What to invest in as we move into a world beyond lockdown

Has Covid-19 changed our relationship with cities for good? Will government responses to the pandemic finally ignite inflation this year? John Stepek questions the experts at our (virtual) Christmas roundtable

Roundtable participants

John Stepek: This time last year, the UK election was over, Brexit was near an end, things were looking up. Then we spent most of 2020 in lockdown. Yet, if you were to look at the market now for the first time, you would never realise that Covid-19 had happened.

Max King: Yes, I thought you’d make 5%-10% from a decent portfolio, but we’re at the top end of that range. The surprise is how well private businesses have coped, including delivering vaccines on target.

Lucy Macdonald: The market reaction isn’t so surprising when you consider the huge liquidity boost, which did what it always does – produced a big bounce back. The big question, which we also raised last year, is whether there will be inflation as a result.

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Jim Mellon: I was actually amazed at how primitive the world’s response to the pandemic was. I don’t think it was any better than in 1920, except that vaccines have been discovered and are being rolled out. Even then, they’re probably on the late side because going by Farr’s law of epidemics, we’re close to the point of dissipation. So I was very surprised by the very quick rebound from the March lows. One has to ask now whether there is any value in the markets at all, or whether one should be very cautious.

But in response to Lucy’s point, I do think inflation’s coming. Perhaps not immediately – you don’t get this sort of economic shock without deflationary consequences. But equally, you can’t have this degree of monetary and fiscal stimulus, and then a recovering economy with people going back to work and demanding more pay, without inflation. Gold’s taken a bit of a breather, as has silver, but I think they’re both poised for a massive run next year.

Dominic Frisby: The key is wages. And in the real world, there’s a lot of competition for not a lot of work, particularly if you look at restaurants, bars, theatres, comedy clubs and the like.

Max: Yes, labour costs may be kept down, which might be very good for corporate profit margins.

John: Well, there’s a lot of pent-up demand from extra savings. But the high streets are also full of empty shops that aren’t coming back and lots of people have lost their jobs. How will that play out?

Steve Russell: When you look at the government debt position, inflation is inevitable – there is no other way out. But that doesn’t say anything about what happens next year. To your point about the high street, you’re seeing a pattern where there is a deflationary demand shock to some parts of the economy and an inflationary supply shock to others. What intrigues me is the inability of capital and labour to shift from one to the other. You just can’t get that money out of high-street shops into online delivery at the pace you might want to, for example.

Max: This is nothing new – the economy is always transitioning from old to new.

Steve: Yes, but that’s not the point. The point is that everybody focuses on the deflationary half and not on the inability to meet demand elsewhere. So I’m not disagreeing that we will transition. But it’s not instant. The best example I’ve got is from the “old economy” bit. Before the second lockdown, I went to the pub a couple of times. I live in southwest London, so not full-on London, but London prices. A pint of lager was £6.15. Before Covid-19, it was £5; outside of London it was £3.50. But I happily paid up, because that was the cost of providing it – the pub had to have waiter service and couldn’t admit as many customers. And yet that’s just the same item now priced, what – 25% higher? Those are the sorts of impacts that could come through quicker than people expect.

In any case, the key point on inflation is that markets are not pricing in any risk of it at all. That’s where we see a massive threat to the vast amount of money in bonds or growth equities. That will sound the death knell for the FANGs [the big tech companies such as Facebook and Google], for example. It won’t necessarily be “oh no, there’s high inflation” – it’ll be “oh no, there’s a risk of it and I’ve got to do something about it”. That’s what will jolt markets.

There’s still plenty of room for recovery

John: So do you think this bounce in value versus growth has legs?

Lucy: The two are intimately related. If a recovery leads to bond yields rising, that could tip things over. The question is: will bond yields be capped, so that you get inflation, but you don’t get yields rising? If so, then growth can probably go a bit further. But the other big risk to the FANGs is regulation. The Department of Justice is already looking to fine Google, and the Federal Trade Commission is talking about breaking up Facebook.

Jim: Yes, over the last ten years the banks have been the cash cows for governments in terms of fines and regulatory penalties. Now the FANGs are surely the number-one target, starting with Facebook. It’s got billions in cash on the balance sheet – why wouldn’t you take half of that away, then do the same to Google and the others as well? That’s got to be a strategy that debt-laden governments are considering.

