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Bank of England’s climate mandate has global resonance

Bank of England’s climate mandate has global resonance
Bank of England’s climate mandate has global resonance

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With the days growing longer, the brutal winter temperatures starting to abate and vaccination rates ticking upwards, change is in the air here in New York. For the first time in a while it is becoming easier to feel more optimistic about the future.

There is also cause for hope for sustainable investing advocates. After years of sidestepping the issue, the US Securities and Exchange Commission is charging ahead with a plan to put environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosures under the microscope. And in the UK, the new Budget laid some important groundwork to help Boris Johnson turn the City of London into a hub of green finance. Read on for more. (Billy Nauman)

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Green bond news in Sunak’s red box

Boris Johnson has been keen to paint the UK as a sustainable finance leader as the UK prime minister looks to set an example before hosting November’s COP26 climate summit. He also needs to convince the world that the City of London can remain a major financial hub post-Brexit.

This week’s Budget saw the UK double down on that ambition, with two big green announcements in chancellor Rishi Sunak’s red box.

First, the Bank of England’s mandate is being updated to include the fight against climate change, which means it will start buying green bonds and purging its books of bonds that fund big polluters.

And second, the UK plans to issue £15bn of green bonds this year.

Climate activists were unimpressed, criticising the plans for a lack of specificity and urgency. Their scepticism is warranted: full details of the green bond offering are not expected until June, and the Bank plans to change its approach to corporate bond buying “before its next scheduled round of investments, in the fourth quarter of the year”.

In any case, the UK has been rather slow to join the green bond market, reports the FT’s Joshua Oliver. “Poland issued the first such bond in 2016, while France made its debut in 2017.” Germany launched €11.5bn worth of green Bunds last year.

However, it is still worth noting the importance of the UK’s plan. The £12bn to be raised through the green gilt offering may not meet activists’ expectations, but it will help fund the 10-point climate plan Johnson set out last year.

And it is impossible to ignore the symbolic significance of the BoE becoming the first major central bank to make climate change an official part of its mission.

This move builds on the climate work done by former BoE governor Mark Carney and could serve as a model for other central bank members of the Network for Greening the Financial System.

Karen Ward, JPMorgan Asset Management’s chief market strategist, told the FT that investors “should not underestimate” the reform’s potential impact on sustainable investing.

“This could tilt the preference of the central bank’s asset purchases and involve considerable regulatory change to encourage private capital to do likewise,” she said. (Billy Nauman)

US watchdog seeks greenwashing whistleblowers

The US Securities and Exchange Commission has created an enforcement unit to hunt for possible misconduct in companies’ climate risk and ESG disclosures — an unprecedented move that suggests there might be abuses that have gone unaddressed.

The unit will focus on misstatements or vagueness in companies’ climate change risk disclosures under existing rules, the agency said on Thursday. The agency will also be investigating investment advisers and funds’ ESG strategies, and encouraging tipsters to bring information about potential climate or ESG misconduct to its whistleblower office.

ESG became an SEC examination issue for investment advisers for the first time last year. But now, with a dedicated enforcement task force, “it shows the regulator means business”, Doug Davison, a partner at Linklaters, told Moral Money.

Although a “message” is all bark and no bite, companies must take the SEC’s action seriously. Lazy disclosures can no longer be tolerated. (Remember Billy Nauman’s 2019 article about Vanguard’s “green” funds?).

“It is particularly interesting that the SEC’s alert is calling out reviewing proxy voting policies and records as well here,” said George Raine, a partner at Ropes & Gray. “Asset managers with ESG-oriented products will want to review their advertising and other documentation.”

The announcement also brings the US into line with Europe. Esma in February 2020 announced a new strategy to combat greenwashing. Moral Money will keep hunting for greenwashing and developments from the SEC’s new task force. Watch this space. (Patrick Temple-West)

FedEx looks to Yale to help deliver net-zero package

© Bloomberg

As we wrote recently, there are reasons to look warily on many companies’ pledges to cut their emissions to “net zero” by some distant date, and few such announcements stand out from the crowd at this point. But one of them is FedEx, which this week not only set a 2040 goal for making its operations carbon-neutral but detailed $2bn of planned investments to hit it.

Most interestingly, $100m of that sum will go to fund a new “centre for natural carbon capture” at Yale University. It is a revealing reminder that, for many companies, the scientific advances required to reach their net-zero aspirations simply haven’t been developed yet. 

FedEx’s 200,000 delivery trucks are not the problem, chief executive Fred Smith tells Moral Money: falling battery costs and initiatives such as its recent partnership with GM have put it on track to convert that fleet to electric vehicles by 2040 while yielding a return on its investment. 

The problem is that FedEx also operates the world’s largest cargo airline, and sustainable aviation fuels still cost 5-7 times what jet fuel does, making them “absolutely non economic”, he said. The airline could have offset its emissions, but Smith likened the buying of carbon credits to the trade in papal indulgences. “A lot of these offsets and carbon credits have been one step from being a sham.”

