Successful investing can still be a stop-start journey

Man driving a car in the city at night in traffic jams

Chris Rea's Driving Home For Christmas has become an iconic festive hit - but it's also a useful allegory for successful investing, says Peter Sharkey. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In a world swamped with too many Christmas-themed pop songs, the majority of which are underpinned by a cold commercial cynicism, there’s a decades-old innocence about Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas, exemplified by the wonderfully evocative lines:

“Top to toe in tailbacks,
I’ve got red lights all around.”

It’s perhaps because so many of us have experienced similar pre-Christmas, stop-start car journeys first hand that these lyrics never fail to strike a chord, inducing knowing smiles and occasional sadness.

Chris Rea’s back-story reads like that of the dogged investor, ie most of us, who often appear to have finally cracked it, only to discover that infrequent bursts of success are frustratingly short-lived.

Rea enjoyed early success after his song Fool (If You Think It’s Over), released as a single in 1978, was a hit in both the UK and the USA. The song earned him enough money to buy a Ferrari Dino, a step up from the ice cream van he drove for his father, an ice cream manufacturer in the north east, and for a few years Rea rode the crest of a gravel-voiced wave.

But long-term success was not guaranteed and five years after ‘Fool’, he noted that “things had gone quiet in the UK,” so he traded in the Ferrari for a Volvo 340 hatchback and set off across Europe intent on “doing as many gigs and television shows as I could. I must have done 60,000 miles in that Volvo.”


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You imagine the affable Rea witnessed plenty of red lights and tailbacks during his epic journey over the following years, inspiring him to write and produce Driving Home For Christmas, one of four songs on a Christmas EP (how cynical Christopher!) released in 1988. The following year he released A Road To Hell, written after he endured regular journeys along the M25 and M4, which topped the UK album charts. A decade after seemingly having made it, Chris Rea had finally arrived.

It could be argued that investment often mirrors Chris Rea’s experience. Just when you think you’re a successful investor, the prospect of a 60,000-mile trek around Europe suddenly looms, though without the associated glamour of your own concerts or television appearances.

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For investors everywhere, 2020 has been a year like no other, mostly delivering a series of heavy body blows which has made investing in stock markets occasionally look like an activity reserved solely for the impetuous or just plain crazy.

Thousands of companies, large and small, have suffered irreparable damage; many have gone bust. The list of names to have disappeared from the high street makes for sombre reading: Oasis, Debenhams, Beales, Laura Ashley, Antler, DW Sports and Bensons for Beds, among others.

Away from the retail sector, hotels and airlines continue to struggle; the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects the industry to “bleed between $5-$6 billion per month” throughout next year. It doesn’t expect passenger traffic to return to 2019 levels before 2024.

Meanwhile, millions of hotel bookings were cancelled as people either deferred holidays or business travel was constrained following a wholesale change in working patterns. There’s hope for hotel owners and their staff that Staycations will become the 2021 norm, but no-one is betting the house on it.

There have been some bright spots, several organisations recovering from gut-wrenching plunges of their respective share prices to bounce back to higher levels: Experian, Halfords, B&M and Home Serve are a particularly attractive quartet.

Yet anyone who tells you he knows what will happen next year is either a charlatan or a comedian.

However, as we edge back towards post-pandemic normality, there’s evidence of a burgeoning investor consensus which seeks to re-evaluate the definition of successful company performance.

Where once our measures of corporate accomplishment were determined by purely financial considerations such as swollen annual profits or a powerful balance sheet, each contributing to an upward share price trajectory, the pandemic appears to have given investors a much broader perspective.

According to the Investment Association, the net inflow of savings into environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) funds quadrupled in the third quarter of 2020, to £7.1 billion, a flow described as “a beacon for how savers can put their money to work to support positive change.”

While we can expect ESG investing to remain popular next year, there’s an element of the Chris Rea experience about equity investing. For those who acknowledge the fact that investment, like life itself, is not a one-way ticket to guaranteed success, waiting in a figurative queue of traffic is occasionally necessary before it starts moving again, often faster than you may have expected, as Mr Rea explains to us every year. Merry Christmas.

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