Max: On the “value” rotation, I’m a bit of a sceptic. Yes, there have been lots of recovery trades, but the old deadbeat value stocks – oil, banks – will probably remain that way. They might bounce, but I can’t see a case for investing long term. Some growth companies – the tech stocks, say – may need to take a breather for the fundamentals to catch up with their share prices. But I don’t see this as a great renaissance for “value”.

Steve: In the end, value is a mixture of price and growth – if you get both right you get good value. It’s not buying stocks that are in terminal decline. There’s a whole load of stocks that can go up another 40%-50% from here and a “panic rotation” could accelerate that. I think UK banks are stupidly cheap and could easily double – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll compound at 15% per annum beyond that.

John: Are you negative on their long-run prospects?

Steve: That’s slightly misreading it. But for the banks to do more than just recover – getting back to 80p for Lloyds would be a start – we need to see the yield-curve steepening. I don’t see that happening for a long time. While we are definitely in the inflation camp, we are also definitely in the “yield curve control” (see page 21) camp. So banks might return to fashion because they can pay out a dividend of 6% and grow at nominal GDP (which could easily be 5%-6% if you’ve got 4%-5% inflation and 1% real growth). That’s a nice return. But I don’t see them becoming growth stocks until you get actual change in monetary policy.

Lucy: So you think bond yields will be capped?

Steve: I see no other option. If bond yields aren’t capped, the amount of tax revenue needed to pay the interest on the outstanding debt goes through the roof. You can’t possibly raise enough tax to pay it, let alone pay some wages as well.

Lucy: But do you not think that would support the growth end of the market and long duration assets?

Steve: No. My fundamental view (which the market may not agree with until far later than I want it to!) is that the rate investors use to discount future cash flows has to be the inflation rate, not the prevailing interest rate. Now, for almost all of history these have been roughly the same thing, so we use the interest rate as a discount rate. However, if you’ve got inflation of, say, 5%, but interest rates are nailed to the floor at 0%, then I believe that the discount rate on the market has to go to 5%, not 0%. That’s what will kill the FANGs, for example. But markets may not get that right away. They might say: “Yippee! The Federal Reserve’s going to use yield-curve control! Those stocks are great again. We can justify paying infinite price/earnings (p/e) multiples because the discount rate is 0%!” But eventually I think that will change.

Return of the commodities super-cycle?

John: On inflationary pressure – Goldman Sachs has talked about a commodity super-cycle kicking off again. And copper has just gone up like a rocket since 23 March – surely that’s got to be saying something?

Dominic: I don’t know about a super-cycle, but I’m interested in a few commodities right now. Tin is an interesting niche play and platinum too – if hydrogen vehicles, which use platinum in their fuel cells, take off, that’s got to be bullish for platinum. But the one I’m really bullish on is oil.

Jim: I think both oil and tobacco are on the way out over the next 20 years. They’re going to be self-liquidating trust-type businesses. But oil is a great idea – I would definitely buy the global oil majors, because they’ll produce excellent dividends as they liquidate.

Max: There’s a lot to be said for a short-term commodity bounce. But never forget that the world is very good at responding to higher commodity prices by using them more efficiently. So what goes up comes down even faster. I look forward to the day – I hope it’s in my lifetime – when not a single barrel of oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, because nobody wants it. The future of oil is what the future of coal was in the past.

Dominic: Nearly 70% of electricity still comes from burning fossil fuels. There’s still huge demand for coal.

Max: But look at the UK – 45% of our electricity comes from renewables now. Yet eight years ago the government set what seemed to be a ludicrous target of getting to 30% by 2020. These things are happening much faster than anyone realised.

Dominic: I’ll bet you Max that we’ll see $100 oil before the end of 2022.

Max: Yes, but the dollar might be the American peso by then, so $100 won’t mean very much!

John: Jim, your new book, Moo’s Law, looks at the “clean meat” industry. Talk us through that.

Jim: I think clean meat’s going to be very big. Plant-based meats have shown the way – we are all familiar with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, for example. But within two or three years’ time we’re going to see the first food coming out of labs at mass scale, hence the title of my book – Moo’s Law, [after “Moore’s Law”, a term coined in the tech industry to describe how microchip capacity grew rapidly even as prices fell]. It’s a massive prize. The global meat market is the size of the Spanish economy. Some reputable organisations suggest that within ten years 50% of all meat consumption will be either plant-based or produced in laboratories. Yet most people are not even aware of the industry.

