"Spending plans safe – Brown" ran the Ceefax headline on Monday after the Chancellor's speech to the Labour Conference. I'm not sure my spending plans are equally secure. But, taking up the challenge to fight international terror by shopping, I find myself at the new Uniqlo store in London, one of the Japanese chain's first branches to open in the UK.
In the queue with me was a girl from Tokyo who thanked me for helping out the poor old Japanese economy, the sort of words that a few years ago I never thought I'd hear.
The place was full, although about half the customers appeared to be Japanese ex-patriots, obviously homesick for the smart but casual pastelware Uniqlo seems to specialise in. Perhaps they will become a sort of IKEA of clothes shops and finish off my Marks & Spencer shares. To find out, you'll be pleased to know, I have bought a shirt, some boxers and a pair of socks to "test drive" to see if Uniqlo live up to their reputation for quality and value. So what? Well, anyone who has been round the shops lately will observe they are not the wastelands abandoned by cowed, terrified consumers huddling at home in their gas masks that some would have us believe, but quite busy really.
All the opinion polls that purport to show consumer confidence at an all-time low really do seem to be overdoing it a bit. If we were all so miserable why are we still spending and taking out huge mortgages? Maybe these surveys are suffering from the same distortions that afflict political polls – the respondents tell the questioners what they think they want to hear and that it just seems in bad taste to describe oneself as optimisitic when so many innocent people have died and the media is telling us to be sombre.
So perhaps the gloom is overdone. It is strange to find my holding in M&S one of my best-performing stocks so far this year, but welcome all the same. My top shop stock, however, is Tesco, which seems to combine all the defensive qualities one could wish for with the growth potential that being Britain's leading online retailer bestows. I am thus heartened by a new note on UK retailers by Merrill Lynch in which the broker has trimmed its earnings-per-share forecasts for Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Safeway by 1 to 2 per cent but left its forecasts for Tesco unchanged and rates it as an "accumulate". I aim to accumulate a few more soon in the hope that people really aren't as miserable as they tell the pollsters.
Shopping is, of course, something we all know about, and it is often said we should only invest in businesses we actually understand. It is also true that one of the quickest ways to lose money is to buy shares in a football club. Being more interested in the FTSE than the footie, I have often wondered what led me to buy Leicester City and Manchester United shares, apart from misguided vestigial loyalty (to LCFC).
They've both shrunk in value recently as the sector has gone (even further) out of fashion and now there's talk of a players' strike. Even more bewilderingly, Man U has performed far worse than Leicester (see chart), which is rather at odds with their respective performances on the pitch. "MU – the new Marconi?" asks a chap named BenValue on the www.iii.co.uk bulletin board. Although it is a leisure/media stock, Man U shares have some overlooked defensive virtues.
Well, football is addictive, isn't it? What Dad, even one worried about losing his job, wouldn't make sacrifices to buy his son that new season strip? I would admit that the good defensive qualities of the shares have been recently undermined by the poor defensive qualities of the back four, but Tuesday's results were impressive, and Man U is, after all, one of Britain's very few respected and truly global brands. It must be cheap at a market value of £300m and is underpinned by the possibility of a further bid from that Irish consortium of shareholders. I can't resist that red devilish temptation, so buy more at £1.24. Now let's see that defence sorted out. I'll leave Leicester City's problems for another day.Reuse content