So FedEx concluded (despite some NGOs’ scepticism about carbon sequestration) that sequestration was its best hope of cutting its net emissions and Smith, a Yale alumnus, knew the university had a strong record in environmental areas including carbon pricing. 

Ingrid Burke, dean of the Yale School of the Environment, tells Moral Money the funding will accelerate research into questions including how to make forests grow faster and how to store CO2 in carbonate rocks or turn it into building materials and fuels. 

Yale president Peter Salovey says such corporate funding is essential because federal funds for such “high risk, high reward” research have become “very, very hard to get”. He expects to see more such partnerships in the coming years.

As for FedEx, Smith points out that it hopes the investment will pay for itself by cutting its fossil-fuel bill substantially. “This is not from a FedEx standpoint a virtuous signal,” he notes. (Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson and Gillian Tett)

Antimicrobial resistance emerges as ESG concern

© Bloomberg

In December, the FT hosted a discussion on antimicrobial resistance, noting that while there have been advances in combating the problem, urgent action is needed to develop new drugs. It is troubling, if not surprising, that coronavirus has diverted attention from this crisis. 

Big investors started raising concerns late last year and are pressuring companies to make changes.

On Wednesday, Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell and other fast-food chains, agreed to publish a report on the systemic effects of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in its supply chain by the end of the year. Yum is the first company to disclose this information, said the Shareholder Commons, a US non-profit that files shareholder resolutions. The organisation withdrew a petition at Yum as a result of the company’s announcement.

The agreement requires that Yum disclose its findings about how antibiotic use in animal husbandry threatens global health and shareholder interests. The report should also discuss optimal scenarios for the food industry to eliminate or internalise antimicrobial costs and describe how lobbying and political expenditures affect the realisation of those scenarios.

Yum “recognises the need to limit the use of antimicrobials in order to preserve their efficacy”, said Rick Alexander, chief executive of the Shareholder Commons. Now he hopes to convince McDonald’s to consider a similar pledge. (Patrick Temple-West)

Grit in the oyster

This week, the short sellers at Hindenburg Research took aim at another green company.

The group’s report last year on electric truckmaker Nikola led to the departure of its CEO and an inquiry from the US justice department. On Monday it levelled a series of accusations at Ormat, a NYSE-traded US geothermal power company.

Ormat denied the allegations, and pointed out that, as a short seller, Hindenburg stood to profit from a drop in its share price. But shortly after Hindenburg made its case, Ormat’s chief compliance officer and a board member (who were both named in the report) stepped down.

So far, it looks like investors have not quite worked out what to make of Hindenburg’s findings. Ormat’s stock was already headed downward after its latest earnings report and stayed pretty flat the day the report came out. But regardless of how this story shakes out, it is a good reminder for responsible investors to take a close look at their holdings and not automatically assume all “green” companies are immune to hostile scrutiny.

Smart reads

  • “The ESG stock frenzy of today, however egregious, may yet translate into a better tomorrow,” writes the FT’s John Thornhill. ESG could well be in bubble territory, he says: “Financial markets have bet on a greener future and begun funding the technologies needed to bring it to life. But, just as in previous technological revolutions, politicians must now play their part in shaping a productive result.”

Further reading

  • The Old Lady turns green (FT Alphaville)

  • What we learned from ExxonMobil’s investor day (FT Energy Source)

  • Italy raises €8.5bn in Europe’s biggest-ever green bond debut (FT)

  • Google’s approach to historically Black schools helps explain why there are few Black engineers in Big Tech (Washington Post)

  • Dai-ichi Life targets 30% cut in portfolio CO2 emissions by 2025 (Nikkei)

  • Everyone Sees ESG Investing Differently, But They All Want to Buy (WSJ)

  • ESG investments surged in Asia-Pacific in 2020 as sustainable investing takes off, MSCI survey finds (CNBC)

  • Biden climate envoy John Kerry talking to banks, asset managers about mobilising capital for clean energy (CNBC)

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Volvo Cars posts record results as sector bounces back from Covid slump

Volvo Cars posts record results as sector bounces back from Covid slump
Volvo Cars posts record results as sector bounces back from Covid slump

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Volvo Car AB updates

Volvo Cars posted its best-ever first-half results despite the shortage in semiconductors, as the automotive industry rebounded from last year’s pandemic slump.

A quarter of the vehicles sold by the Geely-owned group were chargeable in the first six months of this year, putting it on track to become a fully electric car company by 2030. This was the highest proportion of total sales among traditional carmakers, the company said.

The group made operating income of SKr13bn ($3.6bn) in the six months to June, reversing last year’s first-half loss, on revenues that rose 26 per cent year on year to SKr141bn due to strong demand.

Compared with the first six months of 2019, the number of cars sold rose 12 per cent to a record 380,757, taking its rolling 12-month total close to 800,000.

Hakan Samuelsson, chief executive of Volvo Cars, predicted that the semiconductor shortage would hold back growth in the remainder of the year and spill over into 2022.

“Unless supply of semiconductors improves, we expect flat sales and revenue growth for the second half year compared with the same period last year, despite strong customer demand,” he said.

The company said it was still evaluating the possibility of an initial public offering in Stockholm this year, which was first announced in May.

