The year of 2013 was very productive with a staggering performance of the FTSE 250 with many companies, about a dozen as I recall, increasing in value by over 100% and another 30 increasing by some 50%. The FTSE 250 appreciated by some 26%; indeed only about 12% of the FTSE 250 declined in value during that sweet year. How good was 2013 when compared to other recent years? Well, maybe the best way to answer that is to take a look at the wider indices the FTSE All Share which itself gained 17% in 2013 whilst only one of the bracketing years of 2011, 12 & 2014, 15 gave a positive return. So where does this lead us? Well to my view it just shows that the majority of the time we exist in a stock picker's market. Yes, we can be risk averse and just simply go for an index tracker route or as I do, invest via the stock picking route. For myself, stock picking by and large has been for the best part of the last twenty years based on screening stocks (or may I say whittling) down the total universe of shares to come up with a relatively small number of shares for more in-depth investigation.
My process has become more honed over recent years and the whittling a touch more demanding. I still search for companies that offer the usual characteristics such as increasing revenue/profits, sustainable and decent margin and little or at least manageable debt but I have upped my game, at least I think I have, in terms of one of my main criteria, return on capital. As I continued to hone my approach I developed a liking for CROCI in addition to ROCE as the former is calculated on cash as opposed to profits. I just think it gives me a slight additional edge. I tend to mix that approach with what I perceive to be value opportunities; areas that the market for whatever reason has passed over or overlooked. It often takes a long time for these value types to deliver and personally I find it helps to adopt the sunk money philosophy; don't fret just let the passing of time do it's stuff yet if it appears I have got it wrong, don't be stubborn, head for the exit.
Anyway, back to what was going on around this time: All In all 2013 was a very good year for investors but in 2014 & 2015 various factors weighed on the markets including the Eurozone crisis with Greece, Spain and Italy niggling away at the markets combined with worries regarding China’s slowdown. As investors we have to remember that markets, unfortunately, don't appreciate every year; all part of the game but at least as individuals we can by whatever process we feel comfortable with, strive for an edge on the markets.
Assuming I have approached some degree of maturity over the investment journey, I felt some analysis of what was going on in my entire investment portfolio over the period 2013 to 2016 may be worthwhile. Note: I only went back and analysed the 2013-2015 happenings purely because of writing my journey articles; just shows how useful doing something like this can be as it prompts a bit of self-analysis and to my experience, we are not very good at that.
Over this three year period I owned about 120 stocks passing through or in some cases, still residing in my portfolio and a touch of detailed analysis from my ever reliable Sharescope shows the following from my combined trading and ISA accounts:
Of course for various reasons, not all stock investments turn out to be a success in your desired timeframe. I like to think that I purchased stocks that following my methodology have a reasonable chance of succeeding within that reasonable time frame. The way of the investment world is that even attractive companies can encounter problems such as product delays, contract delays, consumer slowdown within their area, competition, economic events etc.
Happily, my good purchases outweigh the ones that did not work out as planned, not only in terms of a number of stocks but also in terms of letting the winner continue to perform.
Within reason, without emotion, I cut the poor performers early and run the good performers but of course like all investors, I don’t always get it right: simply part of the territory that comes with investing in the stock market.
Over the last three years, I have been fortunate to hold businesses that have been the subject of a successful take over; I like to think this was because I had bought attractive businesses. Ones that did particularly well for me were:-
In fact, I added bit by bit to Kentz over a reasonable period and it paid handsomely.
Profits warnings over the period since 2013: well there were 8 in total, all of which I cut & run quite swiftly. It’s interesting to note that 7 of these stocks went on to significantly decline further in value, hence sticking what works well for me i.e selling on the first profits warning and moving on. Unfortunately after one profits warning there seems to be a good chance of a second and sometimes a third. I realise that this is a particularly personal one for each investor and to a fair extent it depends on the type of stocks that one invests in but my get out quick works for me by limiting my losses. Incidentally of those eight companies at the time of writing only Shoe Zone, sold on PW in April 2015, has recovered to my sale price: the others continued to drift lower after I sold. It’s important to remember that it’s not just small companies that can continue to fall after a profits warning; I sold Stagecoach for a 14% loss on their December 2015 profits warning, it has since drifted to a price at the time of writing that would have given me a 45% loss. As I say, this approach of cut and run following a profits warning does the trick for me. If the stock once again looks attractive, I can always go back and buy in again. I sold Tristel first thing on the day of their February 2016 profits warning for 123p for a return of 70%; I like the company and bought back in at 96p in early July when I felt they had bottomed out yet still looked attractive and I like the business.
Profitable stocks I sold too early, yes we all have those, don’t we! Well out of the winners I would have done appreciably better to have held on longer for the ride: I am afraid that I sold the very impressive JD Sports way too early. I had a sizable position in JD and to be fair I made a very good return but on reflection, my reasoning for selling at the time was just not convincing. Similarly, I sold WH Smith the ultimate in boring stocks, the type I love, a touch too early for a 20% profit simply as I felt the price had stalled a touch: shame as there was another 30% in the tank. Similarly to profits warnings, I am not too proud to admit a mistake and bought back into JD Sports in following their Christmas 2015 trading update.
It is highly unlikely that I will have those unicorns we know as 10 baggers in my portfolio these days, well unless I hold some real quality for many, many years, and I think that largely reflects the investment style that I have developed. To explain that further, the rapid rise 10 bagger type stocks are to my mind more associated with stocks with potential to become winners and possibly a touch more speculative than the stocks I currently deal with. I would guess that an investor would only come across those a couple of times in an investing lifetime and I have probably had mine with the likes of Helphire many years ago. My style is to search for quality stocks that are currently winners and will hopefully stand a better than average chance of continuing to be winners.
