Rees-Mogg firm's plan to profit from coronavirus called 'grotesque'

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg arrives for a Cabinet meeting in October. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

The ambition of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment firm to make “super normal returns” for its clients from the coronavirus crisis have been criticised as “grotesque” and “as sick as it comes” by Labour party MPs.

Newly installed Labour leader Keir Starmer said that “nobody should be seeking to take advantage” of the pandemic.

“We should all be asking ourselves what we can do for our country and each other,” he said.

In a note to clients last month, Somerset Capital Management said that the crisis was a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to profit from stocks in emerging markets such as Brazil and South Africa.

Though Rees-Mogg stepped back from his role at the firm when he became leader of the House of Commons in July 2019, he is still thought to own at least 15% of its shares.

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“Market dislocations of this magnitude happen rarely, perhaps once or twice in a generation, and have historically provided excellent entry points for investors,” a fund manager at Somerset wrote in a note.

“History has shown us that super normal returns can be made during this type of environment,” they said.

While fund managers often seek to invest during stock market downturns, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Somerset’s plans demonstrated the need for “a tax on profiteers.”

“This is about as sick as it comes. Profit seeking from suffering is nearly as low as you can get,” he said.

Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana called it “grotesque,” arguing that the crisis was “a public health emergency, not a business opportunity.”

“We should take any profits they make and invest it in our NHS,” she said.

In a statement, Oliver Crawley, a partner at Somerset Capital, said that his firm’s thoughts were with those suffering “as a result of these tragic circumstances.”

“Our fund managers’ investment commentary is focused on the valuations currently seen in the emerging markets, not the appalling human cost of the virus, and we sincerely hope these comments are not misconstrued as being unsympathetic,” he said.

“As a firm we are supportive investors, that work with emerging market companies, while investing for the long-term future and security of our clients’ savings and pensions.”

Pro-remain lawyer Jolyon Maugham, who has often criticised Rees-Mogg for his position on Brexit, said on Sunday that the criticism was “a bit silly.”

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“[Somerset Capital] wants to invest in bombed out share prices,” he said.

“This is actually a good thing as higher share prices will make it easier for those businesses to attract fresh capital and survive.”

Publicly available accounts for Somerset Capital show that it made £26.4m in operating profit in 2019, down from £34.1m in 2018.

Members of the firm shared in some £19m of those profits last year, but it is not clear how much Rees-Mogg earned in dividend payments.

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