Two days earlier, it agreed with Geely that it would buy its parent’s stake in the companies’ joint ventures in China, allowing it to take full ownership of factories and sales operations in the country and potentially boosting the price if the company floats.

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Ex-chair of world’s biggest pension fund sounds caution on ESG

Ex-chair of world’s biggest pension fund sounds caution on ESG
Ex-chair of world’s biggest pension fund sounds caution on ESG

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Government Pension Investment Fund Japan updates

The ex-chair of the board of the world’s largest pension fund, who oversaw its $1.7tn portfolio as it became a pioneer of responsible investment, has warned the institution to remember its core duty to Japanese pensioners: returns.

“The GPIF [Government Pension Investment Fund] must always go back to its investment purpose,” says Eiji Hirano, who stood down from the job three months ago. His comments reflect concerns that too great a focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards can add risk, including a possible collision between the law and the investment philosophy under the GPIF’s previous regime. 

According to the law under which the GPIF operates, it must invest with the sole purpose of benefiting Japanese citizens through the returns generated. And Hirano says GPIF is well aware of that obligation — emphasising that he does not think it has strayed from that principle since he left. 

But he adds: “There is always a potential danger that GPIF money is misused,” stressing that the fund’s board should now be especially determined to act as a guardian against that.

Though carefully framed, Hirano’s comments highlight increasingly urgent questions over the future direction of the GPIF since the departure in March 2020 of its charismatic chief investment officer Hiromichi Mizuno. He was replaced by the more reclusive and media-shy Eiji Ueda, a former Goldman Sachs bond trader.

The Mizuno revolution

During Mizuno’s five-year tenure, he sought to turn the once sleepy-looking GPIF into a global symbol of more modern Japanese thinking. His time there roughly coincided with the arrival of Japan’s stewardship and governance codes. These new guidelines were designed not only to precipitate practical changes in corporate Japan, but also to reinforce the idea that the country’s equity market was tackling some of the problems that had tarnished its reputation among both foreign and domestic investors.

Despite strict constraints on how the fund can operate — for example, it is unable to hold individual stocks and therefore cannot directly vote on companies’ policies — Mizuno was able to use the GPIF’s choice of external fund managers to project a tough stance on governance shortcomings at Japanese companies. 

Charismatic: Hiromichi Mizuno championed ESG principles during his tenure as chief investment officer
Charismatic: Hiromichi Mizuno championed ESG principles during his tenure as chief investment officer © Reuters

While this was happening, the GPIF pressed ahead with a historic — and still internally controversial — rebalancing away from government debt and towards stocks. It now splits its investment roughly equally between domestic and foreign bonds and domestic and foreign equities. These weightings will be revised again in 2025, and there is already speculation that the fund’s exposure to domestic Japanese equities may be reduced then.

But arguably Mizuno’s boldest achievement, which he proselytised about at Davos and other global financial forums, was yoking the GPIF name to the then fledgling theme of ESG investing. The campaign included what Mizuno himself described as the “epochal” decision to mandate index-compilers FTSE and MSCI to create ESG indices for the GPIF. It sent the message that the GPIF under his stewardship would regard ESG factors as financially relevant.

That, says Hirano, is one key area where debate is now focused. While there is increasing evidence that some aspects of ESG-themed strategies boost returns in the long term, he thinks many ESG proponents, including Mizuno, rely on the argument that it is “common sense” that this will be the case across the board.

But not all agree that the non-financial outcomes being pushed via ESG investment translate directly into the financial outcomes the GPIF is legally obliged to prioritise.

Shorters v stewards

A significant clash came in late 2019 when Mizuno announced that the GPIF would stop lending its global equity stocks to short sellers — who bet on share price falls. Although the move was controversial, prompting fierce debate within the fund because of the forgone revenues, Mizuno — who last year joined the board of Tesla, the carmaker led by outspoken anti-shorter Elon Musk — argued that the practice was antithetical to ESG principles. 

“I never met a short seller who has a long-term perspective,” Mizuno told the Financial Times then, adding that he felt comfortable with the decision because it represented a choice between making cash immediately or being “better stewards for our constituency”.

Mizuno is also proud of adding two new concepts to the lexicon of ESG fund management: universal ownership and the cross-generational investor.

He explained to reporters earlier this year that the GPIF is so big that it essentially owns the whole investable “universe”, which means its focus should be “making the whole market better” rather than attempting the mathematically difficult feat of beating the market.

More stories from this report

As for the cross-generational investor, Mizuno said the idea is necessary to emphasise the long-term nature of ESG strategies.

Hirano, however, sounds a cautious note in his conversation with the FT. While agreeing that it is important to correct the market bias towards short-termism, he points to several outstanding concerns about the ESG narrative. These include the lack of a common evaluation system and a tendency to stress the environmental over the governance part of ESG.

He also admits to feeling uneasy about the large number of chief executives who emphasise the importance of ESG principles or the UN’s sustainable development goals.

The focus may be right, he says, but delivery depends on the still unproven determination and perseverance of all those leaders.