In terms of measuring my portfolio performance, unless I am doing something of a project style piece of work, I stick to assessing performance over a financial year. A few years ago I was constantly assessing portfolio performance and in reality, for the majority of the time just seeing the effects of market noise which as I have said before I studiously strive to block out these days. So for me the major assessment is done at the end of the financial year this makes sense as it fits with CGT and ISA allowances. I really do not fret over the day to day valuation moves within my portfolio; personally checking over frequently just does not lead to a relaxed investor, at least as far as my personality is concerned. Actual performance over the financial years 2013, 14 & 15 has been very pleasing, well it has certainly kept me very happy. As for the financial year 2016, to date, it’s been a tougher start to the year with many small market cap stocks, recruitment stocks, house-builders been affected by the Brexit surprise and at the time of writing the portfolio is down 0.7% since 6th April 2016. Will things improve over the next eight months? Well if the capital remains static, dividends should at least take us into positive territory but who knows what the remainder of 2016/17 will deliver and I must admit I remain a touch bearish.
I still continue to read investment books; as a scientist, I collect and assess information; I enjoy it and I guess I will never change. However, of all of the investment books I have read and it’s a lot, I would say only a very few merit the usual 200 or so pages that’s often dedicated to padding or waffle. This comment even applies to Joel Greenblatt’s book that could be slimmed down and called the Incredibly Little Book That Beats the Market. Just so many could have been condensed to say 20 or 30 pages to adequately get the message over but there again would the average person spend say £20 on such a short publication? Hang on, I feel another blog subject coming on here!
I have mentioned before that a need to have a punt exists within me, after all, I am the guy who spent many an hour in the bookies in my earlier years searching for that perfect Yankee. I have been a very well behaved boy lately with very few punts; my last one, Seeing Machines, I closed in early 2015 for a modest 15% profit; I am not sure I will continue to be good but at least I will try.
Heavens I almost forgot to mention Twitter! I first opened a Twitter account back in 2011 simply to get the Luton Town FC team news an hour before kickoff time: rather nice to get advance footy news whilst in some local ale house sipping a pint of a local brew. It was not until the middle of 2015 that I had a look at some investment activity on Twitter; from there on in it developed for me and I met, albeit electronically, some very pleasant and genuine folk who go out of their way to help fellow investors. It’s a nice community and I am happy to be part of it. I post on Twitter usually in the early part of the day, around 7am, commenting on any RNS that may be loosely linked to a stock I have an interest in. I comment at the time of my Tweet if I have a holding in that particular business or if it’s on the watch list etc.
Am I a better investor now than when I was investing say 15-20 years ago? Well I like to think so, I have learnt a lot then sometimes forgotten some of the lessons and repeated mistakes but on the whole most lessons have been digested and proved of benefit to me.
So after seven episodes, well eight really as I did a part 3a & 3b, my journey comes to a temporary pause and maybe in three or so years time I will give an update on progress. Oh, hang on, there is one more part I am working on that will be published in a week or two and that will take the form of a summary of what I have learnt during the 25+ years of stock market investing.
I have enjoyed writing the journal and really feel that a touch of inward self-analysis is a good thing. Also, I hope that you have enjoyed my whittling on over the course of my investment journey; if there are any scraps in there that may be of help to others then I will have achieved my goal.
The recovery of the FTSE 100 from its March 2009 low of 3500 continued at a reasonable pace reaching 5800 in April 2010 a fairly remarkable increase of 63% in the major indices in little over a year. Some sectors were just going phenomenally well and in particular, house builders were simply rocketing. The likes of Barratt Developments, Taylor Wimpy that had seen a 95% fall in its value over the financial crisis had regained a significant portion of their loss but were still some 80% down from their pre-financial crisis share price; a real measure of the rout that had occurred in some sectors. I wish I had invested in more house builders at the time but unfortunately had only invested in one, the partly bombed out AIM listed Telford homes in 2009 which were doing well enough over this period and in the construction sector another love-hate stock Costain. Is it not strange that somehow we all have a share or so in our portfolio whos figures and outlook say the right things yet continually frustrate and disappoint in terms of stock price appreciation. Yet we have that almost certain knowledge that should we sell the stock it will immediately appreciate in value.
I may not have realised it at the time but the trauma of the two FTSE collapses was having an effect on my investment approach as we began our recovery from the lows on 2009. I found myself becoming more cautious than at any other time during my investing career and holding a far greater percentage of unproductive cash in my portfolio than pre-2008 I would have envisaged. To my mind, I had had my luck, possibly my degree of good fortune in terms of exiting both the 2000 & 2008 market routs with appreciably more money than I had in 1997 & 2003, the productive years before the two collapses. Whilst I exited on both occasions with worthwhile profits, of course, they were way off the high of the paper profits at the pre-fall respective peaks. Would my luck hold in future in wondered?
In my day job, I had a meeting with my Director early in early 2010 to explain my plan to leave the comfort of employment and do something else. I wanted to be as fair as I could and inform them 12 months in advance of my intention to leave the pastime of full-time employment. As it turned out there was a touch more negotiation in the wind and my eventual departure came about some 21 months later rather than the planned 12 months. I was fairly relaxed about the situation as I wanted to be as fair as I possibly could to a company that had been such a big part of my life. Where does this fit within my investment journey? Well, it was always my plan to become something of a full time investor whilst enjoying the comfort of a good company pension and also the final 21 months of employment meant that I could invest a ridiculously high percentage of my salary in my AVC pot; 40% tax gift at best and why not take it!
During the period 2009 to 2012 a fair proportion of my investments could I suppose be described as the safe type; Astra Zeneca, AMEC, Aberdeen Asset Management, BP, Centrica, National Grid, ITV, Tate & Lyle, CSR & SKY. Well, I should say supposedly I mean after the experiences with the likes of Barclays and Northern Rock, in reality, what was safe? Certainly, BP started to look a little less than safe when news broke of the problems in the Gulf of Mexico with their rig Deepwater Horizon. To me, things looked pretty bad and my mind went straight to the potential environmental impact that the incident may have and the mauling that BP could get from US litigation: in a quick decision I sold way before the eventual bottom of the share price plunge. I had over the years developed the approach that if something really does look wrong with a share, then just don’t sit on your hands but consider the risks and potential further downside. Once sold, there is always the option to purchase again.
