March Key Indicator – Investment in the UK

investment on solid foundationsInvestment is a tricky term to unravel largely because the investment objectives are key to any decision and predicting the future is so difficult, especially given that past performance is rarely a predictor of future returns. Despite the lack of certainty, much analysis is necessary.

Much has been made recently in the UK’s uncertain economic climate about the massive reduction in investment being made by UK businesses in their companies.

It is argued that with the future so uncertain, businesses are holding onto their cash reserves and delaying plans for growth and indeed towards the end of last year the BCC (British Chambers of Commerce) was warning that British businesses had paused investment in growth. However, this is also an excuse used by weak leaders and those who lack a vision.

But investing in the future and growth of your own business is only one level of investment.

At a higher level, investors can be pension funds, investment “vehicles” or funds run by investment companies, and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by businesses from one country into those in another.

A rise in investments in the stocks and shares of businesses in an economy is generally regarded as a positive thing.

So, at the moment, UK equities seem to be doing well in that Bloomberg, for example, has just reported that the UK’s top ten investors, in which it includes Invesco, Schroders, Aberdeen Standard and Legal & General, have increased their holdings of UK-listed shares by more than a third over the last three years. This is interpreted as showing a degree of confidence in the UK’s long-term future.

In January CityAM interviewed Shroders’ CEO Peter Harrison reporting that he expected 2019 to be a better year for investors.

Similarly, ONS (Office for National Statistics) data shows that overseas investment into the UK is at its highest level ever, with investment from India, the US and from Japan leading the field.

Sectors currently seen as attractive by equity investors are the financial services and, for both Angel and Venture Capital investment, the UK tech sector, particularly for those businesses developing innovative software, and in Fintech (financial technology).

The key to understanding investors and their behaviour, however, is to examine their expectations.

Much has been made of the short-termism of many investors and shareholders and its negative impact on businesses. In this scenario, investor pressure is for maximum profits or returns on their money over a short period. This pressure can change the behaviour of boards of directors and even influence the remuneration packages of CEOs so that those who deliver maximum profits in the shorter term are well rewarded.  It is questionable, however, whether this is in the longer-term interests of a business.

Generally speaking this type of expectation is most likely to come from pension fund-type investors, where fund managers themselves are under pressure to maximise profits for their members.

Arguably the most successful and reliable investment funds, however, are those that take a longer-term view and focus on the lifetime value and potential of a business.

Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway vehicle and Terry Smith Fundsmith fund are the top performers using this type of investment model.

Buffet’s “value investing” style focuses on business, management, financial measures, and value and the emphasis is on the long term. He is less interested in the market or the economy or investor sentiment, focusing instead on consistent operating history and favourable long-term prospects.

Terry Smith uses a similar approach as described in a Guardian article last year. Since its founding in 2010 it has made a gain of 309%. His fund has a low turnover of shares and his message is simple: “Buy good companies. Don’t overpay. Do nothing.”

Smith says he avoids certain sectors like insurance companies, real estate, chemicals, heavy industry, construction, utilities, resource extraction and airlines. He recently launched a new fund, called Smithson, focusing on in mid-size companies. Like Buffet’s, Smith’s focus is on the longer-term value in businesses and this is where he chooses to put his money and those of the investors who are members of his fund.

Clearly if a business can attract the interest of either Buffet or Smith in investing it can have some confidence in its stability and its future. Strangely their strategies are similar to those of well run private businesses, although this is perhaps less surprising given that their money is in their funds.

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