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The literal oldest trick in the book is to fashion a lifeboat for disaster the world does not expect. Like all great tales, it is repurposed anew for profit. When UK fund manager Neil Woodford warns of a stock market bubble, he channels Utnapishtim and Noah, with the modern twist that savers can buy tickets for this boat.
He is far from alone in the pose. Modern fund management involves two sometimes conflicting jobs. The first is to profitably buy and sell securities. The second is to attract and retain money from investors.
Warning of impending disaster — be it from banks using derivatives, a precarious Chinese economy or the distortions of central bank policy — is a common strategy. Pension trustees and widows both like to know someone is doing the worrying for them.
It helps that Mr Woodford has ridden out storms before, avoiding technology and banking shares in previous busts. Yet the argument that his chosen stocks are cheap while bubbles proliferate elsewhere is hard to sustain upon contact with his investments.
The fourth largest holding in the CF Woodford Equity Income fund is Prothena, a Nasdaq listed biotech with a history of losses and next to no revenues. Valued at $2.5bn, six analysts have published forecasts in the past month, according to Bloomberg. Guesses for annual group sales come 2020 range from $40m to $418m — the very definition of speculation
Eighth largest is IP Group, a UK listed entity that backs start-ups. Excluding cash, IP shares trade at twice the balance sheet value of its investments, which include some stocks also found in the Woodford Patient Capital Trust.
All this leaves out the housebuilders, or unlisted start-ups Mr Woodford also favours. His approach has at least been consistent, and he may be proved right. Just hope that biotech, housing and start-ups are not also in bubbles of greed the gods see fit to punish.