The overall portfolio was ticking along well enough but I did start to feel a little envious of a mate who was doing really nicely in oilers. Now for whatever reason exploration oil companies or indeed any natural resource exploration business had never really been my thing, just not the speculative stuff I felt comfortable with I suppose an element of greed persuaded me to take a couple of small positions in Gulf Keystone Petroleum and Rockhopper Exploration. Immediately I bought then I felt out of my comfort zone: what the heck was I doing buying two popular and massively ramped bulletin board darlings; one stock in unstable Iraq and one working in the inhospitable deep water off the Falkland Isles. Well maybe these exploitation companies were not that bad after all as both share prices started to appreciate fairly rapidly; was this to be a touch of excitement to spice up my portfolio?
When the news of the Fukushima disaster broke the uranium exploration companies were hit very badly. Taking my mind off my trusted fundamentals, I reasoned that this uranium crash was surely only going to be temporary after all unless we used uranium wisely the lights around the world would simply go out at some time in the future. I decided to speculate a very small amount of my portfolio on a couple of uranium exploitation companies listed on the Australian market.
This mixed bag of punts into resource exploration stocks did not improve my overall portfolio performance; I made a small profit from the oilers but the uranium punts made fairly small yet annoying losses. Whilst I did not consider myself as a hugely successful investor, I was doing fairly decently yet one thing I seemed to have in common with many investors, even some well known successful UK investors that I greatly admire, was the inbuilt ability to occasionally abandon investment principles and have that wayward punt. I could understand it with myself as I had the suppressed gambler inside of me, the chap from earlier years who had spent hours at the bookies searching for the ultimate Yankee; yet why did really smart investors with incredibly sound financial backgrounds occasionally drift off course and have a punt?
Around this time, probably 2010, I had been reading a couple of books covering the subject of FOREX trading and whilst accepting the risks involved, decided to allocate a few £k to the venture. This I would not really describe as a punt as I had a well worked out a financial management plan. I realised from the material I had been reading that the key was managing risk and indeed only risking a small percentage of your allocated FOREX dedicated post on each individual trade. To my amazement after a few months I was considerably ahead; I had latched onto the reasonable length trends of some currency pairs and in particular had success in trading the GBP/NZD, not the most widely traded currency pair but certainly one that worked for me. The trouble was that I was reading so many articles about the high risk of currency trading that I eventually decided that it was best to get out whilst in very good profit and in truth never returned to that investment area but maybe one day!
I continued to invest in the more sensible fundamental companies at the time; buying solid growth business such as Staffline Recruitment, purchasing more SDL and Fisher. I also started to search for trending shares, ones with a predictable way moving and bouncing over time between support and resistance. One particular gem in this area that served me well was the incredibly predictable Morrison supermarket whose price bounced off support and resistance every few months for several years.
For a couple of years after leaving employment, I spent time travelling around the globe. A couple of winters taking the slow route to Australia and an equally slow route back were really enjoyable. I was armed with my laptop in order to keep tabs on my investments and of course follow my football club which I was greatly missing; a serious downside to escaping winter. Listening to football commentary at about 3o’clock in the morning in Pert or Adelaide is not really that relaxing on reflection but that’s addiction!
So, more steps had been taken on the lifelong investment path. Had I learnt any more lessons to add to this that I listed in part 4 of my journey? Well yes:
Well, things had been chugging along well enough since the Iraq invasion back in early 2003 and by the end of 2007, the portfolio was looking in a very healthy state. I was really enjoying my investment life almost more so than my professional life. I was employed by an excellent company, essentially the same company for over thirty years. I had grown within that company, my career flourished and I had in truth been far more successful than my humble ambitions ever warranted. However, as with all big companies, there is forever a need of the various CEO’s to own a cultural change within a business. In truth, many such changes are simply the previous sets just repackaged and delivered by another group of consultants. Now I am not saying this is necessarily something that would put anybody off within a business but in my case, I felt like I had been on the roundabout too long and the desire to jump through the same or similar hoops was simply diminishing. I decided that I needed to accelerate my AVC contributions vastly and laid a plan to retire early from science no later than 2011 and become essentially a full-time investor. Heavens, just think I could still b employed in what is still honestly a wonderful company but I just do not miss the performing tricks part of company culture one bit.
Well, the plan was set in place and the finances carefully arranged; the stock market had been kind to me but as we reached the end of 2007 a few little dark clouds started to appear on the distant horizon; namely chatter about banks in the USA made loans to citizens that were unlikely to be paid. The area of main concern was sub-prime mortgages if effect the banks were making loans to people who did not stand a realistic chance of coping with that loan. Alfie, a colleague who dabbled in shares and was rather like an Italian version of Private Frazer from Dad’s Army, came bounding into my office to tell me “toxic debt mate, I tell you it’s really bad, really bad”: what is it this toxic debt stuff Alf, I asked, “don’t know mate, but I tell you it is really bad” replied Alfie. That conversation was typical of the time as we rapidly entered a period when everybody used the term toxic debt and fast became a financial expert. However, in common with all experts associated with the financial world at the time, nobody really had a clue about what was wrong, who it affected or indeed the eventual magnitude of that effect.
One of the first UK banks to have the jitters was Northern Rock. Foolishly to me at the time it looked a bargain and I added a few into my ISA only to sell them nine days later for a 30% loss after the news reported massive queues of customers wanting to withdraw their cash from the bank despite the government pledge to guarantee savings up to £80k . Had I waited a short while longer, my loss would have been greater than 85%; decisive swift action or luck, I don’t know but at least my loss had been limited. It felt like a Groundhog Day moment, "Déjà vu all over again", surely the market declining pattern of early 2000 was not about to be repeated; no, surely not!