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Corporate Japan gets serious about ESG

Corporate Japan gets serious about ESG
Corporate Japan gets serious about ESG

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For Hitachi, the appointment of its first chief environment officer in April meant closing a critical gap in its sustainability efforts. 

In recent years, the Japanese industrial group has undergone a radical makeover. It withdrew from its thermal power business, spent $6.4bn to buy Swiss-Swedish engineering group ABB’s electricity grid assets, and strengthened its global presence in railways.

Hitachi’s business mix has also left it better placed to seize new opportunities arising from climate change disruptions — more so than at any point in the group’s 111-year history. 

Yet Alistair Dormer — whose April appointment means he now leads Hitachi’s environmental initiatives as well as its mobility business — says a tangible commitment by senior management to meet sustainability targets had still been missing. 

“We were working on this for five years or so but it was almost being done in a corner of Tokyo,” Dormer explains. “We had senior-level sponsorship for sure, but who was worrying about it on a day-to-day basis and making it happen? That’s my job.”

Road maps required

Accountability is a common challenge for Japanese companies. With prime minister Yoshihide Suga pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, many companies have followed suit by setting long-term targets in addition to any existing sustainability goals. Honda, for example, wants to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040.

But few companies provide a detailed road map showing how they will go about achieving these ambitions.

“As a first step, it’s extremely important to present a target,” says Norichika Kanie, an expert on sustainable development at Keio University. “The next phase is making sure that real action is being taken. It is true, though, that more companies are now aware that efforts in sustainability lead to actual business success.”

At Hitachi, Dormer has led efforts to introduce a remuneration scheme for heads of business units that will tie annual bonus payments to hitting carbon emission targets. He also persuaded chief executive Toshiaki Higashihara to sponsor the COP26 climate change summit in the UK later this year. 

“We need to be creative in how seriously executives engage with targets that are far into the future,” says Keiji Kojima, Hitachi’s newly appointed president. “It’s hard to take it forward when you’re thinking that you can leave it to the next generation. That’s why we made sure that everyone does their job thinking about the environment on a day-to-day basis.”

While measures to incorporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics in annual executive pay are widespread in the US and Europe, Japanese companies are only now starting to introduce them. Entertainment group Sony and cosmetics business Shiseido are among those taking a lead.

A survey conducted by consultancy Willis Towers Watson last year suggested that 15 per cent of Japan’s top 100 companies by market capitalisation had such schemes in place. However, analysts estimate that the proportion is less than 5 per cent for the 2,000 or so companies listed within the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s first section.

That compares with 52 per cent of S&P 500 companies and 63 per cent of companies listed on the main European indices, according to the Willis Towers Watson research. Meanwhile, initiatives to link ESG to long-term incentives are far less common, both in Japan and elsewhere. 

Takaaki Kushige, a senior director at Willis Towers Watson, says one reason for Japan’s tardiness in linking ESG to executive pay is that many businesses have governance structures that are not sophisticated enough. This, in turn, means they lack the kind of independent remuneration committees that can fairly assess ESG metrics, which are more complex than stock price and other financial indicators.

Cleaner and greener

Still, companies are increasingly keen to ensure that senior managers hit sustainability targets, as investments to cut carbon emissions become critically important in sectors that were built around fossil fuels. 

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, for example, is seeking to reinvent itself in clean energy as it tries to shift away from businesses such as coal power stations and shipbuilding. One key technology it is investing in is carbon capture, which was recently chosen by Drax, the FTSE 250 power company, for use at its main site in northern England to achieve “negative emissions”

“The market [for carbon capture] does not exist yet, but if we wait for the market to be built, we won’t be able to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050,” says Makoto Susaki, head of MHI’s carbon capture, utilisation and storage business task force. “It’s very tough for us [financially] in the near term but we have to continue these efforts towards 2050.” 

Even as companies scramble to raise their environmental game, pressure is growing to address other ESG concerns.

Executives say the challenge is even greater with social issues such as labour practices. Already, the supply chains of businesses ranging from Fast Retailing, owner of Uniqlo, to electronics group Panasonic have come under scrutiny.

Joji Tagawa, Nissan’s chief sustainability officer, says that, since his appointment in 2019, the carmaker’s management has strengthened its focus on human rights, alongside efforts to reduce carbon emissions and maximise recycling.

Last month, Nissan released global guidelines on human rights, which emphasised its opposition to forced and child labour and promised protection to whistleblowers. In recent years, campaigners have highlighted the dependence of electric vehicle makers such as Nissan on cobalt, some of which is mined in exploitative conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The focus on human rights and sustainability has been increasing more than regular companies had anticipated,” Tagawa says.

“We are not perfect but we are working on it extensively.” 

 

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The game is still wide open

The game is still wide open
The game is still wide open

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This year in markets cannot so far match the drama of 2020 — even in the wake of this week’s gyrations. As a test case of how fast risky asset prices can collapse and of the awe-inspiring power of central banks to drag them back up, last year was hard to beat.

But 2021 has provided its fair share of challenges both to professional fund managers and to the somewhat less serious pursuit that is the annual Financial Times stockpicking competition. Six months into this battle of cunning, wit and good old-fashioned luck, it is time to see how FT hacks and 700 or so of our considerably wiser readers are shaping up.

