Artillery Row

Confessions of a lockdown speculator

Is it immoral to make money out of a disease that is killing millions?

Is it immoral to make money out of a disease that is killing millions?

I briefly ponder this question as I check the share prices of the companies I have invested in since the beginning of the pandemic. These companies are prospering largely because of the pandemic; but I find that my conscience remains quite untroubled.

Like many others, I have more spare cash than normal because of the savings on travel, dining out, high street shopping, visiting the theatre, cinema, club and pub. So, I can thank Covid-19 for helping to provide the means as well as the opportunity to speculate.

Moreover, although it is not included in the list of activities suggested by the NHS as a way to promote mental health during the lockdown, I find the task of picking companies that are likely prosper as the virus sweeps the land considerably more stimulating than those recommended by my GP. Perhaps Sir Chris Whitty should correct the omission at one of the government’s tea-time press conferences. I also find that stock market speculation competes favourably with the activities my wife suggests as a way of relieving the tedium, such as clearing out the loft, painting the kitchen or helping her complete 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles (note to self: check the share prices of companies making jigsaws).

Investment opportunities have opened up because share prices in companies engaged in producing drugs to treat the disease have risen – some like rockets. The pandemic has also changed human behaviour in easily observable ways from which it is possible to profit.

I have made losses as well as gains, either as a result of poor timing, over confidence, bad judgement or ignorance

My own career as a lockdown speculator began back in March after I realised that Boris’s rules prevented me from visiting my local Majestic wine store to replenish dwindling stocks. I tried to telephone my order; after many attempts, I finally got through and learned that the sharp increase in trade meant it would be five days before I could expect a delivery. Using an online nominee share dealing account it took me just five minutes to purchase shares in Naked Wines – the company which owns Majestic – having spent less than half an hour researching the company’s state of health. An investment of £4,000 in the company in early April produced a profit of £700 in early May. This may put me in the same league as George Soros, but as a consequence I am drinking better wine (though not from Majestic). As on other occasions I sold the shares too soon: my 17.5 per cent gain would have been greater if I had shown more patience. This early success, combined with press reports that many people were coping with the frustration of lockdown by hitting the bottle, led me to invest in the drinks manufacturer, Diageo. A similar investment produced comparable gains. But subsequent investments, based on observations of my fellow man, produced considerably larger ones.

One day while exercising, I noticed an unusually large number of neighbours painting their garden gates, windows and fences. Sometimes entire families seemed to be engaged in the activity. Driving to the supermarket, I observed a huge queue outside the local B&Q. An investment in Kingfisher, which owns the DIY superstores, produced a profit of £1,700 on an investment of £4,000 representing a gain of 42 per cent. Had I not sold in May my profit would have been considerably greater.

My next investment was in response to the closure of restaurants. I noticed that the streets were full of motorcycle delivery men as people began to rely on takeaway pizza and meals to recreate a sense of dining out at home. And so, I promptly invested in Domino’s Pizza. Modest online research into the company (which did not include eating the product) led to an investment that returned a fast 20 per cent profit. Some find the idea of a quick buck morally offensive; dear reader, I can confirm that a quick buck is just as enjoyable as a slow one, and far more so than any takeaway pizza.

My early success as a speculator encouraged me to invest in companies which were directly engaged in the research or production of treatments for Covid, or in the means of preventing its spread.

BATM is a highly regarded provider of medical laboratory systems and diagnostic kits. Since I bought into it in May, its tests have proved effective in detecting all variants of the virus. I sold my share in July for 105 per cent profit.

Until the arrival of the virus I don’t think I had ever used a hand sanitiser. These days every member of my family seemed to take boxes of the item wherever they go. In May I invested in Byotrol, a company which produces sanitisers and related products, and sold a month later, making a 65 per cent profit.

Novacyt Group is an Anglo-French biotechnology group focused on clinical diagnostics. An investment of £4000 in March produced a profit of £3,700 a month later.

I should have heeded the old adage: ‘Don’t panic, but if you panic, panic first!’

I do not wish to give the impression of infallibility. I have made losses as well as gains, either as a result of poor timing, over confidence, bad judgement or ignorance. But nevertheless, the profits have exceeded the losses. In the process I have learned a great deal. In July when the markets took a sharp dive, I delayed in my response and eventually panicked and sold most of my holdings. This was my biggest mistake. I should have heeded the old adage: “Don’t panic, but if you panic, panic first!” Although I have since re-entered the market, I would be a little richer if had held my nerve or panicked more swiftly.

It is important not to let occasional losses damage confidence. Fund managers reportedly spend an average of 100 hours researching a stock before reaching a decision to buy and still often get it wrong. Several surveys have demonstrated that random selection of stocks, for example by a chimpanzee with a pin, can be as successful as the average fund manager. In 1999, a six-year-old chimpanzee named Raven became the 22nd most successful money manager in the USA by throwing darts at a list of 133 internet companies: delivering a 213 per cent gain and outperforming more than 6,000 Wall Street brokers. I can’t help thinking that Raven would make the ideal lockdown pet.

To the puritan conscience, stock market speculation is morally dubious even in normal times. But, apart from in the most unusual circumstances, no one except the risk-taking investor is likely to get hurt. No doubt, in a perfect stakeholder market economy, shareholders would take an active role in the companies in which they invest – holding executives to account and ensuring that the interests of employees are protected. In reality this is not a practical option for the small investor who is motivated by the desire to get a better return on savings than the pathetic negative real interest paid by building societies and banks. Such lofty concerns must necessarily lie with institutional investors.

This is not to say that individual speculators have no useful role in the scheme of things. To succeed, the speculator must buy when a stock is judged to be cheap and sell when the price increases. By doing the first of these things, speculators prevent the share falling through the floor; by doing the latter they exert a pressure that prevents it going through the roof, thereby bringing a measure of stability as well as increasing market liquidity.

As Dr Johnson observed: “Men are seldom more innocently employed than when they are innocently making money.”

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