Populism is on the march. The unexpected UK vote to leave the EU, rising support for right-wing politicians in several other European countries, and the surprisingly strong showing by politicians such as Donald Trump are starting to cause jitters amongst investors. Not least because several of these politicians and political movements support ideas that range from mildly damaging to economically illiterate, such as greater government intervention in business, criticism of central bankers and restrictions on immigration and protectionism. Despite increasing popular support for these unattractive ideas, equity markets have so far held up reasonably well, with the US market still trading near record levels. European markets have also snapped back from their post-Brexit vote blues, but is this stance complacent? And what are the potential investment implications of this populist movement?
Discontent with the status quo
First we should consider what is behind these votes and polls. Popular dissatisfaction with general economic development since the global financial crisis is palpable, caused by stagnation or falls in real disposable income for middle or lower earners. And discontent has been further sharpened by the realisation that almost all of the economic rewards go to a tiny elite. Mostly, these are the failings of globalism, which has delivered cheaper goods but also a deflationary impact on the bargaining power of semi-skilled and unskilled labour in developed countries, as products and services are moved offshore. But the key point is that this discontent is being directed at national governments, because of the belief that politicians can ‘do something’. More unscrupulous politicians have realised that they can exploit these discontents to further their careers, even if they have no clue how to solve the underlying problems. Remember how prominent Brexiteers in the UK promised that the UK could control immigration and retain full access to the single market – a false claim that was exposed fairly quickly after the vote.
Thankfully, no politician has the power to roll back the effects of globalism – otherwise someone might propose that we all buy locally made clothes or rear our own chickens. Perhaps that sounds like a lovely idea. But on a more serious note, there is still a risk that politicians could come up with increasingly outrageous ideas to try to appeal to voters and to make a difference in a low-growth world. The Brexit debate is a case in point. Is the UK really likely to be a more prosperous place if it becomes significantly less attractive to foreign investors?
The politics of pragmatism
So the key task is to identify politicians who might do real damage and to assess if they really will be in a position to do that damage. The resilience of markets in the face of Brexit and other factors is explained by the expectation (or hope) that relatively sensible people are likely to end up taking decisions, or that the most foolish ideas will not actually be enacted. In the case of the UK, the finance ministry is being run by the first man to have some actual business experience in at least a generation. And although much of the public rhetoric in the UK seems to be anti-business, a good part of this is probably pre-Brexit negotiation tactics aimed at securing a good deal. There is a difference between what politicians feel they need to say to justify their positions to discontented voters and what they are likely to enact in practice. It is also overlooked that the UK could well remain inside the European customs union – even if it leaves the single market.
If you work on the basis that the most extreme politicians will not get their hands on the controls and that mildly daft ones will be reined in by bureaucrats, then the current market view looks more realistic. There are risks that relatively sensible politicians could try and spend their way out of low growth, especially because we seem to be close to the limits of what central banks can do via quantitative easing (QE) and negative interest rates. But it is more likely that a few high-profile infrastructure projects or housing schemes will be announced (maximum publicity for the least money) and that much riskier ideas such as ‘helicopter money’ – an alternative to QE that could be anything from payments to citizens to monetising debt – will be avoided. Fears that the EU will fall apart because of Brexit also seem misplaced: history means that other European countries have a completely different view of the institution.
Why pay for nothing?
Back to investment. If you want to get a return on your capital, no-one likes the idea of paying to lend money to a company (thanks for the offer, Henkel and Sanofi, which have both offered debt at negative rates). This only makes sense if you think someone else will buy the debt for an even more negative return. So it seems that equities are one of the few places that can offer the potential of a real return. And within equities, there are some sensible steps to follow that can help to identify the types of company that should be able to ride out the next few years in a resilient way:
- Look for basic products and services (tyres, lubricant, shampoo, food)
- Look for recurring revenues or long-term contracts
- Don’t overpay for growth – it might disappoint!
- Find niche products with pricing power
- Avoid regulatory/tax risk
- Avoid dependence on a few products or countries
- Identify beneficiaries of low interest rates (infrastructure)
- Look for contractors with specialist infrastructure skills (tunnels, bridges)
- Locate ‘self-help’ stories
Although valuations in Europe are significantly higher than they were two years ago, it is still possible to find solid businesses capable of delivering a cash yield of 6–7% and with opportunities to grow. Unless the political situation really deteriorates, those prospects are some of the best available in a world where low growth and negative rates are likely to continue for some time to come.