Nuggets of wisdom from Britain's super well-paid

Most of the investment advice at the annual gathering of Britain's super well-paid was simply hot air, says Merryn Somerset Webb. But there were a few gems.

I flew from Scotland to London with my children on Thursday. Everyone was in a remarkably good mood possibly because they were either flying on or working for British Airways rather than Ryanair and the captain asked us in to see the flight deck.

It went well. No one pressed any buttons they weren't supposed to and everyone was polite to the pilots. But I was not altogether thrilled to be reminded just how complicated a cockpit is so many buttons, so much risk.

Thank goodness, I thought to myself, that I work in a relatively simple business. Then I dropped the children off and went to the Sohn Conference, where I was reminded why so many people think finance is more complicated than flying a plane.

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The Sohn is an annual event, once US-only but now in the UK, at which the super well-paid of the UK get to show their compassionate side. The conference is designed to raise money for the treatment and cure of paediatric cancer.

The tickets cost £1,000 each, and everyone who's anyone in hedge fund land straps on their most expensive status symbol a ludicrous luxury watch in most cases, an "I've visited the flight deck" sticker in mine and heads off to be seen.

The lure, as you might guess, is not the charity itself, but the fact that over the afternoon, a series of well known and particularly successful fund managers take to the podium to tell you which stocks they love and which they hate.

Much of it was complicated, and one or two of the interesting ideas might not work for ordinary investors. But here is a few of the simple and interesting ones.

First, Julian Sinclair of Talisman Global Asset Management, who, like most of the managers, was advertised as a contrarian investor, a man who "can see through the emotional noise to the value".

He tipped Tata Motors on the basis that some 80% of its value is made up of Jaguar Land Rover. He figures the brand value of that business alone is $17bn not much less than the entire market cap of Tata.

Look at it like that and the current price gives you the luxury car business very cheaply, particularly given that there is scope for profit margin expansion and that the firm is just coming to the end of an expensive cycle of investment so its cash flow should now improve dramatically.

In effect, you get the Indian commercial vehicle business that makes up the rest of the firm for free, which sounds nice.

Also telling a simple story was Chris Hohn. If you have read anything about the head of the sweetly named Children's Investment Fund, you will know that he is now the largest investor in the Royal Mail apart from the UK government. That was a good call (for him if not the taxpayer) the shares are up around 60% or more since the initial public offering.

Mr Hohn loves privatisations. "Governments are just about the worst owners of companies you can find," he reminded us. When companies move into private hands, they "always transform" and offer their investors "huge financial upside". So he tipped Australian railway company Aurizon.

He got the largest allocation of stock in this from the state when it was sold off in 2010 and it "continues transformation" thanks to contract repricing, the "releveraging of the company" and the "voluntary and involuntary" departure of thousands of employees.

We are to think of it as a cheap infrastructure play in the "early stages of a massive turnaround". Mr Hohn also tipped EADS, maker of Airbus airliners. It is also recently privatised, is cheap and has huge potential in a duopoly business with firm barriers to entry.

Other convincing tips from speakers included credit rating company Experian (strong growth, a beneficiary of 'big data' and again a business with almost insurmountable barriers to entry); Sampo, owner of 21% of Nordea, the leading Scandinavian banking franchise; and one of my favourites, oil distribution services group DCC, which is successfully consolidating a fragmented industry with lots of acquisitions.

However, I know that some of you like to buy markets and not individual stocks. Good news then, in that I think the most gripping talk of the day came from Andrew Weiss of Weiss Asset Management. He told us to buy Korea.

You have heard this before David Stevenson wrote about it in Adventurous Investor in May but to reappraise: amazing infrastructure, fantastic education system and lots of potential cheap labour from enterprise zones bordering North Korea.

Of course, rapid economic growth is entirely irrelevant to stock market returns: high levels of investment and low levels of regard for shareholders mean that high growth economies almost always have low growth stock markets. So what might make Korea different?

First, it is not starting from too high a price; second, much of the investment is done; and third, there are huge changes to corporate governance under way. These days, corrupt corporate heads actually go to jail and if regulations on the way through now pass, South Korea will soon have the "best shareholder rights in the world".

There is also a huge wave of money on its way in from the national pension service, and nothing moves a market like money.

You can buy into this story in a complicated way getting what Weiss calls a "double discount" by picking up ultra-cheap preference shares (Hyundai's are trading on a price/earnings (p/e) of 3.1 times) or a potentially less lucrative but more simple way with a Korean exchange-traded fund but, either way, it is worth considering.

I'll be acting on some of the tips from the conference myself in the next few weeks, but if you want an even simpler takeaway from the Sohn conference it is this: register to become a bone marrow donor.

Slipped into the programme, before the audience had time to head for the door with their BlackBerrys, was a short talk explaining that it does not take that long, will not hurt that much if you turn out to be a match for someone and will show your compassionate side even more than paying £1,000 to attend a conference.

This article was first published in the Financial Times.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.