Feeling I had been in this place before, I quickly went on a massive selling spree getting rid of just about everything within my portfolio and turning to the relative safety of cash. My portfolio had taken a battering and a significant portion of my paper profits made over that four year period 2003 to 2007, had been reduced but at least I would live to fight another day. I watched from the sidelines as the FTSE once again relentlessly ground its way down to its comfort zone of 3500. The bottom was eventually found in March 2009. However, even as we hit the bottom of the market, it seemed that the world was doomed as pockets of the nasty toxic debt stuff continued to be discovered all around the globe within all sorts of financial institutions.
Once again I felt that I had been relatively fortunate compared to some. Indeed good old Alfie, the very man who preached how bad things were with toxic debts 12 months ago, came to see me with a tale that completely threw me. It turned out that Alfie’s parents had invested just about just about all of their “comfort in later life funds” into Lloyds bank shares and were now feeling quite understandably frantic; they were both in their 60’s. Why, I wondered, had Alfie the man who was going on about toxic debt some 12 months ago not had that discussion with his parents?
There were other horror stories about at the time such as investors who had taken up significant positions in small companies and finding that they were just unable to sell them with any degree of ease. In effect they were taking severe hits as spreads widened and market maker showed reluctance to anything but small batches of stock; overall 2008 was a very unpleasant time and a time that just drained the confidence from many an investor.
Personally, I vowed that I would never again include banks within my portfolio. To this day, I just wonder how the banks and other financial institutions could have behaved in such an irresponsible and stupid way to create the catalyst for a world recession. I had just been exposed to my second really serious bear market/recession, there had been previous relatively minor downturns earlier in my investment life but nothing like the 2000 and 2008 downturn which saw the FTSE 100 & FTSE 250 just about half on each occasion: character building stuff you might think but I could do without it.
My friend Bob, the one with unflappable loyalty to his technology stocks that eventually became penny shares, had decided that he would now only invest in an area he understood; that being utility companies and in particular water companies. As it turned out this was a wise decision by Bob. Water companies although not immune to the global downturn paid very good dividends, had a captive customer base and the need for the product, water, would never go away as you can’t live without it. In effect, Bob had found his investment universe, an area he felt totally comfortable with and had some expertise within.
My leave the rat race plan was still intact albeit a little bruised. The AVC contributions were increased further and I was determined to stick with the plan to eventually become a full-time investor. I was sitting on a comfortable cash pile in my ISA and trading accounts but physiologically felt a little damaged after those two severe bear markets. However, little did I know that we were about to enter a golden period for investment as the world gradually awoke from its financial crises nightmare.
I gently started to move some cash back into the markets buying mainly liquid stocks such as Astra Zeneca, Aberdeen Asset Management, BP, Centrica, National Grid, ITV, Tate & Lyle, CSR, Costain, the return to old favourites James Fisher, GSK, Green King (how could I desert my Abbot), plus other FTSE 250 companies. Additionally, I took some more risky positions in a few smaller companies: Character Gp, Goals Soccer Centres, Harvey Nash.
As the clock ticked it’s was to midnight on the last day of 2009 I reflected on how things looked some ten years earlier on new year’s eve 1999; two almighty stock market recessions and a lot had been learnt on my part as an investor. Was this investment lark really worthwhile? Would this steady group of stocks now within my portfolio be sufficiently safe to get the wheels going on the portfolio again I wondered? Well as we headed toward the end of 2010 the signs were looking fairly optimistic but who knows what the future holds; for sure Mystic Meg had hardly developed a reputation for being successful over many years in predicting the future: without a crystal ball, what chance did I have?
The journey continues!
As I came away from the eventual .COM carnage I started to realise that overall I had done reasonably well from that particular episode. I exited that couple of years with appreciably more funds than when I had entered but still felt that self-critical nagging that if only I had sold some of those high fliers earlier; maybe even got out at the top. As it happens I had learnt from my earlier experiences that once a good thing starts to come to an end, get out. On reflection although I had made money, I had not been that clever at all: I had really been a member of the herd running into IT stocks as if nothing else existed and in truth setting aside my earlier learning of trying to find and analyse growth companies that actually turned in profits year after year: it was time to head back to that base.
So my approach from late 2000 was to revert back to trying to identify Zulu type growth companies but this time around it just did not seem so easy; it’s a simple fact that when the market is in a depressed mood even apparent high-quality businesses are held back. I was finding it a real battle to make much of an impact against a background of a steadily declining FTSE 100 that gradually fell from a high of about 6950 at the start of 2000 to a low point of 3300 in early 2003: times were tough and I was being ever cautious and sat on a fair cash-pile. From 2000 to 2002 I did not really make any significant money from the overall basket of stocks that I held; investment life was difficult as the FTSE ground out it’s slow yet relentless path to the eventual bottom. I suppose that I was managing to “hold my own” was down to much greater care than in the .COM herd time. Yet, I still kept beating myself up: hey, I was this kiddie who could do 40% a year in the late 90’s, why won’t it happen now? Yes, I know, on reflection plain delusion of an investor who had become accustomed to making easy money during the last half of the 1990’s. Incidentally during 2000 to 2002 was one of my busiest times in my working life, coupled with the fact that I had moved home into a very old building that became a restoration project, meant that I just did not have much time to meddle. The lack of trading in itself became a real lesson i.e. if you have done some decent research, limited risk by going for quality, then the best friend may well be time in the market. Also at this time funds were needed on the restoration project; the complete re-thatching of a large roof is a jaw-dropping cost but I guess that was a wise use of some of my previous market gains.
