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Lessons from an investment scandal

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Low interest rates have been a challenge for savers in much of Europe and the US ever since the financial crisis, tempting many to seek out investments that promise high returns. The natural desire to make money can blind investors to risk — or encourage them to put their savings into products that are not properly regulated by financial watchdogs. That challenge has only been compounded by the pandemic as central banks everywhere have rushed to keep borrowing rates low to keep their economies afloat. The concern is that, faced with the prospect of an extended period of ultra-low or even negative rates, millions more savers will plough their hard-earned capital into speculative schemes.

It is against this backdrop that a long-awaited report into the collapse of British savings company London Capital & Finance should be read. Its conclusions — in particular the revelation of gaping holes in the UK’s financial regulation network — are especially timely. Close to 12,000 consumers lost most of their £236m savings when LCF collapsed into administration in 2019. The company had sold high-risk, unregulated mini-bond investments that promised high rates of interest. Many of the buyers were elderly; some used their life savings to buy the bonds. 

The report of the inquiry, led by former judge Elizabeth Gloster, makes for uncomfortable reading for the financial watchdog, as well as for Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, who was chief executive of the regulator from 2016 until March this year. The inquiry found that the Financial Conduct Authority failed to “effectively supervise and regulate” LCF. The regulator, the report went on, failed to appreciate the significance of “an ever-growing number of red flags”. The report also expressed its “disappointment” at the attempts of certain individuals, including Mr Bailey, to deter the inquiry from singling out individuals. 

Consumers are entitled to expect and receive protection from the regulatory regime, in particular when they invest their own savings. Yet one of the most alarming conclusions to be drawn from the LCF report is that neither consumers nor even the regulator’s staff fully understood what is regulated by the FCA and therefore covered by compensation — and what is not. Companies that are authorised by the watchdog can offer unregulated investments.

The FCA has said it accepts all nine recommendations in the report. It is important that these are followed through. They include sensible proposals such as training staff to recognise fraud and irregularities, as well as ensuring that information and data relevant to the supervision of a firm is available on a single electronic system. The FCA should also not reassure consumers about the non-regulated activities of a firm based on its regulated status. 

Additional recommendations, however, about regulatory reform could have more far-reaching consequences. They will require careful consideration. Chief among these is that the Treasury should consider the “optimal scope of the FCA’s remit”, citing concerns over the broad scope of the watchdog’s responsibilities and the impact this has on its effectiveness.

Ultimately, regulation on its own cannot guarantee protection for consumers. One of the wider lessons from this scandal is the poor level of investment knowledge of many savers — and the importance of financial education. Against an uncertain economic backdrop as countries recover from the effects of the pandemic, understanding financial investment choices matters more than ever. 



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Vale chief rejects talk of iron ore supercycle

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Iron ore is not on the cusp of a new supercycle, according to the head of one the world’s biggest mining companies, who expects demand for the steelmaking ingredient to flatten out after a couple of years of the current tightness.

Eduardo Bartolomeo, chief executive of Brazil’s Vale, said the record surge in iron ore prices over the past year was very different to the boom of the early 2000s, which was driven by China’s rapid industrialisation. 

“In the last supercycle we had urbanisation in China. It was a structural change. A shock in demand,” he told the Financial Times. “We are not talking about a huge shock in demand now. I would say it is marginal. It is not a shock.”

But he added that, with big global economies revving up and iron producers running at or near capacity, prices could remain elevated until 2023.

“Although there is strong talk about cuts, production is still going up in China and now you have Europe coming back and the US announcing a huge stimulus package. There are also restrictions on supply,” he said. “This market is going to be tight for a while. At least two years.”

Iron ore has spearheaded a broad-based rally in commodities over the past year, rising more than 150 per cent to a record high above $230 a tonne last week, mainly on the back of strong demand from steel mills in China, before paring gains and hitting $209.35 on Friday.

As China’s steel production continues to expand analysts believe prices can remain around current levels but say the market will be highly volatile.

Iron ore’s turbocharged performance has been a boon for big producers including Vale, which require a price of only about $50 a tonne to break even.

