Financial News, Views and Interviews
Make the most out of Spread Betting

Spread betting companies provide customers with much more than the ability to be able to bet on the price movement of Vodafone or any other FTSE 100 constituent. However, my experience of working for a spread betting company is that most customers stick to betting on big UK listed companies. This is hardly surprising, for a UK based investor, the large FTSE 100 constituents are well known.

Their names are familiar and traders, especially the newer ones find a comfort in that. That comfort can be misplaced. One of the major advantages of spread betting is the access it gives to the global markets. From a spread betting account you can trade on virtually every major equity, bond, currency or commodity market in the world. Given the vast plethora of trading opportunities the practice of trading one part of one small market is flawed.

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Self Select ISAs

There are a vast number of companies offering us the facility to manage our own ISAs. Virtually every broker has its own self-select ISA product. Self-select ISAs are good if you prefer the hands-on approach to tax free investing, but think hard about whether this is a route you really want to take. Will you have the time to spend on achieving the right kind of balance in your self-select ISA so that your portfolio matches your own risk profile?

A managed ISA will do all the hard work for you. They are fairly inexpensive, you decide which fund most closely matches the asset allocation you want and then you’re free to leave the investment decisions to someone else. For many this is a far more attractive method of investing and should be seriously considered before deciding to go down the self-select ISA route.
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Futures: risky yet rewarding

They’re risky but can be hugely rewarding. Giles McMullen takes a look at the futures market.

It’s at the risky end of the investment spectrum; make that the very risky end. Futures trading is not for everyone. If the uncertainty of the stock market worries you, futures trading is not for you. The futures market is a much more dangerous place. To see how much, let’s look at the worst-case scenario. When you buy shares in the stock market the very worst you can do is lose your initial sum. That will only happen if the company in which you’re investing goes bankrupt and share dealing is suspended. In this situation you may, it’s unlikely, but you may get some money back.
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Special FX

The FX market is huge, but what are its applications for an ordinary investor? Giles McMullen takes a look.

The daily volume in the foreign exchange market exceeds $1.5 trillion, this makes it the largest and most liquid market in the world. Over 50% of the FX activity takes place in London. It dwarfs the daily trading volume of the US stock market at $30 billion per day.

The market is dominated by the big institutional players who deal in million dollar lots. International business transactions provide the backbone of the FX market with Governments, Central Banks, Investment Banks and Hedge Funds making up most of the rest. However, despite the domination of the market by the large players, the FX market is becoming increasingly popular with private investors. This is partly due to proliferation of online based dealing platforms, which make it much easier for the private investor to participate in the FX market. Another major incentive comes from the product itself, Angus Campbell is a spokesman for the Currency broker IFX, he says: “FX dealing offers low cost of dealings, tight spreads and above all volatility. Traders and investors alike use these markets for several reasons. They may want to hedge any risk they could be exposed to by a particular currencies decline. They may want to speculate or for want of a better word, bet.”
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Is Audible any good?

It’s difficult to miss the adverts for audible at the moment and you might be asking yourself is audible any good. I have been a user of audible for about 10 months. I wasn’t sure at first, but decided to sign up anyway and see what it was like. I have always enjoyed audio books and so it seemed the sort of service that I might find useful. I’m always a bit dubious of companies that ask you to sign up to a monthly subscription, I don’t know why but it just feels uncomfortable. I generally prefer to make a purchase and then not be tied in anymore. But Audible had an offer on at the time, they were offering an audio title for free, but the catch was you had to sign up to a monthly subscription. If I remember correctly, you could always cancel the subscription and still hold on to the audio book, so I went ahead and signed up. My first book was, I think, A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. A book that I have read several times in the print version and one I continue to enjoy, since then I have downloaded several radio plays and other books too. Read More…

Is the Open University any Good?

