The Emperor’s New Clothes: Past performance can never be a reliable indicator of future returns

Kevin Duffy

October 24, 2018

Kevin Duffy is managing director of Mortgage Force

I am a contrarian pundit and investor. I like to bet against perceived wisdoms or short-priced favourites and occasionally making a radical decision can be the right thing to do.

So I am drawn to like-minded industry folk. One of which is Hampshire Trust’s Matthew Wyles who would made me laugh whenever he referred to my employer Mortgage Force as Parcel Force (I would always counter by calling it Mortgage Farce) .

The point being… far too many of us not only take ourselves too seriously but also our brands or trading styles.

These wisecracks regarding brand names took place back in 2008 when our industry was almost disintegrating and they actually kept the mood light at what was a very tough time.

But 10 years on they are both vivid and relevant once again as we survey not only the brand wreckage in our high streets but also the emergence of our own industry’s digital keyboard warriors and their typically stylish and single word titles.

Since 2008 the likes of Woolworths, Carluccio’s, Kodak and Prezzo are just a few of the many previously totemic brands which have gone, or nearly gone, by the wayside, not to mention House of Frazer and BHS (good riddance!).

In our own world we saw titanic businesses such as Network Data, Mortgage Times, Honister and Thinc flounder. And those that didn’t, simply phoenixed into ironic imitations, much to the disgust of creditors and brokers who were owed thousands.

These ruminations on brand names are very topical for me. Mortgage Force recently became advanced in quite detailed discussions with a well-known estate agency-centric intermediary, during which the curious statement was made by the would-be buyer: “We think that your 100 brokers would really benefit from leveraging our brand.”

Yep. You guessed it! At that point I knew that a cordial handshake and a ‘let’s stay in touch regardless’ wasn’t far off.

It really does make you wince (and laugh) when I see certain mortgage digitalisers spending more on B2C brand development in one month (a great deal!) than they might actually arrange in mortgage aggregation over an entire year (not a great deal?).

I’m occasionally critical of today’s millennial #metoo brigades. But we can all at least thank our technophile little snowflakes for one thing… which is their highly mobilised objections (via social media) to seeing so many branded behemoths either a) not paying appropriate taxes or, b) their outrageously agnostic approach to moral hazards.

Google, Facebook, YouTube, Starbucks. All of these previously armour-plated brands have been thankfully reproached on matters of conduct which in turn have rightfully hurt their respective share prices.

If we turn back to the mortgage industry, it’s a similar picture. Purple Bricks, for example, can’t seem to produce consistently compliant adverts. Elsewhere we have seen a decades old lender such as TSB flail on the back of appalling IT disruptions and there are a whole host of well-known conveyancing businesses presently providing shocking levels of service as part of fees free deals.

In our intermediary space we also still have certain ‘A’ list brand names and other 30-year old businesses making seven figure losses (even after the best five-year bull run in decades!).

For brokers at large, my conclusion in all of this is that if you are a career-prevaricating broker then don’t make a pivotal next-job decision based on the perceived potency of a brand name.

Whether this means staying put where you are with a long established brand or moving on to something embryonic with a shiny and bright label.

For as clichéd as it might sound, a brand is less so an actual word or logo and almost entirely the behaviours and competencies of its workforce and management. The best brokers I know are their own brand. Sometimes they need reminding of that.

So for talented brokers considering a move it possibly boils down to three questions:

  1. Did the (presently disconnected?) management team ever actually do the job which you have done so well?
  2. Is the management and its strategic thinking progressive and innovating, or is it just complacently trading on perceived past glories and lazily picking up a monthly pay check?
  3. If it is loss-making, then does it ever actually listen to the brokers whose ever reliable mortgage transactions are paying everyone’s wages?

Ergo, if your network or DA host ever harps on about the ‘value of the brand’s heritage’ perhaps it’s time to ask them to monetise that for you personally (beyond a facile goodwill valuation on a balance sheet of which you are not a shareholder).

Failing which, you might just want to back yourself and move on before the Emperor is stripped of his invisible garments. As ultimately, a brand’s past performance can never be a reliable indicator of its future returns.

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