There are about 30 investable companies in the world, moving at very rapid pace, so I wrote a book with my thoughts on which would be the best to invest in. It’s not just about meat: it’s about seafood, leather, cotton – all sorts of materials that can be grown in labs much more efficiently, cheaply and in a more environmentally friendly way than having the cows on feedlots or the chickens in cages. It’s a great way to free up resources. You can release vast amounts of land and water – it takes something like 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef. And the biggest contributor to environmental emissions – about 20% – is not transport, it’s animal husbandry. In my view, you’ll be able to grow the best cow’s meat without antibiotics, hormones, or any waste, in ten years’ time and for about half the price of producing cows today. It’s also good for our health.

John: That’s incredible. Speaking of incredible, let’s turn to UK house prices. Despite everything, lots of people are moving and prices have risen more rapidly this year than in about five or six years.

Dominic: It’s as though lower taxes boost activity!

Max: Saville’s was very good on how the pandemic would affect the housing market very early on: everything it said has turned out right. More working from home means people moving further out of cities and looking for larger houses in better locations, with gardens and spare rooms.

Steve: Yes, one impact of Covid-19 has been to realign people’s spending from being focused around their office work day to investing in their homes. And with actual interest rates set to stay low and real (after-inflation) rates set to get more negative, I don’t see a looming disaster for the housing market. Whether in ten years’ time the average house price will be higher in real terms than it is today, I’m not so sure about that.

Lucy: Yes, affordability relative to salaries is still ridiculous. The supply and demand picture should improve because there seems to be a little building boom going on, but it’s interest rates that really make the difference and they won’t change anytime soon.

John: Do you think Covid-19 has permanently changed our relationship with cities?

Steve: It depends on the generation. People in their 20s and 30s who have been working from home cannot wait to get back, because they’re either in a very small flat or in their parents’ home. The attraction of a big city and everything that goes with it is utterly undiminished for them.

Dominic: They haven’t got any money though.

Steve: That’s true. Rents could come down, so underlying house prices won’t be supported as much.

Dominic: A big factor is how quickly you think driverless cars will become a reality. That would speed up commuting and lessen the need to be in a city centre. But if you think we’re still many, many years away from that, then city centres remain attractive.

Lucy: But what you do have now is much better broadband. That makes a huge difference. It really does open up what people can do remotely.

John: And if you only have to go into the office two or three days a week rather than five, then commuting is much less of a restriction on where you can live.

Dominic: That’s what they found in Germany – once everyone went back to work, office occupancy was about 50% lower than before Covid-19.

Max: Well, research also suggests a majority prefer working from home and that it makes them more productive. So net net, an increase in working from home should boost productivity, which might well help the economic recovery, efficiency and profitability.

What to invest in for 2021

John: OK let’s move onto tips. Steve, what are you investing in now?

Steve: I can easily see a scenario where overall markets go nowhere as economies recover, because large parts derate and others go up. I still like UK banks. Lloyds (LSE: LLOY) and NatWest (LSE: NWG) are unreasonably under the cosh. While in my view Brexit is an unmitigated disaster for the UK, it’s already priced into the market, so I think there is upside there. I’m at least looking for them to be able to start returning the excess capital they’ve been forced to hold on to and pay dividends again.

On the growth end, I rather like Hipgnosis Songs Fund (LSE: SONG), the music investment trust. It’s got a first-mover advantage in a world where people are now starting to see the value of music royalties as an income stream. So that looks a steady earner. And if we go into an infrastructure and inflation-type scenario, quarries and those sort-of scarce resources have always been great places to be, so I like Breedon (LSE: BREE). It’s recovered from the Covid-19 hit, but I think there’s more there. On the tech side, nothing much appeals, but I do like the idea of VW (ETR: VOW3). I think by 2022 it will be producing more electric cars than Tesla and there’s just no comparison between the two in terms of valuation.