It has fanned talk of a new commodities supercycle — a prolonged period where prices remain above their long-term trend, usually triggered by a structural boost to demand to which supply is slow to respond.

Following a deadly dam disaster two years ago that killed 270 people, mainly company employees and contractors, Vale was forced to curtail production.

Its output fell from a planned 400m tonnes a year to about 300m tonnes in 2019 and 2020, and the company lost its position as the world’s largest iron ore producer to Rio Tinto, which has managed to produce about 330m tonnes in each of the past two years.

Bartolomeo said Vale eventually needed to increase production to 400m tonnes because iron ore was a “high fixed-cost business”. However, he said the company would do so in a “very paced way”, mindful of safety.

Erik Hedborg, analyst at the CRU consultancy, said Vale’s journey to 400m tonnes would take time because it required the “restart of many mines, which will go through several complex licensing processes”.

Over the medium term — from 2025 to 2030 — Bartolomeo said Vale expected diminishing demand for iron ore from China because of increasing use of scrap in electric arc furnaces.

“Everybody talks about the circular economy. Scrap is going to come to China. It has to. We see it diminishing demand for iron ore from China.”

Bartolomeo said there would also be a shift to higher-quality iron ore as the steel industry sought to reduce emissions by moving to less polluting methods of steelmaking such as hydrogen-based production.

“All the roads lead to high-quality iron ore and Vale is very well positioned for that,” he added. 



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US banks could cut 200,000 jobs over next decade, top analyst says

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US banks stand to shed 200,000 jobs, or 10 per cent of employees, over the next decade as they manoeuvre to increase profitability in the face of changing customer behaviour, according to a banking analyst. 

“This will be the biggest reduction in US bank headcount in history,” Wells Fargo analyst Mike Mayo told the Financial Times. If his forecast bears out, this year would mark an inflection point for the US banking sector, where the number of jobs has remained roughly flat at 2m for the past decade.

The jobs most at risk are those in branches and call centres as banks prune their sprawling networks to match the new realities of post-pandemic banking, Mayo’s report found. That is consistent with Department of Labor statistics that predict a 15 per cent decline in bank teller jobs over the next decade.

Historically, lay-offs, particularly for lower-paying jobs, have been a contentious issue for the banking industry, which is often held up by progressive politicians as an example of a wealthy industry prioritising profits over people.

But the threat of technology companies and non-bank lenders chipping away at the business of payments and lending, which have traditionally been dominated by banks, has intensified over the past year, making job cuts necessary, Mayo said.

“Banks must become more productive to remain relevant. And that means more computers and less people,” he said.

Most of the reductions can be achieved through attrition over the next 10 years rather than cuts, reducing the risk of a backlash, Mayo said.

The new research, reported first by the FT, comes on the heels of disappointing jobs data that showed the US economy added just 266,000 jobs last month, sharply missing estimates of 1m. Structural elements of unemployment like accelerated automation that took place during the pandemic could pose stronger than anticipated headwinds to a recovery in the labour, economic officials said following the report. 

Pandemic activity pushed headcount up roughly 2 per cent last year as banks hired staff to meet the sudden demand for labour-intensive mortgages and government-backed small-business loans. But that trend is likely to be reversed in the near-term as lenders refocus on efficiency to compete more effectively with technology companies that increased their share of business during the health crisis. 

Increased competition from unregulated companies such as PayPal and Amazon entering financial services was one of the principal concerns JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon outlined in his annual letter to shareholders last month. 

Mayo estimates that banks currently represent just a third of the overall financing market.

“Digitisation accelerated and that played to the strength of some fintech and other tech providers,” Mayo said. 

Many of the bank branches that were closed during the pandemic will probably stay that way, and even those that remain open are likely to be more lightly staffed as branches become more focused on providing advice than facilitating transactions. A large amount of back-office roles also stand to be automated but those numbers are harder to quantify, the report said. 

Mayo said his team 20 years ago was twice as large and responsible for half as much. Doing more with less was the new norm across the industry.

“If I was giving advice to my kids, I’d say you probably don’t want to go into the financial industry,” Mayo said, adding that technology and customer or client-facing roles are probably the only areas that will see growth. “It’s likely to be a shrinking industry.”