Now in its fifth year, the stockpicking contest is a simple fantasy exercise of selecting five stocks from the UK or US markets, and opting to go long (buy) or short (sell). Our data team — the real brains behind the entire FT operation — track how those shares perform over the course of the year, average them out, and use that to produce rankings of the make-believe portfolio managers.

For the sake of simplicity, the process ignores the effect of currency movements and dividend payments. Rather it is a blunt exercise: who picked stocks that went up, and who picked duds?

How readers’ stock market predictions are faring % of readers who bet the share price will fall/increase in 2021  and  Change in share price  return Feb 1-Jun 30 (%)

FT journalists were also invited — harassed even — to take part. Hacks operated under slightly different rules for internal reasons. But before you cry foul, do not assume the sages of Bracken House have outperformed external contestants.

At the end of the year, external winners are due, pandemic willing, to be rewarded with a tour of the FT offices near St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The true prize, however, is bragging rights, particularly in the (likely) event that the winner triumphs over the puny guesses of the FT insiders.

What market environment have contestants been dealing with?

Despite a generally more sedate start to this year than last, the dangers of running a concentrated portfolio — as this fictional exercise with just five stocks demands — have already been illustrated in style.

In March, Bill Hwang discovered the hard way that a tight focus on a small group of shares — in his case wrapped up in high-voltage derivatives — can leave you wiped out. The implosion of Archegos, his private investment group, was spectacular enough to bite multibillion dollar chunks out of his banks. Any contestant who avoids that fate will effectively beat an alumnus of Tiger Management, one of the best-respected hedge fund groups in history.

Stock pickers have also pitted their wits against a new and powerful force in US markets: retail traders. At the start of this year, have-a-go amateur traders jumped into previously unloved US stocks such as consoles retailer GameStop and cinema chain AMC Entertainment, with dramatic results.

So-called meme stocks, popularised online with coarse but often irresistibly funny jokes, ripped higher in late January, delivering a victory to the amateurs over a number of hedge funds that had been betting the other way. One hedge fund, Melvin Capital, was famously pushed into a bailout.

Line chart of Share price ($) showing AMC

The starting gun for this stockpicking contest was February 1. Since then, meme stocks have experienced wildly different fortunes. By extension, contestants jumping into the craze have too.

The bond market has provided the bulk of the market drama, with government debt sliding in price in the first quarter of the year on nerves about sweeping inflation, pulling so-called value stocks higher, before steadying.

But broadly, this has been a supportive environment for our plucky punters. The global vaccine rollout and chipping away of lockdowns generated an 11 per cent rally in the MSCI Global index of stocks from the start of February to the end of June, the period captured by the performance figures here. US indices crept slowly but determinedly to record high after record high, with only this week’s wobble later breaking the rhythm.

What were the popular stock picks among readers?

By a long distance, the most popular bet was Tesla, the electric vehicle maker run by the mercurial Elon Musk. Over one-third of contestants picked it for their portfolio; 28 per cent were short.

Betting against Tesla stocks has been a fool’s errand for several years. Many investors, professional and otherwise, are uneasy about Musk’s unpredictable nature and awkward relationship with securities regulators. Many doubt that Tesla can keep up with demand and believe that other carmakers will catch up. All of that may be fair, but the more than 1,000 per cent ascent in Tesla’s share price since 2019 is hard to dispute.

Nonetheless, the hive mind of stockpicking contestants has wagered that this time is different. The rationale: after a more than 600 per cent rally since early 2020, shares appear ripe for a drop, especially as Musk devotes more energy to what he describes as the “hustle” of dogecoin, the cryptocurrency designed as a joke.

“The price has simply gone too high,” reader Stephen Pavey told us in explaining his decision to bet against the company. “The valuation of Tesla is bonkers,” said StJohn Brown in East Grinstead. “Way overvalued, not much else to say,” agreed Will Francis in Birmingham.

Line chart of Share price ($) showing Tesla

The strategy has shown promise in the opening months of the contest. From February 1, when we started the clock, to the end of June, Tesla shorts delivered a return of 19 per cent.

Large numbers of contestants have also bravely taken on the new armies of US retail traders. 

After Tesla shorts, bets against GameStop — the original meme stock that found itself at the centre of a firestorm of retail buying in late January — are the second most popular pick of the competition. Nearly 18 per cent of contestants placed bets against the company, while just 1 per cent were long.

Among the shorts was Anthony Stamp from Bethnal Green in east London, who wagered that the retail trading frenzy at the start of this year would “burn itself out”.

“The possibility that GameStop is worth a fraction of its currently pumped-up valuation seems a lot higher than my chances of predicting the next tech unicorn or vaccine manufacturer,” he noted. Wise words.

The shorts have won the day so far, with a return of nearly 5 per cent. Before declaring victory over the real-life GameStop true believers, it is worth noting that shares are still a whacking 850 per cent above where they started the calendar year. 

