A thoroughly modern intellect

In only the way he could, one of Oscar Wilde’s quips highlights the futility in trying to look at future risks when he said “to expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect“.

In a recent article from Lucy Marcus called “Preparing for the unknown unknowns”, the author stated the following:

“Moreover, for all the risks that we can and do plan for, it is those for which we cannot prepare that can do the most damage. That is why, alongside all of the identifying, quantifying, and mitigating, we must also embrace the idea that not all change can be clearly foreseen and planned for.”

Notwithstanding the wisdom of these words, it is always interesting to see the results of the Global Risks report published each year by the World Economic Forum prior to the annual Davos meeting. The 2015 report is based upon the results of a survey from nearly 900 experts and the graphs below show the resulting likelihood and potential impact of 28 global risks and the interconnections between these risks.

click to enlargeGlobal Risks 2015

click to enlargeGlobal Risks 2015 Interconnections

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is the schematic, reproduced below, showing how the top 5 risks in terms of impact and in terms of likelihood have changed from 2007 through to this year’s report.

click to enlargeGlobal Risks 2007 to 2015

The changing colours across the years illustrate now fickle and influenced by recent experiences our concerns for the future can be and just how thoroughly modern our intellect is.

Given the name of this blog, I of course include myself in the previous sentence also.

Debt in a greying age

The book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty is unquestioningly one of the books of 2014. This blogger is currently reading Piketty’s book after finding it in his Santa sock this Christmas. There were not many other books from 2014 that caught my attention. One book that I am very much looking forward to in 2015 is the new Steven Drobny book “The New House of Money” with detailed interviews of money managers. On his website, Drobny has already released the first two chapters – one on Kyle Bass and the other with Jim Chanos.

The views of Kyle Bass, in particular, on Japan got me thinking again about demographics and the ability to withstand large debt loads. The views of Bass are also articulated in a piece on the investor perspectives website. For example, Bass states that currently in Japan debt repayments take up 25% of government tax revenues but that a 100bps rise in interest rates in Japan would mean that 100% of tax revenues would go to repayments. That leaves very little room for error!

This week, Buttonwood also has an article on the restrictions that large debt loads places on the effectiveness of monetary policy.

In terms of age profiles, the graphic below shows the profiles of the 9 largest economies (according to the World Bank).

click to enlargeTop 9 Demographics

Japan and Germany clearly stand out as countries with an aging population, currently with 26% and 21% of their populations over 65 respectively. I also compared the age profiles against the public and private debt figures (excluding that from banking and other financial service firms) from the “Deleveraging. What Deleveraging?report (see previous post on that report), as per the graph below.

click to enlargeMajor Country Public & Private Debt ex financial versus Age Profile

The graph does show that there is a clear relationship between debt loads and age profiles, particularly the percentages for the over 55s. However, the outliers of Germany and Russia on the low debt side and indeed Japan on the high debt side show that there are many other factors at play, not least the historic cultural characteristics of each country. The burden that high debt loads places on future generations is clearly an important policy issue for the global economy, one that will become ever more important if interest rates are to return to anyway close to normality.

As a follow-on to this post, I have been looking through the UN population projections and the following graphs represent population profiles I found interesting. The first is the world population historical figures and projections by age profile.

click to enlargeWorld Population Projections & Age Profile

The next graph is the world population split by continent (with Japan and China split out of Asia).

click to enlargeWorld Population Projections by Continent

And finally, a graph of the world population aged over 60 and aged under 15 split by continent.

click to enlargeWorld Population Over 60s & Under 15s by Continent

Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015!

So, after the (im)piety of the Christmas break, its time to reflect on 2014 and look to the new year. As is always the case, the world we live in is faced with many issues and challenges. How will China’s economy perform in 2015? What about Putin and Russia? How strong may the dollar get? Two other issues which are currently on traders’ minds as the year closes are oil and Greece.

The drop in the price of oil, driven by supply/demand imbalances and geo-political factors in the Middle East, was generally unforeseen and astonishing swift, as the graph of European Brent below shows.

click to enlargeEuropean Brent Spot Price 2004 to 2014

Over the short term, the drop will be generally beneficial to the global economy, acting like a tax cut. At a political level, the reduction may even put manners on oil dependent states such as Iran and Russia. Over the medium to long term however, it’s irrational for a finite resource to be priced at such levels, even with the increased supply generated by new technologies like fracking (the longer term environmental impacts of which remain untested). The impact of a low oil price over the medium term would also have negative environmental impacts upon the need to address our carbon based economies as highlighted in 2014 by the excellent IPCC reports. I posted on such topics with a post on climate models in March, a post on risk and uncertainty in the IPCC findings in April, and another post on the IPCC synthesis reports in November.