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Inflation wild card unsettles markets

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Regime changes usually take a while to fully register among investors. The big talking point in markets at the moment surrounds the potential return of a more troublesome level of consumer price inflation and what protective action investors should take.

The underlying trend of inflation matters a great deal for financial markets and investor returns. The rise in both equity and bond prices in recent decades has occurred during a long period of subsiding inflation pressure and from recent efforts by central banks to arrest disinflationary shocks since the financial crisis. 

A year after the global economy abruptly shut down, activity is duly picking up speed. The logical outcome has been a surge in readings of inflation and this week, a measure of US core prices recorded its largest annual gain since 1996, running at a pace of 3 per cent*.

Core readings exclude food and energy prices and are deemed a smoother gauge of underlying inflation pressure, a point that many people outside finance find baffling when budgeting the cost of groceries and petrol.

So the significant jump in the core measure, and even accounting for the base effect of the pandemic’s brief deflationary shock a year ago, has understandably generated plenty of noise.

This will remain loud in the months ahead as activity recovers from lockdowns with a hefty tailwind of fiscal stimulus working its way through the broad economy.

But muddying the waters for investors is that the outlook for inflation is still difficult to judge at this stage.

“There is so much dislocation in the economy from the reopening and base effects from a year ago that it will take at least six to 12 months before we get a clear view of the underlying inflation trend,” said Jason Bloom, head of fixed income and alternatives ETF strategies at Invesco.

Investors who are now worried about an inflation shock face a dilemma. Some assets seen as traditional hedges against such a risk, like inflation-protected bonds and commodities, have already risen appreciably. Effectively a period of inflation running hot has been priced in to some degree.

And history does provide a cautionary note for those moving late to buy expensive inflation protection.

Past inflationary alarms, as economies recovered in the wake of the dotcom bust in the early 2000s and the financial crisis of 2008, proved false dawns. After a mercifully brief pandemic recession, the powerful and well entrenched disinflationary trends of ageing populations and falling costs associated with technological innovation are by no means in retreat.

For such reasons, a number of investors and the US Federal Reserve expect inflationary pressure this year will prove “transitory”. But stacked against deflationary forces is the immense scale of the monetary and fiscal stimulus of the past year.

The effects of monetary and fiscal stimulus means “inflation may settle into a pace of 2.5 per cent (annualised) and that would be different from the average of 1.5 per cent before the pandemic”, said Jason Pride, chief investment officer of private wealth at Glenmede Investment Management. “Inflation will be higher. At a dangerous level? No.”

In an environment of firmer growth and moderate inflation pressure, equities will benefit, led by companies that have earnings more influenced by the economic cycle. Investors also will seek companies that have the ability to pass on higher prices to customers in the near term and offset a squeeze on profit margins.

Still, a troublesome period of elevated inflation cannot be easily dismissed. The “transitory” argument could be challenged if economic growth continues to run hot into next year, accompanied by a trend of higher wages from companies finding it hard to attract workers.

Before reaching that point, expected inflation priced into the bond market may well push past the peaks of the past two decades and enter uncharted territory in the US and also for other developed markets in the UK and Europe.

Bond market forecasts of future inflation pressure over the next five to 10 years have already risen sharply in recent months. But the rebound is from a low level and for now, expected inflation is not far beyond the Fed’s long-term target of 2 per cent.

“It is the change in inflation expectations that drives asset returns,” said Nicholas Johnson, portfolio manager of commodities at Pimco. Assessing almost 50 years of data, a portfolio holding equities and bonds underperforms during bouts of elevated inflation, while real assets including inflation-linked bonds and commodities prosper, according to the asset manager.

“Most investors have not experienced a period where inflation surprised to the upside,” added Johnson. Clients are asking more questions about insulating their portfolios, but their present exposure to commodities and other assets show that in broad terms investors are “not paying much of an inflation premium”.

That can change and the prospect of inflation regime change remains a wild card for investors.

michael.mackenzie@ft.com

*The value of core inflation has been changed since first publication.



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