But the real kingmaker or widow-maker trade so far this year is fellow meme stock AMC. Nearly 4 per cent of all bets among readers were shorts on the company. In fact, the shares have gained around 300 per cent as the company succeeded in pulling itself back from the brink of bankruptcy. Four of the five contestants leading at this point were brave, lucky or skillful enough to back the stock.

Ayodeji Awolaja from Guildford is one of them, ranking a spectacular third in the competition so far, thanks in no small part to a positive bet on AMC stemming from the poetic and shrewd observation that “cinema will not die”.

The 25 worst performers in the competition so far, however, were all short.

Line chart of Share price ($) showing GameStop

One of them, Brian Mullens in Chicago, called GameStop right, but said AMC was “fundamentally and dramatically overvalued” and heading for a “precipitous decline”. Not yet, Brian, sorry.

Popular longs are largely clustered on the so-called reopening trade — stocks likely to do well as the world emerged from enforced hibernation. Airline EasyJet, travel accommodation group Airbnb and cruise operator Carnival all ranked among the most frequent picks. Performance has been mixed; EasyJet longs were up 19 per cent, and Carnival was up by a tasty 42 per cent at competition half-way cut-off time (it is now, dramatically, almost flat on the calendar year — you need good sea legs to stomach the waves of cruise stocks, it seems), while Airbnb was down 15 per cent.

Our contestants have not given up on the lockdown heroes — stocks that rocketed higher during global lockdowns while we were all stuck at home. Apple, one of the most popular longs, has gained 2 per cent since the close of February 1, while Amazon has gained 3 per cent. 

Who is top of the pops among readers at the halfway point?

Take a bow Jonathan Northfield from London, whose average return of — wait for it — 213 per cent is many multiples beyond what the finest hedge funds have achieved this year. The average equity hedge fund placing positive and negative bets on stocks is up by around 13 per cent so far in 2021.

How has he done it? The Tesla short was deliberate. But dedicated investment professionals who spend hours poring over earnings reports and scouring smart data for tips will be excited to hear the rest of the portfolio selection was, he says, “random”. 

Most of the gains came from a long bet on Moxian, a Nasdaq-listed Chinese technology company involved in online gaming and retail that has never even been mentioned in the FT before, judging from an online search. That stock is up by 1,159 per cent. Even a disastrous bet against MV Oil Trust, whose stock has more than doubled, has not been enough to blow him off course.

Shorts on cinema chain AMC Entertainment have proved disastrous. The shares have gained around 300 per cent as the company succeeded in pulling itself back from the brink of bankruptcy
Shorts on cinema chain AMC Entertainment have proved disastrous. The shares have gained around 300 per cent as the company succeeded in pulling itself back from the brink of bankruptcy © TNS/ABACA/Reuters

Second-placed Zhiwei Xiao, from Chongqing in China, is thus far sitting on an average return of over 100 per cent, flying high on gains by AMC and Tetra Technologies, an oil and gas services company that joined the Russell 3000 index this year after what the chief executive described as a “significant increase in our market capitalisation”. 

Tesla shorts have helped to support the performance of a number of contestants with portfolio returns clustered around 20 per cent — a highly respectable job.

How are the FT journalists doing?

For practical reasons, the FT hacks’ entries were compiled using a different system that permitted them to choose any stock in the world, not just those in the US and UK. But, as in previous contests, they continue to trail behind the readers when it comes to market predictions.

The truly terrible performances are, once again, dominated by bets against AMC. 

Dan McCrum, the prize-winning FT journalist whose forensic and thrilling reporting on the Wirecard fraud has rightly earned him the respect of peers and readers alike, was just one of the hacks to bomb with this bet. Despite decent performances in his shorts on Tesla and Nikola, other shorts on Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and on AMC proved disastrous.

His average return of minus 60 per cent places him at the bottom of the pile, and also makes him one of the worst contestants in the whole competition, inside or outside the FT. I guess you can’t win them all, although McCrum, who is so far laughing off this humbling performance, does have time to turn it around.

Our leisure industries reporter Alice Hancock is also nursing a 58 per cent loss, again thanks largely to AMC, as is Miles Johnson, our man in Rome, who won the contest among FT journalists in the previous two years. The second half of 2021 will have to deliver something stunning to get him back on track to reclaim his crown.

Johnson cited a well-known financial adage to describe his position: “Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”

GameStop — the original meme stock that found itself at the centre of a firestorm of retail buying in late January — is the second most popular pick of the competition after Tesla
GameStop — the original meme stock that found itself at the centre of a firestorm of retail buying in late January — is the second most popular pick of the competition after Tesla © Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Laying early claims to the FT in-house bragging rights are Simeon Kerr in Dubai, with an average return of 33 per cent, Anna Gross in Paris on 29 per cent, Leo Lewis in Tokyo on 22 per cent and London-based Arash Massoudi, whose short-only portfolio has returned 21 per cent. None of them went near dreaded AMC shorts.

I confess I did not enter the competition this year. This is partly a matter of timing. Like every upstanding journalist, I file on deadline (that is, I leave everything to the last minute). This year that meant coming up with chosen stocks at the end of January — precisely the time when the GameStop story was blowing up and the workload was, let’s say, intense. This was the task that got away. 