That dreaded herd mentality was definitely something I wanted to try and avoid in the future if at all possible. My stock purchases at this time were mostly those with potential for growth but also supplemented by ones that paid a decent yield hopefully to protect the downside and of course the majority of my detective/screening work would be via my trusty Company REFS which thankfully became available in a CD form. There were a few gems that I picked up in 2001/02 as VP at 92p, Wolverhampton & Dudley at an equivalent of just over a pound in today’s money, Fisher(James) and Clarkson both at under £2. Just to give a flavour, my ISA & PEP accounts, yes they were separate in those days also included Hardy & Hanson, Greene King, Scottish & Newcastle, Prudential, Scottish Power, Azlan, Dairy Crest and Vodafone. Not a massive number of stocks but many of which I held onto for a few years and mostly rewarded my loyalty by becoming real stars which is more than I can say for Vodafone post the costly Mannesmann acquisition; the Vodafone performance proved a real drag on the overall portfolio. My mindset wanted to control risk in my ISA/PEP world and do the more risky stuff within my trading account; the logic being that at least I could recoup a percentage of the sillies via CGT offset.
In addition to the continued retracement after the .Com bubble there were, of course, worries when our old buddy Sadam had squirrelled away copious amounts of what became known as WMD. Thankfully, at least for investors, the Iraq question came to something of an end in early 2003 when we had the invasion of Iraq and Baghdad bounce. What a lovely time that was as we moved away from the cliff edge and into a beautiful incline FTSE 100 & FTSE 250 that would last for about five years.
The portfolio was chugging along really decently, no 40% years but the pot was larger and making respectable gains. Frustratingly over the period from 2003 to 2007, although I was making decent returns, for the first time in my investment journey I was falling behind the gains I would have enjoyed had I simply invested in the entire FTSE 250. Was I meddling too much or over trading? Maybe accepting a larger portion of risk with some AIM stocks: would I have been better off avoiding risky AIM stocks, just buying quality growth stocks and sitting on my fiddling hands? The answer is I don’t really think I will ever know for definite but I suspect the sitting on hands bit would have won the day.
As work quietened down a touch and the heavy time demanding house renovation eased, I had more time available, more time to research REFS for quality & growth; that was good but conversely, I also had the time to again chase a few story stocks in my dealing (non-ISA) accounts. The stocks making me profits after 2003 was quality stuff such as VP, Fisher, Clarkson, SDL, AMEC, Peacock, loads of breweries; I probably held stock in the majority of breweries at various times when I think back and let’s not forget banks and insurance companies. Yet it was the silly adventurous purchases mainly on AIM that kept my acceptable enough performance below that of the run-away FTSE 250. I was probably spending too much time reading about “hot stocks” on bulletin boards, a hot tip in IC or some other publication. Remember the “next big thing” types, the likes of Aerobox, Accident Exchange Group, Inion, Media Square, Bioprogress ; the inventors of the dissolvable colostomy bag, I mean can you imagine!. Still, I did learn valuable lessons from my BB experiences and just vowed never to get sucked in again by those claiming to be ITK; I was also bolting on to my armoury the knowledge that debt can be a killer to a small business.
Although this list of adventurous “next big thing” AIM stocks did not help portfolio progress they were mainly either cut at a 20% loss or on the first profits warning; to my mind valuable lessons that remain bolted onto mindset from that time onwards. Incidentally, a lesson for every investor to my mind is to have a decent number of reasonably diversified companies and concentrate on the overall basket performance. If you have to “gamble around the edges” then do this with a very limited percentage of your overall pot outside of your tax-free account; better still, if you need that style of excitement take up bungee jumping, glider flying or some other less dangerous pastime.
Within my “day job”, my own company, whose performance I never counted within my percentage returns as that was simply my good fortune of being in the right place at the right time, was bought out for almost £16 in 2006 by a consortium of Canadian and Australian insurance/pension companies. I was a very happy man as I had studiously taken up almost to the limit, every share-save offer with prices ranging from £2 to £6: I was just gob-smacked by the eventual return of funds. Totally no skill involved apart from the discipline of maintaining the continual drip feed purchase of AWG shares at an advantageous price and very importantly, the passage of time, in fact, lots & lots of time.
By mid 2007 the whole investment world was buzzing along cheerfully enough for me as I was close to being fully invested not solely in growth stocks but also in those lovely safe financial institutions namely the large unexciting insurance companies plus various banks including the newly listed ex-building society types; what lovely safe dividends these boys paid; I thought at the time what could possibly go wrong to rock this steady little investment world that I enjoyed?
Epilogue: Learning Points as at December 2007
Memo to myself in late 2007: Learning Points so far that I would do well to remember but being as fallible as the next person, would almost certainly temporarily forget from time to time:
Note: previous blog articles of this journey can be located via the right hand side bar.
A we reached the end of 1999, the paper profits were just becoming unreal and investors were buying into the idea that this one way trip would go on and on: you even had people in well-paid jobs that had become totally seduced by the technology/.COM story and had given up employment to become full-time investors; fortunately I never really got that feeling. The Sunday Times carried a regular feature entitled The Diary of a Day Trader featuring a chap who had quit his secure job during the .COM boom to become a full-time trader working from home. The Diary of a Day Trader was a must-read feature, chronicling the ups and downs of the journey of John Urbanek. Even people who had not bought a share in their entire lives were talking about the column on a Monday morning at work. The column was beautifully honest, “warts and all” and as time went by it was obvious that the new trading life was becoming very tough. Interestingly in his final column, he wrote "I am not throwing in the towel and will continue as a day trader, although somewhat older and wiser than when I started almost two years ago. I would not necessarily recommend that readers follow my lead. It is not an easy life – nor is it an easy way to make money"; Wise words that may he headed by any investor and as I recall there were many less fortunate folk who found the glorious new .COM road would not be paved with gold forever. For my part, I was becoming increasingly nervous at the altitude that my technology stocks were reaching but felt almost powerless to climb off the roundabout, it was surreal; the intoxication just overwhelming.
