Derek Pain: 'Oh for the days when a stock market rout stopped for lunch'

London-based investment chiefs no longer have the power they once enjoyed

Derek Pain
Friday 19 February 2016 22:59
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More than 40 years ago, a sinking stock market was rescued by stories of a hastily arranged fund managers' luncheon.

It couldn't happen nowadays. As shares continue with their devastating start to the year – despite attempted rallies – London-based investment chiefs no longer have the power they once enjoyed. The City is now an entirely different place to those far-off times when globalisation and computers were still new territory.

In the 1970s, the old FT30 share index had slumped in two years from more than 500 points to 146 at the start of 1975. With one of the giants of the day, Burmah Oil, crashing and top shares on abysmal and never to be repeated ratings, the City was gripped by crippling panic.

Then came the lunch. It was given by the insurance giant Prudential at its then palatial headquarters in High Holborn, central London, and leading fund managers were invited. They decided that shares had fallen too deep into the bargain basement and opted to buy and try to create a recovery.

The comeback started slowly – and then it gathered pace. By the end of 1975 the FT30 index, then the bellwether for stock market performance, was above 350.

I was on the City and business pages of the London Evening Standard newspaper at the time, and although some cast doubt on the Prudential intervention, inquiries I made convinced me that the lunch had taken place – and the money men had agreed that their organisations should resume investing.

As I write, shares now are around 20 per cent below the peak hit less than a year ago. Yet any fund managers' lunch would have no impact today as the City was very different in the 1970s – still adhering to the broker-jobber relationship. Although Wall Street was followed avidly, the rest of the world's stock markets, with the exception of Australia, were largely ignored.

And computers had little input. They were the fledgling playthings of the sophisticated few. With the internet still far away, they had no stock market role.

Now they often dominate trading – with not much, if any, human involvement. The days when all investors got in touch with their broker to place an order are long gone. Now, in microseconds, specially programmed computers can play havoc in any country, whether the computers are based in London or Timbuktu.

Such computer-oriented investors – largely institutions and heavy-handed hedge funds – often sell at the first hint of distress as their automatic programs demand. Liquidity can be desperately low, increasing the chances of volatile share movements.

In addition international pressures, once ignored by London, are nowadays compelling. Many investors are based abroad and the Square Mile is also influenced by the behaviour of many overseas stock markets. The multi-national company is another development.

I realise that times change. In this computer age, the City is far removed from the club era that existed in the 1970s.

Now to the No Pain, No Gain portfolio. Shares in Booker are rated a hold by leading analyst Clive Black at the broker Shore Capital. The group has sold 15 of the recently acquired Budgens stores, probably because they were company owned. However, Mr Black is a little worried by a slowdown in trading momentum and says his enthusiasm for the shares "is a little muted at this time".

Elsewhere the brewing and pub company Marston's is reported to have raised £34.6m by selling the freehold of its headquarters and seven pubs.

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