Why I'm happy to be a latecomer

Taking a more relaxed approach to life, meetings, parties, appointments - and investments - should pay dividends
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The Independent Online

Main resolution for this new year: Cease being a slave to time. I am obsessed by it. At least half-an-hour early for every appointment, first at every party, sitting around airports for hours before my flight.

Main resolution for this new year: Cease being a slave to time. I am obsessed by it. At least half-an-hour early for every appointment, first at every party, sitting around airports for hours before my flight.

Goodness knows why I have this fixation with time but as I get older it gets worse. Just before the Christmas break I was stuck in a traffic jam on the M4 on my way to Luton to catch a flight to Zurich. There were still three hours to take-off and I was less than half-an-hour from the airport but after being stationary for less than five minutes I was on my car phone trying to find easyJet's number so I could ask them to delay the flight. In the event I arrived at Luton so early that the flight check-in wasn't even open.

So, during those fallow days which immediately preceded the dawning of 2001, I contemplated the problem and resolved that henceforth the new me will be relaxed about time, uncaring, happy to turn up for meetings at the last moment, last to arrive at dinner parties, taking time to smell the flowers in the years that lead up to senior citizenship.

This sea change will also affect my investment philosophy. Regular Diary readers will recall that I advocate most share purchase decisions should be made for the long term. You should select stocks whose track record and future projections indicate they will grow steadily over time. But how long is long term? Five years? Ten? Twenty? I've been flicking through the books on my library shelves and none of them seem to state a specific span of time for long term but I notice that most of them mention the fact that if you had put £100 into the stock market in 1918 you would be a millionaire now. That's nice, but I suspect it is rather hypothetical because on the basis that you probably had to be at least 18 years old to buy shares after the first world war you would be over 100 years old now. And who wants to be a centenarian millionaire? Anyway, which shares were you supposed to buy? I bet they didn't have tracker funds or a FTSE 100 then. How could you spread £100 over the whole market? This oft-quoted statistic doesn't bear close examination.

But back to long term. From where I'm sitting it means 10 years at the most. Touch wood, I'm still fit enough to enjoy a reasonably active life - long walks every day, a spot of golf, a week's skiing every year, bike riding in the warm weather - but I don't kid myself. In 10 years time the walks will be shorter, golf and skiing will be spectator sports, and I will most likely have traded the bike in for a stairlift. Visits to the theatre and fashionable restaurants will have been replaced by communal sing-songs at the Twilight Years Club and meals-on-wheels. And I will be writing a column for The Oldie magazine rather than The Independent. It's a bleak prospect.

Certainly my financial outgoings will be greatly reduced a decade hence, so from now on I intend to select shares with an eye on short- to medium-term profits. I will continue to apply the same criteria when researching stocks (a five-year history of steady growth in turnover, profits and earnings; a successful management record; a current price that looks undervalued) but now there will be an added ingredient. I will be looking for evidence of a future upturn in the company's business. It may be an indirect indicator - rumours of consolidation in the sector, something of that sort - or a more specific sign such as increasing hopes for a piece of targeted research. I will monitor each situation carefully and in the short term, which from my point of view is every six months, I will carry out an in-depth review.

On the anniversary of each purchase I will consider the compound interest (capital growth and dividend) to see whether it measured up to my original expectation and whether it will continue to do so. If my hopes have not been realised after 12 months I will sell the stock. I realise this is not conventional investment wisdom, a year is definitely not long term as defined by the pundits, but I can't afford to wait for decades. I want real profits so that I can spend the money on personal pleasure before I reach my dotage.

More Resolutions

I will not invest in quoted companies, which do not forecast a profit in the current year. (I must be careful not to mislead you here, because my largest personal holding is in a private investment company, which acquires substantial equity positions in start-up biotech businesses. However, because I have a direct influence over the development of this company I do not regard it in the same way as my stock market investments.) This resolve means I will not be wooed by "hope" stocks, particularly in the internet field.