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably been considering whether the Open University is any good for a little while; wondering whether you should enrol on a degree or module and what you might get out of it. I was in exactly the same position. I had been wondering for years whether the Open University degrees were any good, what the teaching was like and whether the degree would be worth having at the end of it all. After spending hours trawling through their site and reading reviews I eventually started by signing up for a short level 1 module, just to see what it was like. I was very pleasantly surprised.

The Open University – Excellent teaching materials

I was very impressed by the Open University from the start. The learning materials arrived in good time, there was a lot of support on their website (more on that later) and the quality of the course was extremely high. I have also been to a traditional university and I found the teaching materials from the Open University far better. Everything is very well structured and well explained. There is continuous assessment and access to a tutor, so although you are learning by yourself, the support network is strong and any questions or problems that you might have with a topic are promptly answered.

The Open University – Online environment or Student Home

When you register with the Open University, you are given access to what they call the Student Home. This is an online platform that contains all the information relevant to your Open University experience. It has a messaging system, so that the Open University can keep in touch with you, it has access to the online library, which is a great resource, access to various forums, support networks and a whole host of other resources, which I probably haven’t used as much as I should. The support network is very well thought out. The most important area of the student home for me, is the module section. This lists the modules that you are currently studying and the ones that you have registered for that haven’t yet started. Clicking on one of your modules takes you to the module study planner.

Open University Study Planner

The Open University Study Planner is something that you will see a lot of, if you decide to enrol at the Open University. Clicking on it reveals almost everything you need to know about your module in one go. It tells you exactly where you should be in terms of course materials, which chapters you should be studying that week, which assignments are due and when the cut off date is. It really gives you all you need to know about your module at a glance, making it very easy to plan your studying and the important dates related to your module. It also has links to all the course materials in pdf, so you can download them to read on an iPad or PC. This is a really useful feature, as it means you can carry all your course materials with you all the time. There are module specific forums where you can ask questions related to the module and receive answers from other students as well as tutors and moderators. There are links to all the assessment materials and a specimen exam paper, if your module ends with an exam. The student home also has an area with your tutor’s contact details.

The Open University – Tutors

I have completed quite a few modules now; with each module you are allocated a tutor, so I have had a lot of experience with Open University tutors. My experience of them has been very good. The tutors are an important part of the module, they mark your TMAs (tutor marked assignments), depending on the module you are studying, your performance in the TMAs can influence your final mark on the module and hence the outcome of your degree. The tutors are the first point of contact for the module. If you have any questions about the topics, if there is something you don’t understand or would like explained, then you contact your tutor. You can do this by phone or email. They usually set aside some time a week for their Open University students as they generally have other jobs, many of them work for other Universities. The tutor support is very helpful, I have used it on many occasions and have found the tutors very patient, with good subject knowledge and able to explain topics and answer questions very comprehensively. Some modules also have tutorials, given by your tutor. These are designed to help consolidate your understanding of course topics and help you with any questions you might have about the TMA. I have found these a very positive experience, it’s nice to spend some time in a classroom, particularly for Open University students who spend so much of their study time working on their own.

The Open University – Exams

I have to be honest, I hate the exams! They cause me quite a lot of stress and worry. Unfortunately, if you want a degree that’s worth something, then there is no alternative to exams and I’m glad to say that I have usually done well in them, but they’re not a pleasant experience. Preparation and practice is the key and if you are well prepared, then the chances are you will do well. The exams are well organized and fair, but they are a slog. I’m doing a maths and science degree and these exams are 3 hours of relentless questions, there is very little time to think, the time passes very quickly and I tend to leave the exam room in a bit of a daze! The results take around 6 weeks to arrive.

The Open University – Residential courses.

My degree required me to go on a few residential courses. These are usually a week long and are designed to give you the face to face experience that you would get from a more traditional university. These weeks are based at UK universities and are quite hard, as they tend to cram in as much as they can. Expect 12 hour days and very little time to do much else. They are definitely worth doing. I didn’t really want to go at first, but my experience was very positive and I met some very interesting people. It’s good to meet other students and see who you are studying with, you would be surprised who does Open University degrees. Amongst fellow students, I have met medical doctors, single parents, millionaire tax exiles, city bankers, tv producers, a whole range of people with very different backgrounds united by their love of a subject.