On some level, though, my pride is still bruised from the 2018 competition, when I figured the situation for construction company Carillion surely could not get much worse, and slapped it in my list of longs. It declared bankruptcy two weeks later. I won’t lie: that hurt my overall performance, and spoiled the fun of this challenge somewhat, though if I recall, a short on Carpetright, whose shares collapsed also that January and which later ended up being taken private, softened the blow to my portfolio. 

Friends, relatives and newfound acquaintances frequently ask financial journalists for investment tips, and write off our shrugging insistence that we have no idea as false modesty. My unprofessional advice to you all is: we genuinely have no idea. Even the best competitors among us struggle to repeat a winning result.

Of course, I may turn out to be wrong about that too — but you will have to join us again early next year to find out. Good luck!

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High costs dog Tokyo’s hydrogen buses

High costs dog Tokyo’s hydrogen buses
High costs dog Tokyo’s hydrogen buses

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Tokyo 2020 is meant to be the “hydrogen Olympics” — a showcase for Japan’s aspiration to make the lightest element in the periodic table the fuel of the 21st century, and a central technology in the drive to net-zero carbon emissions.

After a team of Japanese engineers spent months developing a suitably colourful additive, the Olympic flame will burn hydrogen. The athletes’ village has been designed as a hydrogen society in miniature. What the world will take away, Japan hopes, is the image of a hyper-modern nation that has found the energy of the future.

“During the Olympics and Paralympics, cars and buses will run through the city powered by hydrogen, and the athletes’ village will run on electricity made from hydrogen,” said former prime minister Shinzo Abe in March 2020, as he geared up for a Games he later had to postpone for a year because of Covid-19.

Behind the hydrogen razzmatazz, however, the reality is considerably more prosaic — and nothing illustrates that better than the humble Tokyo bus. A central part of one of the world’s best public transport systems, the Tokyo network has introduced 100 fuel cell buses, made by Olympic sponsor Toyota.

Along with a fleet of hundreds of Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell cars, it is one of the most ambitious hydrogen experiments in the world. In a fuel cell, hydrogen reacts with oxygen to produce a flow of electricity, with water as the waste product. Hydrogen has a higher energy density than lithium batteries, making it particularly suitable for heavy vehicles such as buses.

A worker refuels one of Tokyo’s hydrogen buses. A shortage of filling stations may delay further take-up of the technology
A worker refuels one of Tokyo’s hydrogen buses. A shortage of filling stations may delay further take-up of the technology © Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

The buses Tokyo has bought are a hit, according to Osamu Maekawa of the metropolitan government’s transportation bureau. “The feedback from the drivers is extremely good. The buses are quiet and have lots of power,” he says.

Nonetheless, having bought dozens in time for the Olympics, the city will not buy any more this year. The problem is cost. A fuel cell bus from Toyota costs ¥100m ($900,000) for a six-year lease. A diesel bus costs ¥24m ($220,000) and has a useful life of 15 years.

To get the initial 100 buses into service, the local and national authorities have paid subsidies covering 80 per cent of the lease cost. Even that is not enough to make them competitive.

“The fuel costs are also higher,” says Daisuke Harayama, who is in charge of operations at Tokyu Bus, a private company that has introduced two of the fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs). “The fuel cost is 2.6 times higher for FCVs over diesel.”

This reflects fundamental constraints: the high capital cost of the vehicle, with its complicated drive system and fuel cell full of exotic materials; the short lifespan, which is limited by the performance of the fuel cell; and the relatively high cost of hydrogen fuel.

There are also additional costs in time and money associated with early adoption. Operators have diesel fuel stands in their depots to refill buses in the evening, but the fuel cell buses must travel daily to one of a few hydrogen filling stations big enough for a bus.

The operators could bring costs down a little if they switched to hydrogen for all their buses, by installing fuel pumps in their depots, and sharing parts across the fleet. Yet they would still be far more expensive than diesel — and bus passengers will not tolerate higher fares.

More stories from this report

To make hydrogen feasible, manufacturers will have to cut prices hard. “If we can’t get the costs down close to diesel, then it’s going to be hard to continue this in the future,” says Maekawa.

Harayama has a similar view about the short term. “I think it’ll be hard to go to fuel cells for now,” he says. “We don’t look at it as whether fuel cells are good or bad. There’ll come a time when we can no longer use diesel so we need to think about the options.”

Where the bus experiment does make a difference is by increasing the demand for hydrogen and supporting the refuelling infrastructure that will be essential if it is ever to become mainstream.

“Running the buses creates a big increase in H₂ demand,” says Maekawa. The buses run all day, unlike cars that mostly stay parked. “To have an H₂ bus in operation is equivalent to having 50 fuel cell vehicles on the road.”

The most fundamental issue for all Japan’s hydrogen aspirations is where that fuel comes from. At present, it is mainly made from natural gas at existing chemical plants, in a process that emits plenty of carbon dioxide.

In the future, Japan hopes to import large amounts of hydrogen from countries such as Australia, where it will be made from coal, with the carbon captured and stored, or produced using green electricity such as solar.

