You may not like Russia, but you should buy Russian stocks
Should you really cash in your defined benefit pension? Is Japan still a good buy? Should everyone still be holding gold? Is it time to get out of Russia? Isn't paying someone to buy a car for you just the same as paying a fund manager to look after your money? And if so, how come you think it's OK to pay 5 % to a car agent but get semi-hysterical at the idea that a fund manager should have anything over 1 %?
These are the main questions filling my inbox at the moment, so I thought that I would use this week's column to run through a few of them.
First, defined benefit pensions. Until very recently, I would never in a million years have suggested that anyone give up the blissful peace of mind that must come with knowing you have a guaranteed and inflation linked income for life. But as gilt yields have fallen, transfer values have risen and the risks inherent in defined benefit pensions themselves have become more obvious, I have changed my mind.
Transferring isn't for everyone — you have to get advice. But if you see in the small print that your inflation indexation is limited to, say, 5 %; if the death benefits for your spouse aren't all that good; and if you find that your transfer value is 35 times your expected annual pension, I do think you should consider it.
That's particularly the case given the proposals out this week to allow weak schemes to water down inflation indexation and the reminder in them that 5 % of schemes are financially "stressed". A defined benefit pension that is neither completely guaranteed or actually indexed to the real cost of living might be still be reassuring to have. But is it as reassuring as a very large lump of cash?
Next up, car agent fees versus fund manager fees. The key difference between these is the method of payment. I bought a car via a car buying agent; he sent me a bill in pounds and pence; I paid it, and that was that. Transparent, clear and simple. It was easy to compare with similar services.
Pay a fund manager and it's all different: you get no bill, you don't know what you have paid until after you have paid it, and you don't send the money yourself – the manager just takes it out of your money (which he already has) as and when. You could figure out exactly how much has gone in total costs, if you like. But, trust me, it won't be easy.
I am thrilled therefore to see that the Financial Conduct Authority has just suggested that funds should (like pretty much every other service and product provided in the UK) start to charge an "all-in-one fee" that covers everything every year.
When I suggested exactly this a few months ago I had many cross emails from managers telling me it wasn't possible as they couldn't possibly know all their costs (and their trading costs in particular) in advance, so couldn't possibly tell you the price of the service in advance either.
This is about as rubbish as an argument gets. Does an airline know what the price of oil will be in June when it sets the price of a ticket in January? Does a supermarket know how much stock they will have to throw away on Friday when they set the price of bread on Monday? Of course not. But making good guesses in advance of setting prices is what makes good businesses. I look forward to the first round of honest managers announcing their all-in-one fees — and I hope you'll hear about them here first.
Onwards. Japan. Am I still long-term bullish? I am. Japanese stocks remain fundamentally cheap on almost all measures. Deflation is no longer a problem, price pressures are rising and the labour shortage is finally biting ‑ employees at Yamato Transport have just succeeded in forcing the company to limit the number of packages it delivers to 2016 levels so that they don't have to work any harder than they already do. Immigration is on the up – the number of foreign workers rose by 20% last year – and the fertility rate is even rising: it bottomed out at 1.26 in 2005 and is now back up to 1.45, with Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, targeting 1.8.
It is also worth noting, as Christopher Wood of CLSA points out, the "remarkable collapse in the suicide rate" rather suggests that things just aren't as grim as they were ten years ago (there were 10,000 fewer suicides in 2015 than 2003). Finally, improving corporate governance isn't just talk any more. It's real. Japan has its problems (mainly its humungous debt), but it's both good value and at a turning point. Keep it.
Russia is not so simple. About a year ago I suggested you buy the JPMorgan Russian Securities investment trust (LSE: JRS) (which I hold myself) on the basis that the market was so cheap it was all but discounting "a return to communism". I hope you did: the trust rose almost 90% last year. Given that this is risky stuff you might want to take some profits. But I wouldn't sell out completely – Robin Geffen of Neptune reckons the best may be yet to come.
Russia has stable politics – you might not like the way it works, but at the moment the country has none of the political volatility of the US or Europe – the oil price has stabilised, and best of all, Russia is on the edge of loosening monetary policy considerably. Interest rates are still at emergency levels (17%) but with inflation back down to under 6% there is plenty of scope for them to fall. That matters, says Geffen. The fact that monetary policy is on the verge of tightening almost everywhere else in the world makes this "monetary tailwind... a rare and valuable commodity for investors". Basically, the Russian stockmarket – despite its stellar year – is cheap, unloved and under-owned. So you should buck the trend by at least owning a little of it.
On to the last thing, gold. The case here is very, very simple: the Western world has insane amounts of debt (the UK's debt-to-GDP ratio is still 85% – and that's before you even start on unfunded liabilities). History tells us that one way or another unsustainable debt is dealt with by inflation. Gold is the best hedge there is against that. I still hold it – physically and in the form of exchange traded funds – and I will until the finances of our governments are firmly under control. So probably forever.