I have almost finished my degree and am looking to move on to do a masters and so I do plan to use my degree as currency to get a place on a masters course with a traditional university. I have already contacted several well respected universities and they all recognize and value the degree I am doing with the Open University. So from my experience, the degrees are well respected and recognized.

The Open University – my conclusion.

I did not know what to expect from the Open University, but having been studying with them for several years now, I have nothing but praise. The modules are well presented, well written and well thought through. The learning experiencing is excellent and the support is superb. Even after the recent price rises, the degrees are good value and I would thoroughly recommend them. Obviously the Open University doesn’t give you the life experience of a traditional university, so if you’re 18 and looking for that side of University too, you might have to think carefully what you want to do, but if you are coming to learning later in life, I don’t think you could find a better place to study.

Is the Open University Any good?

Eurostar: ‘Our trains are not the most pleasant’ says CEO spokesman

‘Our trains are not the most pleasant of their kind’ That was the admission from Eurostar spokesman who asked not to be named, after I complained about my terrible journey with them, returning from a recent holiday. He also admitted that the temperature in my carriage was almost 30 degrees centigrade, adding that the trains are not as modern as they could be or in the condition that he would like.


The response came after I contacted the Eurostar CEO, Nicolas Petrovic following my awful experience on the Eurostar. In spite of their views about their own service, they still continue to market Eurostar as a premium product. I would certainly not choose to use Eurostar again.

Read the full response from Eurostar:-

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: RE: A video of my awful Eurostar Experience.
Date: Tue, 10 Sep 2013 14:40:45 +0100
From: REDACTED
To: Giles McMullen-Klein

Dear Mr McMullen,

Thank you for your patience while I was investigating.

I have now received some information from our depot and from the train managers on duty on your train, and I think it would be fair to summarise their responses by saying that we would all like to acknowledge, and apologise for, the fact that your train was not in the state that it should have been. I can confirm that our train managers onboard were aware of most of the problems you highlighted in your video, that they informed our depot of the issues following this journey, and that repairs have since been conducted on the train to ensure that it is in a fit state for travellers. One of the hand basins is still believed to have a leak in its supply tank which means that it runs out of water more quickly than others, but this is due to be worked on, and the other issues have now been addressed.

To give you some general information about how such issues can arise, regarding the availability of running water first of all, our hand basins each have their own supply tank on the train which is filled regularly. The normal levels of water usage are known, and trains should not be scheduled to make more journeys between refills than the number for which we would expect the water supply to be adequate. The hand basin with a leaky tank (mentioned above) aside, it is surprising to see that so many of the tanks were empty when you travelled, and this suggests that the calculations hadn’t yielded an accurate estimate this time – perhaps due to the hot weather leading to increased usage of water. I have raised this with our depot as a point to be considered.

You also mention in your video that the toilets were smelly – the baby-changing room in particular. This is not necessarily an indication of any problems with the train, and could simply be down to how these facilities have been used by previous occupants during the journey. The toilets are cleaned between almost every journey, which should help to prevent problems of this nature, but we are also currently trialling some scent dispensers on a few trains to see if that improves things.

Our depot team has also been able to confirm that the air conditioning unit in your carriage had developed an unfortunate fault, which meant that although the ‘blown air’ was still a little cooler than the external temperature, eventually the temperature in the coach was around 28-29 °C. The unit in question has now been replaced, but this clearly resulted in an uncomfortable journey for you, and we owe you an apology for that. I’m sorry to see that the train managers weren’t able to do more to help at the time, as well.

In order to apologise for this undoubtedly sub-standard experience, I would like to offer each of you a free one-way journey with us, effectively replacing this one which didn’t go well, and in addition I would like to upgrade this into Standard Premier to help ensure that your next journey with us is a more enjoyable one. If this would be of interest please let me know and I will make the necessary arrangements.