The prospect of another round of structural stresses on the Euro has arisen by the calling of an election in late January in Greece and the possible success of the anti-austerity Syriza party. Although a Greek exit from the Euro seems unlikely in 2015, pressure is likely to be exerted for relief on their unsustainable debt load through write offs. Although banking union has been a positive development for Europe in 2014, a post in May on an article from Oxford Professor Kevin O’Rourke outlining the ultimate need to mutualise European commitments by way of a federal Europe to ensure the long term survival of the Euro. Recent commentary, including this article in the Economist, on the politics behind enacting any meaningful French economic reforms highlights how far Europe has to go. I still doubt that the German public can be convinced to back-stop the commitments of others across Europe, despite the competitive advantage that the relatively weak Euro bestows on Germany’s exporting prowess.

Perpetually, or so it seems, commentators debate the possible movements in interest rates over the coming 12 months, particularly in the US. A post in September on the findings of a fascinating report, called “Deleveraging, What Deleveraging?”, showed the high level of overall debt in the US and the rapid increase in the Chinese debt load. Although European debt levels were shown to have stabilised over the past 5 years, the impact of an aggressive round of quantitative easing in Europe on already high debt levels is another factor limiting action by the ECB. The impact of a move towards the normalisation of interest rates in the US on its economy and on the global economy remains one of the great uncertainties of our time. In 2015, we may just begin to see how the next chapter will play out.

Low interest rates have long been cited as a factor behind the rise in stock market valuations and any increase in interest rates remains a significant risk to equity markets. As the graph below attests, 2014 has been a solid if unspectacular year for nearly all equity indices (with the exception of the FTSE100), albeit with a few wobbles along the way, as highlighted in this October post.

click to enlarge2014 Stock Indices Performance

The debate on market valuations has been an ever-present theme of many of my posts throughout 2014. In a March post, I continued to highlight the differing views on the widely used cyclically adjusted PE (CAPE) metric. Another post in May highlighted Martin Wolf’s concerns on governments promoting cheap risk premia over an extended period as a rational long term policy. Another post in June, called Reluctant Bulls, on valuations summarized Buttonwood’s assertion that many in the market were reluctant bulls in the absence of attractive yields in other asset classes. More recently a post in September and a post in December further details the opposing views of such commentators as Jim Paulsen, Jeremy Siegel, Andrew Lapthorne, Albert Edwards, John Hussman, Philosophical Economics, and Buttonwood. The debate continues and will likely be another feature of my posts in 2015.

By way of a quick update, CAPE or the snappily named P/E10 ratio as used by Doug Short in a recent article on his excellent website shows the current S&P500 at a premium of 30% to 40% above the historical average. In his latest newsletter, John Hussman commented as follows:

“What repeatedly distinguishes bubbles from the crashes is the pairing of severely overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions with a subtle but measurable deterioration in market internals or credit spreads that conveys a shift from risk-seeking to risk-aversion.”

Hussman points to a recent widening in spreads, as illustrated by a graph from the St Louis Fed’s FRED below, as a possible shift towards risk aversion.

click to enlargeFRED High Yield vrs AAA Spread Graph

The bull arguments are that valuations are not particularly stressed given the rise in earnings driven by changes to the mix of the S&P500 towards more profitable and internationally diverse firms. Critics counter that EPS growth is being flattered by subdued real wage inflation and being engineered by an explosion in share buybacks to the detriment of long term investments. The growth in quarterly S&P500 EPS, as illustrated below, shows the astonishing growth in recent years (and includes increasingly strong quarterly predicted EPS growth for 2015).

click to enlargeS&P500 Quarterly Operating & Reported EPS

A recent market briefing from Yardeni research gives a breakdown of projected forward PEs for each of the S&P500 sectors. Its shows the S&P500 index at a relatively undemanding 16.6 currently. In the graph below, I looked at the recent PE ratios using the trailing twelve month and forward 12 month operating EPS (with my own amended projections for 2015). It also shows the current market at a relatively undemanding level around 16, assuming operating EPS growth of approx 10% for 2015 over 2014.

click to enlargeS&P500 Operating PE Ratios

The focus for 2015 is therefore, as with previous years, on the sustainability of earnings growth. As a March post highlighted, there are concerns on whether the high level of US corporate profits can be maintained. Multiples are high and expectations on interest rates could make investors reconsider the current multiples. That said, I do not see across the board irrational valuations. Indeed, at a micro level, valuations in some sectors seem very rational to me as do those for a few select firms.

The state of the insurance sector made up the most frequent number of my posts throughout 2014. Starting in January with a post summarizing the pricing declines highlighted in the January 2014 renewal broker reports (the 2015 broker reports are due in the next few days). Posts in March and April and November (here, here and here) detailed the on-going pricing pressures throughout the year. Other insurance sector related posts focussed on valuation multiples (here in June and here in December) and sector ROEs (here in January, here in February and here in May). Individual insurance stocks that were the subject of posts included AIG (here in March and here in September) and Lancashire (here in February and here in August). In response to pressures on operating margins, M&A activity picking up steam in late 2014 with the Renaissance/Platinum and XL/Catlin deals the latest examples. When seasoned executives in the industry are prepared to throw in the towel and cash out you know market conditions are bad. 2015 looks to be a fascinating year for this over-capitalised sector.

