MoneyWeek roundup: The hopeless optimism of homeowners
James McKeigue Jul 21, 2012
From strict official sponsors clamping down on local businesses, to bungling security contracts, it seems the Olympics have given us a chance to excel in our most competitive sport – moaning.
But the British aren’t always pessimistic, says Merryn Somerset Webb in her blog. When it comes to house prices, we are “hopelessly optimistic”.
Unbelievably, 65% of us think that house prices will rise in the next six months. “Given that house prices and asking prices are falling in both nominal and real terms; that the economy is a seemingly hopeless mess (the IMF has just cut our growth forecast for the year to a pathetic 0.2%); that the mortgage market is as tight as ever (something the same homeowners accept – only 10% of them think that finding a mortgage has become easier); and that estate agents are reporting two sellers for every buyer, this is heroic stuff.”
Of course some sellers have slashed a little off their “nutty asking prices” but none are willing to give up on the “bubble-price dream” completely, says Merryn.
Optimists might think that the divergence between regional housing markets (between the north and the south it’s about 12%) is a good thing, as it shows houses moving towards a fair value. If you are a realist however, you might agree with a recent report which noted that with house prices everywhere still overvalued, and mortgages in short supply, “further falls in the north will ultimately undermine prices in the south.” We are generally realists, says Merryn.
Readers were quick to chip in with their own views.
Bob agreed with Merryn and highlighted Swansea as a case in point: “You should come to Swansea - total denial in a city that is looking more and more run-down every day but whose economy has a workforce of which 69% are employed by the public sector. You get asking prices that compete with the southeast of England. Totally nuts.”
However, Boris MacDonut had another take: “Weren't we told yesterday that the census found 3,700,000 more people in England and Wales alone in the last 10 years. In 20 years time the 420,000 extra under 50's will all want a house.” Rich immigrants snapping up houses will make the rest of us “richer by default”.
The debate is picking up steam, so if you haven’t read the blog yet, click here to have your say.
Protect your gold
We’ve long been fans of allocating some gold as an insurance against inflation and economic instability. Yet there is a hidden threat. On Wednesday, Bengt Saelensminde, author of The Right Side newsletter, investigated.
At present, the authorities are practising ‘financial repression’, says Bengt. They “generate a system where inflation outpaces interest rates and returns on savings. And little by little your real wealth is whittled down”. One of the reasons we like gold is to protect the real value of your wealth. But what’s to stop governments seizing your gold? After all the USA did exactly that when dealing with the Great Depression.
There are three reasons why it won’t happen, continues Bengt. One is that gold has a different position in the financial system. The gold standard meant that the yellow metal was integral to the monetary system. “So when Roosevelt blamed the horrific economic conditions on the gold hoarders, there was a general acceptance that he was probably right. Hoarding gold was akin to the banks hoarding money today. Something had to be done!” That’s not the case today.
Another difference today is the increase of legislation to protect the rights of the individual. “Now, I’m no big fan of what increasingly looks like an overbearing EU, but its courts offer at least some protection. Today the public has much better access to information about their rights – and they won’t sacrifice their property without a fight.”
Of course, governments can also steal by stealth ie through tax. But “in a modern world, taxation is a problematic affair”. Rich individuals and companies are increasingly mobile. So is gold. “Now, if you’re going to implement tough new taxes, are you really going to impose it on something as difficult to pin down as highly mobile precious metals?” Bengt thinks property and savings are easier targets.
But investors shouldn’t be complacent about gold. After all, just because an idea is ill thought out, difficult to execute and unfair doesn’t mean a government won’t try it. Bengt has several ways to keep your gold out of government hands, so read the piece in full here.
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Timing the market
Simon Caufield writes the True Value newsletter, and he is pretty bearish on the US stock market. Yet, thanks to his proprietary stock picking screen, he’s found a company that is simply too good to resist.
“It’s the market leader in its industry, with big advantages over its competitors. So it can reinvest retained earnings at a rate of return that is about three times its cost of capital. Similar stocks in other industries trade at PE ratios of up to 30. Mine trades at a PE of just 8.7.”
Simon’s problem is that while he likes the stock, he hates the US stock market. “I’m still bearish on stock markets in general and the US in particular. We’re now in the midst of US second quarter reporting season. The early results strengthen my belief that profits have peaked in this business cycle, and are now headed down. By my calculations, over half the companies reporting so far have missed analyst estimates.”
So did he buy the stock? I’m afraid only his subscribers know that. However if you are interested in learning more about Simon’s investing approach, and in hearing about his tips, you’re in luck. At present he’s offering a 30-day trial for just £1. It means you can ‘test-drive’ his portfolio and strategies. Click here to find out more
America strikes back
We don’t make anything anymore’, ‘China is the new workshop of the world’ are all pretty standard refrains by now. Asia’s hardworking, cheap labour force and clever industrial policies are leaving the West in the dust, or so the story goes. Yet in Thursday’s Money Morning, John Stepek showed how the West is fighting back.
“Robotics is the first saviour. It’ll soon be cheaper to build and install robots than to use human labour”, says John. “Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence, and 3D printing, will enable non-experts to design and personalise products, then ‘print’ them off at home or at local manufacturing hubs.”
In last week’s magazine we took an in-depth look at how investors can profit from the futuristic materials being used by manufacturers. (If you’re not already a subscriber click here to receive your first three issues free.)
However, there is a more prosaic way to take advantage of an American manufacturing revival, says John. Factories need energy, and increasingly in the US they are turning to gas. The reason for gas’s resurgent popularity is the shale gas revolution. We’ve written about it lots before, but in a nutshell new drilling techniques have opened up far more reserves of gas. In the process that’s turning America from a soon-to-be gas importer to a country with a century’s worth of supplies.
“As a result, natural gas prices have plunged. That’s meant big shifts in the US energy mix. Gas now provides nearly a quarter of America’s electricity, up from a fifth in 2006.” This cheap gas makes US manufacturing even more competitive, and causes more factories to set up and pushes up demand further.
This won’t last forever, says John. “If prices don’t support production at economic levels, then production will simply have to fall until prices pick up. This suggests that the producers who can survive the hard times might be in the best position to profit when prices recover.”
We've persuaded a host of energy experts to share their best tips in the gas sector with us for a forthcoming magazine roundtable.
Could 'repos' destroy the eurozone?
Before I go I’d like to point you in the direction of the latest video tutorial by MoneyWeek's deputy editor, Tim Bennett. Tim’s videos are a popular item on our website, and have become a YouTube hit, notching 80,000 hits a month.
This week Tim takes a look at sale and repurchase deals, or 'repos'. They helped bring down Lehman Brothers and MF Global - could they take down the eurozone next?
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Have a great weekend!
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• Tim Bennett
• James McKeigue
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