I would also like to take this opportunity to assure you that we are aware of the importance of the quality of facilities onboard. At the same time, it would be fair to say that our trains are, at present, not among the most modern or pleasant of their kind. A large part of this is because they need a refurbishment, and I hope you will be reassured to hear that we are currently in the early stages of a full replacement of the interiors of our current fleet. Over the next few years, our trains will be taken out of service, one or two at a time, to undergo this refurbishment. We are also due to take delivery of some brand new trains in 2015. In the meantime, while our fleet isn’t in quite the condition we would like, our depot teams are still working hard to ensure that our trains are clean, comfortable and (as far as possible) in full working order, so my colleagues and I are very sorry to see that these efforts were so emphatically not evident during your journey.


I hope that this information will be of interest and provide some degree of reassurance that your experience is not the norm, and I look forward to hearing back from you regarding the offer I have made above.

Kind regards,

REDACTED
Chief Executive’s Office

I will let you draw your own conclusions about Eurostar and their service.

Eurostar Review – No Air conditioning and filthy carriages

The title of this Eurostar experience just about sums it up. I had a terrible experience on the Eurostar when returning from Lille recently. It was so bad that I filmed some of the worst aspects of the trip whilst onboard. I made a short video about it and put it on YouTube. You can see the video later on in the article.


Why Was Eurostar So Bad?

Where do I begin? It was a very hot day, I was travelling with my two young children; it was immediately obvious as we entered our carriage that the air conditioning wasn’t working. The temperature inside the carriage was 28 degrees centigrade. The carriage was packed and extremely uncomfortable. None of the Eurostar staff acknowledged the problem. We were not offered any water, everybody in the carriage just sat and sweated. It was horrible.

The carriage was filthy, there was chewing gum stuck on the window, and there was no evidence that it had been cleaned. Grimy and smelly. It was shockingly bad. But the worst part of the trip was the toilets. I really can’t explain how appalling they were, but I do have the video I made. Take a look if you can stomach it.

I complained to the Eurostar CEO, Nicolas Petrovic about the experience and I received an extraordinary response from one of his assistants. The spokesperson asked to have their name removed from this article, they are from the office of the CEO and replied to my email with the following:-

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: RE: A video of my awful Eurostar Experience.
Date: Tue, 10 Sep 2013 14:40:45 +0100
From: REDACTED
To: Giles McMullen-Klein

Dear Mr McMullen,

Thank you for your patience while I was investigating.

I have now received some information from our depot and from the train managers on duty on your train, and I think it would be fair to summarise their responses by saying that we would all like to acknowledge, and apologise for, the fact that your train was not in the state that it should have been. I can confirm that our train managers onboard were aware of most of the problems you highlighted in your video, that they informed our depot of the issues following this journey, and that repairs have since been conducted on the train to ensure that it is in a fit state for travellers. One of the hand basins is still believed to have a leak in its supply tank which means that it runs out of water more quickly than others, but this is due to be worked on, and the other issues have now been addressed.

To give you some general information about how such issues can arise, regarding the availability of running water first of all, our hand basins each have their own supply tank on the train which is filled regularly. The normal levels of water usage are known, and trains should not be scheduled to make more journeys between refills than the number for which we would expect the water supply to be adequate. The hand basin with a leaky tank (mentioned above) aside, it is surprising to see that so many of the tanks were empty when you travelled, and this suggests that the calculations hadn’t yielded an accurate estimate this time – perhaps due to the hot weather leading to increased usage of water. I have raised this with our depot as a point to be considered.

You also mention in your video that the toilets were smelly – the baby-changing room in particular. This is not necessarily an indication of any problems with the train, and could simply be down to how these facilities have been used by previous occupants during the journey. The toilets are cleaned between almost every journey, which should help to prevent problems of this nature, but we are also currently trialling some scent dispensers on a few trains to see if that improves things.