And no surprise, I still like Japan. It’s actually matching the S&P year-to-date, up about 10%-12%. The stocks that appeal to us there are slightly beneath the radar. They’re the sort of things that are starting to appeal to people like Warren Buffett. There’s a financial conglomerate/private-equity type business, Orix (JP: 8591), which we think is very attractive. And there are quite a lot of value growth stocks that are really difficult to find anywhere else in the world. NEC (JP: 6701) is a major player in the electronics needed for all sorts of electric cars, but it’s still trading like it’s an old-fashioned value capital stock.

Banks, miners and short-term office space

Jim: I agree on the UK banks. I’ve bought quite a lot of Lloyds shares. But Steve has already tipped Lloyds so I’ll say Barclays (LSE: BARC) as a substitute, even though it’s got an investment bank attached to it.

In the commodity space, we may not be in a super-cycle, but we’re definitely in an up cycle. The best balance of all the companies exposed to commodities – including uranium, which I like – is Rio Tinto (LSE: RIO). Rio is about ten times next year’s earnings for about a 5% dividend yield, which is attractive. Finally, IWG (LSE: IWG). I agree with Steve that a lot of young people in particular don’t want to work at home. So presumably they will use shared office space, but they don’t need permanent office accommodation much more. So I think we’ll move more and more to a WeWork-type, short-term office rentals environment. IWG is excellently run, has survived multiple crises and it’s not ultra expensive either.

Max: Last year I tipped Monks (LSE: MNKS) and Mid Wynd (LSE: MWY) and they are still good long-term buys, as are UK small-cap trusts. My idea for this year is the Worldwide Health Care Trust (LSE: WWH), or perhaps the Polar Capital Global Healthcare (LSE: PCGH) or BB Healthcare Trust (LSE: BBH). Surprisingly, healthcare valuations are below the market average rather than above them right now, so I think this is a good time to top up. Also, insurance is a great area – I wrote up the Polar Capital Global Insurance fund in MoneyWeek recently.

I don’t agree with Steve on Hipgnosis – I think it’s growing too quickly, using too much paper. However, there is one trust that I’ve actively hated since its initial public offering, right up until a couple of months ago – Woodford Patient Capital. Now that it’s the Schroder UK Public Private Trust (LSE: SUPP) I think it might be turning around. The managers are getting a lot more confident and it’s trading at a large discount to asset value. It might well have some jewels among the rubbish that Neil Woodford left behind, so I think a punt on that is a decent idea.

Polish vodka and drugs

John: Lucy, you came top last year by quite a long way. Schneider did well, Agilent went up 40%, and none of your tips lost any money. Can you repeat the performance this time?

Lucy: Probably not! I agree on healthcare. Big pharma is being rehabilitated to an extent by the Covid-19 experience – not because they’ve actually invented anything, but they have shown that having this scale for testing, manufacturing and distribution is of some use. If someone else can do the clever stuff, then they can help out. The fact that they’re also going to be doing it without making an enormous amount of profit should go down well too. If you’re looking for yield, you’ve got Sanofi (Paris: SAN), Roche (Zurich: RO), GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK), Astellas (JP: 4503) – they’re all over 3%, some quite a lot more. So a little basket of those would probably do you no harm and they get a little bit of growth as well.

For my second pick, I think spirits really are worth looking at. On the small-cap side (£500m market cap) there’s one in particular called Stock Spirits (LSE: STCK). It sells Polish vodka. Nearly all of its sales are in Poland and Czechoslovakia – it’s number two in Poland – and it’s just come out with some rather good figures for the year. It’s been growing the top line at about 7%, bottom line about 5%, and it’s paying a special dividend on top of a 3% underlying yield, bumping that up to 8%. Just don’t look too much at the earnings this year – there’s an extraordinary write off that distorts them. But on cash earnings, it’s only trading on about 12 times. That’s quite interesting. On the large spirits side, look at Diageo (LSE: DGE). You’re getting an emerging play there, plus a bit of a UK play, though the yield’s not huge.

On investment trusts, I can only say the ones that I know. Brunner (LSE: BUT) got to a nice premium at the start of the year, then I left and it’s now at a 15% discount, which I think is unfair. I think they’re doing a decent job, and so I think that’s a good buy. Then there’s JP Morgan Emerging Markets (LSE: JMG) whose board I’m joining. I think emerging markets are probably due a better ride if you think that the US dollar is going to continue to weaken, and you get commodities rising a bit further. Also, the composition of the indices has changed a bit, so there’s more tech in there and more social media. The trust offers a well-diversified stream of income – so you can get income from Russian banks and Chinese tech companies to add to your Lloyds Bank and your oil companies held elsewhere. I like Polar Capital Global Healthcare too.