As the clock struck midnight on new-year’s eve 1999, I was at work completing the tape backup for our valuable laboratory information system, wondering what I was doing there on a new years eve playing service to what I perceived as the Y2K scam. I was also wondering just for long this gold rush could continue. Thankfully the drive home in the early hours of the first of 1st January 2000 proved uneventful; the traffic lights were all still working and as yet no aeroplanes had fallen from the sky: the millennium bug had been beaten; civilisation and the planet saved!
As for the question of how long this technology gold rush could continue, the answer came along in early 2000 with to my mind a watershed of the .COM bubble in the flotation of Last Minute.com. Lastminute.com floated at a SP of 380p and rose to over 500p in the first hour of trading; the demand was massive and the average punter was allocated 35 shares; what a crazy world. The company had a phenomenal valuation: the magic roundabout built on the edge of the cliff had to grind to a halt and that’s exactly what happened in March 2000. A friend, Bob and I were talking about the madness of the dot.com thirst and the departure from reality with the lastminute.com floatation; little did we know at the time that this was the signal for the end of the technology boom. What followed is now well-documented history as the decline in share price of these briefly loved stocks was about as fast as their rapid rise. Fortunately in the most part, I got out part way through the tumble down the cliff and whilst I had in today’s terms made very healthy gains, they were nowhere near as high as they appeared to be when we were at the top of the cliff. I sold, sold and sold until again my portfolio just had a couple of stocks remaining including a few Redstone’s; how could a company that sponsored the Wales Rugby team be anything but worthy? Yes, that Redstone reasoning of myself seeing the reassurance of a company sponsoring a national side was totally misplaced.
The main part of the decline or fall off the cliff took part over something like an eight week period commencing March 2000, with many IT stocks losing around 80% of their value. In fact, Lastminute.com continued falling for some months to come until it had lost 96% of the valuation it had reached on its first day of trading. For sure, anybody who invested during the late 90’s and early 2000’s will never forget those turbulent days.
Early 2001 became a time to reflect. What would I do now? I had made good profits so far on my journey and learnt a lot. Sadly not everybody was learning as they might; I had investment friends who continued to stay loyal to their technology stocks and refused to sell, living in a world of self-denial. My good friend Bob said to me “Fibernet touched £30 not so long ago and mark my words, it will get back there soon, this fall is only a temporary setback”: to his credit Bob was a very loyal chap he went all the way to the top with his stocks and for the most part stayed loyal all the way to the bottom!
It was definitely time to sit on my hands, protect a reasonable cash pile and take some time to think; what was this diversification stuff I once thought worthwhile. After my experiences to date, I felt comfortable in that I was learning all the time and probably after the .COM bubble burst I was becoming a touch more cautious but where would I go from here I wondered. What stocks may be a touch more predictable and safe? Hang on, those ex-building societies look interesting and pay a safe dividend and then, of course, there is always the banks; you can’t get much safer than that!
The journey continues.
The investment landscape started to change rapidly in the late 90’s and whilst I had had a very good run in Blacks Leisure, JJB, MSB International, and Severfield Reeve as the prices started to fall back I took my profits and also booked slight loss on Harvey Nichols: all stocks that had been identified via Jim Slater’s methods. In those relatively early days, I would only be running around 6 to 8 stocks in my portfolio. It’s a crazy feeling because at the time I was beating myself up for having made only a 60% profit on this basket of shares. I thought to myself “if I had been smarter and sold at the top my gains would have been way over 100% for no more than 18 months of investment. Thankfully, I don’t think that way anymore and can live very comfortably with myself in the knowledge that I will probably never be able to purchase at the bottom and sell at the top. However, I did take quite some more years investing before I could leave my remorse of not selling closer to the top behind me.
I now had a fair amount of cash sitting in my PEP/ISA and only a couple of stocks including DCS which I kept holding as Jim Slater kept writing so enthusiastically about it. I then started thinking of those Fibernet shares that Gordon our electrical contractor, had been mentioning and decided that it was time to try something else and take a much closer look at IT shares. I had some good knowledge of IT companies as my own company had outsourced the provision of all IT services to a third party, our IT partner, on an amazingly expensive contract; I really could not believe the costs we were paying and all because our own in-house IT expertise was allegedly not up to the job.
At this time, I was also attending meeting after meeting with our IT outsource company as they preached their version of the Y2K commercial opportunity, apologies, I mean the millennium bug. We were all doomed to perish when the clock struck midnight on 31st December 1999 unless our consultant IT partners determined each piece of IT kit was safe. I started to get the feeling that IT service companies were very lucrative investment opportunities.
Yes, the technology world was rapidly impacting on the stock markets: respectability and excitement could easily be demonstrated by a company if it had the magical .com after it’s name or business plan. Within no time at all Technology and internet stocks had become the new Klondike Gold Rush
Once it became clear to investors and speculators that the internet had created a wholly new and untapped international market, IPOs of internet companies started to follow each other in rapid succession. It seemed to me that the business plan of some of these companies was based on little more than just an idea on the back of a fag packet with a flashy vision and obligatory mission statement. The excitement over the commercial possibilities of the internet was so big that every idea which sounded viable could fairly easily receive millions of pounds worth of funding. The basic principles of investment theory with regard to understanding when a business would turn a profit if ever, were ignored in many cases, as investors were afraid to miss out on the next big hit. They were willing to invest large sums in these companies many of which had more of an idea rather than a feasible plan. The survival of most of these companies depended on the rapid expansion of its customer base, which in most cases meant huge initial losses. Try as I did at the time, I just could not get a “must have” feeling about pure internet play stocks and never invested in one as such.