Our depot team has also been able to confirm that the air conditioning unit in your carriage had developed an unfortunate fault, which meant that although the ‘blown air’ was still a little cooler than the external temperature, eventually the temperature in the coach was around 28-29 °C. The unit in question has now been replaced, but this clearly resulted in an uncomfortable journey for you, and we owe you an apology for that. I’m sorry to see that the train managers weren’t able to do more to help at the time, as well.

In order to apologise for this undoubtedly sub-standard experience, I would like to offer each of you a free one-way journey with us, effectively replacing this one which didn’t go well, and in addition I would like to upgrade this into Standard Premier to help ensure that your next journey with us is a more enjoyable one. If this would be of interest please let me know and I will make the necessary arrangements.

I would also like to take this opportunity to assure you that we are aware of the importance of the quality of facilities onboard. At the same time, it would be fair to say that our trains are, at present, not among the most modern or pleasant of their kind. A large part of this is because they need a refurbishment, and I hope you will be reassured to hear that we are currently in the early stages of a full replacement of the interiors of our current fleet. Over the next few years, our trains will be taken out of service, one or two at a time, to undergo this refurbishment. We are also due to take delivery of some brand new trains in 2015. In the meantime, while our fleet isn’t in quite the condition we would like, our depot teams are still working hard to ensure that our trains are clean, comfortable and (as far as possible) in full working order, so my colleagues and I are very sorry to see that these efforts were so emphatically not evident during your journey.

I hope that this information will be of interest and provide some degree of reassurance that your experience is not the norm, and I look forward to hearing back from you regarding the offer I have made above.

Kind regards,

REDACTED
Chief Executive’s Office

Does that seem like the response of a company that’s proud of it’s service? Not to me. I haven’t taken them up on their offer, since they have only offered a single, it would mean I would have to pay for the experience and I certainly will not be doing that again.

Wallrock Thermal Liner – Special Offer

We have teamed up with Simply Wallpaper to offer a discount voucher for all their products. This includes Wallrock Thermal Liner as well as Wallrock KV600 and the Sound Insulation Liners. Use the discount code10%off

Osborne’s Help to Buy scheme is a bad idea

House prices are a British obsession, and not just with the public but also with governments. Regardless of their colour the UK government cannot resist creating the right conditions for house prices to boom. We saw it in the 80s, the latter part of the 90s and early noughties and we’re seeing again now.

We are still dealing with the terrible financial consequences of a housing boom, that led to a banking crisis. Why were the banks so badly affected? Because they had made billions of pounds worth of dodgy loans to people that couldn’t afford them against assets that were overpriced. The banks didn’t care because they were all at it and were all making vast amounts of money, or so they thought. The inevitable happened, the bubble burst and the financial consequences for the banks were so great that they had to be bailed out by central banks all around the world on an unprecedented level; some banks were destroyed by what happened most of the others were so badly affected that they were almost unable to function.

Record low interest rates have caused the housing market to function improperly. Outside London it is moribund, prices have not fallen as they would have in any normal leveraged market, because mortgage holders are being subsidized by almost zero interest rates, and new buyers are unable to enter the market and others cannot trade up as the prices are too high for banks to lend against. We have a very artificial market at the moment. The market should be allowed to fall, instead of being propped up by loose monetary policy.

The fact that banks are unwilling to lend at the current price levels is interesting; they have learned their lesson and are not prepared to risk lending cash in an overpriced market, they know that to do so would be foolish. So if prices are not allowed to fall, who will lend money in this market? Enter George Osborne.

George is probably not that foolish, he knows what he’s doing. There’s an election coming up in 2015 and he’s gambling that Brits will vote for anybody that makes their house go up in value. It might make political sense, but it’s bad news for the UK economy. We’ve seen what happens when banks lend too much, forcing up prices. It creates a bubble. If this happens again who will bail out the Bank of England, it’s a reckless move by a desperate chancellor and should not go unchallenged.

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