Wednesday, 9 March 2016

To Passive House or not to Passive House

This week I went to Ecobuild, the annual exhibition devoted to sustainable building.  Normally I'm spoilt for choice with seminars, but this time I went for a meetup group with Ben Adam-Smith of House Planning Help podcast.

Ben gathered a small group of architects, builders and punters together to talk about self build and passive house projects.  

There were alarming accounts of the vagaries of the planning system.  These and other stories from professionals on some of the exhibition stands left me with an impression of a bunch of people sitting around making key decisions based on whimsy and personal taste.

I talked to one of the architects in the group, Paul Testa, who has been involved in a range of sustainable building projects.  He told me he uses the discipline of Passive House planning (PHPP planning software) for every project he does, even if clients don't want the expense of going for full certification.  To me that's strange and rather like coitus without an orgasm.

It's good to know that architects find the Passive House design process useful, even if the budget won't stretch to the full standard.  At least you know exactly how the building will perform and which areas have brought it below the PH level in energy and thermal efficiency terms.

Perhaps in time that will change.  Costs will inevitably come down and clients/property buyers will adopt Passive House as readily as solar panels.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Working with insomnia 6

I've written about various attempts to improve the quality and quantity of sleep.  My last post was about the state of the gut.  I now believe that one of the keys is not just digestion, but elimination.  I've spoken to many people who have difficulty sleeping after eating a heavy meal late in the day.  The guts efforts to digest seem to prevent people from falling asleep.  I seem to be sensitive to slow elimination, even when my last meal was 7 or 8 hours before bedtime.  In my case this makes a much bigger difference than how late I sit at my computer in a blue light environment.

Dr William Davis gave a helpful tip.  He suggested taking a small bottle of mineral water, drinking some of it, then replacing the fluid with liquid Milk of magnesia.  This tops up magnesium levels without overdoing it, when you consume a little of the mixture each evening.  Unfortunately Milk of magnesia can deplete the body of potassium, so a couple of dried apricots can redress the balance.

Once again this is useful but not the whole solution.

I had been following Bert Herring's recommendation of restricing food intake to a 5 hour window.  Various circumstances led to weight gain despite this regime.  I recently wanted to restart weight loss and decided to fast for a day.  This was helpful and I continued it for a second day.  Not only did I stimulate weight loss and fat burning, but my sleep improved.

I am not an advocate of the 5:2 diet, which allows you to eat anything 5 days a week, but encourages you to restrict calories to 500 or 600 on the other 2 days.  I ate nothing and  drank only water and herbal teas.  The liquid helped me overcome any desire to break the fast and I came through quite comfortably.  I count that as zero calories or a real fast.  I noticed an absence of other symptoms such as headaches or joint pain that I'd been experiencing in the previous week.

Jason Fung is an advocate of fasting and gives helpful guidance.

When I broke the fast I had a  poor night's sleep.  That doesn't encourage me to starve myself permanently, but I need to tweak what I do on eating days to improve elimination.

This is an N=1 experiment and may not work for anyone else.

Lloyds Bank ECNs and Wild West UK

I have written before about Lloyds Bank, the Enhanced Capital Notes (ECNs) offered to more than 123,000 retail investors in exchange for their perpetual preference shares and former building society PIBS at the end of 2009.  Here's a detailed summary by Mark Taber.

The Financial Services Authority and Lloyds developed this new type of investment as a way to help the bank on the path to independence from government assistance after the financial crisis, saving the bank and taxpayers a significant sum of money.

ECNs were offered in a prospectus, which was put together under rules and regulations and approved by the FSA.

Antonio Horta Osorio joined Lloyds Banking Group as CEO in 2011.  In late 2014 Lloyds Bank announced that they planned to redeem the ECNs early, stating that this had been triggered by a stress test and was in line with a clause in the prospectus.  Nothing in the prospectus indicated that a right to redeem had been triggered and experienced lawyers agreed.

Retail customers approached the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), successor to the FSA, asking for protection.  The FCA declined and suggested that retail investors should deal with the issue in court.

In May 2015 the Chancellor of the High Court judged that Lloyds Bank did not have the right to redeem ECNs early.  Lloyds Bank claimed in the court that they made a mistake in drafting the early redemption clause in the prospectus and that the court should apply a different meaning to what was written.  The bank had never mentioned this error in the prospectus from 2009 until the court case in May 2015.  The FCA was not aware of it until retail investors notified them during the court proceedings.

