Although there is now an added element of superficial appeal for tourists, Borough Market still retains a Dickensian flavour. On the day of my interview with Russ Mould, I had to thread my way through piles of unpasteurised Welsh cheese, dangling pheasants, mini-skirted young ladies perched on stools sampling game pie (delicious, girl and pie both), mulled wine and organics unlimited. A great temptation, I would imagine, for those working on the magazine to dispose of spare petty cash at least twice a day.
Russ is an energetic, perspicacious, welcoming man in (I would guess) his early forties. An alumni of Merton College Oxford (that special small enclave within the University who opened their academic arms to many including Bill Clinton and Kris Kristofferson), Russ contemplated a career as an English academic or historian before turning to the financial services sector. Indeed he told me that he was seriously contemplating doing a DPhil thesis on John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a fine poet and even finer rake, before he had to swallow the bitter pill of narrowly missing his first class honours degree. This shock took him far away from the groves of academe, for which, I guess, we humble investors must be eternally grateful.
So swapping the prospect of leather-patched elbows and corduroy jackets for sixty tedious job applications, yielding just three replies followed by the offer of a single interview, young Russ went boldly into the financial jungle. This was the early 90s and the UK was in the depth of a recession, but he obtained a job with Scottish Equitable as a junior fund manager focussing on Scandinavian markets. Then after a little while SG Warburg headhunted him and so started 12 years as an equity analyst specialising in the European technology sectors, which involved his giving advice to individual investment fund managers. This counsel would then be absorbed into hedge-fund strategies and suchlike, and thereby frequently find its way into quite hefty institutional investments. However, the financial regulatory environment was making Russ’s (and other analysts) lives difficult, and when Warburg was acquired by Swiss Bank Corporation followed speedily by a reverse takeover of UBS in 1998, it was time for him to walk once more into potentially inclement weather.
Again, Russ considered non-finance related employment, but it was as a result of a tip from a friendly Guardian journalist that he applied for a job on Shares. This was five years ago, and within the first three years he was made Editor, and has recently been voted onto the Board. Shares is a privately owned company, with one Niall Sweeney as Chairman and with interests in Money AM.com, and the production of gaming software, as well as providing data and charts of stock market movements for national newspapers; a facility which now includes, for example, details of personal trading histories of individual company directors (invaluable!).
In 2008 the magazine’s re-launch just preceded his editorship, which he then “tweaked’ in an attempt to appeal on a broader base to professional financial advisers as well as individual investors. This was only partially successful, for according to Russ, “they are all information rich and time poor, and in the age of fast-moving markets where even a great paper like the FT has difficulty keeping up, there is a danger of drowning in a deluge of information.” A return to the principal of appealing directly to the private investor coincided with a vacancy in the editorial chair, for which Russ successfully applied.
“The magazine was always good at analysing the macro-driven picture. We are consistently examining signs of economic expansion, or decline. For instance, 2011 will present us with either, inflationary economic recovery; deflationary double-dip recession, or worst of all, stag-flationary plod-along times with things going gradually from bad to worse. In 2008 all the signs were there, bad signals which were simply being ignored: 16 years of unbroken economic expansion; 3-4 years of easily-available credit and rampant directors selling personal stocks. Remember the Keynesian quote, ‘the market will stay rational for a lot longer than you can stay solvent!’”
Russ breaks off to fire a few (kindly) words at staff hovering on the periphery of overhearing, before returning passionately to the subject at hand, “Calling the market is an art, not a science. The key is actually a simple proposition, but relies on factors that are extremely difficult to read. It comes down in the end to a question of working out what makes people buy and sell. When you look at screens full of moving and changing numbers, these are not arbitrary alterations; they each represent a buy or sell trade, and the market which supports this is driven by only two main factors, fear and greed.
“Numbers are only one half of it, but the true Black Art in all this is in balancing, analysing and gauging how things will pan out differently than the market is indicating at any given time. Horseracing and backing the markets are very similar in that you stand to make the most money by going against the grain – don’t back favourites and don’t give farmers yesterday’s weather!” (Russ used to own horses and visited all the great race meetings on a regular basis. Now he bets on average just once a month and usually wins, successfully predicting the winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last November.)
I ask if he has been tempted to use his abilities in reading the markets as a private investor and simply play the various available financial fields. After all, by now he must have nous, contacts and skills?
“You mean, do I invest my own money? Well the answer to that is yes, but within very strict guidelines. In other words, I cannot be seen to take advantage of my position as Shares editor, nor would I want to frankly. Therefore I hold no individual stocks at all, rather working through my wealth manager to acquire exchange-traded stocks, trackers, derivatives and structured products. It would simply be too stressful as a personal living, and would change the fun I have when it is, as now, merely a hobby.”
What about his demographic – does he have an “average” reader in mind who he thinks about every week as publication date looms?