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What caught my eye this week.

Markets are routinely being described as having lost the plot in 2020. To me it feels more like it’s the economy – at least the UK economy – that is having a Wile E. Coyote moment.

We know the virus and lockdown knocked economic activity for six. The bald statistics are diabolical. Yet nearly everyone I know is in the same state. Existential dislocation, with a dash of economic suspended animation. But not even metaphorically out on the streets.

Life still feels strange. Our worlds have shrunk. Most of us haven’t seen elderly relatives since February or March. Many of us haven’t been into an office for months. Some are back in quarantine after an ill-judged jaunt abroad. A few spent this week watching their kids’ prefabricated A-Level ‘results’ and futures yo-yo around. All low-level distressing.

But there have been few job losses to-date. So far in my circle it’s only a few of the self-employed and small business owners that have obviously suffered. That’s bad enough of course, but the statistics point to worse to come when the Government support wears off.

Just look over the Atlantic. America’s brutal labour market has taken few prisoners – the unemployment rate was 11.1% as of the end of June. In contrast, despite a 20% contraction in GDP, the UK’s unemployment rate was just 3.9% at the same time. This cannot hold.

Bank of America wonks – quoted this week by Josh Brown – reckon the world just posted its worst period for economic growth in modern times. They have Britain vying for the wooden spoon:

(Click to make it look even worse)

I am a deliberately optimistic person when it comes to the economy and the stock market – not least because the opposite reflex gets so many into trouble and is ruinous for long-term returns.

But boy is it a struggle right now.

London tubes remain near empty outside of rush hour. Shops are frequented but hardly packed. Obviously there’s a lot of activity happening online, but there’s a cost to disruption and displacement.

Tourism and entertainment is in tatters. I’ve Eaten Out to Help Out four or five times now, but to be honest it’s mostly as a taxpayer trying to at least get my share of the petty cash fund while it’s being pissed away in the pub. The unlisted restaurants I’ve invested in say things are better than they expected, but only because of generous government support. And that is due to (and must, eventually) run out.

By way of balance, The Bank of England was more positive last week. Economist Andy Haldane sounded optimistic last week, writing:

 ‘The foundations for an economic recovery – a rapid one – are already in place, hiding in plain sight. Economic activity in the UK is not falling like stone, in fact it has now been rising for more than three months, sooner than anyone expected. It has also recovered far faster than anyone expected.’

But I’m not so sure. Of course we’ll recover – relatively speaking – from a 20% GDP blow, but it seems inevitable only in the same way that a boxer who’s down but not out looks like a champ for stumbling back up onto his feet. If he’s still swaying around like a drunk then your money remains on the other guy.

Some of those who argued for swifter, harder and longer lasting lockdowns predicted a very speedy bounceback when the mandated quarantines ended. A contradiction I saw in their posture was they were often also at the more Covid-phobic end of the spectrum. I think we’re seeing now this inherent conflict play out.

A chunk of the populace remains terrified. Social distancing remains sensible for the rest of us. Me and my girlfriend are the only people I ever see under-60 using those hand sanitisers in the shops, but given how quiet the shops are many more phobic people are presumably still bleaching their Amazon deliveries at home. The young are castigated by a segment of society if they so much as raise a pint glass to the idea of getting on with life without a plexiglass screen between them, yet we also expect the economy to bounce back? Not going to happen.

Remember it only takes a few percentage points of economic activity to go from good growth to recession. Tourism and travel alone is worth 7-11% of UK GDP, depending on how you break it down. Switch off half that sector and you have a recession.

Yes it’s much more complicated than that – offsets abound – but you get the point. HSBC does, predicting this week the UK economy will shrink by 10.3% in 2020 and only post 6.2% growth in 2021. That would leave our economy 4.5% smaller at the end of 2021 than it was at the end of 2019.

Still, it could be worse. We could have failed to negotiate prosperous future economic arrangements with our largest trading partner. As opposed to merely looking on the cusp of doing so, according to Bloomberg:

British and EU officials now talk privately about the prospect of there being no deal. That’s a marked shift in mood from even a month ago when, despite the tough rhetoric in public, people close to the negotiations remained fairly positive.

It’s an outcome that would lead to a complete rupture in cooperation between the two sides in areas from aviation to security and leave businesses and consumers grappling with the return of tariffs and quotas for the first time in a generation.