The Court of Appeal allowed Lloyds Bank's appeal in December 2015 despite lengthy disagreements and arguments between learned counsel.  The 'mistake' was described as a 'drafting error' which all but the most naive investor should have understood.  Effectively the judgement stated that a contract as written can be changed later in court to suit the organisation that drafted it.  'A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on' becomes 'a written contract is an approximation of the legal agreement you've signed.'

In late January 2016 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced a delay to the sale of government owned Lloyds Bank shares until after Easter 2016, because the share market has dropped in the banking sector.

Lloyds Bank then set 9 February 2016 as the date to redeem the ECNs, despite a request from investors for an appeal to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court ruled on 8 February 2016 that an appeal by retail investors would be allowed.  This was an unusually fast decision.  Neither the FCA nor the government intervened to delay redemption of the ECNs by the bank and Lloyds has now automatically redeemed these at par.  The appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court on 21 March 2016.  If retail investors win then compensation will be decided by Lloyds Bank.  Other costs, such as increased tax, may not be included.  

The Wild West has come to the UK, as we can no longer rely on the government or financial regulators to uphold regulations and protection for market stability and retail investors, even though this is part of their stated remit.  Organisations with enough money to go to court can make a contract with reasonable terms and then have them overturned in a court of law, arguing that any fool should have known they would have disadvantaged the organisation and were not intended as written.  

Members of the Treasury Select Committee have challenged Lloyds, but they have little power or influence when the regulators and the Chancellor seem determined to focus on national finances rather than the legal and regulatory framework of the UK.  Now our only hope seems to be in the hands of Mark Taber and the Supreme Court.  Perhaps there are still judges and lawyers who understand the risk and future consequences of a decision in favour of Lloyds Bank over its ECN prospectus. 


Thursday, 7 January 2016

Co-op Bank drops ethics

I've blogged many times about the crisis at the Co-op Bank in 2013-14 and attempts to plug their £3.6 billion funding gap by scalping bond and preference shareholders.  This was blocked by Mark Taber and the 3 US hedge funds with a controlling stake in the bank.

Aurelius Capital Management, Beach Point Capital Management, Silver Point Capital effectively owned the Co-op Bank, with their 80% stake, and sought to change the way it worked.  The bank offloaded non-core assets, cut stuff numbers by 21%, closed 62 branches, embarked on a membership drive and fundraising campaign.  Remaining branches have had a face lift and no doubt they are being dragged into the modern world with new computer systems.

One of the components of the drive for new customers was the assurance of their ethical standpoint, one of the major selling points throughout the Co-op Bank's history.

Now we discover that this 'ethical policy' includes closing accounts of humanitarian NGOs with no explanation to account holders.  Cuba Solidarity Campaign, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Friends of Al-Aqsa accounts and others have been closed.  Co-op spokespeople have released statements to the media about 'risk management' and organisations not meeting their standards for due diligence and sending money to certain countries.  None of this was discussed with the organisations concerned, nor negotiations on how they might reach this vague 'standard'.  Presumably the bank is referring to UK money laundering regulations (which seem to be regularly forgotten when high net worth individuals from overseas suddenly want to buy UK property.)

'Such vulture funds are as far from the ideals of the Co-operative Group’s founding fathers as could be imagined.  Where those Rochdale cobblers and cabinetmakers joined together 170 years ago for social equity through mutual ownership of their enterprises, the likes of Aurelius and Silver Point aggressively aim to enrich the few at the expense of the many.'

Various groups plan to take legal action against the bank using equality legislation.  There is no guarantee that they will succeed, given Lloyds Bank's recent success in claiming immunity from prosecution over a prospectus, by arguing that customers 'should have known what they meant to write'.

People seem surprised at the actions of Co-op Bank.  I am not.

Aurelius Capital Management is run by Mark Brodsky, a lawyer formerly employed by Elliott Associates (one of the companies owned by Paul Singer, the notoriously aggressive vulture capitalist).  Aurelius CM (together with Elliott Associates) is attempting to force the government of Argentina to pay $1.3bn following the Argentinian debt default.  Elliott was behind the firm that bought Comet and quietly moved capital offshore before leaving it to fail (and the UK taxpayer to pick up the bill for redundancies).  Paul Singer is openly acknowledged to be pro-Zionist.

'Journalist Greg Palast said their tactics resembled “negotiating while holding the pin of the grenade”.'

The aspect of this that surprises me is the wailing by liberal left-wingers in this country.  They seem astonished by the change in the Co-op bank, but unwilling to move their accounts.  If you keep your money with vulture capitalists, then you support and endorse their activities.  Happily Oxford University students still seem to have their brains switched on after the closure of their PSC account.