I have several pointers I use all the time when trying to judge how and when something financial is going to go wrong, fall over or implode. One of the biggest is national estate agency chains coming to market. Estate agent multiples always buy and sell at the wrong time. When they try to sell themselves to a bourse, you know it’s tits-up time.
The UK’s largest estate agency Countrywide is getting down to the short strokes for a stock market flotation by its US owner, indicating perhaps a vote of confidence in the recovery of the country’s housing market, or more likely a case of tertiary insanity. The American private equity group Oaktree Capital is having serious talks with Goldman Sachs and other suspects about launching an IPO for Countrywide, reckoned to have about 10% of the English domestic properties market.
I wish to encourage them in this venture, because as you know I’ve never liked Estate Agents that much.
Less eccentric (but equally useful in reading the runes) is the fact most Economists expect the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to reveal next Friday that the UK’s GDP contracted by around 0.22% in the three months to December. This will simply confirm that George Osborne’s optimism about the tax income/welfare balance is way off, and that once again the Conservatives have shown they can cut costs but are somewhat remiss when it comes to the creation of replacements for old business sectors. As in, they’ve done diddly-squat about it.
Once more the financial pages are talking about a ‘triple-dip recession’ which is of course a developing depression that would by now be in full swing had not £0.8 trillion of our money been needlessly thrown at pushing back the final waves.
But ignoring the familiar British beach feeling of damp, cold feet last felt significantly by King Canute, Britain’s fifth largest bank Santander is considering a £2bn purchase of struggling Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks because it wants to beef up High Street presence, and take advantage of their alleged strength in the business sector. It’s obviously the wrong time to be doing this, but rather more pertinent are the parental genes involved here: last May, the bright red high street bank saw an increase in panicky enquiries by worried savers. Customers were worried that the bank would be dragged into the eurozone crisis because it is owned by Spain’s Banco Santander.
This wasn’t idle concern: just a day or so earlier, Banco Santander, its UK subsidiary and 15 other Spanish banks had their credit ratings downgraded due to their exposure to the struggling Spanish economy. The reassuring balm, put out by Spanish treasury minister Inigo Fernandez de Mesa, about there being “little reason for concern as Spanish banks have plenty of liquidity” has since had the shine taken off it slightly by the growing realisation that Spanish banks are on a par with the Gobi desert when it comes to liquidity.
I have the same feeling about this today as I did five years ago about RBS and ABNAmro. It is a disaster waiting to happen.
Anyway, estate agents going to market, Chancellors being proved badly wrong, and hubris-fuelled banks trying to bite off more than they can chew. These are all ominous signs, and there’s no lack of others.
At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will all know finally and for sure that the ECB and the Fed have more debt than anything beyond mass money-printing can fix. Being smaller, the UK might escape notice at that point – although there is no logical reason why it should. Either way, the final clincher for this brief analysis of why belly-up is upon concerns the fact that everyone everywhere is carrying on as normal. When people are planning bullishly for the immediate future, the safety zone behind the sofa beckons.
Thus I see this morning that NHS hospitals are hiring agency nurses at rates of up to £1,800 a day, HMV’s administrators are hopeful of rescuing the doomed chain, RBS, HSBC and Barclays have been lying about the cost of compensating businesses for their previous derivative scams….and so the bill has now doubled to £1.5bn, and last but not least, the big mobile phone companies – O2, EE, Orange, Vodafone and T-Mobile – have created a joint venture to cash in on the Big Bang about to take place in the market for mobile payments in Britain. The venture company will labour under the interesting brand name of Weve, also acting as a one-stop-shop offering services to advertisers.
This idea might well be the future in some areas (especially using phones to activate the coming explosion in automation) but it can’t possibly be the immediate future, for the simple reason that Vodafone and Orange are always wrong about everything. What all the above examples show is an expectation of normality – and from Vesuvius to Lehman Brothers via Hiroshima, all obliteration of normality is always preceded by the certainty of normality’s infinite omnipotence.
More detail tomorrow (hopefully) on how the elite is still bidding to avoid window-jumping, lamplight ropes, being hacked to death by Islamists in Africa, and a nuclear war in Asia.