For now, however, the environmental benefit of the buses that will ship Olympic athletes and officials around the city is hypothetical. The Olympic flame will burn prettily, but to make a true transition to a hydrogen society will require years of patient effort — and some big breakthroughs on cost.

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US regulator fines UBS $8m over volatility ETP

US regulator fines UBS m over volatility ETP
US regulator fines UBS m over volatility ETP

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Visit our ETF Hub for investor news and education, market updates and analysis and easy-to-use tools to help you select the right ETFs.

UBS Financial Services will pay $8.1m to settle allegations that it had faulty policies and procedures that led to clients holding a short-term, volatility-linked exchange traded product for longer than they should have, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced earlier this week.

Between at least January 2016 and January 2018, financial advisers in UBS’s discretionary Portfolio Management Program purchased and held the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN, or VXX, for clients for a longer period of time than it was intended to be held, the SEC’s order said. The ETN is designed to be held for a few days, but the New Jersey-based subsidiary of the Swiss multinational investment bank had hundreds of accounts that held the product for more than a year.

Accounts that held VXX for more than a year lost more than 75 per cent of the value of their VXX holdings, the SEC found.

UBS neither admitted nor denied the findings, the SEC’s order stated.

This article was previously published by Ignites, a title owned by the FT Group.

The VXX, which is listed on NYSE Arca, is a volatility-linked exchange-traded note that tracks the S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures Index Total Return, the order said. The benchmark offers exposure to futures contracts of specified maturities on the VIX, a volatility index.

When VXX was initially pitched to UBS’s ETP review committee in 2009, issuer representatives noted that it was “inappropriate to hold the VXX for extended periods”, according to the SEC’s order. UBS’s review committee initially allowed the ETP to be sold on UBS’s brokerage platform. However, the committee soon restricted the sales of the VXX to brokerage clients, and in 2011, it banned UBS brokerage representatives from soliciting the product altogether.

By 2016, the committee only allowed the product to be sold unsolicited to customers with more than $1m in net worth and an aggressive risk profile. In 2017, the net worth threshold increased to $10m.

On several occasions in 2015 and 2016, UBS management committees warned internal financial advisers about the product’s long-term risks, the order found.

However, the equivalent restrictions were not in place for the fund advisers in its discretionary account advisory programme, the SEC said.

Such advisers with more than five years of experience could invest client assets in VXX. In addition, UBS did not restrict their use of the product to certain strategies or by client risk profile, net worth or income.

“Although UBS implemented holding period monitoring and restrictions with respect to another category of complex ETPs, inverse ETFs, UBS did not do so with respect to volatility-linked ETPs such as VXX,” the order stated.

Several fund advisers stated that they viewed VXX as a hedging instrument and did not account for its investment time horizon. “As a result, these [advisers] could not make a reasonable determination as to whether VXX was a suitable investment for their clients,” the order found.

The SEC’s order was likely motivated by investor protection concerns, said James Tierney, a law professor at the Nebraska College of Law and a former senior counsel in the SEC’s Office of the General Counsel.

“Some of UBS’s advisers really didn’t understand the risks involved with these volatility-linked products,” Tierney added.

UBS advisers were forbidden from investing more than 3 per cent of an account’s assets in the products, the order noted. However, UBS failed to monitor and enforce this rule, the order stated. Between January 2016 and August 2017, 38 advisers held excess concentrations of VXX in 637 accounts.

“The way this happened was pretty egregious,” said Amy Lynch, founder and president of FrontLine Compliance. “They weren’t even following their own policy and procedure, which is to monitor the concentration risk.”

In October 2017, UBS’s management committees recognised that UBS advisers were misusing the VXX. They banned further purchases and told current holders to exit their position by January 2018.

UBS’s decision to take remedial actions prior to being contacted by the SEC helped their settlement negotiation position, Tierney said. “Firms don’t get the same kind of credit for remedial efforts taken only after someone noticed,” he added.

The SEC ordered UBS to pay $96,344 in disgorgement, $15,930 in prejudgment interest and an $8m civil penalty.

“Advisory firms must protect clients from inappropriate investments in complex financial products,” said Daniel Michael, chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Complex Financial Instruments Unit. “We will continue to scrutinise firms’ policies and procedures related to these risky products, and we will take action when they are inadequate.”

“UBS is pleased to have resolved this matter related to the firm’s policies and procedures for one product in one of its discretionary trading programmes between 2016 and 2018,” UBS said. “As the SEC acknowledged, UBS proactively reviewed and removed the product from its programme before being contacted by the SEC.”

This settlement is the sixth arising from the SEC’s ETP Initiative. Last November, the SEC settled with five groups over holding on to volatility-linked ETPs for longer than they were designed.

In May, the SEC settled with S&P Dow Jones Indices over disseminating stale data about the S&P 500 VIX Short Term Futures Index ER during a period of market volatility.

*Ignites is a news service published by FT Specialist for professionals working in the asset management industry. It covers everything from new product launches to regulations and industry trends. Trials and subscriptions are available at ignites.com.

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