However, I became very much in tune with any form of technology business that seemed, at least to me, to have a tangible product to offer: IT consultancy, outsourcing of IT services, procurement, software developers etc. I became totally hooked; you could say I was an IT junkie. During the late 90’s conventional wisdom went out of the window; who wants to invest in a company that actually makes something; paying dividends is boring. Good old reliable Mickey Clark on the BBC’s Wake Up to Money used bemoan the markets “who wants to but smoke-stack companies, you know the ones who make something and pay a dividend”?
“Let’s not miss”
Paul Kavanagh’s very readable column in the Sunday Times started to heavily feature plausible technology stocks: Sunday mornings had become very interesting. Many such investment articles in almost all publications caught the IT mood of the time as the technology bubble formed. As I said, I was far from immune to this technology fever and my portfolio had just about abandoned the previous Zulu style principles and climbed aboard for the tech ride. My portfolio now became fully invested in a whole range of technology stocks: Anite, Comino, Dataflex, Diagonal, Financial Objectives, Kewill, Logica, London Bridge Software, MMT Computing, Merant, NSB Retail Systems, Plasmon, Royal Blue, Redstone, Staffware & Triad. What was that dinosaur term of diversification all about? I had become a complete technology junkie, not a very relaxed junkie but nevertheless a junkie.
The world had become just unreal; a couple of months could go by and a stock could be up 50% or 100% and in some cases rise almost in a logarithmic fashion. The rate of price rise of these technology stocks was phenomenal: I bought Kewill for just over £3 in June 1999 and eight months later it had risen to over £28 “wow, my stocks were going through the roof”.
Footnote: there is just so much to say about this .COM/IT boom that the blog has been divided into parts a) & b) to offer a comfortable length of text: Part 3b to follow.
Well, the first steps in my investment journey had really gone well with the easy stuff of buying shares in the utility company I worked for. I had also branched out just a tad, and bought into some investment trusts run by Edinburgh fund managers and that gave me a buzz in terms of doing something a little more myself rather than just taking the safe pickings from utility flotations. The next logical step of the journey was, of course, to really become a big boy and buy some shares in individual companies but how would I select them. Possibly via tips in newspapers or via tip sheets. In the end, it was a combination of tip sheet and the papers with the first purchase being a house-builder that was rapidly acquired by a larger player for a premium; nice, I thought!
I started to read a penny share tip sheet that suggested two really hot companies to get into were Azur; a ladies fashion company and also the British Taxpayers Association; both traded on the OFEX market. The write up for each seemed to be very convincing and the fact that you needed to subscribe to the penny share publication to obtain these privileged hot tips, gave me the confidence to buy both. I was naive of course and the collective investment soon proved to be a bit of a disaster; I learnt that such very junior markets were not for me: lots of promise of jam tomorrow but as my old granny used to tell me, “tomorrow may never come”.
Bound just to be a temporary setback I convinced myself and boldly strode onwards. With just basic research of the Helphire prospectus and the confidence of reading in the press the high regard of the management of the business, one the first day of trading in late 1997 I purchased some Helphire shares. Within a few weeks, I was handsomely in profit; this share price just kept going up and up; obviously one for me to hold onto; no intention of selling these boys quickly!
Some of my colleagues at Anglian Water, flushed with the success of AW share ownership, were also becoming impatient to dip their toe into the stock market pool and decided it would be a good idea to form an investment club. Our meetings were held in a pub in Cambridge: it was rather nice and very social. The format was for at least one potential purchase to be nominated, followed by a discussion of merits and voting. For our first purchase, I nominated Helphire, telling the group of my very wise decision to buy and boasting that I was already 20% up on the deal. My powers of persuasion came to little as the vote, went in favour of the nomination of a wiser sage within the club who had been investing for many years. Our sage wanted us to stay local within Cambridge and buy shares in Ionica a telecommunications company in Cambridge. The club was good fun but after Ionica, despite our unrelenting loyalty and refusing to sell, went bust, the investment club became less active. The investment club continued for a couple of years but the realisation to some members that they may actually lose money severely dampened their enthusiasm for the venture.
Undaunted and possibly bolstered by my already growing experience of share success and failure, I confidently continued on my investment journey. I say confidently, although I was honest enough with myself to realise that the dramatic Helphire success, which by this time had trebled in value, owed much more to luck than my prowess as a stock picker: of course, when I did regale the story of my success, it was all down to my smart decision making. I decided I really needed to build my knowledge on what may make a good investable company over a poor company. I continued with various tip sheet publications: The Analyst, Technivest, Quantum Leap and others came within my radar but I never really felt comfortable with either their reasoning or that fact that the share price was usually up by about 15% directly on the Monday morning following publication. I continued to plough through newspapers and then stumbled upon a couple of columnists that struck the right note with me: Jim Slater writing in the Mail on Sunday and Paul Kavanagh in the Sunday Times. I did not realise it at the time but these two guys would have a considerable impact on my investment journey as we headed towards the turn of the century.
I was becoming very impressed with the work of Jim Slater and bought his incredibly well-written book “The Zulu Principle”. The reasoning within the book was to my mind so very sound, understandable and convincing. Within my salaried employment I was managing a budget of £10 million pounds and dealing with accountants on a very frequent basis and maybe my confidence with financial budgets made the book all the more appealing. Jim mentioned such sensible things as a reasonable valuation for the expectation of future growth in earnings, the relative strength of the share price, the non fudging of profits and returns on capital: all aspects that would become hard coded within my thinking.
Following Jim’s well-reasoned guidance and understanding a little more of the financial criteria, I bought another two stocks: Blacks Leisure and DCS. Both of these stocks rapidly began to motor and I was a very happy investor. Wow, this was really good stuff and as I was feeling absolutely fabulous, I bought another growth stock; Harvey Nichols. Unfortunately, Harvey Nichols failed to move in my favour but the good point was that I was rapidly developing the realisation that even with reasoned share selection, it’s the performance of the collective basket of shares in your portfolio that determines joy or sorrow.
