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When the herd stampedes, stay on the fringe

Alan SteelYet another Edinburgh Festival bites the dust. Did you know the Fringe like the Festival proper is the same age as me? Imagine that. All three of us born in Edinburgh in 1947.

Mind you unlike the performers I saw last week at the Fringe my debut performance that freezing February morning didn’t go down well in the Elsie Ingles Maternity Hospital’s delivery room. Not a great review. Put my mum off theatres for life, I did.

Last week I took in three Fringe shows. Revisited places that brought back fond memories. Café Royal was a big favourite during my University years way back in 1965. Above it these days sit the Voodoo Rooms where this year comedian Dom Holland and Scotland’s Mr McMagic Elliot Bibby were star performers. With so much alleged gloom around it was good to laugh and these two were expert at extricating mass chuckles from packed houses.

How Elliot does his tricks is a bloody mystery. Produced a Tunnock caramel wafer, a can of Irn-Bru and a bottle of Single Malt out of thin air. If he could master mass distribution of Scotland’s favourite staples perhaps Brexit won’t be so painful after all. But already the price of lettuces has shot up by 45% and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’re also being warned that imported foodstuffs could end up as expensive as organic Australian onions in Hong Kong.

My man there, Mr Hu, tells me that one such onion, albeit quite a large specimen, set him back HK$38 which is about £3.75 rounded up to the nearest farthing. And before you complain about the price of a punnet of Scottish strawberries in Tesco, in Hong Kong they cost the equivalent of £17. And while pundits moan about the price of new builds here he reports that “apartments” there, half the size of car parking spaces, are going for a fortune despite not having enough room to store a bed, an Australian organic onion and a punnet of Scottish strawberries at the same time.

On Saturday past I ended back in the old men’s union at Bristo Square. Don’t think I’ve been in there since leaving Uni in ’69. Went to see Dead Ringers’ Jon Culshaw in the third floor Debating Hall. I can’t recall attending debates there but at weekends it became a dance hall where Edinburgh bands like the Athenians played and lassies were allowed in to entice the lads away from the men-only bar in the basement. Met my first wife there fifty years ago. If you know what I mean.

Jon Culshaw was remarkable. Must have done 100 impressions inside an hour from Alex Salmond to Steven Gerrard. And, of course, Donald Trump who together with Brexit is held responsible for all the economic disquiet in the world. But wait…. is it just my impression that things aren’t that bad apart from the price of organic onions and Scottish strawberry punnets in Hong Kong?

Yet again we’re being told to expect another recession plus rampant inflation whether it’s Hard or Soft Brexit, whatever that means. Inflation on foodstuffs, apart from lettuce apparently, pushed up prices in August by all of 0.1%, according to eagle-eyed economists. Excuse me, but in old money that’s only up by one thousandth.

As to recession fears, since I and the Edinburgh Fringe were born there have only been 11 worldwide recessions. One every six years. Their average length? Only eleven months. How long did the “Great Recession” of 2007/8 last? Eighteen months. Slightly longer than those nasty ones of 1973/4 and 1981/2 now long forgotten.

Despite these eleven recessions since 1947 had you invested in the US stock market and kept your nerve through all the “Reasons to Sell” your compound returns would be around 10% a year before inflation. That doubles your money every seven years. Which means you can afford to live in a Hong Kong box without scrimping on Scottish Strawberries and organic onions.

The other day I spotted a couple of analyses of the worst “bad news” headlines since the current secular Bull market kicked off in early March 2009. The first headline “The Easy Money’s Been Made” appeared as early as November 2009 in Barron’s, a specialist US investment mag. The same headline has appeared every year since in various investment journals and CNBC. And all wrong.

In another graph showing stockmarket performance from March ’09 until now no fewer than 20 significant negative events were plotted alongside events that were to “mark the end of the bull market in equities”. See if you remember just some of them. BP Oil Spill in 2010. The most powerful earthquake ever in Japan in 2011. The European Sovereign Debt crisis of 2011/12.  The 2013 US Fiscal Cliff. 2014’s Ebola Virus contagion. In 2015 the Chinese market fell 45% in 3 months, doubled up with the Dow Jones falling by 1000 points for the first time ever. And that excludes Oil falling by 77% in 2016 and Trump’s shock horror US election win the same year. Double or quit? Oh no.

While all that’s been going on, patient investors in US focus funds are up by more than 250%, but if you’d reacted emotionally to every negative headline you would have lost serious money chasing shadows.

Successful investing isn’t the same as the Fringe where reviews attract the crowds. It’s quite the reverse. What’s popular is likely to be a big disappointment. Investment winners stick with the minority. See you next Fringe, I hope. Fingers crossed the bull market will still be around too.

Alan Steel is chairman of Alan Steel Asset Management

Alan Steel Asset Management is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. This article contains the personal views of Alan Steel and should not be construed as advice. Do check your individual circumstances with your advisers.

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