Another sector that is undergoing an increase in M&A activity is the telecom sector, as a recent post on Europe in November highlighted. Level3 was one of my biggest winners in 2014, up 50%, after another important merger with TW Telecom. I remain very positive on this former basket case given its operational leverage and its excellent management with a strong focus on cash generation & debt reduction (I posted on TWTC in February and on the merger in June and July). Posts on COLT in January and November were less positive on its prospects.

Another sector that caught my attention in 2014, which is undergoing its own disruption, is the European betting and online gambling sector. I posted on that sector in January, March, August and November. I also posted on the fascinating case of Betfair in July. This sector looks like one that will further delight (for the interested observer rather than the investor!) in 2015.

Other various topics that were the subject of posts included the online education sector in February, Apple in May, a dental stock in August, and Trinity Biotech in August and October. Despite the poor timing of the August TRIB call, my view is that the original investment case remains intact and I will update my thoughts on the topic in 2015 with a view to possibly building that position once the selling by a major shareholder subsides and more positive news on their Troponin trials is forthcoming. Finally, I ended the year having a quick look at Chinese internet stocks and concluded that a further look at Google was warranted instead.

So that’s about it for 2014. There was a few other random posts on items as diverse as a mega-tsunami to correlations (here and here)!

I would like to thank everybody who have taken the time to read my ramblings. I did find it increasingly difficult to devote quality time to posting as 2014 progressed and unfortunately 2015 is looking to be similarly busy. Hopefully 2015 will provide more rich topics that force me to find the time!

A very happy and health 2015 to all those who have visited this blog in 2014.

To China and back

Chinese internet stocks are way way way out of my comfort zone. Besides the hype and transient nature of many business models, the stratospheric valuations and the political risk are issues that I can’t get my head around. With the Chinese stock market up 25% in a month, it looks like classic bubble territory.

That said, the latest IDC predictions for 2015 recently caught my attention. One of the predictions asserted the following:

“China will experience skyrocketing influence on the global information and telecommunications technology market in 2015 with spending that will account for 43% of all industry growth, one third of all smartphone purchases, and about one third of all online shoppers. With a huge domestic market, China’s cloud and ecommerce leaders (Alibaba in ecommerce, Tencent in social, and Baidu in search) will rise to prominence in the global marketplace. Similarly, Chinese branded smartphone makers will capture more than a third of the worldwide smartphone market.”

Every now and again (as I did in this post) I look at how a few of the Chinese internet stocks that trade in the US are progressing for the sake of curiosity. The graph below shows a selected few – Baidu (internet search), NetEase (online gaming), Ctrip (travel services), Sina (online media), Sohu (various online services), Tencent (social, traded in Hong Kong), and Alibaba (e-commerce). click to enlargeChinese Internet Stocks December 2014 Tencent is the biggest gainer at over 300% since 2011; NetEase is just below 300%; with Baidu over 200%. Alibaba is up 16% since its stock market debut in September. Since 2011, the underperformers are Ctrip about breakeven, Sohu down 20%, and Sina down 50%. An equally weighted portfolio of these stocks, excluding Alibaba, invested at the beginning of 2011 would have resulted in an 84% gain or an approx 16.5% annual return. The current price to 2015 projected EPS multiples against the 2014 to 2015 projected EPS growth for these stocks compared to the same metric for a number of the established US internet names gives an insight into current valuations, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeInternet multiples Looking at this graph, Baidu is the only Chinese stock of the names highlighted by IDC that looks to me like one that may warrant further investigation as an investment possibility (but only when there is a meaningful pull back in the market in 2015). However, I wouldn’t be rushing out to get involved anytime soon as it seems to me that an established internet name like Google is more interesting as an investment prospect at current relative valuations than any of the higher growth Chinese equivalents.

STOXX600 versus S&P500

There is a nice article over at the Philosophical Economics blog from last month on the dangers of using the Shiller CAPE when the constituents of the underlying indices are constantly evolving. I particularly like the Ship of Theseus thesis being updated by the case of the 1970s group the Little River Band! As always with the Philosophical Economics blog, the post is well worth a read and provides some interesting food for thought in the on-going CAPE debate. I also largely agree with the author’s analysis on Europe and the assertion that monetary union “is going to have to eventually dissolve, or at least undergo a substantial makeover”.

In the post, the author references an April 2013 report from KPMG’s Global Valuation Institute on why more European firms traded below their book value following the financial crisis than US firms. One exhibit, produced below, shows that European firms in the STOXX600 recorded less impairments than S&P500 firms through the crisis. This highlights the sources of the impairments and the differing accounting standards at play.

click to enlargeSTOXX600 vrs S&P500 Impairments

Another exhibit from the report illustrates the different sectors that make up the STOXX600 and S&P500 and the percentage of each sector that traded below book value in early 2013. It would be really interesting to see an update of this exhibit.

click to enlargeSTOXX600 vrs S&P500