"No worries dear, just this months Company REFS arriving"
My thirst for knowledge started to take up more and more of my time as I read various investment books including What works on Wall Street, Beating the Dow but I was so impressed with Jim Slater’s works that I followed up his association with Company REFS and took out a subscription. At the time the publication consisted of the equivalent of a couple or more telephone directory size catalogues; they were heavy beasts as they mounted up and pre-computing took a massive amount of time to sort. The good thing was, however, that absolutely superb financial data had become available to joe public but at a cost. So for me, the post service became a source of not only data but the contract notes for my share trading. The trading commissions themselves could easily eat a hole in your portfolio value as at least one broker I was using at the time had a charge of £45 per transaction; nothing like the £5 for any amount that we are spoilt with today.
I started to attend various meetings & lectures in London, particularly ones involving lucky Jim; they were really so informative. I also remember attending one hosted by the owner of the Analyst tip sheet where it was explained to the audience that JJB sports was a share that you should plan to hold for life; although I held JJB at the time, I found the “hold for life part” a touch difficult to follow.
The internet was now coming of age but to get on-line at work back in 1997 was something of a challenge: whatever did the directors think we were going to do with such access. It became clear that I needed to buy my own PC for home use and I invested £2000 in a start of the art 4GB hard drive, 64mb RAM monster with a 15-inch screen; now we are flying with my dial-up internet connection!
This was my first PC since a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, heavens I hated that thing! Now getting online; wow was I lucky, all of this information on free bulletin boards written by people who were obviously in the know yet willing to share their wealth of knowledge to all: welcome to the world of ramping.
Overall I was a happy chap, I was learning all the time about share selection and making money. I used to have many coffee break discussions with Gordon who had the contract to maintain the power facilities in the labs. Gordon was a very keen investor but each coffee conversation started with his cursing of Adil Nadir and Polly Peck; Gordon had suffered a particularly bad experience in that area. Anyway, on this particular morning, Gordon said “my broker has been trying to push me in the direction of Fibrenet, reckons technology is the next hot thing”, “what do you think Bill”?
Hmm now there is a thought; the journey continues!
-All private investors that at some time consciously took an investment on the stock markets did so as the start of an investment journey. For many that journey would have ended fairly quickly having suffered a series of poor investment decisions and for others, a little success probably kindled a spark of enthusiasm to go a little further on that investment journey. This three-part series is a story of my own journey starting back in 1989 to the present time, 2016.
Part 1: Early Steps on My Investment Journey
During the 1980’s a relatively new phenomena were being brought to the eyes of the great British public: the privatisation of various services that were state-owned assets via a listing on the stock market: industries such as gas, electricity, water, transportation & telephony went through the process of privatisation. Of course, there were massive arguments for and against the process but it was a snowball that was gathering pace and momentum during the 1980’s and 1990’s.
For many ordinary members of the public, it was really the first time they had been actively encouraged to own shares in a company. The "tell Sid" advertising campaign prompted many thousands of people to buy shares in British Gas. The “have you told Sid” promotion to raise public awareness of the privatisation of gas in the UK was absolutely inescapable and for many people the first real time they had directly owned part of a business; being a shareowner.
Like so many, privatisation was my first exposure to the world of share ownership and indeed the great publicity campaign that the accompanied the ongoing process. I had joined Anglian Water at the time of the formation of the water companies in 1974; that in itself was a grand place for a relatively young chap to be. The company was incredibly supportive I worked through part-time study to complete my professional qualifications in science and become a Graduate of The Royal Society of Chemistry. What I did not realise at the time was that this lad who joined the very large analytical laboratory service of this new business at the very first run of the career ladder would be fortunate enough to eventually spend twenty years managing one of the largest analytical services in East Anglia: you just never know how things will turn out! It was Anglian Water that introduced me to the racy world of the stock market as the company went through the privatisation process.
Lots of publicity work took place within each of the companies heading down the road to the stock market and my own company was no exception with political figures involved in high profile publicity events. Just to name drop a touch, well why not, I gave tours of our scientific process to the very charming Lord Hesketh of motor racing fame and also Michael Howard a man destined to become a leader of the Conservative party; I have to say I took to one of these individuals much more easily than the other.
As was common with all businesses about to be privatised, employees were offered preferential terms to take part in the privatisation issue and quite honestly it was a no brainier. The company was duly floated, nice phrase for a water company, on the stock market and the flotation price of £2-40 closing its first day’s trading, in 1989, some 15% up: I had become a shareholder, I was excited and my investment journey had begun. In those early days, I had not the slightest idea that the stock market would play such a large role in my future. Following the listing of the various energy, water company’s etc people who worked within the newly floated businesses were regularly offered share-save schemes. These basically allowed staff to buy shares in the business at a previously discounted rate and via monthly contributions from their salary over periods of 3, 5 and 7 years. To me, it sounded just too good to be true and I filled my boots as they say over the years building us a considerable holding in the business: I had become a fully fledged investor.
There was no stopping me now from investing within my comfort zone and I took part in lots of other privatisations going on the time and became what is now known as a stag, buying shares in these newly privatised industries and with the exception of my own business, selling them relatively quickly and making some easy money. I decided I really liked this privatisation stuff, well at least in term of making me a wealthier chap. What I did not know at the time was that although it was fine making a very nice fast buck in staging, the real money and wealth would come to those with patience who took the very generous dividends and reinvested them the purchase of additional stock.
My investment journey had begun and I felt quite pleased with myself: my lovely shares were rapidly increasing in value and paying very handsome dividends. Yes, I really liked this investment lark; what could possibly go wrong?
Welcome to my Blog Page - I hope you find my whittling on to be of some interest. I am a private investor who is happy to share thoughts on the market and individual stocks. Please remember that I am definitely not offering tips or investment advice.