a kinder view of the problem, but there is certainly enough independent analysis out there.

To me it is mind-blowingly obvious that the types of clothes that would sell well at M&S would be: good quality classic workwear; basics such as polonecks and jumpers in neutral colours, not just fluoro-pink (I struggled to find a black poloneck when I was last in there, let alone one in a size 8); middle-of-the-road flattering skirts and dresses that would suit the average person (A-line rather than horrendously unforgiving bodycon). More plain, less cheap airhostess patterns. M&S is NOT Maria Katrantzou and never will be (or should be).

Taking a look at the M&S website today, I trawl through the “New In” section of the womenswear collections.

We have a leather a-line wrap skirt that looks concerningly similar to the outfit worn by serial killer Dexter from the eponymous Netflix series when he butchers his victims.

A white, tassled, lace vest top that looks like something you’d find in the New Look sale but at a far higher price (no disrespect to New Look, but it’s different markets).

Oh, and dungarees. This item in particular makes me question whether M&S has an idea – or even cares – who their customer actually is. The only people I know who would wear dungarees would be hipsters or the very young – probably bought from Topshop – surely not the key demographic for this supposedly high street staple store?

Of course this is not to say there is not a single item I’d actually buy in M&S. They do produce some nice jumpers and if I looked very, very hard, there might be the odd jacket that’s passable.

But here lies the problem. People lead busy lives and every decision you make in your leisure time is the one that you think gives you the best odds of delivering what you want. If you choose a restaurant, it’s the one you think you’re most likely to enjoy that evening. If you choose a shop, it’s the one where you think you’re most likely to find clothes you like. Why would you go to a shop where you might be able to find 2 items out of 100 that you like, when you could go to another and perhaps find 15 out of 100?

It would be a shame to see such an historic brand as M&S lose its clothing division and effectively become just another supermarket. There is still potential for a turnaround – but whether Steve Rowe will be the man to do it, I’m yet to be convinced.

There’s more to Glencore’s agri sell-off than meets the eye

This week, Mike van Dulken and Augustin Eden from Accendo Markets explain why Glencore is still keen on the agriculture sector despite selling off its business…

Deleveraging in the mining sector continues, with Glencore managing to offload 40 per cent of its agricultural business to Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB). But Glencore’s situation is rather different from that of sector peer Anglo American, which we discussed a while back.

Glencore struggled through the latter part of 2015 with a massive debt burden, the result of huge over-investment just around the time when commodity prices began turning over, and its shares were part of a group that weighed heavily on the FTSE 100 index last year.

While we’ve seen action taken by the blue chip miner to reduce its debt load before now, the partial sale of its agricultural arm is an indication that there are indeed buyers for mining assets. Sure, the $2.5bn price tag fell short of analysts’ expectations, but it was bang on Glencore’s guidance and has put some much-needed funds into the coffers, which the company says it will use to… expand its agricultural assets. Wait a minute. Glencore is selling part of its agricultural business in order to buy other agricultural businesses? Mad as it sounds, that seems to be correct.

Glencore is currently – despite this deal – a major exporter of grains in Russia, Canada and Australia. It shifted around 44 million tonnes of the stuff in 2015 but saw profits cut in half by an oversupplied and stagnating market. So what Glencore may be engaged in here is a clever marketing ploy – those being somewhat of a speciality of the commodity trading giant. It clearly still sees value in agricultural commodities, otherwise it wouldn’t be looking at South America and Brazil (the world’s #1 soy bean exporter) for potential acquisitions in that sector, right?

The other market in which Glencore lacks a big footprint is the US, and understandably so – the strength of the dollar making US exports less competitive means it’s not a priority right now. But what about the outlook for US monetary policy? If the Fed continues to be dovish – stamping down the hawkish dissenters – then the outlook for the dollar would be bearish, which would strengthen the Canadian Dollar and make Canadian exports less competitive. While Glencore shouldn’t and probably isn’t making a call based on FX forecasts, isn’t it a little funny that it’s sold a 40 per cent stake in its agricultural business to the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board?!

This commentary was provided exclusively for Hot Commodity by Accendo Markets: https://www.accendomarkets.com.