Bitcoin and cheap gold miners

Dominic: For me the best way to play the commodities bull market is via BHP Billiton (LSE: BHP). Even though it’s best-known as a miner, it’s also a good proxy for oil, as a significant chunk of its profits are petroleum derived. So it’s an effective way of getting all your commodities exposure under one big roof. Another oil-sector play is the iShares Oil & Gas Exploration & Production UCITS ETF (LSE: SPOG).

On niche commodities, I’m looking at a tin producer called Alphamin Resources (TSE: AFM), which has a market cap of about C$400m. If the tin price tanks it will be a disaster, but as long as the tin price keeps on rising it’s one of the very few ways to play it. So it’s got a lot of potential.

A gold play I’ve mentioned in the magazine before is Altus Strategies (Aim: ALS). Altus is sort of a royalty company, but also a project generator. So it has lots of different assets around different countries in Africa at various stages of production. Partly because it does so many things, it’s trading at a huge discount to the combined value of its assets. I own shares in this stock, so I’m quite close to it, but at a certain point people are just going to look at this, see it’s got some good strategic investors, and say that it’s way too cheap, particularly in a gold bull market. It’s currently trading at about 60p, but could easily double to get to fair value. And that’s before you get into the stupid valuations that sometimes happen towards the end of gold bull markets in junior mining stocks.

Finally, bitcoin. It’s amazing how the narrative around bitcoin keeps evolving and its new narrative is a very compelling one. It started with this chap called Michael Saylor, who manages a Nasdaq-listed tech company called MicroStrategy, which was sitting on $450m in cash in June. He was looking at where to park the money because he knew that because of inflation and money printing and so on, it was going to lose value relative to other assets. So he looked at commercial real estate, stocks, various other assets – and in the end he put it all into bitcoin. Other companies will look at what’s happened to MicroStrategy’s share price as a result and they will follow. At which point you’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars going into bitcoin.

And as I say, the strength of bitcoin is the network. Facebook’s network is the social network. Bitcoin is a network of wealth storage for the internet. And so far it’s proved unhackable and incredibly resilient. Anyone who bought bitcoin at any time in history – as long as they didn’t sell – is now in profit, with bitcoin at all-time highs. Every naysayer thus far has been proved wrong. So you have to own some – just 1% or 2% of your portfolio. You’re a fool if you don’t, because its potential is just so extraordinary.

John: Great, well thanks very much everyone for taking the time to sit at your screens this year.

Jim: I hope next year we can repair to the pub afterwards like we normally do.

Max: Will we be able to afford the pub anymore, given the price of beer will have gone up?

Jim: Bitcoin will pay for it.

John: Happy Christmas!

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Lloyds Bank(LSE: LLOY)36p
Natwest(LSE: NWG)162p
Hipgnosis(LSE: SONG)122.5p
Breedon(LSE: BREE)87p
VW(ETR: VOW3)€154
Orix(JP: 8591)¥1,601
NEC(JP: 6701)¥5,590
Barclays(LSE: BARC)145.5p
Rio Tinto(LSE: RIO)5,605p
Monks(LSE: MNKS)1,132p
Mid Wynd(LSE: MWY)700p
Worldwide Healthcare Trust(LSE: WWH)3,710p
Polar Capital Global Healthcare(LSE: PCGH)240p
BB Healthcare Trust(LSE: BBH)176.5p
Polar Capital Global Insurancen/aRow 16 - Cell 2
Schroder UK Public Private Trust(LSE: SUPP)26.5p
Sanofi(Paris: SAN)€78
Roche(Zurich: RO)€310
GlaxoSmithKline(LSE: GSK)1,364p
Astellas(JP: 4503)¥1,540
Stock Spirits(LSE: STCK)256.5p
Diageo(LSE: DGE)2,938.5p
Brunner Investment Trust(LSE: BUT)834p
JP Morgan Emerging Markets(LSE: JMG)128p
BHP Billiton(LSE: BHP)1,975p
iShares Oil & Gas E&P(LSE: SPOG)806.75p
Alphamin Resources(TSE: AFM)C$0.34
Altus Strategies(Aim: ALS)55.5p
John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.