And I will not buy a share which has a current p/e over 40. On a number of occasions in this column I have explained the price-earnings calculation, which basically refers to the number of times the earnings-per-share figure has to be multiplied to equal the current market price. It is not an infallible measure but in my opinion it is a good guide, and on the basis that even the most volatile share will eventually settle down to real world values I don't want to pay over the odds for it.

Telecom tales

It appears that Diary reader Walter Adams, who pointed out that my share tips during 2000 were showing a 60 per cent profit, has spent 30 years developing information and communication technologies. So his comments on the problems facing BT and others in the telecoms business are particularly relevant and worth passing on. "The raw technology of communications improves by a factor of 50 per cent every year," says Walter. "So how can you build a long-term profitable business on raw material costs which keep halving?" He offers these solutions for the telecom companies:

1) Build regulatory barriers to ward off the competition (it worked for several decades but is increasingly not an option).

2) Diversify into other businesses (sadly the present telecoms do not seem to be too good at this).

3) Increase demand faster than the fall in the technology costs. This is what is happening at the moment but Walter does not believe it will go on forever. "Video television could have been a saviour but the telecoms lost out to the satellite and cable companies in the Eighties," he says.

4) Target under-developed overseas markets such as China and India. However, Walter fears these will be hard nuts to crack and not as profitable as the telecoms anticipate.

Walter Adams says he would only buy into this sector on a short-term basis to make money out of an investment fashion. He is even more pessimistic about the mobile telephone scene, which he describes as "scary". I'm not suggesting that you make your investment decisions based on Walter's opinions but I pass them on to you because he is an expert and you should collect as many thoughts and ideas from informed sources as you can.

Oh yes it is!

The financial pantomime season is in full swing. Down at the Threadneedle Street Palace of Varieties in the City of London you can see what is fast becoming the longest running - and most boring - stage farce, Elsie Cinderella (Elsie - LSE - London Stock Exchange - gerrit?). King Cruickshank, lord of all he surveys, is blind to the beauties of his daughter Elsie and is therefore hell-bent on marrying her off to a suitable suitor. With a flourish in Act One, the King produces a German giant, Deutsche Boris, extolling his virtues and recommending the union as a marriage made in heaven. Luckily everyone, including the principal courtiers, is distinctly underwhelmed with the idea. They can see that Boris would dominate Elsie and make her live in Germany.

Act Two is devoted to the pathetic courtship of Elsie by a Scandinavian pretender to the throne, Prince Ho-hem. This is undoubtedly the weakest part of the pantomime plot because it soon becomes obvious that Ho-hem is a poseur, quite unsuitable to take his place amongst royalty. As Act Three opens most of the audience is asleep. But who is this creeping on from the wings? Why, it's Naughty Nasdaq, a rich American who is waving bags of gold at Elsie and King Cruickshank. Will they be able to resist? Is it possible that there will be a happy ending to this story, and that Princess Elsie will remain a beautiful unmarried spinster? I don't think so.

However, the most popular pantomime by far is Investor Jack and the Share Beanstalk. The story is easy to follow. Investor Jack, entrusted with the family fortunes, is inveigled into swapping them for a packetful of penny share beans. The wily share tipster who sells him the beans explains they will grow overnight into huge beanstalks and at the top of each Jack will find a goose that will lay a solid gold egg. The stupid boy plants the penny share beans and diligently waters and watches them.

The fun starts when he peers down the holes where he has planted the beans and finds they have shrunk to almost nothing. Just occasionally the audience gasps as a beanstalk shoots skywards, but by the time Jack has noticed the rare sprouting beanstalk it has withered just as quickly and disappeared down its own hole. Jack's frantic antics provide a barrel of laughs as the audience thanks their lucky stars they did not fall for the penny share bean trick.

Be warned, this is a risqué production and certainly not suitable for young children or those of a nervous disposition.

* terry.bond@hemscott.net

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