x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Then there was one ... others were too thin on top

The future is unknown for the imaginary portfolio, with a single good performer still driving a profit.

Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head ... actually, I haven't dragged a comb across my head since ... well, since there was enough hair there to justify the effort, but the moment I typed "A day in the life of a day trader" as the prospective title of this week's column, there I was stuck with the 1967 Beatles epic echoing unstoppably around my head. And now you are, too, I guess.

What I was going to do was what I have intended to do since day one, but have not, thanks to a variety of causes - forgetfulness, indolence, an ability to become easily distracted by ... hey, was that really a parakeet that just flew past my window? In short, to spend an entire day, from the moment the FTSE opened until it closed, wheeling and dealing to see if I could make a significant amount of money in a single trading day simply by watching for intra-day price twitches.

So I woke up, got out of bed, dragged myself to the gym and watched trash TV on the treadmill for an hour (because the sound on BBC World Service is still not working) before showering, dressing, downing a bowl of Fruit 'n Fibre (skimmed milk, naturally), settling down in front of my MacBook Pro with a coffee (instant: I'm heavily into Waitrose Colombian right now) and ... OK, already I can see this is going to be less than riveting, not to mention a little heavy on the product placement.

And besides, there's a fundamental problem. Thanks to my half-baked, home-baked strategy of selling any stock the moment its price dips below an arbitrarily pre-determined point and then pumping the proceeds into those on the rise or standing still, I have achieved the trading equivalent of painting myself into a corner. It was, of course, transparently inevitable, and it is a measure of just how stupid I am when it comes to money, logic, mathematics - everything one needs, in other words, to stand even a cat's chance of making a killing on the stock market as an agile day trader - that I failed to see it coming. What goes up, you see, must come down, even if only briefly.

As a result, from a portfolio bulging with a dozen stocks, among which my imaginary £15,000 (Dh84,690) was distributed evenly, I am now down to three. Worse (well, better, but not in terms of giving me anything to do), all are performing well. In one sense, you could say I have simply allowed natural market selection to take its course; the three surviving stocks are the healthiest and, if this was the real world (and if I had any real money) I would already have pumped more of it into them to make some real hay while the sun was shining.

But it isn't, and I haven't. Instead, with the paint lapping at my bare toes, I am now left wondering where to go from here. One option is to see my policy of inept fund management through to its ultimate conclusion, liquidating two of the three remaining stocks and putting the lot into the third. But which two? Insurance group Old Mutual, up 20 per cent since June, is the star of my show - but could it be about to implode? At 134 pence a share at the time of writing, it's at a two-year high, but still shy of the 180p and 200p-plus peaks it has hit over the past decade.

Looking at the 10-year chart, it seems possible to divine a clear cycle - and to infer that we are currently riding the next major upswing. That said, the last fall - throughout recessional 2008 and 2009 - was understandably the deepest and, if the world is about to experience the much-fabled double dip, then we could already be over the peak of the latest recovery and heading back down again. But who knows? Not me, that's for sure - and even the experts can't agree. While four out of eight mystery brokers on the Share Centre site still say Old Mutual is a strong buy, two are neutral and another two have it pegged as a strong sell.

Often a clue can be found in the dealings of directors - generally, if they are snapping up stock options, sitting tight is a safe bet; if they are cashing in their chips like the casino's on fire, well, it probably is, and the exit would seem like a sensible destination - but there had been no activity on this front for the past 28 days. And then, drilling a little deeper, I found out why. I really should read the financial pages more often. If I had, I'd have discovered a while back that HSBC was in the throes of making an offer to buy Nedbank, which might sound like a financial institution in a children's book but is, in fact, South Africa's fourth-largest banking group.

And guess what? Clever Old Mutual, also from South Africa, owns 52 per cent of Nedbank. Aha. Now even I can see where this might be going. So, sorry Admiral; you steered me right for a while; bought at 1,410p on July 20 but now, sold at 1,569p, it's the plank for you. And I can't hear you, Vodafone; we connected for a while; bought at 144.7p, also on July 7, but now, sold at 159p, I'm going into a tunnel and can't hear you.

I am now the proud, if slightly isolated, owner of 11,931 shares in Old Mutual. As these are worth a total of £16,023.33, my initial investment of £15,000 has grown by approximately 6.67 per cent in less than three months. Before I congratulate myself, my colleague Rupert Wright, whose son's (now sadly lost) toy monkey stood in for me while I was on holiday, reminds me that Old Mutual was purchased on his watch. Well done, Rupert's son's missing monkey. Wherever you are, have an imaginary banana on me.

Quite where I go from here, I'm not sure. I'll make a decision just as soon as the paint has dried. But in the meantime, if Ned and his team are listening - stop playing hard to get and sell, curse you, sell! @Email:jgornall@thenational.ae