The good news for most Monevator readers is we have well-diversified global portfolios dominated by strong companies that can thrive when the weaker players are swept away.

The bad news is our friends and family could be among the weaker plays. As blogger Ermine says, it looks like winter is coming:

A lot of people are going to lose a lot of jobs in the next few months and a lot of businesses are going to go down, and landlords will evict a lot of tenants.

Fair enough, they aren’t represented on the markets, but they are represented on the streets of our towns and cities.

So I’m still not convinced that this isn’t going to go titsup in a big way.

The ray of hope for me is that I’m fairly optimistic we’ve seen the worst of the virus in the UK. I can’t prove it, and respect the opposite point of view, but to me a second full-on UK lockdown looks unlikely.

But unfortunately we had the first and we have to pay for it.

From Monevator

The cautionary tale – Monevator

From the archive-ator: Should you buy gilts directly or invest in a gilt fund? – Monevator


Note: Some links are Google search results – in PC/desktop view you can click to read the piece without being a paid subscriber. Try privacy/incognito mode to avoid cookies. Consider subscribing if you read them a lot!1

Rail fares to rise 1.6% in January despite passenger slump – BBC

Only one in six employees have returned to the office, despite government pleas – ThisIsMoney

Covid eviction threat: reprieve for renters in England and Wales – Guardian

New self-employed income support scheme rules mean more workers could be eligible to claim – Which?

Click to enlarge the (graphical size of) these tiny returns

GMO’s latest 7-year return forecast. Are you loading up on emerging value? [No…] [PDF]GMO

Products and services

The platform paradox [Podcast; deep dive into rival options] – Investor’s Chronicle via PlayerFM

YOLO, so give that ETF a snappy ticker – Bloomberg via MSN

Sign-up to Freetrade via my link and we can both get a free share worth between £3 and £200 – Freetrade

How many of the 43 most popular lockdown purchases did you buy? – ThisIsMoney

Homes with swimming pools [Gallery]Guardian

Comment and opinion

The best financial plan is your financial plan – A Teachable Moment

Fatal attraction: Understanding leveraged ETFs – Humble Dollar

Barry Ritholz: Top-heavy stock indexes are nothing to fear – Yahoo Finance

Less than 0.5% of Vanguard US investors fled into cash in the Coronacrash [Data in PDF]Vanguard

Are emerging markets turning into the S&P 500? – A Wealth of Common Sense

Why you should be a goals-based investor – Enterprising Investor

“How 2020 took me from a six-figure salary to universal credit”Guardian

Is your value fund bad for the planet? – The Evidence-based Investor

The pros and cons of direct indexing – Valididea

Naughty corner: Active antics

James Montier: Reasons (not to be) cheerful – GMO

Small stocks no longer deliver big gains for US investors [Search result]FT

Investing advice from 1937, still relevant today – Novel Investor

2020: The year of Baillie Gifford – IT Investor

Jupiter Fund Management looks good value – UK Value Investor

The consequences of shrinking public markets – Institutional Investor

Did a #1 downloaded paper move the price of gold? Probably not, but… – Abnormal Returns

Covid corner

Some scientists believe herd immunity is closer than originally thought – Independent

How QAnon rode the pandemic to new heights – and fueled the US anti-mask movement – NBC News

“I had Covid-19 and these are the things nobody tells you”L.A. Times

Are Las Vegas casinos seeding Covid-19 outbreaks across the US? – ProPublica

Kindle book bargains

Captivate: The Science Of Succeeding With People by Vanessa van Edwards – £0.99 on Kindle

Influence by Robert B. Cialdini – £0.99 on Kindle

I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi – £0.99 on Kindle

Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann – £0.99 on Kindle

Off our beat

Listed landscapes: Twenty post-war sites protected – BBC

How to learn everything: The Masterclass diaries – Longreads [hat tip Abnormal Returns]

What if we could live for a million years? – Scientific American

The ecommerce surge – Benedict Evans

[New to me…] The movement to end the Olympic Games – Longreads

And finally…

“You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”
– James Clear, Atomic Habits

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  1. Note some articles can only be accessed through the search results if you’re using PC/desktop view (from mobile/tablet view they bring up the firewall/subscription page). To circumvent, switch your mobile browser to use the desktop view. On Chrome for Android: press the menu button followed by “Request Desktop Site”.

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